Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday 13 February 2011

A conversation with Stephen Nelson


clip_image002Stephen Nelson is a Scottish poet who lives in Hamilton. He writes a blog called afterlights which I’ve been following for a couple of years, well lurking around to be honest because I rarely make a comment. It’s not often I have nothing to say but the main reason I never comment is because Stephen specialises in all kinds of visual and concrete poems and most of the time I look at them I go, “Eh?” and pass on by.

I’ve been thinking about asking Stephen to do a piece for my blog for a while now and the fact that he’s up for The Crashaw Prize seems like a decent enough excuse but then I got to thinking and rather than a guest blog I thought I’d do a sort of an interview. Since I’ve never really been able to get my head around visual poetry I thought this might be a good jumping off point. I don’t especially like not getting things but I never seem to run into people who get the things I don’t get to ask them what I’m doing wrong. It’s like I’ve never actually met anyone who likes listening to Stockhausen. He’s an interesting bloke to talk about – a bit like John Cage in that respect – but I’d really like to meet a guy who would stick on one of his CDs to listen to while he’s making his tea and ask him why. Do you see where I’m coming from? And I feel much the same about visual poetry. I look at it – it’s often pretty to look at – but I’m not sure what to do with it. I was hoping since he’s are a practitioner that he might open my eyes a bit and maybe attract a few readers to his site in passing.


Day One

Like you I was brought up in Scotland and the fact that I wrote poetry was not something I publicised. Can I assume that being a visual poet is an even harder sell?

Well, yeah, I tell people I make visual poetry and it’s like, “What’s that?” So I mention concrete poetry and usually someone cracks a bad joke about bricks or buildings or something. Generally there’s an air of bafflement. You get used to it.

Where did you first come across visual poetry?

On the web. I was interested in concrete poetry. I knew about Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work and was doing a search on him. It lead to bigger things. In particular a site called Minimalist Concrete Poetry, which presented a bunch of contemporary visual poets and introduced me to the term and its application.

Was it love at first sight?

Absolutely. But love mixed with confusion. A lot of it I didn’t get. What was going on? Why did I find it all so damn gorgeous to look at but remain clueless as to its meaning? Then it struck me. Text! A love of text. The look of written language.

Okay I walk into your Visual Poetry shop and say, “Hello I’m interested in looking at some visual poetry.” What would you pull out to show me?

I would give you (or sell you, it ain’t cheap) a copy of Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. A rare book. A precious book. In fact you can only looking at it wearing a pair of special protective gloves, in an air-conditioned room, softly lit.

I’ll show you two pieces which illustrate the process I’m involved in.

clip_image004    clip_image006

The first is a letter composition; the second a digitally processed version of the same poem. The key thing to understand is the material substance of the letters, the physical shape of written language. For a while I was interested in the letters “Y” and “K”, and how the shape of these letters could be interpreted imaginatively according to my own concerns. For example, these two letters are composed of thrusting limbs (a bit like the human body, which is interesting). The limbs reach up or reach out into the future, into the sky, moving forward, moving up, reaching, extending. The “Y” extends up in praise or celebration; the “K” reaches out exploring what lies ahead.

So in the first poem ‘Dance of Past Lives 1’, I use the celebratory limbs of one “Y” entwined with another, in a dance or sexual union (think Tantra or Kama Sutra), creating almost tribal shapes and patterns which represent the dance of life. I’m interested in reincarnation, so each coupling becomes a life, or if not a life then at least an important stage in one life, punctuated by full stops – death, the end, transition from one stage to another.

The second poem, ‘Dance of Past Lives 4’, I like to think of as a “version” of the first, a bit like the old Dubplate versions of King Tubby or Lee Perry. Here, the very substance of the language is transformed and irradiated at an almost cellular level. And so, for me, this metamorphosis acts like the transformation of the human body, or the Self, in a way which resembles Taoist sexual alchemy, Tantra, Jungian Individuation, Christian Resurrection, or, simply, as Gary Barwin put it, Dr Who style transformation. The digital tools allow that luminosity which I see as part of the process of change from grosser elements to more subtle forms of energy. They also create images which remind me of spirit beings or aliens or ectoplasmic entities, which I like.

When I look at the first piece my initial reaction is that these look like a form of hieroglyphics or logograms and it’s hard not shake that first impression and to want to define each ‘character’. Take for example this one:


There’s certainly something anthropomorphic about it. It could be a man doing a cartwheel. Rather than ‘praise’ might not this represent ‘joy’? It’s impossible not to want to try to interpret/decode the symbol. The problem with that is that we’ll end up labelling each one and end up with a list of nouns.

The title is a help because it suggests a sequence, like dance steps:


and so I suppose this could represent various stages in a life without trying to do anything as generic and ‘profound’ as The Seven Ages of Man. Of course when we get to the second piece it’s harder to see the ‘man’ in them – the blobs look more like amoebae and so we have to think about the sequence more abstractly. It’s hard though not to look at the symbols and try to impose a logical sequence on them. In many respects the second one is better because unless you know where it came from you don’t automatically see the letters. Letters, even funny-looking letters like Cyrillic, are the building blocks of words in my head and words are containers for meaning.

