Clattery MacHinery on Poetry

June 10, 2006

"An excellently smiling appropriate soldier"

Filed under: Uncategorized — Clattery MacHinery @ 7:23 pm

In her article “Three Invitations to a Far Reading ,” in Contemporary Poetry Review last year, Joan Houlihan, discussing “Language, post-structuralism-influenced, neo-surrealist, post-avant poems,” writes this:

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”).

She takes the negative view of these recent “experimental” movements. I take a more welcoming, appreciative (say) view of them, enjoying some of the poetry she slams.

Let’s level the playing field before I get into my own minor criticism of current experimental poetry, by noting that unless you just woke up from inside a block of ice that froze a hundred years ago, it is going to be very difficult for you to write a poem that is not neo-anything and post-everything from 50-60 years ago. During these decades, we have as poets, been caught up with meaning, communication, anti-meaning, elitism, anti-elitism, and so forth. My criticism is that we rushed forward with some important tools for writing, even advancing these tools, but left too much of the music of the experiments behind, something we could have easily taken into the post-modern era. But let’s first back up into that nineteenth century:

from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872

by Lewis Carroll


‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought–
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Last night, I noted at Frank Wilson’s blog Books, Inq. (I beg your pardon …), that one of my favorite bumper stickers says, “Eschew Obfuscation” and here we have a case where Lewis Carroll did nothing of the sort remarkably well. His poem is not lost on us, even though the meanings are, or at least as the meanings get away from us.

Let’s move forward in time, to where the music still exists as vital, it seems, in such experiments, to one of my favorite poets, Gertrude Stein. Here is an mp3 of a love poem (I dare say), read by her. It is off the PENNsound page here: PENNsound: Gertrude Stein, and contains the title for this blog post:

A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson (3:46)(3.5MB).

We usually focus on her syntax, and how she shifts us with meaning as we listen to her. But just as with Jabberwocky, the musicality of sounds, even of her voice, makes it a great poem. It is the frosting on the cake, keeping the whole cake moist, and holding all the layers together.

T.S. Eliot wrote his Four Quartets from listening to Beethoven’s music, as he says here to Stephen Spender in 1931 (and I lift the quote from the excellent Katie Mitchell article in the Guardian, A meeting of minds):

“I have the A minor Quartet on the gramophone, and I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

Even though Eliot was taking free verse and advancing it into the confusion with prose poetry (and I mean poetry written in prose, even with line breaks, no matter what you say about cadences and snippets in everyday speech) that we have nowadays, he was very much into composing true free verse, advancements in free verse.

Let us, though, continue on the road of experimentation that, many would assert, led to our current “Language, post-structuralism-influenced, neo-surrealist, post-avant poems.” This brings us to E.E. Cummings’s door (who asked that his name be spelled using the usual capital letters, by the way), who consciously followed Gertrude Stein. Here is a poem, that sounds like it could have been written by a descendant of Stein’s, a son perhaps:

“anyone lived in a pretty how town” by E.E. Cummings

It is nearly a tribute poem to both Gertrude Stein, and C.S Lewis at once. And very musical. On David W. Solomon’s Music Site, we have a composition “based on the rhythms of the poem” here in mp3 format:

Pretty how town.



Think of it more as a bud than a bloom.


Off the subject, but as I delve into mp3’s, I want to set a particular record, an important record, straight about rock and roll, and rock and roll history. The J. Geils Band used to pack halls and stadiums with thousands for several years during the 70’s. They were huge, a party band, as the man says. We did not go see them, to listen to Centerfold, Freeze Frame, or even Love Stinks. Not. Didn’t happen.

I am thankful to a site called Boston for doing a small part in getting the true story out, and putting the false one to bed. Most of us fans were very happy, and even thought it was cool, that the band could hang in the top forty with the best of them late in their career, finally cashing in on their talents. Good for them. But, if you want to know (or if you want to remember) what it was like to be at a Geils concert in the 70’s, I present to you, off the Boston Monkey site, one of their true classics:

Floyds Hotel. Get it crazy tonight.

[Edited in 12/23/06:

It’s up on now:]




  1. It’s all very well to be open-minded regarding experimental, modernist, post-modernist, post-structuralism-influenced, neo-surrealist, post-avant etc. forms of art, including poetry, but how does one determine which are worth the effort of reading/viewing? What if you’re just looking at a canvas with paint splatters? The emperor’s new clothes?

