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Talking About Poems and What They Do Is Hard: A Defense of Nonsense, I Guess

Talking About Poems and What They Do Is Hard: A Defense of Nonsense, I Guess
Magpie on the Gallows

Magpie on the Gallows by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

An essay at 32 Poems by Matthew Buckley Smith poses two questions: Why do so many poems make so little sense? and Why do people like them so much?

Smith (a poet I like and admire, who gives me hope that there is yet interesting poetry to be wrung from the iamb!) deems the questions “honest”—but I’d say at best they’re half-honest. If you wanted to know why people do certain things and why others like those things, the first thing you’d do, if possible, is ask the people in question. Sure, people are not always truthful, and there’s some kind of limit to self-awareness, but it would be a start.

Instead, Smith begins by defining “nonsense” and, in the process, demonstrates how difficult it is to be objective about it. “What the mind cannot feel is called nonsense,” he writes. If you ask me, “mind” (whose?) and “feel” (in what way?) make this definition hopelessly imprecise. Smith himself quickly concedes that “[e]ven a list of words selected at random from the dictionary can provoke some feeling.”

He goes on: “It is not enough for various parts to register as felt by the mind. In order for an utterance to make sense, the mind must feel it as a whole. ‘As a whole,’ though, need not mean ‘without omission,’ and vice versa.”

So sense requires that one’s mind be able to feel an utterance, as a whole, and with or without omission. Everything else is nonsense. As this preliminary definition gets cumbersome, Smith replaces it with this: “One makes sense of an utterance by imagining the mind that could produce it.”

But even this definition of sense (and implicit definition of nonsense)—which asks that we consider one mind’s ability to imagine another mind—requires further tweaking. Unconscionable statements, though they may leave our minds struggling to imagine the mind of another, are excluded from nonsense. Infantile babble and paranoiac ravings are nonsense par excellence but are ultimately excluded from that category—for the purposes of the essay, at least—because “we don’t expect to imagine” the minds that produce them.

So the “nonsense” poems that Smith is treating are those poems which preclude a mind’s ability to imagine the minds that produced them, minds that the first mind expected to imagine.

Despite the extreme subjectivity of “nonsense” as defined here, Smith offers only two options when a reader believes that a poem doesn’t make sense:

“1. The poem does make sense, you just haven’t made sense of it yet.
2. The poem truly does not make sense, whether or not the poet intended to.”

I would like to add a third: The sense of the poem is in you, the reader.

I don’t mean to be willfully obtuse. I know, more or less, what Smith is talking about: poems with dangling words and clauses, poems with titles that relate ambiguously to the poems’ content, poems that leap from thought to thought or from half-thought to half-thought. Yes, poems like that exist. And in case we thought they didn’t, Smith shows us three, beginning with John Ashbery’s “On His Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments,” which goes like this:

A nice, normal morning:
feet setting out as though in a trance,
doubling the yesterdays, a doubled man
under the stairs, and strange surrealist fish
from so much disappearance, damaged in the mail.

Or the spry cutting edge of another day.
Here, we have these in
sizes and colors—
day goes fluttering by.

Like ivy behind a chimney
it grows and grows in ropes.
Mouse teams unslay it,
yeomen can’t hear yet.

A shadow purling,
up into the sky.
Silence in the vandalized vomitorium.

It’s great that you can be here too.
Passivity rests its case.

Smith can’t imagine the mind that would write the first stanza, since “we can’t say what kind of mind considers this to be a normal morning, what kind of mind considers a normal morning to be worth retelling, what kind of mind employs these particular quirks of grammar, or, most pressingly, what kind of mind is satisfied with permitting his audience to remain so disoriented for so long.” Plus, there are no Christmas ornaments yet. By the end of the poem, Smith concludes “not only can we not imagine a particular speaker choosing to say these things out loud, we can’t even deduce from these lines any central mind that might choose to put them in a poem.”

