Continuum Poem Analysis Essay
Reading Adam Dickinson’s new book is quite a challenge. The title sounds like a chemistry treatise, there is no contents at the beginning, and the interiors abound in chemical diagrams, symbols and illustrations, notes and lists, indexes and methods, etc.
Okay, says the intrigued reader, let’s start at the start—the first poem. The disparate images seem to come from a refracted seascape filtered through a series of what could be a number of carefully hidden (sometimes ironical) literary allusions—“Hail from inside/ the albatross” (Baudelaire and/or Coleridge), “coral beds/ waving at the beaked whale’s/ mistakes” (Shakespeare and possibly Melville), “Hello from the zipped-up/ leatherback/ who shat bits of rope for a month” (Zeno’s tortoise paradox sarcastically combined with Sextus Empiricus’ snake-rope argument?)—and a progress from the inner-subjective—or what could be conventionally called lyric (“the inside of the albatross”)—to the exterior world of consumerist and popular culture.
The short sinewy lines have most of them two strong stresses across a variable number of syllables, an accentual pattern that may represent the symbol “H” for the hydrogen molecule the poem represents on the polyester diagram the whole section draws, also present in the title—“Hail”—as well as at the beginning of every sentence in the poem, all starting with “Hello.” One also comes across “Halloween Hulk” but other than that, “h,” especially as the [ h ] or [ ɦ ] sound-denoting letter, is almost absent. Lost again?
From the argument/epigraph—printed on a semi-transparent-paper so that the two paragraphs can be read and seen through at the same time on both pages, although never as truly contiguous, since they are in fact printed each of them on a different side (and therefore somehow working as a Moebius strip)—we find out that plastic is “an organizing principle (a poetics)” for the “macromolecular arrangement of people and waste in geopolitical space,” and are thus presented with the metaphor of “social polymers,” patterns of our culture and politics.
And in a good Language and/or conceptualist tradition, such patterns are to be dug out of and explored through the language. One learns, therefore, from the “Materials and Methods” section at the end of the book, that “Hail” is a “partial list” of “disintegrated greetings.” Still, Dickinson not only disintegrates common formulations (is that really all he does there?) but also deconstructs literary/cultural commonplaces, in this case the opening traditional salutation/apostrophe of the classic epic—the Greek “Sing, O goddess” or, say, the Anglo-Saxon “Hwaet.”
Each of the poems in the section (and similarly in the following sections) correspond to a molecule on the polyester diagram (“Hail” for instance being the hydrogen one at the top of the central hexagon), but not in a predictable order—as the second poem for instance, is the last but one towards the right end of the chain of molecules, another hydrogen developed as “Halter Top (Translating Translating a Polyester).” But the order of the poem-molecules is far from being the only element that renders the whole enterprise multifaceted and comically confusing. The bracketed part of the title is, of course, a poetics in nuce of the book in its entirety, therefore speaking of a (molecular) sequence of chemical-cultural diagrams translated into letter (lettrist?) symbolism and then into poems.
Still, from the ‘explanatory’ section at the end of the book (in itself a funny, captivating poem) one finds out that the lines of the poem are actually all anagrams of the letters making up the name of the substance at stake—“polyethylene terephthalate”—hence, a, e, h, l, n, o, p, r, t, y. The outcomes are fascinating, as the ‘game’ ranges from Mother-Goose-like sing-song lines and tongue twisters, “Let the python plot the thorn/ Let the hornet paper the tree” to surrealist ecopoetic riffs, “Nylon antelope threaten the Tylenol people,” to a baffling (al)chemical, geopolitical, and digital-age restaging of the tree-of-knowledge scene:
Her teeth apply to the planetary apathy.
They are polar, they are throttle,
the error apparent
to the hyperreal
with, among other things, a dart thrown at the multinational computer company in the last line. The composition principle and the resulting baroque-surreal imagery work here (and not only here) towards, of course, a parody of Christian Bök’s Eunoia (in its turn a parody in so many respects), but while the latter’s main allegiance may be with Oulipo, Dickinson is adept at the magic philosophy of Pataphysics, which he fuses in his own fashion with biosemiotics, new media, and industrial chemistry or—when for instance reading another author’s text and counting the letters with most occurrences, then treating them as chemical symbols and drawing the corresponding substance diagrams—not pataphysical but “patachemical” lettrism and cabalism.
Actually, in a recent essay on Kenneth Goldsmith (J. Mark Smith, ed., Time in Time. Short Poems, Long Poems, and the Rhetoric of North-American Avant-Gardism, 1963–2008, McGill-Queen’s U Press, 2013), he describes Goldsmith as “a kind of environmental scientist” that through his writing/recording techniques “illuminate[s] the membranes and structures through which information from and about the environment” (135, my emphasis) is processed.
