It’s easy to dismiss experimental poetry. Picking up a book and seeing a line like “i will not give / yu what yu want th vois sd 2 me” can be frustrating if you were expecting something you could immediately understand. The frustration can feel even worse if you have the sense that the poet who wrote it doesn’t want to be understood. “This writer thinks he’s so smart,” you say to yourself, “getting snooty artsy types to call his work genius for fear of looking stupid!” And so you toss the book aside to read some trusty Robert Frost.
In the case of bill bissett, the poet who wrote the above words in his new book, TH BOOK, you ought to reconsider your dismissal.
Forget what you know about language as the ultimate ark of meaning. This is poetry that furthers your coming to terms with the feeling we all have in our guts that no words will ever be eternally appropriate, precise, or perfect. Language is instead used as aesthetic material; you experience the sounds and shapes of speech, not the logic or argument. In this book in particular, bissett defies language’s hold on meaning with his “lettr texting,” walls of grammatical symbols and letters that form hypnotic waves on the page. He explains on page 79 that this form “liberates / langwage n th mind from forsd meenings 2 a nu realm / uv un naming n unmeening 2 just b free from content.” Before that he claims “evreething dusint meen sumthing,” which begs the question: does it matter?
But TH BOOK is not a cold-hearted exercise in linguistics and philosophy. In fact, bissett — as always — manages to make the work incredibly personal, seeming at times too specifically personal for the poem to connect with the reader at all, beyond provoking a sense of pity for the writer. But that’s just at first glance. Many of the poems focus on the death of his daughter, for example, one of which goes into a detailed list of names of people who helped him out during that time (p. 26). This is a sincere expression of appreciation, but it is just a list. Because bissett’s poetry demands that we question everything, you have to ask: why should this be less legitimate in a book of poetry than a more traditional, Hallmark-y attempt at the same sort of expression?
That is not to say bissett is necessarily above trying Hallmark-esque forms (“all ways, always,” as he is often quoted in interviews), but nor is he below or even beside it. He is utterly within it, and the poetry reflects that with its sheer energy. One poem is just the word “avocado,” repeated again and again, with letters all jumbled up (p. 57). It has no singular, definitive meaning, and still it fascinates like a cubist still-life. And what does any still-life painting mean when stripped of any particular symbol? Why care what it means if, in some unnamable way, it resonates with you?
If language is a door made of diamond, protecting a room full of the mysteries of being, TH BOOK busts it down, breaks it apart, makes all kinds of baubles out of it, and just leaves the room intact and open for the reader to explore blindly. And yet, after all the distraction of my metaphor there, TH BOOK does not claim to be some key to the universe. It’s just a book, and one that deserves your attention.