On Poetry

On Complexity: Bob Perelman

Taste Test

Since this is to be brief, I'm tempted to use complexity as shorthand for quality. In quite a few ways, it would be true enough: endless examples spring to mind of poems I know and always like reading. And with new poems, it's often complexity that catches my serious reading eye. But "complexity," in that kind of shorthand, also feels precisely wrong: it's the sign of a thousand other commodities. For instance, the food section of a recent New York Times featured a large spread on high-class hot chocolate: only certain (quite expensive) brands of chocolate imparted the necessary complexity.

Why is that such a sacrilegious comparison? Complexity that you taste immediately, but that provides a continuing articulation of pleasure and knowledge, making you want to repeat it, tell people just how it's good—isn't that a provisionally acceptable analogy for a useful poetics?

Well, OK, but poetry, I'd answer, can be more complex than the most exquisitely crafted hot chocolate. In both cases, body tastes world; but drinking hot chocolate is a private experience. When poems are interesting, body tastes writing, a process where a known language displays some of what's not known, other people and histories, revealing a not-exactly-comfortable public arena where, it turns out, one actually lives.

I do admire (and like) good cooking; but taste in poetry is more paradoxical, working in longer interpersonal circuits. Interesting poems (and these are by definition undefinable beforehand) offend against good taste in the most complex ways. The present doesn't taste good to any one palate, but it's the crucial ingredient.

It strikes me that one of the best ways of "offending complexly," i.e., of reaching the present for a mixed public, is immediacy. But I don't mean the immediacy of the transparent, socially pre-scripted poem that simply "communicates" from one fixed identity to another.

Every manner of poem is complex in manifold ways. But complexity without immediacy is not enough. There are self-contained complexities that stay on the page, awaiting (belle-lettristically) appreciation or (academically) explication or (iconoclastically) revolution. Poems can aim for wider contexts. The situation of poets and readers in America in 2000 is of such complexity that individual poems are hard pressed to register anything like an interesting amount of the present, of new and old history, of globalized flux and reflux, technology, fashion, emerging body stances, traffic patterns, street codes.

Immediacy, as I'm grappling with it here, is ultimately as opaque as complexity. Both have to be written and at the same time are results of reading experiences, and these change. My high school poetry initiation posed the complex (T.S. Eliot) against the immediate (Walt Whitman): I went for The Waste Land because it was "hard," in that dumb sense that appeals to some teenagers. I couldn't understand the chopped-up, literary parts, the foreign phrases, I couldn't understand the bar-talk, the typist's seduction. And of course "shantih"—how weird was that? But through those closed doors, a vivid seriousness called to me. And on the outside there was sex (good), dog claws and corpses (good), and vague gothic religious stuff (good). The Waste Land, with its hints of crucial adult problems, made me want to read and, later, to write poetry: perhaps the world would be like this when it and I got interesting. Whitman seemed the opposite: the already-known world was great, life was great, self-expression was great. Great and easy—it was for everyone. It was vivid presence, not of "adult problems," but of the sensory, social world: "The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,/ The carpenter dresses his plank—the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp." I agreed.

But what was I agreeing with? These two lines now seem wonderfully complex: the woman with low voice singing from the high loft; below, on the street, the sound of the foreplane leaping upward. One of Louis Zukofsky's often-quoted definitions situates poetry above speech and below music: "lower limit speech,/ upper limit music." Here in Whitman, as part of a much larger catalog, there is a human voice making music in one line and metal and wood producing speech in the next. This is the most straightforward eloquence, immediate in its descriptive rush, but thoroughly surprising from word to word. A metal tongue produces both a thin curl of wood and an animal/spiritual language in which there can be no mistakes. The lisp is the perfect pronunciation.

A poem's complexity/immediacy takes place in the social and historical dimensions as much as the purely linguistic. A hundred years ago Paul Laurence Dunbar's dialect poems were read as simple, 'childlike' entertainment; Dunbar himself labeled them "Minor" as opposed to his "Major" poems in standard English. But his "Ante-Bellum Sermon" (1895) is nothing if not complex, preaching resistance under cover of piety. An excerpt:

An' yo' enemies may 'sail you
In de back an' in de front . . .

But de Lawd will sen' some Moses
Fu' to set his chillun free. . . .

But fu' feah some one mistakes me,
I will pause right hyeah to say,
Dat I'm still a-preachin' ancient,
I ain't talkin' 'bout to-day.

But of course Dunbar, through the mask of the ante-bellum preacher, is talking about "today"—1845 and 1895 for him; 1845, 1895 and 2000 for us. Such history is part of what I meant by "the present," above.

Melvin Tolson's recently reissued Harlem Gallery is wonderfully complex/immediate. Behind the following excerpt, there are very complex sets of narrative framing. In part: we're in the Zulu Club in Harlem, where the poem's narrator has been taken by Curator, to hear Hideho Heights and other unrepressed improvising social historians spout poetry. Here, many words are immediately striking, but the larger structure (and this is a small piece) is far from transparent.

A black stevedore bulked his butt
in a high-hat restaurant
not far from the bronze equestrian statue
of Andrew Jackson.
The ofay waitress hi-fied,
'What can I do for you, Mister?'
Imagine, if you can, Harlem nitwits,
a black man mistered by a white dame
in the Bible Belt of the pale phallus and the chalk clitoris!
The South quaked.
Gabriel hadn't high-Ced his horn,
not the Africans invaded from Mars.
It was only the end-man's bones of Jeff Davis
rattling the Dies Irae
in the Hollywood Cemetery!. . .

One last small example, to testify that complexity can nicely thread itself through the simplest little ditty, and that the most immediately recognizable childlike rhythm can encode one of the biggest theological cruxes. Heinrich Heine, translated by (quite a bit of historical complexity here) Ezra Pound:

I dreamt that I was God Himself
Whom heavenly joy immerses,

And all the angels sat around
And praised my verses.

Are God's poems complex enough, immediate enough? Apparently not. Even immersed in a heavenly bathtub of joy, He is Anxious, and Needs angelic approval no matter how bureaucratically enforced. It's better, and bitterer, out here in the world for us writers and readers, offering, withholding, accepting, refusing our presents, never at rest with the taste.


1. Melvin B. Tolson, 'Harlem Gallery' and Other Poems (University Press of Virginia, 1999), p. 275.

Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 2000

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