If I try to move beyond aesthetic considerations when reflecting on Paul Fry’s theory of “the ostensive moment,” what I’m left with is a phenomena of language in which first order signification (denotation) leads to an experience of poetry that enacts its supposed literary force without the need for a second order signification (connotation). In regular English, this means the words mean what they say and what they say has an impact, i.e. there is no need for a symbolic or metaphoric message to be structured within their contextual usage. This is what I think Fry is getting at when he writes “insignificance is itself the sole theme specific to literature.”
Obviously, understood in this way, “insignificance” conveys a double meaning. The immediately accessible definition indicates “inconsequential, unimportant, minor,” e.g. the insignificant detail of daily existence. But "insignificance" is also defined as a qualitative state that lacks meaning. From a stand point of literary theory, this lack of meaning indicates the “face value” of an utterance, or a lack of symbolic import built into the structure of a text. In this case then, the poetic text builds its “literary value” by stringing together plain language and imagery in such a way as to simulate a genuine experience of life that resonates with … I don’t know what.
Perhaps this is what “the ostensive moment” is: an experience that defies explanation or description but is nevertheless generated from a reader's experience with a text. From this experience we might reflect on the meaning of a poem, explain its literary import, even determine metaphoric applications (intentionally written or not), but the literary force of the poem itself relies on the brief and direct non-significatory experience generated in “the ostensive moment.”
To explore this angle of Fry’s theory, I’ll examine three distinctly different poems by Emily Dickenson, Robert Scotellaro, and Jack Kerouac.
The first of these, Dickinson's "I heard a fly buzz when I died," is explicated by Fry in his attempt to illustrate the insignificant theme presumed to be specific to literature. When you read the poem below, take note of the first line’s connection to the final stanza, then focus on the juxtaposition of a fly’s insignificant buzz in relation to the typically more significant details of the middle stanzas and the context as a whole:
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
Despite the conventional details of this deathbed scene (poetically sketched in the middle stanzas), the perceptual moment Dickinson focuses on is the buzz of a fly heard at the instant of death. Structurally, the entire poem builds to this moment: it is plainly stated in the beginning, then dramatically returns in the final lines as vision fails and living consciousness fades to lifelessness.
Aesthetically, this poem is highly structured and beautiful to read. Dickenson’s sporadic use of alliteration and rhyme, her alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter, her extensive use of dashes to accentuate utterances, create the formal skeleton on which her vocabulary builds toward a representation of fictional death. But the “power” of the poem itself, what makes it stand out as an exemplary work in American literature, seems to spring from the indescribable feeling obtained through her juxtaposition of the insignificant fly in relation to momentous events, thus resulting in a sublime literary moment on which we might reflect. From Fry’s perspective, it is this “ostensive moment,” generated through the text, that gives literature its distinctive (though difficult to describe) signature. It feels real, and yet it is only words.
One thing that is apparent in Dickinson’s poem, however, is that the depicted moment is highly contextualized within a scene that is anything but insignificant. How would "the ostensive moment" play out in a poem that is not so significantly contextualized, one that not only builds from ordinary details but is also focused on a moment that can truly be called insignificant? How about breakfast? In a recent issue of Right Hand Pointing (Word Count), a short untitled poem by Robert Scotellaro stands out largely because of its rich evocation of a very casual (and intimate) moment that almost breathes with life:
Depending on your reading, the “insignificance” of this moment could mean just about anything. From a male perspective, there’s an unstated prurient quality around which life itself might revolve. From a female perspective, perhaps the casual intimacy of careless nudity conveys experiential depth and resonance. As with the Dickinson poem, I can only guess what another reader’s reaction might be, but what I can state with a certain amount of assurance is that the moment depicted is both particular and ordinary – it carries no universal, philosophic meaning of great import or symbolic intent. It is an insignificant event that derives literary force not from meaning per se but from its ability to simulate a feeling of life and ordinary pleasure.
Aesthetically, the formal qualities of Scotellaro’s poem are very efficient and eloquent: as a poem, it could be a contemporary tanka, composed of a single sentence that pivots in its latter half to reveal an unexpected turn of events; the word-play of the first two lines adds a winking sort of depth to the final three; the visual of the final line helps to cement its verbal image in the mind of a reader. But these formal qualities only support the effectiveness of a well-chosen moment, helping to extend the poem beyond its words into a perceptual moment that generates a feeling of a life worth living. As with the Dickinson poem, it is a feeling that arises from the poem, centered on a depicted moment, that gives it an unspoken quality we might call “literature.”
