(February 3, 2010)
Last November’s much anticipated Cage Match at Mount Royal University promised us Christian Bök and Carmine Starnino – poets with opposing views of poetry in general, and each other’s poetry in particular – letting their arguments fly in front of a live studio audience. (You can find the recorded event, courtesy of Kit Dobson, the Match’s moderator, at Vimeo) Though the issue between the two writers was framed in the form of The Avant-Garde vs The Tradition, or Experimentalism vs Mainstream Poetry, the question at the core of their debate as it developed might be unpacked as this: which approach produces poetry that does today what poetry ought to do – show the present to itself as it is, represent the future of poetry as it will be, and offer, implicitly or explicitly, the standards by which any work, past, present or future, is to be judged poetry at all – and, if poetry, poetry worth following.
As is almost always true of such staged debates, much was said. And much was left unspoken. Then we all went to the lobby for refreshments. It might have ended there. But between what was discussed and what was left unsaid that night, in the nature of the audience drawn to two poets whom many regard as antagonists, and from all that led up to the event – including Starnino’s Writer-in-Residency at Mount Royal and the publication of the second edition of Bök’s Eunoia – emerged a wide-ranging, deep and fascinating discussion about the nature of poetry and of the mind that writes it. What follows are the conclusions I’ve come to so far as a participant in a symposium spread out across the offices, hallways, bars, classrooms and various virtual spaces in the community created by the Cage Match itself.
Bök is an apostle of Oulipian thought, a movement founded in the “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle” – “The Workshop of Potential Literature” – “OuLiPo” for short, by mathematician François Le Lionnais and poet Raymond Queneau in 1960. For Oulipianism, the poem is found in its purest state when it is the product of applying a formula to language – either to words or patterns of words themselves, or to the particles out of which words are made: letters, syllables, sounds. The author’s intent to say something, an element of the poem that most poets consider necessary, is actually an obstacle to the poem’s perfection. And Oulipians treat such an intention the way the 20th Century Modernists, frustrated with the grip of rhyme on poetry, wrote poems that avoided it altogether. Purged of intentionality, the Oulipian poem is created in the way that an algorithm generates models for events or structures that would take us, unaided, years of calculations to create – if we could create them at all. Think of those computer-generated images of fractal geometries, or the diagrams of the wholly unexpected movements of the bobs of jointed pendulums set swinging over time. Think of the complex of interconnected equations required to make space flight possible, or models of mutually affecting systems that we can barely grasp like continental ecologies or climate change. Before our apprehension of these things we feel a mixture of awe, humility, and a touch of our own self-worth – awe at what they are, humility at how small we are before them, and pride in those efforts of ours that have earned us a glimpse of them at all. It is in this very sense of using a system that we can describe in order to describe or create a system that we cannot that Oulipianism finds one of its great aesthetic joys. It uses what we can do to take us beyond what we have experienced or can predict. It surprises us because it is built to.
Such a work is Bök’s Eunoia, an exuberance of a book set out in five chapters, each, as titled, most obviously generated as a suite of poems written using only words that contain one of the five vowels – an entire chapter of words with “a” and only “a.” Then another with “e,” and so on. In a sense, each poem becomes both the hero of its defining letter, revelling in its powers, and that defining letter’s prisoner, examining the nature of its own walls. But the restrictions do not end there. Bök’s intellect is larger and hungrier than that, and he places further thematic conditions on the chapters as well. Some of these, such as mentioning a “banquet”, “a prurient debauch,” and “a nautical voyage” he describes in his online piece, “How to Write Eunoia”– others, in a way that reminded me of Robert Zend’s masterpiece Oāb, by focussing each chapter on a particular character with a univocalic name and his or her adventures. There are also concepts that are fun to find as organizing principles in the sections, such as the notion of “from” in “Chapter O.” And even without Bök’s own instruction in “How to Write,” that “Rules are important for this work—so make up lots of them,” I’d have wagered that there are further restrictions, perhaps still known only to him, that propelled the work the way Roget’s Thesaurus is arranged around themes we no longer consider useful yet which kept the task alive with questions for the man engaged in it for years.
One more thought. In the Cage Match, Bök lamented that there was still no epic poem of the moon landing, a defining event for the century. Someone replied that the narrative function of the epic poem had been taken over by both dramatic and documentary film. But if poetry no longer fills the story-telling task of epic (and I think I agree with that someone), a poem, stripped of story-telling detail, can still become a kind of extended hymn to that change in us that the mission to the moon represents: to get the job done, we became creators of a technology that, in turn, we had to take our orders from. Considered as a poem about that relationship between our idea (as that which organizes our work), and our thinking (as that mental labour which brings our idea into the world), I’d argue that Oulipian art – perhaps Eunoia itself – either is that epic, or as close to it as we have yet come.
Starnino joined Bök, with Eunoia, as a Governor-General’s Award nominee for his own most recent collection, This Way Out. Starnino’s poems take up the challenge of forms developed over centuries that continue to inspire poets to meet the excellences of their past practice, connect with contemporary audiences, and pass on the craft to the future. Read anything by Starnino and you know that for him, as Alexander Pope declared in “An Essay on Criticism,” the poem is “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.” Starnino’s work has the weight and feel of the history out of which he writes; he’s writing a poem to say something that needs to be said but that won’t be said unless it is said beautifully. In the traditions out of which Starnino writes, it is possible not only to write to an ideal of beauty, but in defining the poem by a final form – not by the premises of its creation – a sonnet’s rhyme-scheme, a sestina’s end-line vocabulary, a villanelle’s or a pantoum’s repetitions, and so on – it becomes possible for both the public and the poet to measure a poems’ artistic success or failure. Note that this final form exists both logically and historically prior to the particular poem it is the form of. There’s a symmetry in poems that can be identified as belonging to certain prior-existing types because of the way they look when they’re finished: in a sonnet, we can see both what the poet has done and the terms and conditions under which it could be said to have been done well. (I’ll use the word “sonnet” in the rest of this essay the way Bök and Starnino did in the Match – to stand for all such forms, though the argument isn’t limited to sonnets alone.)
