Article by Stephen Morrissey
Montreal Journal of Poetics, winter 1978-79
For anyone exposed to a lot of experimental poetry the question of its purpose and value is raised. It seems to me that the central reason for experimenting in poetry is that the poetic forms one inherits have become obsolete; poets must discover and write in a form that corresponds to their own time. Times change and the vehicle for communicating that change is something alive, organic and writers need to be aware of this in their work. The second major reason is that experimental poetry is a form of lateral thinking, a way of getting "unblocked", a way of approaching poetry so that the poem needn't conform to preconceived ideas of how it should look and sound, but of allowing the poem and the poet's voice to find its own form, its own way of being expressed.
What has happened is that the experiment has become an end in itself, so that we have a whole group of poets who can be categorized as "experimental". Perhaps their idea is that by "experimenting" they think they're being "experimental", unfortunately a new form doesn't necessarily provide a new content. In effect, the "experimental poet" often has nothing to say but is merely playing with form, and that "playing with form" soon becomes redundant. We must ask ourselves what is behind the experiment. If it is nothing more than restructuring form then I really doubt the experiment can maintain its validity over a protracted period of time. Experimenting is so fundamental to poetry that perhaps it is a tautology. However, the fundamental error in the pose of experimenting is that no experiment is being performed, indeed, a kind of anti-experiment is occurring, the poetry being created, is poetry in name only. If we take the Dada movement as an example, the poems by today's "Dadaists" may be a resuscitation of the Dada movement, but they lack the humour of Dada and the social and political context that created the conditions necessary for Dada to exist. Now we have Dada turned in on itself and taken seriously, and to do this is not to understand what Dada was all about.
So one finds Opal L. Nations writing and performing what is in essence a watered down kind of Monty Python humour. Or Steve McCaffery performing a poem written on a Swedish typewriter, thereby experimenting with the different Swedish characters, and then reading what is really a mimicry of a Swedish accent. Is the experiment putting on a Swedish accent? Or is it the permutations of letters and words he typed using a Swedish typewriter? Personally I find something basic, something essential, wrong in this apparent experimental approach to poetry. There seem to be two streams of experimental writing: one is to play with form (characters on a Swedish typewriter, for instance), and to perform a number of experiments using that structure, so that some form of randomness and permutations of words and noises are evident in all of their work. The other stream of experimental poetry attempts to deal with form not in a preconceived structural way but as an organic movement of ideas, feelings and images, a way to get at something new in the poem, to reveal something about life.
While it is interesting, for a while, to experiment with permutations and chance, it is also something that should be passed through. The problem with some experimental poets, as a group, is that the experiment is not passed through but becomes a pose and an end in itself. Perhaps they want to shock the audience, well and good, audiences should be shocked. But what often happens is that the experimenter has the preconception that he is furthering poetry, or that to experiment is the only valid approach to writing and anyone not experimenting is conservative, not writing poetry that is relevant. I think that this idea of advancing poetry is an idea that belongs to business or science but has nothing to do with poetry; poetry has nowhere to advance to, a poem written a thousand years ago is just as much poetry as work written today; I believe that this is an important point and is central to an understanding of all poetry. Poetry has nothing to do with the mentality of advancement, it is in essence "timeless". This "timelessness" doesn't negate the necessity of experimentation but only deepens its significance. To understand the mentality of the age requires a new form, but not a preconceived notion of how to get at that new form. It requires a genuine experimentation that sees that there are no preconceived ways of understanding the age we live in but does require an investigation without ideas of where that investigation will lead: this, in essence, is what experimentation is; a freshness, an approach without prejudgments, an innocence, an investigation of the unknown made known in a new form, and thus the requirement that it be organic, because the unknown is organic and living.
There is a type of Canadian poetry that caters to the audience. Perhaps one can make a living off of Canada Council readings and then there is a necessity of writing humourous poems. That attitude obviously promotes a star system in poetry, competitiveness, and a desire to achieve. But it is also detrimental to poetry as a serious art form and as a serious study of existence. This doesn't only apply to the experimental poet but to the whole Canadian poetry scene. All poets want to be read and to be popular, but that misses another issue, which is the individual's own self-awareness.
The objection to experimental poetry is that it becomes anti-experimental and trite when it becomes a pose. To see the process of creativity is interesting but to turn the process into the finished product is not. The pose soon becomes a depressing aspect of the poetry scene: knowing the moves in advance, the repetition of the same sound poems becomes a monotonous thing, in which the idea of making poetry new is defeated. It is not new when five hundred different poets have done it five hundred times before.
The experimental poet is correct when he complains that the old forms are obsolete, that much poetry is boring and says nothing, and he is correct to criticize poetry and try to make it new. But the experiment as a conclusion, the experiment as a pose, is also an error and only promotes the reduction of poetry to something that is trivial and superficial.
Finally, the experimental poet's relationship to poetry is the most difficult because he must constantly be aware of the language and its limitations. The purpose of experimenting is also to find one's voice and then deal with the fact that poets don't have merely one voice or style, but many; the real experiment moves us closer to an understanding of the self which is of value and meaning to the whole community.
November 12 - 13, '78
Copyright © 2007 The author