“Any Words Treated as Holy and not as Debris”

“amulets talismans grigris mani-walls deviltraps kemioth tefillin mezuzahs medals sacred-monograms” (dom Sylvester Houedard).

I was cranky last week. Damn cranky. Going through a bit of a crisis in my relationship to poetry. I was staying in my mother-in-law’s half-packed-up house, dealing with all the debris that accompanies a death: paperwork, pictures, phone calls, phone trees, caterers, euologies, deeds and titles, storage, movers, despondent and incapacitated sister-in-laws, an excess of flower arrangements, last wishes, insurance and banks and car dealerships, great uncles in Missouri, step-daughters in Wichita, a husband who had stopped eating, and a two year old who wouldn’t stop coughing. I didn’t have time for poetry, and I felt myself echoing my mother’s steeped-in-industrious-working-class-beliefs when I began damning poetry a luxury.

But no, not a luxury. “Men die miserably every day for the lack of what is found there.” So it wasn’t that I didn’t have time for poetry. I needed poetry. I did. I was combing my memory and books for a poem to read at her service, a poem that would help make sense of her death. A brutal one. A stabbing. Wording the police used: multiple stab wounds. She died in her kitchen. The murderer is a coworker she helped out on several occasions when he fell on tough times. Young enough to be her son. He has five children. And I couldn’t find a poem to read. I couldn’t think of a poem to read. I have faith in poetry’s ability to transform, transcend, illuminate, bless, inspire, save lives, heal, mend, rend, challenge, and start a revolution. But I couldn’t find a fucking poem to read at her service. So I gave up.

And late at night at her dining table in Wichita, KS, I was trying to make sense of concrete poetry’s relationship to digital poetry, and I was playing with programs that simulated the creation of concrete poetry like concrete poetry generator and Your World of Text, both of which were making me lose my mind. I couldn’t reconcile my idea of poetry, my needs of poetry, with these manifestations of concrete poetry. So I ranted about the relationship between form and content, or the lack of relationship between form of content, or, really, the lack of content, even though I know I’m supposed to “perceive” the form AS content. This poetry, this kinetic poetry, this sound poetry, this playful, material-based, technologically-driving poetry was doing nothing for me when I needed it.

So that was last week. Cranky. Resisting. Full of condemnation. This week I decided to figure out why I’m so insistent on content, on form AND content instead of form AS content. And I found in the pilot plan of the Noigandres poets an explanation that sort of worked for me “concrete poem communicates its own structure: structure-content. concrete poem is an object in and by itself not an interpreter of exterior objects and/or more or less subjective feelings. its material: word (sound, visual form, semantical charge. its problem: a problem of functions-relations of this material.”

And I opened up to the idea, to the idea of non-verbal communication. If I equate the form of the poem to the form of the human (body), then the form of the poem can communicate just as well as the body does through gesture and movement and dance. And I sort of like the idea that the functions-relations of the word is problematical. Of course they are. Words and all their baggage. Words and all their associations and connotative meanings. Words get us into trouble all the time by meaning what we don’t want them to mean. So yes, I was open to the idea of concrete poetry, but I wasn’t convinced. I still wanted the words’ meaning, as faulty and doubled and halved as they usually are.

And then I read dom Sylvester Houedard. Get this – a Benedictine monk. My breath deepens in relief. Words as objects and signs. “any concrete medium to be looked at as well as through“. “mysteria & sacramenta.” “veiling & revealing.” “readers supplies missing links.” And so I get it. I was so focused on what I needed from the poem that I couldn’t think that the poem might possibly need something from me as a reader, a perceiver. That it isn’t eschewing semantics so it can be devoid of meaning; rather is it creating a space for a different semantics that will simulatenously veil and reveal. Concrete poetry creates its own space, creates space for me as a reader to enter into its mystery. To act as my mezuzah, my amulet. I know. Kindof spiritual hoo-ha. But, come on. A Benedictine monk. A mourning woman who lost her faith in poetry. It’s going to get spiritual.

Now how to connect this to digital poetry. That’s for next week.


1 Comment »

  1. loveandpopsicles said


    in my head i saw the collection of debris from your mum-in-law’s house as its own concrete poetry.

    that makes sense to me, and probably only me.

    it’ll be nice to have you back in class thursday.


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