I looked up ‘cartwheel’ to see what the Chinese character was and got this:


which, reading from right to left, says ‘turn’, ‘hand’ and ‘side’ which led me to think that this might not be nine steps but only three. At the end of the day I still feel very frustrated because I want to be right and I’m very uncomfortable with vagueness. Overtones I get and I’ve no problem with subtext but this still feels like

E = mc2

when I don’t know what E, m or c stand for.

So, let’s say this isn’t a shop. It’s a class. It’s Visual Poetry 101, Lesson 1. What are the key elements you’d want me to take away today?

Teacher would like you to grasp the concept of the materiality of language (words, letter, even fragments of letters), the shape and substance of text, and how that can be applied imaginatively to the poem.

Okay, what’s my homework assignment?

Your assignment is a simple one. Pick two or three letters and compose them into a shape or pattern that you think has some poetic merit.

Day Two

I actually lay awake last night unable to sleep for thinking about this. This is what I finally came up with:


My thinking is that it can be read a ‘fail’ or ‘fall’ although I’m not sure if it might work better in lower case. You can probably see what was on my mind. I was afraid I might fail the test, that I was too bound to meanings and words. The fall of man led to him failing to live up to God’s expectations and that led to the grave. That wasn’t what I was thinking about but I guess that’s another way of looking at it. Then there is the famous Beckett quote about failing better coupled with his view of life as that glimmer between birth and death. I think my real aim was to say something profound. I don’t write nearly as much poetry as many of my friends online because I feel that I need to say something meaningful for it to count and although this conversation with you is basically light-hearted I am still sincere in wanted to get concrete and visual poetry.

So how did I do?

I like it. I think upper case is stronger and I see what you are doing. I like it when the word can be read in different ways – in this case "fail" or "fall". That's a characteristic of pwoermding and this is a decent visual pwoermd. I see the depth (not least in the grave), but I also see dark humour. These things can be profound but I think levity is ok too – it can be joyous, free, playful. Your poem is quite Scottish; dare I say Calvinist without being offensive? Anyway, keep it up. Visually it's striking and I like the shadowy quality.

Looking at the tags on your site I can see examples of bracket poetry, found poetry, sound poetry, pwoermds, punctuation cut-ups, minimalist and concrete poems, dripglyphs and something new to me: asemic writing, but not a lot of stuff I recognise (as in visualise as oppose to acknowledge) as ‘real’ poetry, the odd haiku or haiga perhaps or even a prose poem. A cynic might say that much of the stuff looks as if little or no thought has gone into it and so it probably doesn’t deserve a great deal of time spent on it. For example this piece posted in 2008:


I see the words ‘neon’, ‘one’ and I suppose ‘eon’ and the prefix ‘neo’ at a push but my reading of this is ‘one neon’ and I think to myself: What does this mean? Can that be it? What am I supposed to feel reading this? What am I not bringing to the piece to make it work? and I wonder how long this took Stephen to write?

Or this one from 2010:


An onion has many layers and words have many layers. Is that it?

Where am I going wrong?

Ok, let me start by saying that I don’t think the length of time it takes to create a poem is in anyway indicative of its value. You know that. I’m interested in the tiniest moment of poetry. That moment when poetry sparks in the mind and dies. It can be the tiniest movement of mind that produces poetry, and it can only take an instant to create a poem. Added to this is my interest in poetry as a spontaneous flow of creative energy, rather than a labour intensive craft. Poetry starts in the body for me, not the brain. It rises from the base of the spine, grips the chest and flows up out of the mouth or into consciousness as language in long flowing waves, or little staccato breaks, or tiny little puffs of sound or language.

I also have to say at this point that the work on the blog is very different from the work I submit to magazines, or the work included in the Crashaw Prize collection. For one thing blogging is a community activity. Its poetry created in response to other blogging poets. Blog alongside blog. (I think the “neon” piece was written in response to a poem by Mike Cannell). Blogging represents one side of my poetic – visual, minimal, yes, but also spontaneous and instant, rather than considered or thought out. Also, it’s difficult to format poems on blogger so the textual poems I post are usually laid out simply. My magazine poems are generally more considered, more worked through, or the result of a particularly intense (even special) creative rush.

But let’s get to the “neon” poem. Again the physical substance of the poem has to be looked at. In particular the visual rhythm created by the repeated word without any breaks. “Neon” begins and ends with the letter “n”, and so repeated creates words within words (an interesting phenomenon in itself). For me it has a dazzling, beautiful effect on the eye. It lights up! It sparks! And one doesn’t quite know where to focus: on “one”, on “neon”, on “neo” – the words you mention? So let’s take the two main words and how they have that destabilising, disorienting, (hallucinogenic?) effect – “neon” and “one”. Light is a key element in my work. I believe light, in its subtle form, is the spiritual substance of being and consciousness. Neon light is particularly interesting to me because it is the light of the city, the light of excitement, thrill, nights out, dancers, diners, the whir of the city at night. That energy has a spiritual quality. It unsettles the ego, allows some form of supra/unitive consciousness to emerge. I remember nights out as youth with my friends. I lost that sense of everyday identity, became part of a group mind, a city mind. A disordering of the senses. Which brings me to the idea of non-duality. Ego breaks down and consciousness unites with the Other, the One. And so from the neon dazzle of city nightlife, the One emerges, universally, to anyone open to it, experiencing it, attuned to it. This happens in a concrete way in the poem.

