Charles Bernstein

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Contents Page
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Meaning and Artifice

Then where is the truth but in the burning space between one letter and the next. Thus the book is first read outside its limits.

—Edmond Jabès <1>


The reason it is difficult to talk about
the meaning of a poem—in a way that doesn’t seem
frustratingly superficial or partial—is that by
designating a text a poem, one suggests that its
meanings are to be located in some “complex” be-
yond an addition of devices & subject matters.
A poetic reading can be given to any
piece of writing; a “poem” may be understood as
writing specifically designed to absorb, or inflate
with, proactive—rather than reactive—styles of
reading. “Artifice” is a measure of a poem’s
intractability to being read as the sum of its
devices & subject matters. In this sense,
“artifice” is the contradiction of “realism”, with
its insistence on presenting an unmediated
(immediate) experience of facts, either of the
“external” world of nature or the “internal” world
of the mind; for example, naturalistic
representation or phenomenological consciousness
mapping. Facts in poetry are primarily

Veronica Forrest-Thomson, in On Poetic Artifice,
notes that artifice in a poem is primarily marked
by the quality of the poem’s language that makes it
both continuous & discontinuous with the world of

Anti-realism need not imply, as certain French theorists might claim, a rejection of meaning. All that Artifice requires is that nonmeaningful levels be taken into account, and that meaning be used as a technical device which makes it impossible as well as wrong for critics to strand poems in the external world.<2>

The artificiality of a poem may be more or less
foregrounded, but it is necessarily part of
the “poetic” reading of any document. If the artifice
is recessed, the resulting textual transparency
yields an apparent, if misleading, content.
Content never equals meaning. If the artifice is
foregrounded, there’s a tendency to say that there
is no content or meaning, as if the poem were a
formal or decorative exercise concerned only with
representing its own mechanisms. But even when a
poem is read as a formal exercise, the dynamics &
contours of its formal proceedings may suggest, for
example, a metonymic model for imagining
experience. For this reason, consideration
of the formal dynamics of a poem does not necessarily
disregard its content; indeed it is an obvious
starting point insofar as it can initiate a
multilevel reading. But to complete the process
such formal apprehensions need to move to a
synthesis beyond technical cataloging, toward the
experiential phenomenon that is made by virtue of
the work’s techniques. Such a synthesis
is almost impossible apart from the tautological
repetition of the poem, since all the formal
dynamics cannot begin to be chartered: think only
of the undercurrent of anagrammatical
transformations,<3> the semantic contribution of
the visual representation of the text,<4> the
particular associations evoked by the phonic
configurations. These features are related to the
“nonsemantic” effects that Forrest-Thomson
describes as contributing toward the “total image complex”
of the poem (but what might be better called its total
meaning complex, since image may suggest
an overly visual orientation):

The image-complex is the node where we can discover which of the multitude of thematic, semantic, rhythmical, and formal patterns is important and how it is to be related to the others. For the image-complex alone operates on all levels of sound, rhythm, theme, and meaning and from it alone, therefore, can be derived a sense of the structure of any particular poem. . . Critical reading must never try to impose meaning in the form of an extension of meaning into the non-verbal world until the reader has determined by examining the non-meaningful levels just what amount of meaning is required by the poem’s structure from each phrase, word, and letter. Only when this is done can the critic hope to reach a thematic synthesis which will make contact with the poem itself on its many levels and not with some abstract, or indeed concrete, entity created out of his own imagination. The reader must . . . use his imagination . . . but he must use it to free himself from the fixed forms of thought which ordinary language imposes on our minds, not to deny the strangeness of poetry by inserting it in some non-poetic area: his own mind, the poet’s mind, or any non-fictional situation. [p. 16]

So there is always an unbridgeable lacuna between
any explication of a reading & any actual
reading. & it is the extent of these lacunas—
differing with each reader but not indeterminate—
that is a necessary measure of a poem’s

There is, however, something I find
problematic about Forrest-Thomson’s account. It
seems to me she is wrong to designate the nonlexical,
or more accurately, extralexical
strata of the poem as “nonsemantic”; I would say
that such elements as line breaks, acoustic
patterns, syntax, etc., are meaningful rather than,
as she has it, that they contribute to the meaning
of the poem. For instance, there is no fixed
threshold at which noise becomes phonically
significant; the further back this threshold is
pushed, the greater the resonance at the cutting
edge. The semantic strata of a poem should not be
understood as only those elements to which a
relatively fixed connotative or denotative meaning
can be ascribed, for this would restrict meaning to
the exclusively recuperable elements of language—a
restriction that if literally applied would make
meaning impossible. After all, meaning occurs
only in a context of conscious & nonconscious,
recuperable & unrecoverable, dynamics.

Moreover, the designation of the visual, acoustic,
& syntactic elements of a poem as “meaningless”,
especially insofar as this is conceptualized as
positive or liberating—& this is a common habit
of much current critical discussion of syntactically
nonstandard poetry—is symptomatic of a desire to
evade responsibility for meaning’s total, &
totalizing, reach; as if meaning was a husk
that could be shucked off or a burden that could be
bucked. Meaning is not a use value as opposed to
some other kind of value, but more like valuation
itself; & even to refuse value is a value & a sort
of exchange. Meaning is no where bound
to the orbit of purpose, intention, or utility.

While this is a crucial distinction, its significance
for Forrest-Thomson’s view is not as great as
it is in many more recent commentaries because
her terminology is intended to foreground artifice
as much as possible & for this reason she wishes
to cede as little as possible to the conventional
semantic arena—a decision that makes her book, if
flawed in this respect, so powerfully informative
in the first place.

Forrest-Thomson’s account compares interestingly
with Galvano della Volpe’s “dialectical paraphrase”
in his Critique of Taste, in which the ideological
paraphrase is specifically contrasted with the way
this ideological content is expressed in the work.
This method, says della Volpe, “is in a position to
avoid both formalism & fixation on context.”<5>
The dialectic of della Volpe’s “dialectical
paraphrase” involves the weighing &
measuring of the poetic artifice of the work. “Do
not forget,” says Wittgenstein in a passage quoted
by Forrest-Thomson [p. x], “that a poem, even
though it is composed in the language of
information is not used in the language game of
giving information.” She adds that “form and
content are [not] identical, still less are they
fused. . . they must be different,
distinguishable in order that their relations may
be judged” [p. 121].

The hermeneutic rejoinders of della Volpe &
Forrest-Thomson are primarily aimed at discouraging
an exclusive emphasis on the overt ideology or
content of a poem, though they might equally apply
to exclusively formal readings. A poem composed in
the language of artifice & device is not
necessarily without content. What does
one make as a content paraphrase of this stanza
from P. Inman’s “Waver” [Abacus No. 18, 1986]?:

        it was only her curved say
       leaving till any more
    i want
       to write noise
        a white
         out of betweens,
          think off-misted
           (piled holster)
       wouldn’t say “fault”.
     stills by size
    glass cattle
(denominations between her work)
   kints grasp
     off than
       cinder ink
         dreadlocks pollen
     seems to any on
 draws as pang
waiting for a keyboard
“so much depends
on starch”
   ute broils
     Keats with the wrong facts
      everything took place at all


In a sense, the procedure of dialectical paraphrase
must be reversed in reading this poem. An attempt
must first be made to elucidate the “nonsemantic”
elements of the poem (“to write noise / a white /
out of betweens”), but the reading should not stop
there (“piled holster”), as it all too often might.
This first survey must be dialectically contrasted
with how the noted devices might have been
used to different ends, what type of overall
architecture is constructed by the particular
sequence of devices (“curved say”), what semantic
associations can be attributed to the specific
“nonsemantic” elements & which ones are relevant
in the particular context of the poem. That is,
the devices must be differentiated from the image
complex to which they contribute. When I say that
della Volpe’s procedure must be reversed in reading
“Waver”, I mean that because the formal dynamics of
the poem are the most overt, identifiable feature,
they have the weight of “content” in a more
traditional poem (“Keats with the wrong facts”);
just as the content threatens to naturalize
(Forrest-Thomson’s term) the artifice of a more
conventional poem in an undialectical reading (“‘so
much depends / on starch’”), so here the form
threatens to negate the content in an undialectical
reading (“kints grasp”); for this reason, “Waver”
destabilizes the polarities of form & content,
undermining the dialectic’s value for thinking
about (as opposed to deciphering) the poem
(“wouldn’t say ‘fault’”). By fully semanticizing
the so-called nonsemantic features of language,
Inman creates a dialectic of the recuperable &
the unreclaimable, where what cannot be claimed is
nonetheless most manifest.

The obvious problem is that the poem said in any
other way is not the poem. This may account for
why writers revealing their intentions or
references (“close readings”), just as readers
inventorying devices, often say so little: why
a sober attempt to document or describe runs so
high a risk of falling flat. In contrast, why not
a criticism intoxicated with its own metaphoricity,
or tropicality: one in which the limits of
positive criticism are made more audibly
artificial; in which the inadequacy of our
explanatory paradigms is neither ignored
nor regretted but brought into fruitful play.
Imagine, then, oscillating poles,
constructing not some better diadicism, but
congealing into a field of potentialities
that in turn collapses (transforms) into yet other
tropicalities. This would be the criticism of desire:
sowing not reaping.

Adapting Steve McCaffery’s terms from “Writing as a
General Economy”, the economy of reading suggested
here is not a utilitarian “restricted economy” of
accumulation (of contents, devices) but a “general
economy” of meanings as “nonutilizable” flow,
discharge, exchange, waste. An individual poem may
be understood as having a restricted or general
economy. Indeed part of the meaning of a poem may
be its fight for accumulation; nonetheless, its
text will contain destabilizing elements—errors,
unconscious elements, contexts of (re)publication
& the like—that will erode any proposed
accumulation that does not allow for them.
McCaffery derives his idea of a general economy
from Bataille, whom he quotes:

The general economy, in the first place, makes apparent that excesses of energy are produced, and that by definition, these excesses cannot be utilized. The excessive energy can only be lost without the slightest aim, consequently without meaning.

McCaffery continues:

I want to make clear that I’m not proposing “general” as an alternative economy to “restricted”. One cannot replace the other because their relationship is not one of mutual exclusion. In most cases we will find general economy as a suppressed or ignored presence within the scene of writing that tends to emerge by way of rupture within the restricted [paragrams, as discussed in note 3], putting into question the conceptual controls that produce a writing of use value with its privileging of meaning as a necessary production and evaluated destination.

These “nonutilizable” excesses are related to
Forrest-Thomson’s “nonsemantic domains”, while
clearly being a conceptually larger category. In
this context, I would again argue against ascribing
to meaning an exclusively utilitarian function.
Loss is as much a part of the semantic process as
discharge is a part of the biological process. Yet
the meaning of which I speak is not meaning as we
may “know” it, with a recuperable intention or
purpose. Such a restricted sense of meaning is
analogous to the restricted senses of knowledge as
stipulatively definable. But let’s look at how
these words are used or can be used:
You know what I mean & you also mean
a lot more than you can say
& far more than you could ever intend,
stipulatively or no.
It is just my insistence
that poetry be understood as epistemological
inquiry; to cede meaning would be to undercut
the power of poetry to reconnect us
with modes of meaning given in language
but precluded by the hegemony of restricted
epistemological economies (an hegemony that moves
toward the negation of nondominant restricted
economies as much as repressing the asymptotic
horizon of the unrestricted economies). As
McCaffery puts it, “such features of general
economic operation do not destroy the order of
meaning, but complicate & unsettle its
constitution and operation.” They destroy, that
is, not meaning but various utilitarian &
essentialist ideas about meaning. To this point
it must be added that to speak of the nonutilizable
strata of a poem or a verbal exchange is as
problematic as to speak of nonsemantic elements—
for what is designated as nonutilizable
& extralexical is both useful & desirable
while not being utilitarian & prescribable.

