- Experimental, Then and Now
As Mallarmé said in 1896, there is a crisis in poetry. This isn’t always the case; there are eras that go by without them, eras of relative aesthetic harmony and fluidity, but this is not one of them, which is a good thing, as only poetry in crisis is interesting. Poetry not in crisis is poetry complacent, settled, and therefore not doing what poetry, socially and culturally, needs to do, which is to be agitated, and then to agitate, in turn.
By a “crisis in poetry,” I don’t mean to say that something is happening to poetry, but that that poets themselves are effecting a distinct change in the medium, which tends to put the medium at risk. That said, it’s also helpful to remember that the word crisis derives from the Greek krinein “to decide” and its noun form krisis or “decision,” which makes available a less dramatic while more measured and more focused interpretation of the term.
It’s poetry’s potential for crisis that allows it to function as a “minor” in relation to the “major” of prose in the way that Deleuze and Guattari intended in their development of the concept of a minor language. Their work looked at the ways in which the literature of a minority community written, not in a “minor” language, but in the language of the majority community works to destabilize the major literature because the very existence of the minor literature constitutes a constant disruption—a constant agitation—of the dominant one. The minor is always, to some degree, in their terminology, deterritorialized, a state that combines traits of the deracinated and the indeterminate, thus, on the one hand, the unprotected and the estranged, and on the other, the liberated and the unbounded.
Though Deleuze and Guattari were talking about minor and major bodies of literature in very specific linguistic and cultural contexts, there’s a way in which all poetry acts as a minor literature to all prose, regardless of the language, and it’s poetry’s capacity to remain indefinitely in a state of crisis, of disequilibrium, that allows it to compromise, constantly and subtly, the prosaic principles of clarity and stability. To the prosaic dream of a 1:1 relationship of word to meaning, poetry proposes any other ratio—and therefore has many more compositional options than prose. And yet, despite that increased range and flexibility, poetry never becomes the dominant. This is in part because the vast majority of any language’s users value, above all, its clarity and stability, and are therefore not open to its destabilizations, no matter how aesthetically intriguing they might be. But above all, poetry never becomes major because only by remaining the minor to prose can it continue its disruptive relationship to it, a relationship that allows it to act as a force that constantly causes prosaic language to keep refining, redefining, and reinventing itself, thereby avoiding a debilitating stasis. Poetry speaks the same language as prose, but speaks it differently and, as such, continually infects prose with difference, keeping it changing. And as prose changes, poetry also changes—though, often it is the changes in poetry that instigate those in prose. A victorious circle, one might say.
To a certain extent, there’s a relationship between linguistic instability and experimentalism—and here, by linguistic instability, I mean everything that compromises that 1:1 ratio, all the traditional markers of the poetic, which are, by and large, all the aspects of a language other than the semantic, such as its sound qualities and sound relationships as well as ambiguity, parataxis, and figurative language, among others. In general, the more exaggerated those markers are, the more a work is experienced as experimental.
The poetic in this sense was the project of a crisis in American poetry that dominated the late 1970s through the 1990s. Centered in a crisis of meaning, it explored the limits of sense and the non-semantic potentials of language, resulting in a new appreciation of the wide range of linguistic elements beyond the semantic. That crisis helped poetics as a field identify and research those elements, understanding...