I was talking to my parents recently about some of the poetry I’ve written in the past few years. I mentioned how I’d developed a fascination with ways to integrate technology into poetic experimentation. I explained how much I enjoy Google search poems. I told them how I created a method of generating something akin to found poetry, using my smartphone’s auto-suggestion typing feature.
My mom responded to these poems with this: “Is playing with words poetry in and of itself?”
As always, she strikes straight to the heart of the matter. This isn’t a frivolous question. This is a stumbling block for many people—the poetry equivalent of seeing a work of modern art and thinking, “My four-year-old kid could paint that.” Anyone who’s serious about poetry should be able to answer this question.
“Is playing with words poetry in and of itself?”
Here’s my answer: Sometimes.
Poetry gives you freedom to play with form and structure, with language, with meaning, in ways that other kinds of writing don’t. It’s like artists experimenting with color and shape and texture, breaking the rules, contravening accepted practices, testing the limits of what art is and can do.
One of the goals of certain schools of poetry is to explore the limits of what language is and can do. To break language and meaning and structure in interesting ways. Sometimes to put it back together differently, sometimes to leave it broken. To force language into different shapes and spaces, to see what happens.
Found poetry, Google search poems, my auto-suggestion poetry—these are techniques to explore and play, techniques which invite a degree of chaos into the linguistic process, which is typically the exact opposite of what you want in your acts of language. The results might not always qualify as poems but the techniques are poetic tools.
I guess I would clarify the question: The purpose of these exercises isn’t to play with words but to play with structure.
It’s a picky difference but it’s meaningful for those who write these kinds of poems. We think of words as being the vehicles of meaning but changing the structure of a piece can change its meaning, even when the words stay the same. That’s the essence of found poetry, in particular. It’s transformational.
I created these two poems during National Poetry Writing Month in 2016. The goal of NaPoWriMo isn’t to write finished work but just to write. To explore and play. To find inspiration and practice craft. I enjoy how modern technology can be used in creative ways. I won’t say that my two poems are good—or anything close to a finished product—but they were interesting experiments. I could probably use them as jumping off points to craft works more robust and polished.
In my blog post for the auto-suggestion poem, I mention how it’s “Beckett-like.” I admire the theatrical works of Samuel Beckett because he played with language in powerful ways. He sought to break down language, sometimes leaving it broken, sometimes putting it back together strangely. One thing he did better than just about anyone else was to divorce language from meaning. You know how a word starts to sound like nonsense when you repeat it over and over and over and over? It’s still recognizable as a word but it stops meaning anything. Beckett used several techniques to generate similar effects with his theater pieces, the end result being paragraphs of words spoken with no meaning—or, at best, meaning deeply obscured and difficult to discern. Structurally and grammatically correct, but nonsensical. He wanted to know: What’s left of language when meaning is taken away?
This is one of the deepest questions for anyone who explores language, poet or no: What of language is essential and irrevocable?
Turns out: meaning is contingent and non-essential. Words can exist without their meanings. Language as a structure can exist without meaning. It’s ironic—the purpose of language is meaningful communication and yet meaning is something you can remove from it.
What you can’t remove is sound and rhythm and structure. These elements have power and effects all their own, ones which entirely bypass the logical meaning centers of our brains. This is why language and music have always lived hand-in-hand.
I think it’s not so much that we imbue language with meaning, as sound and rhythm and structure generate meaning—meaning arises from language.
Anyway, yes, poetry is sometimes intentionally nonsensical. It certainly doesn’t mean that all nonsense is poetry (although there are very smart and accomplished people who argue that all nonsense could be turned into poetry). It’s about intent, craft, result. Sometimes it’s extremely difficult to tell the them apart and sometimes it’s far more about the reader/listener than the writer (one person’s art…) It’s about perception.
I enjoy exploring the difference.