“Random” Poetry: a conversation with Bob Hicok

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I have, for at least the past year, been mildly to massively frustrated by the rise of the word “random” as it’s presently used. This is dull in all sorts of ways—every writer’s got his/her words which frustrate, to say nothing of the nebbishness of even bothering to be pissed at some utterance—but I haven’t been able to let go of the urge to get into why the word is toxic to art. Fortunately, I can ask Bob Hicok questions, and he and I started talking about the word in the summer of 2010, amassing an almost silly amount of words on the topic. We then started again, in November, and (I) tried to be more articulate about the specifics of the word. What follows is the first of two long back-and-forths conducted over email about the word and its attendant dangers to art, specifically poetry.

Cutter:It’s actually perfect that you wrote about form recently: If I’m honest, the roots of the whole random thing go back to a form and theory class in which I fell hard for meter and structure for their stability, for their recognizability.

You’ve seen my stuff, too: I spent a spell really unsure what to write about—which, in contemporary poetry terms, meant for me that I didn’t know from where to write about (because, as far as my reading shows me, most contemporary poetry’s fundamentally about self: the form + movement of the poem is dependent on the writer’s/speaker’s mental moves). The awful trick that comes with the freedom of completely free verse is that there’s nothing to make a reader care: an easy charge against some contemporary free verse is simply, well, that’s just thoughts on a page that happen to be broken into lines. I buy a degree of that.

A lot of this stuff, for me, comes out of a deep insecurity and fear that people won’t read stuff—not my stuff, but any stuff (I feel strongly enough about making sure good books get mentioned that I started a book review site). I had to teach poetry in fall of ’09 and I spent nights anxious that I didn’t have any pithy bullet-proof response to a student smirking and saying, Well, poetry’s just writing down what you think or feel. I’d like to say: sure, to some degree, but there’s a charge, there’s thought and order put into it. But how does one find the order? What if there is no overt order, or the order is an in-joke only for three other people, etc.?

I’m not saying any of these fears or problems are fresh. This is Duchampian stuff, the urinal on the wall and everybody going Shit, now what, absolutely, but I’m also not satisfied with the answers any of the disciplines have chained down.

Every chance I get I teach Dean Young’s “And Because Her Face,” because it’s one of my all-time favorite poems. Here’s how it starts:

And because her face has finally flown
from the faces of strangers and I no longer
sleep in the room with her dresses,
the puppets and desiccated rose,
perhaps now her accusations are done
that I forget her so now I can forget her,
betray her each time I don’t find her lips
inside a peach after one bite, by running
on the ridge as if in celebration, shoulder
to shoulder with hawks, men radioing
their model planes in and out of the fog
as if anything could be given then taken back
from opacity, as if its absorptions could be
toyed with because the heart is a fearless
seething, throwing itself at the rocks
as if each wave had this grand idea
none had ever had about throwing itself
against some rocks, it seems nearly comic,

I’ve taught this poem I think four times now, and each time a student pegs one of the first dozen or so lines as “random”—it’s random that he goes to peaches, that he’s running on ridges, that there are puppets and a rose in the fourth line, and what’s desiccated? My response has been pretty unvaried: I’ve been frustrated. Mostly I’ve felt hurt: the poem seems clearly to be trying to build speed and momentum based on association, and only if I decide to stop and drop my trust of the poem does it appear random. Because if I just trusted the poem, and got all the way through it and let the pieces fit in the ways Young seems to be trying to make them, I’d find that the random bits weren’t random at all—there was, in the end, a pattern to the thing: the poem took off fast and jumped ideas rapid, line-by-line, but it was headed toward a sense of its own.

I also knew, even if only a little, that Young was fitting himself into a lineage that featured Koch and the New York school and etc., and so I’m willing to approach his stuff in ways my students are not—because they see these shifts and moves and don’t recognize them, don’t understand that they’ve got structural history.

You do this too, actually. I taught your “The Order of Things” this semester:

Then I stopped hearing from you. Then I thought
I was Beethoven’s cochlear implant. Then I listened
to deafness. Then I tacked a whisper
to the bulletin board. Then I liked dandelions
best in their afro stage. Then a breeze
held their soft beauty for ransom. Then no one
throws a Molotov cocktail better
than a buddhist monk. Then the abstractions
built a tree fort. Then I stopped hearing from you.