Relative to the words it is made of, a sonnet’s structure works in the way a melody conditions a lyric: words and form have to fit each other to make something with properties beyond each of their reaches alone: the number of syllables, the stress count of the line, the words’ distortion to fit the form, or their naturalness relative to their use in common speech, the relationship between their sound and their meaning, all can be examined and weighed by reader and poet alike. As the contemporary formalist Bruce Meyer once wrote to me, “writing in form gives one the sense of writing against something,” a something that, as he says, makes the poet “consider language much more carefully.” The way a ballet or an Olympian performance reveals the beauty of human gesture when the act of moving is subject to the highest scrutiny, the sonnet is a challenge and an ideal. Every one of them offers us a chance to see how well that challenge is met, that ideal fulfilled.
In these poetics, Starnino is one of many contemporary poets of like mind – David Solway, Miriam Waddington, Jeffery Donaldson, to name a few. But the reason for Starnino “fighting out of his corner” in the Cage Match is found in his highly influential literary criticism consistent with his poetic approach, particularly his essay “Vowel Movements” on Eunoia and its apologists. “Vowel Movements” argues against the revolutionary interpretation of Eunoia as a form of poetry that eclipses all that came before it; it rejects the idea (and the avant-garde “proof”) that the sonnet has “been done” and the form exhausted. Further, Starnino argues that while Eunoia and its fellow avant-garde creations are, indeed, independently surprising, in their very lack of purpose beyond being examples of what can be done with words under certain conditions, they collapse, in the end, into repetitions of one another. Whatever significance they have, they all have that same significance. Beyond proving their point, Starnino asks, What?
Oulipian poems become indistinguishable both as the work of particular authors or as particular authors’ better or worse work: for those who want their poetry as if from a machine, the machine-like poem is what they’ve got. In the deliberate absence of qualitative terms of judgment for the work of art, all the avant-garde can admire is its quantity. Indeed, the public praise for Eunoia, and the argument for its importance based on its size alone supports Starnino’s point, even as he himself admires the prodigious labour it took to make the book. But in abandoning a poetic tradition that embraces more than mere novelty, the avant-garde of which Bök is a member gives readers of poetry nothing to judge the very excellence that it wants applauded in itself (a point Starnino reiterated in the Match). But for those who want more from a form of poetry that is supposed to replace the depleted poetic traditions before it (and everything those traditions offered) not only will they not get it, they won’t get a language of judgment through which to know whether what they’ve got is a good example of its kind or poor.
The Cage Match, then, was set up as one between the exponent of poetry’s revolutionary future as the art of concepts vs. a preserver of poetry’s tradition as the art of beautiful expression. It promised to be explosive. But aside from the debate over the public reception, or lack thereof, of the poetry that each poet writes and advocates for, it became pretty clear that in the practical ways in which poets make what they do with language very different from the way we use words in daily life, the two poets were arguing before us about competing variations on a theme: poetry was both created and known not by what it said or did, but by the formal rules that were applied to the language that made it. The difference between the two might almost have boiled down to this: For Bök, the restrictions are applied to the word; for Starnino, to the line. For Bök, the formal conditions of the poem are, so to speak, applied before the poem even has a form by establishing which words can go into it or not; for Starnino, the rules are applied to the process of shaping the poem as the poet refines draft after draft, and then to judging it once it’s done.
This doesn’t mean (as it might be thought) that Bök denies that poems have meaning – just that in his thinking, the poem comes first, the meaning after: it’s there to be used when the time arises. And it arose that night. When he was asked to read a selection from his work to let us hear what it sounded like, knowing that he was going into a debate with the man sitting next to him seen as his work’s strongest public detractor, Bök read a poem from Chapter “I” that said, among other things, “I fit childish insights within rigid limits, writing shtick which might instill priggish misgivings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit-picking criticism which flirts with philistinism … sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplistic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit” (50). That’s a shot across the bow. Further, while Bök found the word “eunoia” and placed it at the head of the book because it was the shortest word in English (imported from the Greek) that used all five vowels once, he also pointed out that “eunoia” meant “beautiful thinking.” It was, he said, Aristotle’s word for the state of mind one needs in order to make friends. He was winning us over. At the book launch for Eunoia’s second edition a month earlier, Bök noted that he’d been vexed to find another, even shorter word: 5 letters, each vowel once, no consonants; it was the name of some kind of tic, I think, and the way Bök mugged his way through it, it sounded like “ewww”. Of course he couldn’t change the book’s title. But between a word that meant “beautiful thinking of the kind we need to make friends” and one that meant “a sort of parasite,” I’d like to think he wouldn’t have.
From This Way Out, Carmine read “Our Butcher” an onomatopoeically-rich piece both in praise and envy of a man who worked with blood and his hands – the poem full of the “ch’s” and “ck’s” of the chopping block (PAGE). It was as much a poem in praise of the material world as it was a piece that showed what effects the tradition could create with consonants – it was a subtle reply. If I were to take the Match and turn it into a fiction on film that I think got closer to its truth, I’d have found a way to have him read his poem “Did You Say Your Prayers?” (PAGE) from his book Credo to you, too. It’s the poem I used to introduce him to my class; it demonstrates the complexities of Starnino’s verse, and it marks more definitively the difference between his poetry and Bök’s:
Did You Say Your Prayers?
I did. Hands clamped, kneeling, I radioed my S.O.S.
into the coldest reaches of my six-year-old cosmos
and waited. They were simple prayers, standard distress
calls. Afterwards, my bed became a listening post.
As the poem progresses, the boy becomes less sure of his faith even as the ways of tallying his devotions become more and more elaborate: the rosary in his hands, the table of requests met and unmet in his head. Eventually, he gives up counting on God, and the poem closes with,
But I’ve begun to miss it, prayer, or
maybe not exactly prayer, mostly just the suspense
of an answer. I like to think those childhood signals
still travel through the deepest space, and if not his absence,
God’s silence the reason I now count these syllables.
