When you realize that. . .the Bible lives not by its stories but by its texts
you see how inevitably one wants neither harmony, pictures, stories nor
portraits. You have to do something else to continue.
-- Gertrude Stein
The 'experimental' poetry of Gertrude Stein, Lyn Hejinian, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Cole Swensen undermines our customary notion of 'meaning.' Grammar and syntax are torqued, and our expectations of how narration and syllogy should function are destabilized. Both our understanding of how to read, and our preconceived ideas of what determines significance is disturbed. In order to appreciate and understand what these poets are doing, it is helpful to examine the ways in which we use 'meaning.'
The application of 'meaning' most familiar to us is its practical feature--one we are dependent on in order to function in the world. For example, when I request an airline ticket for the Caribbean, I expect the travel agent to send me a ticket to the Caribbean, not to Columbia or China. Or, in a more urgent case, if I notice a flowerpot careening out of a window directly above the head of a friend as we stroll down 5th Avenue, I want nothing to impede the meaning of the words, 'Watch out!' In both examples, words match their customary significance and the intention of the speaker.
'Meaning' becomes complicated when the words being spoken are not consistent with what they are describing. If Noah, on day thirty-five, peers out the galley window at the unrelenting rain and says, "What a lovely day we're having," the message is entirely different from the 'meaning' of the words. It is in the gap created by the discrepancy between the words and the actual condition of the weather that the listener is able to recognize Noah's sarcasm and understand that Noah is actually frustrated and fed up with the rain.
In poetry there is also room for the reader, like Noah's listener, to deduce 'meaning,' but there is a range of how much scope is provided. Take for example, Jane Kenyon's poem, "Not Writing":
A wasp rises to its papery
The poem is a straightforward description of a wasp and its nest. Meaning becomes complex because there is no direct reference to a wasp in the title or suggestion of writing in the body of the poem. It is up to the reader to deduce or create meaning with seemingly incongruous parts.
nest under the eaves
where it daubs
at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house. (1-6)
Although Kenyon complicates 'meaning', she minimizes the amount of work the reader needs to do in order to find significance. The connection from the last line of the poem, "unable/ to enter its own house," to the title, "Not Writing," sets the reader up to view the poem as an analogy to writer's block, guiding the reader's leap across diverse segments.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Stein's poem, "A Drawing" from Tender Buttons:
The meaning of this is entirely and best to say the
The reader who applies the practical use of 'meaning,' or even one similar to the reading of Kenyon's poem, to Stein's "A Drawing," will be left with questions: The meaning of what?--the drawing, the writing? Is 'mark' being used as a noun or a verb? Is 'it' referring to 'mark' or 'meaning'? What length? What are we between? The gap here becomes the discord between the words and the reader's expectation that the author should be the guide and arbiter, leading the reader to some form of 'meaning' with syntactical clarity. This gap can direct the reader to an awareness of her/his expectations, and an investigation into how the poet uses 'meaning.'
mark, best to say it best to show sudden places, best
to make bitter, best to make the length tall and
nothing broader, anything between the half. (1-4)
A fissure is created when the generic form of 'meaning' is applied to a poem that is operating on an entirely different system of determinacy, but that fissure doesn't necessarily need to be perceived as an act of separation. It could be interpreted as a challenge or invitation to explore new territories in language. Or as Wittgenstein states in Philosophical Investigations, "If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say to jump over the boundary. . ." (#499).
In this paper, I will explore the work of Stein, Hejinian, Waldrop, and Swensen in order to discover what formulation of 'meaning' is particular to each poet. Through close readings and an examination of their poetics, I will inquire into how each poet creates disjunction between words and their significance; and investigate, since 'meaning' in a customary sense is diminished, what techniques, devices or notions are foregrounded to determine unity.
Stein radically threatens the traditional expectations of 'meaning.' It is unclear how nouns and verbs function in her incomplete sentences, in which prepositions, pronouns and articles act independently of nouns, verbs and their modifiers. She repeats words over and over without any apparent logical pattern. We might make some 'sense' out of a phrase but the phrase refuses to make sense in the sentence or paragraph. Yet, it is clear in reading her poetics that she has a fully articulated position; and while listening to her read, one gets the impression that she is entirely aware of 'meaning.'
