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Introduction to Logopoetry II

Previously published in the Cortland Review


In my last essay I argued for substituting "existential" for "post-modern" as a term for poetry in English since 1950. And what is the foundation of existentialism? Meaninglessness and despair. As Sartre observed, the real moral question of the twentieth century is "Why not kill oneself?" In this era of unfaith, when men are starved for meaning, our poetry has too often sided with despair by its obscurity. This is associated by many with "academic poetry," but academics are by no means purely at fault; they are just easy targets.

My antidote for this is, quite simply, that poetry should be intelligible without footnotes, explanations of technique or other intermediary bells and whistles. It should be written to communicate — not merely dazzle, tickle the unconscious, challenge syntactical norms, make music, or demonstrate the inscrutable intelligence of the author. This idea is neither original nor difficult and may seem obvious to many, but sometimes the obvious needs to be re-stated.

Language arose from the need to communicate. To think man can progress beyond this necessity in pursuit of some higher aesthetic, like Icarus flying into the sun, is misguided. When the poor boy's soggy, deconstructed wings wash up on shore, people ask, "What's this?" When poems routinely receive the same response from intelligent readers we shouldn't question them but the technique. To extend the metaphor, there are a large number of poets practicing today who more enjoy the effect of Icarus plummeting than the careful construction of wings, who elevate effect above comprehension.

Does anyone go into a bookstore to browse the poetry section for something new nowadays without the dread of being confounded? I know I don't.

I have no argument with those who maintain beauty is the basis of art, only with those who equate beauty with truth when the two are at best, casually related. For when dealing in the medium of words, beauty is not enough. Words demand sense the way clay demands space, a requirement as intrinsic to pottery as comprehension is to poetry. The magic of words lies in their utility, in their ability to bind minds together in shared apprehension, as in a play. Though entertaining images can be stacked like coins inside a poem, their worth remains questionable if they fail to communicate something tangible to the reader — a thought, emotion or experience that can approximated in words again for the purpose of discussion. If all one can say about a poem is, "Wow!," I submit it has exceeded the limits of its medium.

There is an old story about a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion begs the frog to ferry him over a stream. The frog replies, "Why should I? How do I know you won't kill me?" "I promise not to," replies the scorpion. "Besides, that would be stupid as I'd drown myself." Halfway across the stream the scorpion stings the frog. Before he sinks underwater, the frog asks, incredulously, "Why did you sting me?" "I couldn't help it," the scorpion says, "It's my nature." It is the nature of words to communicate. No matter how you spread them on a page, the human mind will try to make sense of them, to connect the dots. From there we naturally construct a second-order understanding or "meaning," something that connects us to the sense personally. Language promotes the expectation of sense, and a healthy narcissism promotes a personal connection to that sense, or meaning. Great poetry can spawn very individualized meanings or commonly shared ones, but because of the medium it cannot be meaningless except by negative design. Perhaps one reason poets have strayed from sense is because they consider it so self-evident, because it's been done before. Unfortunately, it is no longer self-evident, as any good modern anthology will prove.

If poetry is the highest exercise of language, as I believe, it should be acutely conscious of the expectations created by its medium, and use them to advantage both by conformity and divergence. Yet if divergence outweighs conformity, poetry ceases to be intelligible and becomes what one acquaintance termed "a puzzle." A fellow English major, she remarked: "Oh, so you concentrated on poetry? I always thought that was for people who liked puzzles. That’s why I chose fiction.

The first concern of logopoetry is that art be intelligible. By this I mean a poem should be comprehensible enough on first reading to yield a sense. Practically, this means that after one reading the audience should be able to say, "The poem was about this or that" and have some general agreement. One simple test of this requirement is to read a poem out loud. If the hearer cannot understand a well-inflected reading, if they beg for the text in their hands to reach an initial understanding, it is not user-friendly enough to be logopoetry.

A poem should be simple enough to be understood at a primary level (sense) when first recited but complex enough to reward subsequent readings with layers of meaning, nuanced connections, and archetypal associations. I contend that if the initial reading is not intelligible, a reader is less likely to pursue the poem further. The idea that a "difficult" poem will draw the reader back to "solve the riddle," else be transported beyond logic to some Ginsbergian sunyata, is misinformed. Human nature is lazy, thus it is less likely a reader will re-read a poem he does not initially understand than one he does. If there is some virtue in obscurity, it is only enjoyed by those familiar enough with the technique to feel "in the know." This is a recurrent criticism of "academic poetry" though my own professors taught me to write more, not less clearly.

If I had to pick one practitioner in this century who qualifies as an example of logopoetry, it would be Robert Frost. Others come to mind, but I want to be miserly with my examples in order to offend as few as possible by either inclusion or exclusion, and to leave it to the reader to decide if my categorizations are of any use. (It is no coincidence the poet I chose is dead!)

After intelligibility comes the assumption of perceptual and creative dualism in logopoetry, confirmed both by philosophy (Kant) and the structure of the human brain (Sperry). Simply put, there are two aspects to the enjoyment and composition of poetry: the imaginative and the rational. These categories can be roughly equated with the Platonic and Aristotelian, the ideal and the real, the holistic and the analytic, the analogical and the digital, form and substance. The former categories correspond to the function of the brain’s right hemisphere and were emphasized by the Romantics, sometimes referred to as "Fancy." The latter categories correspond to the brain’s left hemisphere and were emphasized by the Neoclassicists, often referred to as "Wit." To be sure, poets employed both Wit and Fancy in either era, but a preference is easily discernible. This binary division is further reflected by the two definitions of Logos given by Webster’s:

Logos: 1 the divine wisdom manifest in the creation, government, and redemption of the world and often identified with the second person of the Trinity. 2 reason that in ancient Greek philosophy is the controlling principle of the universe.

The first definition refers to the Apostle John’s portrait of Christ as the pre-existent "Word," the template for all creation, the ultimate emblem of life and creativity, while the second emphasizes the Greek ideal of reason, a belief in logic, moderation and balance that eventually gave birth to science when combined with the Judeo-Christian idea of a reliable God.

To bring these complementary brain functions down to earth, there is the logos of creation and the logos of revision, of composition and editing. When the pen is flowing it is often the right brain's impressions directly translated into words by the opposing hemisphere without restriction. Afterwards, when a poet goes through a self-editing process, he employs his left hemisphere to bring his work in line with the necessary conventions for optimizing communication without sacrificing genius. Sometimes the sides of the brain alternate relative control even as we write — crossing out lines as we compose and edit. "Three steps forward and two steps back," as I heard a Buddhist monk say.

There is a third application of "Logos" used by the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, who as a concentration camp survivor developed a school of psychotherapy later termed "Logotherapy." His therapeutic foundation was simple: given sufficient meaning (reason, purpose, belief), a man can endure nearly anything. He credited his love for his wife (though deceased before his release) for enabling him to survive the horrors of the Holocaust. His love for her gave him a reason greater than himself to go on. For poetry it follows that given sufficient meaning, a reader can endure nearly anything. Still, the experience must be communicable. It should not be like an untitled abstract painting that people project their meanings upon. There should be a commonality of sense readers share after navigating a poem, else it is beyond discussion and thus beyond words. And if it is beyond words, it has exceeded the medium that gave it birth, and at least in an heuristic sense, is not poetry, but a Rorschach for the elite.

Intelligibility, the acknowledged cooperation of the brain's hemispheres, man's need for meaning, and the idea that language is first a vehicle for communication — these constitute the introductory principles of logopoetry.

      — C.E. Chaffin