Thus the very poem about the loss of a measureable faith becomes the assertion of devotion through the concept of counting. And it’s a poem about messages: the syllables replace the beads, the message to God becomes the message to us. Further, on the page it’s easier to see the mixture of strong and weak syllables made to rhyme with one another. To the ear, it’s harder – when a strong syllable rhymes with a weak one, the rhyme often goes underground, yet still it binds the verses. On first reading, some of my students caught some of the rhyme, but one missed it, hearing the enjambments and off-stress rhymes as prose. Yet the poem is a tight weave of rhymed and half-rhymed line endings. The students weren’t weak readers; there’s just a lot going on in this poem in terms of both content and form, and in finding a way to stay true to its rhyme scheme but not make the rhyme scheme the uppermost experience for the reader, it illustrates a further aspect of Starnino’s craft. As the Roman proverb, ne’er so well express’d as by the first century thinker Quintilian says it, “the perfection of art is to conceal art.”
And then there’s this surprising scheme: one of my students, Jessica Macaulay, taking as strongly as she could the injunction that the first line of the poem teaches you how to read the rest, followed the end of the poem back to the first line, and counted the syllables, as Carmine had. When she hit the phrase “S.O.S.,” she recalled what she’d been taught about Morse Code by her grandfather who’d served in the navy for over 40 years. “S.O.S” sounds like this: dot, dot, dot; space; daash, daash, daash; space; dot, dot, dot – counting the spaces, fourteen beats: almost always the number of syllables Carmine counts out in each line. Using the very pulse of the image in its first line as its own throughout, then, Starnino’s poem takes the place of both childhood’s opening, hopeful prayer for help that it describes, and the closing one that it becomes: the despairing prayer of the disillusioned worshipper who knows that such help will never arrive. Far from being stretched flat by its formality, a poem like this plays out between its intended narrative, and the meanings of the lines themselves, and the structure, in this case, the syllable count and rhyme scheme that informs it. The poem is (at least) three-dimensional: an object created by the mutually-affecting properties of meaning and form in play.
Despite their differences, though, as I mentioned, both Starnino and Bök implicitly agreed to discuss the poem in relation to its rules as if that language captured all that was at stake between them. At least, that’s the way it worked out on stage. In the discussions in the lobby, in offices, in bars afterwards – including further conversations with the main attractions themselves – it was a different story.
But I shouldn’t move to that difference without noting one more thing: Bök and Starnino disagreed about the aesthetics of each other’s work, but they agreed on what they didn’t like in other people’s: to use a phrase that one man coined and the other quoted, it’s poems about “rocks” and “rivers” and “breath.” To cast the net widely, then, they were talking about the Canadian Modern as the legacy of the work (if not, perhaps even the work itself) of Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood, Patrick Lane, and – with that gust of “breath” blown in – perhaps to the work of George Bowering and Fred Wah as well: poems that take their shape and vocabulary from the mixture of the features of the (real or imagined) Canadian landscape and the (real or imagined) lives and reflections of Canadian poets: poems that most of the poets writing in Canada are writing now. Poems of the kind that Starnino and Bök as, between them, poet, critic and teacher, see a lot of. And poems that, they agreed, fail to meet their knock-down criterion for poetry: “Astonish me.” And if Starnino and Bök agree that there is something in the way these poems are thought of or made that causes them to lack that astonishing zip, then it makes sense to look to both of their positions about poetry for methods to correct that deficiency, even if they disagree with each other about what to repair it with.
That’s easy for Eunoia. “Breath” and “river” can’t get in the door. “Rock” is there in “Chapter O,” but never in a setting that surrounds it with the customary trimmings of the Canadian pastoral, or the usual interpretations: three times, it’s “rock”: the music – twice as an adjective (62), once as the verb (67). Once it’s part of the adjective “rockbottom” modifying “gloom” (72). Only in the set-up to Bök‘s puckish take on Basho’s famous poem – thus only in a setting that relates the word “rock” not to nature but to another piece of writing – does “rock” appear to mean “big stone”: “Lots of frogs hop from rock to rock: ‘frog, pond, plop!’” (68). The strategy of Eunoia is to move the poets’ attention away from anything that they wanted to say and onto only what they can say with the words allowed: poets can’t look for the best words to put in the best order to say what they see needing to be said; they must find whatever they can that still fits in the structure of expression – in Eunoia’s case, the sentence – and make whatever sense they can of that.
I admit it worked for me. In support of the launch of the 2nd Edition of Eunoia, Calgary’s FFWD magazine ran a “Eunoia” contest through September. There were two parts: one, a mild Oulipian condition – to write a poem of about 200 words minus one of the vowels; the other, the stronger restriction: write a poem with only one vowel in play. I’d watched Christian’s work from the outside for years but had never tried it; this seemed as good a time as I’d ever have. With some, I confess, concerns about crossing into territory I’d never written in (good concerns for any poet to confront and dispel, I might add), I ended up writing not just one but a series of poems that I called “Roguish Gallery” – short speeches by five of Batman’s villains, each deprived of a vowel (and not happy about it), followed by a monologue by Batman himself (who uses only words that have “a” of his own name). From that series, my poem “Joker (No I)” ended up published in FFWD (21), and I read it as part of Eunoia’s second launch.
I learned two things: One was that by using the trick of removing the I from the Joker’s speech, I was able to manoeuvre the problem of the Joker’s lack of a fixed identity – one of his key features as a literary character – quickly and easily into the poem. I was able to keep both the Clown Prince of Crime’s voice and his self-awaRenéss of his own identity-predicament alive and fun. The other thing I learned was that what Christian is doing in Eunoia can be understood as reaching for that same selflessness that even the most traditional of poets describes as the state of mind necessary for the poem. We don’t do this so much now, but our poetic ancestors who called on the Muse were exporting their egos – and all the language that comes from ego – in order to find the words that could come through them as users of the language, but not from them as personalities, bending language to their own ends.
