Prose Feature: “Why Poems Don’t Make Sense” by Matthew Buckley Smith

December 19, 2014

But now commit no verses to the leaves
Or they may be confused, shuffled and whirled
By playing winds

—Aeneid, Book VI

“What do people like so much about poems that don’t make any sense?” my wife asked me the other day. It was an honest question. An acquaintance of ours had just published a new poem (that seemed not to make any sense) and some other acquaintances had posted and liked and reposted it on Facebook. We were already familiar with the loose praise that poets—and others—swap online like Confederate money. But since we had a little time on our hands that afternoon, and this latest poem was just so labored and joyless in its presentation of nonsense, we thought it as good an opportunity as any to riddle out exactly why a number of the new poems we were encountering just didn’t seem to make any sense.

When I say our acquaintance’s poem was “nonsense,” I don’t mean it resembled the work of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear or even Russell Edson. Their poems make quite a lot of sense, at least as much as do the Eclogues and “The Unquiet Grave” and “Captain Carpenter.” Within the silly, grotesque, or otherworldly premises they establish, their outlooks and claims are perfectly understandable. Our acquaintance’s poem had no such vision. Setting aside its lack of meter, rhyme, argument, narrative, grammar, and discernible subject matter, it wasn’t even pretty. It didn’t sound good. Of course, many poems that don’t make sense do sound good. For some, sounding good seems to be their chief aim, and not an unworthy one. But the dearth of redeeming qualities in our acquaintance’s poem made the absence of any meaning especially apparent. Like the 1919 solar eclipse that confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity by revealing the way that distant starlight warped as it passed through the gravitational field of the sun, our acquaintance’s poem provided the total darkness necessary to detect the peculiar gleam of unadulterated nonsense.

The result can be illustrated by a simple thought experiment: if told that the text of a given poem has been generated randomly by a machine, how would one’s reading experience change? In the case of our acquaintance’s poem, the answer is probably not at all. But it hadn’t been generated randomly by a machine. And that was, for the purposes of my wife’s question, exactly the point. It had been generated by a living human being, a human being we’d had drinks with. And the unmelodious nonsense in question was not a singular incident among the publications of our acquaintance; it was a policy. And not just for her. Lots of poets we know write nonsense, and even more we don’t know. In fact, for some poetry venues, the less a poem displays any argument, narrative, or music, the more likely it is to be accepted.

I should acknowledge that there are a number of reasonable objections to my wife’s question. Below are a few, accompanied by my (spousally defensive) reaction to each.

  1. Some poems make a good deal of sense. Yes, and others make little pleasantly. I’m not saying no poems make any sense. I’m just wondering why some make so little.
  1. One man’s gratifying difficulty is another man’s nonsense. Certainly, and often “one man” is a struggling poet while “another man” is his father-in-law. I’ll admit I myself have a hell of a time reading such celebratedly-difficult poets as Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, but poems like the one our acquaintance published reduce me to despair. How much fruitless effort is required before one can fairly blame the poet?
  1. Nonsense isn’t the reason so many crummy poems get published, cliquishness is. Indeed. In any given issue of any given poetry journal, you could replace everything after the table of contents with a bound collection of blank pages, and the number of people who even notice would be equal to or less than the number of poets whose books were reviewed in that issue. But why among all the possible kinds of poems one might have found inside—boring, offensive, and even piercingly beautiful—why the perenniality of nonsense?

Nonsense, in short, is not incidental to our treatment of poems. It seems to be the reason some receive the praise they do. Few are made up of nothing but nonsense. They’re often framed by recognizable images and idioms. But nonsense is their je ne sais quoi. It’s the baloney in their sandwich. Intentionally or not, nonsense has become a defining virtue of contemporary American poetry.

What exactly, then, is nonsense? First, one might ask, what is sense? Taken from sentire, the Latin word for “feel,” sense means several things in English, including both physical feeling and a related but more abstract internal response. For the mind as for the body, to sense is to feel, and to have sense is to have the capacity to feel. A person with senses has a body that can feel. A person with sense has a mind that can do the same. When we say that something makes sense, we’re saying that the mind can feel it. We don’t mean simply that the words it comprises make impressions individually. We mean that the utterance as a whole can be felt by the mind. When we say that something doesn’t make sense, we’re saying that though the mind may feel its parts, when put together what they make is unfeelable. It is beyond the grasp of the mind. For the body, feeling and touch are married, so what the body cannot feel is called intangible. What the mind cannot feel is called nonsense.