But this comparison of two poems brings me back to the words “denotation” and “connotation” that I referred to in this essay’s opening paragraph. While neither poem appears to signify additional symbolic meaning beyond the face value of their denotative words, they do connote additional significance by generating implications beyond the written utterance. In Scotellaro’s case, this significance centers on the human intimacy (in whatever way it might be received) implied from the simple imagery of a casual breakfast. In Dickinson’s case, the significance entails an almost ontological feeling of the sublime that exposes the limits of human understanding and presumed importance.
In either of the above poems, the focus appears to be less concerned with abstract meaning per se than it is with life experienced in its particular moments. If there is a recent writer who made this sort of focus the hallmark of his work – while simultaneously eschewing contemporaneous notions of aesthetic quality – it might be Jack Kerouac. In the following poem, “San Francisco Blues: 3rd Chorus,” Kerouac’s “moment” focuses on the insignificant grime of an urban storefront’s tiled entry from which his own reflection creates a fictionalized (though undeniably "genuine") account of human bodies that share a physical space in different temporal moments:
3rd St Market to Lease
Has a washed down tile
Tile entrance once white
Now caked with gum
Of a thousand hundred feet
Feet of passers who
Did not go straight on
Bending to flap the time
Pap page on back
With smoke emanating
From their noses
But slowly like old
Lantern jawed junkmen
Hurrying with the lump
Wondrous potato bag
To the avenues of sunshine
Came, bending to spit
& Shuffled awhile there
If a poem such as this connotes anything beyond its stated imagery, it is only that what is depicted here in Kerouac’s imagination matters. Beginning in the present tense, Kerouac contemplates the storefront tile “now caked with gum / of a thousand hundred feet” and expands to the long-gone owners of those feet, generating past moments of human insignificance with the spare details that bring them “to life.” What’s most notable about his descriptions is that they are almost as grimy in depiction as the tile on which his contemplative moment is centered. These passers-by, who shuffle and spit like “old / lantern jawed junkmen” are of the de-valued class that bourgeois ideals either avoid or scorn. Despite this connotation, however, Kerouac’s depictions mean what they mean and derive literary force from their realistic quality within the context of a poem.
Aesthetically, Kerouac’s “Blues” poems were frequently considered anything but aesthetic. Regarding “Mexico City Blues,” Kerouac’s friend and contemporary Kenneth Rexroth considered such work, published as poetry, as a “naïve effrontery” that was “more pitiful than ridiculous.” Even so, Kerouac’s poetry seems to have withstood the test of time – Book of Blues (from which I reprinted this poem) was published by Penguin Books some 26 years after his death.
By all formal considerations, “San Francisco Blues: 3rd Chorus” might be received as a mess of eccentric phrasings, syntax, and vocabulary, but these eccentricities of Kerouac's distinctive voice combine into precise descriptions that overflow with the insignificance of life. If there is an “ostensive moment” within this poem, I’d characterize it as being in the present tense, with the poet himself reflecting on the storefront tile and populating it with imaginative descriptions that captured life in San Francisco as he knew it. What’s significant, however, is the way in which each of his descriptions create an experiential moment in and of themselves. And it is from the combined impact of these moments that Kerouac’s literary “moment” arises.
Show, don't tell
I wouldn’t hesitate to label any of these three poems as “literature.” But the ostensible purpose of this series of essays is to explore Paul Fry’s meaning behind “the ostensive moment.” With that in mind, I’ll finish by saying there is one distinct difference between Fry’s choice of the Dickinson poem to illustrate his theory and my own choice of poems by Scotellaro and Kerouac: Dickinson’s “insignificant” focus is on a fly’s buzz, while the other two poets focus on distinctly human subjects and events.
Which is to say, Fry appears to be developing an ontological study of the poet’s apprehension of non-human reality conveyed in language to such an extent that we, as readers, experience a recreation of the poet’s wonder at the miracle of existence – an effect that cannot be restricted to the semantic quality of words alone and seems to push beyond the limits of rational, perceptual knowledge.
I think this is a significant topic of study, with a high degree of relevance concerning our own approaches to poetry, but, in some ways, it is also a limiting factor. As seen in the poems by Scotellaro and Kerouac, an appreciation of purely human events can be equally significant – even in their supposed “insignificance” – because they generate an experiential "moment" of life as it is lived, and do so without layering metaphoric or ideological skins over and beneath the almost immediate impact of their chosen depictions.
Sometimes poetry really does boil down to what has become an old maxim: show, don’t tell. But as all three of these poems indicate, the “show” part of the maxim can’t be all show and no substance. We want poetry to do something. And “the ostensive moment” is all about that something – even if we can’t say precisely what it is.