I don’t know about you, but I can imagine virtually anything happening in a poem. And, anyway, I can certainly imagine someone writing this poem. I could go on about what I find funny, poignant, thematically coherent, and exciting about “On His Reluctance…,” but somehow that’s beside the point. Smith writes that to say poems like this are nonsense “is not to say we don’t enjoy them. It’s not to say that they can’t be opportunities to reflect upon our own lives. And it’s certainly not to say that we aren’t challenged by the brokenness of the language to examine the parts and functions of language itself.”

Well, what is it to say then?! In the essay, the pathology of nonsense is so implicit, so absolute that Smith can concede any point you like about how interesting or enjoyable it might be to read or to write or whatever, as long as in the end, he gets to apply the scarlet letter of “nonsense.” None of those concessions prevent Smith from arriving at a conspiratorial conclusion—via Aristotle and Paul the Apostle—that denies honest enjoyment and edification, such is the transcendently insidious evil of nonsense.

Smith concludes that so many persist in penning nonsense “for the imagined pleasure of… invisible authorities” and to feign inspiration, and that people like to read nonsense poetry because, well, they don’t really like it—they just don’t want to look stupid. Also, there is an “unspoken truce” among poets: “So long as our poems can achieve success without having to make sense, nobody need actually read them.”

Here’s the problem. Everything that makes “nonsense” so undesirable—leaving the reader “disoriented,” frustrating the poet’s father-in-law, violating the reader’s expectation, making the reader work too hard—are just as much features of poetry that “makes sense.” Likewise, if the poet’s desire to appear inspired and the reader’s desire not to look stupid are dynamic forces in the “nonsense” scene, they aren’t absent from the others!

Here’s the other problem. Despite the close readings of three poems, the essay never abandons the hypothetical, not when it comes to the questions of why poets write nonsense (besides the one anecdote about the self-vandalizing award winner) and why others like it. And, as an hypothesis, “vast tacit conspiracy” is a little unlikely, to say the least. And it only works at all if you accept that the difference between “sense” and “nonsense” in poetry is clear and objective, and not determined by the subjective act of reading.

I do like the first sentence of the last paragraph, which I would have liked better as a last sentence, and which I’m making my last sentence and the title of my response: “Talking about poems and what they do is hard.”

Param Anand Singh

Param Anand Singh is a poet and translator who used to be called R.M. O'Brien. A sticker he made might be in a movie.

About The Author

Param Anand Singh

Param Anand Singh is a poet and translator who used to be called R.M. O'Brien. A sticker he made might be in a movie.

  • Trey

    When Smith says “we can’t say what kind of mind considers this to be a normal morning,” etc. he loses me, because that string of denials is like 1 or 2 mental steps away from doing what he’s saying can’t be done. like, just take those qualities and then, uh, imagine a person who has them? although I guess in a way it’s appropriate that he tried to write about nonsense and ended up writing nonsense.

  • Matthew Buckley Smith

    Bob! Thank you for taking the time both to read my little essay and to write so thoughtful a response. Your critical observations are, unsurprisingly, witty and astute. I’m sorry the essay wasn’t of more use to you, but I won’t tread water here by trying to argue over it. I do want you to know–more for human reasons than rhetorical ones–that I certainly did not mean to say that nonsense is evil or that nonsense poetry is without virtue. The essay was really just an attempt to examine nonsense as a category and to make a careful–and as you note quite limited–assertion that much of the conversation about poetry in America today is conducted, I think, in bad faith. That is, we read, write, and enjoy different sorts of poems, which is all to the good, but we speak about these poems too often through a tight-grinned mask of denial. Anyway, it’s hard even to get that much said without tripping over my own tongue. Oh, well. I’ll aim to do better next time. Till then, Godspeed, and give my love to Baltimore. I miss it bad. Yours, M.