There are many ways in which the mind can feel something, and language has its own special kind of sense. Even a list of words selected at random from the dictionary can provoke some feeling. Any reader has, after all, come to learn each word he knows in some particular way, with some particular parcel of associations. For me the word “diner” is linked to certain memories, and seeing it can call them to mind. But the word’s mere presence does not mean the phrase “broth zaire macadamia nage Cabala graphic reader vaccine gadfly diner in rabbit’s feet kabob pace macchiato” makes any sense at all. Though I may feel something upon seeing some of these words, my mind is unable to feel the phrase as any sort of complete utterance. It is not enough for various parts to register as felt by the mind. In order for an utterance to make sense, the mind must feel it as a whole. “As a whole,” though, need not mean “without omission,” and vice versa. Just as several words might be recognizable while their combination is not, a speech might make sense as a whole despite containing some unfamiliar terms or references. Such, at least, was my experience as an undergrad.

What, then, allows the mind to feel one utterance as a whole but not to feel another? It would be convenient to say the former possesses logic that the latter lacks, but plenty of things we say to one another are both illogical and wholly comprehensible. There are numerous species of illogic that our speech can exemplify while still making perfect sense. Five come quickly to mind:

Idiom: “Eat your heart out.”

Malapropism: “It’s a tough road to hoe.”

Vulgarism: “When you watch this, your head is going to explode.”

Grammatical error: ”Even if it was a friend of him which drunk the rest of the bottle, they still should of replaced it.”

Elision: “If you could just sign here . . .”

Much as they might have in common, nonsense and illogic are not equivalent. Even if the above examples fail as logical statements, they still make sense. The mind can feel them. Why? How does one make sense of any utterance, illogical or otherwise? One makes sense of an utterance by imagining the mind that could produce it. Not in detail, not consciously, not even necessarily with sympathy. But one knows that “I could care less” means “I couldn’t care less” because one can imagine the mind that would say it. To say that an utterance doesn’t make sense is not to say that it’s wrong, or that it’s stupid, or even that its component parts are not recognizable. To say that an utterance doesn’t make sense is simply to say that one can’t imagine the mind that would utter it.

Which is not the same as saying that an utterance is ‘”unimaginable,” or “unthinkable,” as we often say (with a sigh and a shake of the head) when we find an utterance particularly odious or in poor taste. Racial, ethnic, and sexual slurs especially provoke in us a desire to distinguish our own minds from the sort that would utter such things. When a celebrity is caught using one of these epithets in an unguarded moment, it has become easy to predict his attempts to recover his reputation. Immediately after the apology comes the avowal that he certainly didn’t mean it in ”that way.” “That way” presumably being the way that others would mean it. The way that the sort of mind that would say such a thing would mean it. When we take offense at an utterance, it’s not because we cannot imagine the sort of mind that would utter it, but because we can.

When a baby squeals word-like jabber or a ragged figure on the street shouts paranoid accusations, we rarely bother to remark that the speech makes no sense. That it makes no sense goes without saying, and we are not surprised, because though we can’t imagine the mind producing it, we don’t expect to imagine it. Or more accurately, we expect to imagine it only through negation. In the late-nineties comedy As Good as It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays a misogynistic author of popular novels. When asked how he writes women so well, he gives the memorably odious explanation, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” When we imagine the thoughts of those who regularly produce nonsense, we do the same. We think of a mind, and we take away reason and accountability. Something inarguably is happening in the baby’s head, but it is an experience not accessible to us. We call it “innnocent,” “unformed,” “unselfconscious.” The word “infant” itself merely means “unable to speak.” Likewise with the mad. They are “unstable,” “deranged,” “insane.” We cannot imagine such states of mind, and our names for them reflect this inability. A word like “dementia” doesn’t name any internal experience of madness but instead refers to our experience of not being able to make sense of what someone is saying or doing. An utterance, the originating consciousness of which we cannot imagine, simply implies the presence of an originating consciousness we cannot imagine. When we encounter the latter, we anticipate the former. We don’t bother to say these things don’t make sense because we don’t expect them to.