Stein states in "Portraits and Repetition," referring to her process of writing Tender Buttons: "And so the excitement in me was then that I was to more and more include looking to make it part of listening and talking. . ." (114). In other words, the integration of herself (the excitement) with looking, listening and talking (thinking) in the moment creates the writing. This concept of writing is a radical shift from the notion of writing as describing a person, place or thing. Words are freed from their role as representing the world to being a world. 'Meaning' for Stein is the materiality of words (sound, texture, rhythm, visual shape) molding an experience through the thoughts and feelings of the writer at the moment of transcribing, not through representation or description of the 'real' world. She states that the thing she was looking at had "nothing whatever to do with what any words would do that described that thing" (115).
"Mildred's Umbrella" in Tender Buttons is an example of a poem that emphasizes the material elements of language, rather than description. The sound patterns reverberating in the poem give it a dimensionality which allow it to function in the air as a sound piece as well as visually on the page:
A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a
The three different 'u' sounds in the first and second lines, i.e.: 'cause' (three times), 'curve,' 'loud'/ 'enough,' resonate with the 'u' sound in 'umbrella.' Preceding the word 'loud,' the 'u' sounds diminish and the vowel 'a' dominates the next line and a half, i.e.: 'clash,' 'and,' 'an,' 'extra' (twice), 'wagon,' 'sac,' 'small,' and 'established,' phonetically mimicking the last letter in 'umbrella.' An acoustic shape is displayed through echoing the first and last letters of 'umbrella.' Congruently, the full sounds of 'u' and 'a' mimic the expansive quality of an open umbrella. In lines, 3 and 4 the 'i' is introduced for the first time and is repeated four times, 'established,' 'cunning,' 'this' and 'ribbon.' The short sound and visually narrow quality of 'i' intensifies with each word, simulating the action of an open umbrella in the process of closing. In the last word, 'restitution,' the short sounds of 'e' and 'i' and the tight quality of 't,' mimic, through sound, the completely closed umbrella. The last line, "a loss a great loss a restitution," also phonetically reflects the action of an open umbrella closing, with the open sound of 'o' in 'loss' juxtaposed with the closed sounds of 'i' and 'e' in 'restitution.'
cause and extra a loud clash and an extra wagon, a
sign of extra, a sac a small sac and an established
color and cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this
means a loss a great loss a restitution. (1-5)
The manipulation of sound in Stein's work expands her poems into a third dimension--the physical realm. It is as if Stein is working with clay, molding and sculpting her moment-to-moment experience with sound and visual shape, "making an object of the poem" (Oppen). Stein works against the grain of normative language and defies expectations of representation, description or narration. If the reader views Stein's work through the lens of traditional prose, there is no meaning, but if she/he views her work through the framework in which Stein intended, the writing comes alive with sound and has a density and a momentum of its own.
Another way Stein instills aliveness into her writing is through her democratization of words. She feels that the more functions a word has in a sentence, the more alive it is. She values verbs, adverbs, adjectives, articles, pronouns, conjunctions and prepositions because of their capacity to be used in a variety of ways, and dislikes nouns because of their singular function--naming things. For example, the sentence in "A Seltzer Bottle": "Any neglect of many particles to be a cracking, any/ neglect of this makes around it what is lead in color/ and certainly discolor in silver" (Tender Buttons 16), 'neglect' could function as a noun or a verb, and the article before 'cracking' suggests that it is functioning as a noun, but 'a cracking' could be read as a verb (e.g.: the villagers went a-dancing). 'It' is ambiguous because what it is referring to is unclear--'particles' or the first 'neglect' (noun).
