On Association

Christopher Kempf Click to read more...

Christopher Kempf is a Ph D student in English Literature at the University of Chicago and a former Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford.  A recipient of a 2015 Fellowship from the NEA, he has had work in Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online and The New Republic.  He received his MFA from Cornell.

It is an acknowledged truth that the dominant mode in contemporary poetry is the associative. A cursory glance through the nation’s top journals, or at its most prestigious first-book prizes or its most celebrated contemporary anthologies— at those points, that is, where the zeitgeist most dynamically asserts itself— reveals the extent to which associative poetry has entrenched itself as the lingua franca of American poets. Precisely what those poets mean, however, when they— when we— call a poem “associative” remains, like the mode itself, much more unsettled.

Over the last few years a handful of poet-essayists have attempted to pin down this fugitive sensibility, and in that time a set of shared characteristics has emerged amounting to a loose, working definition of the associative mode. What seems fundamental to association, acknowledged in nearly every description of it, is its effort to represent in language the movement of the 21st-century mind. Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls associative poetry a “transcription, as it were, of an interior monologue” in which “thoughts may develop from each other through casual associations and lead nowhere in particular.” Tony Hoagland notes that “the aspect of self such poems most forcefully represent is its quicksilver uncatchability,” and in his preface to the Legitimate Dangers anthology edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, Mark Doty suggests that associative poetry is a “representation of temperament / subjectivity / thinking in the moment.”

Beyond its attempt to register the mind in action, or perhaps because of this attempt, associative poetry seems also characterized by what Joshua Mehigan calls a “whimsical discontinuity” that includes “nonsequential thinking, ellipsis, or dream-like imagery.” Carl Phillips identifies this same sense of discontinuity. “By associative poetry,” he writes, “I mean poetry that works almost entirely by means of association— no connecting narrative pieces, often no syntactical connection, poetry that is characterized by leaps not just from stanza to stanza, but from one image to the next in ways that do not immediately make sense…” The discontinuity of the associative mode is an aesthetic response to the frenetic, anti-hierarchical experience of postmodernity, an experience in which the human psyche, assaulted by cable news and News Feeds, Twitter and text messages, suffers from a kind of perpetual attention-deficit disorder, leaping about, as these poems do, from one perception to the next.

But if the associative mode has its raison d’être in the experience of the 21st-century consciousness, it first formed itself, as do all poetic movements, against the poetic mode directly preceding it, namely the narrative mode that dominated American poetry throughout the second half of the 20th century. Among associative poets there exists a profound suspicion of narrative and of narrative poems, a sense that such poetry represents a false, or at least outdated, response to postmodern reality. The rhetoric of narrative poetry, associative poets might argue, functions as exactly that— a glib, rhetorical simplification of a reality in excess of and resistant to the meaning imposed upon it by the organizing narrative voice.

Describing the rhetoric of the narrative mode, and suggesting the artifice behind such a mode, Charles Altieri points out that the poet’s craft “must be made unobtrusive so that the work appears spoken in a natural voice. […] There must be,” he goes on, “a ‘studied artlessness’ that gives a sense of spontaneous personal sincerity; and there must be a strong movement toward emphatic closure, a movement carried on primarily by the poet’s manipulation of narrative structure.” It’s this last point especially to which associative poets object, arguing that narrative’s sudden, epiphanic illuminations reinforce the mistaken assumption that traditional structures of meaning-making, whether poetic or socio-cultural, remain firmly in place in the postmodern era. Instead, associative poets prefer, as Dumanis and Marvin put it, “a poem complicated and ambivalent in its emotions in the same way all people are more complicated and ambivalent than they initially let on,” a poem, that is, “reflecting the consciousness of our time.”

In substituting for the reductive, somewhat naive perspective of narrative poetry a more rigorous style properly mimetic of contemporary subjectivity, association recalls high Modernism’s attempt to distance itself from the antiquated sentimentality of the Romantics, an attitude, most modernists felt, no longer valid in the wake of the first World War. Williams himself traces the origin of associative poetry not to the second but to the first half of the 20th century, in writers like Pound and Eliot, for whom the mode prohibited a more direct focus on the “thing in itself.” In the Prologue to Kora in Hell, written in 1920, Williams contends that “the true value [of poetry] is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The associational […] value is the false. Its imposition is due to lack of imagination, to an easy lateral sliding.”

