amongst books

amongst books

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

In Praise of Plenitude

If I understand correctly, the one overriding feature that poetry is known for is its minimalism. Minimalist poets aspire to an economy of words, eschew adverbs and adjectives, use diction that is as precise and descriptive as possible. These are sound goals, but what if there is an alternative that isn't so bad either?

I'm thinking about plenitude, a fullness or richness in both life and words. According to Wikipedia (yes, I am a bad scholar), the concept of plenitude goes back to Epicurus & Lucretius who applied it to the limitless possibilities of reasons for astronomical & meteorological phenomena.

I also think of decadence in art and the movement or sickness known as horror vacui, a fear of empty spaces, the need to fill up a blank page.

In poetry, I apply plenitude in two ways:

1) the limitless possibilities of the imagination;

2) the use of repetitive language, hedgewords, adverbs & adjectives.

Let's start with 2 first because I'm rebellious & like to be disruptive, but also because it is uppermost in my mind.
Why would one deliberately choose to use words like rather, pretty, huh, a bit, perhaps etc? What if the poet wanted to write as people speak? That seems like a reasonable possibility to me.

Here's an excerpt from a Dennis Cooley poem entitled "police informer" from Dedications (Thistledown Press, 1988):

I got this leather jacket see
a black one right
its like a cop jacket
only a little slicker   I like to think
one a   those American ones    I guess yd say
       you know   Hill Street Blues
look a lot like Billy   donja think

This is still pretty minimalistic, but some of the language used is here to establish a tone, rather than as semantic information. & Cooley is, of course, a master of minimalism, no doubt.

Let's take a look at something else: Lisa Robertson's the weather (new star books, 2001). it is a book full of repetition & not sparse on words either. the repetition serves to form a kind of chant that I find quite mesmerizing.

About here. All along here. All along here. All the soft coercions. Maybe black and shiny, wrinkled. A sky marbled with failures. A patterned revision. And got here about one o'clock. And got here wet to the skin. And here are houses too, here and there. And luck too, whenever. And here experienced the benefits. And here again wisps. And here gained real knowledge. And here got into the wild. And here, too. Arrived here about two o'clock. here alone the length.

In the above excerpt there are extraneous words, such as maybe, about. And  in "And got here wet to the skin." Some of these words are there for sound: they act as rhythmic bridges. Some are there to show uncertainty.  I feel relieved when a poet shows uncertainty in her poems. I find it nerve-wracking when a poem is so clearly certain, so sure about where the light comes from, how the world works, how the sky looks. I prefer poetry that reflects the jumble & mayhem of life, not the hard lines, not absolutism.

let's move on to 1) the limitless possibilities of the imagination:

there are poets like Steven Venright, Gary Barwin, Robert Priest, & Peter Jaeger whose imaginations are wild & fertile.

Take a look at this example from Peter Jaeger's rapid eye movement (Reality Street, 2009):

I saw a white tower with many windows a long way off, across a flat plain. Bits of irradiated soot floated around the charred city, but I alone had survived the nuclear bombing. People keep watching what I do. I flew into the sky while dancing. Everyone was a unique organ functioning within the larger body that composed us. Branches grew into my eyes, ears, and ass.

What isn't minimal here is the imagery. It is rich and lush.

List poems, for me, represent the idea of plenitude. They are so full of oddly juxtaposed objects, ideas, & sensations that they overwhelm. Overwhelming the reader is a worthy goal, in my opinion.

They Loved These Things Too - Lisa Jarnot, Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions, 2003)

The sun the moon the stars the polar ice caps and the ice
cream cones the city streets the side streets and the small
TV the curve of flesh around the food the road maps and
November and the tiny birds and also certain people and
they loved the special chairs and also stuffed things and the
carnival and big rings and the o rings and they loved the
oranges in bags and Florida and Texas and the hotel room
and they loved the chili on the highway that they loved as if
they loved the onramp and the way that people called and
the natural forces of destruction and the sea they loved the
sea and also boats and sailing ships and whales they loved
and sea birds in varieties and then they loved the choice
of drinks to drink and also beer they loved the times that
others liked them that they loved and also they loved things

all shaped like tigers and they loved the zoo.

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