"There is no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is
a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts,
as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick."
—Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici
One place to begin: is the knowledge in poetry of any special or peculiar kind? Is it more than the expression of each writer's relation to their immediate, with that as its only value? Or is there, in it, a general & occult science?
Any aesthetics of poetry, any "poetics" at all, implies the presence of some special knowledge. The only way to conceive a notion of an avant-garde, a literary movement, or any artistic modification to normative grammars, is to first posit literary activity as possessive of some specific & transmissible thing of its own.
What was formerly valued as esoteric or alchemical knowledge has now been depleted of reality. Language theory properly culminates in linguistics; political ideas properly culminate in political science or activism—that is the border of their legitimacy. Thought belongs to philosophy, plants to botany, animals to biology. So it isn't that poetry wants to be personal; it's rather that nothing else remains for it. When everything else became a science, poetry was left with the lower case self.
The nature of distinctions is to split and re-split. This is the mind's task, chopping things up in an endless architecture, into not only abstract divisions but also perceptual divisions. So if I happen to see, say, in the human face, the 5 points that make up the quincunx, it's not so much that I have seen a quincunx as much as I have split apart an already present observation (which itself had to be split off to find in it the observing machinery of another being) into that more general form.
A definition of metaphor, then: as distinction.
Even as he finds the quincunx everywhere (even in the "x" an image makes as it reverses itself passing through the eye's lens) Sir Thomas Browne never mentions the five quincunxical points that make up the human face: eyes, nose, and the corners of the mouth.
Was this splitting and re-splitting object that is now our surroundings ever a whole? And when? The human face is one of the most attractive objects to an infant. But what does this tell us? That a five-point order is omnipresent in nature? Or that we are, merely, predisposed to find the five points, or build them ourselves, wherever we turn? And what would that difference be?
Anything that has cognitive existence has a history which precedes it. This is the paradisical law, which says that, whilst one is in paradise, it is not possible to know one is in paradise. It is only when the irritant is introduced that you see: paradise is lost.
Another object newborns find attractive is a brightly lit window. Browne described a universe of order and repeating pattern; now science describes a universe of light.
Until I was out of college I had never seen or eaten an oyster. I had read about them and been told about them, but it was always in general (formalized) terms: they are served in a shell and you slide them out, into your mouth, chewing only a little if at all, and swallow.
Meanwhile I had fabricated, as often happens in language acquisition, a remarkably firm conception of the thing "oyster" from bits, pieces, false impressions, and stray connotations. As long as nothing showed up to contradict it, this false conception worked perfectly well. For the shell I pictured what I now know are clam shells; I pictured a glittery opaque white meat that later turned out to belong to the inside of their shells; for their shape I could see, vividly, these perfectly round creatures, like a large version of the pearls they sometimes hide.
Even the word "oyster" lent itself or was made to lend itself to this false image I had dreamed up. The even number of letters and two distinct syllables seemed the very manifestation of two symmetrical shells. That shimmery, mysterious, layered color I imagined for the oyster was reinforced by the word's letters: beginning strangely with a vowel, followed by a magical half-vowel, followed by a common, colorless ending as its base. Above all the shape of that first letter, as well as the elegance of the entire word, paralleled my notion of the creature itself as smooth, round, symmetrical little pearl.
My last year at college some friends and I ordered oysters at a restaurant. Ocular observation confronted my accumulated errors. But this is the point: for many years afterwards, almost a decade, I continued to believe that oysters were exactly as I had conceived them, and not as I had experienced them. I accomplished this feat in diverse ways: sometimes I thought, vaguely, that what I had eaten that night must not have been oysters; other times I decided I must have eaten a peculiar and non-standard kind of oyster, and that true oysters were still being eaten in different, possibly higher class, restaurants; at still other times I managed to erase the experience entirely, a forgetting that must have been partly willful. It took a few more encounters with oysters before I gave up my false construct for the actual fact. However I continued to have the lingering feeling, until even very recently, that my idealized oysters existed somewhere, going under some other word or term. Was it mussels I had in mind? Scallops? Clams?
But no. All along it was just an idea joined to a word, a self-produced solution. Any conjecture, lying undisturbed for long enough, becomes as lodged in the mind as any conviction.
This is how the mind fights for erroneous concepts, with no particular relation to ideology. What if it actually cares?
Numerology, as a formalizing and ordering act, is dependent on cheating. Even where Browne distances himself from Pythagorian mysticism or insists on the newly-invented depersonalized tone of Baconian rationalism, he only delays the moment that he uncovers, at an even more fundamental strata, the presence of divine ordering. And where the mind goes looking for numerical patterns, its methods are necessarily Pythagorian. For Browne the quincunx shows up in plants, in geometry, in the design of king's crowns (etc.), all as if by the supreme ordering power of the number five. But Browne doesn't seem to notice that the shape is sometimes five dots and sometimes two crossed lines. Circles also show up everywhere, and squares, and triangles, but Browne is busy with crosses. As fives start to appear on all sides, the reader forgets that much can also be made of ones, twos, threes, fours, and six through nineteen.
