An Aesthetic of Flow

Tony Hoagland

Oct 16, 2018

What draws a particular poet towards a particular writing style?  It is a great mystery. Like red hair, it could be some sensibility already locked into the DNA before birth. Or it may well be just a matter of early exposure. Someone shows young Ebenezer a poem by the young William Butler Yeats, and bingo—the impression is made: "So that's what Poetry is," thinks the kid. And he may never recover. It's like being born into a particular Mafia family. "I am a Corleone," he thinks, and the matter is settled:  "We garrote our enemies, and in our poems, we like long, end-stopped lines. Our family has always done it that way." I once had a moderately well-known actor for a student, and his first poetry teacher had been Harryette Mullen—the important and daring, experimental, feminist African American poet. My student the actor could write a poem stylistically like those of Mullen's, even though he was a white heterosexual man from a whole different demographic, and carried an entirely different set of life concerns. Knowingly or not, often quite early in our writing lives, and long before we understand their consequences, we make large permanent choices about poetic style.

One such stylistic "choice" has to do with how digestible we want our poems to be for the reader. How easy do we want reading our poems to be? How much enjambment, what kind of diction and vocabulary, how intellectual or emotional, how "friendly," or resistant? Eliot said that modern poetry is required to be difficult to understand because modern reality is difficult. But some poets are going to want poems to be seamless and available and clear as distilled water, and maybe narrative and a lucid report on human nature and experience.

These poetics could be called the poetics of Flow. Sharon Olds, Ruth Stone, James Wright, Carl Sandburg, Lucille Clifton, Dorriane Laux, Billy Collins, Ross Gay, Louise Glück—in their way, these are all "easy listening" poets, and that is nothing to scorn. I myself prefer and practice a poetry of flow. I want the poem to be like an enjoyable and lucid dream—to be FUN even if the subject matter is dark and dreadful. I want people to love the experience of reading poetry and never to feel like they are not smart enough or like they are having their faces forced into the dog dish of edification. I want poems that are in part a relief from life, and full of sense-making and crisp images and funny metaphors. Yes, I am a populist (though as a reader my tastes are extremely eclectic and wide-ranging). I want the inexperienced reader to finish a poem of mine and say, "I didn't know poetry could be like that—so truthful and so entertaining."

The poem of flow transports its passenger smoothly, like the perfect test drive of a new car on a recently paved road, in a fuel-efficient vehicle that handles perfectly, whose engine is so quiet you can't even hear the tires on the road. The road turns, rises, and dips; your vehicle slows down and accelerates, you top the rise and head north, you feel the wind in your hair and the roll and slope of a world where everything is connected. You almost never need the brakes and will never need to use reverse gear in order to back up and figure out what just happened. "This car could drive itself," you think.

The aesthetic of flow believes that a poem should put the reader into a light trance state, wide-awake but relaxed, alert but not wary, trustful that the poem knows where it is going, and is being piloted by a skillful and experienced craftsperson. It is dedicated to readability. Every poem, it could be said, is an artifact of concentration, but the experience provided by a flow poem is a very relaxed form of concentration. Here's an example of the flow-style by James Laughlin, “Patent Pending”:  

I have an invention
ready for the patent

office which I know
will benefit mankind

it is a kind of ink
and little pen and

magnifying glass so
everyone can write

a saying of Gautama
on each fingernail

and find them there
the minute that his

hands begin to feel
like picking up a gun.

"Patent Pending" is inventive in multiple ways, but its developments, its twists and turns, feel inevitable because they are well paced, well spaced, and designed for comfort in a way that is considerate of how the mind takes in information. Laughlin's lucid and lively poem doesn't compromise adventurousness for accessibility; yet at the same time one feels that its composition was effortless. This appearance of ease is characteristic of the flow aesthetic; it makes poetry-writing seem like a natural function of consciousness.

The only formal "difficulty" or "interference" in "Patent Pending" to our easy comprehension is Laughlin's use of visually short, semantically choppy line breaks. These short lines require us to do a little work stitching the sentence's syntax together as we go along. However, this device also imparts a visual regularity to the lines on the page—a source of rhythm, reassurance, and pleasure.

Though largely the flow aesthetic makes its technique unobtrusive, the devices that it does employ—the egalitarian voice, the clear images and metaphors—are reliable agents of pleasure. Pleasure is our business at Flow Aesthetic, Inc.

The syntax of the flow aesthetic is usually extensive, and easy to follow, which is to say that words of connection and transition are plentiful and clear—key antecedent words precede their modifiers. The flow poet loves the long, developing sentence enriched with prepositional phrases, the sentence that unwinds through stanza after stanza, never losing or confusing the reader. Altogether it fabricates the appearance of casual seamlessness.

Laughlin's "Patent Pending" is a slim, spare example of the flow aesthetic, but flow can and often does include abundance as well. The naturally expansive spirit of flow incites the proliferation of imagination. That more abundant version of flow can be found in Spencer Reece's poem "Diminuendo"—one long, extended, metaphor-embellished sentence:

The heat of the Midwest night fills with the hush of elms
weeping in the bluest of shadows,
their limbs cavernous as Jesus’ limbs must have been,
while two lovers liberate themselves in the grasses
and the vegetables converse in small support groups
about the catastrophe of their ensuing deaths,

and the sky gushes and the lilies of the fields tremble
in the diminishing angles of the hours when nursing homes buzz
and the aged fumble their way through halls
to a numb white oblivion like melancholy gondoliers
lumbering under the stars that bend to the effort of their groans,

and when the grandmothers of this universe,
who are the real professors of history, fall off their pillow-cliffs,
their bangled durable prayers howl through the night’s inky branches,
their history blasts down the hard sidewalks,
and their wishes go more or less unobserved,
at 4 A.M. on a grainy morning in Northfield, Minnesota.

Reece's poem offers a fairly simple plot—it is a pastoral description. Its real reason for existing is to embellish that landscape with metaphorical invention and extensions.  As crowded with imagery as "Diminuendo" may be, the reader is carried forward by the muscular cadence and additive syntax into a twilit, somewhat hallucinogenic dimension, in which "vegetables converse in small support groups," and "the grandmothers of this universe" "fall off their pillow-cliffs" in the nursing home. The reader, like a passenger on an amusement park ride, is borne forward through twists and turns, engrossed in the metaphorical vistas around each corner and curve.

Because it is built for flow, reading Reece's poem, for all its abundance, is like going down a waterslide; a smooth semantic and syntactic glide, with a lot of lubricant. Such poems make poetry seem marvelous and unimpeded, like a great conversation—like poetry is the most natural thing in the world.