The To Sound by Eric Baus (Verse Press, 2004)
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The lag time between the appearance of an original, culturally significant
art form and the culture’s ability to apprehend it has a long,
well-documented history. It was during such time that we laughed when
Pollock spattered his canvas, covered our ears upon hearing Bob Dylan’s
croaky tunes, or tossed our first Ashbery onto the floor in frustration.
Then we caught up to, marveled at, enjoyed these expansions of our
aesthetic pleasures. A history of the creative arts, along with the
development of our own taste and ability to enjoy them, teaches us that we
are less likely to appreciate something new than we are to reject it,
often to our subsequent embarrassment.
We learn that prudence should prevail in the face of the new. After
all, no one among us wants to be seen as the historical ass, one who, like
Edmund Wilson, complains about the “impenetrability” of Henry James
only to be shown decades later that the only impenetrability was that of
Wilson’s brain. We may even
learn to welcome the new as a freshening process. Failing that, we can
tell ourselves that “history will take care of it” in the same way a
wronged believer is comforted by the idea that “God will judge” when
there seems to be no earthly justice.
There’s no understanding now, but surely, someone, somewhere, at
some future time will understand—and that’s enough. Isn’t it?
Not really. Not when it comes to three decades, and counting, of Language,
post-structuralism-influenced, neo-surrealist, post-avant poems. Such
poems are not simply mutating from one type of impenetrability to another;
they are multiplying fiercely. In fact, the 2004 Best American Poetry
was positively swarming with them. It’s time to create a swarm-free
space where we can evaluate them, hold them to account, appreciate or
discard them. But how does an interested reader do that, except by trying
to read them? That’s where
the trouble starts.
However open-minded and eager to appreciate the newest in our field of
interest we are, reading fails to work in the case of the three books
discussed here. It is not simply an aura of impenetrability or pre-dawn of
recognition that prevails, but an unreadability—a sense that the
very act of reading itself is no longer relevant and perhaps even passé,
a nineteenth century pastime. It’s not so much that the poems are
obscure—(isn’t a large percentage of great poetry obscure, mysterious,
demanding of our attention?)—but that they are obscure in a way that
cannot be rendered unobscure (to use Jim Holt's phrase from his
"Theories of Bullshit").
But what if some poems aren’t meant to be read at all?
What if they are meant to be viewed? What if, like TV, they
are meant to be surfed?
I ask in my indoor voice what it means to extract your own teeth
This poem is representative of Eric Baus’ The To Sound in its
ability to frustrate the act of reading. (Even the title of the book has
this quality. How does one read “The To Sound”?)
Like flipping through channels, the lines briefly intrigue, even
send one on a reverie—abbreviated and changed by the next thumb-press.
Who needs a story line? In fact, who needs any sense of connectedness at
all? Pass the potato chips.
Like the concept of a clockwork universe or God’s divine plan for us,
the author-defined connection may already belong to another time, one
where the author was an authority figure, creator of his own text, master
planner, directing the reader by how he wrote and organized it, line by
line, word by word. Now the
text is up for grabs—if you want the Baus poem to be about depression in
the city, or a bad dental experience, be Baus’ guest.
If you want it to be about the time you had a vertigo attack, go
for it. Want to start in the middle, work backwards then forwards? Want to
insert some hyperlinks, throw it up on the screen and jump into a new
layer, one you created all by yourself? How about turning it into a video game—“Pigeon Shoot”?
Baus won’t care, he just put some words there.
He’s not trying to make things all hierarchical. Jump in—you
can be a poet too! Meanwhile, we linear folk come limping along behind,
using the handrail, feeling gingerly ahead.
It has been argued (Hugh Kenner, et. al.) that a poem is read in terms of
its ending, an ending that is sensed and glimpsed before we reach it.
Certainly, in narratives—of which poetry is a type, though not
necessarily a story-type—there is a sense of progression, of one thing
preceding, perhaps even causing, another. Perception of and need for such
a sense is quite primitive: a six-month old infant, when shown an object
going behind a screen, will look for it to emerge from the other side at
the exact moment when it should—and will become agitated when it does
not. Similarly, the drive to connect disparate images, as in a film, by
assigning chronology or some other pattern that links them, is evidently
hard-wired in us, our brains being difficult to ignore, no matter how hard
we try. So we sift and weigh, make a hypothesis, discard it, all the way
through a collection of apparently disparate lines, even enjoying the
trip. It’s sometimes fun to be lost—especially when the scenery is so
interesting, and when you believe you’ll get where you’re going in the
end. It’s only when we get to the end and see that there’s a flat tire
or a washed-out bridge that the primal annoyance resurfaces. What happened
to what went before? Where is it now? How do we get to where we’re going? Where are we
There is an underlying sense that this poem (“While
the somnambulist explains the proper way to carve the eyes from a
pigeon”) and many others in Baus’ collection, is composed of
objects that disappear behind a screen but never come out the other side.