    • RM O’Brien

      Matthew, don’t yield! Don’t yield! I think your essay is worthwhile. I just wanted to advance the discussion. I appreciate that you are willing to go after snake oil in poetry. Particularly, because it’s probably socially expedient not to. Many times I’ve been at a reading and thought “Is this poet trying to come off sage but saying nothing?” But I find I can never turn that reaction into something generally intelligible–into an essay or whatever. My contention w/ “Why Poems Don’t Make Sense” revolves around what I read as the confusion of “nonsense” as a category of poetry with more-or-less objective features and “nonsense” as a pejorative for pseudo-mystical, cynically produced poetry. But maybe the confusion is mine. (Or maybe your argument is more modest: that grammatically ambiguous, dangler-ridden poetry is bound to attract the fakers, who are less likely to be noticed over there?) Anyway, it sounds like you don’t want to continue to hash it out here, which is no problem. Thanks for the response to the response.

      • Matthew Buckley Smith

        Oh, good! I’ll be happy to continue the discussion here. I’m just not great with internet etiquette, so I wasn’t sure if that was quite the done thing.

        I understand your frustration with the essay, and I think I have a guess as to where our wires might have got crossed. If I myself were to read it with the notion that it was trying to examine ‘nonsense’ as a literary category, then I could only find it irritating and ultimately incomprehensible. Obviously, I take responsibility for any ambiguity that led to this angle of entry, but I certainly didn’t intend to describe a literary category. I intended to describe an experience.

        I should say that this may touch on your suggestion that I try to ‘ask the people in question.’ It’s a good suggestion, and a different–perhaps better–version of the essay might have resulted from that line of inquiry. Still, in so far as the people in question are those who like the poetry I’m broadly addressing, they do tend to have their say in criticism of this poetry, criticism I read regularly and with interest. As I said, a different version of the essay might have taken this criticism as its focus. I find, though, that much of the prose-about-poetry that I read attempts to ground itself either in the poet’s own perspective or in the political and theoretical context of the publication. (And then there are the more conservative publications, which tend to ground their criticism in the supposedly solid ground of an approved literary tradition.)

        These are all worthy concerns, but I felt that others had taken them on better than I could. What I’ve seen far less frequently is a consideration of contemporary poetry chiefly through the experience of the reader. When it comes to many contemporary readers–that is, readers who are largely non-readers of poetry–this experience is frustration, boredom, and dismissal. I was moved to write the essay less by my wife’s offhand question than by the similar questions and remarks I’d heard for years from acquaintances and relatives who ‘just don’t get poetry.’ This dismissal, it’s worth saying, doesn’t for the most part apply only to contemporary poets, but also shrugs off nearly all poets, Shakespeare and Keats included. I figured that, rather than again assessing oblique poetry in same the terms by which its practitioners define it, I might start by accepting at face value the experience that many ‘lay’ readers testify to: the experience of not being able to make sense of a poem.

        So, you’re absolutely right that I use the word ‘nonsense’ in application to a criminally broad variety of poetry, sweeping up both the obscure master and the phony sage in one gesture. But the reason for this breadth is simple. I’m not—at least initially—describing the poetry itself. I’m describing the-experience-of-not-understanding-the-poetry, an experience that can apply to any poem—good, bad, or insane—depending on the circumstances of the reader.

        My—certainly imperfect—attempt was to offer something like a description of darkness as a felt experience. Sometimes one sees darkness because all the lights in the room have been switched off. Sometimes one sees darkness simply because one’s eyes are closed. And—to invert Plato’s allegory—sometimes, perhaps, one sees darkness because one’s eyes have not yet adjusted to the otherwise navigable dimness of a strange and wonderful new space.

        What I hoped to do, then, was to examine this experience—the phenomenological process of not-making-sense—as it occurs to the reader. Of course, my examination was necessarily cropped by my own cognitive, educational, and cultural limits, but I thought there might be some value in sketching it out nonetheless. I may well have been wrong. I frequently am.

