spray of sparks against black backgroundJ.G. McClure
Emotion, Sincerity, and the “Skittery Poem of Our Moment”

Pick up any fashionable poetry journal and you’re likely to see an example of what Tony Hoagland has called the “Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Such a poem does not simply lack coherence; it actively resists it. In his essay, Hoagland gives as an example Rachel M. Simon’s poem “Improvisation,” which opens:

One thing about human nature is that nobody
wants to know the exact dimensions of their small talk.
I can’t imagine good advice.
If every human being has skin
how come I can see all of your veins?
Clicks and drips target my skull.
Important voices miss their target.
Some cities are ill-suited for feet.
I’d never buy a door smaller than a tuba, you never know
what sort of friends you’ll make.

The characteristics are familiar: leaping from thought to thought, sharply-written-but-largely-nonsensical phrases, quirky humor, an assertive-yet-evasive voice, and so on. We move from talk to skin to cities to tubas to friends, never afforded the chance to stop and consider any one element. The mode is so widespread as to be instantly recognizable: it is what many readers likely think of immediately upon hearing the phrase contemporary poetry. In Hoagland’s words:

“Improvisation” is a quintessential Poem of Our Moment: fast-moving and declarative, wobbling on the balance beam between associative and dissociative, somewhat absurdist, and, indeed, cerebral. Much talent and skill are evident in its making, in its pacing and management of gaps, the hints and sound bites which keep the reader reaching forward for the lynchpin of coherence. One admirable aspect of the poem is the way it seems capable of incorporating anything; yet the correlative theme of the poem is that all this motley data—i.e. experience—doesn’t add up to a story. Even as the poem implies a world without sequence, the poem itself has no consequence, no center of gravity, no body, no assertion of emotional value.

The logic behind this aesthetic is clear enough: it implicitly believes that in order to confront the fragmented nature of our postmodern world, we need fragmented, postmodern art. Narrative is viewed with fearful distrust, and is equated with deception and rigid authority. The skittery poem makes no claim to impose any kind of order, so it does not aim to deceive or control us. The problem, as Hoagland explains it, is this:

Elusiveness is the speaker’s central characteristic. Speed, wit, and absurdity are its attractive qualities. The last thing such poems are going to do is risk their detachment, their distance, their freedom from accountability. The one thing they are not going to do is commit themselves to the sweaty enclosures of subject matter and the potential embarrassment of sincerity.

By presenting itself as a performance of ironic wit, the poem ensures that it won’t say anything disagreeable. The trouble is, though the language is well-written, the poem won’t sincerely say anything at all.

What does such a poem really mean for us, aside from reminding us (yet again) that we live in a fragmented world and that our narratives are insufficient to remedy it?

But this isn’t news: even Frost, poster-child of the old guard, described a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion,” a description that presupposes that everything outside of the poem is in a state of unending disorder. The skittery poem constantly reminds us of this confusion, while the Frostian poem works (momentarily, provisionally, insufficiently) against it—but in either case, both reader and writer understand that confusion is the state in which we live and from which we work.

It’s worth noting that well before the burgeoning of the Skittery Poem of Our Moment, writers were engaging with similar issues, using similar techniques. Take, for example, the fragmented “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses, in which we’re bombarded with so much raw data, all of it potentially meaningful, that it eventually all becomes equally meaningless while almost-forming an almost-narrative that never quite seems to cohere.

Or take the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, whose brilliant book-length poem Altazor (written, like Ulysses, in the early 20th century) shows a world so chaotic that it eventually leads to the dissolution of the very language used to build it. Though these experiments were revolutionary in their moment, and are deservedly revered, by now their techniques have become familiar. Today, such techniques are no longer truly an experiment per se, but rather a genre trope. Simply claiming “experimentation” isn’t enough to justify them.

By no means do I intend to suggest that the techniques that define the Skittery Poem of Our Moment—intelligence, evasiveness, absurdity, fragmentation—are valueless. Quite the opposite, some of the most moving poems we have use these devices heavily. Rather, I wish to suggest that these techniques must be tools used in service of something deeper. They need to be grounded in a foundation of emotional/moral/human stakes. The moment that these techniques become an end in themselves, as in Simon’s poem and so many like it, is the moment in which they are reduced to mere linguistic showboating.

For an example of Meaningful Skitteriness, I want to turn back to Huidobro’s Altazor. The first canto establishes the terror of protagonist Altazor’s world:

Altazor ¿por qué perdiste tu primera serenidad?
¿Qué ángel malo se paró en la puerta de tu sonrisa…?

¿Por qué un día de repente sentiste el terror de ser?

Estás perdido Altazor
Solo en medio del universo

[Altazor, why did you lose your first serenity?
What bad angel stopped in the door of your smile…?

Why one day did you suddenly feel the terror of being?

You’re lost Altazor
Alone in the middle of the universe]

From the beginning, we see Altazor in the throes of existential dread. The center can no longer hold, and he finds himself adrift (quite literally: he’s presented as endlessly falling, strapped alone to a parachute). As the poem progresses, we realize that he no longer believes in God, no longer believes in any of the old structures of meaning, no longer knows what to believe in, and is terrified and miserable to the core.