These comments are partly intended as caution
against thinking of formally active poems as
eschewing content or meaning—even in the face of
the difficulty of articulating just what this
meaning is. That is, the meaning is not absent or
deferred but self-embodied as the poem
in a way that is not transferable to another code
or rhetoric. At the same time, it is possible
to evoke various contours of meaning
by metaphorically considering the domains made real
by various formal configurations.

Absorption and Impermeability

If we studied societies from the outside, it would be tempting to distinguish two contrasting types: those which practice cannibalism—that is which regard the absorption of certain individuals possessing dangerous powers as the only means of neutralizing these powers and even of turning them to advantage—and those which, like our own society, adopt what might be called the practice of anthropemy (from the Greek emein, to vomit); faced with the same problem, the latter type of society has chosen the opposite solution, which consists in ejecting dangerous in dividuals from the social body and keeping them temporarily or permanently in isolation, away from all contacts with their fellows, in establishments especially intended for this purpose. Most of the societies we call primitive would regard this custom with profound horror; it would make us, in their eyes, guilty of that same barbarity of which we are inclined to accuse them because of their symmetrically opposite behavior.
—Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

The entire reality of the word is wholly absorbed in its function of being a sign.
—V. N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language

Ever wonder why one person can eat a meal of French toast and sausage, followed by a glass of milk, to little effect, while if you . . . Absorption problems.
—Guide Amber à la Gastronomie <6>


In thinking about how to respond
to a request to do a reading of one of my poems,
I’ve found myself
thinking about “absorption” & its obverses—
impermeability, imperviousness, ejection,
repellence—both as a compositional question
& as
a reading value.<7> The terms began to consume
my imagination, a pataphysical extravaganza
of accumulating works & fields absorbed
into this tropic zone without benefit
of underlying unity of perspective. There seemed no
limit to what
the absorption/antiabsorption nexus could

Thinking of Canada, where I initially presented my
speculations, the political metaphor kept erupting:
Canada does not wish to be absorbed into the U.S.
cultural orbit any more than Quebec wishes to be
absorbed by Canada; but then Quebec feminists may not
want to be absorbed by a male-dominated “free” Quebec.
Identity seems to involve the refusal to be absorbed
in a larger identity, yet the identity formed as
a result of an antiabsorptive autonomism
threatens to absorb differential groupings
within it. It’s as if the very desire not
to be absorbed creates a new threat
of absorption—down to the individual divided
against itself—its nonsocial “identity”
at odds with its social “selves”.<8>

& then there are the biological senses
of absorption & excretion: the body’s narration.
Steve McCaffery pointed out
that having an infant around
for the first time had had its effect:
I had been changing a half-dozen superabsorbant
diapers a day, ever in fear
that they would not be superabsorptive enough
& spillage would result. So this
is the answer to that
persistent & irritating question—has having a child
affected your writing?

Moreover, the nature of absorption as a dynamic
of reading needs to be understood as a key element
in any ideologically conscious literary criticism.
This can be taken as the central polemic of
Jerome McGann’s Romantic Ideology.<9> The
uncritical absorption of a poem of William
Wordsworth, for example, entails an absorption
of Romantic ideology that precludes an historically
informed reading of the poem. In order for a
sociohistorical reading to be possible, absorption
of the poem’s own ideological imaginary must be
blocked; the refusal of absorption is a
prerequisite to understanding (in the literal sense
of standing under rather than inside). Indeed,
absorption may be a quality that characterizes
specifically Romantic works. This is suggested by
McGann when he discusses the “romantic” rationale
behind a preference for a version of Keats’s “La
Belle Dame Sans Merci” that substitutes “Oh what
can ail thee, knight-at-arms” for the more
ambivalent or ironic “Ah what can ail thee,
wretched wight” (where wight means both brave &
base as well as being deliberately archaic).

“By ‘romantic’ here I mean simply that [the preferred]
text does not distance itself that way the [other]
text does. The former is a more self-absorbed and
self-absorbing text, whereas the latter is more
self-conscious and critical.”<10>

Insofar as I make a distinction between the
absorptive & antiabsorptive, these terms
should not be understood as mutually exclusive,
morally coded, or even conceptually separable.
Absorption & antiabsorption are copresent
in any method of reading or writing, although
one or the other may be more obtrusive or evasive.
They connote colorations more than dichotomies.

From a compositional point of view
the question is, What can a poem absorb?
Here, think
of a text as a spongy substance, absorbing
vocabulary, syntax, & reference. The idea
of a poem absorbing these elements is meant
to provide an alternative to more traditional
notions of causal narration or thematic
relevance as producing a unified work.
A poem can absorb contradictory logics,
multiple tonalities, polyrhythms. At the
same time, impermeable materials—or moments—
are crucial musical resources for a poem,
though not all impermeable materials will work
to create the desired textural space.
There are relative degrees
or valences of impermeability that can be angled
against one another to create
interlinear or interphrasal “gaps” that act
like intervals in musical composition. Pushing
further, impermeable elements may fuse together

dysraphicly to create a hyperabsorptive textual
gravity in which the different originary elements
are no longer isolable.<11> In this sense,
the absorbed & unabsorbed cleave,
since cleave means both to divide
& to hold together.

One criteria of whether the nonabsorbed
material in a poem “works” is
whether it furthers or hinders the absorption
of the reader in the writing. The
author may intend either or both.
Creating an absorptive text may or may
not be the object of a poem. But the dynamic
of absorption is
central to all reading & writing.

So we can speak of a bloated poem,
or a burst text, adding evaluative qualification:
well bloated or bloated but blundering; exquisitely
burst or dismally popped; elegantly engorged or
haplessly logorrheic.

In nineteenth-century North American writing,
the subject matter of absorption is prominent.
Poe is credited with inventing the three main
genres of absorptive fiction: the horror story,
science fiction, & the detective story; his
theoretical writings constantly confront issues
relating to absorption, for example the hypnotic
effect of his highly rhythmic poems. In Poe’s
fiction, horror is a means not only of absorbing
the reader in the tale but also, explicitly,
obliterating the self-consciousness of the story’s
characters, who commonly fall into states of
absolutely rapt presentness, or rapture, or terror,
or reverie.

Consider this poem of Dickinson:

I would not paint—a picture—
I’d rather be the One
It’s bright impossibility
To dwell—delicious—on—
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare—celestial—stir
Provokes so sweet a Torment—
Such sumptuous—Despair—

I would not talk, like Cornets—
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to Ceilings—
And out, and easy on—
Through Villages of Ether
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal—
The pier to my Pontoon—

Nor would I be a Poet—
It’s finer—own the Ear—
The License to revere—
A luxury so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun
With Bolts of Melody!<12>

On the surface, the highly disruptive punctuation
& obscure or elusive allusions create an
antiabsorptive formal effect, both jarring & off-
balancing. The capitalization & dashes
seem to insist on a jerky, or hesitant, reading,
cutting sharply against the grain of the sing-song
prosody that is foregrounded in the depunctuated,
& more widely circulated, bowdlerized version
of this poem. Yet the poem registers (& that’s
the precise word for it) the need for jolts
that create the conditions for absorption, a radically
antiabsorptive poetics meant to contrast sharply
with what Susan Howe has described as the
“polished, pious” work of, for example, Anne
Bradstreet, but by extension the bulk of American
verse published in Dickinson’s time.<13> The poem
enacts an “impossible” preference not to represent
the world or look at it as if it were a
representation—that is, something that one can
look out onto—but to dwell in, on, be of.
Not to describe or incant but to be
the thing described, “endued”—endowed—“Balloon”;
to be inside, lighter than, “things”,
inflated by them, so absolutely absorbed as to be
floating “Enamored—impotent—content”: for
such enrapturement leaves one impotent to affect
the world, since to be able to affect requires
that one is removed from; & this armless
connection not only leaves one content but also, & the
double sense is crucial to the metaphysics
of the poem, makes one content, thinged—bolts
one to the other side of the see/seen divide.
Yet to be able to be absorbed into this other side
requires jolts, an antiabsorptive disruption
of complacent pictorial “talk”. So to “stun” is
to shock into one’s senses, an ecstatic,
perhaps mystical, transport into what Howe calls
the “thrilling anonymity” of Dickinson’s poetics.
Author disappears & by this act “licenses”
the “luxury” of a deeper absorption, by the reader,
in the poem than otherwise imaginable.

The idea of absorption is also linked
to revery, especially as it has been articulated
in twentieth century poetics from Proust through
surrealism. Revery suggests that absorption
is the subject matter of the poem & that the reader
may become absorbed by such poems. However,
the process need not be symmetrical. Certain
surrealist works use revery as an absorptive process
of creation without creating a text that makes this
absorption transparent.

While transparency is a central technique
of absorptive realisms (conjuring the thing seen
before our eyes, the page dissolved)
& absorptive irrealisms (conjuring the memory
or the dream), transparency is not the
equivalent of absorption; rather transparency is
but one technique for producing absorptive works.

Realism, using
transparency as its
major effect, has
often relied on absorption
as its theoretical
raison d’etre. No one articulates
this more buoyantly then Ford
Madox Ford in his homage to
Flaubert, The English Novel:
From the Earliest Days
to the Death of Joseph Conrad
In the course of this book, Ford makes
what is in effect a Summa
Contra Antiabsorptus:

Inasmuch as an authentic rendering—a rendering made with extreme artistic skill—will give you more the sense of having been present at an event than if you had actually been corporally present, whereas the reading of the most skillful of literary forgeries will only leave you with the sense that you have read a book the artistic rendering is the more valuable to you and therefore the greater achievement. I once heard a couple of French marine engineers agreeing that although they had traversed the Indian ocean many times and had several times passed through, or through the fringes of typhoons, neither of them had ever been in one till they had read Conrad’s “Typhoon.” . . .

To produce that or similar effects is the ambition of the novel today.  . . .

The fact is that with Elizabeth English became a supple and easily employable language and, making the discovery that words could be played with as if they were oranges or gilt balls to be tossed half a dozen together in the air, mankind rushed upon it as colts will dash into suddenly opened rich and easy pastures. So it was, for the rich and cultured, much more a matter of who could kick heels the higher and most flourish tail and mane than any ambition of carrying burdens or drawing loads.

In the end, however, what humanity needs is that burdens should be carried and provided that things get from place to place the name of the carrier or horse is of very secondary importance. If it is the fashion we will go down to the meadow and watch the colts cavorting: but all the while we are aware that the business of words as of colts or of the arts is to carry things and we tire reasonably soon of watching horse-play! For if I say “I am hungry,” the business of those words is to carry that information to you, and if you read the “Iliad” it is that the art of that epic may make Hecuba
significant to you. . . .

