I don’t know Matthew Buckley Smith from Adam—though I see he is author of a book of poetry called Dirge for an Imaginary World, which has a compelling title (I’ve not seen his poems). But an essay that he wrote titled “Why Poems Don’t Make Sense” was brought to my attention, and it brought me a flash of insight such as I had about Duchamp, and along those same lines.
The question, strictly speaking, is “Why do people praise nonsensical poems,” which is a matter in itself. I don’t read enough of recently published poems to say how prevalent the issue is; but enough to be familiar with his topic. (Popular poetry—or PoPoetry as the site will call it—is often dismantled at Poetry Daily Critique with similar discordancies in view: pointing out, for example, that two phrases couldn’t possibly be tethered by the conjunction “but” in any meaningful way as a poem under scrutiny has them, and so forth.)
Smith singles out a poem (“On His Reluctance to Take Down the Christmas Ornaments”) by John Ashbury: “if what follows works less as a commentary on his poetry at large than a close reading of a single poem exemplifying the particular breed of nonsense under consideration, then it’s a breed that Ashbury not only exemplifies but arguably fathered.”
Let me excerpt a little of Smith’s diegesis:
The second line shows us physical motion, modified not by an adverb but by a frame of mind: “as though in a trance.” The third line at first seems to carry this notion further, telling us the speaker’s trancelike gait is “doubling the yesterdays.” We know this is a normal morning, so the “trance” he’s in could just be the ready-to-hand absent-mindedness of daily habit, each day unthinkingly repeating the day before. That “doubling” could also suggest the unreeled expanse of life one finds oneself suddenly on the wrong side of after so many days given over to routine. A normal day giving rise to a midlife crisis, maybe? The second half of the line deepens and complicates this idea, introducing an ambiguous figure, “a doubled man” —the speaker seeing himself with detachment? someone else? a man doubled over in pain or doubled in existence? The fourth line tells us that he is “under the stairs,” but doesn’t hint at why. Added to this mysterious passage in uncertain grammatical relation are “strange surrealist fish.”
Smith lets there be no misunderstanding:
To clarify my own meaning here, I do not suspect that John Ashbery—or even the poem’s “speaker” —is actually insane. Every item in the poem might well have a rich emotional connection to every other, which, were the poet to unveil it, might elicit from us all a collective, “Ahhh, so that’s what it’s about.” But this is also true of anyone’s private musings. The fragments that drift through my solitary reflections certainly hold great meaning for me, but without the context of my own specific memories, most lack any value either in themselves or alongside one another. There is a link in my past that holds together [the various fragments]... but I can’t expect anyone else to guess what it is. Without the secret knowledge of the speaker’s interior experience, such references cannot carry meaning. They are like potsherds bearing illustrations of an alien culture’s mythology. We might marvel at some specimens individually, and we might even congratulate ourselves on sleuthing out a recurring theme or two, but without knowing the stories that inspired them, we’ll never be able to make sense of them as a whole. Someone who curates a collection of such shards may have many different goals in doing so, but making sense probably isn’t one of them.
Over these eighteen lines, we have tried to follow the poem grammatically, descriptively, narratively, thematically, and emotionally, and in each case, we’ve found ourselves only partially equipped. After a certain place in the stream, the rocks get too far apart for us to keep our shoes dry.... [N]ot only can we not imagine a particular speaker choosing to say these things out loud, we can’t even deduce from these lines any central mind that might choose to put them in a poem.
For me, these thoughts wind back to my adjurations toward “anti-conceptualists” several days previous: imitation—here Ashbury’s of Eliot (as that of scions of this “Goliath of twentieth-century poetry” who have adopted his "breed of nonsense”) —saps the artistic integrity, creating "only a shell, a husk of meaning" (or not even a husk).
Here my thoughts end; but the conversation is ongoing, and if anything else comes up I will heed Eliot and “set down/ This set down/ This”.