Wednesday, March 07, 2007

on torque

ron seems to have dropped the gauntlet before us "younger" poets again, this time with respect to a quality of writing he first described over 20 years ago as "torque." i posted my understanding of this term over at kasey's blog last week:
i almost always think of torque in terms of twists or turns in normative syntax or grammatical sequence, which one can conceive of as following a kind of trajectory or vector: in its most basic form, subject-verb-object. english sentences quite commonly turn on this structure, and so torque would add twists into common or normative turns of phrase.[...] hence, to use chomsky's famous example, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" -- owing to the fact that it fits seamlessly into normative english syntax -- has far less torque than "Furiously ideas colorless green sleep."
after elaborating his sense of the term at the time and what occasioned him to think of writing in this way -- as well as offering the examples of clark coolidge, leslie scalapino and peter seaton as writers who each offer highly individualized demonstrations of this quality of writing -- ron offers the following assessment:
Ron Sillimantorque, as such, has generally become less important among younger poets. To the great detriment to their poetry. I can’t really think of anybody under the age of, say, 40, whose work is as syntactically marked as distinct as that of Scalapino, Coolidge or Seaton – their writing is unmistakable. In a sense, the disruptiveness that one senses around such work has continued – one sees it in both visual & conceptual poetics.[...] But this is disruption not at the moment of a syntactic turn, but merely at the level of the text as idea. It is not too much to suggest that, in this sense, torque largely has been marginalized. Why, precisely, and what that means are questions we (I) need to be asking now.
now my first instinct was to say this is ridiculous, that torque has hardly been neglected or maginalized by poets of my generation. two periodicals of the early-to-mid 1990s, edited by liz fodaski in new york and darren wershler-henry in toronto, titled themselves torque. in fact, i could scarcely think of a single fortysomething writer -- whose writing has, in any significant measure, found the example of language poetry productive -- who has not also carefully considered the function of torque in their writing. (and there are many.)

but then i had to backtrack and realize that this was missing ron's point. that is, he does not really mean what he says, that torque is not important for us. and indeed a curious thing it would be for someone always insisting on "ambition" and "the new" to insist that none of us explore torque as thoroughly as coolidge or scalapino or silliman. rather, i think his claim is that none of us have done so in as distinctive a fashion as coolidge, or scalapino or seaton.

this ends up being an interesting observation. and again, it may say more about ron than it does about us. if stein, the dadaists and futurists, certain new york school experiments, and language poetry opened up whole new syntactic landscapes, ron would i think always insist on further new discoveries rather than thorough, systematic explorations of those original discoveries. this latter kind of work is left for "minor" poets, or a mere j.s. bach.

it may be true that none of us 40-somethings write in as immediately recognizable and consistant way as certain of ron's peers. but i hardly think this works "to the great detriment to [our] poetry." i hope to offer some examples that will show this in the near future...

1 comment:

mark wallace said...

Tom, I think you're on to something here, seeing in Ron the sort of thing he does all the time, but in a different context. What it comes down to, for him, is that he's looking for poets who torque things in the same (relatively identifiable) way over the course of their poetic ouevres, as opposed to those of us who see torque as a technique to work with, not as a way to make our style unmistakably signatory.

Although I don't expect it to happen, I'd love to see an argument between Ron and P. Inman on this subject--Inman takes the signatory to be almost the fundamental way of succumbing to capitalism (although whether he still succumbs to it is another issue), and Ron takes it as the only possible best thing to do.

It's a funny world.