poetry is an utterance of (the) body

Poetry is an utterance of the body.  Not the best utterance – which is pre-linguistic and made of salt water – but the best a body can do given it has language.  It is language in thrall to the corporeal, to the pump and procession of the blood, the briefly rising spirit of the lung, the nerves’ fretwork, strictures of the bone.  Poetry is matter that can string itself between the pulse of a life and the silence of its death…  Those who reject form in poetry, reject form in body.  What they do is alien to what’s human…  Take the iambic pentameter for an example.  Its regularity shadows the poem: something must shadow the poem, and that something must in some way make the sound of the body at rest, so that the body in thought, at play, when it is heard can be believed…  The arrogance of obscurity is medieval, is of the cloister.  Obscurity cannot be poetry because the body is not obscure.  It may be interesting, it may be exciting, but only until we need oxygen.

Glyn Maxwell, from “Strong Words” (ed. WN Herbert & Matthew Hollis)

When I read this, my own body made a little joyful shudder of recognition.  Yes, poetry is an utterance of the body, and that is how it travels from one person to another, across the gulf of difference and experience – through its biological affinity.  Then, one word stood out, awkward and almost arrogant – “the”.  Is there such a thing as “the” body?

Arguably, there is a human body.  But what of variation?  Male, female, intersex?  The disabled and the TABs (temporarily able-bodied)?  Does poetry travel seamlessly across all of these distances in the same way?  Or, to look at the question from another angle, are there as many poetics as there are bodies?  Is there such a thing as “women’s poetry”?  “crip poetry”?  And I don’t just mean in terms of content, subject-matter – I mean, in terms of rhythm, flow, metre, the way the words appear on the page and in the air.

Recently, as a result of Pi O urging me to check out the poetry of Larry Eigner (by the way, this video of Larry reading poetry is great), I came upon a fantastically provocative and sensitive essay by Michael Davidson – “Missing Larry: the Poetics of Disability in Larry Eigner”.  Davidson explores why it may be that Eigner’s cerebral palsy is so rarely mentioned in critical discussions of his work – why that “blind spot”.   But he also reminds us that this omission isn’t just a biographical issue, but a poetic issue.  Eigner’s use of space on the page, his compression and brevity, his use of indentation and double-columns, the meticulous intensity of his poems – this is the way he chose to write, but it is also inevitably influenced by his physical condition.  He only had effective control over his right index finger, his body leaning on the (manual) typewriter, eyes close to the page, each word painstakingly pushed onto the page, each tap of the space-bar an effort.

What we write is shaped by our embodiment.  Not determined, but certainly shaped.  And this isn’t just about those bodies that are more visibly and obviously “disabled”.  Think about this –

What would it mean to think of Charles Olson’s “breath” line as coming from someone with chronic emphysema exacerbated by heavy smoking? Robert Creeley’s lines in “The Immoral Proposition,” “to look at it is more / than it was,” mean something very particular when we know that their author has only one eye (125). To what extent are Elizabeth Bishop’s numerous references to suffocation and claustrophobia in her poems an outgrowth of a life with severe asthma? Was William Carlos Williams’s development of the triadic stepped foot in his later career a dimension of his prosody or a typographical response to speech disorders resulting from a series of strokes?

Michael Davidson

These are big questions.  I’m just starting to think them through…  You, in your body, may be way ahead of me…

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21 thoughts on “poetry is an utterance of (the) body

  1. Very thought-provoking Andy. There’s also the issue of differences in the way the world is experienced – for example with disabilities that affect sensory processing, like autism. Interestingly autism also affects communication – but it affects every person slightly differently, so I’m not sure it is possible to speak of autistic poetry any more than it’s possible to speak of ‘ crip’ poetry. I suppose all artistic thought is informed by what goes in, including how it gets in, and then what comes out (as artistic expression) is shaped by how it gets out onto the page, or canvas, or tongue, and how difficult the journey from thought to expression through that particular artist’s body is. Thanks for starting this discussion, I’ll certainly be reading up on this. Cheers Melinda.

  2. There is a saying regarding love. “I love him/her with my body, my mind, my heart and my soul.” If I wanted to write poetry about this, which unavoidabely I must, I would have to say I write poems outside the territory of body which occupies my time and energy. I write with my mind because the other mechansims that affect it are part of an enduring cycle which is predicatably moody and influenced by circumstance. Only the mind can steady the waves of time and sustain the monolgue of who you essentially are and want to talk ‘from’ in your verse. As a woman, writing to you, the reader and friend, through my body would undermine my intelligence. Certainly, my heart and soul would be revealed but without wit. Further, it would be selfish and unhelpful. More erotic, useless, provocative. More problematic socially. No, I will always write and love for that matter, with my mind.