For example, the object moves behind the screen here:
speaks softly with empty sleeves.
a bird losing altitude is a new kind of rain.
There is throughout the poem a sense of fits and starts—when does it
actually begin? Given the title (“While the somnambulist explains the
proper way to carve the eyes from a pigeon”), it could start here:
a bird losing altitude is a
kind of rain. Roughly equivalent to the fluid in my ears.
not start here?
way “weight takes over a wing” comes to my lips
I pass a downed powerline.
try to explain why gravity always wins.
Where it starts depends on what will come after. And, in fact, these are
all good ending lines too. All that’s missing is the middle. In this
catalogue of images in declarative voice and simple sentence syntax,
without apparent connection, and having no obvious progression in
emotional, chronological, logical or narrative terms, the poem has no
necessary or inevitable flow between or among the lines, and, therefore,
no order or pacing to ruin by rearrangement. Why not rearrange the lines
“While the somnambulist explains the proper way to carve the eyes from a pigeon”
The only connection here is between the breathing in saltwater and the
fish, so those lines should stay together (though truthfully, they don’t
need to). But all others may be exchanged, interchanged,
re-arranged—ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Most startling of all is that not only is it possible to re-arrange the
lines at will within a typical Baus poem, there’s no problem doing it among
the poems. For example, adding lines from the poem above to the poem
immediately preceding it (“Dearest Sister, Thanks for Leaving Me Space
to Sign My Full Name in Your Absence”), produces this (added lines in
I looked so hard I thought my neck was permanently stretched, that
I was recently amazed to discover from one of my students (who claimed I
did not share his aesthetics) that he much preferred my edited versions of
his apparently random lines. Why? Because they coalesced by means of
re-ordering. The coalescing was still elliptical, certainly not a story in
any traditional sense, but clearly there were connections between and
among the lines. It seemed that this student’s “aesthetics”
consisted of simple ignorance about how to create a seemingly whole poem
from a series of disparate lines, even though it was his own poem. Not
knowing how to do so provoked in him the idea that it was a matter of
aesthetics rather than craft.
In another classroom situation, I cut up several poems by established
poets into their separate, single lines (with end-punctuation removed) and
put the pieces of each into a separate envelope. Students worked in teams
to determine the best way to order the lines into a whole poem.
Interestingly, none of the poems except the most obviously narrative (a
poem by Tate, an enjambed anecdote, really), were put together in the same
way that the poet had. And yet—the students managed to make coherence
and order, however tenuous, out of the disparate lines, and in several
instances even improved on the original. It’s hard to stop people from
finding patterns, from making something that connects and progresses from
randomness. It’s what satisfies us, and as an aesthetic experience can
hardly be replaced by a sense of frustration.
In A Hat on the Bed, we find a different kind of unreadability.
Rather than intriguing images and bold statements of improbable import,
Christine Scanlon works more quietly—she uses a parsable syntax,
apparently recognizable situations and sentiments—to present not so much
a machine made of words, as a brick wall made of words:
The Dale of Three Curses
This mixed cocktail of Ashbery-Tate with a twist of Bernstein is highly
crafted, stuffed to the gills with surrealities and “surprises” and
wholly without concern for the reader. An artifact more than a text, such
a poem can be admired for its originality, but not actually read in
the sense of understood. It is another apparently intentional frustration of the very
act of reading—which depends on the progression of one thing to the
next—and it successfully resists the intellect, to update
For example, a typical reader would see the opening:
Mirror hastens to attack. Lost annals are lewd
immediately try to find some way to connect the lines—and not only the
lines, but the words—to one another. Roughly, the reader might proceed
hastens to attack. Lost annals are lewd
Here is a surreal landscape where the objects are animated, and in an
aggressive way, the mirror suggesting self-regard or narcissistic
concerns, the word “lewd” leading toward sexual content.
he sees me in a hundred taunting perspectives
Now we move to the female as object (“Kewpie-doll confined” and the
famous male gaze: “he sees me in a hundred taunting perspectives” The
last image, “penny secret” is arresting, perhaps indicative of
what’s to come, not particularly resonant with context built so far).
Perhaps this is building toward some heavy-duty gender “issues.” Next:
/ as vagrants imagine
soberly missed ospreys
Now he is imagining her as vivid as Soberly missed ospreys. Let’s move to the next line for more on
this disturbing situation:
one virulent sin.
Now he is imagining her as vivid as “one virulent sin.” At least we
have gotten free of the “soberly missed ospreys” and back into some
sexual menace (“virulent sin”). And onto the next line—the suspense
cross-ventilated / in the turn to your mass.
And the suspense is over. Because we have stopped reading this poem.
There’s nothing about it in the first lines or the second or the third
to gain our confidence that the organizing intelligence behind it is
either organized or intelligent.