Here’s how I found that out: After the book launch, Christian, who had introduced me at the event, based on his own knowledge of my work in Toronto, as the purveyor of hockey poetry, came over to my table and thanked me again for my participation. He also pointed out (didn’t ask, just said) that I had written my entries (I’d sent both “Joker” and “Batman”) from my mind alone. He was right. I love the characters sprung from Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s combined creativity; I’ve thought about them for decades and written about them for years. I’d just come back from the San Diego Comic-con that summer having presented a paper there, in part, on Batman’s origin. My mind was full of their language. I had started to write the poems, got stuck, then just wrote out a list of words that I knew applied to the characters, and sorted.
What I hadn’t done was look up more words than I knew. I hadn’t used the Oxford Dictionary, or the internet to find more words than I had at the beginning. I had worked on those poems for several weeks, and still, though they used my vocabulary to its shores, they had stayed on land. Christian knew it. I had given myself only a glimpse of his starting point, and he’d seen through me. He had done the work I hadn’t, scouring the language vaults for words that did more than his own vocabulary could for his poems. He had had to, as he said to me that night, “plug into the world vocabulary” in order to go beyond his own. “And,” he added, “isn’t that the sort of thing that all poets say they need to do?”
One note – and a doubt. I like the result of “Roguish Gallery” They’re pretty good poems; I liked the process of writing them, I like their effects poetically, intellectually, and in terms of the conversations I’ve been able to have as a result. What I found out about Batman and the Joker by making them the themes of two Oulipian poems was bigger than what I went in with. In the act of writing the poems, I forgot both the usual route I take to poems, and the self that I’m usually in touch with when I write. Writing those poems was a bit like being back studying philosophy in the way that I was able to enter the world of ideas and care about nothing but. But I’m not used to looking at my poems, or the poems of others, and being able to give a complete description of why they exist, I mean, without them having some connection to experience that the only words for which – and all the best – are the words of the poem itself. For a while, I’d lost the way I looked for poems in the combination of what I’ve experienced and how I’ve said it. Maybe that’s just me being like the rhymester who can’t write poems without them rhyming when he tries; at first it seems impossible, then it happens, and a new world of writing opens up. Or maybe there’s something truly missing in an approach that denies the poem’s being in its inception “about” anything other than the words used to create it, no matter how compelling it was to embrace such an approach.
For the sonneteer, that “about-ness” is still there, still central. For the accomplished formalist poet and seasoned critic that Starnino is, the problem of “the poetry of rocks and rivers and breath” isn’t one of the author’s intent being present for the poem, it’s the author’s intent being so big it overpowers the language and any freshness it might have. And, oddly, the larger the author’s intended message is in such a poem, and the more deliberately the poet works the words to express some kind of insight or message, the less of a poem the poem becomes. No number of poetry’s traditional and formal trappings will change this. Worse, it’s easy to slide crutch-words like “love” and “soul” into heartfelt poems of almost any form, but formally-structured ones all the more, and these make them sound trite. And that’s the rub: a poem that begins in its author’s sense of what it is about can begin in a difficult-to-express emotion for the poet and still fall flat as a poem in the ears of its audience. No amount of honesty with the inception of the poem will make up for that flatness. This mismatch between poet and audience is a cause of great frustration for both. What the formalist approach offers is a way of both keeping alive the idea that the poem is about something important to its author, and of separating that important something from the judgment whether the poem is a successful work of art or not for its readers. And for its writer, as well. For meeting the formal demands of a poem – particularly when those demands are publicly shared by the community at large and observable in the poem’s published form – also shifts the artist’s attention away from the poem’s origin sentiment and towards the realization of the beauty of its final shape: Not its meaning but its beauty makes the poem the poem it is.
That works for me too. One of my favourite of my own poems is “Water Birth,” the villanelle I wrote about my son’s home birth/water birth in a wading pool inflated and filled, bucket by bucket, in our living room. He emerged from his mother’s body and drifted, still attached to her, silently into my hands under the surface, all the while with his eyes closed, not not breathing because he had never yet taken a breath. It was one of the most moving experiences in my life. Flattened from the birth, his face reminded me of those square-headed stone deities standing the jungles of South America. Maybe I just thought it, maybe I said it out loud, I don’t know, but I knew that what I had to say and find a way to write was the phrase, “like a god.”
But the means of saying that escaped me until I got the line, “With neither language nor a cry, you made me your father,” a riff and an homage to both Tennyson’s line “an infant … with no language but a cry” (a brilliant line since “infant” literally means “having no language”) and Wordsworth’s “the child is father of the man” – lines I’d heard recited by my own father when I was a child and he was teaching me how he loved the poem. The cadence of the line took me out of my own usual cadence; it elevated it so that I wasn’t using the familiar lyric narrative that I usually write my poems in. I heard an echo of “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and though I knew my line was longer than that, and that whatever I rhymed with would have to be softer, feminine, and two-syllabled like “water,” I knew that the villanelle would have to be the form. And perhaps even why it had been that way for Dylan Thomas, too, in writing a poem about his dying father. In it I could write about my overwhelming sentiment but, by confining it within the formality of the villanelle, the poem would have a tonic against over-sentimentality. I’d found why Yeats called for “a cold eye” to be cast “on life, on death” Only with an eye cold to feeling could a poet give the poem everything it needed no matter what the sentiment or experience behind it. And yet this is not an inhuman coldness, because the eye Yeats calls for is also one that does not look away from either the human necessities of death and life as that which must be written of. “Water Birth” was published in The Malahat Review. Editor and poet John Barton told me my villanelle “was subversive.”
One more thought: I’m no formalist, nor do I want to be. I still embrace the idea that the poem is a kind of treatment of both language and experience. I don’t ask the same questions of all my experiences, so I don’t treat them, or my thinking about the best language to express them in, the same way. As Aristotle said, wisdom is treating each thing according to its nature: different natures, different poems, different in both content and form.
