Poetry, Whatsoever: Blake, Blau DuPlessis, and an Expansive Definition of the Poem

By | 1 May 2019

In an edited version of a correspondence with William Watkin published in Jacket that pre-dates the quote above, Blau DuPlessis wrote that ‘the line segment defines poetry’ (par. 12). She contrasts the ‘line segment’ belonging to poetry with the form of segmentation belonging to prose – that is, the sentence. Blau DuPlessis extends this idea,

What makes any writing into poetry? Poetry as a specific kind of writing is distinguished essentially by segmentivity, that is, by the choice and division of its material into lines… (‘On Drafts’ 143)

The segment is made by the selection and division of language into lines. These segments are arranged as a poem, making pattern a vital aspect of poetry. The importance of pattern in poem-making means the poet can enter into the work of abstraction, softening the ligaments between language and referrant and making use of the sound and look of the poem.

But is the idea of segment still useful when we are talking about poetry that leaves the page? Poetry that’s spoken, performed, projected, signed, billboarded, painted? Poetry that turns up in the theatre, in film, in the visual arts, in music. Is it in gaming? Probably. (Shastra Deo might know). Is this definition of poetry good to go when we’re moving into these other settings: theatres, museums, bars, cafés, a street, a gig, VR worlds? Does the quality of segmentivity stay with poetry when poetry moves away from books and magazines?

When I think about a slam performance, and the way that a slam poet uses phrasing, as a singer uses phrasing, as part of ‘doing’ poetry, I can agree with myself that segmentivity is a feature of the poem in performance. When I think about the experimental online poems of a poet like Mez Breeze, I’m comfortable that segmentivity is once again applicable, as Breeze uses code to control how and when the words and lines of the poem arrive. When I think about the ceramic assemblages and collages of curator and artist Glenn Barkley and the reference he makes to the poetry of Eileen Chong and Shastra Deo, I’m content to think that segmentivity is at play, in how he puts the words on and in the image or object. Segmentivity. Yes.

Writing about John Ashbery, Paul Hoover says this,

… it is important to note the leading role of John Ashbery in American poetry since the publication of ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ (1975). Perhaps because his poetry expresses the period’s most important theme, indeterminacy … (xxxi)

Hoover, who is talking about Postmodern poetry – admittedly way back last century in 1994 – says indeterminacy is the period’s most important theme. I had to whip out my phone to check the definition of indeterminacy when I read that. Did it really mean what I thought it meant? Yes, it means ‘not exactly known, established or defined.’ Phew.

Something that holds poetry together, in all its various contexts, is the allowance made for it to be strange, opaque, resistant – it’s allowed to do things that don’t make sense. Poetry is ‘not exactly known’. It is, almost uniquely, a text that doesn’t have to prioritise intelligibility. When I write other things – this essay, a sick note, a thriller, an invitation, a memoir, a grant application, a bedtime story, a letter of support, an email making arrangements to get paid, almost any piece of writing except poetry, I am aiming for intelligibility first. I want the text to do other things too, but in order to do those other things the sentences have to use the kind of syntax that a reader is expecting, the vocabulary should be appropriate, the information organised in a way that makes sense and excludes irrelevancies. At this point I have to acknowledge the tiny, unignorable figures of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce dancing on the space bar of my keyboard, waving tiny first editions of The Waves and Finnegans Wake in the air. Yes, yes, the modernist novel. That’s why I said ‘almost uniquely’. So I’d like to add ‘indeterminacy’ alongside ‘segmentivity’ in my collection of poetry’s defining features.

Alison Whittaker reminds us that there’s someone else involved in all this,

I think the space that poetry leaves you means you don’t have to say everything and the reader can read into it. (cited in Power par. 4)

The reader, that’s us! We are also involved in making the poem. Not only are we looking at or listening to those line segments, we’re also working on them, looking for patterns, associating, feeling, accessing old memories and making new ones, building meaning, and experiencing various kinds of pleasure. This is not unique to readers of poetry. The reader ‘reads into’ whatever text they are, um, reading. But perhaps with poetry there’s extra space, thanks to the segmentivity (segments, after all, having space between them) and the indeterminacy. There’s also that aspect we touched on earlier, that poetry is what is ‘culturally understood as poetry’. And in that cultural place, the reader brings an intensity of their own, whether it is the intensity of attention, pleasure, or anxiety.

Blau DuPlessis cites Roman Jakobson, who writes in ‘Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics’:

In other words … poeticalness is not a supplementation of discourse with rhetorical adornment but a total re-evaluation of the discourse and of all its components whatsoever. (55)

As I was writing this essay, while re-rereading that quote, I was also thinking, ‘okay, but that stuff about William Blake’ – which is a way of exploring how poetry can be a part of unexpected contexts, more unexpected than slams, experimental online texts, art galleries and theatres: I mean really unexpected, like a poem about John Milton by a once obscure engraver being referred to in the title of the sitcom Jam & Jerusalem – ‘that stuff about William Blake – what does THAT have to do with segmentivity and indeterminacy’? And I almost decided to argue that poetry is sort of like Lego, where you have bits that you can take apart and put together in all kinds of conventional and unconventional ways. But then I decided it would be safer to use Jakobson’s word, components.

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