It seems to me that if in the statement above we read the “structures” as polymers, we actually have a remarkably accurate assessment of Dickinson’s own poetics. Moreover, if to that we add the proposition in the same essay to consider “the link between poetry that imagines itself as science (pataphysics) and science that imagines itself as poetry (biosemiotics)” (ibidem), we most likely obtain the most genuine key to the multiple layers of meaning in Polymers. As a matter of fact, the typical pataphysical facetiousness and sarcastic humor are present in the very presentation on the back cover where we are announced this is “an extraordinary science project performed at the nexus of chemistry and poetry” (added emphasis). This “science project” really combines poetry imagining itself as science and science imagining itself as poetry, since the “protocols” followed in writing the first poem (“Hang-ups”) in the “Polyethylene” section are: “Hiding behind humor can be dangerous applause in the hands of an addict.”
Maybe indeed, what “hides behind the humor” is a radical warning regarding the pitfalls of conformity in all walks of life, science and ecocriticism included (for not accounting for subjectivity, and the implicit scientific realism, respectively). The only risk is for the reader who is even more skeptical than that to see in Dickinson’s pataphysical copious playfulness just the ‘joke(s)’ and, ultimately, an art-for-art’s-sake kind of accomplishment, since the criticism of everything can be seen from the other side (of the Moebius strip) as the critique of nothing.
But the poet does not flinch, and the stakes go higher and higher as he dauntlessly keeps adding new dictions, new puns, new facets, and, what is probably his strongest trump, ever shifting angles. In one of the strongest pieces in the collection, “Chemgrass,” a fast-forwarded cartoon-style sex scene crossbreeds domestic “doing it” with home decor and surrealist vegetal-animal-parts and clothing and (heretically rendered) theology (and of course media and sports and politics) and what not in a deafening language blender (with a blown up diction) that will not (be) stop(ped) until the all-gulping poetic chemical grass (or “pot”?) is fully brewed:
… We shag all the flies
in the ripped-up scouting reports
from the dead-ball era. Sunburns calisthenic
elbows and knees, exorcising exercise
with the double-stolen gnosis
of Clement of Alexandria, who declared
that for wedding performed on shag carpet,
the benediction remains in the dirt…
And so the sarabande goes on, reaching and then leaving behind fractal lines (oops, I almost said modular… ars poeticas)—“I field birdseed”—as the posthuman poetic catalyst consistently eschews any single-minded political critique: the “carpetbagging sentimentalists” commandeer the spot on the forehead needed for… faking. It is not the ‘message’ or the attitude (of an “us” gradually obliterated anyway), but the configurations and maps of “geopolitical spaces” of waste(d) language.
Dickinson’s is therefore a fierce challenge, whereby, in spite of the apparent playfulness and exuberance, verse is actually confronted with (scientifically speaking) certain draconically stinted prospects. Our age’s poetry thus becomes a huge mimesis and an ‘against-nature’ automaton at the same time, the most democratically inclusive manipulation orchestrated in ineffective elitist ways, an n-dimensional joke, vulgar without being popular, arcane without being revelatory.
But only a poet with an incredible vitality can make that compulsively apparent, one that, in a recent interview, has (paradoxically?) stated, that poetry is more relevant than ever.
[Adam Dickinson. The Polymers. Toronto, ON: Anansi, 2013]
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Photo by Pai-Shih Lee, Creative Commons, via Flickr.
Is poetry dead? Though we are tempted, let's not tire of the question. Because, sometimes a question that keeps arising is simply another question in disguise. If I could reframe the question as the one that pulses just beneath the surface, I would ask not "Is poetry dead?" but rather "What is dead about our mainline approach to poetry?" And, beyond that, "What is dead about the poetry continuum we offer to the uninitiated and the experienced?"
For a business to survive, or a movement--and I would argue a curriculum subject and an art as well--there must exist multiple entry points, at various levels, for the curious (or those who could be curious, if only they felt invited). Likewise, those who have been at it for a while must experience renewal.
Sure, a business, a movement, a curriculum subject, or an art can survive for some time by catering only to the committed "customer," but in the end there comes an end. In the words of Adam Grant, author of Originals, "...movements need to refresh and update their agenda continuously in order to be seen as cutting edge, authentic, and relevant" and those who "fail to innovate their movement agenda and engage with new ideas...become obsolete and lose touch...." The problem, as Grant sees it, is radicalism--and a view that there is one right way for people to go about becoming a part of things. He uses the example of the failed Occupy movement and asserts that a "99 Percent" approach would have "temper[ed] the brand of the movement and broaden[ed] its methods" which would have made it possible to "gain the support of more mainstream citizens" (p. 126).
Regarding poetry, I am quite familiar with the problems of radicalism in either direction: all-amateur versus all-expert, and I am dissatisfied with both. When those who declare poetry dead declare it dead, they often mean the all-expert side of things. When people who declare it alive-and-well point to the energy of amateur audiences, they are (to my mind) simply pointing to a new movement that is not yet dead. (Yes, I suggest that people will tire of the banal sameness of their own and each other's verse over time--much the way blogging has been falling out of favor partly because people tired of the lack of expression they found, as they traveled from blog to blog to blog and began to have a hard time distinguishing one from another.)
