Can poetry narrate death?

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Can poetry narrate death?

Review, analysis, and close-reading of Bob Perelman’s poem ‘Chronic Meanings', by Tuhin Bhowal.

Review, Analysis, and Close-Reading of Bob Perelman’s poem from Virtual Reality, ‘Chronic Meanings', by Tuhin Bhowal.

“I had this impulse to write him about this, and certainly I didn’t know what to say. ‘I’m sorry you’re dying,’ didn’t seem appropriate to somebody I didn’t know well.”

-Bob Perelman in a comment on Lee Hickman’s approaching death,
the Editor of Temblor magazine.

Chronic Meanings
for Lee Hickman

The single fact is matter.
Five words can say only.
Black sky at night, reasonably.
I am, the irrational residue.
Blown up chain link fence.
Next morning stronger than ever.
Midnight the pain is almost.
The train seems practically expressive.

A story familiar as a.
Society has broken into bands.
The nineteenth century was sure.
Characters in the withering capital.
The heroic figure straddled the.
The clouds enveloped the tallest.
Tens of thousands of drops.
The monster struggled with Milton.

On our wedding night I.
The sorrow burned deeper than.
Grimly I pursued what violence.
A trap, a catch, a.

Note: For the scope of this essay, Chronic Meanings will be mentioned as CM. Above are the first five stanzas of the poem. Read the complete poem here .

When was the last time you were at a funeral?

When was the last time you experienced death from close quarters? When was the last time you had to eulogize someone, write an obituary? If it were a close friend or a beloved, maybe you did a good job. But, what if it was someone distant, someone, you didn't have the chance to know well when they were alive, someone whom you admired greatly? Someone who inspired you, someone you looked up to? Could the written word make up for the space they must have left behind? Could they ever be enough? Could poetry narrate death?

Leland Hickman
Leland Hickman

Along with Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman is one of the most prominent Language poets from the late 20th century. Chronic Meanings (CM) was written by Perelman for Leland Hickman (more popularly known as Lee Hickman) after he was apprised of the news of Lee's approaching death due to AIDS. Hickman worked as a typesetter (at $8 an hour) and as an editor of an experimental art magazine called Temblor – an ‘impeccably' compiled collection as Perelman describes it. The issues were about 200 pages each and thanks to its fastidious editing, there were hardly any typos.

CM was meant to be a pre-elegy for the LA-based editor, Lee Hickman. Perelman was following Hickman's for a while then. He was so deeply impressed that he submitted his own poem to be considered for publication in an issue of Temblor. And as it turned out, Hickman was typesetting each issue himself, and after the selection of CM in the poetry section, as Perelman recalls, Hickman must have typed (and read) the complete poem himself.

Death's expression lies in its inability

The poem consists of 25 quatrains, each line formed with only the first 5 words of its sentence punctuated in the end with a period. So, as one can easily notice that the poem constitutes of 500 words in total with 100 periods. At its very first impression, the lines seem to mimic Ron Silliman's ‘new sentences’ as he employed in Albany (a Language poem consisting of exactly 100 sentences), and later on in BART. The lines are evidently paratactic and non-sequential in their narrative. No cause and effect. Each line ending abruptly with a period leaves the reader with a sense of bereavement, the choking sensation of life being cut-off from a rather young healthy man like Hickman too soon to meet his death. What AIDS was to Hickman’s life was the period to CM. This indeed is an adroit bravura of Perelman's craft of how the form works with content, hand in hand. Each sentence has 5 words, no less, no more. It's a unique constraint, to begin with, and what makes it work is the form’s semblance with death which is the defining theme in CM. Working against the underlying notion that the best way to commemorate or memorialize someone is to be free and unhinged in speech and text, Perelman with utmost subtlety and conviction, all at once shows that that might not be the case at all. Here, the constraint of using only 5 words in speaking a sentence demonstrates loss of control. How can one express death? Doesn't its expression lie in the inability of it? Perelman is unable to control his feelings, his emotions to process the untimely death of Hickman and so he employs the same limitation in each sentence of CM. As an exercise, if we try to speak only a few words of each complete sentence that we initially intend to in a day, or in only an hour, the difficulty will be so treacherous that we will reach levels of insanity in no time. This very feeling is cohesively inherent with the prospect of death in Chronic Meanings.

