[Note: this is the same post I put up yesterday, only with a different title and the first two paragraphs excised.]
One recurring explanation for the distrust of poetic "obscurity" has to do with the way in which words seem necessarily to bear with them an intrinsic claim to referentiality, and so for parsable phrases and sentences to resist definitive interpretation suggests a betrayal of that implicit truth-claim. In other words, according to the old argument, poetry is a kind of lying. Sir Philip Sidney's famous rejoinder to this complaint--that the poet "nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth"--is rhetorically pleasing, but its underlying sophistry is clear enough. It is even signalled by Sidney's own comparison of his defense of poetry to the arguments of a vainglorious horseman who is bound always to make the most outrageous claims for his own occupation, in the face of all logic. Certainly poetry, as long as it takes the form of grammatically recognizable constructions, affirmeth. Shakespeare affirmeth that his mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun. Emily Dickinson affirmeth that she felt a funeral in her brain. Wallace Stevens affirmeth that the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream. Mayakovsky affirmeth that he is a cloud in trousers. Nada Gordon affirmeth that you must eat your neck.
All these affirmations can be understood as statements in a language, and it doesn't matter whether we think the poet "really means" them; what matters is whether they get in our heads and make things happen there. Sometimes I suspect that some readers simply lack the capacity, in varying degrees, to experience such poetic happenings, just as some people are tone deaf, or colorblind, or have no sense of humor. There is no way to explain to someone for whom all music is irritating noise why it "really" isn't. And as I said, this may occur in varying degrees: just as someone with partial colorblindness may still have an acute appreciation for certain nuances of shade and tone, many readers possess a sophisticated sense of one or more verbal phenomena--euphony, descriptive subtlety, figurative aptness, poignancy, argumentative wit, and so on--and thus are able to respond feelingly to much of what goes on in a great deal of poetry. This appreciation may be so advanced as to allow these readers to become accomplished scholars and even poets themselves. And yet they may still lack that sensibility which allows them to "understand" why a certain string of words, for no rational reason, affects the reader/hearer "poetically." They may resort to familiar accounts of the pleasures of sound, as in childhood rhymes, alliteration, and repetition, and in fact such concerns are in many cases indeed relevant to poetic experience, and these persons may even respond genuinely to such effects.
What is it, then, that these hypothetical persons (straw men of my concoction?) are missing? Once we have accounted for wit, soundplay, and all the other categories I've mentioned, what is left? It does not have fundamentally to do with irony, I think, though many of the arguments I see as germane to this question raise its specter. We are somewhat closer to getting at it when we speak of the "irrational," though this term is broader in its applications than the specific idea I have in mind. Certainly devices such as rhyme, consonance, assonance, meter, lineation, and other formal schema are in some sense irrational, in that they do not contribute substantially to the referential dimension of the poem--but neither do they detract from that dimension, at least not by their nature, though they may of course be applied so heavily as to exert an estranging effect. Even disruptions of normative grammar and syntax need not induce an overt irrationality in the sense I posit. The following bit of doggerel should provide adequate evidence of this:
dark dreams lonely demons
my heart my love my waaaahh
sweet baby gone left me blue
ruination brooding loss
This is bad, but it is not irrational: despite its fragmentary construction, even the most inexpert reader will recognize it almost instantly as an expression of dismay over a romantic disappointment.
But take, by way of contrast, this excerpt from Joseph Ceravolo's Fits of Dawn:
I'm calm he's ashamed he nocturnal no way
Has back co-wept?
A skar in brimful final
Inexhaustable gyp become yes
next outulated Me! absolutely care mommy
aurora net takey benem ahoom got
soon enemy weave cryman
awayontop terre or sappho crop
why? harmony hey-o coyote
Moans cry want flee
leak die toss-find a when
producted rare pow torn.
Like the why-moon daring
insuspicious striped like labors
I've chosen this passage because it's a fairly extreme example of the type of poetic language that, even in lesser doses, sends some readers who consider themselves aesthetically sensitive into paroxysms of outrage or at least vehement apathy. It is, one might say, "nonsense"--not nonsense in the vein of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, whose verse is entirely narrative at base (even if the narrative is always the same one of "nonsensical things happened in an impossible world"), but nonsense that resists assimilation into a recognizable semantic framework altogether (unless that framework is one which always repeats "this is experimental writing," but I think that's a less useful generalization than the Carroll/Lear one).
If irony were to enter the dispute, it might be suggested that this is ironic poetry because it makes the motions of affirming, but with a motivation that is absolutely contradictory to true affirmation. The same might be said of some of my earlier examples. When Nada Gordon writes "You must eat your neck," for example, part of our "proper" "understanding" of the line must include the assumption (a fair one, I hope) that she does not really think anyone should eat their own neck, as well as perhaps a recognition of a parodic Rilke allusion. Any poetry that operates on such principles of saying what one does not really mean may fairly be conceived of as ironic. But again, I don't really think irony is the issue here.
