ornament is neither functionless nor superfluous

Ross Brighton writes:

Poetry in its functionless superfluity, is ornamental. Sparse, laconic, colloquial poems that mirror “real speech” are boring, because real speech is boring.

Thoughts on this:

Poetry is not functionless. It has many functions, as address, as connector, as trace, as “energy construct.” (I always liked that collocation.)

It is exactly as superfluous as everything else in the universe and perhaps as superfluous as the universe itself. That would make, conversely, everything equally essential.

Poetry is ornamental, but ornament is neither functionless nor superfluous. This is a very common misconception.

I also am biased against what is sparse and laconic, for the most part, (because it’s not my thing) as well as against the boring (although this, too, has a place in art). My point is that the type of poems that Ross is describing do not actually mirror “real speech..” Or real colloquial writing. Everyday language, colloquial language, is rich, varied, and crazy interesting, crazy poetic.

The problem with the sort of poems Ross is describing is their failure to enact that, as well as their slavish conformism to the most bland notion of what poetry can or “should” be. There is little or no invention in such poems.

Poets, be receptive.
Poets, be inventive.

Thank you.

9 thoughts on “ornament is neither functionless nor superfluous

  1. Hi Nada,

    I like Ross’s comments quoted here, and liked your response. I wouldn’t want to see ornament become a dogma—“Ornamentalism”?—so esp. glad at how wide this opens the field. Colloquial speech, baroquespeak, appropriated language, your “pavan between two modes” from the other day: all is permitted, or maybe more precisely, no tone or technique is sacred enough to NOT be permitted, if the mood is right.

    Whatever else it does, the insistence on ornament seems to counteract the pieties that sneak in with the “sparse and laconic.” I don’t mind that tone, though I don’t seek it out. But the moral apparatus it arrives with—the presumption that the boring isn’t boring, which you point out has its place, but that it’s good for you, or closer to “actual speech” or “the way things really are,” makes the fingers curl on my chalkboard. Whereas your poetics jingle and gong.

  2. Rodney, yeah, no… I certainly don't INSIST on “ornament”: that would be tiresome. I'm a great adorer of early Creeley, and Issa, and lots of other relatively unornamental poets. The thing is, I wonder to what extent “device” and “rhetoric” and “trope” might be considered types of ornaments – in other words, as moves against “plainness” (which of course is as artificial as anything). Maybe ornament doesn't need to be thought of as a kind of noise or excess.

    My objection, philosophically, really, is to asceticism, which always struck me as a kind of death-in-life. I especially do not want to see that tendency in poetry, which I like for its pulse. You know?

  3. Hi Nada,

    Yes to no ascesis! I’ve got enough death-in-life just getting to work on time.

    “Device,” “rhetoric,” and “trope” are on my mind a lot too as I try to connect the dots between my attractions to Bollywood, opera, Internet speak, pop songwriting teams, troubadour and Urdu poetry, etc. What these performative contexts share, I think, is an embrace of convention (“device, rhetoric, trope”) at the expense of originality. They slip the knots that tie up so much contemporary poetry, where everyone seems to more or less hate the conventions, so is either working to topple them, expose them as instruments of power, or escape them altogether through something entirely new. In the process, a whole new set of devices unwittingly spring up that aren’t always acknowledged as devices, but as a more accurate representation of “things that are the case.”

    The “I” dies just as surely in the tropes of Bollywood or opera or troubadour & Diane Warren love songs as it does in, say, Language poetry. Since everyone in the audience collectively shares a grasp of the conventions and their artificial nature (precondition maybe of their being shared, like nouns), innovation arrives in the form of small variations, not in a grand overturning of the code. Why call out the artifice of what you (and your audience) already appreciate as totally artificial: a language for things that aren’t the case?

    The upshot is that something other than just the death of the author or the ideological bankruptcy of the idea of a self becomes possible—a difference emerges from the shuffling of the generic conventions, as in a Pynchon novel or a Brandon Downing film. What this different thing might be is something like looking at a chart of all the facial gestures assigned to particular emotions in Kathakali dance, then feeling that emotion in the moment of performance at the same time as you recognize its utterly artificial place in a sequence of tropes. That double movement—the feeling and the awareness of the feeling as an option in a system of devices—fascinates me right now. I’m drawn to the idea that you could accept your writing—your self—as entirely conventional without losing the hope that it could also be ornamental: a receptacle for attitudes, gestures, flourishes, curlicues, pouts, moods, and tears. The idea that what isn’t the case can become the case via, well, not the self exactly—that artifice thrown up by social security numbers and tax records and professional degrees—but subjectivity. Subjectivity with a collective dimension though, like an audience for a double-feature. Like a culture.

    A comment this long is blog rudeness. Please forgive, and keep the great posts coming!

  4. Ornament is wily, an ornament
    might camouflage itself
    as a sentiment, or a sentiment
    as an ornament, but an idea
    might camouflage itself
    as both, neither, or either
    all at the same time, and
    all of writing is the line
    camouflaging itself in the
    ethereal topologies of
    the human cloud piano

  5. Ross, no need to say sorry! I picked out your statement because at first kneejerk I agreed with it, then I thought about it a little more…

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