Let’s try a new kind of reading, one that has evolved to meet the
challenge of this new poetry. Let’s call it “far reading” to
distinguish it from the “close reading” of yore. In far reading, we
keep a safe distance from the text, we do not try to engage with it in any
way. Instead we surf it, make hyperlinks from it, perhaps map it to the
territory we imagine it points toward, treat it as a navigation tool that
will take us to other worlds by our design. Make your own connections [mine
are in brackets] using the poet’s text as a jumping-off place, a
launching pad for your imagination:
[Close up on chipmunk] of Three Curses
fortune advertised. [link
to tarot card, one with a skeleton, then zoom to one bone, an excavation]
For prosperity no argument.
Far reading acknowledges the role of the poet (not important), the meaning
of the poem (non-existent) and the connections between and among the lines
(missing). It allows the reader to have the role of creator (why not?) and
the text to become a series of moveable signs instead of all those pesky signifiers that require so much thought.
Verse Press and Barrow Street Press, relatively young presses, have put
forward a “new” kind of poetry (the editors of said presses apparently
not realizing they are re-packaging Tate, Ashbery and the
hard-to-discourage Language writers). However, when a book like Figment is published by a press like W.W. Norton,
can we assume the publishing mainstream has some far readers evolving in
W. W. Norton isn’t in it for the love of poetry, so someone there
believes this book has an audience beyond the community of post-avant
blogs of Silliman & Co. and enough readers who will pay for it, even
in hardcover. Certainly, the press release for this book of wonders (or
wondering) indicates that at least one person at the
press (the publicity person—or whoever wrote the release) has a
highly-evolved reading apparatus. For this reader of poetry, however,
lining up the publisher’s description of the book’s contents and the
contents themselves induces a severe case of disorientation.
The publisher remarks: “Rebecca Wolff, founding editor of
Fence and winner of the 2003 Barnard Women Poets Prize, gives readers a
series of mysterious yet sharply intelligent poems that linger bravely in the space between representation and
And then the poem:
Mysterious? No, just confusing. Sharply intelligent? No comment. But: linger bravely in the space between representation and
is where the rubber meets the chicken neck.
This is the space that apparently takes bravery to enter, but even more bravery to linger in, the space that only a new
reader can hang out in, get down with, meet the poet in.
It is a space that has been delineated by the post-structuralists,
is perhaps the very “nothing” that Derrida famously claimed is
“outside the text.” Here
is a possibility: the new, “far,” reading has as its goal an un-reading, an erasure, an entry into that
place beyond language, beyond text—into the yawning abyss. Is that why
there is so much yawning throughout this book—is it the same old abyss
we confront at the end of every poem here?
look in the basket
but to wind up
I don’t know about the narrator’s face, but there is most certainly
“something extraordinary” about this poem, about this book—and that
is its publication by a major publisher.
As with Baus, Wolff’s lines of poetry are literally “moveable
text” that can be shuffled about without harming sense, context,
aesthetic purpose, organizing principle(s), progression (logical,
emotional or narrative), or
pacing. For example, how
about making this one a drama:
Don't look in the basket
Even though I haven’t changed a word, or a line, only the order, it
actually seems a tad more interesting this way, at least a thread of
something is beginning to emerge—or am I just more engaged because I
participated in it, however after-the-fact?
Is it just because my projection into the Rorschach of this poem
seems to me better because it’s mine?
Perhaps I’ve hit on the new reading by chance—perhaps this is what we
used to call revising. It’s what we used to expect the poet to do. Perhaps poets like Wolff are
engaging the reader through active participation, inviting the reader,
with their “drafts” and strewn fragments, to come on in—be with the
creator, pick up a pen, see what you can do! It’s a collaborative
effort, this making of a poem and perhaps the inevitable outcome of
Reader-Response theory, where the poet isn’t the “authority” and the
reader is expected to “fill in” with whatever interpretations they
choose. Don’t make the poet
do all the work, then stand back and criticize!
In fact, I can envision a “book” that is actually a collection
of magnetized words and phrases that the reader can stick to a surface,
move around at whim—oh wait. We already have that. It’s called magnet
In all three books discussed here, the typographical cleverness (one-word lines, word endings fraught with a too-obvious double/triple meaning), the jolting imagery and the self-conscious jokiness fail to compensate for the lack of an authentic attempt to reach for, and connect to, an emotional center, a universal and human matter, and that—emotional revelation in all its complexity—is what’s so dreadfully absent in all these collections. This absence is why the reader is not only prevented by lack of craft from proceeding from one line to the next, from one poem to the next, but also why there is no incentive to do so. These poets write as a sky writer does—in startling loop-de-loops of language that disappear before the reader’s eyes, leaving only blank sky. Having taken no risk to reach their own depths of feeling, having taken no time to revise and improve their work such that there is a sense of inevitable order, these poets have chosen to disrespect the reader. The reader should return the lack of respect and refuse them his or her precious time and attention. Maybe if we ignore them, they will go away.