Did my students pull out their Random guns? They giggled first, and were I think entertained, and so let their guards down—random was used, but only by one or two folks, and I think only at the Molotov cocktail line, which squares for me because in the last two years there have been stories of rioting Buddhist monks, so I can slot that image/idea somewhere in my head, whereas I don’t know if all my students could.

(Know, too, that it’s not just you and DYoung: poems from CMarvin, ALemon, RJones, RHass, JGraham, BShaughnessy, MHarvey, MZapruder, RCreeley, RFrost and WStevens have all been dissed random.)

I’m nervous by random because, to some degree, I can’t defend against it: if a student doesn’t have a background in lit or poetry (or whatever the poetry’s referencing—Beethoven), then anything other than formal/metric poetry can be tagged/dismissed random. Anything unknown, anything unexpected, anything seemingly arbitrary can be easily backhanded. The biggest problem, of course, is that random presents a new form in which the speaker/leveler can claim something doesn’t make sense, even if that person doesn’t know enough to make the claim. It’s different for someone to call something stupid or ugly—we get that those are subjective notions. Random, though used subjectively (one person’s random is another person’s ah-hah), actually posits something darker, worse—that doesn’t make sense—and I believe we’ve, until recently, all lived in a world in which what did and didn’t make sense was fundamentally agreed upon. Maybe not what makes sense: what’s logical. Random now gives anyone, literally anyone, the power to say, instead of I don’t get it or that’s weird, that doesn’t make sense. That’s a huge and scary move, I think.

There’s also the issue of measurement. You’ve I’m sure experienced this, as do all of us who teach. How does one *grade* a poem? It’s relatively easy to offer grades for formal/metered poetry, because either one does or does not write one that follows the rules (or interestingly eschews the rules). The measure of structured poetry is, first, does it fit the structure? We can talk *art* once we’ve cleared that first hurdle, but that’s critical.

What’s the measurement now? In upper level stuff we talk about poems working or not working, but could there be less precise terms? Hello, every un-fun workshop full of quiet and unsaid stuff. Largely, the way my undergrads apprehend poetry is through liking or not liking it, and they choose those sides based on getting the poem. This, for me, is hard, as they may be reading a poem they should or would like, if it were written in any sort of form or pattern, but, because we’re postmodern, 2011, everyone following his/her own path, the poem can just be whatever it wishes, needn’t fit any recognized anything, and so readers can turn away easily. This is, really, just a fuddy-duddyist’s fear I suppose, an archaicist’s claim: that, because we no longer utilize form (or have to), there’s little easily-accessed lineage/heritage for poetry, which makes random much easier to use against it (and lots of other art, to some degree, though mostly visual: movies and songs still seem pretty overt and safe and unmysterious).

Hicok: O that’s a lot.

Let’s see. Much of the resistance you’re dealing with is an inside/outside issue. Say I started talking to you about positive returns on aerial cams. Even once I explain what they are, how long are you hanging in that conversation? Were I to go back to my die designing days, whether over beers or not, I’d find takers for that gab, more than a few of them impassioned proponents of one method versus another. The resistance, first of all, for many, is categorical, to aerial cams, to poetry itself, metered or squishy, new or old.

And as you’ve written, you’re schooled in this stuff, so what Dean Young or I do is familiar. But the extra resistance, the second level resistance to more associative work is, first of all, a matter of taste. Since there’s nothing inherently better about this approach, rejecting it as…jittery, annoying, hard to follow, seems valid. Of course you’d want a student to articulate why they prefer clearer lines of thought and feeling, but this, I think, is where you want students to reside, in that aesthetic zone where they’re struggling to articulate preference, the ways in which they prefer a mind to take shape in a text.

It’s the tertiary resistance, the no of random that’s interesting to me, as it seems a potentially fruitful utterance to take on. Because it doesn’t work, doesn’t mean in the way they think it means, you’re asking that they interrogate their use of the word places the discussion at the center of poetry, of language: how do we say what we meant to say? Their use of random, then, becomes kind of exciting, since your response to it could open the door into a discussion of the demands we need to place on our use of language.