The same can be said of the “onion” poem, where the “I” sits in the centre of the poem, surrounded by the word “on”, and the brackets compose layers in which the “I” is buried, or alternatively, waves of energy radiating out from the central source.

To be honest, it helps to have an understanding of my central concerns, my interests, and how other poems may impact upon each individual poem. But bear in mind that blogging textual poems is only a particular strand of my work. It explores the “immediate”.

I think what really gets me about a lot of this kind of poetry is that it doesn’t seem very deep. I can’t imagine, for example, when my mum died expressing my grief in a poem like this:


Can you think of an example of ‘profound’ minimal poetry?

The central concern of minimalism is language itself, how it works, how it mutates, how it can be played with. You probably won’t find many examples of emotional depth in this type of minimalism. But isn’t play one of the profoundest experiences of your life? Or rather, didn’t it used to be? Whatever happened to all the fun in the world? And isn’t language itself the thing that binds us all together from day to day? That seems pretty important to me. One of the main things about my prose poems in the Crashaw collection is how words or phrases form unconscious patterns in the mind. My own interest is in language as “the Word” or as an expression of unconscious energy and how this reforms at a conscious level. This breaks down into minimalist poetry at times and seems to have a certain depth that is other than mere emotional expression. Have a look at my chapbook Flylyght[*], available at the blog or from the Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press. Isn’t it funny how the word only represents the object. It isn’t the object. You can’t really say what the object is in essence. You can only represent it. Therefore the word, like the object, is subject to change. It is impermanent. Why not use that quality and play around with it a little?

In 2009 you posted a blog entry about Cythera by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a ring of standing stones situated near a busy road in your home town of Hamilton. The stones bear the following texts:



I was intrigued by what you wrote about your experience of them:

They are framed by the sky as every element of earth should be. When I look up at them I feel both solid and as light as a leaf in air. I feel the earth and I feel the sky. I feel rooted and I feel transcendent.

There are more which I may post at some later date. For now, these words are for me today. They exist for today. This day, as all days, I am of earth and heaven. I am both. When the balance is right, I exist centrally, solidly, softly. I have direction and belonging. I am of and I am to. Of and to. This is a blessing as words on stone are a blessing. Reaching from and to. For, of, in, up, to. Today, somedays, all daze.

You have clearly spent time with this piece. Is that what is needed with your own work?

I don’t think a lot of time is needed to appreciate the work, just a familiarity with the forms and an understanding of what’s going on. Although having said that, the idea of meditating for a time on a single word or image is important to my understanding of how to gain a peace-filled mind. That involves allowing the mind to simply rest in a chosen word.

Tell me a bit about your submission for the Crashaw Prize. Reading between the lines it sounds like you’ve submitted a few poems like this one:


Ma heid's fu ae letters
waukin through this park
the skirl ae the pipes
washin it clean so's
the letters fly up tae the sky
blue sky poems curlin
at the edges fur the
glories ae the nation.

Again not a poem I imagine the mainstream would jump at.

Not really. Again, this is more a case of a poem coming to me quickly in a given situation and getting it down and out there almost immediately. It has a superficial similarity to some of the Crashaw poems and is indicative of some of the dialect writing in the collection, but there are a variety of styles and forms in the book which I wouldn’t publish on the blog. Perhaps because these involve more of a shaping of creative energy, or more time spent in allowing the creative energy to flow, or perhaps because they involve a poetic style which I feel just isn’t suitable for the blog. In any case there are a variety of styles in the book bound together by ideas of awakening, unfolding, consciousness, experience, discovery. More than that I shall not say in case I jinx it. Well, other than there are only one or two poems in the collection which you’ll find on the blog.

Apart from your own work whose sites would you recommend newbie visual/minimal poets to investigate?

Geof Huth’s blog is essential reading for anyone interested in visual/minimalist poetry. In terms of great practitioners, Geof’s one. Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimalist Poems is a must, as is the site which hosts Robert Grenier’s box set of minimalism, Sentences. There is an abundance of visual poets on the web these days, most of whom are creating work which far outstrips my own. Some of them work with a far greater visual component than I do. Let me name just a few: Satu Kaikkonen, Andrew Topel, Nico Vassilakis, Matina Stamatakis, Marton Koppany, Scott Helmes. Look out too for mIEKAL aND and Endwar, a great minimalist, if that isn’t a contradiction. I could go on deep into the night. If you look, you’ll find them, and it’s a wonderful discovery.

