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.

Adrian Blevins / Second Response to Cathy Hong

Evidently Cathy Hong has gotten her ire up (as we say down home) because she still thinks I’m saying that a sentence’s syntax is “a direct mirror to the author’s psyche.” Why she continues to choke this chicken I cannot say, for I thought I’d killed it Monday. Nevertheless, to repeat: we know that the “self” in the poem (in any point of view) can’t really be the same “self” that pierces, let us say, the frightened nipple. We know that the so-called “self” that “articulates” a series of versions of some experience or feeling or idea in a poem has to be some kind of construction and even fabrication not only because we know, as Pablo Picasso says, that “art is a lie that tells the truth,” but also because we know, thanks to the evidence of the dog Spot, that the word “dog” is not equal to and not even really all that similar to Spot himself, as the noise of the bark announcing his accident in the living room also somehow confirms. (Even Sharon Olds, whose work is thought of as being overtly autobiographical, calls her own poetry “apparently personal” and “apparently autobiographical.”) We know all of this because we know that the “self” is a fluid multitude and because our experience and long years of practice have taught us that the pressures of the personal, whatever they are, cannot ultimately survive the formal pressures each poem must undergo in order to be a poem rather than a migraine.

Oh, yes, we know that “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person,” as Czeslaw Milosz famously says. So at issue is not whether the real man Tomaž Šalamun, who begins a poem “I see the devil’s head, people, I see his whole body,” actually sees the devil’s head, but the way that imagined construct is able to represent or stand in for certain states of physic anxiety in us. Because we are beset by what we call the inner life or psyche as well as, somehow, a wounded nipple, we seek the voicings in poetry because it is comforting to hear even a construct “articulate” something along the lines of our own experience(s). When the song or the story works—when the music and imagery and, yes, even the rhetoric is apt—we suspend our disbelief, to evoke Coleridge again, because the poem, by overcoming the mechnization at its core, renders questions of actual reality irrelevant.

At issue also is not the insufficiency of language. To concentrate on what the language can’t do or say is to put the wagon wheel on one’s neighbor’s head rather than her mode of transportation. One of the greatest virtues of poetry is how it’s able to use an obviously insufficient medium to, again, fabricate the illusion, if you like, of sufficiency. (As the painter Lucian Freud says, “one of the things that makes you continue and is a stimulant is the difficulty surely.”) Poetry is able to make the top of one’s head feel pretty much blown off because it can move and vibrate despite the inadequacy of language as well as any other inadequacy one might name (such as the perpetually-erring human being and limited time and illness and the dog Spot’s accident in the living room and Wolf Blitzer’s hideous habit of saying “very, very” a million times a day on CNN as well as, far more seriously, the literal fact of having to live in a murderous and murdering world).

So why has Cathy Hong chosen to attack an essay that celebrates all sorts of discord in order to complain about “a certain kind of eloquence that does not allow room for stumbles, hesitations . . . and broken English”? (And how is “if he had a hundred years / & more, weeping, sleeping, / in all them time” not broken?) Is she motivated out of a residual outrage at having to write “confessional gems . . . like Sharon Olds” rather than apply the theories of “Stein and a whole lineage of poets” to poems that must somehow via this method manifest “historical, cultural and political presence”? And what kind of inner life—Good God!—is divorced from experience? How does that work?

Is Cathy Hong articulating a preference for a “severed syntax out of a sense of cultural or political displacement” or is she really interested in “how the broken sentence can be recovered”? If Cathy Hong is really interested in “how the broken sentence can be recovered,” why is she longing for poetry that sanctions “stumbles, hesitations, and spoonerisms”? And how can Cathy Hong turn an indictment of the influence of the broken sentence on current contemporary practice (I say it’s too common to be inventive) into an indictment of Celan’s work itself? Does the indeterminacy of language give our poets a right to turn even the discursive blog entry into an indeterminate babble of prescriptions against “the inert, talky, free-verse poems that riddle American poetics today”? (And how do Hayden Carruth’s “Oh, Maxine, how screwed up everything is” and Frank O Hara’s “Mothers of America / let your kids go to the movies” not also “[celebrate] the very flexibility of English verse”?)

Could the real problem be that certain American poets prefer theory to poetry? Is this why they spend so much time trying to justify terms like “visionary heteroglossia”? Didn’t Pound (that hateful blathering elitist fucker, that Fascist) say to “go in fear of abstractions”? Yes, some “poets have always hungrily sought out philosophers and theorists to help them grapple with their own aesthetic dilemmas on realism and imagination.” More notably, others actually generated their own theories and philosophies. 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? And hasn’t all this focus on theory ultimately lead, as we have seen in the case of the current debate, to more confusion than clarity? I mean, who benefits from terms like “visionary heteroglossia?” The “young people” or the “older people” or the “white people” or the “black people” or the “people who speak Spanish”?

The poets themselves?

Are you kidding me? We are far too alarmed by Tomaž Šalamun’s idea—by his truth—that the devil “licks everything before killing it” to be attracted to a phrase such as this. Besides, the nipple still throbs. We are functioning within the constraints of an inadequate amount of time. Oh, everyone, we have a sinus headache. The dog Spot’s accident in the living room summons our multiple noses and Wolf Blitzer’s hideous habit of saying “very, very” a million times a day has made us realize that our own phrase “murderous and murdering world” applies not only to all the verbal twaddle in the atmosphere, but also, much more ominously, to all the literal blood presently being shed because too many people apparently do not know how, though it’s one of poetry’s jobs to teach them, to think. To feel.

Originally Published: August 2nd, 2006

Adrian Blevins’ The Brass Girl Brouhaha was published by Ausable Press in 2003 and won the 2004 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Blevins is also the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Foundation Award for poetry, the Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction, and a Bright Hill Press chapbook award for The...