dissolve the barrier of skin and bone and separateness

Here are some lines from a terrific first book from Craig Morgan Teicher... “To speak is an incomparable act / of faith. What proof do we have that / when I say mouse, you do not think / of a stop sign?” The project of poetry, in a way, is to raise language to such a level that it can convey the precise nature of subjective experience, that the listener would envision not just a mouse, but this particular one in all its exact specifics, its perfect details. Such enchanted language could magically dissolve the barrier of skin and bone and separateness between us and render perception so evocatively that we don’t just know what it means, we feel what it means.

- Mark Doty, from his keynote address "Tide of Voices" at the 2008 Key West Literary Seminar. Listen to the whole thing here.


daniela elza said...

Although, I might have to question the "precise nature of subjective experience." And if we can in anyway speak of "precise."

The listeners mouse will never be the writer's mouse. There are two subjective experiences. Which is fine by me as long as we do not insist there is just one "thing" conveyed. Can we have proof of conveyance? Something is conveyed, but what, is only the reader's.
And how do we translate that into language?

The reader is doing at least half of the work of conveyance. It is a kind of meeting, if we are lucky. Without any precise measurements. :-)

Rob Taylor said...

I agree, Daniela, that it's probably an impossible goal.

I wonder, too, if it should be a writer's goal at all - if aiming to communicate the "precise nature of subjective experience" (which probably won't be successful) actually makes it more difficult to generate a "meeting" between reader and writer, even if that meeting is less precise than what one might have hoped for...

Can imprecision connect the reader and writer, in some cases, better than precision? Perhaps not to a common image, but to a common line of thought? And is that possible without clear "things" in the poem which the reader and writer can share in common?

Zachariah Wells said...

The precise nature of subjective experience is best conveyed by an fMRI.

Interesting effects of language (a system whose internal rules make the misidentification of mouse and stop sign impossible, except by people with severe brain damage or mental illness) are best conveyed by poems. Insofar as language is a means of coding subjective experience, the latter is bound to turn up in poems. But music and visual art are also means of coding subjective experience, so poetry really can't claim any primacy. Schopenhauer said that music is better at this, if I remember correctly.

Rob Taylor said...

But do you think that Doty is suggesting that poetry is better at this, or just that it is poetry's goal, as it is the goal of many art forms?

I suppose if it is the latter, then a natural response would be "why not do the thing that is best at accomplishing that goal", whatever that may be (visual art, music, etc).

At which point, in reply, one could link to this.

Zachariah Wells said...


I think he should have stopped at "raise language." That to me sounds about right. The precise nature of subjective experience stuff is flim-flam and actually represents an impoverished understanding of what poetry can do and has done. Doty's only talking about one sort of poetry: lyric. And a rather tame version of lyric, at that, from the sounds of it. So much for Rimbaud's derangement of the senses.

Rob Taylor said...

Yes, starting any sentence with "The project of poetry", as opposed to "The project of my poetry" or "The project of some poetry", is always dangerous...

daniela elza said...

So what does the reader respond to?
As a writer I try to translate as adequately and accurately as language (and my abilities with it) afford me, form the world into the word. (and of course different languages will afford differently:-), not to mention different skills with the language) Which leads to committing (as Bringhurst might say) the first act of translation. But what do all these words amount to in the reader/listener?

The concrete experience is like a beam of light that through language gets refracted. But where to and what spectrum? The variables here get too numerous to be able to apply science to them or precision.The levels too. We respond to the words, and also we respond to the humanity.

And (from experience) I am sure that the writer continues to benefit from this refraction. ie. exploring the many different angles and beams. some of which were not present at the writing. So it is as "precise" as we can get it at the moment of writing, and yet, we ourselves as writers begin to interprete it. In other words we become readers. :-)
ok, is this confusing enough already?

Rob Taylor said...

Not confusing at all, Daniela!

I think what you've said there lies near the heart of why it usually takes a long time to learn to be a good poet - to take all those angles and beams that make a poem so alive and interesting for you, the writer, and learn both:

1. how to see which of those angles are currently present in the poem for other readers (to become readers, as you suggest), and

2. how to maximize the number of angles that the reader can perceive.

I like that idea of "the first act translation", also. Thanks.