The struggle—the aspiration—of the novelist down the ages has been to evolve a water tight convention for the frame-work of the novel. He aspires—and for centuries has aspired—so to construct his stories and so to manage their surfaces that the carried away and rapt reader shall really think himself to be in Brussels on the first of Waterloo days or in the Grand Central Station waiting for the Knickerbocker Express to come in from Boston though actually he may be sitting in a cane lounge on a beach of Bermuda in December. This is not easy. . . .

It is for instance an obvious and unchanging fact that if an author intrudes his comments into the middle of his story he will endanger the illusion conveyed by that story—but a generation of readers may come along who would prefer witnessing the capers of the author to being carried away by stories and that generation of readers may coincide with a generation of writers tired of self-obliteration. So you may have a world of Oscar Wildes or of Lylys. Or you might, again, have a world tired of the really well constructed novel every word of which carries its story forward: then you will have a movement toward diffuseness, backboneless sentences, digressions, and inchoatenesses.<14>

These marvelous passages deserve fuller &
closer attention than I propose to give them.
In any case, they speak well for themselves.
But it is useful to understand that Ford’s
antiaestheticism (he grew up in a household where
Swinburne was a frequent guest) is related to
the Vorticist pronouncements of his friend Ezra
Pound (direct treatment, no word that does not
contribute), to which, inevitably, I shall return.
Ford here makes the classic case for a transparent
language that in no way interferes with the
reader’s absorption in the story being told; he
dismisses any form of opacity or self-consciousness
or formal play as hindering this readerly
absorption. It is striking that this position is
consonant with, rather than opposed to, powerful
currents within early modernism; he means by
his remarks to negatively target
Dickensian character-typing as much as literary
ornamentation, stilted “verse” diction
(the dominant form of magazine verse at the time),
& experimentation. While writing this
humorous & close to parodic study, Ford marshals
his arguments to support Conrad; but
it should be remembered that for Ford, the
“Master” would always be James, & James
was not the master of transparency but of Artifice.
(I hope I need not reiterate
that Conrad’s writing consciously
employs artifice fully as much as Oscar Wilde’s
& that readers are likely to be conscious of, &
to appreciate, the artifice of both writers.
Ford’s study is indeed a brief
for the greater technical control required to
achieve the effects of Flaubertian artifice.)
In any case, what Ford fails to account for
in his giddy study is that impermeable textual
elements may actually contribute toward
absorptive effects, & that such textures
may be particularly vital at a time when readers
are skeptical of the transparency effect, whether
it is used to reveal unmediated inner states or
external narrative spaces.

By absorption I mean engrossing, engulfing
completely, engaging, arresting attention, reverie,
attention intensification, rhapsodic, spellbinding,
mesmerizing, hypnotic, total, riveting,
enthralling: belief, conviction, silence.

Impermeability suggests artifice, boredom,
exaggeration, attention scattering, distraction,
digression, interruptive, transgressive,
undecorous, anticonventional, unintegrated, fractured,
fragmented, fanciful, ornately stylized, rococo,
baroque, structural, mannered, fanciful, ironic,
iconic, schtick, camp, diffuse, decorative,
repellent, inchoate, programmatic, didactic,
theatrical, background muzak, amusing: skepticism,
doubt, noise, resistance.

Absorptive & antiabsorptive
works both require artifice, but the former may hide
this while the latter may flaunt
it. & absorption may dissolve
into theater as these distinctions chimerically
shift & slide. Especially since,
as in much of my own work, antiabsorptive
techniques are used toward
absorptive ends; or, in satiric writing (it’s a put
on, get it?), absorptive means are used
toward antiabsorptive ends. It remains
an open question, & an unresolvable
one, what
will produce an absorptive poem & what will
produce a nonabsorptive one.


On Fordian absorptive terms, the reader
(a.k.a. beholder) must be ignored, as in
the “fourth wall” convention in theater, where what
takes place on the stage is assumed to be sealed-
off from the audience. Nothing
in the text should cause self-consciousness
about the reading process: it should be as if
the writer & the reader are not present.
As Diderot puts it, also (if unwittingly) articulating
the dilemma of the role assigned to women in
sexist society, “It is the difference between a
woman who is seen and a woman who exhibits
<15> This distinction is
a fiction; texts are written to be read or heard,
that is, exhibited; but the degree the “teller”
or “way it’s told” are allowed to come
into focus affects the experience of “what”
is being told or “what” is
unfolding. Nor is poetry,
by nature emphasizing its artifice,
immune from this dynamic. For poems
do not necessarily make the beholder conscious
of his or her role as a reader, nor can such
self-consciousness be obliterated only by
presenting highly visualizable scenes of sea
voyages or Homeric adventure.

Many nineteenth century lyric poems involve a self-
absorbed address to a beloved, the gods, or
the poet her/himself: an address that, because
it is not to the reader but to some presence
anterior or
interior to
the poem, induces readerly absorption
by creating an effect of overhearing in contrast to

Absorption can be broken
by any direct address
to the reader, whether as in
a how-to book (“now go get that leaky poem”), an
instruction manual (“stop here and complete the
test questions”), a sermon (“I’m calling
on you, not your neighbor, not the Jew Boy
next door, not them playdough inverts”), the Ten
Commandments (“I/thou”), or just by asking
you to look at the period at the end of this
sentence & pointing
out that it’s about the size of your macula. —“Who
are you calling a macula!” Don’t get huffy. Don’t
get “huffy”. Why just yesterday (but when was
today, dear reader?) Bob Perelman was saying “I’m
also using more repetition, deictics [words that
point, like ‘this’ word but which word is this
word ‘this’ or this], speechlike elements which posit
a co-presence of ‘speaker & listener’, i.e., writer
and reader.” Perelman quotes from “Cliff Notes”:
“It can’t be the knobs’ fault because this is back
before knobs” & from “Let’s Say”:

A page is being beaten
back across the face of ‘things’.
and the you and I spends its life
trying to read the bill
alone in the dark
big wide streets lined with language glue

Perelman comments:

The reader and the writer, “the you and the I,” are such languages transforming into pulp language, non- languages and back, degraded, exploded, overburdened systems of public & private address. There’s no inner escape from our environment, where such powerful emblems of coercion as USA TODAY constantly conflate the initials U.S. with their editorial staff and with “us,” so that “we” read that “we” are buoyed by the progress of the Salvadoran army or that “we” are attending more ballgames than ever this summer.<16>

Or, as he writes in “Binary”: “Finally the I
writing / and the you reading (breath still misting
the glass) / examples of the body partitioned by the
word.” [The First World, p. 47]

Absorption is blocked by misting
this glass, or by breaking it, or
by painting on its surface. Any
typographic irregularity,
any glitch in expected
syntax, any
digression . . .
Nicole Brossard makes this a theme
in A Book, where the process
of creating the fiction is explicitly put
as the role of the reader:

The event is seen from a distance and out of context. All that is happening is this reading being done, the only real thing, causing a few muscles to move imperceptibly and making one conscious of his own breathing. . . . To be aware of what happens at the very instant the eyes focus on the hand holding the book, on the book and the words it is made up of. . . . The words are yours. . . . The game is over. The book too. The manuscript is no more. . . . Time passes slowly, so slowly. Someone is reading. And gently closing the object.<17>

Another way of acknowledging, or calling attention
to, the reader/writer relationship is
the Brechtian device of captioning, or the use of
marginal titles, as in the digressive &
picaresque novels of the eighteenth century, or in
Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner”, or
more recently, in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.
Beyond this, works that ask the reader to do
something, such as those poems by Jackson Mac Low
that have accompanying instructions, make use
of a primary antiabsorptive technique. The Coleridge
poem usefully underlines the difficulty of identifying
antiabsorptive means with antiabsorptive ends.
McGann persuasively argues in “The Ancient Mariner:
the Meaning of the Meanings”, that the interpretive
glosses inserted by Coleridge into his poem serve
to reconcile the readers of his time to otherwise
patently alien material (pagan superstition &
early Catholic legend); that is, his hermeneutic
interventions effectively enabled the reader to
absorb, by discovering a continuity with, diverse
& discordant historical & ideological
perspectives. As McGann points out, Coleridge
envisioned his project as reducing “all knowledge
to harmony”, where harmony is understood as being
created by the “higher” light of his own Broad
Church Protestantism.<18>

Bruce Andrews’ recent work explores
a different technique for using the presence
of the reader antiabsorptively. Andrews’
audience-directed confrontational language,
with its aggressive street slang & scatological
language, peppered with second-person accusations,
provoking questions (“Isn’t nature bored with your
devotion?” “Hey, Fuckhead”) & first-person
deprecations (“Mash me to a pulp”) invoke & assault
the reader with the exploitive, racist, sexist
underside of our collective syntactic & metaphoric
practices. Andrews makes obtrusive
the social & ideological nature & function
of language habits in which we are
ordinarily so absorbed as to ignore
or repress. Rather than absorb
the reader in the poem, the poem radiates
out, projectile-like, against
placid ear, pseudosensitive
appropriateness, politesse—“contesting
the social ground” without abandoning a commitment
to the social constitution of meaning.
For Andrews, as for Perelman & Brossard,
the resistance to absorption is a
political act; in “I Guess Work the Time Up”,
“Confidence Trick”, & “Shut Up”, Andrews has
produced an antiabsorptive writing more socially
refractive than aesthetically impermeable.<19>

Direct address to the audience can, in contrast,
be used to further absorptive reading, as in
David Antin’s attempt, in his talks/monologues,
to revitalize poetry by focussing its address
on a live audience, & more subtly, by disarming
reader or audience skepticism by acknowledging
their presence as well as his own. Here’s
how he starts one work, which, like most of his
recent poetry, is based on a transcript
of a performance that, as writing, simulates
the immediacy (urgency as he puts it) of
in-person communication:

ive called this talk tuning    and you probably have no very good
idea of what i am going to talk about. . . though i have a
considerable notion of the terrain    into which i tend to move
and the only way im going to find out whether it was worth doing
or not      is when i hear what ive got    which has been my
way of entrapping myself    and the reason ive chosen to entrap
myself rather than to prepare in advance     a precise set of
utterances      has been that i felt myself      ive written things
     before this      in the natural vacuum that is the artificial
hermetic closet that literature has been in for some time      and
the problem for me      is in the closet confronting a typewriter
and no person      so that for me literature defined as literature
     has no urgency      it has need of address      there are too
many things      no there are not too many things there are only
a few things you may want to talk about but there are too many
ways you could talk about them      and no urgency in which way

you choose talk about them      there are too many ways to
proceed      too many possibilities for making well crafted
objects      none of which seem particularly necessary.<20>


Let me turn again
to consideration of the internal structure
of a poem, putting aside, for a moment,
the poem’s relation to the reader.
One approach to creating a poem that absorbs
the attention is through the unity of its
elements: the causal necessity of every element
& relationship being strikingly & instantaneously
apparent. Diderot, speaking of painting (but
the idea translates), called for the elimination
of all incident, however appealing, that did not
contribute directly & indispensably to the most
dramatic & expressive presentation of the subject
that could be imagined: “A composition cannot
afford any idle figures, any superfluous accessory.
The subject must be one”.<21> This is echoed,
well over a century later, in Pound’s Imagist
& Vorticist dictums against the extraneous & idly
ornamental. Indeed, the metaphors of speed &
vortex in the Italian Futurism of Marinetti
& the Vorticism of Pound were related to
the absorptive, unifying power of dynamic energy;
the fast car unified the landscape by virtue
of its power, in the Imagist poem “Emotion seizing
up some external scene or action carries it intact
to the mind; & that vortex purges it of all
save the essential or dominant dramatic qualities
& it emerges like the external original.” <22>