Such “lateral sliding” aptly characterizes our own era’s associative poetry, but in the 1920s it represented for Williams a disastrous setback in poetry’s effort to render, clearly and sharply, the objective world in which poetry had its roots. The Waste Land, he felt, “wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it. […] I felt at once,” he writes in his Autobiography, “that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself— rooted in the locality which should give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was most defeated.” At stake in Williams’ objection is the question as to what kind of mimetic response poetry should bring to bear on reality, whether an objective mimesis of the world and its objects— a red wheelbarrow, some Elsie, etc.— or a mimesis, as Williams found in Pound and Eliot, of the mind confronting and ordering this world.

Yet this dichotomy, pointed out by Williams and echoed by critics up to the present day, is in many ways a false one, for both Pound and Eliot began their careers as imagists committed, like Williams, to capturing the hard reality of the world around them. Pound’s “petals on a wet, black bough,” for example, or Eliot’s “pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” could just as easily have been written by Williams himself. Moreover, even these writers’ more associative work, the long poems to which Williams most objected, are ordered in relation to the external world. Both The Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos, that is, are structured by allusions whose organizing logic lies, at least in part, in the cultural, economic, and historical traditions out of which these poems are written; those traditions may be difficult even for educated readers to identify— “what the thunder said” is certainly not “I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox” — but the associations between them nonetheless refer constantly back to objective reality.

Here, for example, are the opening lines of the Pisan Cantos:

The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders
Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,
Thus Ben and la Clara a Milano
by the heels at Milano
That maggots shd / eat the dead bullock
DIGONOS, Δίγονος, but the twice crucified
where in history will you find it?

This is no red wheelbarrow, to be sure, but the passage’s use of association is oriented, as David Perkins points out, toward the external world. The “’peasant’s bent shoulders,’” he explains, “may refer to Benito Mussolini (‘Ben’ in Pound’s brash way of talking). ‘Manes,’
founder of the Manichaean religion, was crucified[…] ‘Thus’ or analogously with Mussolini and his mistress, whose dead bodies were hung up by the heels at Milan.” […] The image of massive strength in the bullock connects with the peasant and with Mussolini. DIGONOS
in Roman and then in Greek letters evokes the god Dionysus. Bringer of a new religion and a new culture, Dionysus makes a subject rhyme with Manes and Mussolini.

Perkins’s reading demonstrates here the extent to which Pound’s use of association is organized not by reference to any interiorized self or, recalling Doty, a “temperament / subjectivity / thinking in the moment,” but to objective connections between real-world phenomena. We might bristle, of course, at Pound’s sympathetic treatment of Mussolini, but the image of him “twice crucified”— as Perkins glosses it, the dictator’s body was “first trampled and hacked by the mob and then strung up”— is as objectively rendered as almost anything in Williams.

If our contemporary form of association traces its genealogy back to the poetry of the high Moderns, however, it departs from this poetry in the logic by which its associative leaps are organized. For where Pound, Eliot, and even Williams order their association through reference to the external world— to objects certainly, but also to history and economics and art— contemporary associative poets most often order their writing through reference to the self. Here, for example, is Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror / 1”:

The generalissimo’s glands directed him
to and fro. Geronimo! said the über-goon
we called God, and we were off to the races.
Never mind that we could only grow
gray things, that inspecting the horses’ gums
in the gymnasium predicted a jagged
road ahead. We were tired of hard news—
it helped to turn down our hearing aids.
We could already all do impeccable imitations
of the idiot, his insistent incisors working on
a steak as he said there’s an intimacy to invasion.
That much was true. When we got jaded
about joyrides, we could always play games
in the kitchen garden with the prisoners.
Jump the Gun, Fine Kettle of Fish and Kick
the Kidney were our favorites. The laws
the linguists thought up were particularly
lissome, full of magical loopholes that
spit out medals. We had made the big time,
but night still nipped at our heels.
The navigator’s needle swung strangely,
oscillating between the oilwells
and ask again later. We tried to pull ourselves
together by practicing quarterback sneaks
along the pylons, but the race to the ravine
was starting to feel as real as the R.I.P.’s
and roses carved into rock. Suddenly the sight
of a schoolbag could send us scrambling.