Before analyzing the poetics of CM and close-reading it, it’s only proper that the developments and major traits of the Language poets are put in perspective stringently, in that order. The origin of this genre, Language poetry dates back to 1971 with a New York-based magazine, which then about seven years later was eventually turned into one called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. The foremost influences were Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Louis Zukofsky. But, broadly the movement’s initiatives drew inspirations from sometimes the anti-capitalist, and sometimes Marxist ideas from the writings of Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Michael Foucault. While all them were French, Barthes and Foucault were philosophers, and Lacan was a psychoanalyst. The major representative women poets from this genre are Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe (all of them were immensely influenced by Emily Dickinson). As mentioned before, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman and Bob Perelman form the core group of their male counterparts. On a different note, it might as well be just a matter of coincidence that even the broad traits of the Language poets can be classified into five.

  • Narrative: No story, no larger picture, no overall connective bone holding together the anatomies of composition, viewpoints, or arguments. The thoughts are random, the observations, and hence their expressions. If not delved deeply with poetic and linguistic intent, the works may read like nonsensical nuanced gibberish to the average readership.
  • Personal expression: Randomness doesn’t necessarily mean lack of meaning. The poems produced by the Language poets are not merely detached or devoid of depth. This, however, stands in contradiction with Barthes' philosophy that the author doesn’t exist.
  • Form structure:  Focused to mostly construct on lines, stanzas seem to be of the least importance for the Language poets. There is no conscious effort to guide the reader or the listener through the dimensions of a poem. There is no beacon here, just the vast ocean. Active participation of the readership is thus enabled.
  • Ideology: Promoting openness and democracy in the act of reading and discussing which primarily draws influences from Williams (William Carlos), and the Black Mountain School poets consisting of Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, among others. They advocated a term called ‘projective-verse’ – a non-traditional approach to a kind of composition based on natural rhythmic variations of breath and utterances of speech. On this same note, one can carelessly comment that the constrained use of words in Perelman’s CM, then, falls apart. But it is in the hesitation, in the inability of speech to define someone’s death that the variation scintillates.
  • Theme: Bourgeois values of the late 20th century are not only touched upon frequently but highlighted assiduously.
Temblor magazine's first issue
Temblor magazine's first issue

As it is already seen hitherto, that the sentences are left incomplete. While for Perelman (and how he reads the poem) it’s the constant hunt for apt words which eventually turns into the dearth of it, for the reader (and a listener), things turn out differently. For Perelman, it’s the struggle to be articulate; for the audience, it becomes the anticipation of its uncertainty. Someone, then, in that sense, can never be quite certain what those missing words or thoughts were. The filling-in of the blanks is done by the reader and that too, actively. The guesswork translates in the consanguinity between the reader and the narrator (or the poet), and hence, CM is a prime example of a crafty Language poem. Not only its content is moving, but its form also engages. Bob Perelman said that even he himself didn't know where most of the sentences were going. A line like, ‘Economics is not my strong.’ is more obvious to complete than, say, ‘The clock face and the.

Against the impulsive itch to

Some sentences make us complete them in our heads impulsively, rather instinctively. ‘Midnight the pain is almost.’ can be completed with ‘unbearable’, ‘intolerable’, or simply ‘too much’. This is also a point in the close-reading of CM where graver issues relating to language and meaning-making are being addressed. Why this impulsive itch to complete these sentences in the first place? This is one of the more pertinent concerns that the Language poets were trying to deal with at its core – the chronological norms of sequencing in narration, and the order underlying in meaning-making. Every time a story doesn't quite fit the structures of the start, the plot, the end in that order, we have learned to bash it. Every instance a novel doesn't quite do that, it goes down as a failure. Before the Language poets, the two pioneers who were trying to break free of these notions were Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein. They, with their outrageously alternate approach to poetry and prose, audacious use of unconventional punctuations, bizarre figures of speech, devices and ingenious use of repetition in narration were trying to fight the mentality prevailing in literature to take language for granted. Its meanings, its connotations, and its paraphrasing. Perelman also hints at the irony here that to indicate pain or loss we have naturally trained our intellectual minds to use a word like 'unbearable' or ‘intolerable'. In this digital age, where our fingers do not even type a whole sentence to send out a text from our portable screens, what he is advocating that we should sometimes try to stop making sense, that in the spaces of a poem like CM given its context, we shouldn't be auto-filling at all.

