Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Nada Gordon’s had a great pair of posts this week about the ornamental, conceptual, and plain-spoken in poetry, and the consequences they have for the practice of writing conceived as an allegory of living. I left a comment on her post “ornament is neither functionless nor superfluous,” a response to a provocative insight by Ross Brighton. The exchange got too long for the space of a comment box, and might attract other responses here, so thought I’d paste it below. Nada’s original post is here. In the comment stream, I wrote:
Hi Nada,

I like Ross’s comments quoted here, and liked your response. I wouldn’t want to see ornament become a dogma—“Ornamentalism”?—so esp. glad at how wide this opens the field. Colloquial speech, baroquespeak, appropriated language, your “pavan between two modes” from the other day: all is permitted, or maybe more precisely, no tone or technique is sacred enough to NOT be permitted, if the mood is right.

Whatever else it does, the insistence on ornament seems to counteract the pieties that sneak in with the “sparse and laconic.” I don’t mind that tone, though I don’t seek it out. But the moral apparatus it arrives with—the presumption not so much that the boring isn’t boring (as you point out, boredom has its place), but that it’s good for you, or closer to “actual speech” or “the way things really are,” makes the fingers curl on my chalkboard. Whereas your poetics jingle and gong.
Nada replies:
Rodney, yeah, no... I certainly don’t INSIST on “ornament”: that would be tiresome. I’m a great adorer of early Creeley, and Issa, and lots of other relatively unornamental poets. The thing is, I wonder to what extent “device” and “rhetoric” and “trope” might be considered types of ornaments–in other words, as moves against “plainness” (which of course is as artificial as anything). Maybe ornament doesn’t need to be thought of as a kind of noise or excess.

My objection, philosophically, really, is to asceticism, which always struck me as a kind of death-in-life. I especially do not want to see that tendency in poetry, which I like for its pulse. You know?
Then, my comment box-buster:
Hi Nada,

Yes to no ascesis! I’ve got enough death-in-life just getting to work on time.

“Device,” “rhetoric,” and “trope” are on my mind a lot too as I try to connect the dots between my attractions to Bollywood, opera, Internet speak, pop songwriting teams, troubadour and Urdu poetry, etc. What these performative contexts share I think is an embrace of convention (“device, rhetoric, trope”) at the expense of originality. They slip the knots that tie up so much contemporary poetry, where everyone seems to more or less hate the conventions, so is either working to topple them, expose them as instruments of power, or escape them altogether through something entirely new. In the process, a whole new set of devices unwittingly springs up that aren’t always acknowledged as devices, but as a more accurate representation of “things that are the case.”

The “I” dies just as surely in the tropes of Bollywood or opera or Diane Warren love songs as it does in, say, Language poetry. Since everyone in the audience collectively shares a grasp of the conventions and their artificial nature (precondition maybe of their being shared, like nouns), innovation arrives in the form of small variations, not in a grand overturning of the code. Why call out the artifice of what you (and your audience) already appreciate as totally artificial: a language for things that aren’t the case?

The upshot is that more than just the death of the author or the ideological bankruptcy of the idea of a self becomes possible—a distinctly different something emerges from the shuffling of the generic conventions, as in a Pynchon novel or a Brandon Downing film. What this different thing might be is something like looking at a chart of all the gestures assigned to particular emotions in Kathakali dance, then feeling that emotion in the moment of performance at the same time as you recognize its utterly artificial place in a sequence of tropes. That double movement—the feeling and the awareness of the feeling as an option in a system of devices—fascinates me right now. I’m drawn to the idea that you could accept your writing—your self—as entirely conventional without losing the hope that it could also be ornamental: a receptacle for attitudes, gestures, flourishes, curlicues, pouts, moods, and tears. The idea that what isn’t the case can become the case via, well, not the self exactly—that artifice thrown up by social security numbers and tax records and search histories and professional degrees—but subjectivity. Subjectivity with a collective dimension though, like an audience for a double-feature. Like a culture.

A comment this long is blog rudeness. Please forgive, and keep the great posts coming!


mark wallace said...

I really liked this exchange over at Nada's blog, and I'm glad you reposted it here.

Detective fiction is an intriguing example of a (primarily) conventional literary genre that has nonetheless been the template for the kinds of variety and change you're talking about. That may be neither here nor there except that I was thinking about your comments in relation to that literature and the way I teach it.

Nada said...

[surprise surprise, it's me again!]

Rodney, if that’s rudeness, I shudder to think what courtesy might be. Stay rude, please!

You write: “I try to connect the dots between my attractions to Bollywood, opera, Internet speak, pop songwriting teams, troubadour and Urdu poetry, etc.”

