Saturday, June 30, 2007

Torque Revisited




I started this post several weeks ago and saved a draft of it with the intention of fleshing it out further with some other material I had been thinking about. I've been away from it too long, however, and I don't remember what I wanted to add to it. So if I don't post it now, I'll probably never get around to it.

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The concept of poetic "torque" depends on the same metaphor as "flow": the verse is a current, or objects in a current, and that current pursues an inexorable direction. The sentence is one unit in which one can observe this figurative motion: the mechanism formed by the subject, main verb, and auxiliary parts of speech describes a transfer of energy that is imagined as physical matter in motion. For example, the subject throws a ball by means of the verb, and if there is an object, the object catches the ball. Or the subject is a faucet, out of which issues a stream of action in form of the verb; the stream is directed by means of adverbs, prepositions, participles, and other channeling devices, perhaps to an eventual object-reservoir (which may in turn have another nozzle). This notion of syntax as a transfer of fluid or electrical energy is nothing new. It predates even Fenollosa, I'm sure.

In verse--especially verse that does not conform to normative syntactical structures--the metaphor is complicated but remains frequently applicable. In my previous posts, for example, I have argued that Creeley's "I Know a Man" relies for much of its effect, as does a great deal of older and more traditionally "formal" poetry besides, on techniques of enjambment to redivert the reader's grammatical focus continually, resulting in a sense of "flow" that is artfully "torqued." One could make similar arguments about poetry that is even more disruptively asyntactical, such as Clark Coolidge's short untitled poem from Space (1969):
ounce code orange
a
            the
                        ohm
trilobite trilobites

Even in the absence of a clear grammatical structure, it is still difficult not to read even abstract linguistic assemblages of this sort on the model of normative syntactical connections between words. One might read the first line as three listed nouns in a series, or alternately one might treat ounce as subject, code as verb, and orange as object; either way, the three words seem to stand in a prefatory relationship to what follows, so that they take on a subject-function of sorts. In this way they set the terms for our processing of the rest of the poem, even though those terms will invariably differ in their details from reader to reader. (One could object that some readers might not respond on even this rudimentary of a syntactical level: that to these readers, the poem is no more than a random assortment of signifiers. This may be true. I would call these "bad readers." They do exist, and their incompetence is not limited to poems of this kind.)

Indeterminacy in poetry is not absolute. Or, if it is, that poetry stops being intelligible as articulated groups of words altogether, and becomes something else: purely abstract verbal sculpture, an affectless list, a meaningless accidental mess (to what degree any of these conditions are actually possible is another question). Poems like Coolidge's are radically overdetermined, but they are not totally indeterminate. By following this line of thought, I am also implying that determinacy, indeterminacy, and overdetermination are functions of syntax (this should not be a particularly controversial claim) every bit as much as of individual words. Hence, to speak of "flow" or "torque" in poetry is to speak of a greater or lesser degree of determination, but always some degree.

When determinacy is so thoroughgoing as to render all considerations of means of expression unnecessary, there can be no question of poetry. Conversely, at that point where determinacy drops out altogether, so the possibility of meaningful evaluative criteria drops out as well, and the designation "poetic" again loses its force. Poetry thus relies upon the notion of (syntactic) closure even as it relies upon the disruption of that closure. At either extreme end of the spectrum--absolute singular determination or absolute indeterminacy--the context for poetry is lost. The term "spectrum" is misleading, however, as we do not witness a smooth gradation between the two extremes. If we did, the formula for separating good from bad poetry would be very simple: poetry would always be most effective when it attained to some elusive middle zone of artfully blended determinacy and indeterminacy. Indeed, many great poems do operate within parameters that could fairly be described in such a way--I think, for example, of any number of pieces by Wallace Stevens or others, poems which "resist the intelligence almost successfully." But the fact is that this accounts for only a small percentage of good poetry, and there are plenty of poems one could characterize in this way that aren't very good at all. Most poems written throughout recorded history, good or bad, contain very little indeterminacy (I say "very little," not "no"), and only a very small portion of all the radically indeterminate poetry written in the last half a century or so actually repays repeated reading. If it seems that the bulk of recent interesting poetry tends toward the indeterminate side of the scale (and of course it doesn't seem that way to everybody--this is a biased account), I would argue that this has less to do with the extremity of its indeterminacy, and more to do with the mediocrity of the poetry it often positions itself (or is positioned by others) against. That this mediocre poetry, in turn, often tends toward extreme determinacy is similarly a coincidence of historical conditions largely external to questions of intrinsic artfulness.

It is true that during times when artistic activity is polarized between opposing "camps," and when that polarization coincides with formal markers such as those centered around determinacy and indeterminacy, the formal markers themselves become a convenient shortcut for addressing the real deficits and advantages of either side's actual production. I call this "bad criticism." I have been as guilty of it as anyone. Still, I want to maintain that those formal concerns are not irrelevant to evaluative criticism. As I have been trying to suggest, it is just that we cannot reduce them to crude systems of aesthetic measurement, to be applied like tape measures to formica countertops.

14 comments:

CLAY BANES said...

contra spectrum, the horizon lines on a flat earth.

mark wallace said...

A instructive post, Kasey--thanks!

Along with the helpfully specific detail that you provide, I'm also thinking about the concepts of of determinacy/ indeterminacy as frames for the discussion. I usually think of them as two terms for meaning--indeterminacy being usually in my mind not so much ambiguity as the rejection of representation. The polarity you suggest contrasts with two sets of similar concepts--meaning and style (which loosely resonates with me as most like your angle here, if not exactly so), and somewhat farther afield, content and form. All three of these pairs have interesting overlaps, while hardly being synonyms. I wonder what the slippage between these sets of terms either illuminates or hides; I'm interestedly considering what the determinant/intdeterminant polarity might bring out that the others don't.