Ambiguity arises from allowing words to have multiple grammatical functions in one sentence and disrupts the concept of syllogy and proposition--logical thought, leading the reader to one central idea or theme. In the place of ideational clarity there is room for an abundance of possible 'meanings.' For example in "Roast Potatoes": "Roast potatoes for," "roast" could be an imperative, making the line an order to a cook, e.g. Roast the potatoes for dinner (51). Or it could be an adjective describing 'potato,' and 'for' could be heard as four, meaning: There are four roasted potatoes on the table. There is also a pun on 'four'--the French word for 'oven,' which amplifies the associations to 'roasted.' The full sounds of 'o' and 'a' give the line a sense of wholeness reflecting the nutritionally healthy nature of potatoes and the 'r' at the beginning and end of the line adds to this sense of wholesomeness in a syntactically incomplete sentence. The three words making up the poem have, potentially, pages of possible meanings. Stein's use of multiple meanings is consistent with her democratic notion that all parts of language--preposition, conjunctions, adverbs, verbs, adjectives, and nouns-- have equal power in a sentence. When there is one meaning, the author has knowledge and power, guiding the reader. But when there are many possible 'meanings' the reader is able to use his/her imagination to steer 'meaning', taking the reader out of a passive role, democratizing the relationship between author and reader.
In a way, Stein is writing a playful manifesto where she develops a revolutionary form of writing, rather than composing didactic statements about the wrongs of normative language. Her purpose is to free language from its transparent condition, describing the 'real' world. She desires to vitalize the written word by emphasizing its physicality and materiality through the sounds and texture of words.
Stein uses a considerable amount of repetition in her work. Using the same word or phrase over and over could be perceived as undermining determinacy because it prevents a coherent build-up of thought and 'meaning.' Stein asserts that she does not use repetition, but rather a different emphasis or insistence. She believes that it is humanly impossible not to have a different accent, tone, or rhythm when repeating a word or phrase. She compares her concept of repetition with the quick movement of frames in a film. Each frame has a portion of the previous frame as well as new material, creating a constant forward motion. Individually, each frame will look similar to the next (repetition) but viewed through a projector, a single image in motion is revealed on the screen. Seen in this light, the fragmented quality of repeated words in "A Piece of Coffee," can be viewed as a cohesive, meaningful whole:
It is light enough
Like a filmstrip, Stein borrows a word or phrase from the previous line, and adds new information to the preceding sentence. 'It' from the first sentence is used in the second. 'Nicely' in the second sentence is repeated in the third. 'Very' in the third sentence is repeated in the fourth. This pattern continues through to the end of the poem. The overlapping of sounds conveys a sense of movement, a rolling or wafting sensation like curtains billowing out a window. Although there is no direct reference to window and curtains, the nouns 'silk,' 'cotton,' 'ribbon,' 'morning' and 'light' in the previous paragraph coupled with the sense of movement in the last paragraph subtly implies a possible 'meaning' through repetition and rhythm. The poem does not describe a window, i.e.: the chiffon curtains swayed to and fro against the yellow window frame; instead we feel movement through a buildup of words repeating and overlapping. The repeated words and phrases function as frames in a film strip; splicing the frames or sentence fragments together as we read is comparable to a projector feeding the film strip across the lens--the reader, like the movie viewer, sees one continuous movement. For Stein, 'meaning' is not the depiction of a 'thing' in the world but the materiality of words creating a physical experience. Stein states in Useful Knowledge:
in that. It has that shape nicely. Very nicely may
not be exaggerating. Very strongly may be
sincerely fainting may be strangely flattering. May
not be strange in everything. May not be strange to. (30-34)
Reading. Is reading painful. When one has not the habit of reading reading is not painful. One can read hands. One can not compare that with reading a book. Either the one or the other is useful and both are so pleasing to ear and eye. (13)
In other words, if one breaks away from the habit of reading in the way one is trained -- words used transparently, reflective of the world -- and comprehends the 'meaning' of words as one would an object (a hand), language enters the physical world through sight and sound.
In the same way that Stein aspires to enliven language -- retrieve it from its historically habitual patterns that fixate on representation, Lyn Hejinian desires to create a language that is alive with the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in life. For her, the lack of a single meaning and the absence of a bridge to guide the reader from one word or phrase to the other is what makes language active, a dynamic force. The variety in possible 'meanings' prevents language from being "in a state of rest" (Hejinian, "Rejection of Closure" 623).
