On the Idea of Order: A Western Key

Posted on October 19, 2011

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All criticism is argument, of course, and critique (as in criticism) by one blogger of another blogger’s blog is the urging of a particular way of seeing the world.

Curtis Faville, who blogs at The Compass Rose, has written this rather energetic critique of my advice, not on his blog, but to mine:

If the book is, in whole, as you quote Frost as claiming, itself a “poem” then it should be subject to the same requirements as any art-form. If your conception of the “book” is a traditional form established over time, what’s implied is that it’s an enormous cliché, which is like a metaphorical quotation of something already done. Creative thinking, and writing, and book-making, demand that we re-think the form every time we indulge in it. Your whole list is like a recipe for a completely predictable, dull book. Which is pretty much what we have in the poetry world. Have you checked the poetry shelves, lately? Fully 97% of all you find is instantly forgettable, in large measure because of the common acceptance of the formula you offer here.

Curtis Faville’s argument (if I may, based upon many readings of Curtis’s reviews, as well as of his blog, not to mention his above comment) is for something new in the world of poetry. Something that transcends the ordinary and, therefore, the previous. And so, I might argue, is mine. My argument, that is.

Which makes me wonder whether my advice does, as he suggests, rule out the creation of something new: new ways of seeing a poem, new ways of seeing a book. I invite others into this discussion.

For me, it’s interesting to think about those early, fervent urgings of Whitman for something new in poetry, and later, a perhaps derivative but no less memorable philosophy of W.C. Williams. Each argued for the new: for the shattering of molds. For a way, or ways, a poem might sound that sounds nothing like it sounded before. But it seems important to add here that Williams and Whitman wanted innovation rooted in intentional, disciplined decision-making.

There’s Whitman writing (and writing) to Emerson about “Individuality, that new moral American continent . . . .” (Leaves of Grass, 2nd Edition) W.C. Williams, one of “The Others,” those early-on American modernists, gobbling up Joyce and Duchamp, Man Ray, H.D., and of course getting his pounds’ worth from Pound’s edict to “make it new.”

But let’s get back to the essential question of how to make a book of poetry out of a batch of poems (and let’s sort of accept that anything memorable – anything worth reading – must in some ineluctable way be “new”). I have urged taking various ways of looking at order (as in ordering a manuscript) as useful in generating new ways of looking at the poems themselves – revising, sure, but re-visioning. How does a poem want to mean? What discoveries does it want to make? What technical ministrations might prepare the poem to set off on this course of discovery?

And so I thought it might be interesting to consider how we think about the question of what goes with what. First off, I started thinking about what sorts of decisions must curators of art galleries make—and how do they make them—when hanging a show? Obviously, there must be shows that cry out for an “easy” sort of order: chronological, or oils with oils, charcoal with charcoal, and so on. But suppose you’re hanging an exhibit of Fauvists and you have 50 pictures by a good half dozen painters. What sorts of aesthetic decisions are involved?

Well, I say “started off thinking” because I’m not, after all, either a curator or a painter. But one could sort of imagine ways of thinking about this problem: tonalities, color, space, shape, and so on. But, rather than ask you to read my musings on the finer points of producing art in galleries, I thought I’d ask an actual curator or two to discuss the art of hanging art. I’m hoping to have that, or some of it, for you soon, and hoping that their responses might prove useful to our inquiry.

Meanwhile, how about other cognates? Contemporary culture is filled with guides to figuring out which of this order of things goes with what of that order of stuff. What herbs and which spices goes with that food? Sort of a useful cognate when you think about it, as (obviously) each herb and each spice added to a particular food changes that food, and by consequence, what it tastes like, and by consequence, what it goes with. If a chef is paying attention, or you in your own kitchen, you are reinventing your recipes as you add and subtract, keep your notes, taste this and try that. If you’re blessed with a really good palate you might even come up with something wholly new, even something memorable.

Same goes for wines (or shoes, or ties, or—one imagines—shades of lipstick). What wine with what food? Different foods will make different wines taste, well, different. You can find wine-pairing tables all over the place, but here’s something I chanced upon the other day: fabulous tables of food pairings. For example, do you need to know which foods go best with Peruvian chocolate (and frankly, who doesn’t?)?  Somebody has given a LOT of thought to Peruvian dark chocolate. Was there a Platonic ideal to consult? Is there one now?

Think about how classical piano recitals are organized (i.e., “programmed”): often chronologically. You get your Scarlatti, then you Mozart, after than your Schubert, later maybe a little Chopin. Why? Is this the Platonic ideal? Well, then, it turns out that I do have an argument.

Poets write to me, despairingly, “but there are so many equally good orders for a poetry manuscript!” And I suggest, of course there are. But, well before you settle on the order that suits, the key to creating a memorable book is to take the matter of creating order as an opportunity to look so much more closely at your poems.

Along those lines, as you lay your poems side by side by side, here are some (arguably useful) questions you might want to ask of each and every poem with respect to the ones alongside it. In what way or ways does that poem (the one under the spotlight):

  • deepen
  • open up
  • interrogate the premises of
  • expand upon
  • enlarge upon
  • focus down on specifics of
  • decorate
  • glaze
  • gloss
  • experiment with
  • innovate from

the poems it abuts, and the ones by the door and the one that’s nearly under the rug.

What we want—you, me, the editors who read your newly submitted manuscript, Curtis Faville when he reviews your book, and most important, your readers—is, without any argument, something wholly memorable. Whether that means that it must be post-avant in feel or must instead pay consistent homage to the received traditions, two notions seems certain:

  1. How you create your poems and the way you form the book itself will need to be rooted in intentional, disciplined decision making (even if those disciplined choices lead to something wholly aleatoric http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aleatoric); and
  2. You won’t get there by treating the poems as made things, gods at a feast, ready for prime time, unless you understand what I’ve been urging: that you use the litany of manuscript-making tools as an essential scaffolding for discovery.
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Posted in: Poetry