Jordan said...

Between I don't (can't) get it
and oh that --
a lot of poems
to roll around in.

Torque may simply be
proof of quirkiness?

It is mainly
qualifying, opposing --
meaning not that
but this --

A grammatical
gingerbreadman.

shanna said...

"One could object that some readers might not respond on even this rudimentary of a syntactical level: that to these readers, the poem is no more than a random assortment of signifiers. This may be true. I would call these 'bad readers.'"

might you also call them hotlips?

[buh dump dump crash]

Kent Johnson said...

Well,

Since GRAMMAR seems to have just popped up without warning or reason above, like some three-lobed giant doughnut bobbing on the surface of an avant-garde deep-fryer (don't burn your tongue!), thought I'd mention that a goodly revised and expanded version of my comment last week about Langpo and grammar is coming out in couple weeks or so. I'll psot a link when it does.

Kasey, I do agree with you that most of what's in your post is "hardly controversial." But could you define syntax more carefully, as it relates to yoru notion of "torque"? Are you only talking about poems that torque syntax at the level of "sentence structure"? What about avant poems that torque relations between semantic frames of separate, perfectly conventional sentences? I don't see this mentioned anywhere here (could be I read too quickly). One could say, however, that the dominant mode of post-avant torque is in this vein: New sentence, most Flarf, Bernstein's recent "avant-folk" shtick, etc.

I'm asking this for a good reason, really, something that connects to questions I raised earlier about social-constructivist views of grammar that seem still quite current on the scene.

happy and candid speech acts to all,

Kent

shanna said...

how much flarf could a flarf most much
if a much flarf most flarf mooched?
FLARFIDDY FLARF FLARRRRRRRRRRRFFFFFFFFFF

Providence said...

KSM say: "Most poems written throughout recorded history, good or bad, contain very little indeterminacy (I say "very little," not "no"), and only a very small portion of all the radically indeterminate poetry written in the last half a century or so actually repays repeated reading. If it seems that the bulk of recent interesting poetry tends toward the indeterminate side of the scale (and of course it doesn't seem that way to everybody--this is a biased account), I would argue that this has less to do with the extremity of its indeterminacy, and more to do with the mediocrity of the poetry it often positions itself (or is positioned by others) against."

It's important that this be said--and thanks for doing so! But the way you're using these categories doesn't allow "indeterminacy" to be "contained"--or it assumes that it can be (putting it on the side of "content" rather than "form" or "syntax")--or it begs the question initially raisde, as to how torque and flow might do so more or less successfully. I am currently writing a book on this problem--please tell me if it's a false one. See what I mean?

Providence said...

In other words, Kasey, how is it possible that act, object, and quality (indeterminacy is a quality, no? or an "effect") can be categorically lumped together? Act and object, for instance, are typically in opposing positions (one acts upon the other). Or is this poetry's compelling magic, that such categorical decorum systematically collapses?

olgastamata said...

are you saying that there were never really totally indeterminate/meaningless ("good") peoms? How do you measure quality but by some academic standard-and is it possible to measure(by ac. standards)hat which is off the page? (POETICACTS) The problem with this sort of thinking is that it veils itself in a kind of glitzy radicalism for the sake convincing the unwitting that there is a right and wrong way to experiment-(stupidity is never considered) which leads to the kind of safe "overdeterminant indeterminacy" you describe. Which, by the way, seems like a cheaply rehashed notion in this era of consumptive immediacy/"SIMUL-EAT".

Henry Gould said...

Is the guarantee of indeterminacy furthered, to any degree, by the asymptotic relation between state and culture as, say, found in the inchoate "channel surfing" exemplified by Wilford P. Fordwill, the first 1-legged Channel swimmer (Aug., 1949) - or am I suggesting, paradoxically, irrefragibly, cleanly, the sort of dereglement des sens-tences as represented by State Rep. Elva T. Beauregard of the great State of Alaska (1974-1977)? The chore is not easily.

Henry Gould said...

Kasey,

apologies for pevious SILLY post !

It's possible to suppose a scale or range WITHIN your larger scale determined - indeterminate.

This smaller scale would resemble a knot, riddle, labyrinth, puzzle, etc.

I'm thinking of a work that is so powerfully MOTIVATED (by the desire & capability to express a very determinate/complex impression or meaning) that it REQUIRES divagations, indeterminacies, false trails, conceptual shades, etc.

olgastamata said...

the problem with poetry is( has been) that it takes its own developments far too seriously (with too much at stake theoretically)-hence, the looming stagnancy. underestimating lunacy,paroxyism, messiness for the sake of "serious" experimentation, which has plagued even the most assumedly vanguard patriarchal "players"-see Duchamp,Tzara-less so Schwitters/Baader/

The Sublibrarian said...

I read your post very quickly, but I got to the end wondering the extent to which your formulations of torque and flow are dependent on English syntactical ordering.

What happens in a highly inflected language where position is not a marker of syntactic function?

Not, of course, that this would have anything (directly) to do with work in English, but only to the extent to which such concepts were generalizable beyond a specific language boundary.

mark wallace said...

A good question, Sublibrarian--I'm sure that differently organized languages would not register these kinds of effects in the same way. Murat Nemet-Najat's anthology of Turkish poetry translated into English, Eda, talks about the way the Turkish language (and therefore Turkish poetry) works through a condition of the kind you're describing--the translations show a kind of juxtaposition of clauses in a way that never happens in standard English.