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Essay on Poetic Theory

Use This Word in a Sentence: “Experimental” (1998)


Born in 1942 and raised in New York City, Ann Lauterbach lived in London for a number of years after college before returning to New York to work for art galleries and teach. Lauterbach is the author of several collections of poetry, including Vertical, Horizontal (1971), On a Stair (1997), If in Time: Selected Poems 1975–2000, Hum (2005), and Or to Begin Again (2009), and has published a book of prose: The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetic Experience (2005). She has also worked in collaboration with visual artists and with the poet John Ashbery. Lauterbach’s work has earned a MacArthur “genius grant” and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Ingram Merrill Foundation.

Lauterbach’s poetry often engages with the fragmentary nature of language and experience. In an interview from What Is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde by Daniel Kane, Lauterbach explained: “Poetry is often as much about the way language works—as it is ‘about’ a given subject. The meanings which come to a poem are often just at the intersection between these elements.”

In the essay “Use This Word in a Sentence: ‘Experimental,’” Lauterbach, who has been described by reviewers as an experimental poet, discusses the term. She goes to the root of the word “experiment”: experiri, meaning “to try,” which is also the root of “experience,” to understand its implications. Experimenting falls “between promise and fact, between new and approachable, known and unknown, the experimental is always between, like a hinge.” In experiencing this in-between realm, in accepting a nonstatic form, one discovers the permeability of boundaries and is no longer limited by a constructed sense of coherence. She writes: “Those who view form as static and reified are doomed to repetition, historical as well as personal.”

In May 1998, the critic Michael Brenson organized a symposium at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York at which a number of people in the arts were asked to consider certain words. My word was “experimental.” This is a somewhat revised version of that talk. It was published subsequently in By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade (Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2000).

Many years ago I read something by Noam Chomsky in which three disparate words—“Constantinople” was one—that seemed to have nothing in common were brought together in a sentence. Chomsky wanted to show how context and syntax—that is, the structures of linguistic meaning—are as malleable as they are unpredictable.

In the language game called the dictionary, the word path begins at “expenditure,” moves through “expense accounts” and “expensive,” ascends to the rose of “experience,” in all its variants, and then on to the secret garden itself: “experiment.” The two words, “experience” and “experiment” share an etymological root; they are the flora of experiri, to try, and related to periculum, which includes the ideas of both attempt and peril. The path proceeds on, somewhat perilously, to “expert” and then to its final nettlesome destination, “expiate.”

Recently, I was introduced as an “experimental poet.” The adjective was uttered with mild disdain; I felt I was being damned with the faintest of praise. In the world of poetry, to be experimental is sometimes taken to mean you have, as the poet Charles Bernstein has remarked, an aversion to form, rather than an aversion to conformity.

I went to a small progressive school founded on John Dewey’s pragmatism, and now I perceive that the etymological root shared by “experience” and “experiment” formed its pedagogical ground. Put most simply, the idea was that doing something is the best way to truly understand it. This notion was, in turn, the basis of an ethical vision, where individual engagement would extend outward into social, public realms, fueled by a practical curiosity. “Difference” or “otherness,” that is, the unknown, would arouse curiosity rather than fear; problems would elicit a desire to find solutions. In this climate, cultural products, especially works of art, were viewed as essential and necessary; aesthetic experience was linked to a vocabulary of social accountability, response, and change.

Emerson uses the phrase “this new yet unapproachable America.” The spirit of this—the new and the unapproachable—begins to depict the space in which experimentalism exists. It is the gap that Sacvan Bercovitch names when he talks about the American Jeremiad in his book of that title.

But the American Puritan Jeremiad . . . made anxiety its end as well as its means. Crisis was the social norm it sought to inculcate. The very concept of errand, after all, implied a state of unfulfillment. The future, though divinely assured, was never quite there, and New England’s Jeremiahs set out to provide the sense of insecurity that would ensure the outcome. Denouncing or affirming, their vision fed on the distance between promise and fact.

I take this gap between promise and fact to be akin to the one between rhetoric and practice, between the positivist language surrounding the creation of the euro, for example, and the economic competition that that new currency will unleash, approve, and augment. It is the apparently insoluble gap between Israel and Palestine. Between promise and fact, between new and unapproachable, known and unknown, the experimental is always between, like a hinge. The risk, the peril involved is that you may not make it across the suspension; the experiment may fail, but a willingness to risk failure, to make mistakes, seems essential to turning promises into facts.

To risk failure one needs a sense of unfettered play, the play that would allow a failure to become useful for the next attempt, that would, in a sense, recycle the disaster.

