A novel in verse … and the writing thereof

Can one drop the reins? Part 2: one line’s craft

Thursday, March 10th, 2011 by

Yesterday’s post was so long that I’ve chopped it in half. I’m still working on Joan Guenther’s “So some guy says,” and the question of whether it is possible, as language poets like Guenther aim to do, to relinquish authorial control over one’s written work.

In Wednesday’s post I pointed at the line, “What is poetry doing in the universe? What is the universe doing? Does poetry do? Is the universe in?” This is one of the lines that resonates inside my head, setting up an immediate, sympathetic vibration. I get it. It makes me laugh, almost every time I read it. I can see the language leading the poem by the nose, with Joan tumbling after. The first question addresses an issue of some import to poets everywhere, in an extremely simple form that nevertheless has at least two very different meanings.

The first of these meanings, How did poetry come to exist? itself divides, eliding effortlessly into the closely related, Why does poetry exist?  (And lest you be thinking in terms too small, Guenther adds “in the universe” to stretch the context, and your brain, a bit.) This question uses “do” in a familiar but not literal way: “What are you pajamas doing in the refrigerator?” means both “How did they get there?” and “Why are they there?”

If the person asked that question responds, “I don’t know. Knitting?” she switches to a more literal use of “do,” the most common. (A dangerous claim; I bet the OED definition goes on for pages even in the condensed version.)  This is the definition we employ when we ask, “What are you doing?” meaning “What activity are you engaged in?”

This use of “do” yields the second meaning for poem’s first question. By this definition, the question “What is poetry doing in the universe?” asks what poetry is doing—what it is accomplishing, what effect it is having, what ideas it promulgates, whether it promotes war or peace. It’s a big question.

That first question (yes, we’re still on one of four) gives us two nouns, poetry and universe, which trade places as subjects of the next three questions. The second question (“What is the universe doing?”) performs a sort of mathematical operation on the two nouns of question one: reverse and subtract. Reversing the two nouns would yield “What is the universe doing in poetry?”  but question two drops the second noun, “poetry,” (along with the preposition “in,” which is merely along for the ride) to give us “What is the universe doing?” a much bigger and more interesting (if unanswerable) question.

Or pair of questions, because again we have (at least) two possible meanings for “do.” They’re not the same two as those in question one, since those were governed by the prepositional phrases, “in the universe” with respect to poetry, or “in the refrigerator” with respect to pajamas. In the second question there is no prepositional phrase. In this case, the two meanings can be rendered and recognized in two sentences familiar to any English speaker and distinguished only by tone of voice or its typographic equivalent, italics:  What are you doing? vs. What are you doing?

The first of these is the “What activity are you engaged in?” mentioned above. So we have, What activity is the universe engaged in? But the second, urgent version, gives us, Oh my god, what is the universe up to? Which I find, frankly, hilarious.

With the third question “Does poetry do?” we get, alliteratively, and with extraordinary economy, for it uses the same verb twice but in different ways, a question that nags at the heart of any poet who wonders whether poetry can actually effect change or influence politics—that question about whether it even makes sense to ask what it effects, achieves, or does.

The fourth question reprises the first’s “in the universe” by reversing and questioning it: instead of having something–poetry, whatever, call it X– “in the universe,” Guenther asks this: Is the universe in (X)?

But wait: does she mean (certainly the language suggests) not “in X” but “in style?” Maybe there is no X, and “Is the universe in?” can be read the same way we read “Are mini-skirts in?”

All this laborious analysis does violence to the poem, which skips easily, lightly, from one to the next of these questions, guided by sound as much as anything. Thus the third question gives us three different “o” sounds in “Does poetry do?” not to mention the alliterated d’s, while the fourth, “Is the universe in?” drops the heavy o’s and stopped d’s for light ‘i’s and sibilant s’s.

The point of all this is dual: partly just to explore the poem for myself—but partly to point out how densely written it is. The alliterations, reversals, puns, and so on point to very carefully crafted language. Playful, yes—and some of this might have arisen spontaneously—but this stuff was crafted. For effect.

And is that not a form of control?