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 Park Hong / First Response to Adrian Blevins

Thank you, Adrian, for your corrections. But although you clearly illuminate my misreading of your Berryman analysis, I don’t think you quite understand the general scope of my criticism. Whether or not you think it is his “unraveling syntax” or his “seriousness” that is correlated with his “unraveling mind,” I am more concerned with the correlation itself. As I say in my essay, my concern is that you give a causal relationship between the author’s psychological state with the author’s choice in syntax, as if syntax should serve as a diagnostic tool for the author’s inner life, as if syntax is a “direct mirror of the author’s psyche.” Of course, one can read Berryman anyway they want. But I am using your reading of the poem as a point of departure—to clarify my own point that the poetic sentence need not be a peg to personal experience. Thus I don’t believe in any kind of prescriptive formula where “fractured experience demands a fractured syntax.” Actually, the basis of my argument is how the sentence can have the freedom to be divorced from experience, or at least the kind of experience that is rooted in the biographical inner life of the speaker. Further down, you also critique poets such as Paul Celan because “multitudinous self must sever syntax because its feelings were hurt from being outside the political and cultural network of power. [italics mine]” Here again, you offer a diagnostic reading of the psychological self and syntax which drastically oversimplifies Celan’s poetry.

Another point I would like to linger on is your passing comments on theory. Your argument of theory muffling the process of genius is a criticism I’ve heard many times before. Many poets act as if theory is a pedantic party crasher that has barged in to shut off the lights of poetry’s imagination and to beat lyric down to a tone-deaf discursive exercise. Certainly, there are poets out there who ladle out soporific theoretical sap disguised as verse. But, other poets, though they may seek guidance from theory, do not use theory as their grab bag for inspiration and certainly do not use it as a surrogate for their senses. Rather, many poets, such as some Language Poets, use theory as a mode to question prevalent paradigms in poetry and to find alternative recourse in the manifold ways poetic language can be illuminative. Theory is a means (and one of many means) and not a practice. Besides, historically, poets have always hungrily sought out philosophers and theorists to help them grapple with their own aesthetic dilemmas on realism and imagination. Where would many Modernist poets be without Henri Bergson? Ezra Pound was deeply inspired by philosopher Ernest Fenollosa’s tenets on realism when he formed his ideas on Imagism. And the fingerprints of Imagism, (concision in line, focus on imagery, cutting out rhetorical fat) are still very palpable, maybe too palpable in typical craft suggestions that poets today believe are free of theoretical underpinnings.

As far as splintered syntax being a cliché: I agree with you. Splintering syntax is no longer transgressive. It might have been transgressive during Stein’s time but now it’s just another style. What I take pains to point out in my essay is that I am drawn to the poetry of Taggart and Celan because they are not just poets who reproduce Avant-Garde devices of syntactic play. Theodor Adorno famously said, “History does not merely touch on language, but takes place in it,” a notion that applies to Celan’s work. Celan was aware that language was not a neutral terrain and wove into the tense fabric of his broken sentence a historical, cultural, and political presence. Yes, it’s impossible to detect all of Celan’s neologisms and fragmentations in translated English. But if you read Celan’s body of work (even in translated English), you would be hard pressed to call his poetry redundant. He’s been accused of many things—hermetic, difficult, obscure—but certainly not redundant. John Taggart is also not just interested in formal fragmentations; his interest is in how to energize the broken sentence through music, from Christian spirituals to John Cage. But whether or not you find Taggart’s language surprising is a matter of taste.

Perhaps I should clarify and revise my premise: I’m not interested in the fact that the sentence can be broken. I am interested in what happens after the splinter—how the broken sentence can be recovered. Here, let me use Harryette Mullen as an example. She is a poet who’s very much influenced by poststructuralist theory and syntactic play, but you can hardly say that her poetry is sapped of life. Her collection, Muse and Drudge, is more attenuated to the ears, has more pleasure in music and has more joie de vivre, than much of the inert, talky, free-verse poems that riddle American poetics today. It is a long poem that celebrates the very flexibility of English verse with its inclusion of hip hop, Spanglish, and black slang to illustrate a deeper awareness of the complications of voice and subjectivity. Perhaps the poem remarks on the “multitudinous self” but it’s not due to “hurt feelings,” but rather to celebrate what she terms “visionary heteroglossia.” Again, evidence to this is Mullen’s anecdote of reading Muse and Drudge: “One of the things I enjoy when I 'm reading that poem is . . . you know, the young people will get some things, the older people will get other things, the white people are getting one joke and the black people are getting another joke, and people who speak Spanish are getting some other joke, and the laughter ripples around the room.”

I do think we both share an appreciation in the inventiveness of syntax. But I don’t think it’s a “bad thing” that English is “trap-filled.” Rather, I am echoing my initial trepidation with writing poetry because of a hegemonic value system placed on a certain kind of eloquence that does not allow room for stumbles, hesitations, and spoonerisms, that does not allow room for broken English.

Lastly, I constantly emphasize to my students that the unpredictable breeding ground of one’s imagination is essential in poetry. Of course, imagination is paramount. But it’s short sighted to think that the only ingredients to poetry are your eyes, ears, and a capacious imagination. Genius does not come out of a vacuum. You are writing on top of other poet’s shoulders, you are following a palimpsest of historical models, whether you are aware of it or not.

Originally Published: August 1st, 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...