Moreover, something like Diderot’s credo still
has a powerful hold on quite diverse practices
of contemporary poetry. I would interpret
Allen Ginsberg’s latter day insistence on breath
& clarity, & the focus that mediation can bring,
as an attempt to hone in on the essential
& separate out the beclouded. Louis Simpson, speaking,
like Ginsberg, for a large number of practitioners, decries
obscure syntax or vocabulary, advocating the articulation
of the voice of the “common man”, which necessarily
requires, to achieve the effect, the causal unity
of elements. While Antin, approaching the issues
in a different way than Ginsberg & Simpson,
nonetheless has spoken of “goodness
of fit” as a criteria not adequately replaced in poems
(& paintings & movies) that rely on juxtaposing
highly disparate materials. He contrasts this
with the goodness of fit in “discourse”,
such as his own talks, where there is a more
organic progression.<23>

Causal unity is often motivated by a desire
to create more absorbing, “effective”
poems. The problem is that often
it doesn’t work; the devices employed
create poems that seem phony
or boring or
uncompelling. One reason
for this pragmatic failure
is that so much contemporary American
poetry is based on simplistic
notions of absorption through unity, such
as those sometimes put forward by Ginsberg
(who as his work shows
knows better, but who has made an ideological
commitment to such simplicity) & Simpson
(whose case is less complex). In contrast, Antin’s
thinking about these issues is determinately
sophisticated & his practice shows it—
the work suggests
new possibilities for pursuing the concerns
he articulates.

Causal unity is by no means the only approach
that has been used to create absorptive works.
Metrical versification traditionally has been used
for this purpose: the regular recurrences of sounds
& beats lulling—or pulling—the attention
inward. At present, however, this strategy
may backfire on pragmatic grounds since such
works run a high risk of being tediously
repetitive & witlessly contrived; that is,
nonabsorbing: dull while wanting to be
bright. Conversely, metricality & other
traditional prosodic devices, especially when
foregrounded, can be potent antiabsorptive
techniques (& were traditionally used as such
by many English poets prior to the rise of
Romanticism). A sestina, in almost anybody’s
hands, seems artificial. In this sense,
some of the most inert & lobotomized poetry
of our time uses such devices to accent its archaism,
its formality, its Verse ethos, or worse still,
to trivialize the whole endeavor (as in Vickram
Seth’s “verse novel” The Golden Gate,
widely praised for touching on the issues
of poetic artifice—yet this work is without feeling
for them or able to do anything with them
save evacuate them of their possibilities
to mean or to sing.<24>) In contrast,
Swinburne was perhaps the last poet in English
who was able to fully realize the possibilities
inherent in the conflict between the absorptive
& artificial in the use of elaborate formal prosodic
structures; for in the extremity of his rimes
& syntaxes, he inhabited a unique domain
on the borderline between the rhap-
sodic & the theatrical.

Forrest-Thomson makes this point with great acuity,
praising Swinburne for having created

an artificial world both continuous & discontinuous with the world of experience. It is a world which simplifies and exalts but also, and by the same token, parodies. . . . Swinburne is aware that expansion of the level of meaning & imposition of Naturalisation are inevitable constituents of the process of reading poetry and must be allowed for in the process of writing it. He is further aware that in making such allowances one can find ways of making a poem transcend its initial Naturalisation and impose its own world of imaginative possibilities, simply because it has made technical allowances for the reader’s initial realistic expansion/limitation. [pp. 118 and 121]

Poetry is often distinguished from other forms
of writing by the fact that it marks its artifice
by its line breaks or, if prose format, by virtue
of the qualities that distinguish it from other types
of prose. Helen Vendler, in her introduction
to The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry,

While the novel, unstoppable, wants to keep reeling us into its labyrinth, the unjustified margin of poetry pulls us up, even if gently, at the end of each line. (Even the prose poem, by its sheer density, forces an interruption on us at the end of each sentence, a practice that would be fatal to the novel.) [This may explain why the works that have caused critics to invent the “death of the novel” are probably the ones most alive.]. . . The symbolic strength of poetry consists in giving presence, though linguistic signs, to absent realities, while insisting, by the very brilliance of poetic style, on the linguistic nature of its own being and the illusionistic character of its effects.<25>


First off one might wonder, why give “presence to
absent realities” & not to absent unrealities,
or why not give absence to (obliterate)
present realities, & so on; but this takes us
too far afield (which is the point). For despite
the many problems with this passage, it still
suggests that the anthology includes poems that
display their linguistic self-consciousness
in a variety of antiabsorptive ways. But this
is not the case since for Vendler the “interruptions”
of poetry are so “gentle” as hardly to be
noticed at all; they are polite
& discrete, to be seen
& not heard. As Vendler puts it,
“When we first read a poem we read it
illusionistically; later we may see its art.”
Vendler’s selections, insofar as they
do display linguistic self-consciousness, are
restricted to doing so in terms of discursive
stylistic practices. Disjunction
is almost entirely absent from the poems selected.
By antiabsorptive it should be apparent that I
do not mean what Vendler has in mind; I’m talking
about real disruption that prevents an initial
“illusionistic” reading. It becomes clear,
however, why Wallace Stevens & the John Ashbery
of “Self Portrait in a Discur(v)sive Mirror”
are the best examples of Vendler’s thesis since
they have both created remarkable works within
the domain she focuses on. These works
are so aesthetically convincing
that it may be hard for some readers to accept
alternate prosodic methods.

Vendler is very much under the spell of
realist & mimetic ideas about poetry. In this
sense, she still has much to learn from Stevens &
Ashbery. She writes that poets “attempt that
accuracy—of perception, of style”,
discounting Wilde’s
observation that reality is shaped by art,
& not the other way around
(& what does accuracy have to do with it
anyway?). But perhaps
the most irritating thing about
Vendler’s manner of argument is that it is always
referring to what “all” poems do, making it
impossible for her to even consider that some poems
may come into being just because they don’t do what
some other poems have done. Vendler says
she hopes readers will be provoked by some of the
anthologized poems to say—“‘Heavens, I recognize
the place, I know it!’ It is the effect every poet
hopes for.” I would hope
readers might be provoked to say of some poems,
“Hell, I don’t recognize the place or the time, or
the ‘I’ in this sentence. I don’t know it.”

Donald Wesling argues, in The Chances of Rhyme:
Device and Modernity,
that one of the features of
the “modernity” that developed in the West after
1795 was an attempt to “naturalize” artifice
(in Forrest-Thomson’s sense) by emotionally
& removing from the foreground
the devices that are an inevitable part of poetic
composition, thus setting in motion a fecund
paradox or contradiction that persists to the
present.<26> In Wesling’s
account, English neoclassicism
as practiced by the Augustans in the period
immediately preceding this “major prosodic
break”, was even more rigidly
naturalizing of devices, but for these writers
there was a natural symmetry between the rhetoric
of rule-bound devices & reason. Paraphrasing
Edward Bysshe’s Art of English Poetry (1702),
Wesling notes that “sound repetitions are to come
at stated intervals, like perfect chimes: any
unpredictability or sense of sound would be ‘harsh,’
or ‘rough,’ an uncivil prosody.” Indeed,
any antiabsorptive use of rime was to be “expunged”
under the principle that “rhyme was completely
natural, assuming couplets were the mind’s true
order.” However, the break
Wesling locates at 1795 is not so much a rejection
of the value of naturalization as a radical change
in what was assumed to be natural, specifically
a substitution of an “organicist” conception
of form for a “rhetorical” one:

Post-Romantic writers are suspicious of literary form in its guise of ornamental rhetoric, and this has made the history and role of the device central in modern poetics. Rhyme, the instance chosen here, is not disappearing . . . but rather is being wrenched as far as possible into personal meaning.

The naturalizing of devices such as rime fits
into Vendler’s paradigm, as just discussed.
I would contrast this naturalizing of the
antiabsorptiveness of devices to the use of
antiabsorptive techniques for absorptive ends
since that process foregrounds device,
you might say acknowledges “deviceness” or “devicehood”,
rather than attempting to contain
or “derhetorize” it. Wesling’s book locates
these contradictory impulses as basic, since
“under the historical conditions of modernity,
poetry and commentators alike are enmeshed
in a contradictory structure of thought
where the highest twin values are
the corporality and the transparency”
—I would say the impermeabilty & the absorbability—
“of the medium of language.” Wesling’s
own account reflects the contradiction.

Wesling presents a useful discussion of sound
as an inherently antiabsorptive dimension of poetry,
quoting, albeit critically, Harry Lanz’s 1931
description of the “transparency effect” in The
Physical Basis of Rime: An Essay on the Aesthetics
of Sound

in ordinary speech, in prose, we entirely forget about the physical existence of words as signs or sounds. Meaning, ideas, is what we get for it. With their physical reality forgotten . . . the words become transparent . . . fully resolved into what they mean. Poetry is called upon to save the physical element of words and bring it to our attention in the name of art. Thus sound, the music of words, acquires an independent artistic value which is largely indifferent to the meaning or the sense of it.

Lanz, like Forrest-Thomson, is mistaken to claim
sound as independent of, rather than constitutive
of, meaning; or perhaps, is mistaken to assume
that meaning is a strictly utilitarian concept.
Wesling speaks of the different period styles
of the “dissociative” or “divestive” function
of poetic devices in referring to Sigurd Burckhardt’s
comment that poetry’s goal—which can never be completely,
only “proximately” achieved—is to drive “a wedge
between words and their meanings, lessen as
much as possible their designatory force and thereby
inhibit our all too ready flight from them to
things they point to”; I would rather say
that the “all too ready flight” of normative
discursive practices is what drives the wedge, but
then sound can no more be divided from its meaning
than a body can be split off from its soul.
As Wesling judiciously comments “sound and
sense in literary composition determine each other
reciprocally, no place more evidently than in
rhyming practice.” Or as Alan Davies has it,
“The sound sense isn’t in the diction. It’s
in the thought.”<27> Nonetheless,
Wesling is uncomfortable about the too
ostensibly antiabsorptive use of device:
“poetic devices, and the labor
they imply, do seem highly obtrusive
in the failed poem”; he seems to disallow
that a “good” poem might choose
not to “balance” what he calls “aesthetic
and cognitive principles”. Still, Wesling’s
view is that

since 1795 there has been no comparable attempt [to that of the English neoclassical poets] to restrict the subversive, independent-of-things nature of the language medium [by boycotting puns and confining rhymes]; rather an exaggeration of it, almost a logomimesis. . . . Modern use of the device [of rhyme] may be said to force its artificiality and irrationality into the light.