We do bother to say an utterance doesn’t make sense when we do expect it to. For example, we expect an utterance to make sense when we have already imagined the mind that produces it. This is the case with people we know well, or people whose words or personae we feel we know well, such as politicians and authors. When we hear these people speak, we have already imagined their minds, and so if what they say seems as if it could not possibly have been produced by the mind we’ve imagined, we are given pause. At a poetry reading I attended last year, the reader—a well-known and widely celebrated forty-something poet—introduced a short elegy by William Cory with a stifled sob and the pronouncement that “too many poets of my generation are dead.” A former professor who was sitting next to me leaned in and with some urgency asked what the poet had just said. When I told her, she immediately expressed relief. She had heard “too many poets of my generation are gay.” The sentiment that made this claim objectionable to her also made it incongruous with its source. She’d known right away that something didn’t make sense. Either she’d misheard the remark, or the poet didn’t have the sort of mind she’d imagined her to have.

This way of thinking about sensemaking does not apply only to speech. It also goes for newspaper writing, official signage, and any other form of verbal communication. To make sense of the label “FOUR 6-packs, 12 fl. oz. bottles,” one need not imagine the mind that would speak this aloud in casual conversation, but only the mind that would print it on a case of National Bohemian. In the same way, we do not expect instruction manuals to be written in vernacular English, but we do expect them to correspond to the equipment they accompany. When they don’t—when a piece is missing or a prescribed step turns out to be impossible—we say, “This doesn’t make sense,” because we can’t imagine the mind that would offer such obviously inapplicable instruction. Or we get angry, because we damn well can.

“Why don’t poems make sense?” If you’ve ever taught poetry, then you have heard this question, or some version of it. It’s a question with one of two answers, depending on the poem.

  1. The poem does make sense, you just haven’t made sense of it yet.
  2. The poem truly does not make sense, whether or not the poet intended it to.

The first answer applies to poems that are perhaps difficult but which ultimately have the making of sense as their profound and singular purpose. Plenty has been said elsewhere about difficult poems, and good teachers already know that the best poems, difficult or not, are worth guiding students through with patient kindness as through the rooms of an old but beautifully made house. The second answer—that the poem doesn’t make sense, either because the poet didn’t want it to or because he did want it to and failed—applies to a wholly separate set of poems. Though students may find poems in this category no more or less frustrating than those in the first, the truth is that these poems are not actually difficult to make sense of, any more than a painting of a door is difficult to open. They are just after something other than the making of sense. To try to make sense of them is to ask them to behave like something they are not.

Consider a poem by John Ashbery. A Goliath of twentieth-century poetry, Ashbery can’t be competently represented with a single poem, let alone a short one. His voice deserves a much larger selection, as does his ear. Still, if what follows works less as a commentary on his poetry at large than a close reading of a single poem exemplifying the particular breed of nonsense under consideration, then it’s a breed that Ashbery not only exemplifies but arguably fathered. Originally published in Poetry, “On His Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments” comprises eighteen lines without meter, rhyme, or regular stanza length. The title, applying haughty convention (“On His”) to a trivial subject (“Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments”), prepares us to be charmed. The arched brow with which he introduces the topic suggests that what lies ahead might gently mock the poet’s own childlike desire to draw out the holiday season—a soft-hearted lyric satire, perhaps, with wistful implications of a larger romantic worldview. The poem begins with the following lines:

A nice, normal morning:
feet setting out as though in a trance,
doubling the yesterdays, a doubled man
under the stairs, and strange surrealist fish
from so much disappearance, damaged in the mail.