Unlike Stein, Hejinian uses syntax in a traditional manner. While Stein torques 'meaning' below the level of the sentence (between words), Hejinian torques 'meaning' above the level of the sentence (Silliman 90). She splices disparate phrases together, creating seemingly nonsensical or meaningless sentences with the intention of expanding meaning into multiple possibilities. Language, according to Hejinian, inherently lacks an ability to express the scope of human experience, and that inadequacy drives the poet to find ways to come closer to the "overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of the world" ("Rejection of Closure" 623). She aspires to close the gap between experience and how experience is expressed in language. Hejinian states: "How rarely one follows a thought through to its 'conclusions.' How infrequently one comes to the end of a thought" ("Variation" 504). In other words, one rarely thinks in the syllogistic manner in which we are taught to write, i.e.: topic and supporting sentences followed by a conclusion. One way she endeavors to close this gap between experience and language is by widening the gap between sentences or "discrete intact units" so that the "reader must overlap the end stop, the period, and cover the distance to the next sentence" ("Rejection of Closure" 621). She quotes Keats, "Do not the lovers of poetry like to have a little region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second reading. . ." (621).
Hejinian acknowledges that her method of splicing seemingly unrelated fragments and sentences together could lead to "sentence-rubble . . . on a waste heap," without some method of unification ("Rejection of Closure" 620). In a close reading of the first two stanzas of "REDO," I have identified a few linguistic devices in an attempt to discover how 'meaning' is employed:
In both stanzas, the structures are parallel: subject, verb, prepositional phrase, except for the second sentence, "Sparrows," and the fourth (subordinate/dependent clause). This alteration in sentence structure dislodges a sense of flow, mimicking the 'meaning' of the verb, 'jerks.' In the first stanza, the predominate 'e,' 'o,' and 's' sounds lighten the stanza phonetically and support the image of 'wind' and 'sparrows.' The dominance of vowels in the sentence is contextually supported by the mention of the word 'vowel.' And visually the 'o's lighten the stanza by creating more space--more white between the black lines. The 'o's in the first stanza connect with the 'o' in the title and add to the sense of movement in the poem -- as if the poem might roll off the page.
a sonnet to the consonants.
Sparrows. As a wind
blows over the twigs of a rough nest
entered by a bird that impales
a vowel on its beak.
When unable to think of two things
unless we think twice, the rower
in the water jerks to travel. Her autobiography
is ninety percent picaresque. (1-10)
The forceful, hard sounds of ' k,' 't,' 'j' and 'r' in stanza two, reflect connotations associated to 'impales' and 'jerks,' and phonetically echo the tight or fixed characteristics of closed writing. Lines with a significant number of 'o's' contrast words such as 'wind,' 'bird,' 'impales,' 'think' (twice), 'things,' 'twice' and 'twigs.' This dissimilarity also addresses the relationship between open and closed forms of writing -- 'o's representing the open, and the 'i's, giving the line a tighter, narrower appearance, representing the closed form.
The inspection of linguistic devices in the previous close reading pays close attention to the materiality of words, their sound, texture, and shape. The outcome of this examination reveals a pattern and narrows the range of possible 'meanings,' creating a lens though which one can view the poem--a statement about open and closed texts.
The following interpretation of " REDO" comes from viewing the poem through a lens fashioned by dissecting the poem's lexical structures. But the lens is a product of my participation and interaction with the material aspects of the text--it is partial, there are many possible readings. In her essay, "The Rejection of Closure" Hejinian states: "Closed text is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity" (619). Hejinian in "REDO" disturbs the notion of singularity, all elements work toward multiplicity.
In the first line of "REDO," "Agreement swerves/ a sonnet to the consonant," "agreement" functions as the confirming element in her statement regarding closed texts and since the consonants phonetically (the hard/tight sounds of k, t, j, r) and visually represent the closed nature of writing, one could interpret lines 1 and 2 as, confirmation of a single reading, directing a sonnet (poem) to closure. The third line, "Sparrow. As wind," refers to the freedom associated with open text (open sound of 'a' and 'o', the 's' sound mimicking the wind). "Blows over the twigs of a rough nest," is reflective of the dynamic relationship between open and closed text that she speaks of in her essay, where form is active, even generative. 'Rough' represents form because of the uncomfortable feeling associated with being contained, and 'nest' refers to a container as well as birth and generation. The wind, implying openness, blows against the form of a nest and is "entered by a bird that impales a vowel on its beak." The violence implied by the word 'impales' reflects the necessary cutting or editing required in writing and generation is implied through the sexually connotative phrase 'entered by.' The fact that the bird impales the vowel with its beak is also significant because another aspect of language is being revealed (born)--speech.
