Thanks again to Jim Cummins, Stacey Harwood, and BAP for asking me to guest-blog. It's been an honor to share a few thoughts on poetry and teaching creative-writing with the discerning readers of BAP throughout the week. Please feel free to leave a comment here or "friend" me on Facebook if you'd like to continue any of these conversations. That's really what blog posts are supposed to be: the continuation, not the ending, of a dialog. Or at least that's my hope.
Yesterday I posted the first half of "Purity and Nonsense," which explores Paul Valery’s notion of Pure Poetry as it might pertain to nonsense verse, particularly in one representative contemporary example: Charles Bernstein’s “Johnny Cake Hollow.” Below, please find Part Two, with this disclaimer: Part Two may not make sense for those who haven’t read Part One!
But Bernstein’s “psychotic break” is at least entertaining, providing a superior amusement (Eliot), a kind of toilet humor for the English major. His nonsense diction (anti-diction?) brings a parodic, even subversive element to the poem. The dominance of monosyllabic and disyllabic words, for example, and the recurrence of sounds such as “gar” and “oot,” suggest Old English, the poet’s attempt at approximating the sound without the sense. Here are a few words from Beowulf: “Hrothgar,” “Herot,” “Hnaef,” “Jutes.” And a few from Bernstein’s poem: “filgrunt,” “atsum,” “horay,” “bloot.” Unlike Beowulf, however, when read aloud, Bernstein’s coinages resemble noises the body exudes after digesting a heavy meal—an effect that, however infantile, serves as the poem’s punch line.
This comical tone, achieved through the silliness of the poem’s sounds, becomes an antidote to Poe’s requirement that poetry, and pure poetry in particular, excite and elevate the soul. Bernstein aims for the cheap laugh—the class-clown’s whoopee cushion in sixth-period chemistry. Which is not to say that the poem is without strong feeling. Several emotions may result from reading or hearing it, including hilarity, bafflement, anger, and disgust. But, again, the poem’s resemblance to music offers the most potential for the emotive response Valery was after. In fact, if this poem is anything beyond nonsense, it must be entirely musical, a composition in pure language-sound, a kind of vocalese or scat sung to the “melody” of the ballad stanza. What these faux-language sounds call to mind, however, is anything but pure. Would I be pushing the metaphor too far by suggesting a buried, homophonic pun on “scat” (improvised nonsense syllables sung by a vocalist) and “scat” (animal feces)?
Regardless, it is this unfortunate punch line that would appear to disqualify Bernstein’s poem from the title of pure poetry, at least according to Robert Penn Warren, who, in his essay “Pure and Impure Poetry,” lists the qualities in poems that prevent the work from achieving this end. According to what Warren refers to as “the modern doctrine of pure poetry,” poems that resist pure poetry,
mar themselves with cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, clichés, sterile technical terms, headwork and argument, self-contradictions, clevernesses, irony, realism—things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.
While “Johnny Cake Hollow” manages to avoid technical terms, colloquialisms, argument, “headwork,” and even realism, it’s certainly dominated by cacophonies, jagged rhythms, and ugly words.
But maybe Bernstein’s poem is still a contender. Later in Warren’s essay he asks whether pure poetry “exists despite the impurities of the total composition,” eventually arguing that “the effect might even be more vulnerable poetically if the impurities were purged away.” Though Bernstein’s poem differs wildly from the touchstones Warren mentions (Dante’s Purgatory, the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet), it certainly avoids the “moral questions” George Moore disparages in the introduction to his 1924 An Anthology of Pure Poetry, and seems to have passed through Warren’s fires of irony into a realm “in which the musical continuity is never broken, in which the relations between meanings [are] themselves perpetually similar to harmonic relations” (Valery). Purged of meaning in the linguistic sense, Bernstein’s poem can communicate anything or nothing. A message of pure subjectivity, it celebrates and sings its impurities until its cacophonies, jagged rhythms, and ugly words become their own form of purity, a riot of “garvey swait” and“outsey burft.”
But so what? In his “in place of a preface a preface” to With Strings, the book in which “Johnny Cake Hollow” appears, Bernstein asserts: “Art is not made of essences but husks.” As a spoof on one of the oldest traditions of narrative and/or devotional poetry in the English language, Bernstein’s poem could certainly be defined as a husk, a shell, a resonance, an echo. Think of how violently a poet like Emily Dickinson or Thomas Hardy violated a similar stanza: Hardy exploiting the ballad in painful elegies for his first wife; Dickinson recasting the Calvinist hymn into poems of desire and existential despair. Compared with poems of such white heat, Bernstein’s postmodern pseudo-satire would wither and flake to dust. But the intension of Bernstein’s poem, insofar as we can infer this, seems so radically different from these other poems that, in the end, all they have in common is form, which, as Hayden Carruth defines it, is only “a byproduct of poetry.”
Then again, maybe I’m being unfair to “Johnny Cake Hollow.” Apologists for conceptual poetry would probably accuse me of reading the poem as a mimetic rather than a hermetic text. As Jerome McGann observes in Black Riders, Bernstein often “abjures the linguistic level of referential narrativity,” privileging a mode of writing that “deliberately restricts its resources” in order to “pursue a special effect.” If the special effect Bernstein’s poem pursues is satire, then it succeeds in calling out the multifarious forms and works mentioned above. Through limiting its resources to pre-morphemic monosyllabic grunts like “urk klurpf” and “merp av ords,” Bernstein deflects the reader’s focus from the referential onto the sonic, a feat only possible in poetry with nonsense. Unlike Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” however, which disorients the English language into a series of neologisms and portmanteau words, “Johnny Cake Hollow” achieves an almost total linguistic dislocation that primitivizes the poem into pure sound.
But is it poetry? Does it present the rhythmical creation of beauty (Poe), or is it merely an act of mischief (Roethke)? Does it represent the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling (Wordsworth), perform a criticism of life (Arnold), or is it a lowly mug’s game (Eliot)? Either way, “Johnny Cake Hollow,” as a conceptual poem, raises some questions worth considering: What is form independent from content? How unintelligible can a poem be before it ceases to be a poem? Can noise and form alone excite the soul? Whether poetry in the purest sense, or satirical doggerel that has a palpable design on us, Bernstein’s poem, as Stevens claimed a poem must do, “resist[s] the intelligence / Almost successfully.” But this alone does not a poem make.