Carmine Starnino is an intimate man. Soft-spoken and contemplative. He thinks with you while he’s talking; sometimes he just taps the table gently with his fingers, pausing and looking down as if the answer is just under the table’s surface. Those who give me tips about teaching tell me that people who do that – look down, let the silence fill between you and them, um and ah as they begin to answer your question – are taking stock and then sorting out all the aspects of an idea before they speak – feelings, thoughts, memories. I know Carmine is looking into his inner library as well. He visited my class as part of his Writer-in-Residency at Mount Royal, and, sharing the same kind of up-closeness with them, he talked about the solitude of writing, how a poet has to navigate that solitude in order to do the work. My students loved him for being such an accomplished poet who could share that much of his private self. It made them feel stronger by letting them feel less alone. When I talked with Carmine over beer in the evening a day after the Cage Match, Calgary was frozen shut by a freakish mixture of warm roads, cold air, and snow, and I asked him the sort of question that might have been dangerous to ask. He’d known my work for years and neither reviewed it nor included it in his New Canon, a book that included poems from Christian’s Crystallography. I asked Carmine what he thought of my work. He smiled, looked down, tapped the table, and thought a bit.
He told me that he thought I was one of the oddballs of Canadian poetry, someone difficult to put under a heading. I had the hockey book (that hockey book again), which was one thing, the book about my daughter learning to talk, which was another, and the most recent one about my father and the war. “They’re all very different,” he said. “You’re hard to categorize.” It’s an intriguing answer. It tells me that either I’ve been disciplined enough to work within the philosophy I believe, or I’ve found the philosophy that fits the way I would be working anyway. It also tells me that whatever it is that a poet stands for, whatever thread runs through their work so that, book, by book, by book, there is something individual and particular in the voice, a conviction that binds them, it is still something either I haven’t quite got quite yet, or not created it well enough that others who look for it can see. I have somewhere to go; I still have to figure out what it is in that long parade of verses that becomes “a body of work” – something both Christian and Carmine have – something that doesn’t just show but is my meaning as a poet.
And there’s the word “meaning” again – an ambiguous and difficult word, the word I think of as the unstated topic of the Cage Match itself. Your poetry isn’t just something you produce, it’s something whose qualities stand for who you are, how you sound, and what you believe – even if you believe that who you are has nothing to do with the poems you write. It’s the concept that came out more in the conversations off stage than on. The answer to that is at least part of the reason that, even though Oulipianism and Formalism both provide methods for eliminating those very things that stop the majority of Canadian poetry from astonishing both Bök and Starnino, and I’ve found in each a path to a genuine poem, I haven’t put aside the inheritance of Purdy and Lane, why I haven’t – like so many Canadian poets – stopped writing in the traditions of the Canadian modern. Not only not stopped writing, but not stopped teaching in that tradition as well (a tradition which, it is often said, produces poems that reiterate the kind of sameness you’d expect when human feelings are all alike and the landscape an unrelenting presentation of raw).
And that, too, is what a lot of this discussion is about. Bök and Starnino are the poets they are; they’re not going to change because someone argues that they should be different. Indeed, both poets, like all poets, owe their success to their ability to carry on in spite of it all. Bök made special mention of how many grant-application rejections he received during the composition of Eunoia. To them he happily points out that selling well is the best revenge. Bök also said that he is writing for an audience that does not yet exist: the future, the readers who are waiting a hundred years and more from now. So, too, is Starnino writing for the future, not with a poetry prepared for their tastes in advance, but with a poetry that links their present (his tomorrow) with its own history (his yesterday and today). Yet as much as both poets speak of the future as if that future is simply something that will happen, no artist works that way: to make art is to try to shape the future using the only lever we have: our present work. Poets write their poetry, and some advocate for it. Some write criticism that shapes the discussion. And some teach. And the way you teach poetry is as much bound up in your idea of poetry (art expressed in words) as it is in your idea of the poet as human being expressed in art.
I’ve seen Christian Bök on stage a few times; I’ve had two very animated conversations with him. As much as I know of him, I know him as a public man. He takes up a lot of space in the rooms he’s in – theatres, bars – the distance between the walls doesn’t matter. He’s charming and charismatic, generous but not exaggerated in his praise; quick to express his gratitude. He draws others to him, making each who comes wait while he focuses wholly on the people he’s talking to for the duration of the conversation. Then he moves on. He’s a performer, with a patter of short, witty speeches about his favourite topics. He recounts them quickly and has a ready and rapid-fire laugh. He loves stirring things up. I’ve enjoyed his company and his arguments, but I’m not sure either whether I trust him – I don’t think I’m supposed to. Like other tricksters – Marshall McLuhan, Andy Warhol – part of what I suspect he’s attacking in the philosophical positions he holds is the holding of philosophical positions at all. What matters in a conversation with him is not what he believes, but what I do after hearing what he’s said.
And yet, in one of the after-parties to the Match, and perhaps just to challenge what I so obviously sincerely believed, he took a position and stuck with it in our conversation about reading the nature of the human being as found through the ideal of poetry. He argued that the human mind was nothing more than a complex information machine (although that “nothing more” is everything it could be); ultimately, as artificial intelligence grows more and more sophisticated, and more and more aspects of human thought become replicable or surpassed by computers, less and less will we be able to hold onto as essential and unique to ourselves. Eventually that small pool of the soul will be seen as a mirror creating an image for itself. And just as the computer can out perform us in simple brain-tasks like calculations, so the machine will, with the right programming, be able to write our literature. The only reason it hasn’t happened yet (with the exception of surreal poetry – and here Carmine interjected, “that’s loading the dice: surrealism is meant to sound like a computer could have written it.”), is that we haven’t yet got programming as sophisticated as we need. But it will come. The poet will become the programmer; then, said Christian, laughing, “I’ll write the program and go drink while the machine does my work for me.” I conclude that the only reason then that Bök actually wrote Eunoia was that, at this time, his brain was the most sophisticated machine he had access to, to do so.
Part of me wonders whether the program for a poem would, in the end, look any different from the poem itself, but that will have to wait, and perhaps the answer depends on the state of the program and of the poem when we can test it. But the deeper discussion has to arise from the difference between the machine-mind and the living one. For Bök, as he described it to me that night, machines have two features: they are utterly indifferent to our aims, and thus, they are also completely mischievous: they consistently raise our hopes and earn our trust just before they break down. But if the human mind is nothing more than a machine, then the human being is also an indifferent thing, and all that we relate to as meaningful to us – all that moves us not just intellectually but emotionally, morally, physically – is an illusion that one part of the machine gives to another to keep it working, only, somewhere down the line, to fail. I may say that life means more than that – but, as the Joker himself once said, “That’s the gag.”
