Poems are Made out of Words

I remember having this epic fight conversation with a poet-friend from college about aesthetics and art and literature. I'm not sure exactly what brought it on, or particularly why I thought my side of the argument was in any way defensible, but it came back to me recently. So as I'm wont to do, here's a post in review of these thoughts.

Act One: Poems are Just Words

I think in the first iteration of the argument, I took the opinion that poems existed (mostly) to transcend the experience of the written word on the page. That the project of poetry was about getting past words and constructing some sort of image or transcendent experience, or something.

Did I mention that I wasn't a poet? I'm not. Not at all. I'm not even particularly good at reading poetry. I've sometimes written poems, and even I am a good enough reader to tell that they're crap.

In any-case, H.S.'s argument was that poems were just words on paper (or screens) [1] and that's it. That writing itself is an act of putting words together, and experimenting with how words come together in (quasi) fixed mediums. And nothing more.

I don't really know what my beef in this argument was. This was certainly before I started writing again. I guess my argument was that writing was simply an imperfect means of conveying an idea, and the real work and creativity of "being a writer" was really in coming up with good ideas and practical logic that illustrates your arguments.

And while that's true, from one perspective if you squint at things the right way, I don't think it's really true about writing as a whole, and certainly not creative projects. It might be true that that's a pretty good summary of academic writing, particularly entry level academic writing, but I'm not sure.

When I find writing that I'm impressed with, I keep coming back to the idea that it's just "words on the page," and somehow that makes. My skill--insofar as I have one--and the asset that makes me employable (I think) is the fact that I can turn ideas and thoughts (which are thick on the ground) into something useful and understandable by normal folk.

Act Two: Rethinking William Gibson

So, ok, lets be honest. I don't really like William Gibson's work very much. I thought Neuromancer expressed a social commentary that was totally obvious almost instantly, and it hadn't stood the test of time particularly well, and I felt it sort of read like the rehab journal of an addict who hadn't quite cleaned up entirely. This was just my reaction on reading it, and not a particularly well reasoned critique.

I mean I will acknowledge the book's impact, and I think I read it too late which probably accounts for my reaction. And although I responded so poorly to it, I don't really have a lot of a problem with literature that is of its time. In any case, I was thinking about Gibson recently, and casually comparing him to some other writers, and I found myself saying (of another writer of the cyberpunk ilk), pretty much without realizing it:

...which is fine, except [they] didn't have Gibson's literary chops. I mean Gibson's work is incredibly frustrating but his writing is superb.

And I sort of realized after I'd said the above, that I had inadvertently conceded the argument from Act One, years later. Sure there's a lot of idealism in writing, but writers aren't differentiated on the basis of how awesome their ideas are. It all comes down to how they put the words together.


The side effect of this transposition is that, somehow, I've started to be able to read (and enjoy) short stories more than I ever was before. And much to my surprise, I've been writing the end of this (damned) novel as a sequence of short stories. At least in how I've been thinking of it. I could go on with more and additional examples, but I think I better leave it at that for now. Thoughts? Anyone?

[1]Or in my case emacs buffers.
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