Sense and Instability: Attack of the Hip Non Sequitur

In the current issue (Jan/Feb 2014) of the American Poetry Review, Joy Ladin savages a Matthew Dickman poem in her essay called Emperor of Ice Cream. The point of the exercise wasn’t to beat up on that poem—the poem was just a handy example used to help her make her argument. The essay looks at the current fashion of hip non sequitur sort of poetry—poetry that, in her words, is “sense optional.” See also: Ashbery.

While parsing Dickman’s Bougainvillae, Ladin raises a number of important questions pertinent to poetry today. In coining the term Hip Non Sequitor she’s given a name, or maybe a category title, to much of what is populating the popular poetry journals.

While she never comes out with a clear judgment-making statement, it’s seems clear that she’s more on the side of sense than non sense. In fact, her most damning statement at the end of the essay suggests that the trend to abandon sense in poetry is the reason so many readers have simply abandoned poetry. “As such meaninglessness becomes ever more common in published poetry, readers stop expecting poetic language to have any relation to sense, which means that poets need worry ever less about it.”

So that’s it? We shouldn’t expect much from poems. She suggests that in such poems, the reader’s search for sense, and lack of finding it, “give way to boredom.” Exactly.

The author isn’t arguing, and neither would I, that poems have to mean in the same way as conversational text or other text, such as prose fiction, do. But so often poems seem to be hiding behind a defense that since they don’t need complete sense that they won’t even bother trying. Just throw the words up into the air and see where they land. There’s a serious lack of responsibility going on in that method. On the other hand, some poems prance around in motely, proud of their senselessness, relying on some higher poetic Morse code that only they understand (see Rae Armantrout and Duran Duran for more on that). “It’s meaninglessness masquerading as meaning,” as Ladin writes.

I won’t begrudge any poet the right to write the kind of poem he or she wants to write, but I reserve the right to not care about them. If meaninglessness is the object, I can get that without reading the poem. For me, poetry itself involves a quest for meaning, for connection. Poetry is largely built on metaphor which seeks to connect one thing to the other thing in order to help the poet (and the reader) make sense of the world. That’s the point, or at least a pretty important one. (yes, I’m oversimplifying, but this is just a short bog post after all)

By the way, I happen to like a lot of Matthew Dickman’s poetry. My copy of his book All-American Poem is full of dog-eared pages and underlined passages, but while the Dickman poem in question has some lovely moments, Ladin was spot-on with her overall critique.

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