So far no Christmas, no ornaments, and no reluctance. Instead the first line frames the scene with the plainest of language, telling us the time of day and requesting our help in defining the soft-focus modifiers “nice” and “normal.” We all know what nice is, the poem suggests, we all know what normal is. The second line shows us physical motion, modified not by an adverb but by a frame of mind: “as though in a trance.” The third line at first seems to carry this notion further, telling us the speaker’s trancelike gait is “doubling the yesterdays.” We know this is a normal morning, so the “trance” he’s in could just be the ready-to-hand absent-mindedness of daily habit, each day unthinkingly repeating the day before. That “doubling” could also suggest the unreeled expanse of life one finds oneself suddenly on the wrong side of after so many days given over to routine. A normal day giving rise to a midlife crisis, maybe? The second half of the line deepens and complicates this idea, introducing an ambiguous figure, “a doubled man”—the speaker seeing himself with detachment? someone else? a man doubled over in pain or doubled in existence? The fourth line tells us that he is “under the stairs,” but doesn’t hint at why. Added to this mysterious passage in uncertain grammatical relation are “strange surrealist fish.” Again, the speaker relies on our idea of what “strange” means in this context—assuming that the historical term “surrealist” refers to the early twentieth-century cultural movement and not the observational bewilderment marked by the descriptor “surreal.” Regardless, the morning ceases to be normal, unless the speaker finds strangeness and surrealism normal, which perhaps he does. The grammatical fog only thickens with the prepositional phrase that begins the fifth line: “from so much disappearance.” We haven’t encountered disappearance before now, unless the speaker is referring to the “yesterdays” that have disappeared into the past. The sentence closes—but does not grammatically resolve—with another ambiguously applied clause: “damaged in the mail.” Presumably the fish were damaged in the mail, but not “from so much disappearance,” as the syntax would seem to preclude this particular sequence. Who mailed the surrealist fish, why and to whom, and how they coexist with the trancelike speaker, the doubled man, and the Christmas ornaments, all have yet to be revealed. The phrase “in a trance” suggests the possibility that the body of the poem represents a dream, perhaps recalled upon waking on a nice, normal morning, but if this is a dream, then why does the speaker choose to share it? And why say as though in a trance if a trance is what’s really happening? Again, making sense of these lines does not require calculating the physical likelihood of all the elements involved, but it does require imagining the mind that would articulate them in such a way. So far, we can’t say what kind of mind considers this to be a normal morning, what kind of mind considers a normal morning to be worth retelling, what kind of mind employs these particular quirks of grammar, or, most pressingly, what kind of mind is satisfied with permitting his audience to remain so disoriented for so long. The poem continues.

Or the spry cutting edge of another day.
Here, we have these in
sizes and colors—
day goes fluttering by.

Still no Christmas ornaments. The first line of this stanza begins a new sentence and starts that sentence with a conjunction. This conjunction, “Or,” offers an alternative to something, presumably to the last lines of the previous stanza, like so: “strange, surrealist fish / from so much disappearance, damaged in the mail. // Or the spry cutting edge of another day.” The cutting edge, a familiar cliché indicating the most advanced developments in a discipline at a given time, is what the speaker offers as an alternative. The cutting edge of another day, then, might be just after midnight, or just before dawn—unless “another day” figuratively encompasses a larger era or stage of growth. But how can the dawning of a new day, figurative or otherwise, provide an alternative to the damaged fish? Are the fish figurative? Is everything figurative? The next sentence, “Here, we have these in / sizes and colors,” mimics the patter of a department store salesman. (I know, I’ve pattered it.) These words sound friendly but are offered to every customer in turn. In a department store, everyone is supposed to feel special, and no one really is. This paradox may echo the problem hinted at in the first few lines—the days go by and one hardly notices. In a moment of possible clarity, that’s the next line! The stanza ends with the announcement, “Day goes fluttering by.” Maybe we are getting somewhere, maybe a theme is unfolding itself. After all, even the cutting edge of day was described as “spry,” an adjective that means lively but is assigned almost exclusively to the elderly. The constant and irreparable passage of time does seem to haunt many lines in the poem so far, but we’ve already drifted away from the question at hand. What kind of mind would say all this? We needn’t imagine a confession from the poet or even a monologue from an invented character, just a mind that would put all this down in this order. What is it? Why these images, why these sentence fragments, why these phrasings? Though we can begin to draw out some preoccupations from the lines if we really sweat, we still can’t imagine a mind at the center of things. What comes through—a vague obsession clinging to the shards of seemingly unrelated places, voices, and events—recalls nothing so much as the murmured confidences of a mild-mannered lunatic. There is, however, more.

Like ivy behind a chimney
it grows and grows in ropes.
Mouse teams unslay it,
yeomen can’t hear yet.

Another sentence fragment, another ambiguous attribution. Something is like the furry clumps of ivy that climb the sides of chimneys. It’s a satisfyingly palpable image, and the antecedent would seem to be “day”—the operative noun in the previous sentence. Day, then, grows in ropes? The likeness is not intuitively apparent. The kind of mind that would make this comparison is also not intuitively apparent. The next two lines, with their balanced independent clauses, Mad-Libbed parts of speech, and enigmatic subject matter (still day, one hopes, but how?) only deepen the impression of cognitive incoherence.