Halfway through the book, Huidobro has Altazor utter these wonderful lines, a small but crucial gesture that firmly grounds all of the linguistic experimentation that is to follow:

Y puesto que debemos vivir y no nos suicidamos
Mientras vivamos juguemos
El simple sport de los vocablos

[And since we must live and not kill ourselves
While we live let’s play
the simple sport of words]

This passage gracefully casts all of the nonsensical word-games that Altazor will play as a conscious evasion of his existential dread, the only way to avoid killing himself in an absurd universe. Even the wildest experiments are thus given a heavy emotional weight. So when Huidobro gives us, for instance, a solid block of approximately 200 consecutive puns on the word “molina [mill],” we understand why he does it: it becomes a poignantly obsessive mantra to stave off suicide.

When, eventually, Altazor’s words begin to break down—leaving us with chopped-up, spliced-together terms that look like but are not words—we continue to sense the human stakes. Words, the one thing left to Altazor, are beginning to fall apart too. By the end of the book, we’re left only with howling nonsense syllables, vowels combined and recombined:

………….Io ia
i i i o
Ai a i ai a i i i i o ia

That final line is pronounced, more or less, as “ay ahh eee ay ahh eee eee eee eee ohh eeyah”—that is, screams. As strange and experimental as this ending may be, it’s still grounded in a very human pain.

(It’s worth noting that there is another important critical tradition regarding this poem, which sees the ending not as a howl of pain but as a song of triumph. Either way, though, the point remains: we are able to locate the emotional experience that necessitates the technique.)

That notion—that in order for a work to be moving there must be an emotional reality that necessitates its techniques—holds true today. Consider Dean Young’s excellent poem “Afterward (Little Evening Sermon),” which begins:

By the seventh time the story was told,
the girl stood naked in the sprinklers
and the fighter pilot had flown on E
through Russia. The bear could almost talk,
the crippled dog could almost run and we
could almost love each other forever.
Funny word, forever. You can put it at the end
of almost any sentence and feel better about
yourself, about how you’ve worked in a spray
of sparks accomplishing almost nothing
and feel that’s exactly what the gods
intended; look at the galaxies, spilled
milk, their lust and retrograde whims.

The zaniness of the first sentence is enough to keep us sufficiently interested to continue reading. But that zaniness alone would not be enough to carry the poem: if Young merely kept naming strange and unrelated components of the story, we might get a chuckle or two, but that would be the end of it. Instead, Young includes the crucial phrase “and we / could almost love each other forever.”

In an instant, we understand why the speaker’s voice must be so skittery: his zaniness is a desperately manic attempt to avoid thinking about the pain of losing his beloved. The speaker starts to dwell on those painful thoughts, musing about how “forever” is a word that you use to “feel better about / yourself,” but quickly he turns away from the relationship again and wildly reaches for anything else: galaxies, gods, milk. The poem continues:

What was it you were promised? I’m sorry
if it turned out to be a lie. But the girl
really did drink fire from a flower,
the dog did leap a chasm…

Here the line breaks enact the speaker’s pained evasion. The speaker begins an apology—to his lover?—but then retreats to the vague deflection of “if it turned out to be a lie.” Then another turn toward the lover—“But the girl”—and another turn away, back to the skittery images: “really did drink fire from a flower, / the dog did leap a chasm.” Since we understand what’s at stake, each of these leaps carries with it a powerful emotional resonance: we feel poignantly what the speaker will not allow himself to say.

I am not suggesting that a successful poem must indicate its emotional anchor so clearly, or that it must clearly contain some archetypal narrative like the breakup in “Afterward.” Think of Vasko Popa’s wonderfully strange poem “Ashes,” as translated by Charles Simic:

Some are nights others stars

Each night sets fire to its own star
And dances a black dance around it
Until the star burns out

Then the nights divide themselves
Some become stars
Others remain nights

Again each night sets fire to its own star
And dances a black dance around it
Until the star burns out

The last night becomes both star and night
It sets fire to itself
And dances the black dance around itself

Though there’s no explicitly-stated human narrative here, no obvious allegory, we nonetheless recognize and are chilled by the actions: we see some version of ourselves in this ritualized, frightening, exuberant violence and self-destruction.

Now compare Popa’s poem to an excerpt from the Skittery Poem of Our Moment that opened this essay:

Some cities are ill-suited for feet.
I’d never buy a door smaller than a tuba, you never know
what sort of friends you’ll make.

Though its phrases are evocative, there’s nothing to emotionally ground them. Okay, sure, the reader is likely to feel, I accept that you won’t buy a door smaller than a tuba—but so what? Why should I care about your taste in doorways? The poem is too successfully evasive: it evades us so thoroughly that we are not allowed to feel anything.

Michael Ryan once said that we come to poetry because we want to feel what it’s like to be human, for ourselves and for others. Why else would anyone bother to read or write it? In an age where fewer and fewer people read poetry, we’re certainly not writing for the money or the fame. Nor is anybody reading poems in order to have some good water-cooler talk.

If our goal is nothing short of communion, of sharing how being human feels to us—and to my mind that’s the only good reason to be writing poems at all—then we can’t depend solely on language games or fashionable skitteriness. We can’t be afraid of consequence, sincerity, or emotion. We can’t be afraid of the poem’s humanity.

J.G. McClure Author PhotoJ.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including Fourteen Hills, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), Colorado Review, and Green Mountains Review.  He is at work on his first book. 

Image Credit: yellowj @123RF Stock Photo

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