Poetry is the art of the illogical, or even anti-intellectual, performed with the tools of logic and intellectual zealotry: language. Poetry is an invoker of feeling, or more correctly, perhaps, sensation and/or experience—while simultaneously being a way of thinking, of “catching yourself thinking” and “noticing what you notice” as Allen Ginsberg called it. Poetry is the logically/illogically logical/illogical. Its job is to escape our grasp as we try to pin it down, to defy the defying of defying definition. It tries to look and act as if it were making sense, while basking in its own glorious idiocy behind our backs.
Like the Zen monks who threw shoes at each other attempting to use the shock and surprise of the counter-intellectual as a method to induce a divine state of knowing—or getting beyond knowing, or whatever it was and is Zen monks want to achieve with their silly antics—poetry aims to jolt the intellectual, emotional, cognitive and memory senses by presenting texts that are counter intuitive and strive against everything that is coherent. This doesn’t only go for the “mad” poetry of bohemians, from Rimbaud to Hugo Ball to the beatniks—it also goes for the so-called “disciplined” poetry of lawyers and bankers like TS Eliot and Wallace Stevens, whose powerful imagery is constructed to jolt, no less than Hugo Ball’s glossolalia or Rimbaud’s wilder associations. The poetry may be disciplined, but it is not created to form coherent thoughts—neither from the poets and to the text, nor from the text and to the readers.
I’m writing this returning from lecturing and performing at a seminar on sound poetry in Kuopio, Finland, and as I sit here I become more and more amazed at the fact that people, in general, and me, in particular, make a living—however meagre it may be—from what is best understood as behaving like idiots on stage (while explaining our behaviour in more intellectual terms in essays in-between our “fits”).
A large portion of my performance, for instance, was shouting a collage of the poetry of a 17th century Icelandic lunatic; famous sound poet Leevi Lehto sang (in a “melodically deconstructive manner”, which in academic dialect means “very out of tune”) the lyrics of classical Finnish poets—including Paavo Havikko and Eino Leino—to the music of the Rolling Stones and other American rock artists; while Cia Rinne read alphabetized poetry in French; and Miia Toivio and Marko Niemi read Miia’s work in an apparently random chorus, chopping up the words into bits in improvisational inspiration.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I had a blast, and so it seems did the audience. They laughed, cheered, clapped and came up and thanked us afterwards. And they weren’t even that drunk. But that doesn’t decrease my surprise in the least. If anything, I’m even more surprised that avant-garde poetry is generally something people enjoy. It’s mind-boggling.
Maybe I am still trying (in vain) to “understand” poetry—which is a no-no, poetry may not be understood, you shouldn’t try. Maybe I’m just trying to get at why it fascinates me so much. And then perhaps, as the cliché about good humour goes, the magic dies if you manage to explain it. Which doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. It just means we should be sure to never make perfect sense while doing so.