Harvey’s modified abecedarian depicts childhood as a kind of horse race to an ominous, overwhelming future, an experience in which the innocent play of youth anticipates the more sinister behavior of adults in a postmodern, politically threatening global landscape. Thus, a passage like “we could always play games/ in the kitchen garden with the prisoners” straddles the line between imagination and international relations, just as the “schoolbag” functions as both childhood accoutrement and weapon of mass destruction.

While a discernible cluster of ideas does emerge in “The Future of Terror / 1,” much of the poem remains inaccessible to us, locked in a private system of reference to which we remain barred. Who, for example, are “the linguists” and why are their laws “lissome, full of magical loopholes that/ spit out medals”? Do the “generalissimo’s glands” and “gray things” of the poem’s opening act as anything more than a kind of warming-up for the poem proper? And while we might follow the allusions to oil prices and Magic 8-balls toward which the “navigator’s needle” swings, where, exactly, does this navigator come from? In contrast to the external, socio-historical connections among Pound’s associative leaps, Harvey’s allusions are linked by their reference to an organizing mind recollecting its past.

Like much of our contemporary associative poetry, “The Future of Terror / 1” strikes a difficult balance between a fast-paced mimesis of the mind in action and the careful aesthetic construction that makes the poem legible, as art, to an audience beyond the self. Describing this balance, Phillips points to the way in which the ostensible mimesis of the associative mode is, like the narrative mode preceding it, in part illusory. “The task for the writer of the associative poem,” Phillips says, “is to give the impression that something has been written in total freedom when in fact that freedom has been necessarily compromised by […] the degree to which what we are writing is intelligible to an audience we are pretending does not exist.”

A similar balance is struck in Michael Robbins’ “Confessional Poem”:

You had a woodchuck and an opium ball.
The one ate through the furniture,
the other sat in its cage depressing me.
Now the woodchuck sheds its skin.
I have a cow behind the Dollar Bin.

You shouldn’t drink diarrhea
unless you bring enough for everybody.
Turn it into a teaching moment.
Asian-American Students for Christ
have the room until 2:30.

Rumi says no donkey is a virgin,
no, nor any beast that bites the grass.
Maybe it sounds better in Persian.
An unseen force propels the carts
across the Whole Foods parking lot.

The woodchuck hasn’t been born yet
I’d rather keep than you as a pet.
You’ll sleep on wood shavings, I’ll comb your pelt.
That animal loved you, his captor,
whom he hated. I know just how he felt.

Like Eliot’s and Pound’s long poems, Robbins’ parodic “Confessional Poem” is riddled with cultural allusions, and like Harvey’s poem there’s meaning to be made here. The poem begins, for instance, by lampooning confessional poetry’s trendy revealing of— and reveling in— major depressive disorders, as suggested by the speaker’s “hav[ing] a cow behind the Dollar Bin.” In the same way, it inverts in the second stanza the pat clichés— “unless you bring enough for everybody,” “teaching moment”— on which our culture too often relies, critiquing the lack of sophistication in a society in which religion has displaced rationality and in which Rumi, to this day the best-selling poet in this country, is appropriated as a kind of New Age spiritualist.

The poem seems to express a wry ambivalence to the fact that out of such a culture poetry itself must be made; thus its final stanza oscillates between the need to coddle the “you” reader by approaching him on a level— and with a language— he can understand and the consequent hatred of that reader for compromising the poet’s aesthetic commitment. “Confessional Poem” might be read, then, as an allegory for associative poetry itself, particularly the way such poetry seeks a balance between documenting the idiosyncratic postmodern subjectivity— I still can’t make sense of Robbins’ woodchuck or opium ball or donkey— and, on the other side of this balance, its commitment to an audience with what might be a vastly different set of cultural references.

When this balance is lost, when association shades into dissociation and a poem’s allusions seem too anarchistic, the poem becomes self-indulgent, its allusions a kind of private reference or inside joke to which the reader is not privy. Dissociative poetry— a term which characterizes much of our contemporary writing— brands itself as mysterious, postmodern, or playful when in fact such poetry tends more toward obfuscation, clumsily executed and, at worst, devoid of meaning. “Cute and empty” Mehigan calls this poetry; “privileging the arty over art itself,” says Phillips.