Line 7, "when unable to think of two things/unless we think twice, the rower/in water jerks to travel," refers to the difficulty one encounters when trying to find meaning in two unrelated, spliced sentences; the reader 'jerks.' 'Picaresque' in line 10, means a rascal, sharp-witted vagabonds and their roguish adventures. Possibly she is suggesting that language, like the picaresques, is adventurous, full of surprises and jerks (verb), not an even coherent flow of well thought out, organized ideas. The picaresque is also representative of her notion that language is: "the conjunction of form with radical openness. . .[creating]. . . a flowering focus on a distinct infinity." The picaresque, a human being (form), in conjunction with her/his radically adventurous nature (open) is continually creating new (flowering) episodes in life.
By splicing disparate sentences or phrases together, Hejinian creates a multitude of possible 'meanings,' inviting the reader to discover possible significances through active participation in the creation of the poem. Through the process of paying close attention to poetic devices, i.e.: sound and shape of words on the page, a possible 'meaning' is unraveled. This process mimics for the reader the "experience of vastness and uncertainty" (623). Rarely in life do we find signposts telling us what will happen next in our lives, rather we live in a sea of ambiguity and uncertainty, and through our participation in the world, we find patterns or threads that when followed, can lead us, moment-to-moment, to new awarnesses.
The prose poetry of Rosmarie Waldrop also yokes seemingly unrelated phrases together, producing a wide range of ' meanings' and undermines the lineal development one expects from fictional prose--narration. To illustrate this, I have excerpted a paragraph from Ellen Gilchrist's short story, "Adoration":
It was Christmas in Atlanta and Rhoda was sick every day. She was so sick she could hardly go to work. She would get better, then worse. It couldn't have happened at a more inconvenient time because she had just been promoted to the shopping service at J.P. Allen's Department Store. She ran up and down the stairs in a red dress buying things for people to give to other people. She ran up and down and talked on the phone to rich ladies about their shopping problems. (57)
What grabs the reader's attention is the protagonist's situation. We become curious. Will she recover from her illness in time to fulfill her job responsibilities? What events brought her to this situation? We are grounded in place and time, i.e.: Christmas in Atlanta. We have a name by which to identify the character and a description of what she wears to work. Essentially, the reader is securely fixed in a contained, imaginary world and the questions that arise pertain to what will happen, or the plot.
Compare Gilchrist's paragraph with Waldrop's prose poem, #12 in "Lawn of Excluded Middle":
I worried about the gap between expression and intent, afraid
Waldrop is in effect doing what a poem with line breaks does: she cultivates leaps of thought through the manipulation of line breaks, but splices the fragments together (Silliman 89-90), giving the illusion there will be meaning similar to narrative prose. The effect of this incongruity between what the poem appears to be and what it is actually doing, jars and interferes with preconceived notions, creating a gap between words and what the reader expects to find, i.e: character development, plot, description. To heighten the illusion of narration, Waldrop, at the beginning of each sentence, inserts syntactical units to intimate that logical thought will follow. For example, "I worried about. . . Sincerity is no help . . . Far better to cultivate. . ." But logical thought is not sustained throughout the sentence: " I worried about the gap between expression and intent, afraid the world might see a fluorescent advertisement where I meant to show a face."
