Friday, March 30, 2007

Is Vagueness a Style?

I've been following with interest the discussions (now finished, I'm late) about the teaching of creative writing, and thinking in particular about Reginald's remark, and Joshua's and Kasey's response, that "vagueness is not a style."

At the risk of sounding like a creative writing student in one of Reginald's class-- (well, I once was)--I must say that I'm not at all sure that I can maintain--as he does-- a meaningful distinction between vagueness and ambiguity (two forms of abstraction, it seems to me), even if I can understand why one would want this kind of distinction.

There is vagueness that I dislike and vagueness that I like, vagueness, that is, which I find "meaningful," ripe with possibilities, experiences,"expressive," with room for thinking and feeling, that I sometimes might dub with the valorizing new critical term "ambiguity." While I find the Eliot quote about free verse, and, more generally, the inescapability of form, an important observation, I often feel that the way this kind of claim gets used, true as it may be in the long run, might encourage a kind of complacency as regards given forms and the urge to escape them (no doubt, this is far from Eliot's intention in the essay). Beckett may have ultimately found only another type of style instead of stylessness, but the fact that he tried "écrire sans style," in a second language, is important. Too often, the Eliot quote is used to discourage such attempts, rather than to describe their impossibility (which was his original intention, I think).

(Tone is, of course, everything here, as is keeping in mind that reader's concepts, teacher's concepts, writer's concepts, and critic's concepts, while full of overlap, don't always translate. They are different discourses, structured by different social relations, and in that each of these things might ask for different things from poetry).

But back to the original discussion: the difference between vagueness and ambiguity, two forms of abstraction that are, respectively, "discouraged" and "encouraged" by many people involved with poetry, lies in that verb "tried" that I used to describe Beckett This is where the distinction originates, in my view--in a pesky notion of authorial intention. However tattered my copy of On Grammatology or Philosophical Investigations, however many times I've read Barthes and Dickinson and Foucault and DeMan on notions of authorship, if I say that something is ambiguous I probably mean that the abstraction seems willed, intentional, purposeful, calculated, meant; vagueness, on the other hand, when it's used as a pejorative, will seem like an accident, a mistake. To the extent that "vagueness" is a style it is an intentional mistake, "kind of accidentally on purpose" as Walter Neff puts it in Double Indemnity (B-11). Am I agreeing with Reginald or not? I don't know. Perhaps I'm being "purposefully" vague, (er, ambiguous). Perhaps I just said that to get out of trouble, backloading intent. Personality as plug-in.

If vagueness is a style, and I think it is, isn't one of its names "John Ashbery?"Ashbery, that "mainstream unto himself" (as a friend has called him), whose advice to his own creative writing students, recorded in the poems from Houseboat Days, was as follows:

. . .Now one must
Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed
Dull-sounding ones.

Indeed, Ashbery's middle-period poems, from, say, Self-Portrait to A Wave often proceed from vagueness and emptiness toward a kind of specifity which they then evacuate in a final gesture of setting off again:

"The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths, if only for the sake
Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you
For other centers of communication, so that understanding
May begin, and in doing so be undone."

This intentional vagueness, which occasionally becomes (especially in Ashbery's imitators) a didactic, even moralizing vagueness, didn't start with Ashbery. It also goes by the name of Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens. Vagueness is what haunts Stevens dictum about the poem, that "it must be abstract." It is behind Stein's choice of a vocabulary no larger, often, than that of a third grader's, in order that she might reveal the structures of cognition, rhetoric and grammar that underlid and define the way that we talk and think and write. It is for love of vagueness that Stein turns from nouns; it is what makes her prefer words like "the" and "a" and "as."

As with Geoffrey's book, the choice of purposeful vagueness, flatness, abstraction might mean a refusal of the division of labor, of the law that says, "be specific! Do this thing and not that thing! Pick a historical field, a genre, a subject, a medium! Stay within the discourse! Ground yourself in your predecessors, in origins!" It might mean a refusal of these kinds of identities. Or, alternately, it could mean a submission to the laws of exchange and abstraction which wants our discourse as bland and fungible and interchangeable as possible, so that the speech of one group is abstract and contentless enough that it can be fitted to the speech of another, etc., etc.