And to go back to what you began with, the ability to control one’s utterances, to mean intentionally and substantially, to use language for one’s own ends, as a tool, is a formal, a structural consideration. If you believe Chomsky, these structures are rooted in our brains.

Cutter: This seems measured, logical, legit. Absolutely, to some degree, I’m up-in-arms about the interior/exterior bit, but if I follow my own exhaustion with this word enough, I know that’s not *just* it, it’s not just about resistance to various ins of poetry, at whatever level (plenty of writers I’m friends with don’t like, say, Thalia Field’s stuff, for instance, but nobody who writes would call her work random).

Here’s another little quote to maybe address this: Chuck Klosterman interviewed musicians for a long time, for a living. I really don’t like what he writes, but he wrote this one thing which I believe is huge:

“Most contemporary people are answering questions not because they’re flattered by the attention,” but because “they feel as if they deserve to be asked.”

What we’re getting at, specifically with regard to poetry, is how much a contemporary reader is allowed to feel entitled to worklessly understand what’s in front of him/her. We’ve talked about this some already—how “random” allows folks a power to judge, how that power’s been only relatively recently given. But that sense of entitlement, I think, is a big deal at some level of this—I don’t know how much of the Chomsky stuff obtains at present, because, at least in my own experience, I’ve come into contact with too many young people who really believe they can use words exactly as they wish to, like old what’s his name out of Alice/Wonderland.

For me the fascinating parts of random have to do with 1) ease and 2) entitlement. I think the word, at least as I’ve experienced it being deployed in poetry contexts, has everything to do with students finding things hard and feeling pissed or hurt of confused that something’s actually hard—associatively hard, soft-sciences hard (since I don’t know but I’ve never heard any student say a tough calc problem’s random—math’s got a recognizable system/structure). I don’t know if that’s a direction you’re willing to type in, but I find that riveting, especially given how much good poetry has the backbone of play running through it, has the let’s-see whiz-bang of fun involved, which is so anti-random (if that makes a bit of sense).

Hicok: Yes, ease and entitlement. Of all the large statements one could make, we expect now to be entertained would be one of the harder to argue with. Entertained and provided products, including intellectual products, requiring no assembly, no TAB A IN FOLD B kind of work. That’s just the drift of the culture, has been for a long time. Universities are a huge part of this, and degrees are becoming more economic than intellectual transactions. Add to this the choices you spoke of earlier, how easy it is for any one person to construct a world of experiences, to decide the music, the movies, the art they’ll deal with, and you have a context in which random indicates a boundary, a shell, the existence of which the individual is largely unaware.

It’s that shell I’m interested in, for I keep bumping up against it again and again, with and without random attached.

For instance, in a recent review of a book of poems, a reviewer praised a poem because each sentence nudged the reader from the direction the last sentence had propelled them. All I’ve done is re-word the statement: the poem was good because, if the first sentence sent you east, the second knocked you south, and so on. Nothing was written about why this is a good thing, and nothing need be written, because most of the people reading this particular review in this particular lit mag would agree that, by definition, this is what a poem should do. The fact of this dislodging was proof of its actual value, for the review was not one side of a possible dialogue with the reader or other aesthetics, so much as a presentation of signs. This is oddly similar to the movie commercial featuring car chases and breasts, the purpose of which is to announce, if you like car chases and breasts, you’ll like this flick.

Such an aesthetic cocoon speaks to me in similar ways of ease and entitlement. And though random suggests a far harsher refusal to, first, articulate a world view and, second, investigate where that consciousness encounters other ways of seeing, the relationship to inner and outer is largely the same. Random seems to me an extension, an amplification of the abiding difficulty humans have negotiating between openness and fixity.

Which takes me back to your mention of play. Play, both physical and mental play, allows us, I would say requires us, to step into the open from the fixed, and in so doing, abandon the fixed point for the unknown point of arrival. Poets love the cliché about not knowing where a poem is going, which is often not true but brings to mind that adage from sports about why we play the game, even when the outcome seems certain: we don’t know what will happen. The value of play, of residing in this unknowing, of a confrontation with the cocoon, the random, is that it places you at the most contingent, and I would say, the most essential point of being, that impossible-to-occupy flash between the present and the future.

This is Weston’s seventh post for Get Behind the Plough.