the world might see a fluorescent advertisement where I meant
to show a face. Sincerity is no help once we admit to the lies we
tell on nocturnal occasions, even in the solitude of our own
heart, wishcraft slanting the naked figure from need to seduce to
fear of possession. Far better to cultivate the gap itself with its
high grass for privacy and reference gone astray. Never mind
that it is not philosophy, but raw electrons jumping from orbit to
orbit to ready the pit for the orchestra, scrap meanings
amplifying the succession of green perspectives, moist fissures,
spasms on the lips. (1-11)
As Stein's exploration of grammar and syntax is revolutionary, Waldrop's writing is revolutionary in regards to the paragraph -- confronting the reader with his/her ingrained patterns of reading and writing narration. As in reading Stein's poems, it is better to avoid expecting Waldrop's prose poems to make 'sense' in a lineal fashion. Multiple readings of the same poem evades a lineal reading and expands awareness to include sensory perceptivity, where one may begin to have glimpses of recognition akin to the sensation of coming across a pocket of warm water while swimming or seeing the sky light up from a bolt of lightening. In this way, the poem stretches the notion of 'meaning' by giving the reader roadways into comprehension through the senses.
Ron Silliman, in reference to the prose poem, states that "[The] primary syllogistic movement is between the preceding and following sentences" (The New Sentence 91). This suggests that comprehension or 'meaning' is found through a sentence's relationship to the sentences surrounding it rather than from all sentences in the paragraph working together to create a cohesive whole, as in the example from Gilchrist's story. Silliman's notion of a sentence-to-sentence relationship is evident in Waldrop's prose poem #12. Each line presents the reader with a new perspective on the previous line, helping him/her to maintain a wide focus, as opposed to narrowing the possibilities to a singular focus. The first sentence, "I worry about the gap between expression and intent," indicates a possible topic -- the visible or exterior versus the interior. "Fluorescent advertisement" and 'face' conveys an image, and 'lies' allows one to consider another facet of the interior/exterior. In the next two phrases ". . .even in the solitude of our own heart, wishcraft slanting the naked figure from need to seduce to fear of possession," create a jolt from the odd use of the noun 'wishcraft' and the verb 'slanting' -- replicating an experience of the gap she speaks of. "Raw electrons. . .green perspectives. . .moist fissures," enhances the sense of being jolted with the visual imagery and energetic sounds of 's,' 't' and 'c' in 'electrons,' 'perspectives,' 'moist' and 'fissures.' The last word, 'lips,' communicates an entirely new view on the idea of' 'gap,' with the image of a mouth--lips parted, changing the reading of the first line. One senses this process could continue for a long time--new 'meanings' and associations spiraling from the end of the poem to the beginning--new 'meanings' without new words.
The prose poems in, "Lawn of Excluded Middle," are circumspect and convoluted in nature and defy the thematic evolution one associates with narration. They encourage a recycling back into the poem where new 'meanings' develop through associations from previous readings, instead of a forward, paragraph-to-paragraph movement where resolution of plot is paramount.
Cycling through the poem many times permits the reader to build upon insights and perceptions, gaining more familiarity and detail. After a few readings, Waldrop's emphasis on the word 'gap' becomes apparent. 'Gap' occurs twice and echoes two different 'a' sounds heard throughout the poem in the words, 'face,' 'naked,' 'grass', 'astray,' 'scrap,' 'amplifying' and 'spasm.' And words such as 'raw,' 'pit,' 'lips,' rhythmically mimic the three-letter word. The repetition of 'gap' and its sound and rhythm stresses the word's importance and reveals a thread running through the poem. In the first sentence, Waldrop implies that there is a gap between what she feels psychologically and how that feeling is being expressed in the world. The following phrase, "Sincerity is no help once we admit to the lies we tell on nocturnal occasions," intimates that being honest does not help to diminish the gap between interior and exterior expression once we have acknowledged the dark side of our personality. ("Wishcraft," sounding like witchcraft refers back to 'nocturnal occasions.') The phrase, "wishcraft slanting the naked figure from need to seduce to fear of possession," implies that wishing or self-control, like sincerity, is no help in eliminating the gap because it slants or diverts the vulnerable self from a healthy sexual connection to another human being to the fear of being possessed by someone. The third and fourth sentences shift from referring to the human condition to issues concerning writing but the word 'gap' remains, functioning as a bridge between diverse subjects. The meaning of, "Far better to cultivate the gap itself with its high grass for privacy and reference gone astray," can be interpreted as: It is better to cultivate the gap rather than worry about words and their significance because there is room ('privacy') for meaning ('reference') to venture. "Never mind that it is not philosophy," implies that it is not logical analysis (philosophy) of the principles of the universe but the universe itself -- "raw electrons jumping from orbit to orbit [that prepares] the pit for" the performance or reading. The next phrase, "scrap meanings amplifying the succession of green perspectives, moist fissures," suggests that in the gap between fragmented phrases is fertile ground for growing lush new points of view. The last phrase, "spasms on the lips," connects lines referring to writing with lines referring to the human body ('naked figure' in the second sentence, 'face,' in the first sentence), implying that language, like the human condition, is active, vital, generative and unpredictable. Waldrop links sentences that are ideationally disparate with the word 'gap,' which enables her to establish continuity without narration or explicitly stating how they are related.
