Forrest Gander

Pulitzer Prize Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Finalist

Discussed by Rusty Morrison in "Sounding its Sense" in The Modern Review

Stacks Image 230
A critique commonly lodged against poetries that surprise and challenge—through formal variation or through language complexity—is that the work is not accessible to enough readers. Yet the idea of access—what it means, what it gives to readers—is never qualified in this argument, never articulated. If one considers the etymology of the word “access,” one finds anticipated exactly what many of these very poetries are uniquely able to offer.

 “Access” comes from the Middle English infinitive “accedere,” which means “to arrive.” “Accedere” derives from the Old French “acces,” which means “a coming to.” Interestingly, much of the poetry that some might call in-accessible is, in fact, offering what is most consonant with the root of the word access—opportunities to “come to” after a period of disorientation, and in that process ‘wake up’ to the limits of one’s previous ‘orientation.’ Such a “coming to” offers alternatives to the pre-mapped traffic patterns of thinking and speaking that our culture (or any culture) inevitably lays down for us—it is a pavement so pervasive as to be difficult to escape. Interestingly, we use the phrase “come to” colloquially to describe the movement someone makes when passing through the sense of disorientation that precedes arrival in a state of full awareness. That colloquial usage of “coming to” could also be said to describe what one feels when reading a poem that at first disorients by disrupting our expected patterns of thought, and then lets us appreciate the freedom of “coming to” an awareness of those patterns that were so ingrained in us as to be unconscious.

As an example, here is an excerpt from Andrew Joron’s "The Evening of Chances":

The leveling of chants is---

The etching of, the evening of, irregular glows.
The various chases. The chastening glove.

Pay attention: the of is, space, experience, emptiness.

No, slower than silence. Reward to reword, word-whirled world.

Frameless, the real is what we cannot look away from.

I’m interested in the nearly homonymic repetition of the title in the first line, and the way that the meaning of the “leveling of chants” suggests a second reading of the homograph “evening.” We could muse about how typical language usage might compare to the act of chanting—what occurs as language is chanted repeatedly, what is leveled? What are the chance intuitions that come of such physicality? What potentials close and open in the exchange? We might consider as well the various purposes into which we propel the language we produce—as chant, as etching, as chase, as chastening glove. And we could consider the question of what it means to come to a level, a water mark of perception, and weigh that against the evening of the odds of chance operations that may come by foregrounding the physical soundings rather than the referential quality of the words. Useful to consider how this play of difference in Joron’s lines is both performative and descriptive with respect to how words, as material presences, can accidentally, or by chance intuitions, slip the patterns of conditioned use. But, of course, recognizing more in words than their simple communicative function is not a new idea. Roman Jakobson is probably the most commonly quoted promulgator of the position. In his 1934 “What is Poetry?,” he offers that:

“when a word is felt as a word and not as a mere representation…[then it] acquire[s] a weight and value of [its] own instead of referring indifferently to reality….This antinomy is essential, for without contradiction, there is no mobility of concepts, no mobility of signs, and the relationship between concept and sign becomes automatized. Activity comes to a halt, and the awareness of reality dies out.”
But offering simple antinomy alone, at this point in our era, would not hold many poetry readers’ interests for long. What Joron provides is not only the accidental or chance correspondences, but also a glimpse of alternative awarenesses, which might be accessed.

Before I leave this excerpt of Joron’s work, I’ll just call our attention to another of the many ‘conceptual mobilities’ presented: note the ways that the line “Pay attention: the of is, space, experience, emptiness” not only furthers a logical progression in the poem, but also offers the reader the opportunity to awaken, in the midst of reading, and consider what the “of” in each of the previous sentences is actually doing. These ‘conceptual mobilities’ (which I’d like to call them), embedded within the act of reading, these opportunities to re-frame our understanding of the linearity of the meanings offered in the poem, are only small provocations to assess our initial thought processes. The friction that they create may only offer a brief sense of frisson. Of course, as Joron points out “the real is what you cannot look away from,” and for that reason, cannot be distinguished, since it is all pervasive. But, both performatively and descriptively, the poem does offer opportunities to notice, however briefly, differences between the real and the frame of understanding—constructed with language—that we inevitably use to ‘see’ it. It is only the frames (our framing devices) that we can “look away from,” and it is only in those moments when a frame is disturbed that we can see it as a construct, and perhaps might imagine how it could be better remodeled.

