Consequently, when I discovered in a literary magazine recently that I was grouped with a body of poets termed "ellipticists," I felt immediately doomed to obscurity. The magazine, American Letters & Commentary, presented a special feature titled "Elliptical Poets: New School or New Spin?" The lead essay by Stephen Burt was titled "The Elliptical Poets." I approached these essays with an anxious, keenly critical eye, but was happy to find that my apprehensions were unwarranted. Stephen Burt's essay, in particular, was not only cogent and insightful, but downright uncanny: He had described my aesthetic affinities with such accuracy, I felt as though he'd taken an X-ray of my work. But why did he have to go and use that rather dubious word "elliptical"? What exactly does it mean to be elliptical? Is it bad to be elliptical? Is it worse than being oblong or polyhedral?
The word "elliptical" has several meanings. One, "of, relating to, or shaped like an ellipse"; and two, "of or relating to deliberate obscurity (as of literary or conversational style)." Deliberate obscurity? My heart sank. Is that how people read me? As someone trying to be deliberately obscure? Heaven forfend! The writers whose work followed the essays -- Gerard Melanga, Tod Thilleman, Clayton Eshleman, Elizabeth Robinson, and Barbara Guest, to name but a few -- represented some of the most interesting and innovative writers of the last half of the 20th century. These were not the same poets alluded to in the essays (Forrest Gander, Thylias Moss, Jorie Graham, August Kleinzahler, Susan Wheeler, Lucie Brock-Broido), but their grouping after the essays implied an obvious affiliation. In any case, I was happy to be associated -- however elliptically -- with any and all of these people.
The core of Stephen Burt's argument is that elliptical poetry is unabashedly, joyfully seditious. "Ellipticists seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don't believe in, or seek, a judicious tone." Most of this I like. I like the "surprise or explode assumptions" part a lot. I don't much care for the "defiantly childish" part. I'm not at all sure how that relates to Barbara Guest, for instance, whose poetry is fiercely subtle and full of tantalizing nuances and piquant lines like "...a flannel embrace, as if over, the green flavor."
On balance, Stephen Burt's essay is favorably disposed to the eccentric orbits of his elliptical system. He demonstrates the "ellipticists" to be a quite sophisticated and technically adroit group. "Elliptical poets treat literary history with irreverent involvement.... Elliptical poets caress the technical... elliptical poets challenge unease, resolve neither to play by the rules nor to scrap them." These are all very laudatory qualities. I began to think differently about the word "elliptical." Perhaps it wasn't such a bad thing to be. Planets move in elliptical orbits. If the universe condones it, it can't be all bad.
But deliberately obscure? Why would anyone want to be deliberately obscure? To mask a lack of talent? To appear smarter than they actually are? This might be true in some cases, but certainly not all. The charge of deliberate obfuscation is more often meant to defuse work people find threatening because of its unconventionality, and to compensate for an unwillingness to see things differently. I envy writers who attract large audiences, who fill a room with "oohs" and "ahs," who are swamped with autograph seekers and zealous groupies. But it is also an unfortunate feature of human nature that people gravitate toward the familiar and avoid the unfamiliar. Mediocrity is rewarded with far greater frequency than originality. Nevertheless, an artist who attempts to rebuke or avoid mediocrity by being deliberately obscure is risking nothing but impotence. Okay, sounds reasonable enough, but why -- deliberate obscurity aside -- would anyone choose a form of expression that is so different, and disrupts convention to such a degree, that most people are certain to be confused by it (if they pay any attention at all)? Isn't that just being irresponsible? Isn't the role of the artist to educate and elevate? Why do so many artists turn rebellious? Why do they choose to put themselves in such wide-ranging, elliptical orbits?
Choice doesn't really enter into it. As Theodore Adorno said, "Art does not choose to be difficult because art wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art." Art -- real art -- is inherently difficult. How can it be otherwise? The whole point of art -- be it poetry, painting, music, dance, photography, or sculpture -- is to provoke fresh perception. To defamiliarize the familiar. To boldly go where no one has gone before. The stimulus that brings me to a piece of paper in order to create something new is not a social impulse. The resolve to create something socially relevant is not art. Art is not about proselytizing one's ideas, shaping public policy, or sermonizing on humanity's sins. That is for the courtroom, the podium, the church. This is why politics and poetry make such a discouraging blend. I'm not saying it's impossible to write a good political poem; some of the most powerful poems I've heard have been political. But politics run contrary to the impulse of poetry. It's like trying to chisel a piece of wood against the grain.
Art makes me giddy. The reason art makes me giddy is because it liberates. The spirit of art is one of freedom. It gives us license to break away from social norms and explore alternate approaches to the adventure of existence. The products of this impulse are, perforce, difficult. But as Kerouac said, "Walking on water was not built in a day."