If I did not believe in the power of poetry for life, I would let the question itself die without bothering to offer an answer. But I do believe in the power of poetry. I have seen it change lives, first-hand. I cherish its long history and its possible future. I believe that its reading and writing practices should not settle in either camp--amateur or expert--because to settle in one place or the other is to diminish its power and possibility.
To this, I propose an approach that is a continuum--one that can be re-entered from the beginning, in new iterations, for the experienced. Let each person declare his or her place on the continuum (yes, even in the classroom!), and then let's foster movement across it and then back and across it again. We educators sometimes mistrust that the uninitiated will choose to grow, and we fear they'll choose the path of least resistance. But, in my experience, both students and adults will--when they believe they have a true choice and they feel inspired and are given useful tools (rather than continual tests, either formal or informal)--choose to move along a continuum rather than remain stuck. (The popularity of video games attests to this dynamic.) On the flip side, our youth-oriented culture sometimes misses or discounts the wisdom of the mature and the growth that remains possible until, quite frankly, we are actually dead and gone.
So, what might a poetry continuum look like? Let's use the analogy of plant growth. Though not hotly original, it is useful:
Seed > Soil > Nutrients-Water-Sun > Maturity > Seed
Whether we are a student, a classroom teacher, a librarian, a poetry foundation, a poet, or a literate adult, we can place ourselves on this continuum. The point of such a continuum is in the spirit of the thing, and the key is to think about the quality of what can happen and not just tactics (although they are interesting in their own right).
Poetry seeds are small invitations. They are simple and non-demanding. The silly? The banal? The fragment? The movie clip? The humorous? The passionate? The visual? All are allowed. All are scattered abroad without focusing on judgment or analysis. It should take no expert knowledge to participate.
Poetry soil is a social experience, a community that begins searching for what feels more powerful word-wise, still without a push towards analysis. It involves a level of curation and elevation. We share what we love, we collect it or read it aloud to one another, we "oh and ah" over it. We don't need to understand who the poet is or what he or she did with alliteration or similes. We simply need to feel free to share what we love--even if we don't understand what contributes to the power of our chosen verse.
Nutrients, Water, Sun
These are larger invitations, still without judgment--but not without inquiry. We say to ourselves or to those we lead, "So you love what Whitman did there? How do you think it happened? Was it an accident, or is there some craft behind it?" On the one hand, the amateur will often claim it was all accident, all heart. On the other hand, the expert will assert that it was all craft, all purpose. The truth is it could be either (or more likely both), for any given poem. This is the moment to think things through and question, "If I wanted to accomplish something similar, either through accident or craft, what would it take for me to do so?" Then, choose a path--or ten--and try. Here is the chance to introduce solid ideas about how to write good free verse or form poetry like the ghazal, the sonnet, and so forth. But here is also the chance to introduce ideas on how to become more creative and open, in order to promote more happy accidents in our writing. If there is no interest in writing poems, then a person can go on collecting but add the effort of pairing like with like, based on either theme or form or general feel. Part of this collection can involve copying the poems out, which will allow the hand to seamlessly teach the brain on matters of craft.
At last, we admit that some poems (many poems!) could be made better (or that, with certain changes, some poems would be made worse). This part of the continuum is characterized not just by smart revision strategies but also by fun substitutions of words or playful shifts in line breaks, to prove to ourselves that the poem really is (or is not) a work of art--or a work of art that has achieved something specific. In a recent essay by James Longenbach in Poetry magazine, he does just this, pulling apart famous poems and re-ordering their lines. The result is fascinating and enlightening; the practice would make for a nice higher-level conversation in the classroom or in a poets' and writers' group.
In the final stage, a person is facile with poems. But the truly mature don't settle for sitting on this side of the continuum (and they certainly don't disdain others who are yet to enter). Instead, they become active in promoting the continuum from its beginning. They also understand that they can find ways to personally move through it again--perhaps branching out to another culture's, or societal segment's, or medium's way of engaging with poetry. Through this re-entry, the mature can cultivate both humility and new delight--something which great poetry itself both asks of us and promises.
Questions for Reflection
1. Where am I, personally, on the poetry continuum?
2. Where is my program, teaching approach, organization, other, on the continuum?
3. If I have constituents, where are they on the continuum? (Not sure? Try a survey.)
4. Have I (or my program, etc.) gotten stuck or felt compelled to settle at one place on the continuum? What are the risks of staying stuck there? If my (or my program, etc's) place on the continuum is a deliberate choice, do I support outside efforts that offer other continuum points?
5. If my program, classroom approach, etc., offers multiple points on the continuum, is this clear to constituents? And, do they have both the freedom to engage at the point that feels best to them and feel inspired (and have adequate tools) to keep moving along the continuum?
6. What accidental blocks between continuum points may there be, for me personally, or for my program, classroom approach, etc.? How can I begin to address these blocks?
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