Bök’s premise then, is that there is no qualitative difference between the living and the unliving (I just typed that wrong: it said “the loving and the unloving” and I think that might be even better): only different quantitative levels of complexity which includes the features of self-identification and self-reference – and in the moment the popular press tells “scientists call ‘The Singularity,’” we’ll have made even these appear in our contrivances. That position about the nature of the human being before a very powerful one. The story of the artificial man is old in both Greek and Hebrew myth, and somewhere around the middle of the 17th century (at least), with the rise of modern scientific reasoning and our increasingly impressive achievements with clockworks, it fuses with a commitment to philosophical materialism. It’s worth noting that Descartes, in his famous search for a bedrock of meaning for all knowledge, supposes that it’s possible that everyone around him is just a complex automaton. And why not? If we can explain what we see without the use of words like “soul” or “spirit” then these words and the concepts they denote must be let go on the scientific principle that an explanation made up of the fewest observable facts is more likely right than one that needs additional, particularly unobservable, elements to work. The mind-as-machine argument also relies on the limits of our knowledge. If a claim to know the truth of ourselves is based on what we can demonstrate to others, we still don’t know what we are. From all we can observe, we are chemical machines made mostly of carbon and water, filing a vast amount of information within ourselves in a cunning system of meanings. If we reflect these truths within our poetry – which is an art form created through manipulating the symbols of meaning without meaning’s intent – and keep ourselves stimulated and amused, is that so bad?
Is it only sentiment that makes me not want to believe that? Shouldn’t what is right also feel right? Next morning, I visited Carmine in his office, and we talked again about the Match and the continued debate at the party. He was even more thoughtful than before, newspaper clippings and a few books fanned out on the desk. He’d been reading some follow-up reports about the death two days earlier of the 15-month-old baby at Pearson International in a fall from one of the buildings where families go, as I went as a child, to watch the planes take off and land. While the mother was tending her other child, the toddler beside her, the baby had squirmed out of her arms, over the railing, to his death. The baby’s name was Lucca – the same as Carmine’s 14-month-old son back in Montreal. Carmine missed his family. And we both felt both that parent’s sorrow, and that knowledge that each of us has, as all parents do, of the near miss, the fraction of a moment between our children alive and that. And our talk, because of where we were, turned back to writing. Carmine picked up the paper and read aloud the words of the witness to the baby’s fall. He was the janitor at the airport, a parent himself. Distraught, he’d replied to the reporter’s question, “What can anyone say? Shakespeare has no words for this.”
We talked of poetry. “I know,” said Carmine, “that that sentence, coming out of a janitor’s mouth, is part of the avant-garde’s proof that poetry can spring up anywhere, unintentionally, out of ordinary speech. But would you really turn over the writing of the poem about that baby’s death over to a computer?”
I wouldn’t, and Carmine knew it. And for the weeks that followed, I thought that that was the end of it. But I only use the computer like a tricked-out typewriter. I don’t see its electronic workings as central to the poem. And there was a time not so long ago in the history of language that someone deciding to compose a poem on a tablet of wax or a piece of paper with a stylus or a pen instead of composing it using only their imagination or their memory was considered to be stepping away from the heart of true poetry and into the world of cold and mechanical technique. I remember the first time I composed a poem on a typewriter, something I’d never thought I’d do. Then a computer. Indeed, that book of “hockey poetry” Hero of the Play, that, for many, defines my voice as a poet, owes at least part of its language’s ability to mirror the flow of play within the boards to the decision to write it onto a darkened screen and let the computer see line breaks before I did. In that sense I didn’t just allow but demanded some bit of not-me be involved in the creation of my poetry. No, I wouldn’t try to make a poem out of that terrible fall without using a form of composition I believed in, but does that belief that that method shouldn’t go so far as to be created an algorithm on a computer mean that someone composing using that method as their own is using a technique farther from poetry than the ones I use?
No. Yet Carmine’s question still rings true. Because it’s not a question about a machine. It’s a question about meaning. I wouldn’t choose a technique that denies that the poem would be about that child. I wouldn’t deny the meaning that I’d brought to the page because the event had affected me both as deeply as it did and in a way that I wanted to write about. The question for me becomes, Would I write in the mode of a poem that started it in what it meant to me and go from there? Would I tell those new to the art that it was a productive way to write, a way to find the poems they should be writing, even as the poem risks being swallowed by the meaning behind it as you learned the craft?
Yes. For two, related reasons. One is aesthetic – about poetry; the other philosophical – about us. There are ways, as theorist Peter Elbow shows, of refining a person’s writing so that the critiques we make of it push the poem towards the best form of which its author is capable – the form farthest from its author’s ego and closest to its author’s aesthetic sensibility – without forcing the writer to eliminate the poem’s initial meaning. Yet Elbow’s methods, like all successful writing methods, depend upon writers staying the course with their poems, allowing themselves to be immersed in the language that they are working with. And while that love of being immersed in a cluster of words for the sheer pleasure of that immersion alone – a love that I believe that Carmine and Christian (despite his protest) share – a love like the pleasure a potter might have for fingers digging into clay – that love comes to those who keep writing poetry over time, the will to stay immersed for as long as it takes, I think, initially comes from the determination to honour the meaning that urges the poem to light. I say “initially,” but I don’t think it ever leaves, just changes, just gets added to. And we honour that meaning because it is our own meaning brought to others.
