“What I cannot say is / Is at the vertex”:Some Working Notes on Failure and the Line
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“What I cannot say is / Is at the vertex”: Some Working Notes on Failure and the Line Ben Lerner I’m increasingly interested in how poetry can track failures of representation— hesitation, doubling back, fragmentation—in a manner that more accurately measures the experience of speaking and thinking in time than any sort of polished resolution. I think here of Robert Creeley’s “For Love,” how the speaker’s failure to figure his emotional state becomes a compelling figure for his emotional state, an expressive failure of expression. And I mention “For Love” because my new book is in part a love poem, or a poem about the possibility of writing a contemporary love poem. When I speak of measuring, the ruler is the line. The book is entitled Mean Free Path. In physics, the mean free path of a particle is the average distance it travels between collisions with other particles. The poems are full of little collisions: lines break off, reappear, or recombine throughout the book. And the way these units of composition get sucked up into the recombinatory machinery of the sequences dramatizes my struggle to insist on the particularity of my love for a particular person, to keep her from becoming one more interchangeable unit in the formal system. So I’m trying to represent the struggle to represent particularity in an era of what Adorno described as universal fungibility. I fail, but my hope is that the failure itself figures an affection I cannot express directly. Let me mention a few other little formal features that register failure in Mean Free Path, failures I’d like to think enable a kind of experience unavailable in the poetry of mere description, failures that only exist as a felt effect of lineation. First, the stutter. There is frequent repetition of words across the right margin. Second, false starts. Many lines are abandoned but not deleted. Dead ends are part of reading the poem the way they’re part of navigating cities. Third, interruptions . There are quick changes of direction between lines producing some unlikely juxtapositions, but these aren’t surrealist chance meetings so much as 146 | Lerner records of distraction or shifts of perspective. These techniques focus attention on the activity of thinking over the finished thought. They track the constant reorientations—reorientations that take place at line-breaks—necessary in order to avoid the twin traps of incoherence and some kind of falsifying heroic expression. Another failure: the lines are often out of order or belong to several possible orders simultaneously. In a given stanza, what might seem like an abandoned false start might be picked up later in the stanza (or in the next stanza, a later page, even a later section). Or a line might have a variety of possible continuations , might link up with more than one subsequent or previous line, and the reader has to select an order, or linger among a plurality of orders. If nothing else, I hope the reader is forced to read her reading: to experience her participation in the construction of meaning, to collaborate in the articulation of the stanzaic space. I’ll try to describe one way this technique—one might call it braiding lines—is thematized. One section of the book involves an elegy for a friend; or, again, a poem about the possibility of elegy: how to arrive at a form responsive to that occasion that neither amounts to a lyric subject congratulating himself on the depth of his feeling or a total abdication of the communicative capacity of the medium. One thing braiding does is make the poem nearly impossible to coherently vocalize. While the stutters and interruptions seem to privilege the spoken, the braid makes speaking the poems in a linear fashion exceedingly difficult. Unreadable, the poems become a kind of moment of silence held in memory of a friend, and that silence measures the incommensurability of elegy and its object. I hope the failure to speak speaks. From Mean Free Path: I know it’s full of flowers, music, stars, but But the pressures under which it fails How it falls apart if read aloud, or falls What we might call its physics Together like applause, a false totality Scales. The words are just there to confuse The censors, like mock eyes on the wing Except for Ari. No energy is lost if they collide The censors inside me, and that’s love [ . . . ] Lerner | 147 And that’s elegy. I know...