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Experience, Figuration, the Avant-Garde, My Grouse
Ange writes that,”the fiercest experimental writing… has always been related to experience in some way.” Ange, could you expand on that? It seems to me like a huge statement and I’m not convinced it’s true.
I suppose I’m not sure what you mean by “experience,” exactly. Can it mean experience of vocables, moods, other writing? Or does it mean going to war, changing diapers, and so forth? Can “experience” possibly be “sensation”? Does experience of things like tastes, temperatures, textiles, and the like count as experience?
Also, if fierce writing is related to experience, does that make the writing somehow representative of that experience, or is the writing itself the experience?
I’ve been struggling with an answer to this that doesn’t finally make me an opponent of avant-garde writing as it’s mostly being practiced now. Because while I do believe that the “fiercest” experimental writing has had some thread to experience (and I was thinking of the usual suspects: the Bernadette Mayer of The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, the Alice Notley of Mysteries of Small Houses, the Lyn Hejinian of Oxota…), I think the guiding principle of most experimental work has been to make the text itself a new experience, not an imitation or representation of experience.
I am mostly in agreement with this principle. That is, when I feel a poem is lacking, what it’s usually lacking is any sense that the poet was trying to make a thing, rather than repeat X anecdote or describe Y situation (with broken-up lines).
But I do tire quickly of poets that stray far from any experiential or sensual touchstone. In particular, avant-garde writers abhor figurative speech. The ideal is a spare, rhetorical, discursive language; exemplars of this are Olson, Creeley, Dorn, Whalen, the Language Poets … well, the list goes on and on. But discursive language, even when it starts in experience, so often ends in the head rather than the world. Figurative speech imbricates the self with the world, through the senses.
In his essay, “Reflections on a Viking Prow,” Christopher Middleton offers a defense of figurative speech. He describes the prow of an Oseberg Viking ship at length. Here I truncate:
The figures are carved in low relief, curlings and weavings and interlacing, dragonlike designs. …This figuration is not representational. It is something else, but what? … nowhere does this intricate ornamentation obliterate the woody nature of the wood. You can see the grain. Nowhere, either, does the carving weaken the wood. You see what they mean, the etymologists who derive from the word “cosmos” the word “cosmetic.”
Incredible, that last sentence. It seems as though the great energy expended against ornamentation in language must stem from a great repression.
Middleton goes on to explore his central insight about the carved prow:
The dragons are sea foam formalized into (mythic) animal shapes. … The ship was protected and guided by marine protoforms carved—into symbols—out of the wood whose axe-edge shape cut through the salty matter of the sea. The symbols worked a magical substitition. … The carving which induces the magical substitution has not only a sheltering (or passive, apotropaic) role to play. Its role is transitive too. The carving acts in and upon the sea, cuts into the sea the shape of the human journey. Finally, the carving is a model of order, good energy in good order.
The marvelous discovery that the axe acts upon the prow as the prow acts upon the sea exemplifies, to me, what poetic thinking does with the tools of figuration. And I can’t think of any poet who so moves me with speech (discourse) alone.
I’ll leave you with another poet who spoke of axes and told us to take a chisel to write. Here is Basil Bunting:
#3 from the First Book of Odes
I am agog for foam. Tumultuous come
with teeming sweetness to the bitter shore
tidelong unrinsed and midday parched and numb
with expectation. If the bright sky bore
with endless utterance of a single blue
unphrased, its restless immobility
infects the soul, which must decline into
an anguished and exact sterility
and waste away: then how much more the sea
trembling with alteration must perfect
our loneliness by its hostility.
The dear companionship of its elect
deepens our envy. Its indifference
haunts us to suicide. Strong memories
of sprayblown days exasperate impatience
to brief rebellion and emphasise
the casual impotence we sicken of.
But when mad waves spring, braceletted with foam,
towards us in the angriness of love
crying a strange name, tossing as they come
repeated invitations in the gay
exuberance of unexplained desire,
we can forget the sad splendour and play
at wilfulness until the gods require
renewed inevitable hopeless calm
and the foam dies and we again subside
into our catalepsy, dreaming foam,
while the dry shore awaits another tide.
Here is more analogical poetic thinking: the foam of the sea corresponding to passion, our demons—inner dragons.