To clarify my own meaning here, I do not suspect that John Ashbery—or even the poem’s “speaker”—is actually insane. Every item in the poem might well have a rich emotional connection to every other, which, were the poet to unveil it, might elicit from us all a collective, “Ahhh, so that’s what it’s about.” But this is also true of anyone’s private musings. The fragments that drift through my solitary reflections certainly hold great meaning for me, but without the context of my own specific memories, most lack any value either in themselves or alongside one another. There is a link in my past that holds together the samosas, the black walnut, and the epileptic cat, but I can’t expect anyone else to guess what it is. Without the secret knowledge of the speaker’s interior experience, such references cannot carry meaning. They are like potsherds bearing illustrations of an alien culture’s mythology. We might marvel at some specimens individually, and we might even congratulate ourselves on sleuthing out a recurring theme or two, but without knowing the stories that inspired them, we’ll never be able to make sense of them as a whole. Someone who curates a collection of such shards may have many different goals in doing so, but making sense probably isn’t one of them. And having given up on making sense of the poem, having accepted that we will likely never learn about the Christmas ornaments, or the fish, or the ivy, we are granted something like a reprieve.

A shadow purling,
up into the sky.
Silence in the vandalized vomitorium.

The comma seems an odd choice, but otherwise, this fragment beautifully extends the image of the chimney. A shadow of smoke climbs the sky like ivy and in doing so gives up both its form and the thing it might have represented. It is a shadow, so something must have cast it, but as with the source of the poem itself, we will never know precisely what. These two lines could almost make an ars poetica. And the short stanza closes with another fragment, an almost comical one, punching home the total non-arrival of any certainty: “Silence in the vandalized vomitorium.” Here even silence lacks dignity. A vomitorium is an architectural feature of theatres and stadiums by which crowds can exit forth (i.e. vomit) from the arena, passing beneath the tiered rows of seats on their way out. Popular belief, however, holds that the vomitorium was a room reserved for the purpose of self-induced, post-binge vomiting, a practice that would allow decadent Roman partygoers to carry on with their tireless feasting. The poem doesn’t indicate either definition, but the modifier “vandalized” evokes the sacking of a carious, bloated Rome by fierce-blooded barbarian tribes, among them Vandals. Is this the fate of those who let the day flutter by in a trance? Perhaps. By now we have learned to enjoy the poem’s fleeting charms without expecting an answer. So it comes to a close.

It’s great that you can be here too.
Passivity rests its case.

In the penultimate line of the poem, the second person makes his first appearance. And we’re told this is great. We know better than to ask who is here, or why this is great, or where here is. The last line reaffirms our acquiescence. Passivity, the absence of positive action, achieves its conquest in the only way it can, by giving up.

Over these eighteen lines, we have tried to follow the poem grammatically, descriptively, narratively, thematically, and emotionally, and in each case, we’ve found ourselves only partially equipped. After a certain place in the stream, the rocks get too far apart for us to keep our shoes dry. And falling in might offer its own pleasure, assuming the stream is a stream of water. But not only can we not imagine a particular speaker choosing to say these things out loud, we can’t even deduce from these lines any central mind that might choose to put them in a poem. This is not to say we don’t enjoy them. It’s not to say that they can’t be opportunities to reflect upon our own lives. And it’s certainly not to say that we aren’t challenged by the brokenness of the language to examine the parts and functions of language itself. We don’t bother to think about how the lamp switch works until it breaks and we have to fix it. Maybe nonsensical syntax serves the same end. Maybe Ashbery has generously given us a broken lamp switch. “So much going on here,” one’s inner workshop leader wants to say, “a lot of really fresh language,” and, “We’ve only just scratched the surface.” In other words: There must be a lot going on here, because I don’t understand a word of it, but some of the diction at least is unexpected, though God knows what it means, and anyway I don’t want to be the only one in the room who missed the brilliant political allegory, so I’ll just say we’ve only scratched the surface.

But enough close reading. To air out the must of all this interpretation, let’s look at the poem itself in its entirety:

On His Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments
by John Ashbery

A nice, normal morning:
feet setting out as though in a trance,
doubling the yesterdays, a doubled man
under the stairs, and strange surrealist fish
from so much disappearance, damaged in the mail.

Or the spry cutting edge of another day.
Here, we have these in
sizes and colors—
day goes fluttering by.

