Checking up that “proud cock” is two words, not one, so that I might strut it out, I came across the entry for “beast language“ in the Dictionary of Poetic Terms. The diction of the entry is either unconscionably vague or deliciously derisive:
Theoretically, it seems the language of the poem moves backward from conceptual words to an intelligence of pure sound utterance that calls attention to the form, meaning, and derivation of the word. The form is probably meant to be experienced more than intellectually understood, an experience that presumably links the reader with his own senses and the animal origins of language.
Since my knowledge of post-1940 American literature amounts to what I’ve read for pleasure and the Lord set Sunday aside for whimsical researches, I decided to find out whether the entry ought to be applauded or condemned. First up, according to Google Book Search, was a work I inadvertantly committed to the memory hole: William Gass’s The World Within the Word. In “Food and Beast Language,” Gass talks about something else entirely; namely, the forced materiality of Henry Miller’s prose. Of its effect on Miller’s signature subject, Gass concludes:
Alas, the penis is such a ridiculous petitioner. It is so unreliable, though everything depends on it—the world is balanced on it like a ball on a seal’s nose. It is so easily teased, insulted, betrayed, abandoned; yet it must pretend to be invulnerable, a weapon which confers magical powers upon its possessor; consequently this muscleless inchworm must try to swagger through temples and pull apart thighs like the hairiest Samson, the mightiest ram.
Because of this, Gass argues, Miller’s works traffic in compensation:
They are not written, and do not belong on a page like Pynchon’s; nor are they spoken as Gaddis’s are; nor do they employ the formal oral eloquence of Sir Thomas Browne; they are talked, yarned like a sailor, endlessly gabbed; and his male readers at last must be reminded of the bluff good-fellow voice of the locker-room brag . . . well let me tell you when I saw her huge X, my! it was so Y that I nearly Z’d.
The formulaic nature of Gass’s final clause typifies Miller’s mode of repetition without recursion. Miller endlessly repeats himself because he has reduced the world to things and the human body to meat. For Gass, embracing this reduction signals the lamentable end of a great talent gone stale—though it renders Miller quite easy to anthologize, as one can find the most suitable iteration of a thought without worrying that it might have been developed more carefully elsewhere.
Michael McClure, the poet who schooled American literature in the niceties of “beast language,” thought differently. In The San Francisco Renaissance, Michael Davidson quotes McClure as saying:
Every man has his treasure. It’s inside him. It’s called meat.
I’m tempted to quibble with his formulation: if “it” equals “meat,” then “it” isn’t “inside him,” it is him. That aside, it’s not entirely clear how meat pertains to “beast language,” which Davidson defines as “a language somewhere between human speech and animal sounds.” He then reprints the same excerpt from “Ghost Tantras” that the Dictionary of Poetic Terms did:
Lest this strike you as a less rigorous version of Finnegans Wake—one in which the multilingual puns have been replaced by noises approximating speech—Davidson assures readers that McClure has a theory here, that his “beast language oscillates back and forth between modern and archaic speech, between recognizable words and expressive utterances.”
Lest this strike you as a less rigorous version of “The Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses—one in which the development of the English language in nine stages approximates that of the fetus in utero—Davidson assures reader that McClure’s poem is meatier because “it obeys a center margin, its lines [are] built around a central axis.” Because of this center alignment, McClure says, his poems “have the bilateral symmetry, of an organism.” Davidson explains:
Not only does the poem imitate beast sounds (or hypothesize the beast sounds that humans might make) but it replicates on the page the skeletal structure of vertebrates. The center “spine” emphasizes, as well, the line as a physical entity on the page. Instead of returning to the left margin, the line asserts itself boldly as a free image, connected to the other lines like the ribs to the spinal column. Instead of the line as a score for the voice, it becomes a separate object among other objects.
Quite meaty, that is. But not meaty enough:
McClure’s formulation of poetry as beast language and as biographological grid represents the most radical example of a physiological or “embodied” poetics[. He] carries poetry further back to the cellular and genetic basis of human life. He wants a poetry that lives at the borders of articulate speech, a poetry that minfests in its structure the nature of all organisms. For McClure, humans are meat, and one’s expressions—in its ideal state—in an indication of one’s mammal nature.
I think we all know where this is headed:
Its star is a winged phallus named Gorf, whose function is to alert the world to the great bump—a kind of Atlantean shift into mythical time—and who helps to reunite the realm of the of the sacred to a scattered world.
Not quite what I meant. Try again:
The Giant Penguin represents McClure’s own tendencies—
Still not right. One more time:
The most complex realization of McClure’s biopolitical theater—
There we go. And what does a complex realization of a biopolitical theater look like?
POLITICS AND THAT
I think we can now safely say what all the hedging in the Dictionary of Poetic Terms means.