Made of the Ceiling a Wall
What has been most useful to me about poetry is its capacity for obliquity. As a prose writer, I have been at pains to compose more clearly and directly. Once tolerant of abstruse or dense passages in my own work, I’ve come to see them most often as evidence of incomplete thinking or bad craftsmanship. I try to repeatedly ask myself what exactly it is I’m trying to say, and then say it. Strip away the oblique; leave a solid sentence behind. Chisel yourself a single good line and a fiction writer as consistently strong as Denis Johnson or Lydia Davis or Wright Morris will begin to seem like a magician.
When I was a child, my father insisted that I learn “Jabberwocky” by heart. All those made-up words and florid rhymes gave me my first inklings that language could be exciting; recitations provided me an initial taste of poetic verse, and Lewis Carroll’s work offered a natural transition to Dada nonsense and James Joyce. Since I first started seeking it out as a high school sophomore, poetry has remained a safe haven for the tangential and inferential, a charmed circle for oblique kinds of meaning making. That’s not to say imprecise. A poem can be oblique and still be absolutely precise. In my daily life, among the mundanities of ordering an espresso and hammering out a business deal for my gallery, I turn to a book of poetry or a single stanza to temporarily lose my way, to loosen syntactical shackles, to experiment with tones and line shapes, to break into another rhythm, to think and feel with an unfamiliar part of my brain, to savor a phrase on my tongue like a lemon drop.
I read poetry the way I listen to improvised music.
It’s not so important to interpret an improvisation as it is to experience it. If I listen to a duet by saxophonist Lotte Anker and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, I let their improvisation work on me, I absorb the music and try to follow the energies of the musicians, the performance’s overall direction, and amalgamations of sound rather than worry over every little possible meaning. When Sonny Rollins solos on “Strode Rode,” I could tell you about the way he works within the form, his proximity to the bar lines, the harmonic choices, the urgency of his playing, and the two-way telepathy he shares with drummer Max Roach — all good stuff — but I would also miss some of the juiciest bits. I think a listener is best served by suspending the conventional desire to have the music tell them something specific in favor of its obliquity. So, too, when I devour Charles Reznikoff, Theodore Roethke, Susan Howe, Sonia Sanchez, Blaise Cendrars, or Nathaniel Mackey, or when I listen to a reading by Tom Raworth or Jayne Cortez. Meaning is more confluence than specificity, more journey than arrival.
If it’s well done, neither an improvisation nor a poem can be paraphrased. It exists at its ideal concentration. It can’t be boiled down. To adequately understand it, you have to experience it at full scale. No abstract; no précis. When, in “Barely, Twombly,” Clark Coolidge writes,
I hadn’t thought, but you couldTap on a sled, a matterThree times removed from waterMade of the ceiling a wallNo one walks any further
I could tell you what I think he means but I don’t need to, because I would be repeating him. If I wanted to tell you about a passage of improvised music, the best I could do is to play a recording of it for you.
I read poetry the way I look at paintings.
Whether they are abstract or figurative, painterly or hard-edged, I am drawn to the jostle between the form of a painting and whatever that form might “say,” be it something literal or poetic. That interaction between the material manifestation and some kind of signification is the place where a painter, or a poet, puts a little skin in the game. Take a painting by Otto Dix, a portrait for instance, which is clearly designed to signify something specific. It might be a condemnation of decadent, petit bourgeois society, but if that were all Dix wanted from the work he could have evoked that in a few descriptive words. Instead, it needed all the green hues and pimply surfaces and craggy lines to achieve its meaning in all fulsomeness.
I view Charline Von Heyl’s paintings as existing on a precious and precarious perch between the representable and the ineffable, her spaces and objects depicted therein vibrating with a certain unanswerable set of questions. What is that? Where is it? What does it relate to? What are its boundaries? How does it relate to its boundaries? How do its parts fit together? Does it resemble anything I already know? Anything I’ve seen before? In that resemblance, is it appearing or is it disintegrating? If I reach for an explanation of the painting, does it exceed my grasp? Where would I expect the picture to resolve and does it resolve there? Or does it dissemble and reanimate elsewhere?
These are the species of questions that poetry has opened up for me, between the representable and the ineffable, where the concrete and the inexplicable rub shoulders, a chance to wonder, to “get it” and maybe even to sense how it works, but not necessarily to understand on any overt level. Maintaining an oblique sense of significance lurking like nine-tenths of an iceberg.
One final thing: a place poems do resolve — in books. I love them. I buy them. Chapbooks, mimeo sheets, handmade paper. Bern Porter and d.a. levy; Burning Deck and Perishable Press. Numbered and signed with font details spelled out lovingly in the colophon.
But the point of the work is to dissolve, not resolve. At the climax of one song, Captain Beefheart sings a line that I’ve always thought of as an ode to the oblique, a paean to the caustic mission of poetry:
God, please fuck my mind for goodMaking love to a vampire with a monkey on my kneeOh fuck that thing, fuck that poem.
John Corbett is a writer and curator based in Chicago. His recent books include Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium (Duke University Press, 2017). He is co-owner of Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery.