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Moxley & Oswald

Jennifer Moxley, 'Fragments of a Broken Poetics', Chicago Review, Spring 2010


The poet's psychology, visible only to the poet's friends, floats lightly over the surface of the poem. It discolors some words temporarily, but never quite settles into them—provided those words belong together. If so, they will eventually cast off this shadow; if not, it will eventually smother them. Thus, it is the poem, not the poet, that we love. Through it the singular becomes shared, the transitory eternal.


The poet's emotional signature is retained in the poem. Aristotle, in his bipartite model of the soul, places the emotions under the obedient, illogical part, reason with command and logic. Yet both parts are cognitive and partake in the logos. Thought is the efficient cause of emotion. This is why a poem's intelligence is more moving than its heart.


Just as ideas do not precede words, content is inchoate before form. Similarly, experience is inchoate before memory. This Proustian maxim holds true for the poem. Like us, words are ever-changing relics fighting for continued relevance. The poet's job is to preserve this "fossil language" (Emerson). In exchange, the poem returns the illusion of presence, the gift of the now.

Poetic form is the temporal conduit between the past, present, and future. It organizes the senses so that they do not hinder the intellect in its lonely quest toward understanding and, in some cases, unity with something greater than itself.


The poet who foregrounds the surface qualities of the word—sound, texture, look—must be especially scrupulous when building the poem's semantic foundation. Effects should enhance complexity, not replace it, otherwise they risk giving complexity, which already struggles to justify itself, a very bad name.


The poem is responsible for the knowledge it proposes. It cannot account for what the reader does not know, nor should it account for what the reader desires. Any attempt to do so panders to a temporary and insufficient knowledge. The poem is not prophetic. It cannot foresee its relevance to others. And yet still it wants to be loved.


Sleep, to whom Keats partly owes his "worthy rhymes," has long been kin to poetry. Saint-Pol Roux affixing a sign that reads "poet at work" to his bedchamber is the most playful example of this alliance. Both sleep and poetry open a passage to the unconscious, one by nature, the other by artifice. Both create memories of astonishing wakefulness, one through dream, the other through imagination. It is almost impossible to reproduce or transmit such experiences by other means.


Language has no weather, and therefore is not, strictly speaking, an environment.


The poem occupies an invisible zone between the subjective emotional utterance and the objective reporting of fact. It is relative and universal, false and true. Negotiating this contradiction with finesse is crucial to the poem's success.


It is easier to eavesdrop on and denigrate the compassionate, learned, and much interrupted conversation that makes up the history of poetry than it is to participate.

Jennifer Moxley, 'After Language Poetry' (2001)

'On the one hand, "How do you conceive of innovative poetry in America after Language poetry?" could mean, "how is it possible to conceive of such a thing." As if Language poetry foretold the end of all innovation by virtue of its late-century formalist extremism. Strange though this may sound, it is a "position" held by some-poets who feel that we can no longer "make it new," nor should we. In the wake of this belief, some return to the innovative formal programs which preceded Language poetry, writing out of formal ideas connected with Black Mountain, the New York School, Berkeley Renaissance or Beats, ideas that are by no means exhausted, and which continue apace among younger and older writers alike, as if Language poetry never happened.

I've also seen other young writers argue, with some resignation, that though there is "nothing new under the sun," the innovations the Language poets adopted from the European avant-garde are still rich with possibility and there is no good reason to abandon them. The appeal of Language poetry's energy, defiance, politics and, though greatly overlooked in critical writing on their work, fun has spawned an enormous number of adherents, many of whom have written some great poetry in the last couple of decades. However, because Language poetry was the last credible avant-garde in the US to be critically assimilated (a process which is still on-going) all poetry that uses the formal devices they favored (whether radical juxtaposition, paratactic prose, or, for that matter, even field composition!) gets subsumed under the category "Language poetry," not unlike when everything "strange" became "surrealist." Of course, in time all of this will straighten itself out and, to future generations of readers, invisible distinctions will become glaringly obvious, as will the differences among the Language poets themselves.

The question, then, is not perhaps, "how do you conceive of innovative poetry after Language poetry," but rather why would you want to do such a thing? The answer for me, here greatly simplified, is twofold. The first is selfish, "because as a reader one gets bored with the same old kind of poetry!" The second is serious, "because as a poet, the burden is upon me to find the best formal solution to express this particular historical moment in such a way as to expose its logic (or illogic) at every linguistic level, from the intimate life of the individual to the larger geo-political world and on out into the universe.'

Interview with Alice Oswald, with Max Porter, The White Review, 11 (2014)

'I’m intrigued by American poetry at the moment, and somehow (and I can’t do it, so I’m fascinated) they manage to fit thinking into poetry. For me poetry is about making a whole thing that has a life of its own, and then it gets moving outside of itself. But the Americans have this extraordinary capacity to think within a poem, to channel the essay. I really want to find out how to do that.

Ashbery always sounds as if he’s thinking, even when you can’t quite get at the thoughts. Jorie Graham uses those expanding and compressing lines, which defeat the eyes and jumble the body’s rhythms so that your mind sort of breaks open. Dickinson actually exposes the pauses in the brain. They all seem to articulate indecision, as if the poem was writing itself in an unfinished moment. I find that quite invigorating.

Poetry has this close relationship with tradition, so it’s interesting that the English language has two poetries, one of which (the American) is determined to escape its tradition. It’s like an open window in the work-room. Whenever I sit down to write, I have to think through certain questions about form – am I or am I not going to write a sonnet? If I don’t count syllables how do I communicate a tune? If I rhyme, whose voice am I putting on? And sometimes the whiff of America through the window gives me permission to ignore those questions. And then sometimes that permission can become a tyranny. Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara for example are quite pressurising and impatient with their invitations to freedom.


I have quite a problem with the nature poet label, mostly because it might become a name I could wear comfortably and never have to face the confusions that spring up between poems. I’m not a nature poet, but I admit, I do love the company of plants. They are so expressive and patient. There’s an estuary walk which I do almost every day at different times according to the tide (sometimes I have to do it at night), which gives me a very intimate idea of the lives of plants. I can watch every movement of the gesture of a leaf uncurling through a week. I’m addicted to this slow performance. It reminds me that the human perspective is partial. So in that sense, nature poetry is just another kind of metaphysical poetry and is exactly what I like. But I think the best nature poets are Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, because they include the human and the non-human in the same picture. How can you categorise that?'

Alice Oswald, ‘The Universe in Time of Rain Makes the World Alive with Noise’, in A Green Thought in a Green Shade: Poetry in the Garden, ed. Sarah Maguire (London 2000), pp. 35–6.

'Machinery, spade-scrapes, birdsong, gravel, rain on polythene, macks moving, aeroplanes, seeds kept in paper, potatoes coming out of boxes, high small leaves or large head-height leaves being shaken, frost on grass, strimmers, hoses … also, when you look up, (and your eyes are still half in your ears) the modulation of outlines, the landscape as a physical score, the periodicity of things – weather, daylight, woods, all long unstable rhythms and dissonance.'

Bob Perelman, "Confession" from Ten to One: Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1999)

Aliens have inhabited my aesthetics for
decades. Really since the early 70s.

Before that I pretty much wrote

as myself, though young. But something

has happened to my memory, my
judgment: apparently, my will has been

affected. That old stuff, the fork
in my head, first home run,

Dad falling out of the car—
I remember the words, but I

can't get back there anymore. I
think they must be screening my

sensations. I'm sure my categories have
been messed with. I look at

the anthologies in the big chains
and campus bookstores, even the small

press opium dens, all those stanzas
against the white space—they just

look like the models in the
catalogs. The models have arms and

legs and a head, the poems
mostly don't, but other than that

it's hard—for me anyway—to
tell them apart. There's the sexy

underwear poem, the sturdy workboot poem
you could wear to a party

in a pinch, the little blaspheming
dress poem. There's variety, you say:

the button-down oxford with offrhymed cuffs.
The epic toga, showing some ancient

ankle, the behold! the world is
changed and finally I'm normal flowing

robe and shorts, the full nude,
the scatter—Yes, I suppose there's

variety, but the looks, those come
on and read me for the

inner you I've locked onto with
my cultural capital sensing device looks!

No thanks, Jay Peterman! No thanks,
"Ordinary Evening in New Haven"! I'm

just waiting for my return ticket
to have any meaning, for those

saucer-shaped clouds to lower! The authorities
deny any visitations—hardly a surprise.

And I myself deny them—think
about it. What could motivate a

group of egg-headed, tentacled, slimier-than-thou aestheticians
with techniquies far beyond ours to

visit earth, abduct naive poets, and
inculcate them with otherwordly forms that

are also, if you believe the
tabloids, salacious? And these abductions always

seem to take place in some
provincial setting: isn't that more than

slightly suspicious? Why don't they ever
reveal themselves hovering over some New

York publishing venue? It would be
nice to get some answers here—

we might learn something, about poetry
if nothing else, but I'm not

much help, since I'm an abductee,
at least in theory, though, like

I say, I don't remember much.
But this writing seems pretty normal:

complete sentences; semicolons; yada yada. I
seem to have lost my avant-garde

card in the laundry. They say
that's typical. Well, you'll just have

to use you judgment, earthlings! Judgment,
that's your job! Back to work!

As if you could leave! And
you thought gravity was a problem!