Archive for November, 2010

Vertigo

An essay by Tony Hoagland in the September 2010 issue of Poetry finally clarified for me why I find some modern poetry confusing. It’s meant to be, Hoagland says. In the essay he lays out two views on the function of poetry. The first suggests that poetry constructs perspective for the reader. He cites Wallace Stevens for the alternative view: “The poem must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully.”

“It’s the gong of recognition versus the bong of disorientation,” Hoagland says. He attributes the sense of vertigo aroused by reading poems by Stevens or John Ashbery to the complexities of modern life. “After all, our economic culture specializes in two things: surfeit and counterfeit. …Add to that our drastically increased sense of the corruption of commercial and political speech, and the instability of language—surely our resulting collective dizziness is a fundamental symptom of modern life, one to which poems naturally refer.”

When I showed the essay to my friend Jeanette Boyer, she commented: “When I was a little kid, I used to love spinning in circles, stopping, and finding the world all topsy-turvy. Now that would make me all too dizzy. Similarly, I find I prefer poetry that brings me a sense of stillnesss rather than a sense of vertigo.”

I agree with Jeanette. I’m much more attuned to poems in which the reader and the poet share a moment of recognition. At the same time, we both appreciated Hoagland’s essay for the clarification it provided.

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