Nuclear waste cannot be recycled. Perhaps it is the result of an experiment that should not have been undertaken.

I think perhaps science undertakes cool experiments and art undertakes hot experiments.

By “hot” I mean the kinds of formal discoveries that serve affective or spiritual needs; when the affective space is averted, the result is often experimentation for its own sake, self-conscious and self-referential, the aesthetic equivalent of narcissism. One way to avoid arid experimentalism is for artists to draw their ideas from a variety of sources, not from a single art form and its tradition. The tradition of the new is a dangerous precedent. The tradition of the old can be very useful. Years ago, I went to a young artist’s studio. Just out of art school, he was working with an acrylic, a matte opaque gray mucous color, which he had fashioned into grids. Everyone in those days was making grids. I felt a sense of entrapment and violation, looking at this inert work and listening to the young man natter on and on, giving a critique; he had no idea what the actual effect of his work was. At last I said, “You are working in an exhausted iconography.”

“Comforting art is art that you can make instant judgments about, that confirms your view,” Sister Wendy, talking to Bill Moyers, remarked.

The poet Stacy Doris says she is meeting a lot of young people in their twenties who seem to have an extraordinary amount of knowledge about a lot of things; she takes this to be a result of the information age we are in, the fact that information is so easily accessed, at least by some.

I am interested in the relation between information and knowledge, the ways in which experience and experiment might link them, so that facts are converted into what Gertrude Stein called “useful knowledge.”

We need to be careful not to mistake new technology for new knowledge.

To experiment means you must put what you know at risk to what you do not yet know.

I began to give up a conventional use of syntax, the logic of cause and effect, an assumed relation between subject and object, after my sister Jennifer died. The assumed narrative (she would live on into old age) had been ruptured, and I needed the gap in it to show. As these gaps began to occur, a new sense of isolated wholes, of complete gestures, began to replace old ideas of a constructed, even coerced, coherence. Instead, the figure of a mobile, moving in time and space, its components shifting in perspective and animated by potential contingencies, began to emerge, so that the natural narrativity of language gave way to a more problematic relation between cause and effect.

In this new dispensation, the hinges or places of contact became the most important location of structural relevance, as in music and in some abstract art. This seemed both more true and more natural to me. Prepositions, which show the relation between one thing and another, captured my attention. There are seventeen prepositions in English.

Art is not sufficiently understood as a meaning-making structure which might provide a given culture with nonviolent introductions to alternative modes of thinking about our world, and which, furthermore, might offer forms of redemption, solace, compensation, and critique for individuals that inhabit that world.

As the values of the free market consume the world economy, as entrepreneurship becomes rampant, as mergers beget mergers like rabbits in Paradise, our cultural institutions appear to be weaker and weaker, less and less willing to embrace works that propose or pose questions rather than provide answers.

It is the pressure of experience, the fact of attention to experience, which leads to real—that is, authentic—experimentation; a willingness to adapt to contexts, in order to derive not so much new meanings as new ways of interpreting the unpredictable.

Those who view form as static and reified are doomed to repetition, historical as well as personal. The fragments among which we live are, in my view, cause for celebration rather than lament, an invitation to create new ideas of coherence, where boundaries are malleable and permeable, so that inclusion and exclusion are in unstable flux. The fragment offers a possibility of vitality and variety—multiple perspectives, disparate vocabularies. The fragment might lead to clusters, to molecular structures, collaborations, artifacts, and institutions which retain the curiosity and flexibility of youth without sacrificing the digested experience of maturity, so that generations and genders no longer see themselves as competitive with each other. Such clusters would be deliberate disturbances of classic or traditional categories, including, need I say, traditional and classic vs. innovative or experimental. The best experiments surely make use of, are derived from, the major as well as the minor, the conservative as well as the progressive. History has no use for these distinctions.

As long as we long for lost syntheses, master narratives, complete views, we will be unable to imagine how to shape institutions which can override greed, self-interest, and cruelty, all of which are ready to assert their prerogatives, at the expense of the experimental.

  • Ann Lauterbach, "Use This Word in a Sentence: ‘Experimental’" from The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. Copyright © 2005 by Ann Lauterbach.  Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. For on-line information about other Penguin Group (USA) books and authors, see the Internet website at: http://www.penguin.com
  • Originally Published: May 12th, 2010
  • Poet Ann Lauterbach work has been compared to the poetry of John Ashbery and Barbara Guest. She has published several volumes of poetry, including Many Times, but Then (1979), Before Recollection (1987), Clamor (1991), And for Example (1994), On a Stair (1997), If in Time (2001), Hum (2005) and Or...

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