But it seems to me that a good deal of the “canonical”
poetry subsequent to 1795 has been prized precisely
for its strategic resourcefulness in enabling
the continued naturalization of devices (for
example as Romantic reconciliation) while
much heterodox writing has been discounted, by
critics such as Vendler, for its too-obtrusive
“wordness”. Moreover, official verse culture
of the last 25 years has engaged in militant
(that is to say ungenerously uniformitarian)
campaigns to “restrict the subversive,
independent-of-things nature of language”
in the name of the common voice, clarity, sincerity,
or directness of the poem, & specifically
in the highly problematic equating, as in
the passage from Wesling, of the “irrational”
& the “artificial”.
It is the repressing of,
rather than the acknowledging of,
devicehood that violates the claims of reason,
all the more so when reason finds itself
at odds with rationality.

Yet despite these significant complications,
it still makes sense to think of rhapsodic
odes, rapturous lyrics, the song & ballad
traditions, & the like, as emphasizing
a seamless, self-enclosed continuity con-
sistent with an absorptive effect. Subject
matter will often contribute; for example,
ecstatic poems of religious or romantic
experience/devotion are self-absorbed or
self-cancelling rather than self-conscious.

Nor is a poem necessarily unabsorbing because
it is short. Rather, there is a potential
for a kind of metonymic enactment
of absorption, with the poem
completely caught up in
its own internal acoustic & semantic
dynamics: absorbed sound or
completely saturated sound. These features,
though they may accentuate
artifice & opacify
subject matter, are nonetheless
primary techniques for absorptive writing.
For the power of sound “itself” is
as great as sound’s ability to evoke
an image; those poetries that have tapped
into this power have, in refusing to let words
become transparent, made them potent.

This is related to
the spellweaving
& spellbinding functions of
nonoriental poetries, such as those collected in
Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the
especially if considered in the light
of Andrew Welsh’s distinction, in The Roots
of the Lyric:
Primitive Poetry & Modern
between “song melos” (externally imposed
meter) &
“charm melos” (internally derived from sound &
rhythm patterns).
“Charm melos” depends on
“artificial”, jaggedly rhythmic
prosodic elements to create a centripetal
(or vortical)
energy in the poem that is
able to capture & hold the attention (not
just conscious attention, but the imagination
psyche). The power of “charm melos” is technical
in the precise sense of Rothenberg’s title: the
superficially antiabsorptive elements
repetition, accentuated stresses, nonlexical “scat”
sounds) are the basis for this
souped-up poetic
engine. McCaffery describes this magical
doubling of the antiabsorptive & absorptive this
way: “Semiotically viewed, the shaman drum
is a profound contradiction; it is both itself &
the very means of transcending that self.”<28> (This
is a familiar enough transformation in
rock & roll, where the
disbelieving hear loud, repelling
noise & the
initiate is totally engrossed: “I want to get lost
in your rock & roll, & drift away.”).
McCaffery continues:

At the Shaman’s initiatory seance, the drum acts self- creatively, its sound carrying a distinctly centripetal value drawing into itself the environmental spirits around it, destroying context by drawing context into its own constitutional elements, becoming by absorbing the energic forces around it. In this state the drum is self-generating sign with the capacity of drawing powers into itself and shutting them in. . . . Behind all Shamanistic drum use is the sense of drum as instrumental in connecting with a universal centre, a term that should not be taken topographically but emotionally as denoting the sacred space that ecstasy inhabits. The Shamanistic Centre is, in fact, a highly charged gap or metope between signs in a cosmic syntax; to reach a centre is to enter that space as an ecstatic vortex.

For Robert Kelly, charms propose a method:

(spells as the hidden content of our literature, aver sions of the evil thing, securing of the good by: music. Song moving reality to bring into harmony the irreducible needs & urgent tenors of our condition. The old german zauberspreche, the anglo-saxon charms propose a method. If music answers.)<29>


& his “spel V” invokes the power of song
to absorb the singer into it as in turn, a turn,
the song is absorbed into the singer:

now the meadow drinks
now drink I

cup, good cup be full

Think here
of the surrealist project
in which the aim was to mine more deeply
into the unconscious & the dream
state than normally possible with conventional
writing practices. The
odd juxtapositions & strange syntax
of surrealist poetry was not an attempt to creatively use
inattention; on the contrary, Breton
rejected those poets whom he felt were pursuing
such Dadaist or constructivist programs. Surrealism,
as expounded by Breton, is the most radically
absorptive poetry imaginable; its
quest is not to foreground artifice but to reveal
“surreality”. Nonetheless, its procedures, such
involved using antiabsorptive
techniques to reach
this “deeper”, more absorbing reality.

The invention of zaum poetry by the Russian
futurians Velimir Khlebnikov & Alexei
Kruchenykh is also relevant. Zaum,
which has been translated as beyonsense
& transrational, is made up of what Khlebnikov
called “language situated beyond the boundaries
of ordinary reason.” It uses words not found
in any dictionary, derived—in Khlebnikov’s practice—
in a quasimathematical way, by joining
various root syllables in “unrestricted
combinations, which represents the voice at play
outside of words.” While the resulting poetry
may seem opaque or antiabsorptive, Khlebnikov
believed that zaum was a major breakthrough
toward the creation of a universal—what I
would call “transabsorbable”—language.

What about spells and incantations, what we call magic words, the sacred language of paganism, words like “shagadam, magadam, vigadam, pitz, patz, patzu”—they . . . form a kind of beyonsense language in folk speech. Nevertheless an enormous power over mankind is attributed to these incomprehensible words and magic spells, and direct influence upon the fate of man. They contain powerful magic. . . . The prayers of many nations are written in a language incomprehensible to those who pray. Does a Hindu understand the Vedas? Russians do not understand Old Church Slavonic. . . . In the same way, the language of magic spells and incantations does not wish to be judged in terms of everyday common sense. Its strange wisdom may be broken down into the truths contained in separate sounds: sh, m, v, etc. We do not yet understand these sounds. . . . But thereis no doubt that these sound sequences constitute a series of universal truths passing before the predawn of our soul.<30>

According to Khlebnikov, national/rational
languages prevent the possibility for universal
communication: “Beyonsense language is thus
the universal language for the future, although
it is still in an embryonic state. It alone
will be able to unite all people. Rational languages
have separated them.”

A related use of antiabsorptive modalities
for absorptive ends is suggested by Michel

I don’t believe that I have ever seen anyone captivate their audience the way Cab Calloway did. I have never seen anyone who was able to put an entire hall of people in a state verging on trance the way Cab Calloway did at La Salle Pleyel. Perhaps it was in part his scat singing that created such a powerful effect on his audience. I adore scat singing. It has a dizzying, giddy effect on you. <31>

In another context, Leiris describes a startling
use of antiabsorptive techniques to increase
the power of an absorptive experience, quoting
Michelet—“The ability, above all, to believe
every lie.” Leiris contrasts two types of spirit
possession ceremonies in the Zar cult of Ethiopia,
based on his field experience. In one,
the participants seem fully aware of the fraudulence
of the possession, that it is a lie:

Alongside those cases where the lie seems preponderant and where it would be proper to speak of acted theater, there are case in which the reality of the possession is not in doubt . . . which correspond to what may be called lived theater. Seen another way, this may in fact be acted theater but with a minimum of artifice and free of any intention to impose on the spectator.<32>

Acted theater & live theater (based on “ecstatic
techniques”) resonantly rhyme with absorption &
theatricality. What is remarkable is not so much
the distinction, but the striking observation
Leiris makes about the greater effect of the antiabsorptive
acted theater:

In a general way then, it is probable that if the theater as such possesses a certain virtue of katharsis or “purgation” of the passions . . . then from this perspective how much greater must be the virtue of a theater where the person, far from remaining confined to passivity or losing itself in pure play, is completely engaged and even in some degree able to invent for itself the scenes whose protagonist it becomes.

There is, then, a considerable history
of using antiabsorptive techniques
(nontransparent or nonnaturalizing elements)
for absorptive
ends. This is an approach
I find myself peculiarly
attracted to, & which reflects my
(as in wanting multiple things)
about absorption & its converses.
In my poems, I
frequently use opaque & nonabsorbable
elements, digressions &
interruptions, as part of a technological
arsenal to create a more powerful
(“souped up”)
absorption than possible with traditional,
& blander, absorptive techniques. This is a
precarious road because insofar
as the poem seems
overtly self-conscious, as opposed to internally
incantatory or psychically
actual, it may produce
self-consciousness in the reader
destroy his or her absorption by theatricalizing
or conceptualizing the text, removing
it from the
realm of an experience engendered
to that of a technique
This is the subject of much of my

These reflections suggest that absorption
can be achieved without transparency, causal
unity, or traditional metrics;
that abandoning these devices
may be necessary to
capture a reader’s attention.

But why dwell on capturing (the theatrical
economy)? From the look on the faces of the
people on the bus & the beach, today’s
bestsellers routinely “spellbind”, just like
it says on the covers. How, exactly, does
this differ from the spellweaving charms
just discussed? For one thing,
the more intensified, technologized
absorption made possible by
nonabsorptive means may get the reader
absorbed into a more ideologized
or politicized space; if not to say,
less programmatically,
one that really can engross: not
ersatz but, at last, the real

Still, the image of spellbinding fictions
that hype the most mundane of
literary deteriorata, & the nexus of
suspicions that has arisen in reaction
to this type of work, has
usefully lead some writers to try to create
nonabsorbable or antiabsorptive works.
For these writers,
there has been a useful
questioning of what we are normally
asked to be absorbed into &
an outright rejection of any accommodation
with or assimilation into this “bourgeois”
space. Moreover, spellbinding doesn’t have a
monopoly on creating meaning or pleasure
& may (I like Dashiell Hammett too)
inhibit both. The use of nontransparent
& nonunified modalities may produce far
more resonant music & content than
otherwise possible, just as it many produce works that are boring
& didactic. For many readers
& writers, the limits on what
can be conveyed absorptively are too
great, & the products of such
approaches are too misleading. For such
writers, the project is to wake
us from the hypnosis of absorption.

This century has seen an explosion
of nonabsorptive forms, which together comprise
a significant investigation
of the possibilities for poetry
—both absorptive & impermeable.
It would be difficult to map even a
small portion of these traditions,
which spread out over many languages
&, importantly, into the
translation practices within & among
many languages. The range
of writing made available in English
in the past hundred years, from the
poetries collected in Technicians of the Sacred
to The Greek Magical Papyri <33>
to “lost” diaries of women from every walk of life,
to hundreds of specialized-language publications (from
surfing to genetics to computers),
has sharpened an awareness of the interrelation
of cultural distance & opacity as played out in language.
To be absorbed in one’s own immediate language practices
& specialized lingo
is to be confronted with the foreignness
& unabsorbability of this plethora of
other “available” material;
the ideological strategy of mass entertainment,
from bestsellers to TV to “common voice” poetry,
is to contradict this everpresent “other” reality through
insulation into a fabricated “lowest” common
denominator, that, among its many guises, goes under
the Romantic formula “irreducible human values”.

