Philip Jenks and the Poetry of Experience

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Poetry is, from one perspective, a treasury of memorable statements; from another, it is a name we give to a particular experience we have of language. In the first case, the emphasis falls squarely on interpretable meaning, though the memorability is clearly indebted to the power of language as something experienced. In the second case, meaning is deemphasized and even repressed in favor of an intensification of sound values, visual patterning, and syntactic deformation. Meaning, of course, need not occur in the form of a statement. Experience is also meaningful, quite apart from the sense we might make of it in retrospect. Nonetheless, insofar as "statement" and "experience" remain the two fundamental possibilities of poetic language, meaning is more prominently an attribute of the former.

The distinction I am drawing here between statement and experience is sometimes described in discussions of poetry as a difference between linguistic transparency and opacity. (1) Yet insofar as "transparency" defines communication metaphorically--that is, as a matter of unimpeded vision into a world distinct from the language we use to represent it--the term is more evocative than explanatory. Obviously, a declarative statement need not depend on the possibility of "seeing," and nothing stops us from constructing a poetics emphasizing statement yet free from such visual presumptions. Though Marianne Moore called her most important book Observations, an allegedly "transparent" poem like "To a Steam Roller" ("The illustration / is nothing to you without the application. / You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down / into close conformity, and then walk back and forth / on them") is no more usefully conceived of as a window than Gertrude Stein's "opaque" Tender Buttons ("No cup is broken in more place s and mended, that is to say a plate is broken and mending does do that it shows that culture is Japanese"). (2) Indeed, one might well argue that Stein's work is the more determinedly optical--that "To a Steam Roller" demands our understanding, while Tender Buttons provokes a visualization. (3) In this respect, the difference between poetry as statement and poetry as experience has less to do with transparency and opacity than with the construction of intelligible and sensible objects of knowledge.

The poetry of Philip Jenks is decidedly experiential. If Moore and Stein define a continuum, then Jenks is closer to Stein. Though a political scientist by training and teacher by profession, he is manifestly less concerned with intelligibility--that is, with the sharing of a determinate, knowable content--than he is with the registration and production of sense impressions. Like Stein--and unlike Moore--he takes a greater interest in the nature of experience than in its significance. This does not mean, of course, that his work's content is insignificant, only that the purpose of this content cannot be grasped by reading the poems as a series of discrete statements. Neither personal expression nor source of wisdom--though it mimes both at different times--On the Cave You Live In (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2002) is, if anything, an attempt to come to terms with the preconditions for such writing. In this respect, the book is also a philosophical inquiry, one whose purpose is easily missed in the negotiation of utterance and affect that gives this work its particular tonality. We can, it is true, approach these poems as a profiler might and construct a kind of dossier on their author, but if we want to come to terms with Jenks's project (and not with Jenks himself), then a different approach to reading will be needed.

I do not mean to suggest that On the Cave You Live In lacks meaningful statements, only that their graspability tempts us to overestimate their importance and thus to mistake the work as expositional in intent. As Stein's more popular writings indicate, an experiential emphasis need not preclude the possibility of intelligibility. …