In any case, there is a rush of what I would like to call pleasure that comes with each line’s offer of disorientation—of prolonged hesitation, of a roller-coaster-pause-on-the-brink before the next fall back into comprehension—as mind watches its frames shiver out of balance for an instant, and in that instant glimpses (or at least realizes that there must be) something outside the frame. I know there are other kinds of pleasures to be found in poems, but the sweet shock that is also excitement is one of the most enlivening. “The test of poetry,” said Louis Zukofsky is “the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. This is its purpose as art.” What might happen as a reader becomes more practiced in attending to, and perhaps extending, that pleasure of prolonged hesitation, and what that proficiency might lead to, is of course up to the individual reader to say.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge in this the echo of Ferdinand de Saussure’s revelatory distinction between signifier and signified (and distance from referent), and the impact of his ideas upon generations of writers who have used the site of writing to examine how our thinking is shaped by the play of difference in our language, and how that play of difference shapes the things that we can say about ourselves and our experience. But I don’t intend to suggest that it is only subsequent to Saussure that poetry has been the site for testing the limits of each epoch’s frames of experience.

In Paul Valéry’s statement, “the poem: a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense,” it is the experience of shifting back and forth between these two polarities, while choosing neither, that Valéry considers the defining activity of a poem. Here Valéry is drawing our attention to a split in the previously seamless reality of substantive sense. His interest is in distinguishing between the power, impact, message within the lyric—the music or soundings—of poetic language and how it operates in a separate paradigm from the logic—the meaning or sense—of poetic statement. Of course, Valéry is intent upon noting how the “pendulum that has swung from sound to sense swings back to its felt sense of departure” (his italics) so that the mind finds in the poem’s language a surprising and unexpected difference that is also an “intimate union” in the “swing” from the sonic impact of poetic language on the emotions to the intellectual impact of its meaning on the mind.

Giorgio Agamben has also written about “the hesitation between sound and sense” as a defining aspect in poetry. He refers to Paul Valéry’s definition of a poem in order to point out a paradox present at the point of enjambment in rhymed verse. His focus is the divergence between sound and sense that occurs when the closure connoted by a line’s end (emphasized most powerfully by end rhyme) meets the sentence’s logical passage through rhyme’s arrest. He emphasizes that sound and sense are actually two conflicting intensities, even though they appear before us as the same linguistic material.

Thus, he concurs with Valéry, and extends the point, by saying that what we feel at the instant of enjambment is the enlivening paradox of a coherence of two elements that actually never fully coincide. He calls this a paradox of non-correspondence between sound and sense. And with Valéry, he concurs that this non-cohering coincidence is intrinsic to verse’s power and nature. Whether we realize it or not, it is the paradox—the slightly disorienting collision of two non-cohering elements—that gives great pleasure.

Agamben’s focus is, of course, on rhymed verse. However, there are many writers today who have found other forms in which to increase their readers’ appreciation for, and sensitivity to, paradoxes of non-coherent coinciding, and thus let their readers savor the opportunity that comes in the hesitation, the de-stabilization, conceptual mobility, before sound and sense fold back together into one literary substance. I would suggest that these writers are in fact providing a kind of access that is essential to readers in our current epoch. Not only using the ends of lines as a location of difference, they also open the field of the page to variously situated rhyme, to homonyms and homographs, and to surprising shifts of word usage and syntax.

It is of course the willingness to risk disorientation that allows one to re-stabilize in a more subtle, acute, fluid understanding. But there is no guarantee that a given poem will offer more than destabilization. One enters the flux with trust alone. However, if that destabilization gives the reader some sense of a frame or system that she isn’t usually aware of, or that she hadn’t realized she uses to keep order on her reality, then I would suggest that this experience can be worth the time and energy she has given to reading the poem.

