MEANING AND METHOD
Among poets associated with Black Mountain College, Joel Oppenheimer is especially plain-spoken. Judging from his attention to the details of ordinary life, he seems to have learned more from Williams than from Olson; but like Creeley, he has assiduously applied the law of the line to experience, moving from one perception to the next, “instanter” (c.f. “Projective Verse”. Shortly before his death, Oppenheimer composed a small book of poems, Why Not. In the preface he writes, "i meant for these poems to mean things"—an apparently straightforward request. I'll translate (with some irony). He wants us to believe that the poem participates in a species of perception that constitutes its occasion. At least he wants us to accept something of this sort before embarking on further interpretations. Not much to ask you might think, but for many, if not most readers, meaning follows upon perception and is not simultaneous with it. Then there is also the likelihood that meaning will complicate perception ..
For meaning to operate as immediately as Oppenheimer would have it, the eyes must be blinkered to linguistic or poetic analysis. Perception of language “bits” in the stream of the line or the sentence, effectively blocks perception of the flow. This is William James' vocabulary from his "The Stream of Thought"—where he writes, "Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits; it flows" (240)—and I use "flow" to refer to large overarching or underlying currents that propel a reader through a reading of a work. "Rhythm" or "tempo" might measure of "flow." "Intention" or "meaning" might indicate the direction of "flow." For instance when I look at a score, it's difficult for me to get all those bits I see on the lines to fit a rhythm. I don't have the training or the discipline. That language is not automatic for me, and I do better "out loud" if I hear a song first. Reading an unfamiliar language, one stumbles into similar uncertainties; and that may be interesting in its own way. I take this to be the object of Pound's experiments with Propertius, readings that question the concept of the natural phrase.
Usually when reading we pay little attention to those delimited packets of information with which as children most of us struggled. Here is one source for a nostalgia for orality in literature. Nonetheless, an analysis of the oral bits that compose the verbal stream is more difficult than a study of similar bits visually registered on a page. Sounds travel in envelopes of continuously modulating sine waves, lacking sharply demarcated boundaries. Perhaps poets were among the first to work out a way to scan a language, filtering sound through a grid of distinctive features. Nothing about language, it would appear is easy or natural in and of itself. Children learn the ropes experientially; or the infant mind might be wired so as to respond intuitively. In either case the form a language takes is a difficult invention in its own right.
Oppenheimer's strategy (or discipline) exemplifies an effort to simplify. He minimizes references to anything other than the "things" of his poem. Line breaks appear at first glance to be simply an aid to breathing or speaking. There are few arresting bits of information. As a result, the texts support a perception that meaning informs each part, gathering force as the poem spreads out. Consider this small poem:
in the dream
she comes to me clothed
and we talk
now i remember
when we met
at the fabric
of her blouse
after the dream
she is smaller
is still strong
One of the "things" a poem does is to color perception variously, here with a slightly exaggerated, but drowsy quality of arousal. The poem vitiates any difference between the things of perception and mode or mood. As I look at the devices used in the poem, I am tempted to conclude that it's made of stuff too vague to have much meaning in and of itself —some talking, a blouse, a woman. Meaning lies in the quality of perception, not in an inventory of details. I also notice at least seven references to time in these thirteen short lines. Apparently the "transitional bits" count for as much as the "substantive" bits (another distinction made by William James). So in one sense the poem is a highly determined structure. The discipline reading requires might mean tuning in to the right channel; and the poet's job, as Oppenheimer understands it, is to send a clear signal, free of noise.
