October 18, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteraturePoetry

Reading Marjorie Welish

When Rabo Karabekian, the great abstract expressionist painter and narrator of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard, describes what he loves about his art, he does not talk about expressing grand ideas or creating objects of great beauty, but rather about the pleasure of slapping color on top of color. I suspect that a primal part of any true artist’s vocation is indeed the love of one’s fundamental materials—for the sculptor, three-dimensional objects; for the dancer, movement; for the composer, sound. Of course, the fundamental material of the poet is language. While it isn’t that there are not profoundly political and spiritual stakes in the pursuit of any art, artistic pursuits only take on life, it seems to me, in the midst of some fundamental love of the art’s material, a feel for the thingy-ness of the things one works with and shapes, the things that one is in turn shaped by. As Marjorie Welish said in an interview, “poetry is play organized.” So for the poet, an ongoing commitment is play with words, a play into, out of, against, and maybe even beyond their organizing energies, enabling a play into new possibilities of expression; and here the political and spiritual stakes can become quite real, for such work can become, in the words of Theodore Adorno, the “expression of a new form of soul in the process of development.” So the question for the poet may well be less, What do I have to say? and more, What can I do with the words and patterns our traditions provide to make something that does not merely function as a representation of life, but also—even primarily—as an intervention in the lifeworld we have?

Such is the work, I suggest, that Marjorie Welish pursues. To take a very simple example, consider the opening line of the opening poem in her recent book So What So That: “As if     as if.” Here, one might think, is the “as if” of the realm of imagination—not the world as it is, but the world “as if.” The recurrence “As if    as if” may then function as an intensifier, inviting if not driving the reader deeper into imagination’s realm. On the other hand, it may be—or may also be—that the first “as if” modifies the second: because the deadeningly familiar structures of everyday life do not allow a full play of the imagination, we can only play at entering imagination’s realm, we can only conduct ourselves as if we are in the realm of the as if, and in doing so find ourselves in the as if after all. Then again, the second “as if” might even call the first into question as the latter takes on the familiar colloquial expression, as in: “As if?”     “Aaaaas IIIF!” Soon, even within the space of these four syllables, we find ourselves in a densely woven texture of possibilities. Just wait until you get to the second line of a Marjorie Welish poem, or the third, or through a whole book. Having come to her marvelous work rather late, I am undertaking this journey now and look forward to providing more notes from where it takes me.