Like ivy behind a chimney
it grows and grows in ropes.
Mouse teams unslay it,
yeomen can’t hear yet.

A shadow purling,
up into the sky.
Silence in the vandalized vomitorium.

It’s great that you can be here too.
Passivity rests its case.

Struggling through such lines may bring the reader some satisfaction, but there is a difference of more than degree between playful nonsense and artful sense. It’s bad faith simply to shrug and say that poetry is supposed to make you think, or that poetry is what you make it.

Even if we can now say how poems don’t make sense, we still can’t say why. Does nonsense just froth up naturally as a byproduct of the poet’s pursuit of some greater goal? Without speculating about John Ashbery’s personal motives, we might ask why a substantial number of younger poets produce their own poems that don’t make sense. Maybe we cannot make sense of the poems themselves, but what if we could make sense of the act of writing them?

Ten years ago, I fulfilled a college requirement by reading the slush pile of an avant-garde poetry magazine run by my professor and his old friend. On one particularly slow day, the professor told us eager underlings how his friend had gotten his first book published. After a bad breakup, he’d emptied his heart into openly romantic poems framed variously in received, nonce, and non- forms. When he’d completed the manuscript, he went back through and altered a few words in each poem expressly so that no one would be able to tell what he was talking about. The changed version won a book prize. Later, at a reading, I asked the poet himself why we ought to read his mystifying poems. He answered, with a knowing smirk, that perhaps we shouldn’t. For months afterward, I remained intoxicated in a mist of similar poetry, trying to acquire by inhalation a little prize-winning freshness of my own. It was like trying to cure athlete’s foot by standing in a puddle of urine.

All the same, I understood a little better why certain poets set about writing poems that don’t make sense. The reasons for doing so mostly go unacknowledged by the poets themselves, even in private. There is, though, one argument some will volunteer explicitly. It can be stated a number of ways, but it often runs something like this:

  1. In any society in which access to resources is divided unequally among its members, those members with better access (i.e. the ruling class) will benefit from the preservation of the status quo, whether or not they recognize this.
  1. Language, in so far as its use conforms to received (i.e. traditional) structures and restrictions, serves not only as a vehicle for the preservation of ideas supporting the status quo, but also, in its very consistency, as the abstract medium of the status quo. Any writing that merely makes sense (i.e. relies upon and recapitulates traditional meanings and systems of meaning) works in this regard as at best a passive acquiescence to the status quo (i.e. silent assent to conditions advantageous to the interests of the ruling class) and at worst a device for perpetuating and expanding the same (i.e. propaganda).
  1. For all these reasons, it is the solemn duty of poetry to break—and through breaking call attention to—the received meanings and systems of meaning to which most literature lamely acquiesces and thus expose the benefit to the ruling class of language specifically and of the status quo generally. Anything less (i.e. anything that makes sense) is not just unadventurous, it is actually immoral.
  1. To write poems that make sense is to collaborate in the oppression of the common people—even and especially if one is oneself a member of the common people— and to write poems that do not make sense is to fight on their behalf.

This explanation accounts for the occasional forays of much otherwise-nonsensical poetry into sensemaking when sense is being made with the explicit aim of challenging some aspect of the perceived social order (e.g. racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, tax loopholes, war). In my estimation, poets who fly this standard of righteous disruption above their nonsensical work do so in good faith. It’s just that they’re trying to fight oppression by writing poetry that neither the oppressed nor the oppressor cares to read.

Only a small minority of poets who write nonsense, though, exercise this utopian reasoning consciously or at all. Most merely benefit from a hazy familiarity with the existence of such an argument. What follows is a brief list of the most common reasons people write poems that don’t make sense—wittingly or otherwise. Why these poems are often admired I’ll address shortly.