In this poem, "now", "later', and "still" are aspects of a more complicated development than at first seemed evident. At the first reading, they seemed to mark stages in the development of the poet's thought. Re-reading, I'm unsure. Is "now" simultaneous with "still?" Does "now" mean "later" in the sense of "after the dream" There is only one shift in time marked by verb tenses. Perhaps these adverbs do not mark stages at all, but degrees of intensity. The lines "later later / after the dream" are particularly difficult for me to read aloud; and I have chosen not to end stop the first line. That would give it a purely (impurely) rhetorical force: "later! later!"—a peak before the deflation of expectations. So I read: "later [that is "later on" or] / after the dream"—as a clarification of the meaning. Finally, curiously, the waking perception, "smaller / plainer" marks the poet's bemusement. My reading varies not that much from the facts of the surface of the poem. I also suppress some of my prejudices, my hang ups. To perceive is to see through—a blouse or a dream. The overarching rhythm of the poem is physical, similar to the transformation produced by detumescence. But for all this, the poem isn't about perception. It is a perception of some quality that is almost sweetly commonplace. It is a measured perception both in its semantic and its prosodic structures.
Now I ask, does perception at the level of unmediated response constitute meaning? Isn't "meaning" something that you take away from the poem, something that it gives off? In a projective poetics or poetics of perception as theorized by Charles Olson (the radical pragmatism of James serving as precedent), the first premise is that consciousness is continuous with itself. It flows, perhaps in fits and starts, but not even a thunderclap turns the mind off. It's when you divert the flow of perception in order to draw a conclusion that you separate yourself from the processes that produce meaning. Apparently, there's a set of meanings that you carry with you, as in the case of Olson's man who carried his house on his head, and a set of afterthoughts, abstract digests, or talismans associated with the baggage of daily life.
In Oppenheimer's poem the adverbs mark an expanding consciousness, as opposed to gaps in perception (such "gaps" might serve alter the flow, introducing a tumbling, cascade effect). If the flow of perception is to roll over the reader in the form of so many advancing waves, howeverso gently, might that not impose a degree of passivity, disabling the reader's ability to discriminate? In other words, the physical presence of a speaker, either "in" or "behind" the words may give a feeling of some security, especially if the voice is friendly—it may disarm. Much depends on how presence is read, as a figure of persuasive force or as a fact of the poem. Presence provides a measure of the quality of perception—a projection that in Olson's insistence carries an ethical or moral imperative to be identified with sincerity. The emotions, moving forces that govern heart and lungs, inform the integrity of utterance. The reader, if only intuitively, as in a conversation, assigns attributes such as openness (or contrariwise a desire to intimidate or confuse) to the voice heard in the work. Oppenheimer's short poem might then be asking the reader to share his sense of a particular moment. An aggressive deconstruction might characterize that moment as another instance of the man undressing a woman, a phallocentric fantasy (and it is), but that would deprive the language of those meanings related to its occasion. The poet has risked a gesture that is open to both criticism and understanding.
Nonetheless, as power often hides its purpose, the "serious reader" may have cause for misgivings concerning the intentions (the meanings or design) of any and all texts—a spiritual crisis that might be called postmodern-ism. In this century, poetic integrity has frequently required the deployment of alienation effects, of strategies designed to "deautomatize" perception. In that tradition, the "New Sentence," theorized by Ron Silliman, shifts from level to level of "envisagement" or contextual framing, disjointing grammatical expectations and compelling the reader to engage semantic elements without mediation. The text becomes a matrix, supporting some readings and not others. The operation of what Silliman calls the "Parsimony Principle" assures a degree of coherence or "unitary signification."
Whenever it is possible to integrate two separate elements into a single larger element by imagining them as sharing a single common participant, the mind will do so. (The New Sentence 120)
Silliman's "Migratory Meaning," an essay republished in The New Sentence, was written in the interest of addressing "the lack of a shared vocabulary with which to speak and think of the poem as we find it, circa 1982"—an urgency that persists circa 2007. Silliman attempts to demonstrate the futility underlying such commonly heard appreciative comments as "beyond the meaning of words." His purpose seems to rhyme with Oppenheimer's, who, in the preface to Why Not, castigates the reader who "has been educated to believe that 'it means whatever i want it to mean.'"
