Seven Samplings of Minimalist Infraverbal Poems
Edited by Bob Grumman and featuring Richard Kostelanetz, endwar, Karl Kempton, LeRoy Gorman, mIEKAL aND, lyx ish, Geof Huth, and Jonathan Brannen
In the entry I wrote on "infraverbal poetry" for A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, I defined it as "poetry in which what is done inside words becomes significant." At that time, 2000, I split it into four different kinds. I now split it into six kinds--with subclassifications. (Yes, as the few who are aware of my critical writings know, I'm a taxonomaniac--sometimes a violent one.) To suggest what it's like, here are seven sets of minimalist specimens of it. (By "minimalist," I mean an order of magnitude smaller than haiku, which are about 17 syllables in length.) They're from eight poets (two of them collaborating).
The first set is from Richard Kostelanetz. He is the world's most prolific creator of the kind of infraverbal poems I call natural, I'm sure. Those are infraverbal poems that are spelled conventionally and left entirely unaltered except for some "disconcealment aid" such as the boldfacing that is the case with Kostelanetz's here, or italicization, different cases or fonts, and so on. The tool's purpose is simply to "disconceal," or make evident, a text that is hidden in some manner within a larger text and might otherwise not be noticed--the way boldfacing disconceals "CRONY" from "ACRONYM," for instance. Kostelanetz terms the ones that follow "ghosts" because each of them contains, haunting it within, at least one additional word (with no change in the order of its letters). For one of these to be effective, the relation of the disconcealed text to the word it's in ought to strike a reader as witty (e.g., the "ABUT" in ABSOLUTE) or lyrically enlarging (e.g., the "BLOOM" lyrically erupting from "BLOSSOM"). Several seem to me both.
A standard ploy of infraverbal poets is vertical infraverbality, as in the specimens below of natural infraverbal poems--which their author calls "subverse." They are from endwar's minimally-circulated from i to iran (1990).unrestrained
in a n e ra in unrest ai d unrest st a n d st ai d a n d un st ai d re a d re t ain train un trained a n d un train trained rai d a n d rai d
masturbation a m a n at bat a t a ma i n mast tur n a mast i n t o a stu b a turb o tur n on
atheism I a m the theism i a m the ism i a m the is i a m the i i a m the
new york w ork w ork w ork or n o w ork
rain i ra n in
The next set of infraverbal poems, which are from Karl Kempton's fission (1988), are fissional, for their effect depends on their being broken into pieces. This not only slows the reader, thus giving him time to recognize larger meanings than an Evelyn Wood reading would get him, but disconceals extra, lyrically and/or wittily resonant meanings such as the "rat" seen in the "bureau" in the second of the following poems.
art if act
bureau c rat
u r in aly sis
far thin gale
in art i c u late
op po site
ti me less
g u i dance
Similarly fissional are the poems in the set below, which are from LeRoy Gorman's Heavyn (1992)--except that they have more than one word each in them.
mo on b one s and d une
ma pf ol dm ee ts ma pf
c loud c lock s leap
s til lit s
ember ing p ass ions centre
fencepo st air to s now
sea ms s mile l and
n eve r nil
Next we have fusional infraverbal poems, or infraverbal poems that depend for their effect on the fusion of two or more words (or near-words). The result is the disconcealment of texts of aesthetic value that are partially in one of the fused texts and partially in the next. The following samples are from Fluxonyms (1989), which was jointly written by mIEKAL aND and the late lyx ish aka Liz Was, his wife at the time:GNUNEARTHROPOD
The class of infraverbal poetry having the most subclasses I call dysorthographic poetry--because it depends for its aesthetic effect on misspelled words. The misspelling is usually severe, I should add, and not usually phonetically rational as Karl Kempton's spelling of "u" for "you" in one of the poems above is. Lewis Carroll is the grandfather of this kind of poetry, James Joyce the father (for taking them aesthetically seriously)--with Aram Saroyan a second father, for isolating them on the page.
There are (I think) five kinds of them: microherent, scrambled, reduced, expanded and really fucked with. Make that permutational. That's more specific, I think. Microherent poems are actually permutational, for both kinds are texts with some of their letters replaced by others. But microherent poems are barely comprehensible, if comprehensible at all. Scrambled poems are anagrammatic--that is, they have all their letters, but those letters are rearranged. The texts of reduced poems have letters subtracted, expanded poems letters added. The poems below, which are from Geof Huth's Wreadings (1987, 1995), are almost all fusional as well as dysorthographic in several ways, so I categorize them as compound dysorthographic infraverbal poems:
w th r d
The selections below from Jonathan Brannen's Birth, Copulation and Death (1992)--the first five--and sirloin clouds (1991)--one with a title--are also compoundly infraverbal in various ways.
With that, this survey ends. With an apology for the many poets doing excellent work in this vein whom I left out. May it inspire you to further explore the too-little visited, but very active, world of infraverbal poetry. Today!