Carrying on the discussion of openness to interpretation on the same tangent, then one may come up with a logical question. Why not deploy a form akin to that of a prose poem rather than using constrained quatrains? Dickinson, the giant that she is in modern poetics, will again inevitably return here to be discussed. She consciously used punctuations like the em-dash to signify openness which was essential in her notion of what language meant and what one dwelled upon and derived out of it. So, to answer the question, if the same sort of openness (if not more) exists in the incomplete 5 word-lines in Perelman's CM, well, it certainly does. The reader is endowed with the power and authority to choose their words. Their own language, own form, own context, own connotations. Basically, CM can belong as much to them as it belongs to Perelman or for that matter, Lee Hickman.

The work of periods is finesse. To begin with, they’re heart-wrenching. Their use in themselves is such a sublime juxtaposition of a faux incompletion and a faux finality. Cutting a line off is analogous to cutting off a person's life. Each period denotes death. This not only bashes the never-ending debate of 'form versus content' with 'form and content', but also proves that Bob Perelman's choice of matter and structure is one of the sincerest versions of avant-gardism.

Five words can say only

A poem like CM produces a lot of memorable lines. Lines which stay with you after you finish reading the poem. Since AIDS was at its more aggressive stages when Perelman heard of the terminal ailment which eventually would take Hickman’s life, lines like, ‘You’d think people would have. / Or that they would invent.’ is a direct critique to the medical world that maybe finding the cure for such a disease should’ve been someone’s top priority. Be it the pharmaceutical industry or the research fraternity, the idea that the attention wasn’t much actually focused on the preservation of human life appears to be the comment that Perelman is trying to make. As long as the bills are paid, the dues cleared, who cares? ‘The impossibility of the simplest. / So shut the fucking thing.’ is a reflection on Perelman’s own state of mind which could easily have shaped into frustration. All he had to do was write a simple note, or a short eulogy, a traditional elegy for that matter to show his condolences. Yet, he chose a complicated weird constraint to express his grief. It’s in his constant dwelling to do a simple task, and yet not, is what makes the poem so powerful in its stature. Another moving line is ‘The coffee sounds intriguing but.’ How many times have we declined a friend’s offer to meet-up or have a cup of coffee just because we were busy, or that a deadline was approaching, or we had to attend to one of those errands which could have waited? It would be as haunting as seeing a ghost in the middle of one day to learn about a friend's death on the other. The reader yearns for that meet-up to have actually happened. Because after death, no reason, no excuse of one's unavailability matters. It's the only finality. ‘Five words can say only.' may very well be the most concise 5 word summary of the whole poem. Some of these lines can naturally be read meta-poetically. ‘Now put your pencils down.’ is again a harsh critique on the rigid educational systems, the written school exam-based evaluation. Lines such as, ‘I remember the look in. / It was the first time.' are deeply personal and nostalgic. They transcend from the space of the story of Hickman associated with CM. Anyone who has experienced loss can connect to it as movingly as Perelman did. Bob Perelman once said in a comment on CM that each line is ‘five words of being alive.’ As much as the poem is about untimely death, it can very well be about cherishing life. A line like ‘Come what may it can’t.’ supports this claim. In that regard, maybe each line in CM is an elegy. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition to be able to communicate that each set of these 5 words merely are not trying to define death but also reminding what it’s like to be alive.

Bob Perelman has an MA in Classics. And yet, he rejects the use of meter as radically and fundamentally as possible. As we speak that he chose a constraint of using only five words in each sentence, he's also at the same time going against the tradition of the use of metrical feet to complete a thought or expression. His choice of 5 as a number was arbitrary for the most part since he dwelled with 3, 4, and 6 for a while before deciding on 5, but it seems only logical that 5 was meant to be satirical towards the Shakespearean sonnets and Wordsworthian ballads. Instead of 5 metrical feet (iambic pentameter – the most common metrical form in the history of the English language), Perelman employs 5 words. This becomes the new meter. In the act, in its destruction lies the construction. Let's face it, in the poetic space of a traditional metrical poem, one can anticipate a sense of arrival, a sense of certainty of the stresses, but in CM, it is not the case. Death might be certain for Hickman in its eventuality but not in its timing. Going back to the ratios of metaphors and conceits which the queen, Emily Dickinson so subtly applied, there are ratios here too if one is willing to go further a step in the close-reading of CM. In proportion, what these poetic lines of Bob Perelman are to Ron Silliman's new sentences (in Albany) is analogous to what 5 metrical feet of William Shakespeare is to only 5 words of Bob Perelman. This, thus, not only is the new meter but becomes the new sensibility.