Some antiabsorptive traditions within twentieth
century poetry could be traced back to
Stein (while The Making of Americans, written in
the “continuous present” suggests a neoabsorptivity,
& the early portraits & related works have a
rhythmic quality that relates them to charm melos,
the denser sections of Tender Buttons & the word-
to-word halting in How to Write are
great achievements of antiabsorptive writing);
Pound’s Cantos (the use of collage &
fragmentation, graphic material, the inclusion of
printer’s & other errors, the disruptive presence
of a legion of references outside the poem);
Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning “The’”,
with its numbered citations
of different quotations, &
assorted other found material;
Joyce’s Finnegans Wake;
Duchamp’s prose levy’s en Anglais;
Dadaism in North America;
ee cummings for his typ,,OgRAPHic(((,,
Lettrism & other visual poetries, from
Apollinaire’s Calligrammes to De Campos &
Gomringer to Ian Hamilton Finlay.
. . . to name a few . . .

In the contemporary context, the pursuit
of antiabsorptive or impermeable textuality is
pervasive, whether frontally proclaimed or
ambivolently situated.<34>
A dense or unfamiliar vocabulary
can make a poem hard to absorb, not only by calling
attention to the sound qualities of its lexicon
but also by preventing any immediate processing
of the individual word’s meaning. At some point,
the appropriate reference source may be consulted—
but this is by no means the only way to hear
or understand the work. There is, however, in
postwar North American poetry, a prejudice against using
an obscure vocabulary for its own sake,
partly because so much emphasis has been placed
on a “speech” orientation that tends to encourage
a plainer vocabulary, & partly (though paradoxically)
because dialect has been constantly marginalized
as a serious poetic project (that is, insofar
as a dialect drifts incommensurably from the prestige
dialect that is “standard American English”).
Apart from the extensions
of zaum & the use, in a number
of works written primarily in the seventies, of frag-
mented words (ing, ment, ility, uble, iplious, ure),
recent antiabsorptive techniques have tended
to use syntactic and graphemic rather than lexical
invention & so follow in the tradition of Stein’s
& Williams’ more lexically conventional practices—
conventional, that is, compared with
late Joyce or Abraham Lincoln Gillespie.
Still you don’t have to know Scots
to hear the music of Hugh MacDiarmid’s
Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle;
it may be singularly instructive
to read that work closely with much of the
vocabulary left opaque—before taking up a more
lexically informed reading. & this is the attraction
rather than limitation to reading, or hearing,
such Jamaican “dub” poets as Michael Smith.
Basil Bunting’s Briggflats is probably
the English language poem of this century
to most richly realize the musical depths
of an opaque, but not invented, lexicon.
Nor is such an “uninformed” reading
of Briggflats foreign to Bunting’s poetic
purposes. In “The Use of Poetry” he says that
poetry’s power to evoke emotion is unrelated
to any utilitarian idea of the meaning or ideas
a poem conveys; rather the emotion is
aroused by the sound of the words:

My own contribution, such as it is, has been to see what poetry can borrow from the devices and form music has developed since the two arts seemed to separate towards the end of the seventeenth century. . . . poetry is to be heard, to be read aloud or sung . . .we lose very little by not knowing what the words mean, so long as we can pronounce them.<35>

Bunting continues, “I’ve tested that by reading
to class. I’ve read them German, Italian, Persian,
and Welsh, and so far as I could judge,
they got as much out of it as they did
from many English poems.”
Of course, what is a foreign
language or an incomprehensible
dialect to one reader is native
to another. Dialect writing
is generally related to a nationalist cult-
ural program & aims
at acknowledging the pre-
vailing vernacular as a
means of establishing a group
identity. Dialect poetry is not
often intended to be anti-
absorptive or opaque to its initial
readers. Yet,
inevitably, the effect of group particularization
of language is to make it strange
to outsiders fully as much as
to make it familiar to insiders.
Insofar as English language poets pursue
their dialectical differences in a radically de-
centering way, then all of us will confront
—more often than some of us now do—“foreign”
Englishes & no dialect will be held above
the others as common coin. Such
a development in English
language poetry is welcome: the inherent difficulties
are more than compensated for by the knowledge
that comes from respecting differences.
What I suggest is unusual in postwar North
American poetry is the use of an obscure,
but not invented, vocabulary.
Briggflats rides the cusp
of this possibility: we can imagine
a small community of readers for whom this
lexicon might be familiar, yet Bunting’s
primary audience has always been
readers for whom his vocabulary is opaque
& this is inextricable from the poem’s power &
particular music.

This series of references bleeds
into an interrelated group
of poems, in prose
formats, whose syntax spirals
outward in an open-
ended way.<36> Such “imploded-sentence”
works can be contrasted
with another prominent tendency
in current poetry—the serial
ordering (juxta-
position) of more
syntactically orderly,
“tightly” structured sentences
in so-called “new sentence”

Clark Coolidge’s improvisatory extensions
of the line refuse the closure of the subject/verb/object
sentence; refuse, that is, the syntactic ideality
of the complete sentence, in which each part
of speech operates in its definable place so that
a grammatic paradigm is superimposed on the actual
unfolding of the semantic strings. In imploded-
sentence poetry, meaning flows durationally—
horizontally—by means of the linear continuousness
of the sweeping, syncopated rhythms. While in
the complete/closed sentence, attention is deflected
to an abstracted, or accompanying, “meaning”
that is being “conveyed”, in the imploded sentence,
the reader stays plugged in to the wave-like
pulse of the writing. In other words, you keep
moving through the writing without having to come
up for ideational air: the ideas are all inside
the process. This, again, suggests
that a surface disruption of syntactic ideality
can expand the total prosody of the poem, whose rhythms
engage as they envelop—much as John Coltrane’s
“opening up” of a tune—or opening up
beyond any background reference to a
tune (this could be called “ascension”)—intensifies
rather than distances or ironizes
the musical sweep of his compositions. Here’s
Coolidge, talking about jazz improvisation in the
liner notes to a Rova Saxophone Quartet album:

To sound is to resist rested definition, to leave oneself outward into a trend where the fissures and masses spring a feeling free of its telling. . . . To improvise: to know in, and only while undergoing, the process of doing. To perceive only in the motion of an act, in the movements of practicing that act. . . . Thus, as in the definition. “not foreseen” because only experienced in the movement and passing along with it. . . . Though improvisation sometimes feels like a matter of . . . moving vast fragile masses, bales of sound, or ducking (or absorbing) that projectile coming around again . . . where musics become a reality beyond “tune”“beat” etc. . . .<37>

In Peter Seaton’s poems the eclipsing
of a hard-to-absorb syntax with the absolute
current & dynamism of compositional flow
reaches majestic proportion. As Larry Price notes,
Seaton’s work collapses the operant distinction
between reader & text (a distinction
that is a prerequisite for a differentiation
of absorption & impermeability)
by “reconstituting writing ‘below’” its normally
understood function as exchange, “in its
materiality as language”. <38> The aesthetic
wholeness & integrity of Seaton’s work
demonstrates the necessity for expression
& the rewards if accessibility is not used
as a justification to compromise this necessity—
a compromise that may block access.
The fever of truth, of conviction—
“dreams for flesh”—
puts to rest any lingering notions of a mutual
exclusivity of absorption & impermeability:
they fit, Seaton shows, like a body & a soul,
like words & their meaning.

But to continue circling
the parabola (“we keep coming
back and coming back . . .”
to the vision of dis-
placement at the site of
enactment, procurement,
debasement, trans-
substantiation, fulmination,
culmination . . .):

McCaffery’s Panopticon is perhaps the exemplary
antiabsorptive book.<39> The first twenty pages
are printed on a grid background, a visual trope
for the refusal of these pages to be absorbed
by the reader. A man’s torso
with a cutaway view
of the digestive system adorns
the cover & six of these opening
twenty pages. After a halftitle
page, the first three recto pages feature
a quote from Plato’s Symposium
in English; an ad for
acne cream in Spanish; & a brief scenario about a
woman playing an aging movie star starring in a
film called The Mark being photographed
reading a novel called The Mind of
Pauline Brain
. The next recto
page features a large picture of McCaffery
staring at the reader,
together with the book’s title, author,
& press. The pages that
follow feature two Latin epigraphs & a page
with the handwritten designation “plates 21-29”, but
of course there are no plates. Then come
three pages of prose continuing, or more accurately
displacing by varying, the scenario
already commenced. At this
point, a title page announces “Part III: The Mind
of Pauline Brain”; flipping to the end of the book,
the reader finds that the last section is designated
“Part I: The Mark”. Panopticon
makes use of just about
every possible antiabsorptive device: several
pages summarize “a book entitled
Panopticon”; the middle
section of the work has a separate text running in
the bottom third of the page, which is shaded
gray; a number of pages are all caps; a number
have two separate strands of meaning on alternating
prose lines, one
designated by caps & the other by upper/lower
case. At
one point, The Mind of Pauline Brain
is described as noteworthy “less for its verbal
content than for [its] superb illustrations” of
anatomical dissections; this suggests
that Panopticon’s value is as a dissection
of the book & that the title’s
image represents the multiple scannings
that make this possible & mark
its break from the single-focus opticon
of conventional narrative. But the title
also has an ominous ring, since the panopticon is
an image of surveillance & control, referring
to a prison built radially to allow
one centrally placed
guard to see all
the prisoners. As McCaffery writes,
in a statement that is
intermixed with other material several times in the


The “mark” is the visible sign of writing.
However, reading, insofar as it consumes &
absorbs the mark, erases it—the words disappear
(the transparency effect) & are replaced by
that which they depict, their “meaning”. Thus
absorption is the “aura of listening” destroyed
in this writing: Antiabsorptive
writing recuperates the mark by making it opaque,
that is, by maintaining its visibility
& undermining its “meaning”, where “meaning” is
understood in the narrower, utilitarian sense
of a restricted economy. To make a movie
of the “mark” is to theatricalize it, exactly
the contrary of creating, as in conventional narrative
in film or writing, the conditions for the mark
to be absorbed (repressed or erased).
In a similar way, to make a “play” of the mind
& call it “brain”, as in The Mind of Pauline Brain
suggests that mind/brain dualism is a theatricalization
of the conditions of human being; the brain
& the mark are superseded by what they engender—
mind & meaning; Panopticon reverses this process
by acknowledging the material base of mind & meaning,
marking the return of what has been repressed:
brain & mark. Panopticon, then, is
the novelization of the movie The Mark based on
the play The Mind of Pauline Brain, which has been
adapted from a novel called Panopticon; or then
again, The Mark is the play . . .

To speak of a radically impervious text
is to speak oxymoronically—absorbency & repellency
are relative, contextual, & interpenetrating
terms, not new critical analytic categories.
The unreadable text is an outer limit for poetry;
in practical terms, the complete shut-out
of the reader’s attention is subverted
by most ostensibly antiabsorptive texts, partly
by some reader’s “paradoxically” keen interest
in impermeability, & partly by the writer’s need
to be readable, even if only by herself or himself.
The nonabsorbable text often turns
out to be eminently performable, as in
the performances of McCaffery or Mac Low.
Antiabsorptive does not necessarily mean nonentertaining—
on the contrary. Devices, whether absorptively
or antiabsorptively employed, are in themselves
conventionalizing & readers can be expected
to enjoy a device that ruptures the “commodification”
of reading insofar as this fulfills
their desire for such a work &, likewise, to
be bored to irritation by a device meant to soothe
or entertain.