    As Steven Pinker mentions in his book, “The Blank Slate,” I am convinced that much of art, not just poetry, from the 20th century is being made deliberately obtuse in an effort to preserve a sense of superiority. See this blog: Bunghole Spigot for the relevant paragraph.

    With this sense of obfuscation for obfuscation’s sake, the marvelous new vistas of communication we have available today are stymied. So instead of having more good art to appreciate every day, we have to sift through both the doggerel and the super-inscrutable to find the worthwhile gems.

    Comment by Christine Klocek-Lim — June 12, 2006 @ 8:47 pm

  2. Hi Christine,


    I do not think anyone necessarily has to be open minded, or try to determine which post-whathaveyou or neo-whatever poem is worthy. The poems are for those who are already open–and this can be a matter of life long tastes. There are so many different kinds of art that I cannot be open to. Life isn’t long or broad enough. Sure, that could mean I will never listen to what would be my favorite song.

    My assertion is to listen or read for what you like. Above, for instance, I ask that we listen for music, and that then maybe we write more for the music. If someone comes along and says that this that I favor is too obtuse for them. Okay. That’s okay.

    We can have no mandate, though. Thwarting and discouragement is possible, and is probably taking place. But, there will continue to be artists who still do what those post-/neo-X artists do. And they will be sure there are outlets no matter how many or good.

    You say there is a “sense of obfuscation for obfuscation’s sake.” And let’s say there is a set of post-X poems out there, where there is this deliberate obfuscation going on. Some of them may be very fine poems. How can we tell? Look for what we like, like anything else. Paintings I don’t like, I don’t like. And yet I need to walk around viewing them, until I am taken by a painting that strikes me–even if I miss opportunities because I do not know something about what I pass up.

    But isn’t this the case with any art genre. As Frank Wilson made a point to mention in his article on online poetry:

    There was also mention of “Sturgeon’s Law,” named after science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who once said that “90 percent of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90 percent of everything is crud.”

    This is true also of the individual artist. You know as a photographer, that you cannot work with every picture you take.

    Let’s say you are the poet. You were gobsmacked with a powerful musing to do some such word art, to write something, or generate something, neo-X. It is now your art. You are one who is not obfuscating. Some of those who do not appreciate what you are doing, feeling left out, will plunk you in the bucket with those others who are indeed obfuscating for the sake of obfuscation. Okay. It may not feel good, or be right, but okay.

    For instance, no one can say, once they appreciate what he has done, that Jackson Mac Low was obfuscating per se–yet they do. Here is one of his works: He Cannot Have Been Pleased Today to Hear That. There is an explanation of how the poem was derived below the poem.

    There is an explanation of how the poem was derived below the poem. And people accuse him of obfuscation.

    As with anything else, we can skeptically and critically trust editors to bring out the best of whatever writing they bring out in their publications. If we understand that they are not doing this, or cannot do this, we can stop considering them gatekeepers. And even if we appreciate that they are doing a fine job, we can still apply our own tastes and be picky within their magazines. Here are just a few, some more post-Xy than others:

    U B U W E B

    Mad Hatter’s Review


    To enter or read conversation about such poetry, there are blogs out. Here are a few:

    Charles Bernstein’s Web Log

    Lance Olsen & Ted Pelton’s Now What

    Carol Novak’s I am not who I think I am or is it whom?

    Thanks very much.


    Think of it more as a bud than a bloom.

    Comment by Bud Bloom — June 12, 2006 @ 10:58 pm

  3. Bud, thanks for all the excellent links. I have much reading to do, indeed. This one thing that you said struck me, however: “Some of them may be very fine poems. How can we tell? Look for what we like, like anything else.”

    Basically: read what you like and let go of frustration. Life is too short to waste time on fuming. There’s always going to be stuff you hate that others will like, which is normal and necessary. Go write a poem. 🙂

    Comment by Christine Klocek-Lim — June 14, 2006 @ 9:09 pm

  4. Hi Christine,

    It is always a good thing when your resolution is to go write a poem.


    Comment by Bud Bloom — June 16, 2006 @ 12:03 am

  5. Regarding my music based on the e e cummings “anyone lived in a pretty how town” I also sang the words to that music, but I haven’t put it online (not sure about the copyright implications…). If anyone would like to hear it, do visit my site and send me an email.
    Kind regards

    Comment by David Solomons — June 14, 2007 @ 6:20 am

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