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A Big Win For Experimental Poetry

If you read a review of Keith Waldrop's "Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy," this year's winner of the National Book Award, there's a good chance it will include the word "postmodern" or "avant-garde.
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If you read a review of Keith Waldrop's "Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy," this year's winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, there's a good chance it will include the word "postmodern" or "avant-garde." These are terms that put a lot of readers on guard, signaling experimental verse. And it only takes a glance at "Transcendental Studies" to see that Waldrop's poetry isn't the sort that will ever turn up in a hallmark card.

In an interview with the website The Jivin' Ladybug (we really are in avant-garde territory here) Waldrop suggested that poetry is "having nothing to say and saying it," explaining, "In my work you could find statements here and there. It isn't what I'm writing for. What I'm after is closer to music than to philosophy or information in that sense." And that aim can be confusing for a reader expecting a poem to make sense in a more traditional manner. Waldrop addressed the issue:

What I write down is a kind of script for something that sounds. I find people often don't read it that way. They have a hard time translating from lines on a page to. . .part of this is the way poetry is taught in schools and such. You get a poem and you're supposed to figure out what it means. Once you know what it means, you throw the poem away because you have the meaning. That is the destruction of poetry. I want the words to remain and if people don't know the meaning of them I don't think that's as bad as losing the sound.

Waldrop's methods of composition are also, at times, unorthodox. He employed a collage technique to create "Transcendental Studies" --building poems, in part, by combining phrases from other works. Waldrop has explained the process as "a way to explore, not necessarily the thing I am tearing up, but the thing I am contriving to build out of torn pieces." He described his method for composing part of "Transcendental Studies" in an interview to the National Book Foundation:

I put three books in front of me, all prose, a novel, then something psychological, then whatever I happened to have around. I would take phrases from these three books and make some stanzas, four, five six lines. Once I had that I'd make more stanzas of the same number of lines, and when that gave out, after a page or two, I'd say alright I have this poem now and I would take it to the typewriter and type it up and in doing so I would rearrange the stanzas alphabetically.

Alphabetizing stanzas after writing them may seem oddly arbitrary, but the process was important to Waldrop. When a portion of "Transcendental Studies" was translated into French, he instructed the translator to rearrange the stanzas alphabetically after translation--leading to poems that differ considerably from their English counterparts.

What sorts of poems do Waldrop's unorthodox poetics produce? Here a few excerpts from the book


Balancing. Austere. Life-
less. I have tried to keep
context from claiming you.

Without doors. And there are
windows. How far, how
far into the desert have we come?

Rude instruments, product
of my garden. Might also be
different, what I am thinking of.

So you see: it is
not symmetrical, dark
red out of the snow.


Enemies for therapy, the
rind of the lime tree
in elaborate garlands.

Strew the table. Let the hall
be garlanded and lit, the will
to break away. Welcome your couches.

Witness these details. Your judgment, my
inclination. Hear. Touch. Taste.
Translate. Fixed: the river.

Disquieting thought, I am not
ultimate, full moon, memory.
Prepare for rout.


Here, even, in the
sand. Among the rocks, I have
heard, remnant of a cloud.

Unfleshed, short, thin, pointed.
Independent of you, a
revelation. A great city.

Flatly unknown, you do not
know of yourself, do not know
yourself, not stuck full of nails.

Under such illumination, darkness
becomes terror. Under this high
wall, dark ground.

Long before this week's award, the poet Michael Palmer called Waldrop one of the vital and requisite, semi-secret presences in American letters." His wife Rosmarie, also an accomplished poet, said in the Ladybug interview, "We haven't gotten so much attention that it got to be a bother. We don't have that problem." Let's hope it isn't a problem, because they're going to be getting a lot of attention now.

Keith Waldrop currently teaches at Brown University and edits Burning Deck Press along with his wife.