  1. Keep-Away. Some poems don’t make sense not passively because they are not intended to but actively because they are intended not to. This is not as easy as it sounds. Because language is a system of basically arbitrary values, all reading—even of children’s books—requires inference and imagination. It is difficult to string together more than a few words in a row without beginning to suggest a story, feeling, or image of some kind. And like all craftsmen, the makers of truly fine nonsense appreciate a challenge. A constant but unconsummated flirtation with meaning—even with traditional form—marks the work of the ambitious avant-gardist. When children in a schoolyard play Keep-Away, the exclusion of the targeted child (i.e. the uninitiated reader) is a means of safeguarding the elite status of those participating in his exclusion (i.e. other self-styled avant-gardists). The most satisfying rounds are those in which the excluded child is permitted to come tantalizingly close to the ball without ever quite getting hold of it. And nothing spoils a game of Keep-Away more than having one’s poem assigned a straightforward bourgeois interpretation by an uninitiated reader who feels certain that he “gets it.” Less grievous, if still disappointing, is the state of the game today, when no one is even trying any longer to intercept the ball. For an example, refer to the Ashbery poem discussed above.
  1. Telephone. When my little brother was four, his rambling child-babble led him to the uncomprehending discovery of an especially potent four-letter word. Because my sister and I laughed scandalously, he said the word again and again, having acquired the power to elicit a reaction, however little he understood its meaning. In the children’s game of Telephone, each child tries to repeat to his neighbor the whispered message he’s just received. The goal is for the text to become gradually distorted by compounded mishearings, until the final product has nothing in common with the sentence that began the game. At some point, one child hears something he doesn’t understand and either attempts to make sense of it or simply does his best to repeat whatever nonsense he thinks he’s heard. If the child before him said it, then it must be the thing to say. In a like fashion, some poems don’t make sense simply because they are written in imitation of other poems that don’t make sense. This can happen even if the model poem is in fact only difficult and not actually nonsensical. The imitation of perceived nonsense still yields nonsense, and if the result brings one access to an exclusive circle (see Keep-Away), then this uncomprehending imitation may be repeated indefinitely, with increasing confidence. For an example, consider a poem by Hoa Nguyen, originally published in the PEN Poetry Series:

I Don’t Care
by Hoa Nguyen

I don’t care anymore
one emblem of a whole pattern

I’m going to the café
Want the bag rinky-dink it

Rain me mother
Brain me

Consciousness means something else
a side of sliced ham

I gave the carved medallion
Horse relief and tender

My grey grey grey
bangles and leapings

Black snake in the mud

  1. Peekaboo. If an adult wants to hide from you, he will remove himself from your field of vision, but if my eight-month-old daughter wants to hide from you, she will remove you from her field of vision. A young poet, keen to express his swirling inner life, records some lines that remind him of a powerful personal experience and concludes that he has written a powerful poem. The sloppy thinking that leads to this error is so widespread as to have become, like the snow in Joyce’s Ireland, general. Any fourth grader can tell you that poetry is when you write your feelings. Hearing this wrong truism, many a poet has concluded that if his poem moves him, then it will move his readers, which, as Isaac Asimov would say, is even wronger. It’s as wrong as thinking that a description of someone laughing will make for a good joke, or that a description of someone gasping will make for a good ghost story. Poetry is not about emotion, it causes emotion. Aristotle understood this. He didn’t say that tragedy is about pity and terror. He said it purges pity and terror. And not Sophocles’s pity and terror, either, but yours. A poem that is merely about the poet’s feelings is like the message a child in the back seat of a Volvo station wagon writes on the fogged-up rear window. He doesn’t realize that, although he can read his clever little motto quite clearly, to the rest of the world it’s backwards gibberish. For an example, consider a poem by Fanny Howe, from her book Gone (University of California Press, 2003).

The Descent
by Fanny Howe

The descent has deepened
the interior lengthened

designated ending


pulled down inside and then
shot up again

to see east via the plate glass
a moon a monsoon an ashram

I used time almost wantonly
in that bald but sensual sky

to give me gusts
and more measurement

not to snap the stars shut
but Joseph said
you really ought

to tender how you sail by eye
your soul is just a length of baby

But enough about why people write poems that don’t make sense. My wife’s question, after all, was less about production than praise: “What do people like so much about poems that don’t make any sense?” Plato, as usual, has some thoughts.

In Plato’s Ion, Socrates discusses the subject of poetry and its composition with Ion, a professional reciter of Homer’s poems. As in the Apology, Socrates voices skepticism about poets’ supposed expertise in their craft. He claims that composing poems requires no skill or special effort because the words are delivered by divine inspiration. One might say that the gods compose the poems while the poets merely say the words. There is, then, little difference between Ion the reciter and Homer the poet. As proof of his claim, Socrates offers the example of Tynnichos, a particularly talentless Chalcidian poet, who in a career of mostly forgettable work was blessed with a single, truly exquisite poem. Socrates’s conclusion is simple:

Here most of all I think God has shown us, beyond all dispute, that these beautiful poems are not human, not made by man, but divine and made by God; and the poets are nothing but the gods’ interpreters, possessed each by whatever god it may be.