It may be anticlimactic to pull such a motheaten old rabbit out of my hat (and one which I've already recently pulled out in other posts), but I think that what I'm trying to get at here is finally something more or less like Keats' "negative capability" (which he defines in a letter to his brothers, for those of you who have forgotten, as the capability "of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason"). Or, if you like, we can make it sound a little more current and refer to it as "negativity." This is more than just a cosmetic adjustment of Keats' concept, I believe; the uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts I'm thinking of are not just broad ones having to do with philosophical and spiritual belief, but specific ones related to the question of what language can do as a medium. Appreciation of certain modes of poetic expression depends on an acceptance of what might seem a completely untenable proposition: that one can say something without actually saying it. Irony and even metaphor, depending on how you look at them, are either ways of assenting to such a proposition or normalizing its contradictions. The truly relevant figure here is catachresis: the patently absurd "misuse" of language, either as a mistake or a deliberate rhetorical strategy. The most famous literary example is probably Milton's "blind mouths." Catachresis relies on negativity for its force: it strikes the mind by virtue (or vice) of its wrongness, its unworkability, its self-canceling anti-sense. Irony may do this as well, but with a clearly visible qualifying gesture, whether a tone of voice, "scare quotes," or just an obvious context that establishes the basis of the irony--i.e., the non-ironic position that motivates the irony in the first place. When we get into concepts like "blank irony" in the postmodern sense, we may in fact be getting closer to a catachretic principle, but even here the emphasis is still on a fundamentally rhetorical stance--one concerned with "making a point"--rather than a poetic one.
One of the earliest surviving western poetic texts, a poem by Sappho, contains what I think of as an exemplary catachretic moment: her proclamation that her jealousy makes her "greener than grass." It may be that in the original Greek, this is not such an odd phrase. Nevertheless, I would maintain that its power for many modern readers consists in large part precisely in its oddness, no less than a phrase like "blonde push" in Dickinson, or Ceravolo's "serious choke" (serious joke?). The focal point of expressive power in Sappho's lyric, as, I would argue, in poetry generally, is that point at which expression, from one perspective, threatens to fail outright. Not everyone will accept this formulation. For some, the defining aspect of true poetry consists in direct, sincere expression of human truths, for example. I don't wish to discount such a value, but it is not one that is exclusive to poetry per se, and thus it isn't of much use in accounting for the poetic qua poetic.
What, one might ask, about poems which appear to be completely straightforward, in which there are no obvious aporias or violations of sense? One answer is that there aren't any--that simply by being a poem, a poem announces its opposition to ordinary language. For example, I could write:
I am terribly hungry
and wish that my father
would come home with
the cheeseburger he
As soon as I frame this as a poem rather than simply a factual (or even non-factual) statement, I have changed the way the reader perceives it. The line breaks do part of this work, but they are not essential. I could break it up in different ways or not at all. All that matters is that I have asked the reader to consider it as arranged language above and beyond--or at least in addition to--considering it as an everyday utterance. This, I would argue, is a fundamentally counter-referential gesture, and as such appears to deploy the signifying function of language against itself. This is not to say that because, e.g., Williams' "This Is Just to Say" can be understood as a poem it can no longer be understood as an apologetic note on the poet's icebox; it is just to say that once something is identified as a poem, that identification makes one's ordinary sense of what it says in some way contingent to its poetic "sense." This contingency need not imply in all cases that the ordinary sense is by necessity secondary, but when the ordinary sense assumes any more than an equal status with the poetic, the poetic sense ceases to be a sense altogether, and becomes a mere distraction, as when one unintentionally rhymes in casual speech, and accordingly causes one's listener to lose focus on what one is saying. The best poems in the so-called "plain style" are generally ones in which the ordinary and poetic senses are more or less balanced.
What makes all of this finally very difficult is that it is very unlikely that two different people will ever have exactly the same sense of when catachretic language produces a dynamic poetic effect, and when it simply produces uninteresting noise. With poetic devices such as meter, rhyme, metaphor, and so forth, there is always a degree of measurable competence with regard to which, if differing readers do not necessarily agree, they may at least acknowledge the intelligibility of the dispute. The territory of negative aesthetics for which I am claiming a nearly primal poetic importance is one which resists intelligible criteria altogether, and therefore leads to exactly what we know poetry to be: a wide and various field with no determinate boundaries and very uncertain prospects of internal mapability. This is not just a condition that poetry has to put up with; it is one on which it depends. If there weren't people who "didn't get it," poetry would have no way to identify itself. Likewise, even within the ranks of the initiated, there must always be factions that position themselves against other factions who don't get it as much as they do, and so on. Without this bluntly antagonistic pattern of social formation, there might be monuments of literary greatness, but there could be no living poetry.