Your bio says:

Stephen Nelson was born in Motherwell, Scotland in 1970, to the King of Belgium and his wife, a member of the Swedish Royal Family. He was educated in a monastery in Bhutan where he quickly learned the simultaneous arts of telepathy and levitation. He gave it all up for poetry however, and now practices visual poetry, minimalism and freeform songs.

I assume I can take that with a pinch of salt?

Just a pinch. Don’t you get bored of all these bios listing publishing credits? Seems to me that’s all about making a name for yourself. Let’s have a little fun!


I have to say I’m very grateful to Stephen for the work he put into this. I still don’t think I’m going to make any radical changes in my approach to poetry – a bit too long in the tooth – but you never know. I think I’m pleased enough with ‘fail/fall’ to stick it in my big red folder, give it a number and count it as one of my ‘real’ poems. What do you think?

You can read more of Stephen’s poetry on his site afterlights. He also has a couple of e-books uploaded to Scribd: The Ocean Refuses No River and Life and half-a-dozen at Issuu.

You might also find my earlier post ‘Less is more’ (parts one and two) of interest.

[*] You can read a review of Flylyght here.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I love this work. It is so rich. I agree that fail / fall should go in the big red folder.

awyn said...

It's interesting, people's different approach to poetry (you mentioned looking for profundity, meaning, does it have the "ah" factor). I like some, but not most, vizpo, which seems more viz than po to me (ditto for langpo: more lang than po). Liked your FA/L po though, which on first glance however, I saw neither as fail or fall but fa'l (and the words "if all" came to mind. A follow-up post maybe: How to Read Poetry 101! Very informative (and enjoyable) post. Thanks!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I learned something new today. I’m still not sure I get it (it can take me a while to process some things), but I found the post fascinating.

Art Durkee said...

I've got several classic book collections of concrete poetry, which I've always liked. I like the visual component to the poems here.

But I have to say, where it verges on the Language Poetry terrain I lose interest rapidly. I completely disagree with the idea, as I'm sure you know, that words are so privileged, so reified that they have their own existence, even outside the context of meaning and so forth. And it's good to hear a poet who works with this stuff admit that it often lacks emotional depth—which is precisely my problem with it. All surface, no emotional resonance.

But it's entertaining. And fun to look at.

Jim Murdoch said...

Okay, Koe, I guess it’s going in the big red folder.

My wife was the same, Annie. She didn’t really get where the ‘fall’ came into it. Nor did she realise that it was an open grave either until I pointed it out. I get the feeling that with this kind of poetry we have to ask, “Now what more could there be?” It’s like Stephen’s ‘onion’ poem – I thought I’d hit the nail on the head but there was more. But neither that nor my poem are really visual poems not like the two examples Stephen provided and I’m a long way away from being able to (or even wanting to) express myself that way.

Me too, Jane. I’ve persisted with Stephen’s poetry because I was hoping that one day it might all fall into place. Knowing a bit more about him helps but I also think that throws up flaws in the pieces, that you need additional information to really get the pieces. You don’t need to know about my experiences and views on truth to get my poems on truth – it’s just a word in a poem for you to interpret as you see fit but hopefully guided by the context.

And, Art, I think this really hits at the heart of why I struggle with this kind of poetry. There’s only so much you can do with it. I like my poetry to make people think and you can do it with only a word or two if it’s the right word or two. I always liked E E Cummings’ tiny poem about a falling leaf and wanted to do something similar just for the heck of it. This is what I came up with:





Is this ‘better’ than the ‘fail/fall’ poem? I don’t know. Both please me for much the same reasons, they do what all good poetry should do, wring every scrap of meaning from the words contained therein and then make something from the dry husk that’s left.

Stephen Nelson said...


I tried to resist getting drawn into the discussion at this stage - no self control, I'm afraid.

While I said it helps to know a little about my concerns when trying to understand the poems, I don't think it's necessary. It seems to me that a bracketed "i" is a self-evident indicator of Self and that an onion is, if anything, a rather too obvious image of the Self or the World wrapped in multiple layers. Besides, I don't for one minute imagine that this is the only way to interpret the poem. The same could be said about the "neon" poem. (BTW - did you notice the word "oneon" in that poem?)

Perhaps, the onion poem suggests languages attempt to convey the essential experience of onionness, I don't know.

It may help to undestand the language of concrete poetry, but again, I don't think that's essential. I've always found the use of brackets interesting and the concrete nature of punctuation is a fertile ground for this kind of poetry.

Besides all that, I also said, I think, that other poems give each individual poem context. One can imagine for example an obscure poem in a book length collection being illuminated by the context of the volume. I think the blog works like that. Also, the fact that I headed the blog with the title "Afterlights", and subtitled it "art and spirituality" goes a long way to providing context. But as I said, I don't think this is necessary in the examples you picked.

At any rate, perhaps they are only minor poems in the genre. Fundamentally, I just really, really like how they look.


You use the word "admit" as if the lack of emotion was a guilty secret. Most concrete and language poets would I hope be quite secure in the type of poetry they are writing. It appeals to a certain turn of mind, has, I think, an intellectual playfulness that goes beyond emotionalism.