Cover of the sixth issue of the Temblor magazine, where some poems of Bob Perelman appeared
Cover of the sixth issue of the Temblor magazine, where some poems of Bob Perelman appeared

Frank O’ Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’ shows how and why it is more human to eulogize someone through personal experiences and private emotional outbursts instead of the strict, archaic grind of an elegy. Here, Perelman reflects on how Lee Hickman's sudden death affected him artistically and linguistically. The grave sense of being off from life and his work, the dawning truth that he, Bob could no longer submit to the Temblor magazine, and even if he did, Hickman would no longer be editing the issues are so heart-wrenching that the conventional perimeters of poetry fall apart like a pack of cards in a hurricane.

Traditional elegies or obituaries try to derive meaning out of the death a person. CM doesn’t. The readership engages in memorializing, remembering the person. Even if Bob did complete all the sentences in CM, would that be able to narrate death? These are questions Perelman asks as much as he answers them. Imposition of narrative that converges on non-narrative is one of the strongest forces that drive the Language poets. The rejection of closure in this poem is what makes it harrowingly beautiful. ‘Midnight the pain is almost.' Indeed, it is.

Sophistically entertaining

When asked if he shall or would write another poem based on CM's form and structure, Perelman said that he will definitely not. That it would be quite ‘lame’ to write a poem like CM every time someone he admired or was close to died. Also, he commented that some sentences in Chronic Meanings weren't incomplete and that there was no rigidity in terms of his thoughts that each and every sentence absolutely had to be. ‘You don’t have that choice.’ is one of them. Not knowing Lee too well also gave him a sense of freedom in poetic composition and literary expression, Perelman believes.

In an audio recording, Bob Perelman reads CM at a brisk pace. The rickety, stunted rhythm makes one gasp for air. It makes one suffocate. The grim intonation is the closest connotation to death. Also, the idea that each one of us can work on the poem to derive at our own unique personal meaning is breathtaking. In that sense, again, CM can be as many poems as many the readers. Hints that there is a strong connection between psychology (psychotherapy) and poetry can be validated by a few intriguing arguments. Free association of words by a reader (a patient) can be deemed similar to the creative process of a poet. The strategy to condense is also associated with a poet’s act of abstraction during rounds of editing.

For the Language poets, context appears to carry less weight. The focus is shifted on making the written word more democratic, more inclusive, more secular, encouraging lively collaboration with the readership, and thus enabling openness in the narrative, spurring debates about interpretation, and widening the boundaries of conventional connotation in language. Arguably, the most moving stanza in the poem seems to inherit all the above-mentioned properties:

“On our wedding night I.
The sorrow burned deeper than.
Grimly I pursued what violence.
A trap, a catch, a.”

The decision by Bob Perelman to choose 5 words finally occurred to him as being natural in speech. He said that it felt just right, saying neither too much nor too little. As it is established earlier that while the number itself is a satirical take on the use of meter (iambic specifically), the choice of using 5 might not be completely random after all. In The Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver, she presents evidence why iambic pentameter (unrhymed blank verse) is the most common metrical form employed in the English language. The collection of 10 syllables in total (5 metrical feet each consisting of 2 syllables - one unstressed, the other stressed) coincides with the natural room of a single relaxed human breath. While a line like an alexandrine (perfect iambic hexameter) may leave one to gasp for breath; tetrameter may allow room for an extra word or two. As a result of all the above observations, it can be safely said that this new meter of using only 5 words works magically to commemorate Lee Hickman’s untimely death.

Works of Language poets like Bob Perelman are not only relevant but a necessity in this day and age. They span language to reveal its full potential for paradoxes, ambiguities, fragmentations, and self-assertion while still being in a constant state of chaos and contradiction. It is revolutionary in their idea of post-modernism in poetry that they reject ‘metanarratives’, ideologies, dogmas, conventions, doubting the very existence of transcendental reality and accepted forms of truth. They, like their poetry, want to preserve the present. They oppose closed forms, hierarchies, categorical genres and canonical texts. Rejecting rigid interpretation, they welcome proactive communion.

To conclude, Language poetry is a clever art. Sophistically entertaining. Perhaps, to old ears and dilapidated minds, it can be gauged as less ‘poetic' as it undoubtedly shies away from larger responsibilities but it did anticipate our capitalistic and consumeristic world buried in news headlines, billboard snippets and political turmoils. Reality is catching up with art like a sheriff behind a runaway convict. Perhaps, here, the art lies in making it less ‘artsy.’ Now, at this moment, it must be midnight somewhere in the world, and the pain will certainly be almost.

Bob Perelman; Source: The Poetry Project
Bob Perelman; Source: The Poetry Project

Tuhin Bhowal is a Bengaluru-based poet.

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