Here’s Heather Christle’s “Letter to My Love”:

Dear lord, you are no back-breaking orchid.
You will give that man your last dollar.
When I meet you, lord, I curtsy, chop and mitigate
the customs, and you, my muff-diving butternut
go whooping through the corridor like it’s the last
day of summer and you’re Mr. Moneybags
reminding us all to tread sloppy water.
Lord, I saw the kettles gather in the stonefields.
I saw the miniscus fall asleep.
When the masons shook their glory
from their bright and feathered hairdos
I turned away, lord, turned to see you
gallop down the highway. Where were you
headed? Even now, a light year
from that beating, I want to know.

The poem is a competent postmodern lyric of the sort that one finds flipping at random through any of the nation’s top journals. There’s strong writing here— “When the masons shook their glory/ from their bright and feathered hairdos” is gorgeous iambic tetrameter— and there’s even the vague suggestion of a kind of narrative meaning, as the speaker confronts a patriarchal figure with whom she exists in vexed relationship, both subject to and flouting that figure’s authority. But the images in the poem— “back-breaking orchid,” “Mr. Moneybags/ reminding us all to tread sloppy water”— fail to cohere into any kind of meaningful association, and the lack of connective tissue between them creates the impression of a forced, deliberate strangeness; put another way, the poem simply tries too hard to be weird.

The cultivated obscurity of “Letter to My Love” situates the poem as part of what W.S. Di Piero calls “the new hermeticism,” a term Di Piero coined in 1981 but which hasn’t, I don’t think, received as much critical attention as it deserves. Lacking “clarity of context,” the poetry of the new hermeticism is a kind of “privileged concealment” in which “evocativeness takes precedence over definiteness” and “the world of things exists primarily as a pretext for fanciful metaphor.” As a result, Di Piero argues, the new hermeticism “estranges speech from its social origins and stands aloof from poetry’s traditional work of quarreling with human and divine orders.”

It’s to this estrangement from the social that I want to turn in the second half of this essay, for one effect of the contemporary dissociative mode has been further to alienate poetry’s already disaffected popular readership, its readers, that is, beyond the halls of academia and the poetry world itself. My aim here is not some “Is Poetry Dead?”/”Can Poetry Matter?” hand-wringing examination of conscience, but to explore rather how dissociation, in privileging ultimately private systems of meaning and reference, turns its back on an American public for whom poetry— despite the premature postmortems for it that seem to pop up every month or so now— remains a vital and valued art.

The problem is an old one. Like the associative mode, the divorce between poetry and its public reaches back to the high Moderns, in particular their effort to supplant an overly saccharin Romanticism with a poetry of wit and intellect, a neo-Metaphysical poetry in which the philosophical and literary tradition itself became the dominant point of reference. And this tension, between erudition and emotion, intellectual rigor and popular appeal, has been a persistent source of anxiety for poets throughout the 20th century to the present day.

In a 1951 essay entitled “The Obscurity of the Poet,” Randall Jarrell lays the blame for poetry’s growing irrelevance at the feet of the public, arguing that the technological innovations of the 20th century— including those same media from which associative poetry adopts its frantic, distracted leaping— have destroyed, he says, “in a great many people even the capacity for understanding real poetry, real art of any kind.” Citing a 1950 survey which revealed that 48% of Americans read no book at all that year, Jarrell suggests that “people who have inherited the custom of not reading poets justify it by referring to the obscurity of the poems they have never read.” Instead of “having to perceive, to enter, and to interpret” poems as independent works of art, Jarrell argues, the American reader “can notice at a glance whether or not these pay lip service to his own ‘principles,’ and can then praise or blame them accordingly.”

Attractive as Jarrell’s narrative of cultural decline may be to contemporary poets, including myself, who mourn the loss of a wider, more democratic audience for poetry, there’s nonetheless a real contempt for the American public here. Reminiscent of the New Criticism’s effort to entrench the difficult, Modernist poem within the halls of academia, Jarrell’s argument also anticipates the spurning of the public characteristic of our own dissociative mode. In fact, I’d argue, the average American reader still very much cherishes the idea of poets and of poetry, and not simply in a fuzzy, overly romantic, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-by-the-fireside kind of way.

