On the Dialectics of Procedure and Intention

This week, something a little different. I’ve been reading a book of poetic commentary (Gray Wolf Press, 2010) written by a practicing poet pursuing an interesting, often contentious, and vital genre known as “poetics.” In Recklessness, Dean Young analyzes some of the productive contradictions that contribute to poetic composition. Here’s a passage that rang a bell:

People use language for two reasons: to be understood and not to be understood. . . . To simplify, this is a distinction between a communicative state and an expressive state. . . . Between interior and exterior, between liberty and obligation, anarchy and order, self and community, referent and what it can refer to, sign and thing. Between defamiliarization and recognizable rhetoric. . . . disjunction and wildness . . . versus the concentrating gravities of formal control. (38-40)

That poetry can be interpreted as a dialectical process, as with just about anything the human mind deigns to contemplate, is nothing new. But Young’s formulations are astute. I, for one, would not object to the prospect of being understood through not being understood, and so concede a certain wistful indirectness in my “At the Musarium” project. One of the tensions in my work is between procedure and intention. But readers should not overestimate the degree to which either my procedures or my intentions tend, in these works, to be calculated as opposed to being vague. They are much less predetermined than they are unfolding and, in retrospect, revelatory in concert and in the process of composition itself. I particularly like Young’s attention in this context to the doubleness of “referent and what it can refer to, sign and thing.” The words I find in the frequency lists I exploit come to mind as having a potentially dual nature: as parts of speech that can help construct a sentence or phrase, and as the “things” they may refer to, the objects, characters, settings, actions, emotions, joys, sufferings, judgments, rejections, invitations, longings and whatever other meanings they might evoke by being near each other within sentences, sentence-like constructs, and “recognizable rhetoric.”

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