A workable envisagement will prove in some sense congruent with the author's conception of the work. Silliman cites three readings made by his students of these lines from Rae Armentrout's "Grace," a poem that violates normative expectations for clarity:
a spring there
where his entry must be made
signals him on
The students successfully created narrative scenarios, providing coherence, and one paralleled Armentrout's "own authorial envisagement which was that of vaginal lubrication" —according to Silliman (114). Access to this information probably makes these lines more transparent than intended. In her poem she now appears every bit as exposed as Oppenheimer does in his. Yet Armentrout seems uninterested in perception in Oppenheimer's sense. She objectifies her body, seeing it here from a male perspective, almost as though not present to what is happening to her (and this suggestion in itself provides another level of envisagement). Her language deconstructs presence; challenges standard sensibilities. Estrangement demands envisagement.
Reading closely is difficult, more so when the material touches on subjects that are taboo to some sensibilities. A highly determined structure of language jostles against the constraints represented by that structure. Social and personal forces that impinge upon the production of measure, situate the reader and poet in an exposed, sometimes uncomfortable position; the reader copes by producing meanings. Envisagement is crucial to the frame semantics of Charles Fillmore (Silliman's source) and appears to be a fundamental linguistic principle. The process is both cumulative and synthetic. In the case of the selection from Armentrout's poem, the first two lines add up to a sum that will vary with each reader. The third line produces a transformation of the reader's envisagement and so forth. The result is not necessarily an unwavering progress in a single direction. The engagement required is participatory.
My examples represent related extremes, one a projective poetics of perception, the founding document being Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" (Poetry New York, 1950); the other often called "language poetry." In Olson's poetics, the poem is a screen or an integument upon which the senses play; form becomes a rebus, reflecting intensities and qualities of emotion along a subjective axis of "internal necessity" (similar to that theorized by Wassily Kandinsky), but cleansed of "lyric interference." Reading produces a feeling of corresponding intensities. In Silliman's poetics, language is prior to individual sense perception in all its forms. Meaning is an effect of language, not perception. The locus of correspondence occurs at the level of envisagement, in an inter-space where both reader and text exist as articulated presences, not in a transcendent elsewhere barely shadowed by the page.
In Olson's case, his push to detect an underlying order among a multiplicity of interacting forces, required him to use increasingly fragmented forms of annotation. Language poetry (influenced in this respect by the example of Gertrude Stein) invokes—one might almost say— interrogates normative syntax, unmooring meaning from its fixed or conventional forms. Here, language may be likened to an electronic pulse, and as with a digital synthesizer, the bits define the measure. Sound or meaning becomes a function of structure, not content (and not an extension of content). The choice of instruments seems crucial: for Silliman, an electronic synthesizer, for Oppenheimer a boogie played on an acoustic guitar, or even its analog, the human throat. The field of action that is the poem is finally too rich, too highly determined to accommodate this analogy. Semantic and acoustic overlays collide, the dissonances carefully adjusted to one another.
In Total Syntax, Barrett Watten interrogates "the emotive voice, the 'I' [that in Olson] is perceptible as a person behind the words" (123). A saturation of narrative by an "excess of signification" results in a break down of the sentence in favor of the phrase (129). Disruptions and refusals of completion create "a linguistic present" of a compelling order. "Olson's paternalistic psychology, and his manipulation by means of physical presence and almost a wall of sound, is a matter of some conflict in itself. Only later do the political consequences of the romantic position appear, insisting on the advantage of its defects [my italics] in the precedence of language over self. And from that point one can enter the work." (129-130). By means of a complex double-move, Watten both censures and praises Olson's excesses, finding finally a precedent for the therapeutic value of a language-based poetics. In turn, I am tempted to psychologize Watten's need to testify, but we have before us something more crucial than reaction formations and a generational struggle. Presence is an aspect of language that saturates the work. Olson in his understanding of "negative capability" (cf. Special View of History 15-16 and Selected Writings 46) perhaps anticipates Watten's difficulty. Uncertainties, including "defects," are both source and subject, a nexus that is productive of the work. In "Human Universe," Olson asks, "who can extricate language from action?" (Selected Writings 54). His strategy is to submerge the ego in myth or history, sometimes allowing it to penetrate the surface in a lumbering and unskilled urgency. There is an objection in Watten to Olson's push, as if the reader might feel threatened by the weight of that "wall of sound" and prefer a more neutral, less compelling tone. Although he objects to Olson's psychology, Watten does not and cannot proscribe the presence of the self in the text. This presence always carries an emotional force. Irrational moments in Watten’s highly conceptual poetry carry precisely such a presence. [I will provide an example or cut this last sentence].
