Stunning lack of experimentation in American fiction in the past 20 years? John, you’ve been reading The New York Times too much, amigo.
Below is last night’s response to Frank Wilson’s (pictured) call that “More people should chime in.”
From your return e-mail, I see that I knew where some of the conversation was on the web, but now I think I have at least this linked circle’s conversation.
09/10: in Newsday: John Freeman’s Turning readers upside-down
09/18: in his Conversational Reading blog: Scott Esposito’s John Freeman’s Experiments
09/24: here in Books Inq.: your I suppose it’s only fair …
09/26: in his Conversational Reading blog: Scott Esposito’s Huh
10/02: in his The Reading Experience blog: Daniel Greene’s A Safe and Useless Place
10/02: here in Books Inq.: your Daniel Green advances
10/04: in his Dragoncave blog: Art Durkee’s What is “experimentation?”
As one who has been tagged as an experimental poet, as Art Durkee has, I like his use of the word “play.” But, some of the discussion has gotten pretty heavy, even Daniel Green’s, who I kept wanting to add what he would add as I read his entry, making me think I would have nothing to add myself, but then he stopped, leaving a ball to pick up.
The crux resides in where the muse lies, or what has been inspired. If I am inspired to write a regular poem about something to do with love, or death, or the new roof on my house and how that is mystical or a metaphor for living a moment in life somehow, I may choose a sonnet, a villanelle, conversational prose, free verse, whatever form seems to catch the rhythm and language I want to create. Experimentally speaking, thematically it may fail or succeed, and at the level of word choice it may also succeed or fail. But, I will not necessarily advance poetry writing, poetology or poetiatry, and maybe not even my own skill level. It’s a regular old unexperimental poem on that score, other than in its thumbs up or down aspects.
I may, though, get some inspiration to advance form somehow. Here we have the possibility for experiment. Anne Carson is known for her edgy work at the limits of what is poetry and what is not, sometimes answering which prose is poetry and which is not, hybrid stuff. We may look at her work, and unexperimentally choose to write in the forms she has trailblazed for us. Yet, for the most part, in the material I have of Carson’s, within the forms she chooses, she has her themes and such that she weaves in. Her topics are applied to her forms experiments. She’s so good, I imagine she publishes her experimental successes, yet I also imagine her (unscientifically private?) failures.
Another approach is to play with language, in a way that the poet’s musing is in how words will be selected and arranged. There is no inspiration from death, love, or a new roof, nothing mystic–not intentionally written in anyway. What comes of these methods have a lot to do with how we humans as readers try to make sense out of language. I think of the language poets, but also Jackson Mac Low, who did some great experimental work with language and computer models, whose work with Gertrude Stein’s language I have enjoyed.
Musings can come “in between” the thematically inspired and the form inspired. Poems can be written by Google searching a phrase, to use only words that follow in querie results. Which reminds me of a poem that made Best American Poetry one year, pre-written lines that were passed back and forth in Babel Fish from English into French (I think it was) into English into French, and so forth. On that one, again, once the experiment is done, the nifty effect becomes common knowledge.
Again, I like Art’s use of “play” and want to add that we need to watch where the muse lies for a poet, what’s amusing the poet. But, as we know, whatever is amusing the poet does not always succeed. These failures become part of the experiential knowledge we have.
But, experimental poetry should also include when a poet blazes trails thematically. Mark Doty‘s upcoming book “Dog Years” is billed as his writing about the “unsayable”. This may or may not be true, and if it is true, it may not work. If it does not work, then critically speaking, John Freeman may say something similar about Doty’s work, as he did here, in the review that began this good conversation:
Danielewski clearly wants to push the boundaries of the novel even further with his latest, “Only Revolutions,” but he has done it with a smaller, less ambitious story.
And then he may go on, to tell us where he sees it failing, and where it succeeds.