I still owe you a full explanation regarding the little subject we only just touched upon last night, due to lack of time and my inarticulateness. You expressed your bafflement with regard to these little marks, my “stars”, which populate my poems, and suggested you saw no reason for them being there. As for clarification, I made a poor fist of it last night, so I thought I’d write to you now that you’ve arrived back in ------ to try to give you a better account.
In a way, you are entirely right: the stars, like all things in the world perhaps, have at the same time a “reason” for being there, and also no reason at all. They are at once arbitrary and contingent, and in this way they are an attempted reflection on the nature of the arbitrary in our lives, and in poetry as well: of the things we cannot control.
To explain: have you ever dreamt of inserting something into a poem which would not, indeed could never, mean? Have you ever felt oppressed by the hegemony of meaning which words can exert, the fact that you can never say a single word, a single phoneme even, without it inciting in other people certain associations, certain reactions and ideas? Words are, in this way, almost too potent.
Some four years ago, during a moment of poetic and I suppose personal crisis for me, I felt the constant weight of this “meaning”, or at least this constant potency to mean, which is everywhere and in everything, very strongly. (Novalis talks of this: the terror of the mere presence of walls, doors, or other objects: their silence!) I felt the need to be rid of it, to put something into poems besides words, something which was less like a “sign” – with all their often terribly heavy connotations and implications – and much more like an object.
"For you I have emptied the meaning/ Leaving the song" says Zukofsky. He also says, later in the same sequence ("Anew"), "What are these songs/ straining at sense?"
The stars in the night sky have no “meaning”, but they are there. When we look up at this sky, we can’t but be shocked by the mere “presence”of these stars, by their pure ontology. They are “arbitrary”, in a sense, as it seems that, contrary to what other generations have believed, there is no justification for their specific placement in the form of their specific constellations. The stars in my poems, I like to think, are the same as this, or they at least, very impotently, mimic this.
My stars are arbitrary, in that they do not mean. They are also contingent, in that (I like to believe) they maybe look beautiful, and they change the way the poem appears on the page. They often break up words. They can influence syntax and semantics, but crucially, they don’t have to. They can exist with a reason or without one.
In the same way, have you ever wondered about those aspects of your own personality which, though they have no rational justification, nevertheless profoundly make up a large part of what you are? You look the way you do, but there is no teleological “reason” for this: it is just the result of the way you live, combined with surprisingly simple combinations of alleles given you by your parents, and if you had had different parents you would look different.
You seem also to have suggested, however, that these sort of justifications on my part constitute an “over-intellectualization” of the poem, and perhaps of these poems in particular. This idea surprises me. Firstly, I’m not at all sure that these justifications, or these stars, are in any way “intellectual”. Secondly, even if they were, why should we want intellect to be banished from contemporary poetics, or from the “explanation” or “justification” of same? There is currently no intellect in our politics: shouldn’t we at least want some intellect in our poems?
Moreover, given the discoveries of recent cognitive scientists and post-Chomskian linguists, it seems that it is no longer possible to entirely distinguish what in the brain is the result of an “emotional”process, and what is the result of a “logical” or “intellectual” one. The great shock in fact was in finding out that people who feel differently also reason differently. If I give a logical justification for something in a poem, then it is also an emotional justification. And vice versa.
I can only hope that this clears up a little of your surprise regarding my “stars”: they are not mysticism, nor mystification, nor a purposeful attempt at bafflement. They are simply an image, a representation of the things we cannot control in our lives, of the things we cannot control in poems either: the things which are simplythere, which escape perhaps both our authority and our understanding.
Far from being “signs” then – which like words, have a definite semantic resonance – they are more like little objects. They are just like little objects (a cup, or a saucer, or a flower, or a spoon) in that they sit there, quietly, in their own laconic way, not saying anything, but simply asserting their little bit of presence. Like these little objects, they can be touched by us, or looked at, but we can never decide if they have a reason for being there or not. Most likely, like all things in the world, – and this is the crucial paradox: it comes direct from Mallarmé, though it was lost in French poetics by Valéry – they are apparently arbitrary and contingent at the very same time.
So, this attempted “explanation” of mine probably sounds portentous and overlong, but it’s unfortunately the only one I can give. It was really good to meet you and ----, and I hope you’ll respond and tell me what you think about some of these ideas. Perhaps we have rather different views about what poetry is and what it does, but I hope at least to have cleared up some warranted bafflement.
My very best ---,