Can one have a good “ear” for radically disjunctive or "non-absorptive" poetry? This might sound like a perverse question, as experimentalism is often suspicious of formally conservative notions like “ear” and the essentialist values they evoke. Language poetry in particular is in large part predicated on the rejection of the illusion of presence promoted by the privileging of speech and voice.

It’s arguable that at first glance, some Language poetry might seem assimilable to familiar sound-based values. For example, this untitled poem from Ray Di Palma’s Metropolitan Corridor (1992):

Har hear a gander

Harrar and the ram

Har har
the sodium blowed

Hang there
hear the har

Have a gander
hard boned

Corpus two yards
of lard

Hear har a gander

One might assume that this is primarily a poem of sound before sense. The word “hear” is insistent throughout, as is its diminished semi-homonym “har-.” The poem, in fact, appears to direct its reader to do just this, to hear. But this effect depends as much on a visual apprehension of phonemes, of their graphic connectedness and artful suspension in unpunctuated space, as it does on actual intonation. The subtle resonances conjured by a silent reading anticipate and to some extent upstage vocal recitation. It looks like sound, but does it really sound like sound? Or if it does, is that really the point? At the least, we have to acknowledge that the verbal “music” of this poem is second-order music, or meta-music: it refers doggedly to itself, thematizing the poetic function over and above any clear extra-textual referent.

Even so, at the level of sound and phrasing alone, Di Palma’s poem isn’t doing anything terribly disruptive. If we don’t get hung up on its non-referential aspects, we can respond to it in much the same way we would any contemporary lyric poem. But what about work that denies us this comfort zone? Take, for example, this “stanza” from Bruce Andrews’s “Education Helps Me Squirt” (1992):

     What you like is a porous garter, doesn’t it have a face to tear off? Seriousness of purpose gets me confused
each limb carries 6 nests: to-tal opposition
quarantined chili; cash rebate with each Maalox baby imitates bio-genesis—honorary Zulu status
communism arrives on slow boat from China.
Boyfriends & girlfriends purchased in inventory closeout sale, n-yah, n-yah, n-yah!!—perforate the poop—enough nerve. Red nail polish on bald head hope dwindles down, toot my bloodbank
spent the day smothered in oatmeal
Autopsy revealed that Mary Jo Kopechne was wearing no panties;
help retarded children overthrow the government—
who thought size of penis was important?

The language here is arranged as if to create an effect of maximal ugliness at the level of both sound and meaning. The poem is part of I Don’t Have Any Paper, So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism), a book of over three hundred pages consisting entirely of pieces like this one (each around two or three pages long) arranged in alphabetical order by title. Writing like this not only resists traditional poetic values, it fairly defies the reader to formulate any positive formal or ethical system by which the text may be evaluated. It demands to be experienced, that is, under the banner of negativity. And yet, this work is anti-rhythmic and anti-melodic in a consistent and specific way. Its top note is one of semi-grammatical shapelessness, but what reveals itself to attentive reading (and listening) is Andrews’s acutely perceptive ear for the distinctive and sometimes bizarre registers of contemporary American English. This focus is even more pointedly on evidence in his recent project WhDiP, which is constructed around regional dialects of white speech. Because Andrews’s work doesn’t aestheticize these speech registers in familiar ways, readers must go into it with adjusted attitudes, but it draws finally on the same basic kinds of sensitivity to enunciatory detail and nuance as any number of more “traditional” poetic approaches.

One prosodic tendency in the work of Andrews, Language writers generally, and many other experimental poets is a certain cadential swerving and lurching, a distinct way of starting and stopping without leveling out as in the classical period. The individual effect is different in different poets, but the linguistic mechanics, and thus some of the tonal surfaces, have something in common. In my next post, I want to discuss this effect in the context of Ron Silliman’s concept of “torque.”

Originally Published: April 17th, 2013

K. Silem Mohammad is the author of several books of poetry, including Deer Head Nation (2003), A Thousand Devils (2004) Breathalyzer (2008), and The Front (2009). In The Sonnagrams (2009), Mohammad anagrammatizes Shakespeare’s sonnets into all-new English sonnets in iambic pentameter. He is also editor of the poetry magazine Abraham Lincoln and faculty editor...