And if we are only sets of chemistries? Then everything meaningful is one illusion filed in the domain of another. I haven’t refuted that. Not sure it can be. But I still think there’s something more to us, something that lets us know the difference between being amused, being informed, and being moved. And, to take this line of thinking one step further, it seems to me in a way I don’t quite understand, that culturally we operate on the idea that that which can be explained can no longer be sacred. I do not know why this is so. In many fields, understanding creates more awe than less: when my daughter shows me how animation is made, I’m more impressed by the work. When I try to think about the complex of reasons set out for the extinction of the reptilian dinosaurs that left crocodiles and birds alive, I’m even more amazed at the planet. Is it just a deeply-felt emotion based on an outmoded philosophy that says a human being seen only as a machine is no less meaningful a thing than the human being you’ve thought yourself so far to be? Is it only the sudden beauty between my son’s just-born face under the water and a statue abandoned centuries ago that made me say of him, “like a god”? Or is it something more, not just an image but an insight, a glimpse of something beyond everything we can just see?
This discussion has brought two ideas together that have lived with me as loose ends for years; both of them claimed at one point to be answers to the questions raised here about what we are. Neither worked, yet their power remains. I use them here not as answers but as analogies – logic’s images – that get, indirectly, like poems, at what can’t be proved in the face of the 400 years of reason, first about ideas and objects, then about language. This is the same reason that has been so fertile in creating science, mathematics, and art for the expansion of human possibility, ironically, by stripping away the claims that there is something unquantifiably special and irreducible that makes us human.
It’s easy to blame Descartes, arguably the founder of modern rationalism and author of the premise for The Matrix: what if all the world we experienced, all the thoughts we thought, were illusions placed in us by some evil genius set on our deception – of what could we be certain then? And even though Descartes’ answers, like many founding philosophies – particularly of science – have been left behind by the thinking they set in motion, still, his rallying cry and slogan “I think; therefore, I am” has held on to its power to stand for something, even now. In “I think; therefore, I am,” is the case that all anyone is, is a thing that thinks – a processor of information and its symbols: a machine waiting to be duplicated in silicon and metal if we’re clever enough to do it. But I don’t blame him. Not because all who follow “I think; therefore, I am” don’t hold that view, but because Descartes tried to undo what he had made in his most famous sentence.
“I think; therefore, I am” comes from the Discourse on Method, Descartes’ early work on the problem of his own existence and the possibility, he’ll say of mathematics and science, but I’ll say of meaning as well. In Meditations on First Philosophy, when he approaches the question anew, he does so realizing (as was pointed out to him at the time) (Replies 68), that in using the “therefore” he’s also claiming that the logic of the statement is perfect. And the whole point of his own spiritual, as much as intellectual, meditation is to find a way of knowing what he can count on even if logic is false. And it could be. For if Descartes is going to say that “I think; therefore, I am” is true for him, he’d have to say also that all things that think also exist the same way he does. He’d be stuck with one of the chestnuts of S/F and first-year philosophy exams: “A machine writes, ‘I think.’ Discuss.”
So Descartes looked elsewhere. And talking his way through the abandonment of all logic, he found this to say against the mastermind behind the Matrix-world he created: “deceive me as much as [you] will, [you] can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am something…. [I] have come to the definite conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it” (16). He found that the only certainty was in an immediate understanding – not in reason, but in intuition. He knew that he was in the instant that he said he was to himself. He also knows that that knowledge is knowable only to him. Now, particularly as philosophers of language show – and as was also objected to Descartes himself in his own time – that’s no proof, either. (It doesn’t show that anything persists beyond the words “I am.” Even Descartes that the proof “lasts” only as long as he is thinking about himself (17)).
Nor is it, really, good enough to do what Descartes wants it to: it’s not a firm foundation for a science of objects or mathematics because no one can escape from knowledge that only they can know. What Descartes sees there – what anyone who follows him sees – is only how alone and unprovable our intuition of ourselves really is. In terms drawn from mathematics hundreds of years later, what he’s found is that our own existence, like the principle that makes a system of logic possible but which cannot be proven in that system, is always outside of (or unprovable by) the reasoning we produce. It’s not the philosophical validity (or lack thereof) of “’I am’ is true every time I pronounce it” that appeals to me. It’s the fact that such an idea is a philosophical necessity for the very founder of the system of thought out of which computers and the science of trajectories come.
“’I am, I exist’ is true every time that I pronounce it” isn’t a proof of the self’s existence. It is proof of the conviction that the self is there, a conviction that arises, I’d argue, from the concept of meaning itself. Meaning is a relationship between that which has meaning made of it and that which makes its meaning. For the “I am” to be the maker of meaning, its existence can’t be found or proved by reason or observation, that is, in the same way that we find or prove the things we make meaning out of. Descartes’ “I am,” taken this way, is a demonstration of a need for there to be something on the productive side of meaning. To the question, “Does an I exist that is not the result of any observation or explanation?” the answer is an intuitively certain “Yes.”
But it is only an intuitive “yes,” which means that its certainty is only the certainty an individual has about something only that individual can perceive: it’s a closed circle. And for those who believe that there is no special thing called the self that looks for meaning in the world – and in itself, it’s not convincing argument. By all appearances, what our consciousness does seems to be the result of observable processes. More: computers are getting closer and closer to reproducing them without any need for an independent “self” as part of their construction.
We can’t then prove the existence of a self inside the boundaries of scientific observation. If who you are were observable scientifically, there’d be no argument. And I’m not going to try to prove the existence of a self outside of scientific observation (or the imitation of its functions by computers), either – if that could be proved, again, it would have been done. Maybe the self is a matter of faith. Maybe.
But the problem of a meaningful self for a view that says “all the world’s a machine,” is that it seems to violate the conditions of knowledge if an unobservable self is admitted into an explanation of everything we understand. Again, I can’t prove otherwise, but I’d like to say that there is at least a reasonable way of thinking about the intersection of things scientifically valid with something subjectively certain yet unverifiable to others. To show that this way of thinking is at least possible, I’d like to hold up one last analogy – this one from a thinker who, like Descartes, founded a science that now regards his thought as historical episode, social curiosity, or both: Sigmund Freud who re-built Psychology as a science on the analysis of dreams. I hope I’m not doing violence to his thought through simplifying it and applying it this way, yet I think it is valuable here because what Freud encounters in dealing with dreams themselves is a problem similar to the one I’m considering in confronting a point of view for which the self is a doubt.
