"May I ask how language can listen to itself?"
--- Matthew W. Schmeer
Ok, I will tell you. Implicit in Eshleman’s observation is the idea that language has a living dynamic. It has a pulse, it has a biology, it has texture and skin. Tang, temper, tongue. It has, most importantly, a certain autonomy. Poets who respond to the inherent autonomy of words - words in collision, collusion, or tumbling colluvium - write great poetry. Great because they are not so pompous and ridiculous as to trump it up with their silly plumage. Great because they have discovered the genius of language and have learned how to nourish rather than tame and control it. To create a compact, jewel-encrusted Tiffany prose poem you can show off to your friends or use to win prizes and grants is fine. But it isn’t really poetry. Because poetry, whether it is a free verse howl, cyclonic pantoum, nuclear sonnet or double-barreled sporophyll disguised as a prose poem, has this one quality about it: it is alive. It spits, sputters, spins. It ambles forward angry and confused chased by frightened villagers. It breaches in the ocean a thunderous hulk white and marvelous. It squawks and sprouts and spurts. It roars. It stomps through Tokyo. It wings its way over Manhattan casting dark shadows. It glides on a pond preening its neck. It knocks its beak against the skull of the reader. Those who can hear the life in the egg of a word and have the minds to warm and incubate it until it breaks from its shell and assumes flight in the imagination are responding in the truest way possible to the polymers of a language self-replicating itself in surprising, unpredictable patterns. The very language underlying all life, DNA, would still be a stinking pool of amino acids if it did not develop a capacity to listen to itself.
... and if language, like life or DNA, did not take risks, did not mutate into new forms, there would be no evolution, but only stagnation. I can only agree with Eshleman and Baus in that the problem with Schmeer’s review is that he is criticizing Olson in the context of the species known as the prose poem. He is racing a platypus (Olson) against a cheetah (which may be the fastest land animal, but is dangling at the end of its genetic rope). Not only is it irrelevant to classify Olson within the species of “prose poem,” but he cannot be pigeonholed into any genre. His is the expression, the gene or meme expression, of a unique individual that is creating new life forms out of language.
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