[FLASH – The poetry issue of The Sound will be posted here as a pdf on Monday, January 12.]
On Nonsense and Metaphor, by Philip Dacey
T.S. Elliot believed the modern inclination is for what he terms “melodious raving.” We tolerate poets, he said, who don’t know exactly what they are saying but manage to say well whatever it is they are saying, who sound good and sound well…
Nonsense is the vehicle of the unconscious. The unconscious is revolutionary. Leaping poetry and deep imagist poetry are nonsense poetry. Robert Bly: “There ought to be a National Crazy Day once a year when we could all act crazy and stop putting the burden of our craziness on other people, who get so much of it they wind up institutionalized.” Nonsense poetry is equivalent to cleaning up your own mess. Yeats’ Crazy Jane and Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer are eating their own grief…
Nonsense is an option at any point in the composition of a poem. It may or may not be exercised. It is a wrong turning that is a right turning.
Metaphor is nonsense. Nonsense is metaphor. “Nonsense as a critical activity is and is about change; is an aspect of and is about the ongoing nature of social process.” (Susan Stewart, Nonsense.) It constitutes a challenge to the established order that has become disordered by reason of its being established, an unresponsive institution. “You must change your life.” [the last line from Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo. Here are the first lines describing Apollo’s statue: ]
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low
gleams in all its power…
Rilke’s angels are agents of nonsense. Nonsense poetry is not coterminous with light verse. The disenfranchised gravitate to nonsense, instinctually. The lingo of subcultures is a retreat that is simultaneously the forging of a weapon for self-empowerment.
“…poetry is a game of chicken played with words instead of automobiles. The aim is to steer as close as possible to nonsense without hitting it.”
[excerpts from “In Praise of Nonsense,” published in Milkweed Chronicle: A Journal of Poetry and Graphics (Fall 1980).
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Philip Dacey, author of ten books of poetry as well as many chapbooks, lives in New York City. He earned a B.S. from St. Louis University in 1961, an M.A. from Stanford in 1967, and a M.F.A. in 1970 from the University of Iowa. Dacey served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria in the mid 1960s and has taught at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, Miles College, and Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. In 1985 Dacey was a distinguished poet in residence at Wichita State University. Awards include a Fulbright lectureship in creative writing in Yugoslavia (1988); two National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowships (1975, 1980); YM-YWHA’s Poetry Center Discovery Award (1974); three Pushcart Prizes for poetry (1977, 1982, 2001); first prizes for poems in Yankee, Poet and Critic, Prairie Schooner, and Kansas Quarterly, and many regional awards. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Esquire, The Nation, American Review, Paris Review. His books include The Deathbed Playboy (Eastern Washington U. Press,
1999), The Mystery of Max Schmitt: Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins (Turning Point, 2004), and The New York Postcard Sonnets: A Midwesterner Moves to Manhattan (Rain Mountain Press, 2007). He also co-edited, with David Jauss, the anthology: Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (Harper & Row, 1986).