A few months back, we asked Adrian Blevins and Cathy Park Hong to write about the music of sentences. We published Blevins’ essay “In Praise of the Sentence,” on April 10. Hong had a few things to say about Blevins’ essay in her piece, “How Words Fail,” published on Monday. This week, the two poets have agreed to continue their debate in our Journals.

Cathy Hong / Second Response to Adrian Blevins

Hoo! A lot said. I fear that this blog will degenerate into mudslinging, which is the last thing I want. I won’t be able to respond to everything, especially since right now, in NY, it’s 100 degrees. Record breaker heat wave. Way too hot to think about poetry. A cold, clear lake. That I could think about.

—It puzzles me that whenever a critic looks at canonical poetic practices, the critic is tarred as being pent with outrage or ire (especially if that said critic is a woman or happens to be from some other marginal group). At any rate, my intention is not to attack but to have a discussion. I had more “residual outrage” struggling to open a bottle of ginger ale this morning than writing that essay.

—I don’t want to be a spokesperson for a certain kind of poetry. But in my defense of the poets you dismissed: read their work. Read Harryette Mullen’s Muse and Drudge and you will be surprised how colloquial and jargon free it is. “Visionary heteroglossia” was how she described her poetry but the term itself is nowhere in her poetry. I may add also that “heteroglossia” means a language which embraces diverse tongues. So who, you may ask, does the term benefit? Well, “the old people, and the young people, the black people, the white people, and the Spanish people,” who, based on Mullen’s clear anecdote, did enjoy her poetry. You might be surprised and enjoy her poetry as well.

—At this point, I’m not even going to touch the self button. We have certainly exhausted that topic and so I’m letting this so-called chicken rest.

“How do Hayden Carruth . . . and Frank O Hara . . . not also [celebrate] the very flexibility of English verse”? I don’t think I once mentioned those poets. Am I mistaken? I haven’t read much Carruth so I cannot pass judgment and Frank O’Hara is a poet who I’ve always enjoyed.

“Could the real problem be that certain American poets prefer theory to poetry? . . . But what does a poet reading or writing theory cost American poetry? Does he not risk confusing himself for—let us say—Noam Chomsky? Did Chomsky ever write a great poem? How did I miss it?”

Funny that you say this because I once confused myself for Julia Kristeva! It was awful. I was signing checks and leases under her name until I was arrested for identity theft.

Sorry. A bad joke. It’s very hot. Difficult for me to concentrate. Anyway, without you providing examples, I’m at a loss as to how to respond. These are quite reactive comments and I’m not sure I want to play the opposing theoryhead (Yay Chomsky! Boo Whitman!). But I’m a little confused: are you suggesting, then, that poets should only read poetry because theory is degrading poetry? Isn’t this a little censorial? I doubt reading theory will “cost” American poetry anything (Rising rent, lack of health care, and procrastinating tools like Internet gossip sites—that will act as a worse deterrent). Poets are not only inspired by poetry and the world around them, they are also guided by film, art, philosophy, history, politics, and yes, even theory. (And theory, by the way, is a vague monolith term you understand. It’s kind of like saying “Look what Science has done to American poetry!”)

—I am furthermore surprised that when I mention theory, or certain experimental trends in Contemporary Poetry, it still becomes a polarizing argument. We have more common ground than you think. We both agree that the aesthetic of syntactic fracture is now practiced widely. Sure, syntactic fracture is no longer new, but neither is writing in narrative free verse or villanelles. This shouldn’t be a reason not to “sanction” broken English. (I’m curious, here, about your strange and tad problematic word choice “sanction.”) As I said before, and which I think you agree with based on your defense of your Berryman reading, emotive urgency can be just as articulated through silences and faltering solecisms, as well as through seamless talk.

—I’m also puzzled by your evangelical call to feel. (Was I asleep when we all turned into Cyborgs?). You have beseechingly defended the need to “feel,” or as you say, to feel “the nipple that still throbs” or “the naked thigh upon the horse,” but no one’s arguing with you. If poets read theory, or practice a certain aesthetic, it does not translate to an alienation from their senses. It’s reductive to make such polarizing generalizations. All poets—including Language Poets—trust the primacy of their senses.

But, perhaps the quibble has to do with the huge range of poetic transactions of one’s actual perception. You see, there’s no one authentic way to inscribe feeling. Let’s go back to your “naked thigh upon the horse.” In the 19th century, “naked thigh upon the horse” would have been framed in trochaic meter, with some rhetorical flourishes. In the 20th century, someone like William Carlos Williams would have treated it as the following: “how naked / that thigh / on / that horse / besides the wagon.” Surrealists would have added an owl on the thigh. Maybe a language poet would have written it right justified. You get my point . . . There are varying modes of expression, aided by perception, aided by other poets, by war, by relationships, by conversation, by theory, and what I’m critical of is how certain techniques, and certain approaches, are “sanctioned” as more soundly authentic and more urgent than others.

—The blog dialogue is clearly constructed so that we have some kind of sparring match (and when referring to me in the third person, you’re free to just call me by my first name). But I think we’re recycling old arguments here. I’m also open to the possibilities of language and poetic praxis, including syntactic splinters, broken English, or whatever you want to call it, and I’m open to how language can be energized through music, through crossing genres, through epic declarations, through many forms of narrative . . . So, perhaps we should let down our defenses and agree on that. Now, I’m “feeling” terribly hot right now and would love to “feel” the cold draft of a properly working A.C.

Originally Published: August 3rd, 2006

Cathy Park Hong is the author of Translating Mo'um, (Hanging Loose Press, 2002); Dance Dance Revolution (W.W. Norton, 2007), winner of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize; and Engine Empire (W.W. Norton, 2012). She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the...