In the American poetry of our moment, the most pronounced and widespread development in self-consciousness has been the application of the discovery of the indeterminacy of language. At least that's one way to say it. "The artifice of signification" (another way) has become the primary or secondary subject of many poems. The manifestations of this break with past convention are too many to count, but the new found playground of resulting styles has yielded thousands of new poems: some of semiotic sabotage, some of coy self-referentiality, some of original illumination. Here is the beginning of "A Woman (A.S.)," by Jordan Davis, a poem that monkeys with signification:
The red moon is a banjo
A jinx is a flate rate
I am a dropshot
Arizona is the sunset of a fuckoff
Tonight is the uncompiled code of an iced coffee
A dart is the jimmy of a limousine
My homeland is the dogma of brimming
Turpentine is the Paul McCartney of your letting me know
My lever is tomorrow
A starling is a skinny boy
A drifter is a paragraph...
"A dart is the jimmy of a limousine": if the act of metaphor is conventionally intended to be an illuminating comparison or equation, "A Woman" is a comedy of non-coordination. The veering, hilarious hijacking of the familiar grammatical formula of "likeness" gives us a druglike pleasure of disorientation. In the alleged guise of metaphor-making, the poet handles language as a sheerly plastic material, a play not of sign-selection, but of lexical roulette. Davis's poem finds a formal way to showcase the linguistic errancy which is the pro forma credential of the New poem. Self-conscious? Yes. But inventive, entertaining, and happily unpretentious.
When we meet strangeness, or oddity of manner in this or any poem, we respond first to see if it meets the criteria of entertainment or comprehensibility. Next, we ask if the difficulty of the poem, its divergence from convention, exposes some aspect of experience or of representation for us; does it carry value? Or conversely, does its charm arise only from novelty, opacity, or goofy eccentricity? It is true that, like bridges, different poems are made to bear different kinds of traffic. But even with so called "light" verses, don't these criteria still hold? The Davis poem, if it is to claim our sustained attention, must prove itself to be a pursuit, as well as a whirlygig.
[Tony Hoagland, "Self-Consciousness," Writer's Chronicle 39.4 (February 2007): 18-19.]
what i find both most obvious and yet least curious about hoagland's reading of the jordan davis poem is not his (hoagland's) refusal to take a stand on whether the poem succeeds in "prov[ing] itself to be a pursuit, as well as a whirlygig" -- i think through all his fence-sitting it's pretty clear that while he may like the poem somewhat, find it "inventive, entertaining, and happily unpretentious" and all, he's leaning pretty close to whirlygig rather than pursuit.
no, what i find utterly fascinating is this whole "pursuit" versus "whirlygig" binary that hoagland constructs. and it's at least refreshing to see this done without sounding the alarms about how the teeming hoards of poetic indeterminacy are taking over the playground and ruining poetry as we all know and love it. but it's hoagland's insistence on seeing the davis lines primarily, if not exclusively, as sabotage, monkeying around, hijacking, lexical roulette -- essentially a game not reflecting or worthy of serious consideration or scrutiny -- that is most revealing.
notice how hoagland's oppositions here line up:
- metaphor as equation or likeness -vs- comedy of non-coordination
- conventional use of metaphor -vs- veering, hilarious hijacking of same
- metaphor-making -vs- language sheerly as plastic material
- play of sign-selection -vs- lexical roulette
and perhaps more importantly or globally,
- "valuable" strangeness/oddity -vs- strangeness/oddity for its own sake
i don't think these are particularly wild interpretive leaps or stretches i'm making here, nor do i claim them to be powerfully original or definitive. what they do is point up how the rigidity of hoagland's reading strategies simply cannot contain davis' poem, are impoverished relative to it. he wants a poem that is not just whirlygig or pursuit, playing around or being serious -- but he doesn't seem to give poetry much room or much of a chance to do that, and the rigidity of his categories won't let him. a poem like jordan's will always begin at a disadvantage for hoagland, at a default position of strangeness and oddity, sabotage, whirlygig, monkeying around; from there it "must prove itself to be a pursuit," to nevertheless have value in addition to or despite its strangeness and whirlygiggery.
by contrast, the "normal" poem (whatever that might be) is never subjected to the same tests or scrutiny, never bears the same burden of proof, because its value is self-evident and thus automatically inferred as such. it's inconceivable that hoagland could ask the following questions:
When we meet normality, or familiarity of manner in any poem, we respond first to see if it meets the criteria of entertainment or comprehensibility. Next, we ask if the ease of the poem, its adherence to convention, exposes some aspect of experience or of representation for us; does it carry value? Or conversely, does its charm arise only from conventionality, transparency, or straight-laced conformity?these are utterly unaskable, redundant questions because the value of poetic conventions are never questioned. or put another way, there is no contest of values because certain conventions -- normality, familiarity, comprehensibility, ease, transparency -- are inherently valuable.
simply put, what's normal and conventional possesses intrinsic value in hoagland's world, and what's not doesn't.