Experimentation in poetry obviously cannot be exhausted; even the least ambitious poet hopes (or at least I hope she hopes) the device she contrives works. Experimentalism as a description of poetry, however, is pretty much plumb out of use. Opponents of “Language School” poetics, those who roll their eyes at the very suggestion of a “New American Poetry,” associate experimental poetics with writing that is essentially inhuman. To experiment is thus given a forensic cast; experimental writers become the icy analogues to ‘real’ poets, and are seen as conducting autopsies on the language that ‘traditional’ poets struggle so mightily to keep alive.
It’s really too bad that experimentation, as both word and metaphor, has become so locked into these associations. Marjorie Welish has enjoyed a long association with the flagship flavors of “Experimental Poetry,” and while her new Word Group clearly shares preoccupations and styles with this movement, Welish writes from a commitment to experimentation the properties of which are bound less by the movement’s conventions than to a raw, engineer’s experimental zeal. Her works reminds me of those roboticians and artificial intelligence researchers who nominally study the very fundamentals of mentation, but in so doing produce armies of mechanical insects as a colorful, curious and demonstrative by-product. Word Group reads the way these researchers invent; we detect the essential sub-structures of the project, but the researcher-writer has been careful to leave the detritus of the process lying around for inspection and delight.
In Welish’s case, I’m grateful for her willingness to include the moldings and casings of her work as well as its cleaner, more recognizable lyric product. Word Group is a big, messy collection, but it’s the best kind of mess, more interesting for its inclusiveness. Part of this disarray can be suggested by the acknowledgements page: in addition to the more common references to print and on-line journals, Welish also acknowledges on-line presentations via Philly Talks; a response to a Pollock painting that first appeared in a MOMA catalogue; poems written in honor of Burning Deck’s fortieth anniversary. So Word Group doesn’t hang together as a volume apparently conceived and executed with singular tone and purpose. And at first I thought the book could have achieved more with less, but repeated readings have convinced me of the reverse: Word Group functions best as an exercise in multiplicity; like any sequence of experiments, it must include structures the essences of which are revealed by repetitions defined equally by their similarities and their departures.
Word Group is divided into five sections, and only the first of these sections consists of poems that do not rely upon sub-headings and multiple formal iterations. The second section, “Begetting Textile,” includes sixteen “Textiles” that apply relatively consistent versions of the following graphic structure [Editor’s Note: Please be aware that, due to my own lack of finesse with regards to web coding, I am unable to exactly replicate the regularity of Ms. Welish’s structures. What you will see in this review is a close approximation; you’ll have to get the book for the real thing.]:
a phrase that falls
onto the following line
and sometimes onto a third
divided as often as not
into approximate couplets
While the above accurately describes the appearance of the “Textiles,” it cannot transmit the range of invention Welish brings to this simple strategy. Here’s the full text of “Textile 5”:
Such is not always the case
allegations and tougher
of corresponding bias
and a vivacious clipping service
or for the reason that
literature conjectures across texts
For what reason?
For the reason that
a further allegation can provide
three decades of
as if shadow.
as if sand
meddled with windshield.
A further comfort
the forward edge of reading
made material conjecture.
conjecture is international: a vivacious clipping service
and a species of
For what reading?
“Pavilion, your rooms are coming down!”
The first several poems in this sequence begin with simile as syntax (“as if (X)” finally reduced to “as if, then” and then abandoned as an introductory conceit), and before we even examine the abstract ideas of these poems we can appreciate how the deliberation of “as if” invokes mechanical experimentation more effectively than any metaphor ever could. Metaphor, of course, subdues its own machinery; metaphoric equivalency creates affinity so quickly that there’s no time to examine the structure of the equivalency itself. Metaphor functions by fiat; simile draws attention to the deliberation it requires, and thus emphasizes the function of syntax and grammar that metaphor denies.
It is this relationship between syntax’s function and form Welish returns to and repeatedly adjusts. Each of the “Textiles” works as a methodical, abstract exploration of what simile can support, but they also work as mechanical play in the advancement of these explorations. “Textile 1,” for example, can be read following the logic of its stepladder graphic properties, but it can also be read in vertical groupings based on the consistency of the stepladder format. Here’s the text as printed:
“And somewhere other than observable water”
“and the separation may posses its own corrective”
“What the lyric can comprehend”
in many-valued trespass
as soon as
trellis in everything.
To attain to urban corrective
advocating a long escarpment
a convection current
but what the lyric can comprehend
“wetting her skirt.”
drying his shirt
lyrically, faithfully floral
up to and including comprehension
advocating little posits, immense thickness.
we prefer all threads.
the self-same traffic.
Symposia attain to because,
gymnasia attain to
Now, it’s no accident that a vertical reading of the second “column” yields, with only a little tweaking, “What the lyric can comprehend. Trellis in everything—to obtain urban corrective of references. But what the lyric can comprehend—assets—up to and including incomprehension of references, the self-same traffic.”
This is play as all experimentation is a form of play, but only a reader of fabulous, willful density could claim that this play is random. Even throwing stuff around to see what sticks involves a certain base, brutal intent—again, to see what works—but Welish’s experimental agenda is both more generous and more demanding. It’s generous in that she indicates the frame of her inquiry (here, simile as poetic principle) but demanding in that this inquiry, the subject and consequence of which is poetry itself, requires so many, and so multi-dimensional, iterations.
Word Group does not offer many shallow pleasures, and I’m glad for it—though I’m afraid some readers will encounter, say, “Profile” (which includes a text box and some creative minimalism) and conclude that this writer is more trickster than poet. But Welish is genuinely and inventively concerned with setting out and articulating—both in the rhetorical and the mechanical sense—the functions of poetic syntax. And unlike the morbid experimental clinicians the so-called traditionalists conjure to haunt the dreams of otherwise curious and open-minded readers, Welish never loses the pleasure or the musicianship of what she studies. I wish the whole misinformed pseudo-debate could be dissolved with an act as simple as reading Welish’s “Ballet at Crosswalk” out loud:
He will have done so in recent lists advancing on the table.
Is the foreshortened table subtracting format? Let go!
Our lost subject is not “I apologize.”
We take for granted “17. A sequel to 12. A harmony”
swallowed poetics. Insert water
table—its stencils, at least, prophetic insofar as these
advance a slate. Walk. Run. Fielding sixes,
Inlets, Pictures redistribute the paragraphs. Is the table there?
The table is here. Where are the instantly sliding doors?
Restating insinuated adventure for the torso
ought to be between. What is the schedule for torse?
Ought/ought not ‘shines in our glasses.’ Or to restart our glass:
a deceptive simplicity
likes you, the attribution of shadow afterward:
It is raining. Start here! Have we met?
Chairs without back. Admitting the redistribution
of dragged idiolects meant not an eccentricity
for marionettes but a table of contents
with respect to it. It? Them? Pagination
need not detain us. The soluble entity is on the table,
the sedimented table. “Stand roughly there’ now voices
areas and informality in the floor plan,
the breathing floor plan? The plane of the floor
meets the plane of the table in this objective.
He choreographed for ‘roughly there.’
Note the cinched waist of this poem, that “deceptive simplicity.” This isn’t an indictment of simplicity; it’s an invitation to consider that what is deceptive is not the simplicity itself, but the distinction between the simple and the complex, the clear and the obscure. Like those alchemists who are her intellectual ancestors, Welish experiments out of an inquisitiveness that is also a kind of joy. Word Group demonstrates an unwillingness to cull the product from the method; wisely, Welish will not privilege the basic elements over their exotic alloys, knowing that to do so would degrade both.