By Randall Horton
Followed by Q&A
What becomes clear after spending years negotiating a society that places emphasis on order and structure is that these confining constructions become the dominant discourses in one’s daily activities. The formation and continued reliance on capitalism as a means of fulfilling the needs of our society erodes the mind and what it imagines it can create. I would like to look at order and structure in relationship to language and how they function inside poetics, or, more precisely, how these constructions once functioned inside my poetics as I searched for a new poetics. My introduction to poetry came via performance and the slam circuit. What intrigued me about the poetry I was producing at that time was the aural pleasure I received from tonal inflections, and the way I could formulate certain words to create vivid imagery. From the outset, without ever having read a complete poetry book, or seriously studied poetics, I knew I did not want my poems to rhyme. Somehow rhyming spelled hazardous for me and I never crossed that imaginary fence.
I became disinterested in slam. Performing was pleasurable, but I felt there was something else functioning in language that needed to be explored. There were times during my literary journey when I felt like Amiri Baraka must have felt in the early ’60s when he picked up The New Yorker and read poems that made him weep. Baraka did not cry because the poetry was of some exceptional character, but because he knew and understood he could never write like those poets featured. I felt those same emotions Baraka did, and I kept on writing, which led to the eventual publication of my first book, The Definition of Place.
After replicating standard forms of structure and technique in poetry, I began to work on another book while maintaining an acute awareness of the trends in poetry. I subscribed to various poems-of-the-day listservs and read book-award winners that were supposed to represent all that was innovative in poetry. There seemed to be a central motif in most of the poems I read in terms of presentation. Imagistic and metaphorical language dominated the poems to a point that they became rhetorical and formulaic. This led me to explore the poetry of Nathaniel Mackey and Ed Roberson. Admittedly, I did not understand their works when I initially came to them. The readings proved difficult, causing me to return to passages to grasp hold of something. Oftentimes, my mind wandered in different directions as to meanings behind the words. There wasn’t a complete narrative, or so I thought. The syntax was disruptive and discrepant. Nothing followed logical progression. When I finally began to grasp what these poets were doing with their work, I realized I had been a willing participant in the mechanization of art. I had gotten comfortable in my writings. It was like I was my grandfather, who woke up every morning knowing he was going to work for eight hours at the steel plant, come home to a meal, go to sleep only to wake up and do it all over again.
I do not want live a rhetorical existence. I am interested in not only how folklore and religion manifest themselves in African American culture, but also in how one can formulate a poetics that best represents the merger of these cultural relatives. First of all, one must remember that African slaves and their descendants were skillful in using verbal misrepresentation and satire in straight face when communicating in the presence of their oppressor. Deliberate linguistic misdirection, willful ambiguity, and double meanings were critical to how these slaves transmitted information. These are some of the things I considered when I began to think about the manner in which I wanted to keep evolving.
I tend to agree with Andrew Joron that “language is a self exceeding system that can never be fully present to itself. It is the kind of ‘ghost condensate,’ existing everywhere and nowhere at once.” One of the ways I can achieve some of the characteristics of the two cultures I mentioned above is lyrical play (echoes of Derrida) in relationship to enjambment, or, more specifically, “ghost enjambment.” When I speak of ghost enjambment, I’m speaking about the relationship an end word has to the lines that precede and follow it. Then too, the line may act as a stand-alone entity. What this creates is, perhaps, three possible ways in which one can read a line in a poem that is constantly challenging conventional norms of syntactical structure. Stephen Jonas is a poet who practices ghost enjambment. Consider the following excerpt from his longer work Exercise for the Ear:
long before the first
the girl upstairs
it’s that old inner
spring of hers
that maketh me
to sit up
& take note (61)
One possible deconstruction of the poem could render a meaning in which the robin (bird) is precursor to the speaker being aroused by the girl upstairs having sex on a squeaky box-spring mattress. However, an alternate reading of the poem makes robin a woman (Robin) who lives upstairs. This reading will render a conclusion of the narrator taking note of the youthfulness or the spring in Robin’s vitality. The third possible reading can occur if the reader chooses to take arbitrary end points for breath, like: “long before the first/robin comes.” In the process of reading Jonas’s poem we are caught in the breaks and cuts he creates by running thought and meaning away from one another into alternative narratives. The reader then enters the caesura (space), bouncing from one terminal of interpretation to the next.
Ghost enjambment challenges the reader and hearer of the poem not to focus on one set of finite principles, but to think about the infinite possibilities and the ranges of interpretation available when one reaches an end line. Of course, the full effect of this practice cannot be achieved unless there is disruption in conventional modes of production as done by Jonas using words like “first” and “robin.” The insertion of space instead of conventional commas and periods enhances this effect.
Such use of space helps to achieve a moment of indecision, a created doubt as to which direction the poem is going. Is the line continuing? Is it the end? Is it the beginning? These are viable questions in this poetic process. Ghost enjambment, in terms of spatiality, is the created lyricism of a multidirectional, polyphonic poetics. If, from the onset, the poem engages in these erratic mechanisms (space and word play), not only is the reader and hearer forced to rethink, but also the inner ear begins to focus on a lyricism that when read over and over again never quite tunes in to the same frequency. The poem manages to achieve a level of distraction that allows the poem to breathe and not become a staid thing. This failure (or achievement) to fall into the dominant discourse increases the poem’s longevity, as language struggles to find new structures in which to strive for aesthetic beauty.
Jonas, Stephen. Stephen Jonas: Selected Poems. Ed. Joseph Torra. Hoboken: Talisman, 1994.
Joron, Andrew. The Cry at Zero: Selected Prose. Denver: Counterpath, 2007.
Randall Horton is a former recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize. He is the author of the poetry collections The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street, and The Definition of Place, both from Main Street Rag. Randall is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Haven and the Managing Editor of Tidal Basin Review. He also a founding member of The Symphony: The House that Etheridge Built.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: The inspiration for "Ghost Enjambment" came after reading the work of Stephen Jonas, a poet who is oftentimes overlook in this commodified age of poetry. I took what he was doing with enjambment and, borrowing from Charles Olson’s ‘projective verse,” came up with my own poetic theory in terms of ghost enjambment.
Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?
A: In a past life I would have like to think that I had a little Nat Turner in me.
Q: Straight road? Or winding road?
A: I have never taken the straight road or the winding road. I have taken roads with detours and stops and starts, crisscrossing and intersecting. The straight road is too boring. What would you learn? Nothing.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: I love to edit because the real writing begins.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a group of poems about a mythological city called The District. The poems are very urban but place is not important. What is more important is the relationship between language and being human.