For one more example, from the many many possible examples of poems that offer us an experience of “coming to” from the non-cohering coincidences of sound and sense, here is Forrest Gander’s “Poem.” I offer it because it capitalizes on the act of enjambment, but with much less emphasis on rhyme than the poems Agamben chose for his study.


                    we say we
                      know go
                  like a window

                  any remark

                  They  leave
                    us, what
                     we call

Because of the line breaks’ disruptions of lucidity, many of the lines speak, almost sotto vocce, a second meaning, which is commenting performatively on the poem’s paradox of describing, so succinctly, the potential realization that any understanding is fallible—it is a realization of fallibility that certainly is large enough to include this poem’s artfully expressed position. Gander suggests that each thing, each person, each “some,” which we “say” we know (i.e.: use words to know), may at any point “go / like a window / dark.” And, at that point, we are left with only those words we’ve used, which have failed in their task of comprehension. (We are also left with a realization of the pathetic futility of any further attempt.) These failed words, become a “call,” a pleading summons, in the line “we call.” But they also remain the words themselves, if we take the meaning of the full phrase: “what / we call / them.” The commonly argued questions of whether language can ever operate as a transparent window comes to mind. The poem’s purview can encompass not only questions of how to trust what any writer offers us, but how to trust what we know, or what can be known in all human understanding. So, the poem suggests the inevitable instability of all communication, even as the primary meaning of this poem stands simply before us. We can’t help but hesitate, listening to the sound-values of lines like “we say we” (with its echo of ‘we define ourselves with words) or “know go” (with its echo of ‘no go’ or that something failed), or “us, what” (with its echo of ‘what is us/ what are we’) or “we call.” And because of the almost childlike end rhymes of “know / go / window” and of “dark / remark” and the half rhyme of “Some / them,” we are held in a tightly cohering sound-system that is constantly refracting, so that as the first order of meaning slips from its primary seat of value, we feel the opacity of the poem’s words as much as we understand them.

But, more relevant than musing over close-readings of either Joron or Gander—or of any of the other many excellent poets whose work might be here discussed—is to consider the slight, but palpable shock one feels as words slip out of their guises of simple denotation, and, in the hesitation before sense, offer us the means to access what chimes softly in their conceptual mobility, even the nuanced significance of instances of pure antimony. Such sound values—because they hold us in a “prolonged hesitation” before sense arrives—allow us to savor our own visceral, and not necessarily immediately analyzable, experience of the language; we feel its sensual impact upon us, before it becomes logic. Often, when I find myself reading surprisingly new or divergent relational patterns in a poem’s language, I feel myself “come to” in the reading process; I become a little more attendant to the experience of ‘reading’ myself as I read the work, reading my expectations, reading my limits, and the ways this poet has slipped me beyond them. Of course, if I feel that I’m held too long in that hesitation, then it becomes all disorientation, and then I experience an uncomfortable sense vertigo, or too much of a free fall. Too much thrill can actually deaden the senses. But then, of course, that’s the risk these poets take, and that we readers take, with each poem. Each poem must find the readers ready for it.

But when we are held in the sweet, strange hesitation between the sound and the sense of a poem, we can learn to listen for what exists outside the circumferences of language use to which we most often conform. You may want to ask me: What is it that might exist outside that circumference?, What are we listening for?  Maurice Blanchot’s answer is that a poet’s work is to dispossess us of the lucidity we cannot help but assume should be held tightly around us, and in this dispossession we give space in the poem for “everything” to “spea[k].”

I would venture to say that whatever we hear will not remain constant—that, as we listen to ‘the everything’ speaking, that ‘everything’ will probably change with every experience of listening. In any case, I am grateful for poems that let me shift a bit, let my language structures wobble in their sockets, so that the light of my reasoning switches off and on a bit, or perhaps switches voltages. “Coming to,” in this way, is of course a kind of language play that might remind us of the kinds of spontaneous word games that children make up, or even the playful babble of very young children. But children create that word play because it surprises and delights them. That delight often comes because the child feels something happening that is a bit beyond her understanding, which may be initiating all manner of her growth. When poets create a kind of adult language play that can surprise and delight me, and that I intuitively sense stretches my understanding, then I am invigorated. It can be uncomfortable when a poem asks its readers to lean precariously outside of logical discourse, but the air there is brisk, bracing, and breathing it can open us to our own renewing relationship to the language we use.