The structure of #12 is mimetic of the content. The fragmentation of ideas and a non-lineal, circuitous cycling or leaping from the end of the poem back to the beginning is reflexive of the gap she mentions in the poem. 'Meaning' in "Lawn of Excluded Middle" does not reveal itself through a horizontal axis, as one reads from page to page in a novel accumulating more information regarding the protagonist and his/her adventures, but by spiraling many times through each poem, eliminating a beginning or end because new associations are created at each reading, altering the previous impression of the first line--giving the reader a new perspective with which to focus the poem.
Like Waldrop, Cole Swensen in her nine poem series, "Thought Experiment," does not build content from one page to the next, nor does she follow through to a resolution or 'meaning' that can be summed up in a few linesócompare the Odyssey, for example, an epic poem about the adventures of a young man as he maneuvers and fights to regain his country. "Thought Experiment" is not reductive. Instead, the poems expand, magnify and develop, creating multiple meanings within the limits of the original framework; "as an unresolvable motion, it is an eternal becoming" (Swenson, "Against the Limits of Language" 633). In her essay, "Against the Limits of Language: The Geometries of Anne-Marie Albiach and Susan Howe," Swensen compares linguistic meaning to Brownian Motion, "the erratic motion traced by microscopic particles in suspension" (632). While the magnification increases, infinitely unfolding more and more details, the original line remains consistent and finite. One can sense the concept of Brownian Motion working in "Thought Experiment." Words such as 'train,' 'twin,' 'beauty,' 'light,' 'world,' and 'face' are repeated throughout the series, and Einstein or Wittgenstein are mentioned in four of the nine poems. While familiar words sustain a relationship with other poems in the series, the tone and subject matter differ greatly (infinite). Swensen is not revealing a particular story. She creates an explosion of details as words repeat, expand, and magnify.
For example, the words, 'train,' 'twin,' 'beauty,' 'speed,' 'breath,' 'light,' 'world,' 'grasp,' hand,' and 'face' occur in poems 1 through 4, yet #2 is musing in tone and makes references to what one might observe from the window of a moving train and #4, while mentioning the train, focuses on light, motion, and an interaction between Einstein and Wittgenstein. Poem #3 also refers to the train but the intense energy expressed--air is split, twinned particles race, speed is perceptible as a suspension of flight, breath falls--creates the actual experience of a speeding train. In the last sentence, Swensen sets up opposition:
It is arriving, and though
'It' is arriving but it has not arrived, the air splits yet it is indivisible, it is interior but she compares 'it' to "a curve like that of a hand or a face" which is exterior. This tension is similar to the relationship between the tension of the infinite and the finite in the Brownian motion -- in order to magnify infinitely we need the fragment or base from which to expand, " thus, the opposition is not a closed pair, but open and generative" (635). Another way she plays with opposition is juxtaposing the line, ". . .until it splits into all its possibilities. . .," with, ". . .or that of a face where it curves at the edge and can therefore end." Again, she emphasizes possibility growing from the finite by mentioning the edge or end of a face (the body as a container) in the same sentence where air is being "split into all its possibilities." The rhythm in this sentence also supports this notion of the finite vs. the infinite. The long sentence flows smoothly from one fragment to another, representing the infinite, until it reaches the last word 'end' where it abruptly halts, short of the right hand justification, representing finite.
