​poetics: some thoughts on ‘beyonsense’ and affect

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.

Christian Bok and Derek Beaulieu (2010), from 'Umlaut Machine: Selected Visual Works by Christian Bök'. Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, PA.
Christian Bok and Derek Beaulieu (2010), from ‘Umlaut Machine: Selected Visual Works by Christian Bök’. Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, PA.

(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.

e.e. cummings, from 'AnOther e.e. Cummings', ed. by Richard Kostelanetz and John M. Rocco (1998). Liveright Publishing, New York, NY: p. 25.

e.e. cummings, from ‘AnOther e.e. Cummings’, ed. by Richard Kostelanetz and John M. Rocco (1998). Liveright Publishing, New York, NY: p. 25.

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.

Not-Safe-For-Work In Progress

I have been absent from the blog for a good long while: life gets the better of us, sometimes, and I’ve had six months of settling into a new city, new house, new spaces and places and surroundings and people, and it can be difficult to know where excitement ends and anxiety begins.

This is something different for me, and I’ll add all the necessary warnings.

  • Nudity. (Censored-nudity, really.)
  • Yes, my nudity.
  • And a draft of something that is barely begun, a stopping-starting sound recording of my thoughts for a poem that may never exist in any other, more finished form.

If any of those things seem likely to offend you, I encourage you to click away now. Here’s a very good post by the inimitable Katie West about being naked, being professional, and how the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I also recommend sticking around, I’m planning on getting back into the blogging weekly, at least, from now on, and there probably won’t be any more artful nudes. (If you’re here for the artful nudes, I’m very sorry, this is not the place for you.) (Also, if you aren’t offended by nudes, here’s ANOTHER post from Katie West about her naked body.)

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  gathering his remaining men
‘To arms!’
   cries Lautréamont
‘Salut, salut’,
   they drink their brandy
and dream of
   malodorous King Louis.
All of France is none of France –
  captured by English pen.
Hang from the skies
   o lord of Mediterranean summers.
The ink will flow on.

Palliative Care Ward, Mareeba, 2009

Dementia crowds the empty corners.
Brothers visit each morning and I am her
daughter, though never the same one,
I have as many names as a goddess.
The linoleum creaks, the flowers dry
in over-sterile air. She is never alone.
In visiting hours she clings to my hand,
eyes closed, skin milk-grey, and begs me
to save her and take her home.

Song of the Man [draft 3]

Diana, Light-Bringer.

In cities they make false worship

at geometry-butchered stones. I have paid you proper honour, alone

and bloody-handed, keeping my blade sharp.

Have taken blessing and given love:

prey laid open beneath an open sky is the altar that I pray by.

My sacrifice to Diana of the Grove.

I hunt, I hunker in the dark

hack joint and sinew into prayers for you

who lit me with lightning and left me marked.

Through the trees’ whisper

I track silver limbs and bare feet and your eyes as dark as sleep

til you retreat into the bright freshwater.

Hair roped like snakes

and skin like moonlight

as you rise from the lake.

You have spelled me undone

and glory dumbs my tongue.

Your gaze catches mine

like a hind

about to spring.

The forest blinks.

There is an itch

beneath my skin

and the welts

on my forehead

start to sting.


Tea and Sauce.
Serves 2

Ingredients / 3 large onions / steel of a knife / one head
of unkissable garlic / fingertips  / bandaged / substitute
soy milk / drooping tea bag

Method / mince garlic + cover fingertips with unmoveable scent / taste
sauce from the smooth back of a spoon / lick lips / knife accidentally sharp /
tea accidentally too sweet / low fat / lactose free / pour milk until swirling /
dilute until white / kiss the distracted cheek / peel thin skin from onions /
slip the knife / dice until crying

The Graveyard Tree [draft]

He tells me “you don’t belong here,”
my fingers sweating the thin psalms.
“You don’t fit in,” he whispers,
his mouth just above my collar.

His voice is breaking. The Bible
spreads a vast emptiness on the pew between us.

After the service, we sneak
around the church’s corner,
flake paint from worn timbers
while the congregation leaves.

He lays me down on the well-kept lawn.
Unbuttons me.
My knees askew, hair loose,
the edges of my pale body melting
into earth.
I kick off my shoes.

The yew’s branches are kissed
with bright red cones
and drip thin tickling needles.
God stays silent in a hot blue sky.
I lay still beneath his kisses
my bare stomach pulled tight
heart tremoring
taut as a bow.

The Deaf Girl and the Shell [first draft]

Washed up on the dresser
with the
crater of a sea urchin’s shell
finger-long augers, sandblasted spires
and snail shells with ruffled inner edges.
Feels the rough ridge of a conch
Fingertip exploring
whispering in a lover’s ear.

It’s said that a shell holds the sound of waves
throws back the echoes of blood.
What can’t be heard.
That paper-white shell in her hand
writing waves onto her palm.