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