Also, it's perhaps ironic that you imply that emotion is what gives poetry substance when emotion itself is the most empty and fleeting of human experiences - just ask the Buddhists. Emotions pass into air like vapour but language persists, the Word persists, albeit changing, evolving, mutating, but with a degree of continuity that I would suggest is pretty substantial. I'm not against emotional poetry in any way, just the idea that it's the only way to write poetry. I find poetry in the existence of things, the isness of things around me, and I think concrete poetry is a good way of expressing that.

I may have to stop following the comments here, Jim, but as I say, no self control. And I'm happy people are offering divergent opinions.

Jim Murdoch said...

I actually think we might have spent a bit more time over this ‘conversation’ Stephen because there are clearly things we could have discussed further and maybe will if we ever run into each other in the real world. As I’ve said before I don’t like not getting things or not playing by the rules. I feel with most of the poetry that you present on your blog that I need instructions to read them right. When I look at some of your pieces I feel like I’m missing something. It would be like watching a 3D film without 3D glasses on and going, “You know there are a lot of people wearing glasses in this cinema.”

I can look at a cloud and see a shape and I can look at a poem – your ‘neon’ poem for example – and see ‘oneon’ but what have onions got to do with neons? My mind desperately wants to connect these and, of course, you can connect anything with a bit of effort – the ol’ Six Stages of Separation mentality. When I looked at the ‘onion’ poem I seriously didn’t see the ‘I’ at its centre and register it as significant. I went down the onion = word <> words are like onions route which, as you say, is not wrong.

The subtitle on your website is all fine and good but that doesn’t accompany your poems when they go on their travels, like the one on the Salt site, and so it does have to stand and fall on its own merits especially in a place like that where we’re being introduced to you for the first time. But what if I read a poem by Geof Huth? What’s his sub/context? Do I need to learn new ‘rules’ for every new poet?

The reason I wanted to do this is I think that every now and then it’s helpful to explain ourselves. We shouldn’t have to but it’s a kindness to newbie poets to lay it on the line. I happily explain why I structure my poems the way I do. I don’t say that how all poems have to be done but this is what I do and this is why I do it. I wanted to know why you did it. Now I have some idea but we could have talked for hours and hours but a blog post – even a lengthy one like mine – can only cope with so much.

Stephen Nelson said...

Absolutely, Jim. We have so much more to discuss and perhaps we should meet up, we can't be that far apart geographically. And I really appreciate your earnest attempt to get all this.

With the "neon" poem, where "neon" becomes "oneon" (a pun on onion and hence synchronous with the other small poem you picked), or indeed "one on" and its suggestion of "one on one", the mutability of the language becomes the real subject, which may not be substantial enough for some minds but is interesting enough for mine, especially when I relate it to metaphysical concerns over the evolution of Word or Consciousness or Mind, as I tend to do with everything.

With these minimalist poems, the tiniest detail has often the greatest significance, hence the importance of "(i)" to some readings of the onion poem.

Of course I take your point about taking a poem out of context in order to introduce a poet, but I don't think poets should see themselves in that way. If they are serious about or just truly engaged with their "work", then continuity and context of poem against poem are all important, which I suppose is why we evaluate poets based on the volumes they bring out. Perhaps we can do the same with blogs. Things like the Salt site or even the poems quoted here only offer a flavour and don't really do justice to the "poetry" of the poet. I'm not convinced about the whole magazine thing we have going to judge individual or groups of poems, but it's just the way it is.

(I'm putting a lot of words in quotation marks here).

If you have time to meet at some point, I would be more than happy. I'll buy you a non-virtual, latter day latte any day of the week (except Thursday, that's my washing day lol).

Stephen Nelson said...

PS - I'm sure you're right that a poem has to stand on its own merits, but somehow I can't help seeing an individual poem in the frame of a bigger picture. (A poet's life?) Maybe that's a form of poetic hybris.

Stephen Nelson said...

PPS - In the spirit of trying to help you get all this, let me say that if meaning is changeable, as it most certainly is, then the importance of language lies somewhere beyond meaning. You can't think too literally about these poems. Words don't necessarily connect logically, but work as mutating forms, visually and sonically, creating a sense of language changing, evolving, which again relates to my interest in consciousness evolving to states of pure awareness or pure relationship beyond what appears logical, where existence itself is seen as impermanent but somehow anchored in an all embracing Other. I shall stop now. I'm probably labouring the point.

Art Durkee said...

Stephen, I recognize that this sort of poetry does speak best to a certain kind of mind, or rather mindset, or psychology. I have been engaged with Silliman and other of the LangPoets for quite some time, have dialogued with some of them about poetic issues, and I certainly recognize that the certain kind of mind that likes this kind of poetry is also the kind of intellect that likes puzzle-poems, intellectual games, and related kinds of intellect-based exercises. I'm not exactly unfamiliar with the attitudes, aspects, or manifestos involved—including vispo's. Silliman has promoted the work of some of the vispoets you already mentioned, for example, as well as others.