Similarly, the ideal
of a radically absorptive text
is reduced
to an absurdity as
when, in Robert Wilson’s
Life and Death of Joseph Stalin,
an actor shrieks out the text
of the most absorbing possible
human experience: “It was like being burned
alive in a fire!
Excruciating pain obliterates all self-
consciousness by capturing
one’s entire attention (think
of Artaud screaming); this suggests
the value of a little tempering
absence &
or postponement.

Translating Zukofsky’s formula for poetry
(lower limit, speech; upper limit, music)
I would suggest that
poetry has as its outer limit, impermeability
& as its inner limit, absorption.

is a well-tried
method; Brecht’s
verfremdumdumden effect
explicitly sets
this as its
goal. But
is significantly
from impermeability.
Brecht used his techniques
in conjunction with a
subject matter
& this subject
matter tended
to be in
the form of
a form which
absorptive dynamics.
Brecht wished
the spectator to look
at the plot
being caught up
in it; but
he also counted on this
process of critique
as itself
& even intensifying,
the audience’s attention.
did he eliminate
the absorbing
qualities of the
What will happen to Polly Peachum?
In effect, Brecht doubles
the attention
of the spectator
in his hyperabsorptive
theater, bringing
to mind
Leiris’ observation
that the most
distances itself
from the veridicality
of what it
so that
the spectator,
rather than being
has something to
& so can become
This suggests
that the critical
reader needs something
to engage
her or his
critical attentions
& that what may
in one context
contributes to
fuller engagement
with a work
in another.
this way, the
between the two

It’s worth noting again that Ford specifically
excludes melodrama & Dickensian character-typing
from his model because these compromise the reader’s
belief in the reality of the story. For Ford,
to be entertained by scoffing at the characters,
or being made aware of their fictitiousness,
prevents the “deeper” absorption of the Flaubertian
novel; but insofar as the theatrical is understood
as the converse of the absorptive, it’s apparent
that it has the upper hand as entertainment—
whether that be as charade, caricature, or farce.

Bruce Boone’s metacommentraies, in My Walk with Bob
& Century of Clouds, provide an interesting
example of a critique of absorptive narrative: he
continually breaks off in his recounting of
seemingly autobiographical stories to comment on
the way he has told the story & some of the
political implications of the story & its
style of telling. But Boone’s interruptions also
function, like Brecht’s framing devices, to situate
the reader at an alternative vantage point, an
additional attentional field, rekindling interest
in a narrative that might not hold the interest
without this supplement.

Similarly, the programmatic structure of Ron
Silliman’s Tjanting or Ketjak is explicitly present
at all times but it acts as a semipermeable
membrane that does not preclude absorption
in the various subject matters of the text
but rather doubles one’s attentional focus: in
& beside. The absorption is diffused but constant
on the Brechtian model, but without the melodramatic
underlayer. Something comparable to that
underlayer, however, is present
in Sunset Debris in the form of the recurring sexual
content of the subject matter & the patterned
insistence of the every-sentence-a-question
structure; here the reader is whirled
into a powerfully woven fabric
while never losing sight of its constructed
quality. This is something like the experience of
reading Barrett Watten’s “trilogy” (as I connect
them) Plasma/Parallels/X, 1-10, & Complete Thought.
In these works, the visually intense, urgent
sentences (“I see a tortoise drag a severed head to
the radiator”) are frequently absorbingly
arresting in content & effect (“The essence of
poison is the power to soothe: the citizens spit
flames of a rationalism they don’t understand”)
while not being mediated by an obtruding structural
plan. The reiteration of paradigmatic syntactic
structures, together with the patent variation
of formats from poem to poem within each book, &
the frequent use of stanzaic formats that isolate,
or frame, short sections of the work (for example
single sentences or sentence pairs) reveals an
unmistakable ectoskeletal structure; as with
Silliman, a semipermeable form. Watten writes
in Total Syntax, “Distance, rather than
absorption, is the intended effect.”<40> This
is produced, in part, by the taut, membranous
surface structure that becomes increasingly insistent—
vivid—as one reads each work; yet this bracketing
process, as practiced by Watten, seems to recharge,
more than diffuse, the potency of the reading
experience. Silliman puts it this way:

No, the reader does not have a participatory role in a work that is truly absorptive. Yet a work that is thoroughly nonabsorptive (in the sense of opaque to the point of repelling the reader) disempowers the reader in just the opposite direction. What is needed is the capacity for a work that will empower the reader, while making him/her conscious of the dangers of absorption/domination/passivity implicit in the process itself.<41>

This double concern is present in many recent works. Lyn
Hejinian’s The Guard opens this way:

Can one take captives by writing—
“Humans repeat themselves.”
The full moon falls on the first. I
“whatever interrupts.” . . .
. . . . .
Such hopes are set, aroused
against interruption. Thus —
in securing sleep against interpretation.
Anyone who could believe can reveal
it can conceal.


The Guard guards against the domination
of the reader; the line is a guardrail, an
interruption, disturbing sleep by requiring
interpretation but in order to safeguard—
“secure”—sleep. “If the world is round
and the gates are gone. . . . ”
Hejinian explains:

The word “captives” refers to several things. First, and most important, to capturing the world in words. I want to explain to myself the nature of the desire to do so, and I wonder if it is possible. The poem opens with a challenge to the poem itself and raises the lyric dilemma.

The dilemma of absorption might be called a dilemma
of belief (“the seance of session”): what is lost
if one reveals the grounds of belief & what is
lost if one conceals them.<42>

Such considerations as these
do not resolve my fascination with absorption
& impenetrability, which seem to cut to the heart
of my most intimate relations with language.
I find I
enact in my work an oscillating pull
in both directions, cutting into & out of—
en(w)rapment/resistance, enactment/delay, surfeit/
lack, but my suspicion of such polarized terms
introduces a third element of skepticism
about these binary divisions.

The sexual analogy
seems inescapable: an interruptiveness
that intensifies & prolongs desire, a postponement
that finds in delay a more sustaining pleasure &
presence. That is, an erotics of reading &
writing, extending from Barthes’s descriptions
of the pleasures of the text (which is an erotics
of absorption) to Bataille’s more troubling coupling
of repellence & transgression with rapture.
In Bataille’s analysis, disgust & nausea
are necessary preconditions for the most intense
feelings of sexual pleasure that result from
transgressing the inhibitions that create
repellence. Bataille specifically connects
these sexual dynamics with poetics.
Transgression, in his account, may be the paradigm
case of using antiabsorptive (socially disruptive,
anticonventional) techniques for absorptive
(erotic) ends:

The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives. [It] offers a contrast to self- possession, to discontinuous existence, in other words. It is a state of communication revealing a quest for a possible continuance of being beyond the confines of the self . . . Obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with... the possession of a recognized and stable individuality . . . religious eroticism is concerned with the fusion of beings with a world beyond everyday reality. . . . Eroticism always entails a breaking down of the established patterns . . . of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as separate individuals. But in eroticism . . . our discontinuous mode of existence is not condemned [but] jolted. . . . What we desire is to bring into a world founded on discontinuity all the continuity such a world can sustain. . . . Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism—to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea [la mer allée avec le soleil].<43>


Bataille’s account opens
a way of
a radical ambivolence
that lies
at the heart
of writing & reading.
Learning to read & write
is not a mechanical operation
but a social,
& in Bataille’s sense,
experience. (“What
was your first textual experience?”)
Many poets I know
had, like myself, “learning”
in this area: I would call them
resistances—a dread,
or refusal, of submission
to a rule-governed wor(l)d,
the inscription of “regulated social order”
into language.
I would not adopt the Lacanian
description of this process: we emerge from
“amniotic fluid [in]to semiotic fluidlessness”;<44>
there is no
stage but there are different
modes of relationship
to language
that are
constantly potentially copresent & constantly
potentially blocked

Fear of submission yet desire to be submerged—
the cycle has no resolution, no force of conclusion
because the risk of submergence in language is
that you may lose contact with the very materiality
that made it so endlessly fascinating in the first

what if I were to scream
“I am the light and the way”
// the poem would recede
and look like a prop
//we focus on the phrases
& guess what will come next
in order to be surprised
//I’d guess you too’d distrust
the dominant subject just
because it implies prediction
just where you desire
escape—the kind of escape that clouds
experience on becoming lakes
//. . . And to have enough
things knocking against
one another, a subject broad
enough in application that
the thing won’t resolve and
still have many resolutions
but it won’t resolve once and for all.<45>

Escapism has perhaps been given a too-short shrift
in the repulsion from what we are commonly asked
to escape into: out of the frying pan & into
the omelet (of conviction’s embalming).
There is, as well, a kind of Puritanism
that will embrace the pleasures of the text up to
a point only.
But escape can be an image of release from captivity
in a culture that produces satisfactions as a means
of exploitation or pacification. The problem
with “escapist” literature is that it offers no escape,
narratively reinforcing our captivity.
To escape, however, if only
trope-ically, is not a utopian refusal
to encounter the realpolitic of history: it is a
crucial dialectical turn that allows imaginal place
outside history as we “know” it,
in order to critique it,
an Archemidian point of imaginative
construction, in which we can be energized,
our resources shored. The utopian, ecstatic
is not a refusal of history
but an envisionment of the indwelling
potentialities of history
that must be envisioned—audibly embodied—
in order to occur. The political
response is not to rule-out escape but to
repeatedly ask who/what is captured—
& to what/where. As Susan Howe illuminates
in her discussion of captivity narratives,
once captured, by what seemed from outside
as everything to be feared, all that is
destructive, one may never be able to return
or may not wish to.

Absorbed into what, where?
Not necessarily a deeper, sur-reality
or even an “other” reality.
Perhaps this is also the nature of shamanistic
practices—“acted theater” in Leiris’s sense—an
understanding that is inhibited by the need

to always project an other
by constantly casting such practices in religious
& magical terms.
—We never leave reality but neither do we ever
exhaust it.

