Friday, June 1, 2007

Coolidge and Watten - Spots, Forms, Space, Time, and Context

Regarding the question of syntax, I’ve been feeling a bit like a moth locked in a room, bouncing off of a light bulb. Repeatedly hitting the glass, I’ve felt incapable of penetrating into the “energy” of the thing. Each of the essays that we’ve studied this term has been like another light bulb, each one offering a bit more illumination but still, to me, impenetrable. I dart around, examining them trying to find that one spot—-that escape into the realm of what constitutes “good poetry.” Fortunately Clark Coolidge came along and opened the door or I may have spun around in that room forever, frustrated. He reminded me there isn’t a single spot but many spots and that “forms” are always plural.

Coolidge, when describing the “actual world,” points out the arrangement of trees, leaves, and birds. He says, “There seems to be no intelligence behind it but there is an arrangement…[these] places in space being occupied and moving.” Our human brains are always trying to make sense of our place in the ever-changing world so we designate arrangements to everything—even when no “intelligent” arrangement exists. And the more we look the more we see. That’s why it is possible (as Trisha points out) for Aram Saroyan’s one-word poems or Coolidge’s “trilobites” to have syntax just as Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelley have syntax. As the reader (or the poet) we are in charge of assigning syntax. There isn’t just one way, there are many—-spots, forms.

Sometimes syntactical arrangements in language are obvious. Ron Silliman’s book-length poem, Tjanting, for example, is written in the Fibonacci number sequence (the number of sentences in each paragraph equals the number of sentences in the previous two paragraphs). Other times, however, we have to look harder at the arrangements to fit our conception of syntax--ounce code orange. At this point I doubt anyone would argue that Coolidge's poem lacks syntax, and I would go one step further and say that it constitutes good (if not great) poetry. Why? Because, for me, it hits the spots.

Those "moving spaces," when occupied with some resistance help to create poetic syntax. The particular space that Coolidge's ohm affects by "hang[ing] down there" is both struggle and acquiescence. Even though it is resistance, the poem would likely not survive without it. Even though, to some, the words in the poem may seem random, Coolidge says that is impossible, the words are "coming from a place where you are working in your mind." Not only is the poet making the connections in his mind, the reader is making them as well. Whether it "works" or not depends a lot on where your mind is at the time--or, as Samual Beckett says, "find[ing] a form that accommodates the mess..."

All of this agrees nicely with Barrett Watten's idea of syntax depending on context. We each weigh the possible interpretations of something by considering the context in which we find it. Coolidge's trilobite may not have a place in a sonnet by Shakespeare just as a line of Shakespeare would be inappropriate in a Silliman poem. In quoting Robert Smithson, Watten talks about "both the interior and exterior [time and space] to the work." Space, according to Smithson, is the exterior syntax--the physical and cultural place of the work, while time is the interior syntax: "it is structural and psychological and begins with the response to the work in language." I agree with Smithson (and Watten) that stasis is "a hopeful development in art." Does this mean that there isn't movement? No. Much like the paradox in ohm, stasis relies on movement or, as Watten says, "the breaking apart of the spatial order [to] undermine...the authority of the present time." A Coolidge poem written forty years ago feels as fresh to me as many of the poems being written today. It seems to exist outside of space and time--it has its own inherent context.

I guess what I am getting at is that, as a poet, it is up to me to try to create a syntax that can somehow exist outside of Smithson's space and time. The reader will, of course, supply her own subjective context to the work and, if we are both lucky, spots will be hit. As Silliman writes in Tjanting, “Each sentence accounts for its place." I completely agree. Hopefully now I can stop bouncing off of lightbulbs and aim for the moon.

No comments: