STUPENDOUS ROSEWATER IGNITIONS:  postmodern poetry at the de young

STUPENDOUS ROSEWATER IGNITIONS: postmodern poetry at the de young

I had a conversation with a schizophrenic once. Or rather, I was listening to him talk and after a while I was spaced out, trying to follow what he was saying. His sentences were disconnected, they didn’t lead to anything in particular. It was odd, and I realized how much I depend on the coherent speech patterns of other people.

PostmodernAmericanPoetry_PB_MECH.inddI was thinking about this when my wife and I were at the publication event for Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, 2nd ed., (edited by SF State professor Paul Hoover). It was in a dark theater in the de Young Museum. You enter the theater from the back and descend a set of stairs with red lights. There was a man down below, standing at a lectern and looking rather small compared to the high black walls. Then Michael McClure materialized, speaking from the careful depths of a peyote-precious stillness. He went first and read longer, as if to suggest he was a guest.

After one and a half hours, we climbed the glow-in-the-dark stairs and left, having heard most of the 17 poets. Much of what we heard could be summed up with a description of schizophrenic speech patterns:

“Disorganized thinking becomes apparent in patients’ speech patterns as schizophrenia progresses. Affected people lose their train of thought during conversations, make loose associations of topics (tangentially jumping from one topic to another apparently at random, or on the barest of associations), and give answers to unrelated questions. Speech may be highly circumstantial, meaning that affected people may speak continuously, providing numerous irrelevant details and never getting to the point. Occasionally, speech is so disorganized that it becomes a completely jumbled “word salad” devoid of discernible meaning despite being full of words.” –


“Disorganized speech. This is when schizophrenics think about things in fragments, which is a common occurrence. People who have this mental illness generally have difficulty concentrating or maintaining one specific train of thought. This causes them to have rambling, nonsensical speech patterns, or to repeat certain words or phrases over and over.”

The symptoms include:

  • A gaze that is flat and without expression
  • Irrational or strange statements
  • Using words out of context, or speaking in strange tones
  • Speech patterns that are illogical or incomprehensible
  • Appearing indifferent emotionally

There was also some mention of “social withdrawal” and “not responding well to criticism.”

What does it say about the current state of “postmodern” American poetry if it corresponds to a description of schizophrenic speech patterns, including the lack of emotional expression?url Reader after reader went to the lectern and delivered their words to a silent audience. There was zero applause until the reader was walking off. The words were delivered with a minimum of expression. This kind of writing cannot sustain a subject or a mood for more than a line or two. You end up with confetti poems of self-canceling phrases. It is spineless writing, in the sense of having little or no structure or continuity. It’s like a snake in the water, moving back and forth as it tries to elude coherency.

Why would writing want to do that? I spoke with a local poet and professor a few days later about it. He said that for the most part, this kind of writing belonged on the page and not on the stage. Variations of this poetic approach/avoidance are common these days. It lends itself to writing which is casual, aimless, dreamy, and surreal. The writers are too rarified to bother with an actual subject or focus. They can sideswipe the ethereal heights by not being weighed down with meaning. They want to get rid of meaning — particularly if they have an academic background and have been burdened with making logical statements for most of their life. What could be more poetic than not making sense, but doing it in a way that sounds poetic because no one knows what you’re talking about? Or forcing the audience to rely on their intuition as they’re feeling in the dark for what you’re getting at?

There are different methods to this approach/avoidance. You can put random phrases in a collage and hope for the best. Come up with mundane sentences which don’t go together, but which can be flung in the direction of an esoteric synthesis. It’s as elusive as the high note only a dog can hear. It is a mind-fuck situation for the listener who wonders why the poem is eluding him, as if it was written with a super-subtle mode of free association. You can also use refrigerator magnets. I just checked the refrigerator door and found this: obscure fecund salient delight. Also: understand impecunious pedagogue. Festoon enervate solution.

It reminds me of the painter David Salle in the 1980’s who would avoid meaning and interpretation by throwing together random images on the canvas and letting the viewer try to figure it out, or not. We are arbitrary beings.

Rips in the Mirror, 1998

It’s not like language shouldn’t be as experimental as images or sound, but there are diminishing returns if all you have are words that wallow in the unexpected. Some poets are like wind-up dolls who’re activated by a linguistic gimmick. It’s like automatic writing. In fact, there is a cybernetic poetry which is “written with the assistance of online search engines.” If only Shakespeare had a computer, think what he could have done. But that is not the point – “one must be absolutely modern,” as Rimbaud said.

poetry-570One of the poets (K. Silem Mohammad) is rewriting all of Shakespeare’s sonnets by scrambling the letters and using those to come up with different words and sentences. His lines tend to be nonsensical and funny, and the audience was relieved to find some humor in this reading, which was otherwise lacking it.

I should note that there were flashes of inspired writing and non sequiturs for all of us non sequiturists. It doesn’t hurt to hear language put to different uses, even when it comes in disconnected phrases. They are strung together like beads on a necklace which is hung around the writer’s throat.

I was free associating with the poets. Bill Berkson referred to “anhedonia” (the inability to feel happiness) and it reminded me of the song, “Anhedonia! Anhedonia! What makes your big head so hard?” (I’m paraphrasing here).

Will Alexander had some good phrases. He is a surrealist with a scientific bent. I saw him read at City Lights with Andrew Joron last year. “Kaleidoscopic omniscience…” “…anatomical with anomaly….” “…filing its neurological hearing….” “… stupendous rosewater ignitions….”

At some point I was thinking of albums by the Butthole Surfers: Rembrandt Pussyhorse. Locust Abortion Technique. Independent Worm Saloon.

gillian conoleyGillian Conoley said something about “sapphic paratactic units,” and “her vagina, his cock, slack in the cosmological moisture.” Andrew Joron had a line, “… sing nothing that breath can bring,” which didn’t sound too positive.

Joseph Lease recited “Broken World”, a poem with more political content than everyone else’s poems combined. “The NASDAQ moves in my face. I’m wired to / my greasy self-portrait.Every day in every way. America / equals ghost [….] Nothing is here. It’s all one big strip / mall.”

K. Silem Mohammad: “…a melancholy airlines of abstraction….” Rusty Morrison: “…the chain-link fence holds separate a dissolving air….”

It was an evening of distilled schizophrenic chic. If John Ashbery and Gertrude Stein had a test-tube baby with ADD and a marijuana habit, the person’s writings might have been included in the reading. This is what happens when a poem inhales. You feel the suspense as the poet comes this close to making sense, veering away at the last second. It reminds me of a poem by Ezra Pound (published in 1913), with the woman in the role of postmodern poetry:

The Garden

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
of a sort of emotional anaemia.

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.

In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
will commit that indiscretion.

steven graySteven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).