  3. Thanks Melinda. Oddly, after I wrote this, I thought, “how does my body affect my poetry?” – and after reading your response, I can say my embodiment has a huge impact on my poetry, but through my sense of my place in the world. Being somewhat “differently bodied” (to talk in euphemisms), I’m very aware of how others see me and that sense of stigma is never far from the surface. Fortunately, the journey from thought (feeling) to expression isn’t too complicated (well, no more than it is for most people!).
    Which, Rebecca, brings me to your comment – thanks heaps for it. I’d never go so far as to say that my body writes – it’s always my mind – but it’s my mind trying to harness, corrall, articulate what’s going on inside me – a kind of partnership, mind acting as translator for the body. But then, my mind is in my body too. Complicated….

  4. Rebecca’s comment struck a chord with me. I think I have always been a very ‘mental’ person, unreflectively dismissive of the body and its relevance until quite recently. In philosophical terms I guess I was more attuned to Plato (with his and the traditional Christian distrust of the body and its assumed corrupting influence on the mind and soul) rather than a follower of Aristotle, who said that “there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses”. Reading some Merleau-Ponty has influenced me in the other direction quite a bit.

  5. I must say I had never really stopped to think about the effect that a body may have on a writer’s work. And yet, it seems obvious that physical attributes may lead to differences in writing. Such differences could be anatomical or physiological as have been alluded to in the examples cited above. As you say Andy, the mind is contained within the body and clearly the two entities are intimately connected and inter-dependent. Changes in the body may be relatively static or dynamic. Would an asthma sufferer write differently on a day with relatively few symptoms to a day when s/he is breathless? Our moods may also affect our bodies, leading to physical symptoms – changes that may not be visible but which have nevertheless altered our bodies, even if temporarily. I recently had the experience of tremendous explosive rage while writing. I developed a tremor, shallow breathing and palpitations – classic anxiety symptoms with which I am very familiar. Looking back at the piece now I feel that its rhythm has taken on some of that breathlessness and almost syncopation of my heartbeat. I wonder if poets with atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeats) write syncopated rhythms? So I agree that our bodies can influence our writing but am also mindful that many writers with different bodies have written on many subjects and I’m sure that readers cannot discern much of the writer’s body in the writing.

    I enjoyed your reading at the Collected Works benefit last night and you could well have been describing me asleep in an anatomy text. I would like to buy a copy of Among the Regulars – are there any still available?

    Thanks for you thought-provoking blog. I shall recommend it to friends.

    1. and thanks for your thoughtful response! You’re right – I’m particularly interested in looking at writers where their embodiment is reflected in their work, but as you say sometimes it’s indiscernible. Our writing just as often comes from the broader culture as much as it comes from our individual hearts and bones. I’m sure my thoughts on this will evolve and become more nuanced as time goes on, too.

      My publisher and distributor for “Among the regulars” both have no copies left (hoping to reprint but not sure when), so that means people have to get it from me or from the few bookshops who still have stock left (sadly Collected Works is sold out too) – I think Readings Carlton and Brunswick Bound still have copies.

      Will look through your blog too – interested in the idea (and realities) of therapeutic writing….

      1. Therapeutic writing is an interesting concept. Definitions vary depending on whom you read (and when don’t they?). I gave my blog its subtitle in complete ignorance of the field of therapeutic writing which has been researched and has trained practitioners (one author is a trained poetry therapist). I must say I have only skimmed the literature being more of a pragmatist than a theorist (and the mother of two small boys). However, there is apparently evidence that therapeutic writing boosts immune markers and leads to better well being. I suspect most writing – memoir, poetry, fiction, even non-fiction, serves some sort of therapeutic purpose for the writer. It is, after all, ‘ex’-pression. Getting something out. Practitioners of therapeutic writing, however, seem to enter into a dialogue with the writer and direct the topics upon which they write (sometimes wholly electronically which I must say sounds a little risky). A type of analysis and, indeed, some of the theory is based in Freud. Me, I just write about my emotional responses to events in my life (both ordinary and extraordinary). I think that even though in the short term the writing can be very painful, I have been able to explore issues in a new way than when I speak about them – presumably by engaging different neuronal pathways. I have also set myself a writing ‘agenda’ with ideas and experiences to cover (but in this I presume I am no different from any other writer).