Unlike all other objects of study that become scientifically valid, dreams are unobservable by all but the dreamers themselves. Though a more complex principle than it sounds, generally, there can be no science without something that more than one scientist can observe, or a result that can be reproduced – remember “Cold Fusion”? Freud knew it then, so did his detractors, and yet Psychology is still here, even a psychology that continues to count dreams as material to work with. Now no one doubts that dreams exist, certainly Freud and everyone who debated the validity of his interpretation didn’t. Everyone has dreams, so there are billions of them, yet each one can only be seen by its own dreamer alone. The problem isn’t proving dreams, then, but in finding a way to treat something scientifically invalid but universally regarded as real as an object of study.
Freud’s solution to this problem was ingenious: whatever experiences they were to the dreamers – whatever images were seen in sleep as if the dreamer were watching a show or reliving an event, etc, – these weren’t really the dreams at all: these were the experiences that prompted dream-reports, dream stories if you will. And dream-reports, not dreams, were the objects of study. A patient’s report of their dreams was like someone telling their doctor about a pain they felt. Freud says that the key to treating subjective experiences we have during sleep scientifically is to treat the dream “like a symptom” (37).
What was analyzed in the psychoanalytic approach to dreams, then, was the way in which a person’s experience of their dream thoughts led to a story that in turn led to a deeper understanding their thoughts as a whole. As Fredric Weiss says in his essay, the meaning Freud and a patient made out of dream-report was a meaning made for the patient as an individual (62-3): through discussion, you discover what your dream means for you and you alone. For psychoanalysis, as Freud saw it, the dreams you tell someone about when you say “I dreamt such and such last night” are story-telling tools that point to meaning if you look for it in the right way. He even goes so far as to say that what we ordinarily talk about as the dream “is of no importance at all” (164) in the process. What is the subjective experience of a dream? It is an origin that leaves no trace of itself in the things it produces. As far as observation is concerned, it only exists when it is active.
Now I’m not saying Freud is right, or dare say that he would agree with what I’m doing with his way of approaching the problem. What I am saying is that if my interpretation of Freud’s answer to the problem makes any sense, then there is a pattern of thinking in defence not just of meaning but of the self that makes it: we can think about the unobservable through its intersection with the observable things that it makes possible.
One of the things that separates a dream from a pain in the shoulder is that it is logically possible that dreams are “out there” waiting to be experienced by us in the images and senses we feel in our sleep (Freud acknowledges this (3). Indeed, our own and others’ oral traditions tell us that this is exactly what they are: messages from a world that, as most indigenous philosophies take as their first principle, isn’t a dead background to a few special living things, but something completely alive itself. For these traditions, the wonder isn’t how we explain the human self alone in an indifferent universe, but how people can think that trees and animals aren’t selves just like us.) We can think of such dreams as the famous tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it. Does it make a sound? Maybe, maybe not. But it has no meaning unless someone is there in relation to it. So we might think about our selves that way, something beyond our direct or sense-experience making itself known through acts we understand as meaningful. It is a self that, as Descartes put it, must be pronounced. Like the long story of our dreams, it is always momentarily perceived, and incompletely told. And for those of us who write poetry because that is our art, those poems are that self pronouncing itself to us and to others from its private darkness – word by word, dream by dream, over time.
Originally appeared in FreeFall Magazine Volume XX Number 1
Richard Harrison is a multiple-award-winning poet and editor. His six books of poetry include Hero of the Play, which was launched at the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Big Breath of a Wish, poems about his daughter’s acquisition of language. As well as hockey and literature (about which he is currently editing an essay collection, Now is the Winter), Richard also contributes to the growing scholarship on the superhero narrative. With Lee Easton, he is the co-author of The Secret Identity Reader. Richard teaches composition, poetry, fiction, creative writing, and, most recently, a course in comics and graphic novels.
A video of Richard Harrison discussing language and its relationship with poetry: http://vimeo.com/109778094
Bök, Christian, Eunoia. Toronto. Coach House Books, 2001. [Pagination is identical in Eunoia, (“upgraded edition”) 2009.]
__________ “How to Write Eunoia” Web. Jan. 2010.
Cage Match of Canadian Poetry: Christian Bök and Carmine Starnino at Mount Royal University. Web. Jan. 2010.
Descartes, René. Discourse on Method for Reasoning Well and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. (1637) Ian Johnston (Trans). Web. Feb. 2010.
___________. Meditation II: On the Nature of the Human Mind, And That It Is More Easily Known Than the Body. (1641). Elizabeth Haldane & G.R.T. Ross (Trans) Cambridge UP, reprinted in Meditations Of First Philosophy. Whitefish, Mont. Kessinger Publishing. 2004: 15-22.
___________. Second Replies [to the objection to “I think; therefore, I am” “Objections and Replies” Meditations on First Philosophy. John Cottingham (Trans). Cambridge UP. . 1993. 68.
Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP. 1998.
___________. Writing With Power. New York: Oxford UP. 1981.
Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams. (1900). Web. [http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Freud/Dreams/dreams.pdf]. Feb. 2010.
Harrison, Richard. “Joker (No I)” FFWD Weekly, 14.44 (Oct 8-14) 2009. 21.
__________, “Water Birth” Worthy of His Fall. Hamilton: Wolsak and Wynn, 2007: 22.
Macauley, Jessica, Personal Communication. English 2264: Creative Writing. Mount Royal University, Fall, 2009.
Meyer, Bruce. Personal Letter (email). 02/27/2009.
Starnino, Carmine, “Did You Say Your Prayers?” Credo. Montreal/Kingston: McGill- Queen’s University Press. 2000: 3.
__________, “Our Butcher,” This Way Out. Kentville, NS. Gaspereau Press. 2009: 12.
__________, “Vowel Movements,” Lover’s Quarrel: Essays and Reviews. Erin, ON: Porcupine’s Quill. 2004: 129-36.
Weiss, Frederic, “Meaning and Dream Interpretation.” Richard Wolheim (Ed). Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Anchor Books. 1974: 53-69.