Ron Silliman's Paradise seems an appropriate place to look for textual strategies with reference to this problematic "I" or self, whether “lyrical” or simply intrusive. In Paradise I find observations rendered with a keenness that matches my deepest personal memories, "Or that washing machine with a wringer on it would spot oil on the linoleum floor" (19). But the poem also cautions the reader: such perceptions (and there are many of them), "These are not facts" (40). I also find comments on the current state of affairs, "Freedom is access to two malls" (54). A radical pragmatism with respect to language, "Language cannot tell the truth" (50), informs perception: "Length of sentence. No need to wake the block up. By adding a trim, painters reframe the house" (50). The image creates an analogy of insubstantiality between syntax and paint; and it seems to work after the fashion of an ideogram. The physical presence, the "I" or observer behind the words, often takes a self-conscious form, "No eyes more foreign than those in the mirror" (37). Sometimes the language violates the reader's space, "What I wish to say, dear reader, take off your blouse" (45). For Silliman, at least as I read Paradise, the space between sentences is an analog of the space between the writer and the reader. Entry into the poem erases boundaries (and maybe Watten's point is that Olson can seem unforgiving of his readers’ boundaries).
Reading Silliman, ordinary language seems on the verge of dematerializing, as though there were no longer a subject. His language is insistently a form of address. Almost jabs, phrases impinge upon the reader, pointing repeatedly, continually shifting direction, calling forth a subject that must be understood ultimately as the reader. Silliman's sense of language might serve to enable, but it also questions the possibility of a language community such as Stanley Cavell proposes when he describes the importance of "voice".
To speak for oneself politically is to speak for the others with whom you consent to associate, and it is to consent to be spoken for by them--not as a parent speaks for you, i.e., instead of you, but as some one in mutuality speaks for you, i.e., speaks your mind. ... To speak for yourself then means risking the rebuff ... and it means risking having to rebuff ... . (27-28)
Watten and Silliman, both in their poetry and in their theoretical writings, seek to clarify our collective sense of what writing does. In choosing the multi-voiced synthesizer as instrument for poetic composition, they situate risk at the level of subverting generic expectations concerning language and meaning. Like Cavell they site the source of community in language, but claim that for practical purposes that the language is broke, indeed bankrupt.
In a sense Silliman's language pushes action off on the reader, who as collaborator, is swept along as the frames change, but feels at a distance from the "things" of the poem or its occasion. References to body-building in Paradise reenforce my reading. Individual exercise programs conform to generic expectations that like language in its current forms, constrain rather than empower. Indeed, Silliman seems to identify with body builders precisely because, after a self-reflexive fashion, he recognizes the practical limitations of self-help regimens including his own language exercises—as though pursuit of the figure disfigured, desire to transform deformed. I quote again from Paradise, "The small parade turned out to be some sort of Portuguese holiday celebration, one high school band and four clusters of costumed marchers, moving slowly up what had once been the mainstreet, its sidewalks empty" (38). Here, Silliman deflects the reader's attention away from the content: a token and politically pathetic resistance to the reality of social homogenization in America. Instead he invokes the social fact that main street lacks integrity with respect to the suburbs of apple pie and the American dream. His focus falls on the structural inversion of function with respect to street and sidewalk, finding in the literal facts of the situation a semantic shift that has eroded metaphors for political empowerment like "taking to the streets." As these streets may well be those of Gloucester, the passage provides a telling instance of a difference. Silliman's desire to empower the reader's imagination by means of providing a structural frame here contrasts with Olson's expressed desire to move the reader to action by presenting facts as meaningful and consequential with respect to historical processes.