It has not yet arrived, we are sure of its tender, transparent
body, of its tendency to gasp for air until it splits into all
its possibilities and of its desire to be with us as breath is,
indivisible and interior and always falling in a curve like
that of a hand, held palm up or that of a face where it
curves at the edge and can therefore end. (11-17)
Swensen, in "Thought Experiment," disrupts the notion that meaning is something that can be identified and fixed. The work refuses to be reduced to a single moral or theme. Her prose poems can be likened to multi-faceted crystal in which the eye of the reader, like a beam of light hitting one of the surfaces, creates a spectrum of color where a vast array of 'meanings' are produced. The arrangement of words on the page serves as a conduit through which reader and text create an eruption of 'meanings' rather than the reader following or searching for a key that will unlock the author's intended moral.
'Meaning' in the 'experimental' poetry of Stein, Hejinian, Waldrop, and Swensen replaces the notion that 'meaning' can be reduced or fixed, offering the reader the opportunity to participate in the creation of the poem. 'Meaning' becomes fluid, reshaping itself from one reader to the next, as well as from one reading to another. In this way, the poetry stays fresh, vital in its constant generation. The plasticity of words is foregrounded, emphasizing the notion that language is alive, an entity in and of itself, and diminishes the notion that the written word is transparent, representing things in the 'real' world. The activity of the words, their physicality, is what creates meaning, rather than proposition, moral, theme or the protagonist's story. Significance in a poem can simply be a sound, shape sculpture created by the words; or the reader can be led to a deeper understanding through the process of paying minute attention to phonetics, syntax, grammar, texture and rhythm. This method of inspecting form and structure keeps the reader in a moment-to-moment relationship with the poem. As the reader follows a specific poetic device, more and more of the poem is revealed through a partnership with the physicality of the words and the insights of the reader. But those insights or 'meanings' are specific to individual readers at the time of a particular reading, opening the poem to many possible 'meanings.' The practice of dissecting the structure of a poem parallels existence in our fast-paced, complex and chaotic world where we are exposed to multiple ideas, thoughts, feelings in a given second. All we can be sure of, amid the manifold stimuli, is the moment we are in, and it is our individual participation in the moment (dissection) that creates our particular future (meaning). Stein, Hejinian, Waldrop, and Swensen believe the customary practice of syllogy and narration that securely places the reader in authorial ideas or plot, contradicts and can not contain the "chaotic plenitude" (Quartermain 22) inherent in modern life, where unpredictability and uncertainty governs order and coherence. Their poetry can be seen as a polemic demonstration, portraying language as an independent entity, alive, vital, ambiguous, resonating in multiple meanings. Readers are invited to engage in the text, to become the picaresques Hejinian mentions in "Redo"---rascals on roguish adventures, who jump over customary expectations, play with sounds and shape of words, continually find new 'meanings' through a partnership with form and radical openness, creating "a flowering focus on a distinct infinity" (Hejinian, "Rejection of Closure" 619).
Gilchrist, Ellen. Drunk With Love, A Book of Stories. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1986.
Hejinian, Lyn. "The Rejection of Closure." Moving Borders, Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women. ed. Mary Margaret Stone. New Jersey: Talisman House, 1998. 618.
--- The Cold of Poetry. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon P, 1994.
--- "Variations: A Return of Words." In the American Tree. ed. Ron Silliman. Orono: U Maine, 1986.
Kenyon, Jane. Constance. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1993.
Quartermain, Peter. Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 1987.
Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons, Objects, Food, Rooms. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon P, 1991.
--- "Portraits and Repetition." Writings and Lectures 1909-1945. ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. London: Penguin, 1971.
--- " Farragut." Useful Knowledge. Barrytown: Station Hill, 1988.
Swensen, Cole. "Against the Limits of Language: The Geometries of Anne-Marie Albiach and Susan Howe." Moving Borders, Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women. ed. Mary Margaret Sloan. New Jersey: Talisman House, 1998. 630.
--- Noon. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon P, 1997.
Waldrop, Rosmarie. Lawn of Excluded Middle. Providence: Tender Buttons, 1993.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.