        I suppose, though, that part of my hope for setting out on this errand—which, as you noted, was unlikely to win me many dinner invitations—is that I believe there is something to be found in the reader’s experience of sense-making. (This something, I think, is a kind of artificial empathy. Neuroscientists describe a parallel process that involves something they call ‘mirror neurons.’ Someone who’s more scientifically literate will correct me, but my pedestrian understanding is that these cells allow us to reflect in our own brains the electrical activity theoretically occurring in the brains of those we see and hear—based on their expressions, movements, and vocalizations. In my dumb understanding, it works like this: I see your facial expression, my brain lights up those neurons that would light up if I were making the same facial expression, I feel a shudder of something like what might have led you to make that facial expression in the first place.) Reading can be a kind of seance, by which one conjures in one’s own mind a crude approximation of the mind that would have spoken such words, in such an order, at such a length. The dead mind lives again for a moment in the living. (It’s also a bit like the old tradition of epitaphs. The inscription on a tombstone was written in the voice of the deceased, so that when a visitor read it aloud, the dead man was permitted once more briefly to be physically heard by the living.)

        There is poetry that makes use of this necromancy, and there is poetry that has other, equally cunning, business. There is also, as you observed, poetry that has little business at all, aside from passing itself off as one of the previous varieties. But my point is that this conjuring, this imaginative mirroring, I call ‘making sense.’ That is, the way people commonly use the phrase ‘making sense’ I think implies something of the kind, though I don’t imagine that many people who use the phrase are consciously thinking of it in this way. (Sort of like how one might casually say, ‘Great talking to you, Mom. Let’s catch up again before too long,’ without consciously acknowledging that the ‘too’ in ‘too long’ suggests of course death, as in, ‘Great talking to you, Mom. Let’s catch up again before one of us dies.’)

        The back half of the essay is mostly just shifting away from the reader’s perspective back to the writer’s and identifying some of the different kinds of poems that pursue business other than sense-making. I tried to make special mention of the mindset of someone motivated by—totally legitimate!—anti-ideological revolutionary convictions. And in the section that uses the names of three children’s games, I addressed other reasons that a poet might write poems that are likely to be received as nonsense. Some of these reasons—as I imagine you and I would agree—are more reasonable than others.

        The criticism of yours that I feel most keenly is the note on the ending. I definitely did not mean for ‘nonsense’ to be use as any sort of categorical condemnation—any more than ‘blurry’ is a categorical condemnation of objects that, for a variety of reasons, people might have trouble seeing. (Included in the category of ‘blurry,’ for instance, would be much of the heart-wrecking oeuvre of Gerhard Richter. I’ll also share that one of the strangers who posted a link to my essay referred to it as a ‘defense of nonsense,’ so you and I may be closer in spirit than we seem.) But I am unquestionably guilty of a certain dose of cynicism in my conclusion. That is, I don’t believe in any sort of conspiracy. And I don’t believe we’ve all actually agreed not to read each other poems. The subtler truth behind my ham-fisted flourish is a feeling I get—of disappointment and vague guilt—whenever I’m around other poets. It is a feeling that derives, I suspect, from the whiff of desperation and denial that follows many of us around, me as much as any.

        You mention that at poetry readings sometimes you feel you are in the presence of phoniness—deliberate or otherwise. I feel this, too. And yet, I have never bravely approached a poet after a reading and said, ‘You, sir, are a fraud.’ I suspect I never will. And so, necessarily, I also suspect that many who attend my readings are exercising similar restraint.

        That all this stuff—processes, implications, meanings, deceptions, etc.—is not consciously intended or understood by most of us most of the time probably goes without saying. What shouldn’t go without saying is how lovely it is that you encourage cordial debate on this forum. Internet comments sections provoke in me the queasy expectation of imminent brutality that I used to feel upon entering a locker room. How good it is to be decent with one another.

        Speaking of which, there’s a whole related conversation I’d love to have with you sometime about the question of mood in reading, but I’ve gone on much too long as it is. You’ll have to come visit us in Chapel Hill and talk some shop over a bourbon, or maybe I’ll make the drive back up to Charm City before too long.

        • I totally understand this sentiment / concern: “When it comes to many contemporary readers–that is, readers who are largely non-readers of poetry–this experience is frustration, boredom, and dismissal.”