I share all these attractions, as you know, and would add to them (for example) these “interests” from my Blogger profile:

* biodiversity
* enka
* alternative pedagogies
* home couture
* courtesans
* flarf
* color samples
* open source utopianism
* canon destruction
* felines
* spice
* rufflers
* peoples of the world
* soups and salads
* decorative papers
* psychedelia
* temporary dependent zones
* sparrows
* theories
* etc.

These interests (really only a little sampling!) form the core of an e-chapbook soon to be published by Scantily Clad Press: in it I follow the links to other bloggers who share some of my arcane enthusiasms. Their interests lists, somewhat edited, make up the flesh of this very conceptual chapbook. The argument: our enthusiasms define us.

Our enthusiasms, IMHO, should infuse our poetry. Too often I sense that writers do not write from that galvanized place, do not write from and towards what they love. Instead they write from a sense of where they think writing should be now (formally, but also in terms of its content) on some sort of linear timeline, or they write from a sense of duty. There’s nothing wrong with these motivations for writing; I simply don’t share them.

As to conventionality, I can only say that life is conventional. We are born, we form bonds, bonds dissolve, we want things, we lose things, we die. That much is certain, and no one varies from that pattern. It’s like the blues: everyone knows we will go from the 1 chord to the 4 chord to the 5 chord. It’s what happens within that given that is interesting (at least to its enthusiasts).

p.s. I totally dig those mudras, dude.

Nada said...

word verification:


rodney k said...

Hi Nada,

Look forward to the Scantily Clad chapbook. "Whothym?" isn't a half-bad title, if you didn't have one already.

Hi Mark,

I'm glad you brought up detective fiction, a great example of a "conventional" literature that allows for a totally different relationship between author, reader, and the "original" work of art. You often hear that in poetry everyone in the audience is also a poet, but despite that the poems usually retain the halo of individual creation. Where in genres like detective fiction, I get the sense that the audience members aren't necessarily writers themselves, but feel more of an ownership over the literary product than other kinds of readers do; that the author's in a kind of partnership with readers, who are looking to see the genre stretched, but not overturned: the cliches renewed and (ultimately) reaffirmed.

It's touching how fans have been reacting to the new Star Trek movie, which is "theirs" even though they don't have a hand in making it (though it's made very much with their demands in mind).

Part of what I'm wondering is whether poetry's really a kind of dressy fan fiction.

Nada said...

Not even remotely dressy enough.

Ross Brighton said...

I've found this whole discussion to be most enlightening. I'm fascinated by Nada's comment that "Maybe ornament doesn’t need to be thought of as a kind of noise or excess". Both "noise" and "excess", along with their associated poetics and theories, fascinate me - I have similar tastes and interests to Johannes Göransson in that regard. I'm also a big fan of Bruce Andrews, the quintessential poet of noise, and the Baroque excesses of poets like Ronald Johnson.
Nada, could you elaborate on that?

Nada said...

Hi Ross,

I've been meditating on Ululations on the notion of ornament since 2002. If you go to my blog and type in ornament as a search term, many posts will come up that will address the topic far more completely than I can in a comment box. Here's one early representative post:

Do know that I was not speaking of noise or excess at all pejoratively; in fact those terms might be used to (albeit simplistically) characterize what I do poetically. I simply wanted to point out that "ornament" is a much broader concept.

A real-life example: I recently had my nose pierced (re-pierced, to be exact) with the biggest diamond stud available at the piercing parlor. Almost no one seems to have noticed that I did it. When I point it out, they say, "it looks as if it should have always been there." Sometimes ornament is practically organic to identity or to form, not something extra or baroquely layered atop it. That's what I mean by ornament not necessarily just being "excess." Far some reason I keep thinking of Japanese "kamizashi" (the spindle-like traditional hair ornaments, often made of lacquer)in this respect, as well. The effect of kamizashi can be very quiet, very refined, yet still undeniably ornamental.

I am not, once again, privileging quietness or refinement, only saying that ornament can have a huge range of effects.

I was also musing today on how "trappings" is sometimes used as a synonym for ornament. I like very much the idea of ornament as lure. You know?

In poetry, I'm not sure that there is such a thing as an un-ornamented poem. All words are (potentially) ornamental, because all words are form. If there were such a poem, though, I wonder, would it have any allure at all, I wonder?

I feel like I always talk in tautologies. Anyway...

Ross Brighton said...

Thanks Nada, I'm going to have to take some time and peruse that stuff. The idea of poetry as intrinsically ornamented is ties into what I was saying, i think, and the idea of noise (again) .... noise as part of the artificiality of the poem, those (often ornamental, and not necessarily non-organic) aspects of the poem that complicate its operation in the normative linguistic economy that privileges transparency and unimpinged-upon communication. In a way this is excessive, in terms of the afformentioned economy - do you know what I mean?