So I run into a problem here. My descriptions--vagueness-- of what I value in a certain poet could equally be descriptions of what I detest in another--vagueness. Vagueness is both too vague and yet again not vague enough, and so I have to come back to tone, to relationality, placement, the fact that there may be very little inherent in a certain device that can make it aesthetically effective or ineffective. And I'm back, too, to notions of intention, which I can escape, probably, only by positing other kinds of agency: history, hegemony, the unconscious, power, discourse, language, etc.--all of the things that might speak through writing that is "purposefully vague." I'm not sure I can get away from these bewitchments, problematic as they may be. But what I can do is to keep reminding myself of the wish to perform these operations on texts.

Another example of effective vagueness, of the "new vague" (le flou nouveau?) and its refusal of specifity and specialization and identity, can be found in Juliana Spahr's Response (.PDF). Indeed, all of Spahr's books are lessons in the use and misuse of vagueness and the kinds of political and aesthetic knowledge they can deliver:

realism’s authenticities are not the question

the question [role of art in the State]

we know art is fundamental to the [New State] as is evidenced in village scenes,
majestic ancient views, masses and masses of [generic human figures]
marching in columns, swords coded as plowshares, image as spectacle

we know [name of city], [adjective], [name of major composer]
to recode [reduce] it: Linz, ambiguous, Wagner

we know a [name of major historical figure] calls, authentically, for a more total,
more radical war than we can even dream in the language of the avant


we know a commercial promises to reduce plaque more effectively in this same

but sometimes we exceed even our own expectations to surprise even ourselves

something encloses the impossible in a fable

an unreal world called real because it is so heavily metaphoric

we can’t keep our fingers of connection out of it
[from "Responding"]

I find this excerpt remarkably moving, as I find so much of Spahr's work, moving in the way that it seeks to uncover existing structures or systemic forces and find in them the kind of commonalities--destructive or constructive-- that they might allow.

Or, to use an example from a poet who plays a different role in the poetry world, one might think of Jorie Graham's use of the blank in The End of Beauty as a vagueness effect. No doubt, I'm missing numerous examples of effective or potent vagueness, but I'm sure you get my point.


I say all this while fully accepting, not so needless to say, the claims of specificity in poetry, of the material, the concrete, and its ability to resist the liquidation of the senses, the attentionlessness that seems to be, at least speaking for myself, the fate of my more and more mediated and virtual and bloggy life. I don't think I write good vague, and I wouldn't be surprised if I never manage to do so. There are other kinds of poetry out there.

Reginald's poetry, especially his new book Fata Morgana, is certainly concerned with making worlds from concrete colors and textures and details, concerned with preserving specifics against their misuse. But it also displays a tricky and ambivalent relationship to the vague, to the terrain vague in which the fata morgana of the title throws up its apparitions and mirages. At the risk of overworking the above formulations, I'm curious about the book's persistent attraction to spaces of openness, plainness and emptiness (spaces of, dare I say, vagueness?). This is pretty much, as it seems to me, the scene of writing here--a generative expanse, often described as a visual field, which seems to reinforce the incompleteness of the speaker, driven out of himself by lack and desire. One of the other names, too, for lack, in this book, is the gods, figures it seems for the world's disenchantment, its exposure:

But the Sahara isn't all sand
bare-scrubbed plains, barren
soil, thorn, broken stone,
gravel shimmering ocher and dun

Dunes the color of honey, wind sculpted
ruffles and flutes, a knife edge to leeward,
a hundred feet high
Tied dunes, echo dunes, barchans, seifs
parabolic blowout dunes, tranverse dunes, sigmoidal
dunes, sand seas' shifting shapes
(quartz ground fine as flour, powdered sugar)

["My Desert"]


Distance is money just out of reach,
a kindness like rain-laden clouds
that never drops its coins. Epochs
of fossilized trees crawl rusting hillside
strata: they smell like somewhere else
I've never been, an Anatolia
just outside the mind. Geometries
of travel and desire (from here to want
and back again), the myths of pleasure
reinvent another ancient world: oiled boys
racing naked around the circular walls
of Troy to find out who will wear
the plaited wreath, parade painted circuits
of unburnt parapets waving
to the crowds.

("Homeric Interim")

Vague space is what allows, it seems, for virtuousic reflection, meditation, for gorgeous spills and tumbles of detail. It's important to note, of course, that the poems are only vague at one level of their content, vague at the level of referent, but hyperspecific at the level of the sign. In this, they are the opposite of, say, Spahr's poems.