Don Byrd's "Language Poetry, 1971‑86" is an attempt to address what he considers "a troubling theoretical confusion and rift in serious American poetry at this time." Confusion does exist both as to differences of method and the continuities that link projective poetics and language poetry. Byrd's argument is cast as an opposition between "structural" and "material" aspects of language. His thoughts, like Watten's or Silliman's reflect a reading of Olson. The way Byrd puts it, some language poetry is a "grammatical poetry" that focuses on method and "draw[s] attention back from meaning to the mechanism of production." A second poetry, adhering more closely to Olson's methods, needs to be distinguished from the first. It "insists on the meaningful priority of the concrete world." For this poetry the result of experiment is that "the physicality of language as a measure of the concrete world is restored." For the grammarians language, as has been noted, is prior to and enables perception. I am tempted to ascribe to Byrd's analysis, but cannot do so because it seems evident to me that questions of semantic force are crucial for a grammatical poetry. Envisagement, for instance, is crucial to Silliman's poetics, and his poetry is no less physical than Olson's. To suggest that meaning is immanent in the concrete particulars of experience, as Byrd does, is to ignore the facts of language that make it possible to write a poetry in which the problematic "I" risks a claim with respect to particular situations.
I have tried to suggest that the "grammatical" and the "material" stances are not antithetical. Instead in a truly "open" poetry, the measure arises as a result of a fusion of language and perception. When Olson writes in "the conventions which logic has forced on syntax must be broken open," his purpose is to enhance perception, "the acting on you of the line." As to language, he continues, "But an analysis of how far a new poet can stretch the very conventions on which communication by language rests, is too big for these notes, which are meant, I hope it is obvious, merely to get things started" (21). Silliman and Watten in turn have deliberated upon those conventions, picking up the thread that Olson let drop here. Olson’s prosody maps those affects that can be attributed to attention and duration. Language poets, in different ways, add semantic shifts or toques to the complex materiality of the text.
Too often, too much of modern poetry serves to confirm a sense of powerlessness, recounting the bad bargains made in the name of keeping up with appearances in the competition for acknowledgement. The language agents that monitor the marketplace have little truck with meaning. Their goal is to preserve market share. A pragmatic response to such pathos is that language constructs reality. My purpose has been to define a meeting ground where different strategies for poetry can meet. For a poem to generate measured responses, a presence must be tangible in the poem. Further, the poem must produce an answering presence in the person of the reader. In the formula, "i meant for these poems to mean things", the presence of an ego or "voice"—even the modest voice represented by the small "i"—represents a claim of pertinence. Likewise, near the end of Paradise, Silliman writes "A pen just to chew on" (63). Both language and the desire for language invest the phrase with meaning. Each poet seeks to share a perception with the reader, how it was that the poet came to be aware of such and such. Like perception and language, meaning and method appear to be linked, not separable agencies.
Byrd, Don. "Language Poetry, 1971-86." Sulfur 20: 1987.
Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason. NY: OUP, 1982.
James, William. Principles of Psychology. 2 vol. 1890. NY: Dover, 1950.
Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. ed Robert Creeley. NY: New Directions, 1966.
-----. The Special View of History. Berkeley: Oyez, 1970.
Oppenheimer, Joel. Why Not. Fredonia: White Pine, 1987.
Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. NY: Roof, 1987.
Silliman, Ron. Paradise. Providence: Burning Deck, 1985.
Watten, Barrett. Total Syntax. Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1985.