Experimentation

I. I think all poets and creative people experiment. In fact, everyone experiments in their lives, trying new things, modifying old ones, whether in their work, personal lives, kitchens, raising children, and so on. Although for the artistic type, experimentation does not necessarily mean inventing new forms or genres, or modifying existing ones, mostly the term has this connotation.

In my own case all of my writing has been experimentation, even when it has been conventional. Jackson Pollock said something like: “If I paint what I know, I bore myself. If I paint what you know, I bore you. So, I paint what neither of us knows or expects.”

Most writers and other creatives constantly explore form and structure. Poet Robert Creeley says “form is an extension of content.” Igor Stravinsky or Arnold Schoenberg believed that the structure of a composition should not be obvious to the listener.

Exploring form has always been one of my artistic preoccupations. Sometimes I have sat down and said, “Now I will write a sonnet or a prose poem,” but mostly the form has suggested itself–“Hmm. This is coming out as a prose poem. This is starting as prose but really is poetry.”

My earliest poetry was in free verse, but I also experimented with rhyme and meter, and with archaic spellings like “tyme” instead of “time.” Then came forays into the long-poem form, with multiple sections, popular with many modern and contemporary poets.

Other experiments have been with prose poems, poetic essays, faux essays, translations, visual poems, sound poems, found poems, conceptual poems, and later on, Excel poems–poems written using Excel spreadsheets. More on this can be found in part II below.

Aside from and alongside experiments with form, there of course have been many experiments with content and manner of expression. After all, what good is the form of a sonnet without something to say in that form? Or, what good is “short story” with a short story? My recent experimentation is probably more content- and expression- driven than form-driven.

For example, I have been experimenting with Jewish liturgical poetry, taking liberties with forms, placement, and content of traditional poetic genres. After two trips to Spain, I also did a series of poems about Jewish Spain, unlike anything I had ever written and which now make me think of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which I owned but didn’t read until after these poems were written. After a trip to Japan in 2013, I wrote a series of haiku based on the 36 (actually 46) Views of Mt Fuji, the famous woodblock print series by Hokusai, one of my favorite artists, and also did a series of haiku based on a similar series of woodblock prints by Hiroshige, another famous Japanese artist.

Other experimentation has been with voice–trying to move beyond the lyrical first person confessional so persuasive, worn out, and tiresome in U.S. poetry, to third person or writing as other people, as in the poems about Jewish Spain, most of which are written “in the voices” of the poets and mystics. And like a lot of my work, these came out this way; they were not planned–perhaps an example of “form is an extension of content.” And with style and language–straight up, surrealist, children’s, simple and complex, transparent and opaque. Plus, the usual love poems, hate poems, political poems, sex poems, happy poems, sad ones, poems about life and about death, fantasies, social issues, and so on. Hello, world! All have been experiments and have their place in the repertoire.

These poems are conventional in form but either tread new content ground for me or extend existing ground. Like many poets, for example, I had occasionally tried my hand at haiku but only recently put them to good use–in mourning the death of my mother, in 2012.

Much of my early writing involved seemingly endless reworkings, laboring over each word, each comma, each line break. The results weren’t necessarily good, but I learned a lot about language. After a number of years in which I did a lot of revisions, I now am experimenting with doing few or at least fewer revisions, possibly a sign of laziness, or sloppiness, or faded interest in the perfection process, or increased interest in opacity and entropic confusion.

In teaching children I have on occasion taught a little poetry in the schools: the longest gig was teaching children in grades 1-5 in a Jewish day school: writing biblical jokes, making charms and incantation bowls, riddles, Purim spiels, greeting cards, fortune cookies, travelogues, charm pendants, clay tablets, and so on, activities designed to teach something Jewish in a fun way that liberates students’ imaginations.

In teaching creative nonfiction writing to master’s-degree students at the University of Denver, I tried to shake-em up by avoiding the traditional creative nonfiction approach of presenting facts utilizing fictional, film, and poetic devices and encouraging students to explore genre boundaries and push the limits of nonfiction.

I also began teaching what I call learn-and-do (after a series of children’s science activity books I used to edit) workshops to Jewish adults on making incantation bowls that combine writing with art and writing ethical wills and liturgical poetry.