An almost weekly conversation in the workshop of which I’m a part is whether, when asked on planes or in doctors’ offices or on first dates what one does for a living, one responds with “I’m a writer” or “I’m a poet.” The latter, the consensus seems to hold, conjures images of a pale, hypersensitive waif dying of consumption in a gutter or, conversely, some doe-eyed bohemian dancing through fields of sunflowers. But it’s precisely to counter these images, I think, that one should call oneself a poet in the first place, to lend an actual, human face to the term, and in so doing to insist that poetry, far from the cultivation of some hermetically-sealed interiority, is an act that belongs in the real world of 21st-century America— on airplanes, in doctors’ offices, on first dates, and in the countless other social settings in which poetry has its origin.

When I tell people I’m a poet, their responses are more often than not enthusiastic. They tell me about their uncle who was a poet, or about how their mother read Frost to them when they were children, or about a workshop they took as an undergraduate. Before surgery a few weeks ago, as the nurse hooked up the IV tubes and clipped the pulse monitor to my finger, she asked what I did for a living, and when I told her I wrote poetry her face lit up; she told me that her niece, an eleven-year-old, had just won a poetry competition at her middle school, and as she wheeled me down the hall to the operating room she said that she’d look for my poems online. These anecdotes might be sentimental, but they suggest both the enduring vitality of poetry and the excitement it can still generate in a popular American audience. When dissociation flouts this human vitality, however, when it eschews what I’ve called the connective tissue that might bind it more closely to the social, it’s no wonder that whatever audience once existed for American poetry has given up on it.

Anticipating what Di Piero diagnoses as the new hermeticism, Perkins argues that “poetry in the modern world has become so self-conscious and specialized that it is in danger of sealing itself off from life. It is so on the defensive against larger genres that it feels the temptation to abandon the field, retreating into acknowledged littleness.” Likewise, in a short essay in The Washington Post last year, Alexandra Petri argued that “what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing.” These writers couldn’t be more wrong. For despite the way dissociation threatens to turn poetry in on itself, sealing it off from our shared cultural experience, there exists today an abundance of exciting, sophisticated work being written in the associative mode, work which strikes that crucial balance between private and public and which preserves both intellectual and aesthetic rigor while joining the self, sometimes fitfully, to the society of which it’s a part.

Here, for example, is Victoria Chang’s “Today my daughter”:

Today my daughter wants to be a waitress when she
grows up she doesn’t know that a waitress is
not a boss that a waitress takes orders from everyone
that a waitress must run to a bell to the

phone to the customer to the supervisor who is super
bossy and wears a greasy visor
yesterday my daughter wanted to be a pet doctor
the Barbie book has fuzzy pets furry pets

cute pets with small noses Barbie doesn’t show her
missing finger from the cute pet that bit it off
the Barbie is not the boss the dog is the boss Ken is
the boss of the dog who likes the dog in a

pink outfit who likes Barbie in little skirts with little hips
if a perfect woman like Barbie is not the boss then
who can ever be the boss even the man in HR the man
who can fire everyone cannot be the boss

because he has a boss who hired him who can fire
him and even the man who hired the HR man
has a boss who can fire him there are fires all over
Japan right now the fire and water both want

to be the boss all the bosses in Japan lost their jobs
lost their limbs bob in water no longer care
about Bob the boss in America no longer
care about cost

Chang’s poem is associative to the core, its images joined by a logic that constantly turns this poem outward, to the world, while retaining a powerful emotional resonance. Refusing the reductiveness of narrative structure, but refusing too to slip into hermeticism, or to a posed, artificial strangeness, the poem almost literally spirals out— no other verb seems to capture the dizzying effect of the syntax here— from the personal to the political, linking her daughter’s play to gender politics in corporate America to the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

If, as Perkins argues, poetry in the postmodern era has retreated to minor themes, leaving politics and philosophy, economics and ecology to other fields and more relevant art forms, Chang’s use of association reminds us that poetry can be big again, that it was and is a major art worthy of taking on the most pressing public crises of our day. And those crises are many. But so are we. Di Piero writes that the poetry of the new hermeticism “ignores the disciplines of remembrance” but we should remember now that the root of “association” is the social, and that the word in Latin originally denoted the “action of coming together,” “a body of persons with a common purpose.” So may it mean again.

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