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Three Comments on Technique
– originally posted to the PDC Feb. 27, 2013
– edited on blog, Jan. 26, 2014

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

Three Poems by Sarah Arvio – Poetrty Daily, 2/27/13


from night thoughts: 70 dream poems & notes from an analysis (Alfred A. Knopf)
poem found here

First lines:
there are still the bad dreams I have to say
a dram in the thought of a bad bad night



poetry and the dream; technique and the poetic whole


Now, if you haven't looked it up yet, the book from which these poems come is a collection of poems created from actual dreams, with accompanying notes as to how those dreams played out in psychoanalysis. As such, the poems within the book as a whole probably has a context that is not carried outside the book. As such, there is no reason not to permit that the poems do not work as well outside the book as they would within. (Same as often happens when a chapter is excerpted out of a novel.) In fact, and especially because of the nature of the book, I rather expect it to be so. (Possibly, even, dramatically so.)

Nonetheless, I believe these poems offer something of interest for discussion as they stand on their own, either singly or as a triplet. But before that, a comment on dreams and creative writing.

As a general rule, it is a false step, a very poor approach, to translate your dreams into stories or poems. While the dream may have – and obviously will have – unity in your head, where is is an extension of your unconscious, that unity rarely translates onto the page. The exceptions to this rule prove the rule, because in most every exception the writer has used the dream as material to the making of a work (as opposed to simply writing down the dream). (If I remember correctly, Yeats's "The Cap and Bells" is such a poem.) And notice here I am not in any way saying do not let your dreams be source material. In fact, I insist that a writer should be listening to their dreams for source material – it is in your unconscious, after all, where true creating originates. What I am saying is do not simply transcribe a dream onto paper and expect it to work some dream-like, mysterious effect. That effect must be created by the writer; it won't simply be carried in as dream by the mere fact that it originated as a dream. (There is also the obverse of this: don't write stories or poems that are, in context, a dream. It rarely works, almost always is a bad idea from the get go. Do it to try it out if you want. But recognize it will probably be far more interesting to you than to any sophisticated reader.)


That said, what do we have here? Most obviously, they are not dream journal. They are worked poems. She is not transcribing: the events of the source dreams are, for the most part, but raw material to a creating of micrcosmoi. (Let's hold for the moment the question whether or not they are wholly successful in this creating.) Narrative, such as the dreams offer it, is not at the forefront of these poems. And it should be acknowledge that narrative is not a necessary constituent of a poem-as-microcosmos. It is but a tool, and raw material, to such creating. In fact, when narrative becomes the central point of a creative writing, it will lead you away from the aesthetic, not toward it. (Such is genre, after all.)

What, then, is the nature her creating? There is, of course, a degree of control over the lines: the Amazon blurb calls them "irregular sonnets." Though, in that they hold to sonnet form only in their being fourteen lines, and in the lines hovering around but in no way clinging to five accented syllables per line (I wouldn't even say they were iambic), I have trouble calling them sonnets of any manner. What makes a sonnet is less the count of fourteen lines and more what happens within those fourteen lines. But that quibble is with the blurb; there is, nonetheless, a formality to these poems. (Perhaps my quibble is with the need to call them anything? Why can't it simply be that she is playing with a form of her own?)

But the real energy of Ms. Arvio's poems – and looking at the Amazon preview of her second book, Sono, it may be this is very much her style – is in the play along the lines. There are three techniques, here. First, stringing out sounds, as with "a bad potion potent with impotence" in the first poem, and "in a quarrel a quarrel of squirrels / showing their teeth I feel queasy & sick" in the third. Second, there is stringing out ideas, as with "cat . . . wildcat . . . manxman . . . catpal . . . kittened" in the second poem, or the play with "heart," "hole," and "hell" in the first.

But, what for me is the dominating technique (or should I say over-arching, or over-guiding technique) is the syntactic stringing together of phrases, as with the first poem's first four lines. On this, it is not simply that she eschews punctuation. She crafts the lines so that not only is punctuation not needed, but is not wanted. (There is a huge distinction between leaving out commas and writing lines that do not want commas, something which so many poets do not seem to understand.) 

What is the result? Obviously, every poem has a running, non-stop flow to it, without pause, without break. Also, the continual presence of her techniques creates a kind of mesentery that pulls the various elements of each poem together into a unity: they are not best described as a running, linear flow of words. The words, the sounds, the ideas, all interconnect within each poem. They are, to use Joyce's word, a great word (and these poems do remind me of Joyce's own manner of play), wordspiderwebs, something which very much gives description to the organic nature of the aesthetic work.

