Pulp street indeterminacy

Well, it’s blog-o-clock again, and today’s pulp fiction pondering has been triggered by an exceptionally interesting essay about different modes of poetry by Reality Street supremo and exceptionally cool modern poet Ken Edwards. Here’s some of his poetry; and here’s the essay.

Edwards launches a sustained assault on systems of reading that privilege a (relatively conservative) mainstream over a (relatively experimental) ‘parallel tradition’, taking as his exemplars competing poems by Matthew Sweeney and Allen Fisher.

The essay’s well worth reading, not just to find out more about modern poetry but to be reminded that the most powerful system of discourse operating within a given field isn’t necessarily the most *right* system, and that such systems can achieve their dominant position for a variety of different reasons, many of them having nothing to with quality of debate or inherent worth.

But something pulpy leapt out at me as well. I was particularly taken by Edwards’ definition of Fisher’s poem as a ‘nonequilibrium structure’. That’s a scientific term; such a structure is one that requires ‘a continuing input of energy to sustain [its] ordered structure’. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is one such structure; for Edwards, Fisher’s poem is another, because it requires the ‘continuous creative input of the reader to constellate its energy’.

That energy is needed because Fisher has, very deliberately, avoided writing a poem that resolves into a single fixed and coherent meaning or image set. Rather, it creates an open field of thought and feeling within which the reader is free to play, creating his or her own definition of what the poem is or could be. Deliberately incomplete, Fisher’s work demands the collaboration of the reader to attain one of many possible final forms.

That tends to be the kind of poetry that I prefer, and oddly enough it set me thinking about the visionary pulp writers who lie at the heart of so much of what’s interesting in the great tradition of SF and Fantasy.

There’s an incompleteness to much of their achievement too, but not necessarily such a conscious one; it springs from overwhelming indulgence of deep and exclusive personal obsessions, or an only partial attention to key aspects of the craft of writing, rather than from in-depth attention to literary theory, the deleterious effects of crumbily obvious poetry, and so on.

The Pulp Furies – ferociously obsessive, searingly primal, utterly unputdownable and at their best unforgettably resonant and evocative – created a literature that remains addictively engaging precisely because of its often lopsided incompleteness.

Hurling unhinged imagery, berserk plotting and often terrifying prose out into the void, for the most part not even noticing the classic procedures of fiction, still less paying any lip service to them, they created their own ongoing nonequilibrium structures.

Fifty, one hundred, one hundred and fifty years later, we’re still engaging with those structures, still finding them fresh precisely because of their failure to resolve into any final meaning. As readers, we collaborate with them, filling the gaps that obsession left with our own obsessions and thus finding life in them where other, more formally achieved works come across as decaying, if not dead.

Oh, and I was rooting around on his web page because of this excerpt from his new book, ‘Nostalgia for Unknown Cities’, available here – astonishing writing that I haven’t properly got to grips with, but that struck me on first reading as a kind of assembly code for an entirely personal fantastic.

4 thoughts on “Pulp street indeterminacy

  1. Hey Al – ! I’m listening maaaan!

    I woke this morning and I thought: where has the world gone? Who stole it. I could see it reflected in the light bulb in the middle of the room but when I looked out the window it wasn’t there. Not that I thought anyone had stolen it! For god’s sake! But you use these turns of phrase because you don’t know what else to say. It is like an exclamation! Like: I don’t have to explain myself!!! I drive a taxi to work that someone built out of chess pieces but not for any reason!

  2. Hi MJP – apologies for the slow reply! For some reason wordpress picked your comments up as spam, so I’ve only just seen them now. Very frustrating.

    Hmm, well, at the most basic level I think what I wanted to say was that the pulp folk provide a very rich body of writing that we can reinterpret in a way that’s analogous to the way that some of the poetry I was talking about works, but that that act of reinterpreation wasn’t consciously planned for by the pulp writer in the way that it is by the poet.

    Take Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories, for example – I saw in them a fragmented description / critique of what it means to be driven by a certain kind of American exceptionalism, with a very modern resonance indeed.

    I’m not sure how consciously REH was building that kind of argument, and in perceiving it I felt that to some extent I was reading the text in the light of my own obsessions and thus warping it a little (ie building a complete argument on a set of suggestions that were incomplete within the text), but equally there was enough in the text to allow those obsessions to be indulged – a skeleton to put flesh of my own creation onto, to create an interesting (at least to me!) personal reading of REH.

    That kind of process – fleshing the skeleton – is where I see the similarity. Reading Fisher, Edwards, whoever else, there’s a sense of a kind of deliberate skeleton-ness – a challenge to the reader to assemble their own final version of the poem from what’s there. That’s the process of reading Edwards describes in his essay, and I felt that it was interestingly close to the way I’ve read the pulps at various times.

    Oh, and on:

    >> But you use these turns of phrase because you don’t know what else to say.

    Hmm, well I was trying to hold back from being too specific to create my own sense of creative indeterminacy! But clearly I’m not as good at it as the poets and the pulpists.

  3. Just as a footnote – there’s something in the breadth of much of the imagery as well that I was trying to get to. Edwards criticises poems that settle into a ‘single, semantic state’, rather than ‘shimmer[ing] with new possibilities at each reading.’

    Where you’ve got weird imagery for its own sake, I think you get that kind of shimmer – because you’re free to read it in a way that resonates with you. William Hope Hodgson would be a key touchstone here; there’s a richness / oddness / lack of explanation to much of his imagery that’s always intrigued me, and driven me to complete it with my own, personal emotional subtexts.

    And finally, and unworked out because it’s sunday morning and I need coffee before I can do any more pondering! – there are I think intriguing parallels to be drawn between Lovecraft as excavator of the weird from history (thinking of the detectiveness of, say, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ or ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’) and the method of people like Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Iain Sinclair, Allen Fisher – all of them attempting to create true-but-disruptive histories of place from fragments of event and meaning, all of them conducting obsessive inquests into the true relationships that underlies apparently unconnected moments / events to create a new, transcendent (in bad as much as good ways) whole!

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