This is a tidy sleight of hand. The poem is given celestial provenance, the poet is pardoned for inconsistency, and the philosopher is authorized to play chief critic. Whatever one thinks of Socrates’s theology, there is a picturesque appeal to the image of gods breathing verse into poets’ empty heads. Poets themselves embraced this image long before Socrates was around—“Sing, Muse!” Still, inspiration shares a porous border with delusion.

In another Greek text, the Book of Acts, one finds a similar story about a god feeding lines to wild-eyed mortals:

Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language.

Just like tin-eared Tynnichos, the apostles are supplied with words they’d never have been able to come up with on their own. The logic works something like this:

  1. If my friend starts talking and
  2. people who only speak an unknown language can understand him, then
  3. my friend must be speaking an unknown language, and
  4. what comes out of his mouth is surely the product of inspiration.

As thaumaturgical arguments go, this is not a bad one. But a couple books later, Paul addresses a slight variation to this tradition. In his first letter to the Corinthians—just after the famous part about faith, hope, and charity—he offers this odd addendum:

For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.

It’s a pretty good trick, maybe even better than Socrates’s. Paul is patient with these new, indecipherable speakers in tongues, and their logic seems to work thus:

  1. If my friend starts talking and
  2. no one can understand him, then
  3. my friend must be speaking an unknown language, and
  4. what comes out of his mouth is surely the product of inspiration.

These speakers have cut out the middleman, the middleman being comprehension. Socrates hears poems of otherworldly beauty and concludes that the gods must have inspired them. Some early—and some not so early—Christians hear nonsense and conclude the same thing. Paul is tolerant of this alternative sign and/or wonder, but he makes some biting remarks about its limitations.

So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

Paul’s argument is harsh but to the point. Knowingly to speak nonsense is to make oneself a barbarian. But if the subtleties of early Christian mystical practice don’t seem relevant to contemporary American poetry, then we might frame the problem in a more familiar context.

  1. If my friend starts talking and
  2. no one can understand him, then
  3. my friend must be speaking poetry, and
  4. what comes out of his mouth is surely the product of inspiration.

You might want to insert an adjective before “poetry,” such as “experimental,” “elliptical,” or “avant-garde.” But like the tongues in which modern Pentecostals speak, our acquaintance’s poem didn’t just happen to make no sense. It had to make no sense. Its credibility as inspired speech arose from its lack of accessible meaning. The more sense such a poem makes, the less it resembles the inscrutable sayings of an oracle and the more it resembles humble, human talk.

In his delightful book, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, William Goldman uses the 1967 debut of Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, as an illustration of the powerful allure of incomprehension.

It was the undisputed dramatic triumph of the year. I thought it was terrific, but the audience I saw it with sure didn’t. Derek Goldby, who staged the play so wonderfully, likes to tell the story of the man and wife coming up the aisle after the play was over. “I didn’t understand any of it,” the husband said, whereupon his wife whirled upon him, whispering, “Don’t say that.”

To Goldman and not a few others, the play made plenty of sense. But for many, the actual performance was beside the point. For this self-conscious crowd, there was an instinctive feeling that one should always at least feign comprehension, because surely somewhere some authority (if not a god, then at least an important critic) did understand this tedious British nonsense, and God forbid one reveal one’s philistinism by failing to share his admiration. It is for the imagined pleasure of just such invisible authorities that slush piles and academic libraries across the land today are running over with incomprehensible poetry.

Talking about poems and what they do is hard. Cleanth Brooks notes, with sympathy, “The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering.” Harder still is writing poems that welcome such straight talk. But when nonsense stands for inspiration, the burden gets a little lighter. After all, the audience for poetry is mostly made up of poets. And busy as we all are with the hard work of getting published, we have come to an unspoken truce. So long as our poems can achieve success without having to make sense, nobody need actually read them. But we may just have to accept that there will always be those who fail to appreciate our enigmatic brilliance. As Paul says:

If therefore the whole church be come together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?

Matthew Buckley SmithMatthew Buckley Smith is the author of Dirge for an Imaginary World, winner of the 2011 Able Muse Book Award. His poems have appeared in Commonweal, Beloit Poetry Journal, Southern Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry. He lives in Carrboro, NC, with his wife and daughter.


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