          I appreciate that you don’t assume from their frustration that they are unintelligent or impatient readers (as evidenced by your erudition, not to mention word count …)

          But these many readers aren’t the people that poets ought to worry about when writing poems. I feel like the abstractions that (forgive me) “savvy” poetry readers can pick up on will be filtered and packaged into different, consumer-friendly layers of culture—in the same way that the complex ideas of neuroscientists are—by the experts who aren’t intimidated by them and (in the case of poetry), are willing to recognize and explore the many ways that sense can be made.

          • Matthew Buckley Smith

            I think “savvy” is a fine word for distinguishing between those who read poetry as a matter of devoted study and those who may be reluctant to read it at all. And your mention of the less-than-consumer-friendly texture of both advanced poetry and advanced scientific research brings to mind a passage from Robert Penn Warren’s mordant little book, Democracy and Poetry. On the question of poetry’s modest contemporary readership, he turns to modern science for a model:

            “…the values which ‘pure’ science exhibits in its pursuit of truth are not, in themselves, much prized or richly rewarded in the bustling world of serious concerns. Even so, between the elitism of science and that of art there is a difference, one deriving from the fact that, even to the functionally illiterate, the man in the white jacket pictured in the advertisement holding up a test tube is recognized as a giver—though at second hand, through technology—of practical benefits. The elitism of the arts, however, receives no such acceptance, even at second hand.”

            There are writers I admire that I would only ever recommend to other writers, and I wouldn’t wish them any different than they are. Caviar, as Hamlet reminds us, is seldom appreciated by the general. As you suggest, one may have to serve such subtle dishes to “the experts who aren’t intimidated by them.”

            There’s more to say about a poetry of another sort—because surely we agree that ballet, flamenco, and hip hop can peaceably coexist, even if in different studios. But the subject of this discussion is of course the diverse nation of poetry that has variously been called ‘esoteric,’ ‘elliptical,’ ‘nonsensical,’ ‘inaccessible,’ and even simply ‘serious.’ For now I’ll just say that in my own poetry—to keep my claim narrow—though I can’t claim to be in advance of any guard, I aim less for mere accessibility than for good hospitality.

            Thanks again, both Bob and Adam, for inviting me (as it were) into your conversation. Both of you cut by now a not-insubstantial public profile, so I’m humbled to be included, however briefly, on your dance card. All the best to each of you individually and to Real Pants as a whole.

          • “I aim less for mere accessibility than for good hospitality.” I wish I’d said that first. I am the populist-est of poets.

            Nice to be on the same page with you, Matthew!

  • jyh

    It’s a bit like a Rorschach drawing, I think. Some blots might look more like moths than others, but it’s still not a moth.
    For an utterance to make sense “as a whole”, this would just make it an actual sentence (in the dictionary sense of a “complete thought”, not to be confused with the “complete thought” formed by an actual paragraph), wouldn’t it? Not to be over-simple. There’s more to this than that, but that bit stood out.

    • RM O’Brien

      I think I get the first part: you’re saying that some things are what they are objectively, not as a function of interpretation. I think that makes sense (ha ha ha), but the question is, how is sense determined? (another question is can statements not qualify as “sense” and yet not be fraudulent?)

      The second part I don’t totally get. Are you saying that you sense can only be made with grammatical sentences?

      • jyh

        1.) One could suggest types of sense: logical, emotional, metaphorical, and so forth. And it could be each are determined in somewhat different manners, by the brain, at which point it might be more a physiological question than a theoretical/philosophical question.
        2.) No. The discussion just reminded me of the question of what makes a thought “complete”. Where does the thought end & begin? Can a truncated thought still be a textbook sentence? Can a non-sentence make sense on its own, or must it be fleshed out by the mind? Other such questions which seem related.

  • Tim Paggi

    Rousing discussion. I appreciate Matthew’s clarifications in these comments (but missing in the essay). DF Wallace once said something in an interview like, that poetry could return to the mainstream if taken back from the academy and enjoyed at home by common people after a day of hard work, on the couch and with a beer. Sounds lame to me, but his point is true and maybe one that Smith makes, too? That, while often a noble pursuit, postmodern-ish experimental poetry (what I believe he means by “nonsense”) alienates the common reader and creates innumerable opportunities for the worst intellectual posturing. Meanwhile, hard working poets who relate and enrich tangible experiences with good old-fashioned imagery, metaphor, syntactic structures and forms are kept out of the cool kids club.

