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What is experimental writing? Part 2: Poetry - The Open College of the Arts
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What is experimental writing? Part 2: Poetry

In David Morley’s poetry collection, Scientific Papers (Carcanet, 2002) each poem can be understood as a kind of experiment. A few years ago I interviewed Morley and he elaborated on this idea:

Having written scientific papers in their real sense, and having written poems at the same time, I’m not making a joke by saying that actually I think that the act or the tension that you apply within a scientific experiment or paradigm is the same as you might find in the making of a poem.

But what is ‘the act or the tension’ applied within a scientific experiment and how is it the same as the act or tension in the making of a poem? Perhaps it has something to do with the composition process of a poem, whereby the poet does not know at the start of the process what the finished poem will look like. 

In that sense, any kind of creative writing – a poem, a play, a story, etc. – is an experiment. A person sets about creating something utterly new, something that hasn’t existed before, and has often very little idea what the end product will be like. But I believe that some kinds of writing are more ‘experimental’ than others. 

In a lot of contemporary poetry, it’s fair to say poets use words in ways we’re accustomed to; that is, their syntax and grammar form recognisable sentences that allows us to follow their meaning. But there’s a long history of experimental writers who disrupt meaning, or who experiment in myriad other ways – for example by writing prose poetry, found poetry, sound poetry, or by using fragments and collage techniques. 

Poets associated with contemporary experimental movements such as the Cambridge School and Language Poetry (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as it’s sometimes written) draw attention to the artifice of language, denying readers any easy opportunities to make immediate sense of their work. Some of the poets associated with Language poetry include Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Ron Silliman. Michael Parmer, Leslie Scalapino, Charles Bernstein and Rae Armantrout. They don’t take meaning for granted, but experiment with vocabulary, grammar, syntax, shape and subject matter. They recognise that language shapes the way we see the world, and challenge what may be unacknowledged assumptions about how we use words. 

Language poets often take bits of language from other contexts (such as advertisements), and re-situate them in a poem to make them both familiar and unfamiliar. They may use fragmented language, removing the connections that create a sense of narrative, instead inviting the reader to ‘join the dots’ themselves. In this way, they draw attention to the individual reader’s role in creating meaning.

Thinking about some of the concerns of Language poets may be helpful for your work and the ways you’re using language. Language Poetry asks you to look at each word afresh and consider its connotations and associations, which may help develop a more engaged and critical relationship with language, as well as enabling you to spot clichés and predictable word pairings, and move towards a fresh, original and new way of using words: something many poets strive for.

If you’re interested in learning more about Language poetry, you could watch American poet and critic Stephen Burt’s TedTalk, ‘Why people need poetry’ from 2013, a passionate thirteen-minute argument for the value of poetry, which includes a discussion of Rae Armantrout’s poem, ‘The Garden’, an example of a Language poem.

Other experimental writers include Maggie Nelson, whose book Bluets (Jonathan Cape, 2009) is a series of short numbered fragments exploring the colour blue, the eclectic references ranging from Joni Mitchell to Wittgenstein via depression and the colour of the sky. Whether this book is poetry or non-fiction is in the eye of beholder, but it’s certainly erudite, explicit and unique. 

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic (Faber & Faber, 2019) is a collection of poetry presented as a two-act play, telling the story of a village in an occupied country experiencing political unrest. It centres around the killing of a young deaf boy by soldiers, and is interspersed with Makaton signs (drawings of hands, based on the gestures used in British Sign Language), and readers are encouraged to pause and learn each new sign. In this story, deafness can be a form of resistance and defiance, not a disability. Indeed, in interviews Kaminsky observes that he has never regarded his own deafness as a disability. The collection explores language as a form of communication but also as something that can be manipulated, exploited and even hinder communication. The final poem concludes: ‘The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.’

This is just a toe-dip into a wild ocean of experimental writing; the possibilities are endless. Do you think that any kind of creative writing can be understood as an experiment of sorts? Does that make it ‘experimental’, or is there another quality to ‘experimental writing’? Perhaps these labels don’t even matter; what’s important is that as writers we’re free to both invent rules and then free to break them.

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Posted by author: Vicky MacKenzie

2 thoughts on “What is experimental writing? Part 2: Poetry

  • As a visual artist who began professional life as a scientist, this speaks to me. To paraphrase, ’But what is ‘the act or the tension’ applied within a scientific experiment and how is it the same as the act or tension in the making of a work? Perhaps it has something to do with the composition process of an artifact, whereby the maker does not know at the start of the process what the finished work will look like.’ Nor should we, the act of creation is an act of discovery,. If we knew where we were going, it would be no fun. Maybe, when I have completed my Creative Arts degree, I’ll do poetry next.

  • Thanks for posting this Vicky, as a photography student interested in using text with images – this is a really helpful and accessible introduction to experimental poetry. I’m interested in how ‘words’ can be used in a creative sense to question the authority and priority of the ‘written word’ within culture, which as you say, in it’s various guises shapes our reality so understanding how it works seems to be incredibly important.

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