So sorry if anything I said implied a guilty secret—what I meant is that it was refreshing to hear an honest assessment about this kind of poetry, since some other word-play poets DO make claims for an emotional resonance that are usually pretty unconvincing. Several of the LangPoets, for example, make claims for emotional content that are hard to track. Of course, in some cases, their definition of "emotion" is probably an intellectual definition to begin with—as though emotions were just part of the mind.

Does intellectual playfulness REALLY go beyond emotionalism? That statement implies the same kind of value judgment you attributed to me, regarding the word "admit." Say, rather, that a certain kind of psychology, which values intellect over all other aspects of mind, might be drawn to a poetry which does the same. This is also the same kind of pro-intellect psychology that often denigrates "emotionalism." As though there was something wrong with emotions. As a value-judgment, that's a bit sterile. At root it's basically an anti-Romantic position, which ignores the truth that Romanticism doesn't own emotional expression in poetry; there are, after all, other kinds of poetry that effectively express human emotional experience than Romanticism, or the lyric. There are the vatic and epic modes, after all.


Art Durkee said...


As for emotion, I meant to use the word "duende," which is a soul-word, not an emotion word. My intention, and sorry for not being clear enough, was to point out that emotion is a part of human experience, too. I find poetry that refuses to include it incompletely human. If you went back and read Lorca's essays on the duende, you'd see that he was talking about deep soul experience, not merely ephemeral emotions.

As for Buddhism, having practiced Zen for some 30 or so years now, I am very aware of the ephemerality and illusory nature of human consciousness, including emotion. Zen practice is really, really good for learning self-control, and self-discipline.

But using Buddhism to claim that emotion in poetry is the airy substance of nothing just doesn't hold water. Since after all, poetry itself is airy nothing—words are the finger pointing at the moon, they are not the moon. Words in concrete poetry become objectified, reified, made into objects—but if emotions are airy nothing, words are even more so.

Language persists longer than emotions? Really? I suppose, from a purely archaeological standpoint, that's true. But don't tell me that the ancient Sumerian texts, from Gilgamesh to Innana, don't contain any emotional resonance anymore, that somehow their words outlasted the emotion—what makes them great literature is that they still have the capacity to convey to us deep human experience of love, suffering, redemption, and acceptance.

What DEFINES great poetry is its ability to connect and sustain human connection, human experience, across time, across cultures, across many kinds of distance.

Emotions are like the weather: they come, they go. But in Tibetan Buddhism, which showcases some of the most advanced psychological systemic thinking available, not a single teacher would claim that emotions don't exist. We experience them, therefore of course they exist.

I never said there was only one way to write poetry. I completely agree that diversity and variety are healthy, even essential. I would never tell any poet what to write. I reserve the right to give an honest response, though.

Jim Murdoch said...

We really should have taken a bit more time on this I can now see, Stephen. Happy to meet up for a coffee sometime. Glasgow would be the most obvious place since I live about as far in the opposite direction to it as you do. Art has expressed some of the concerns I also have but words don’t contain emotions, they merely evoke them and a simple one word poem based on ‘Mum’ will affect everyone differently based on the individual’s relationship with their mother. The whole Buddhism thing loses me but I openly admit to being spiritually deficient in the extreme and have abandoned completely trying to light a fire under that aspect of myself: intellect and emotion are quite enough for me and although I lean heavily towards meaning as far as poetry goes the two always have come together for me which is why word puzzles leave me a bit cold – I can’t seem to infuse them with enough emotion. As regards words not necessarily connecting logically, yes, I get the idea of forcing a connection. I’m probably not very good at it and maybe I need to stretch my own poetry a little in that direction; I am a bit shackled to the pillar of reason.

Stephen Nelson said...

Thanks for these replies. As I hurry out another response, I know my mind will be engaged all day and I'm not sure if it's best to leave the discussion for the time being.

I appreciate your response, Art. Your knowledge of Buddhism exceeds my own and of course you're right about the fleeting nature of words and so much more. But what about "the Word", logos, which seems to me to hold all this together, and how does logos relate to language?

I was aware that I may have implied some sort of value judgement in my use of the word beyond. I should have corrected that. I certainly didn't mean to denigrate emotion in any way, merely to counter your claim that this poetry was mainly superficial, lacked substance, when the same could be said for emotion-based poetry. If my argument for that didn't hold water, put it down to an all too hasty response. I tend to react, then think things through. My bad. Still, I feel concrete poetry has substance at least besides emotion based poetry. Why should a poetry which explores one side of our humanity be of less worth than that exploring another. That seems more pretty much a value judgement to me. My relationship to concrete poetry is pretty much intuitive, and therefore has a great deal of weight to me. Their are probably greater proponents of the form but I really want to be expansive and inclusive in what I consider poetry.

We should talk more about Buddhism, Art, but for now, thank you.

Jim, I'll be in touch.

Dave King said...

