The Poet’s Progress


—-first section of ‘Lost Rules of Usage’ by Susan Stewart CINDER: New and Selected Poems (2017)

If we agree that the form of a poem emerges from our experience as readers (the word form may also refer to generic distinctions between kinds), it is useful to consider Wittgenstein’s key concept ‘form of life.’ (‘Life’ refers to the practices of those who habitually express themselves with given expressions.)

Poems ‘go on’ by following the ‘grammar’ of the words in use: the rules governing meaning in the community of users. Those are the rules, as we say—-exceptions taking their import from departure from the given rules.

One upshot of this approach to form is the prejudice against ‘private languages.’ Poets struggle with this prejudice all the time, early in the process of shaping a poem preferring what is in your head to what is communicated on the page. But that just won’t do. There’s an ethical aspect to composition: authentic participation, however ludic, in a form of life.

The concept of ‘branching’ has been suggested to get at the formal process. (See Philosophical Investigations 47). One thing leads to another, every extension (line, half-line, stanza, etc.) drawing new sense out of what’s there.

The poet’s progress depends on increasing mastery of the relevant ‘language games’ that make communication possible.

Form: how it happens to us

Form is a word used to explain the cause of poetry. This use creates lots of confusion. Wittgenstein can help here. Following W, we can say that form does not explain the cause-and-effect logic of understanding, but form, as it emerges from our reading of the poem, is the reason —- the cause —- the why we search for the cause of the poem. Once we turn this around, we can accept the futility of explanation. There are as many causes as there are ways of proceeding to write a given poem. Our concern is with the emergence of form in our experience of the poem. How it happens to us.