What I am inartfully trying to get at is that these poems are not merely technique. Three comments on technique:

  1. Technique is but a tool. I have seen many works (in literary and other media) that are built with attention to technique but to no purpose of a greater creating. This very often with artists playing with mixed media, as though they believe that the technique of mixing the media is sufficient to a successful work. (And while we're here, let's accept it, people: most of John Cage's works are experiments of technique: essentially, he was a creative explorer, constantly asking, "what happens when I do this?", but not equally concerned with the unity of the result. They are often wonderful, intriguing, thought provoking experiments; but, still experiments.) The idea that technique is not sufficient to itself to art is why it is said, in the plastic arts, that mere reproduction of life is the lowest form of art (so also as I say with mere narrative and reportage): such art is, in the end, nothing but technique. 
  2. Nonetheless, there can also be true creativity in technique, in that without technique, without interesting technique, the poem (or whatever) will rather lack in life, and become extremely vulnerable in its making to banality or conventionality. This may be what distinguishes the accessible to the inaccessible composition: the more complex, the more irregular the technique, the less easy it will be for someone unsophisticated in the medium to enter the experience of the work. (Consider the difference in compositional technique between Brahms, who is very accessible, and Mahler, who is less so, and then Schnittke, who is far less yet again.)
  3. Technique made a purpose unto itself falls into conventionality and genre. Genre works are readily accessible to their readers because their technique is readily recognized and understood, and rarely changes. (U.S. drama is ridden with technique substituted as art. As a quick example to that rather sweeping statement: listen to the music of Rent; listen to the music of Hair. The former is a direct descendant of the conventions that were created out of the techniques brought to play in the latter. I will admit I have only seen the film and perfmormed scenes/exceprts of the play: but to me it is apparent Rent is a remarkably un-creative, derivitive, generic play.)

The question always to be thrown at technique is, "ok, there is a technique; but what are you going to do with it?" Which is the question which must be cast upon these three poems. There is fascinating technique here, very playful, very experiential; and the poems are brought into a kind of unity with those techniques. But do they truly succeed as individual and whole poems? or, are they more what I call "five-finger exercises": works imperfect in that they are not unified, independent creations, but which still perform to a somewhat-worthy degree, usually as a demonstration of some technique or form of play? A more common word is to call them fragments rather than poems. 

(I pause to remind you we are artificially taking these poem as we find them, outside the context of the book as whole.)

In that they play with dream-like experience, are they of the nature of surrealist experiments: interesting, but (as Batailles would point out to Breton's consternation) incomplete and insufficient as true poetry (true literature)?

Art, that is, the aesthetic when it is concerned in the creating of art (including literature and music), is inextricably about medium. This is much of what lies behind the truism that an aesthetic painter paints (in the end and most honestly) for other painters, a writer writes for other writers: that is, for the people who would most be able to appreciate their creations out of whatever medium, those people who themselves have dedicated themselves to the study and exploration of that medium. A poet, a writer, is supposed to be a lover of words and language. If not, then they are not a literary person, they are a diarist, a documentarian, a reporter merely. So, when someone does things like the play you see in these three poems, true literary people get off on it. It goes to the jouissance of literature; it is the very pleasure of literature (see Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads if you don't believe Derrida, Barthes, et al), it is the experience of the aesthetic. More simply, it is the point of it all. But not only: there is also – there is more greatly – the making of the microsmoi that are works of the aesthetic, the enjoyment of that wholeness, of the being, as it were, of the work. More accurately, the engagement of the individual with that work.

Literature as an aethetic endeavor is the attempt to create a cosmos out of words. (I resist the want to say 'create something new' because, in aesthetic creation, every work is, by definition, something new, is its own microcosmos, is its own experience. Thus the distinction between the aesthetic and the generic/conventional/cultural: the aesthetic creates microcosmoi, the generic reproduces the set conventions of the nomoi.) It is in organic that creative works have the most to offer the reader.

Thus the question: are these poems successful poems, or are they fragments? Do we have, here, three successful microcosmoi? My answer to that question is no: I believe the true microcosmoi being attempted here is not the individual poems but the book as a whole: and, as I said, I am very interested to see if that whole is successful. But, irrespective of that question, these poems (and we'll permit the word) are fascinating, enjoyable experiences, carrying even with only this small number of them much to discuss about poetry and the aesthetic, as I hope I have demonstrated. So, while I may not accept them as successful wholes, I gladly accept them as successful explorations of the aesthetic.