Like Stephen, I, too, tried to resist being drawn in to this. Initially, at any rate. I soon discovered that I didn't want to resist. I haven't understood it all, but am planning to come back for another session at a later date. You've come up with some fascinating blogs in the time I've been visiting you, Jim, but ne'er a one more so than this!

Jim Murdoch said...

I think one of the main reason we all read, Dave, it to try to see the world for a bit through the eyes of another person. It’s like couples. You look at any two people walking down the street and you have to wonder what he saw in her and what she saw in him. I know that writers like Stephen are intelligent men and yet they produce the strangest things and call them poems. Clearly beauty is in the eye of the beholder and no one is forcing me to read these things but I’m awfully curious. What do these people see in these patterns that I’m not seeing?

I’m the same with music as I’ve said. I have a number of albums by the likes of Stockhausen and Cage and every now and then when the mood strikes me I’ll put one on and try to connect with the music. To my mind the whole point of any piece of music is that it should open itself up purely on the basis of listening to it. I don’t need to know if the composer has used the I Ching in the creation of it or whether it’s atonal or serial. All I want to do is stick on the damn CD and enjoy it.

And I feel much the same about the written word. And so I have Stephen’s blog in my feedreader and every few days I come face to face with one of his efforts and I look at it and try to resist the urge to go, “Eh?” I think part of my problem is that I’m not really a very visual person. I love art, love it to bits, but I don’t feel the urge to express myself visually. I have painted but they’re really intellectual exercises – they lack soul. But I’m glad that you’ve connected with Stephen which is what I was hoping for, that he might find one or two more suitable readers who actually might pass a comment or two on what he does.

Art Durkee said...

I completely support the idea that concrete poetry has as much substance to it as "emotion-based" poetry—although calling it "emotion-based" shows that intellectual bias once again. I strongly agree with Jim that words don't contain emotion, they EVOKE it.

For me, the whole purpose of a poem is to evoke, or create, or re-create an experience in the reader. There are lots of ways to do that, including concrete poetry, and lots of experiences to evoke or re-create.

I find that poetry that connects with me most often, most directly, is poetry that includes lots of human experience in it, including the dark side as well as the light side. I don't always connect with Jim's poetry (sorry, man), and he doesn't always connect with mine. But I have yet to read a Robinson Jeffers poem, or a Gary Snyder poem, that I don't feel some connection with. They somehow manage to make me have an experience, in my own self, when I read the poem.

For another example, Jean Valentine, who is actually beloved of some the LangPoets for her technical prowess, almost always manages to create or evoke an experience in me, from her poems, no matter how strange or difficult they are. There's some sort of usage of words in her poems that triggers the soul as well as the brain.

Triggering the soul as well as the brain is what I prefer. I grant that this is my preference, just as I agree that concrete poetry is a valid mode for poetry. But they do different things.

I don't have the time to get into a discussion of Logos at the moment, so I'll have to come back to that.

Just briefly, though, the Greek philosophical term "logos" ought not to be reified as "the Word"—which sounds more Biblical than Classical—since logos is often used in ancient Greek philosophy primarily in relationship to other terms, such as technos. In other words, logos is usually part of a philosophical dyad, not a stand alone complex.

Logos relates to language in the same way that technos relates tool-using. They are in some sense Platonic ideals, higher-level categories that lurk behind manifestation while not being manifest themselves. Again, I resist reifying logos into a solid object, although it can certainly leave real experience in its wake.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "Language is fossil poetry."

Kass said...

I really enjoy being introduced to something I had no idea existed. I feel my neurons exploding a tiny bit. Very intriguing stuff here.

I really liked your efforts in this realm.

When you think of how our letters are constructed: straight lines and rounded ones, it may make sense that everything in the universe is about structure. A concept is a structure in the brain; an idea gets worked out on paper with the structure of shaped letters into words, and ultimately into worlds - the stuff of the universe.

All that said, I still wish the Emperor would put on a few clothes.

McGuire said...

Excellent post. I know of Stephen, I have him linked in my blog. I also was baffled by a lot of the concrete poems. This opened the door of understanding.

I often toyed with the idea of asking Stephen to make a conrete poem for myself. I still might. I might just try some myself actually. I think your 'fail' 'fall' poem is quality. Keep it.

What programme did you use to make it?

I'll post my efforts in the distant future.

Speak soon,
my Sun
your moon.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Kass, never far from my mind when it comes to the avant-garde. The more something has to be explained the less convinced I am that it is art. Of course the explanations here are for the benefit of educating people – I wouldn’t expect Stephen’s work to come with a how-to-read set of instructions but then again, why not? There is no such a thing as a generic ‘poem’ – once you’ve read and understood one you can understand all of them: a poem is not bike and even those of us who’ve learned how to ride a bike would struggle with a monocycle.

And, McGuire, I used nothing fancier than Microsoft Paint. They have an option that lets you skew a shape and so I selected the letter ‘I’ and twisted it until it was grave-shaped and then added in the grey line by hand. I spent far more time thinking about it than I did in creating it. I look forward to seeing your efforts. I know a lot of people approach this kind of expression as “a bit of fun” but I was very keen not to do that. The question I wanted answering right from the beginning was whether this kind of poetry can be … “profound” is the word I’ve been using and I think I managed that. I’m certainly not displeased with my effort.