Where all of this experimentation is leading, I haven’t the faintest idea. All I can say is that it has served me well, in my own way, and I hope it serves you, the reader, too, in your own special way. For experimentation is one of the great manifestations of our imaginative faculty, which is what enables every one of us to be creative and thus to express ourselves in the image of the creator of the universe.

II. For more about the poetic forms described above and how the role they have played in my life as a poet…

Prose poems are poetry/prose hybrids. Prose poetry is supposedly prose that includes many of the features of poetry (for example, emotional intensity or strong rhythmic sense), or poetry written as prose–that is, either typeset ragged right or with justified margins. (Of course, there are plenty of exceptions.) Their origin and scope are shrouded in mystery. Beginning in the nineteenth century with the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, we got the kind of prose poem that I think has inspired a good many writers (especially French and American surrealists) of prose poems in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, to the point where prose poetry is now a cliché and many of its examples hackneyed, stylized, or mannered surrealism or minimalism. My own prose poems often have a heightened sense of language and rhythm–many were written to an invisible beat punctuated by commas and periods, perhaps in the vein of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, whose “spontaneous bop prosody” was inspired by the bebop recordings of Charlie Parker.

Poetic essays and faux essays are my extensions of the prose poem into the essay. They attempt to explore a subject like a painting or piece of music or a poet or a concept with a poetic sense and rhythmic feel, while taking liberties with the “facts,” more akin to what Jorge Luis Borges does in his “ficciones” than what is done by the official school of creative-nonfiction writers, namely, stick to the facts and not make them up.

Many poets try their hand at translation, going back to ancient times. Today some poets are equally well known and adept at both translation/adaptation and original poetry, for example, Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin. I tried translating Baudelaire many years ago, sent some poems to Paul Vangelisti (both a better writer and translator than I), and was hammered. I would like to translate medieval Hebrew poetry, but my Hebrew isn’t good enough. Recently I did attempt a translation of a Sanskrit South Indian devotional poem by the famous poet/composer Thyagaraja. This turned out to be much harder than I expected, so I settled for a loose adaptation.

Visual poetry, also known as concrete poetry, is something many poets dabble in at one time or another, some more seriously than others. Classical composers and older poets wrote music and songs in shapes hundreds of years ago. The Hebrew Bible distinguishes poetry from prose using typography. Of course, much standard poetry has a visual effect involving line breaks, spacing between words, and so on. My own visual poems are few and far between–sometimes the inspiration hits. My Excel poems (see below) are visual poems of a sort, with the words organized in spreadsheet cells.

Sound poems utilize sounds and words in musical ways; the Dadaists created modern sound poetry, but traditional writers, librettists, and composers did this earlier–for example, the famous “Figaro” aria from the Marriage of Figaro or the duet-for-two-cats aria (which has just one word, “meow”) attributed to Rossini but probably not composed by him. In recent times hiphop and rap artists have taken this form to new heights–or lows, depending on your perspective. My own sound poetry, predating the latter forms though bearing them some resemblance before the fact), evolved from my dual interests in music and language, combined with an attraction to chanting and to trance-inducing repetition.

Found poems, are, or comprise, texts a poet comes across or selects from longer texts. Found art is a better-known expressive mode of the same “aesthetic”: one thinks especially of the found art of Marcel Duchamp–for example, his famous toilet. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans are a kind of found art; he has painted copies of common (found) objects. My own limited foray into this genre began when I worked as a production editor at a book publisher and began creating lists of typos and playing with interesting words or phrases in the material I worked with.

Conceptual poems seem to me to be directions or schematics for poetry yet to be written. I draw on art again as perhaps a better known medium for this type of expression–for example, Sol Lewitt, who has published Wall Drawings: 1984-1992, a book of such directions for readers who want to construct versions of his art. In literature, I think of Jerome Rothenberg’s texts in Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, his extraordinary anthology of Native American poems and songs. These were avant-garde in their time (1972) but have been superseded in conceptuality by work of the kind appearing in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, which also contains “found poetry,” an oxymoron if there ever was one. I have a few of these conceptual poems, mostly ideas for sound poems–ideas that seem too complicated to actually realize or perhaps more interesting as instructions than as actual poems.