        I managed to track down a copy of ‘Among the regulars’ (Readings has sold out and I bought the last copy at Brunswick Bound). I have started to read your poems and I suspect that they, too, have served a therapeutic purpose for you (but forgive me if I am wrong). Regards, Kim

  6. Sometimes it’s better to be completely ignorant of the theory! 😉 Experience before thinking, I say.

    My experience has been the writing is always a mix of therapy and play, somewhere between confirming what’s there and transforming it. Sometimes what helps me will never be read broadly, but more often the very embodied and social nature of reading my poetry out in public is part of the transformative aspect of writing.

    I like, too, your description of writing as “ex-pression”.

  7. I am interested in what you say about the embodied and social experience of reciting your poetry in public. What do you think makes this different from sharing your work – thoughts, ideas, emotions and experiences – in other ways. Is it different from having a reader provide feedback to you or to reading your poetry out to yourself? I am especially curious as I will be reading one of my poems at a bushfire-related community gathering this weekend – the first time I will have read poetry in a public forum (other than in writing workshops).

    I spend much of my life being ignorant of theory – although my patients would be reassured to know that I do have a smattering of medical knowledge!

  8. To me (and this is a little bit off the top of my head), part of sharing my poetry is sharing my thoughts and feelings and ideas, but a poem is also an artefact, something that has an existence outside of me – I like to think of it as a room that other people can enter into. It’s embodied because when people hear a poem, their memories and emotions and bodies are affected by the rhythms and sounds and tone of the poem. And it’s social because language isn’t just individual, but something we share. So, when I read my poetry to others (esp when it’s honest, taking some risks), I feel like I’m joining into a long conversation somehow – the history of poetry but also the history of feeling and relating.
    It will be especially (I imagine) powerful to share your poems at the bushfire-related gathering. It’s more than catharsis for the reader and the listener – it’s about realising that new things can be created. And they certainly can. Best of luck!

  9. Andy, I love what you have written here – especially the notion of a poem as a room that others can enter, continuing an ancient narrative. I wonder what my audience felt like on Saturday night? And how your audiences experience your readings? I have written about the experience on my blog tonight – though I am still processing it. Thanks for the dialogue, Kim

  10. Pleasure, Kim. I think you can always get a good general sense of how an audience overall is responding – but each person is distinct and has their own filter through which they experience things. How DID Saturday night go?

  11. This may be more than you bargained for…

    Saturday night, like most things after the fire, required me to reinvent myself, to take on a new persona if you will. The reading was at the opening of an art installation of works created by fire-affected people (including my own) – showcasing some of the work fostered by a series of workshops run in Whittlesea with the support of the bushfire recovery authority. It was through these activities that I came to write creatively for the first time in about 22 years. Indeed, my only creative outlets had been gardening and cooking, having been immersed in doctoring. I created a handmade art book and needed something to put in it and, on the Friday of the June long weekend five poems presented themselves to me. I showed what I had written to members of my support group and the artists guiding us and received positive feedback. One of those artists is an author who was the artistic director of last weekend’s exhibition. About 30 poems in a three-month period later and I’m invited to read one….

    We had to choose carefully as there were many children (including my own) in the audience and I did not want to re-traumatise vulnerable people. I had not rehearsed other than read the poem aloud at the dining room table a couple of times. Was I nervous? A little, but I have done quite a bit of public speaking before, including discussing emotive topics. This is some of what I wrote in my blog…. ‘And so I read my poem ‘Home’. Slowly, savouring each word, I spoke it aloud and sent it into the crowd. My first poem – both written and performed – and one that I no longer find has much power over me when I read it on the page. But spoken aloud to an audience with shared experience it seemed to have life, power anew, and I left the stage elated, proud and with a new sense of identity. I have survived. My life has meaning, purpose – a future of new experience beckons. Art and community give us meaning. Through them we heal. My creative journey is just beginning.’

    Although I now find this poem somewhat trite and it is very familiar to me, since it is the first I wrote, it really did seem to have some new energy when spoken aloud to that audience. So perhaps it was transformative in a way. I thought, too, of something Geoff Goodfellow said at a Writers Festival event, which was about the power of connecting with people using ordinary words – perhaps that is what I did. I received plenty of positive feedback afterwards and it felt quite strange to be referred to as ‘the lady who read the poem’.

    Wonder if I will take a chance and do it again sometime?

  12. Lovely. And you’re right – if you know you’re reading to certain people, it’s wise to be cautious about re-traumatising.
    When I first stood up in front of people to read something, I didn’t know it would lead me here… Not everyone who writes poems keeps writing, but it is pretty addictive!

    1. Thanks Pam. Actually PiO pointed this out to me – a curiously mixed review, but raised my interest anyway. I’ve actually just finished reading Davidson’s “Concerto for the left hand”, a mixed but very interesting collection of essays – the one on Larry Eigner is probably the most productive. Best, A.

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