Ash said...

Wow, this was all completely new and fascinating to me! Being an artist and having played with letters in collages in my art, it could be something to play with further in a new light.

Conda Douglas said...

I have a great and passionate love of concrete poetry and you have some wonderful ones here.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s an interesting point, Ash, when is it poetry and when is it art? Or is that important? On the whole I do find myself struggling less with art that incorporates letters or words than I do with visual poetry. It’s all semantics of course. I suspect it’s because of how I think about poetry and what I expect from poetry. Art can get by looking pretty in my head. But I feel a bit cheated with a poem that I can’t get something more than that from.

And, Conda, now why am I surprised to hear that? Care to expand?

Dave King said...

Your response resonated very strongly with me as I have been trying - as I do from time to time - to connect more firmly with the poetry of W.S.Graham. On one level I can and do, but I just know there are other connections there with which I haven't yet made contact.

Meanwhile, I've looked at Stephen Nelson again and found all my original responses to his work - intrigue, mystification, attraction, visceral enjoyment - alive, but more so.

Jim Murdoch said...

It's unreasonable to imagine, Dave, that we are going to love every kind of poetry just because we write the stuff ourselves and the majority of poetry I read I fail to connect with. It's not a matter of skill - the poets in question are often highly regarded and able practitioners of their craft - it's a matter of taste and there are a lot of things that I didn't like when I was a kid that I have acquired a taste for as an adult. But there are still some things that I can only take in small doses. Visual poetry is one of those things. I've never developed a taste for it in the same way I've never developed a taste for wine. My wife drinks wine on a regular basis and I occasionally take a sip and every single last one of them tastes exactly the same to me: awful. If it mattered to me I suppose I could persist, go to wine tastings, but it really isn't important to me. All I need to know is what Carrie likes which I do. But I care more about all things poetic which is why I keep plugging away at things like visual poetry - I've just written a long post on flarf - because I think I might be able to learn from exposure to different kinds of poetry. But then there are those poets whose work just clicks and I don't need to work at it at all and I'm glad that Stephen's work has had that kind of effect on you. If he gets one more 'fan' out of all this then it's been worthwhile. Not that that was the sole reason for doing this.

Dave King said...

Sometimes I think it may be simply a matter of terminology. As some say, "yes it's interesting, but is it art?" I am sometimes inclined to think: Well yes, I can see something in that, but is it poetry? Sometimes it seems more like art, or even philosophy, but what will speak to us maybe a matter of the way our brains are wired.

Art Durkee said...

Dave, whether it's art or poetry, maybe the problem is that it seems to need to be explained. Does it speak to us, directly, without having to be explained?

One of the issues with the postmodern in art is that it's very heavily theory-bound, and often tends to require an explanation or manual or footnotes. For me, an artwork or poem that needs footnotes or explanatory texts is likely to fail, for me, precisely because it needs to be explained. Explanations pull one back into the intellect—which is where a lot of postmodern art arises, and never leaves—and out of the direct aesthetic experience.

So while I can look at a piece of concrete poetry and enjoy the visual pun, maybe even enjoy the intellectual game theory behind it, I don't find it lingers long in my memory.

So maybe it IS all philosophy. But I don't particularly care if art is philosophical, or tries to be, because that pulls me again out of the aesthetic into the intellectual. When I stand in front of a Monet painting, I enjoy the silence that the aesthetic appreciation brings up in me; it doesn't make me stand there and THINK about why I like the painting. I just like it.

Jim Murdoch said...

The problem with definitions, Dave, is that they are a) restrictive and b) open to interpretation. There’s hardly a word in the dictionary that only has one meaning and one meaning alone and some words like ‘art’ and ‘poetry’ embrace such a huge range of media and forms of expression that we’re never ever going to agree again on what they mean. I tend to call myself a writer these days because that’s what I do. And I use words in whatever way feels right to express what I have to say, sometimes it looks like poetry, sometimes like prose and occasionally I’ve been known to write nothing but dialogue. The bottom line is whether the text has the desired effect not whether I’ve managed to fit what I had to say into a predetermined whatever.

This is where I find myself agreeing with you, Art, although I can also see where Stephen is coming from. The more you know about any artist the more likely you are to get their work. Read a biography of Beckett and suddenly you start to see the biographical in his work but you shouldn’t need that information to understand what he’s saying and, if anything, being aware of where the idea came from originally can have the very opposite effect and confuse the reader. But there’s nothing I hate more than someone talking about a work of art and explaining to me what a) I should be thinking when I look at it and b) what the artist intended when he created it. I believe very strongly that every work of art be it a ballet or a urinal with the name ‘R Mutt’ written on it should present itself purely on its own merits and be judged accordingly. That not everyone will get the same thing from a piece of art is part of the game.

Ping services