While trying to marshall all of the thoughts from eighteen months’ academic sabbatical into one coherent conference proposal, one of the threads I’m following is how poetry can create affect. There is a huge challenge inherent in meaningfully discussing a poem’s affect, given that affect is subjective, unquantifiable and cannot be proven–one person’s affect is another person’s complete lack of feeling, the aesthetic turned anaesthetic. But if we accept that poetry is somehow different from plain communication, then I would suggest that its affect, the way the reader experiences the poem beyond what it ‘means’ to them in a rational sense, is bound up in this difference. There is an affective dimension that defies explanation. And the challenge, as I see it, is how to move away from my instinctive desire to parse the meaning of a text and to somehow remain intimate with its immediate affect.
There have been any number of obvious experiments in the separation of what poetry makes us think from what it makes us feel; works that reject referentiality, such as the collage works of Derek Beaulieu or the ‘beyonsense’ zaum poems of the Russian Futurists, may nevertheless provoke an affective response in the reader. I encounter them, I experience them and the crisis of meaning that they embody, and I have a reaction, pre-rational, perhaps, a sense of fear or disgust or joy or curiosity.
(There’s another argument to be had that this isn’t poetry at all, that text without referential meaning is a visual form and not a literary one, but even this categorical frustration is a form of affect and a statement about how complacent we as readers are with regard to easy meaning-making.)
In reality, for better or worse, I keep on hunting for those parts of the poem that are sense-adjacent, panhandling the words and letters and marks for some kind of meaning and discarding the rest. This does a disservice to so much conceptual and visual poetry. If anything, poetry might be the medium in which the subsequent rational interpretation is most frequently delayed or deferred by various forms of un-meaning. This is of course part of what the ‘sound over sense’ ethos entails; poets may favour sound rather than meaning as a constructive principle, but this foregrounded un-meaning obscures or warps the meaning underneath for the reader as well. It underpins concrete poetry as well. And maybe it’s there in all poetry, to some degree. Maybe that is the poetic.
The best parts of poetry are the parts where ordinary language goes out the window–where using language clearly, making a reasoned statement, the generally efficient communication of a concept or image that underpins other linguistic forms is overtaken by some other impulse. Jakobson identified the poetic function as the key departure from ‘useful’ or ‘meaningful’ language use towards language for its own sake, but although this might account for the why, it doesn’t quite get at the how.
How can we write in ways that are unmeaningful but strongly affective? I can’t quite bring myself to subscribe to the Wordsworthian method of ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’–or, rather, I worry that this leads to ‘tranquil’ poetry, poetry in which the original sublimity of the experience is lost and that doesn’t create an awesome and incommunicably sublime experience in and of itself. And this idea of the incommunicable is key here. Poetry that is somehow ecstatic, somehow stimulated and stimulating beyond rational recollection, may be more capable of evoking an emotional and affective response in the reader. I remember the poems that hit me in the gut, none of which could be called tranquil and all of which involve language that is in crisis. I remember first hearing John Felstiner’s translation of Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’, which slips between English and German, coupling Celan’s traumatic repetitions with this bilingual grappling. I remember the confusion of reading the fragmented words and syntax in e.e. cummings’ poems, for example in ’23’ from the posthumous collection anOther e.e. cummings, a poem that make me want to find meaning, to parse the words, but that catches me in its hurdygurdy rhythms.
Then there’s the breathless intensity of Ania Walwicz, the unapologetic energy that comes streaming through and along her jam-packed stanzas, the fighting spirit of it. The dissolute fragments that compose Bonny Cassidy’s Final Theory, blowing apart as the world we know comes to an end. The slanting and slash-shattered lines of Emily Dickinson as she struggles to express her own fragment of the incommunicable world. What all of this language in crisis does is make me feel the struggle of communicating the incommunicable–the trauma, the rush, the fear, the bliss. The rhythms jar, the meanings break or spill, and my mind follows instinctively, before and beyond rational understanding.