Above all, in such mystical numerologies it is necessary to elide the question of just what a non-ordered and non-divine universe would look like. Would each new crown of each new king also invent a new shape and number? Would each new triangle, which we have previously defined and formalized as having angles adding up to 180 degrees, somehow have angles that did not add up to 180 degrees? Or not even have angles?
Browne stands at the bridge between occult alchemy and rationalist science. And he is cheating. But what isn't cheating? Does science really purge itself? This human mechanism for projection, in which we find what we intend to find, how deep does it go?
Say that you can't stomach liars. Say that you develop, in your earliest experience, a really fanatical distaste for the hypocrisy of cheating and falsifying. So you flee from that earthly reality into a poetry that seems to exist above it, in order and in truth, and then you come to find—of course it was there all along—that cheating is the very being of your art.
When I first started to read literary theory, and poetics especially, I kept running into the classic distinction between content and form. Because the term was commonly used in more mundane situations I thought I understood what "content" was. The contents of a suitcase are its clothes, I thought, just as the contents of a cake are its ingredients.
"Form," I reasonably suspected, must be the opposite of that mundane version of content. But in the end it all wasn't very different from my invention of oysters. What was the opposite of a suitcase's clothes? What was the opposite of a cake's ingredients? If form meant the container instead of the contained, as seemed to be the situation with a suitcase of clothes, I couldn't see what the poem's container was. If form meant shape, as seemed to be the cake's situation, I couldn't get that to fit with poetry either, except by thinking about line breaks and composition by field.
"Form" was not an empty term to me. I knew that rhyme, meter, rhythm and some other elements were part of "formal" poetry. But since most contemporary poetry lacked overt examples of these things I doubted form, as used in these theories, meant that. Besides the term seemed to be indicating something much larger than any technical elements like line breaks or prosody.
And so I came to imagine "form" in a way that was admittedly quite general, almost metaphysical. I imagined it indicated nearly any concern with nearly any frame affecting the poem. Form was a matter of any indirect relation, and it could start almost anywhere except in the poem itself. It might be rooted in the life of the poet or in the surrounding historical conventions or in theories about poety itself—it was all form.
Although my concept was general, it wasn't useless or even especially vague in practice. In fact it showed itself to have specific uses well beyond literary thinking. For instance I was reading a lot about dreams, and I decided that Freud, the Surrealists, and most people who say they are interested in dreams were only interested in the content of dreams.
"The only experiences I've had with dreams is dreaming about what happened the next day in just as idiotic a way as if it had happened the day before. You know, if somebody loses a pencil and you can dream it either the day before they lost the pencil or the day afterwards, and in both cases it doesn't have anything to do with anything. I mean, it's just because they lost a pencil."-Jack Spicer, The House That Jack Built, Vancouver Lecture 1.
Like Spicer, I was interested only in the form of dreams. Saying it to myself that way made things clearer: a formalist of dreams. I didn't care directly about what happened in dreams, mine or anybody else's, and I didn't care directly about things like the dream's duration or vividness or where it got its images or whether it was prophetic. What interested me was first of all the existence of awake people, and then how these creatures start to change when they get tired, and then how of necessity at some point they did this thing called sleeping, and then how of necessity this thing called sleeping contained things called dreams. Following out that chain of logic, I reasoned that, when the self begins to fracture or drain out, the possessor of that self went to sleep, dreamed, and thereby they returned to the self they claimed as most real. Thus, I decided, dreams are indirectly the content of our daily being; they are in some important way the very thing the self needs to become the self.
When you're interested in something, some content, not for itself but because of the way it conditions another sphere (for instance if you are interested in the weather because you want to go to the beach that day) then your interest is formal. And that was how I defined my interest in dreams, and also my interest in poetry.
This, I think, is the special knowledge of poetry. It stands in a formal relation to "real" science. It exists like the quincunx, showing up everywhere or nowhere, meaning nothing or everything, cheating or telling the truth, entangled in subjective interpretations and within an ambiguity that is nevertheless never entirely arbitrary (or rather is never more arbitrary than anything else). It stands in relation to scientific knowing exactly as the dream stands in relation to waking life. In a way it restores science to itself, and for that matter even restores number to itself. And while poetry can be talked about directly in various and fine ways, as an art form among art forms or an occult science among hard sciences, this special relevance shows up again and again, like the quincunx. It shows up suggestively, in faint possibilities, and also in the way every conjecture, if it is a conjecture, eventually returns the reader back to doubt.
Like waking up!
Author Bio: Brent Cunningham is the author of two poetry collections and the chapbook The Sad Songs of Hell published by Ugly Duckling Presse in November 2017.