On the Edge of Vertigo

Again, I find myself drawn to Stewart’s discussions in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, but this time am finding it more difficult to locate a continuity between this reading and readings from Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun or Longenbach’s The Poetic Line. Hoagland’s essays, especially, seem to want to break the connections seen in “Facing, Touch, and Vertigo,” while at the same time they are reflexive and recursive. At the same time, Hoagland points to the idea that those poems which become completely disconnected or overly aware of the connection between writer and reader, which invoke complete vertigo, are necessarily less successful.

The human connection, the implied face-to-face contact in the acts of writing and of reading a poem, can be broken by too much intellectual play, as Hoagland suggests. What are the results of this break? Total failure of the poem, or maybe not quite?

A poem of total failure must avoid the facial contact – the recognizably human – or the physical sense of touch, altogether. Avoiding these connections – deconstructing narrative, meaning, syntax, etc. – must have consequences in inducing vertigo upon the reader. Avoiding these human connections must also elicit relatively strong reactions in the reader, to the point of not even reading the poem. There are artists, especially in the visual / physical art venue, who strive for that exact reaction in audience. In many cases these examples are mediated by context: gallery, emplacement, or what have. The experience may be voluntary, but is sought out knowing the context of contemporary art. Poetry is also voluntary, and – perhaps to its detriment – mediated through words as opposed to vision, or other more direct senses. Words function as an arbitrary system of signifiers; they must be elucidated, defined, and contextualized. Meaning, basically, that more work occurs here than with sculpture or painting on the part of the audience. Reading a script and watching a movie are two different experiences for that reason, and for the level of engagement of the faculty of imagination that must be employed in the two different exercises. If the poet introduces so much vertigo as to cleave the relation between the words and the reader, then the poem must have questionable value, unless the required puzzle well-rewards the effort of the reader in piecing it together.

So maybe the poem is not necessarily a complete failure, but if readers consistently refuse to interact with it, then is the ecstasy of the poem reserved only for the poet and the scholar?