If there is anything that's vague at the level of the writing in Reginald's book it is probably the curious and charming presence--as a kind of internal voice, sometimes allegorized as "song"--of pop lyrics, whose cliches seem to push the poem forward to some kind of specifying concretion:

Song keeps repeating

shit where you eat, don't shit
where you eat. The day
begins with burning, then remembers
to wake up: sweetbitter resins,
pollens, dripping cum smells
flower, white. Highway's haunted
by rememberd men and boys, no light
but passing pickup trucks.

("At Weep")

What am I getting at here? Well, I suppose I'm trying to imply that form solidifying from a vague content, and vagueness deforming specific content, are in tension across these different poems by very different poets. Each strategy might need the other as a precondition, as the material or scene for its own work.


Reginald Shepherd said...

Hi Jasper,

Thanks again for writing about my book. I thought that I would post some of the things that I emailed you here, so that the post would have at least one comment. Is that like voting for onself on American Idol (which I've actually never seen, though thanks to media saturation I know all abou it)?

The book sounds so interesting and ambitious when you talk about it. I especially liked your discussion of spaces of vacancy the poems point toward if not venture out into, and of the gods as figures of what the speaker lacks. Desire and lack are of course synonymous (desire is a lack), as in Herbert's poem in which he goes into the tavern and the barkeep asks what he lacks, that is, what he wants.

I'm also interested in your description of the gods' function as figures of disenchantment--the dissipation of the fata morgana in the harsh light of noon? I'm not sure, though, that I fully understand it. In my reading, the gods are figures of illusion, of false promises and false demands, something to be overcome but also something both seductive and insistent (not always in a friendly way). But what do I know?

I like the idea of the terrain vague, the world as a kind of blank but cluttered expanse into which I venture out not having any direction, or thinking I have none (direction can be a trap as well). That expanse is also, in part, the blankness of the page or the screen, Mallarme's terror of the blank page.

As for vagueness, I would define it as a failure of precision, which is why to me it can't be a (successful) style. Whether or not a word or group of words pictures something, conjures up a sensory image, it should be specific in its sense, particular and well-defined if not always concrete, as in the best, most rigorously thought-through philosophy (which isn't a lot of philosophy, from what I've seen). In my post "Picture This: On the Concept of Imagery in Poetry," I wrote about my idea of the image-phrase, a kind of abstraction of the image that conjures up the visual without attempting to paint a picture (since we know that words can't do that--they don't resemble objects). That seems to me to correspond to your idea of a precise vagueness.

The idea of vagueness at the level of the referent but hyper-specificity at the level of the sign is very suggestive, and is exactly what I'm often aiming for. (I have different aims in different poems.) But I would perhaps prefer the word "indeterminacy" to "vagueness," though that may just be a matter of semantics. But isn't semantics what language as communication or expression is all about? Language is, of course, other things too.

I would like my poems to be made up of materials whose shapes are clear, but whose relationship to one another isn't always specified: clear on the explicative level but not always to be pinned down on the interpretive level. But I very much aim at clarity of the materials: I want what's said to be clear, even if what it "means" is up for grabs.

The Ashbery about whom you write is the Ashbery (there are several Ashberys) that doesn't appeal to me. I like to focus on the important words and keep the low-keyed dull sounding ones to a minimum. Load every rift with ore, and all that. Perhaps I'm just too old-fashioned.

Thanks again for your eloquent and incisive comments.

all best,


JforJames said...

The Italian poet Leopardi believed vagueness was essential characteristic of poetry, allowing the mind to "wander in the realm of the vague and indeterminate, in the realm of those childlike ideas which are born out of the ignorance of the whole."

See G. Singh's lovely study of Leopardi and the Theory of Poetry..."It is because the poet is attracted to the vague and indefinite, more than what is clear, concrete, and precise, that his language, even when it does not contain a full-fledged image or simile or metaphor, does to a certain extent partake of the character of an image or a symbol, both saying and suggesting something much more than what it commonly would outside of poetry."

Jim Finnegan

JforJames said...

The Italian poet Leopardi believed that vagueness was an essential characteristic of poetry, allowing the mind to "wander in the realm of the vague and indeterminate, in the realm of those childlike ideas which are born out of the ignorance of the whole.”

See G. Singh’s wonderful book, Leopardi and the Theory of Poetry. Singh writes: “It is because the poet is attracted to what is vague and indefinite, more than what is clear, concrete, and precise, that his language, even when it does not contain a full-fledged image or simile or metaphor, does to a certain extent partake of the character of an image or a symbol, both saying and suggesting something much more than what it commonly would outside of poetry.”