Something powerfully absorptive is needed to pull
us out of the shit, the ideology in which we slip—
mind altering as the LSD ad used to put it. &
poetry does have a mission to be as powerful as
the strongest drug, to offer a vision-in-sound
to compete with world we know so that we can find
the worlds we don’t. But we don’t
in fact escape ideology: no other
perhaps not even different: but an alternate point
of perspective, a supplemental attentional
focus/unfocus. Paradise, as hell,
inheres: there are no limits that language cannot

The hermeneutics of suspicion
(it used to be called skepticism)
that denies knowledge
because it must be mediated by “codes”
makes a game of fashion
out of the exposing of the sign systems
that make up language;
but the antiabsorptive obsession
of recent poetry can be under-
stood quite differently.
The antiabsorptive does not so much prevent
absorption as shift its plane
of engagement—forcing
a shift in attentional focus.
Quoting the opening of Andrews’
Jeopardy, which frames
each word on a separate line—
noise/noise/not/order . . .”<46>,
Nick Piombino notes:

Here, thoughts absorb energy from each other, racing the mind towards ever greater rates of absorption, while simultaneously the meanings move away from each other with equally great force, increasing enormously the possibility of several realities acting upon each other simultaneously. What is placed in jeopardy, I think, is the ordinary meaning of meaning itself. <47>

Piombino, in his essays, makes a sustained attempt
to chart the psychic dynamics at work in
reading & writing poetry; because he does not
concentrate on aesthetic effect or formal process
as ends in themselves, his investigations insist
on a rethinking of the nature & function of the poetic
process, acutely reviving the sense
that poetry has functions. This is nowhere
more apparent than in the application of his re-
searches to the dynamic of absorption & dis-

Since the poet is as vulnerable to the spell of accepted reality as anyone else, she or he must somehow find a way to concentrate the attentional beam on areas of experience that were hitherto . . . not apprehendable. . . . the poet must find some way of directing the gaze of consciousness onto literally inconceivably complex and entangled linkages between various modes of exper ience. . . . Although indeterminacy is one way to describe the oscillation (or discontinuity) that underlies the perceptual process, this blur is actually one state in the focussing of the attentional beam. . . . These oscillations may form an exchange of energy so great as to cause a shift in magnitude of attentional focus . . . . the poetic state of consciousness . . . makes possible an expansion of the absorbability of experiential data by the attentional mind. Intense wakefulness is stimulated by an oscillation of types of mental attention-reverie, obsessive attention to detail, symbolic transpositions . . . . Such a conception of poetics would be a call for actuality over reality, actuality consisting not only of the area of experience now available to the attentional focus, but all actualities which can be felt and sensed in the total experiential process.<48>

“Poetry is like a swoon
with this exception:
it brings you to your senses.”<49>
The oscillation of attentional focus,
& its attendant blurring,
is a vivid way of describing
the ambivolent switching, which I
am so fond of, between absorption &
antiabsorption, which can now
be described as redirected
absorption. The speed
of the shifts ultimately becomes a metric
weight, & as the pace picks
up, the frenzied serial
focussing/unfocussing enmeshes
into a dysraphic whole—not
totality—an alchemical
“overlay and blending”
as Piombino notes,
forming what he terms a
“combinatorial”, or, in Forrest-Thomson’s words,
an “image-complex”.

The re-
of at-
as use-
ly be
in the
of at-
from the
(the thing
to the
For instance
the way
or Cree-
ley, makes
possible an
to each
one word—
or even syllable—
Robert Grenier’s
work is made up
of iso-
lated, discontinuous units, framed
so as to
that the read-
er stop & re-sound
each element
while at
the same time integrating
into the series
of which any unit is
part. As
A Day at the Beach:
a day becomes a place
in which perfectly realized
articulations of each moment
from one to the
“Morning” glows with a lush
“foliage” of vowels “in the blue sky
seeping”; “Midday”
settles, placid & rippling—
“all of the yellow flowers of the sour grass closed”;
“Afternoon/Evening” dis-
closes “melody /
not versus”.<50> In contrast,
in Grenier’s Phantom Anthems
the complexity of the syntax
creates an especially puzzling “combinatorial”
or complex

again, to sound
it out, so a kind of
disabsorptive “charm”.

The repetitions in the poetry of Leslie Scalapino
also create a kind of disabsorptive charm:
the slight, accented, shifts in similar statements
operate as gradually shifting scans of the field of
perception, where this perceptual reiteration
gradually, processionally, discloses more & more,
so that the outer shell of any momentarily fixed
perception gives way to a depth-full field of
“actuality”. Scalapino correlates shifts
in syntactic patterns with shifts
in attentional focus. Using a language
sometimes bordering on
sociological observation, the details
that Scalapino reveals
have the intensity of the obviously
factual while continually showing
themselves, within
the echo chamber that is each
work, to be hidden truths, clues
to how a life is understood through the unfolding
of specific details, obscured or repressed, brought
to light by
the probing of memory, perception, & invention.
Yet, finally, it is the rhythm created
by permutating the attentional beams, the chordal
patterns created by her serial scannings,
that create the musical coherence
that takes the work beyond
any distancing or dislocating
devices that serve to build
it. The refusal to be absorbed
in any single focus on a situation
gives way to a
multifocused absorption that eerily
shifts, as an ambiguous figure,
from anxious to
erotic to diffident
to hypnotic.

The drama of absorption & interruption is a theme
played out, with a staggeringly literal precision,
in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.<51> As he listens
to his tape, Krapp falls into a state of rapt self-
absorption, suggesting revery. Krapp’s
“listening posture” (“leaning forward, elbows on
table, hand cupping ear toward machine”) mimes
a recurrent image in painting of a completely
engrossed reader or writer bending over a book or
page. In many ways this picture of Krapp,
hovering over the tape recorder, is a primary image
of reading, & by extension writing. What Krapp
seems to show is that the constant interruptions
created by turning the tape off & on, sometimes
rewinding or fastforwarding in between, make
the experience all the more intense: again, an
antiabsorptive technique used for absorptive ends.
Indeed, the very jagged moments when the tape is
abruptly turned off—moments in which the
listener’s absorption may seem to be
ruptured—only serve to heighten the dramatic power
of the play. Beckett’s incisively spliced
dislocations have a spellbinding
theatrical effect. What Krapp keeps putting off &
on is a “vision” of sexual & spiritual union, of an
absorption that he cannot sustain, nor does he wish
to recover, but which is all the more overwhelming
because it must end. The play ends with an
uninterrupted playing of a section cut & recut
until then:

I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good go-ing on. . . . Let me in. (Pause.) We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side. (Pause. Krapp’s lips move. No sound.) Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited. . . . Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back. (Krapp motionless staring before him. The tape runs out in silence.)

For Krapp, to make absorption audible, visible
is one step beyond “being” absorbed, one step
beyond the false hopes, the vain
resolutions. But to be able to live in
“actuality” is to take
infinite pleasures in the materials at hand:
“Nothing to say, not a squeak. What’s a year now?
The sour curd and the iron stool. (Pause.) Revelled
in the word spool. (With relish.) Spooool!
Happiest moment of the past half million.”
This is the “fire” Krapp will not exchange
for the carrot of ersatz escapism: hearing all
the oooos he needs, revelling in the word,
& world, made opaque that it may be apprehended.

The lessons I draw from Leiris’ comments on “acted
theater” & Piombino’s reflections on shifts of
attentional focus are similar: that the power of
making aware, which necessarily involves a
disruption of a single plane of attention or
belief, results in a hyperattentiveness
that has its own economy of engagement.
Defamiliarization, though an antiabsorptive
technique, registers a failure of response to the familiar &
the need to be shocked in re-cognition: that the
familiar & the expected cannot command
attention, do not absorb the faculties. This is
to say that the experience of everyday life
can be diffuse, uncompelling, slack, & that an alternative
is desired. Or else, we turn away
from that experience, bland as it may sometimes be,
because it exposes us to a repulsive
venality it is too horrible to be absorbed by, or
to have doled out in palatable po(r)tions: this
is the banality of evil, low-calorie absorption
for the person in a hurry.

The suspicion about & rejection of absorptive
writing is partly & importantly a response to
attempts to absorb
readers in an eminently palatable, amusing stasis.
“If only the plot would leave people alone” writes
Perelman. One may wish an end to this
monotonizing of experience: not to be further
submerged in it, as in the deadening cyclic
narrativity of those most diverting of contemporary
absorptive genres, the TV series. Or perhaps
the simplistic reduction
of everyday life, the distractions of reading
“entertainments”—the fastread magazines &
fictions & verse—absorb only listlessly, tonic
for the insomniac but not the stuff of sleep;
fueling the banality of everyday life,
not reflecting its elusive actualities.

It is a different, more difficult, less
fashionable project to create a poem that can absorb
its readers in something other than static—
call it ec-static, or u-topia, or say
it is the unnameable that writing constantly
names. To do this requires something strange & jolting,
& whether the surge is jagged or pulsing, it does
well, in Dickinson’s words, to “stun . . . with bolts
of melody”.

“Next to us all this twirls in spin rapt as
reverie as much as sight, sound, sign. Repelled
or riveted, the consciousness of seeing clumped
with signs fills out or insists on absence.”<52>

Today’s antiabsorptive works are
tomorrow’s most absorbing ones, & vice
versa: the absorbable, accommodationist devices
of today will in many cases fade into arcanity.
The antiabsorptive, insofar as it is accurately
understood as essentially transgressive, is
historically & contextually specific. Understood
as a dynamic in the history of a work’s reception,
absorption & repellency will shift with new contexts
of publication, new readers, & subsequent formal &
political developments. For this reason,
the acknowledgement from the first of a work’s
status as artifice may better prepare it
for its journey through time. As Stein pointed out,
genuinely “contemporary” works will first seem odd,
but it is this oddness that gives them the character
to endure. & the oddness,
eclipsed by the distance of years passed
& the familiarity of repetition, fades. David Melnick’s
Men in Aida may one day seem no more strange
than Verdi’s Aida—both composed in a foreign
language, but once we know the score,
it’s pure song. & once
we get used it, Panopticon sings as well—
what seemed to be hesitations & disruptive repetitions
become rhythmic cues, syncopated stops, strobe
lighting (if you’ll forgive, & why should you?,
another psychedelic allusion).

Yet it’s not that contemporary works will one day
be more understandable than they are now
but that they will be understood differently.
Works that proceed in an
unexpectable way may submerge
readers in many disorienting pages
before rhythms dawn
amidst dense-packed
words. This is a
question of attunement to which
the passage of
time is not a party. A social value of poetry
may be
to provide opportunities to
tune ourselves
so that we can hear
the tunes of our fellows
(of all sexes)
& of the earth & sky.

The intersection
of absorption & impermeability is precisely
as Merleau-Ponty uses this term
to designate the intersection of the visible
& the invisible. This
is the philosophical interior
of my inquiry—that absorption & impermeability
are the warp & woof of poetic composition—
an intertwining or chiasm whose locus
is the flesh of the word. Yet writing re-
verses the dynamic Merleau-Ponty out-
lines for the visible & the invisible:
for it is the invisible of writing
that is imagined to be absorbed
while the visible of writing usually goes unheard
or is silenced. The visibility of words
as a precondition of reading
necessitates that words obtrude impermeably into
the world—this
impermeability makes a reader’s absorption
in words possible. The thickness
of words ensures that whatever
of their physicality is erased, or engulfed, in
the process of semantic projection,
a residue
tenaciously in-
heres that will not be sublimated
away. Writing is not a thin film
of expendable substitutions that, when reading, falls
like scales
to reveal a meaning. The tenacity of
writing’s thickness, like the body’s
flesh, is
ineradicable, yet mortal. It is
the intrusion
of words into the visible
that marks
writing’s own absorption in the world.
To literally put words into Merleau-Ponty’s mouth:
The thickness of writing between
the reader & the poem is constitutive for the poem
of its visibility & for the reader
of the outer limit of his or her absorption
in the poem; it is not an obstacle
between them, it is their means
of communication. The thickness of writing,
far from rivalling that of the world,
is on the contrary the sole
means it has to go to the heart of things
by making itself part
of the material world, absorbed
by it.<53>

Absorption & its many con-
verses, re-
verses, is at heart a measure
of the relationship between
a reader &
a work: any attempt to isolate
this dynamic in terms exclusively of
or composition
will fail on this account.
As writers—
& everyone inscribes
in the sense
I mean here—
we can
try to intensify
our relationships by considering
how they work: are we putting
each other to sleep
or waking each other up;
& what do we wake to?
Does our writing stun
or sting? Do we cling to
what we’ve grasped
too well, or find tunes
in each new


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