    Smith’s ample, step-by-step description of his Ashbery reading process gave me much to think about because it demonstrates a truth: that the poem defies comprehension via any means of traditional literary analysis. But, like, I’m pretty sure Ashbery–a prolific critic himself–defines his goal as defying analysis, right? So he’s successful according to his own terms. This poem–and his body of work in general–like, intentionally subverts the concept of written discourse as a persuasive act, right? The reason so many of us end up referring to post-modern poems as “nonsense” rests there, I think. Because to our eyes resisting readers is no worthy aim. In fact, it’s pretentious. What poetry needs is more readers, not less, Smith seems to be arguing underneath it all.

    But hold on–who’s pretentious? In order to “get” (experience) postmodern poems–like, if that’s something one actually wants in life–one must trust the poet completely. And, I don’t know–is it possible to trust someone else without a strong sense of honesty with oneself? Like, have you ever specifically asked yourself “Hi Me! Is a new method of perceiving reality something I actually want to work toward?” In order to experience our finest contemporary experimental poetry from the inside out, we must task ourselves with stepping outside of the realm of “sense-making” and into an uncharted wilderness. And in many cases, the visions one receives by such excursions into the unknown produce senses which *may* put one at odds with society. Or at least they may put one at odds with many of our broadly agreed upon assumptions about the human experience of language. Smith acknowledges–and sidesteps–this briefly in his essay, but aren’t debates between tradition vs. experimentation–in terms of how these concepts relate to power structures–worth pursuing? Certainly everyone here would think so. But to what degree–and why? And what is gained by criticizing that goal?

    Well, a good and important discussion is surely gained. On a different site, this discussion board could resound with support for Smith’s argument.

    As a coda to my rambling, I’d like to share an anecdote: one time I smoked a cigarette with a woman outside of Club Charles. I asked her what she did and she told me she was a poetry MFA at Hopkins (like someone else I know!). I excitedly asked her “who do you read?” to which she replied with the biggest names from 1800-1950 or so. When I asked her what contemporary poets she read, she looked at me funny, and replied in earnest “What do you mean?” She scrunched her face, and after I provided a few names, she continued “oh, nothing like that!” And she, no doubt your kid’s future lit professor. Writing takes practice, right? Well reading takes practice, too. In addition to giants like Ashberry (so worthwhile) reading the work of your neighborhood experimental poet CAN/WILL be a slog, no doubt about it. But if you open yourself up to it, and unlearn a lot of how the academy taught you to see the world, sometimes you end up seeing something you never imagined could exist.

    Just spent the last hour writing this argument for experimental poetry before realizing I’m posting it to a website that promotes experimental poetry. VIVA LA REVOLUCION!!!!!

    • RM O’Brien

      Wazzzaaap, Tim. One issue I have with this sort of ongoing debate btwn “sense” and “nonsense” or “tradition” and “experiment” or the “accessible” and the “inaccessible” is that it often rests on this distinction that just isn’t there: that one type of poetry is (or hypothetically “would be”) enjoyed by the masses drinking their beers on the couch after a hard day’s work at the paper mill, while the other is not. It’s not as if poems with easy-to-follow narrative logic are catching fire among the general public. If they were, there’d be no need to throw stones. I just don’t think sense vs. nonsense is the issue, when it comes to (non-song) poetry’s inability to reach a mass audience.

      • Tim Paggi

        Hey Bob: good discussions! I agree w/ your point. I think certain schools, though, hold the tacit belief that poetry was once manna for the masses, but that it got all mucked up and ruined when the modernists rolled onto the scene. And, yeah, that distinction isn’t effective.

    • Tim, I had mentally bookmarked this to read later and I’m just now getting to it. You make many good points (I’m especially and personally struck by how this discussion on another site would be different, which is certainly true).

      I agree with your point about trust. People who disagree with that point like to refer to the emperor’s new clothes, amiright?

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