Of Nonplussing – A Game of (Table) Tennis with Robert Frost and W.S. Graham
Here is the table. A simple wooden table, used for writing and the occasional game of desktop table tennis, held up by trestles. Before the poets pick up their bats, I’ll rest my page on it. Here is the word: Nónplus. It means yes and no spelled backwards, no more, no less.
Oh yes, here comes Robert Frost who has said, ‘Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down’¹. In other words, there is little point in writing free verse as it doesn’t present enough of a challenge. He has, however, omitted one word from this much quoted saying: ‘table’. Upon that omission I rest my case, and my case is that it isn’t my game to advocate sayings concerning poetry, especially by poets. One may as well say
Free verse is like playing underwater
Tennis with a French onion
This Frostian adage in particular has always seemed odd in that it is not for anyone to say what might come of an experiment with form if the poet has given themselves deeply to language in an effort to reach through to the other side of it. Sometimes it’s in our interest to experiment alone without adopting seductively-worded pieces of advice such as this because they may actually inhibit our own writing process.
The first poems in free verse appeared in the 1870s. Arthur Rimbaud was a pioneer of what, at the time, were experimental forms of poetry, the prose-poem and vers libre. ‘Marine’ and ‘Mouvement’ were the first examples of the latter, making for interesting additions to his seminal work of prose-poetry, Les Illuminations. Some say these two poems let the book down, but each has its strengths and finesses. In the light of this, it seems discourteous to dismiss free verse in the way Frost has famously done simply because he himself preferred a more formal stylistic approach to allow for a good challenge when faced with the limits of language and the pressure-chamber of form.
Oh no, here comes W.S. Graham, his face like an angry tulip. “What did you say? ‘The figure a poem makes … ends … in a momentary stay against confusion?'”². Graham whacks the ball so hard that the net collapses. Enter Rimbaud, in his capacity as ball boy, who lets out a golden hoorah:
“Ils emmènent l’éducation
Des races, des classes et des bêtes, sur ce vaisseau.
Repos et vertige
À la lumière diluvienne,
Aux terribles soirs d’étude.”
(They carry away with them the education
Of races, of classes, and of animals, on this vessel
Repose and vertigo
In the diluvian light,
And the terrible nights of study.) ³
Game over! And anyhow, the rain has started and Rimbaud and Graham are resting their chins on the table tennis table, eating the imaginary grass and laughing, glad for a reason to make themselves as nonplussed as possible in order to serve well at the fallen net of language next time round. It is to their advantage that, having already mastered traditional poetic practices (much of Rimbaud’s early work was written in Alexandrines, while Graham often favoured a three-stress line), they subsequently apply this language-training to an exploration of freer forms, ravenous to sow within themselves ‘un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens‘ (‘a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses‘). 4
Nónplus: to be confounded, to be confused (or deranged by confusion), to put to a stand, a stop. Graham works these meanings into his approach to writing poetry. For example, here is an extract from ‘What Is The Language Using Us For’ (‘Third Poem’):
… I try to find
Whatever it is is wanted by going
Out of my habits which is my name
To ask him how I can do better.
Tipped from a cake of ice I slid
Into the walrus-barking water
To find. I did not find another
At the end of my cold cry. 5
The stop of the stanza, and section of the poem, is as it says, a cold cry. We are stopped again in line six. Stopped in the middle of what the line might have said if that was what the language had wanted from him. Instead, it decided it was more worthwhile to allow a nonplus where a nonplus shouldn’t be. And for the grammatician, that’s such a no-no. But – it’s not. The game is one of getting the ego to cooperate with the will and volition of the work itself. And there’s the genius – it’s a big shameless yes to how the language must sometimes use us, and this is the perfect nonplus: a no and a yes at the same time, a negative and a positive, a momentary stay against a momentary stay against confusion. Graham’s poem can be very confusing, apparently, but positively so. The figure his poem makes ends … in a nonplus.
In ‘Five Visitors to Madron’, a nonplussing par excellence, Graham ends a stanza plus a section with a full stop, as one would expect when a sentence appears to come to an end, but he then opens the following stanza and section with ‘And’:
…This message must
Reach the others without your help.
And met the growing gaze willing
To give its time to me to let
Itself exchange discernments
If that surely it said is what
I wanted. Quick panics put out
A field of images round me to
Look back out at it from and not
Be gazed out of all composure. 6
The writer’s hand hovered with both panic and composure, uninterested in keeping confusion at bay and preferring the exuberance of travelling into and through what might be perceived as confusing. How else do we clear a space but by confronting the limitations of what we think we have to say? What we might want to say isn’t necessarily all that interesting. Better to be longing for the language on the other side of language. When Graham disturbs the sense like this, undoing the way we like to make sense of things and urging us to explore the potentialities of altered syntax, which implies altered states, he is offering his gift to us, the arduous gift of his life, cultivated in terrible nights of study,
In the small hours on the other side
Of language with my chair drawn
Up to the frightening abstract
Table of silence, taps. 7
There is the table again, at which the poet has sat down to listen to all the previous listening he has done whilst out walking or shopping for supplies or drinking or painting or whatever else he got up to. Silence enters the poems to provide for the writer a new language with which to try and approach it, as we hear in ‘A Note to the Difficult One’:
This morning I am ready if you are,
To hear you speaking in your new language.
I think I am beginning to have nearly
A way of writing down what it is I think
You say. You enunciate very clearly
Terrible words always just beyond me. 8
Graham constantly plays on silence, backwards and forwards across the table of poetry. Here is Part 15 of ‘Approaches to How They Behave’:
Having to construct the silence first
To speak out on I realise
The silence even itself floats
At my ear-side with a character
I have not met before. Hello
Hello I shout but that silence
Floats steady, will not be marked
By an off-hand shout. For some reason
It refuses to be broken now
By what I thought was worth saying.
If I wait a while, if I look out
At the heavy greedy rooks on the wall
It will disperse. Now I construct
A new silence I hope to break. 9
Part 12 of the poem contains a seminal statement on Graham’s philosophy of the word: ‘They have no ability above their station. / Their station on silence is exact.’ This is Graham reaching again, as always in his mature work, for ‘the edge of ear-shot’10, his words ‘Changing their tune on silence’11. He does so from a positive restlessness, tired of what he knows and looking for what he doesn’t know he knows, accessing it through language, because language contains everything in the world and is a way of seeing into reality more clearly.
It hardly matters if we have to confront a big Non.
Plus, poetry by its nature does not sit well with hearing itself defined too stringently and would rather we didn’t ‘Exact the prime intention to death’, as Graham says12. Reflecting on this line in his introduction to the pocket edition of ‘Approaches to How They Behave’, Sean O’Brien writes: ”One’ must avoid killing language by closing down it’s possibilities’13.
Nónplus. A low word. Not more. An impasse. A state in which no more can be said or done – unless we alter our customary language habits. If instead we carry on preferring to make sense in a way that requires us to steer clear of confusion then the work as it wants to be will not speak to us. We make our individual attempts, each at our own table, to cross the impasse and must try and lower ourselves and duck beneath the net of the habitual. Words have to be reached for, down into the dark of what at first may seem confusing, but, no. And, yes, if need be, here is an alternative adage:
Without a rod, line, weights,
fly or float – with just the table,
the pen, the hand, the brain, the heart,
the ear, and a French onion – poetry
is a kind of nightfishing in terrible daylight.
1. Robert Frost, Address at Milton Academy, Massachusetts, May 17, 1935.
2. Robert Frost, ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, in Mark Richardson, ed., The Collected Prose of Robert Frost (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007), p.132.
3. Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Mouvement’, in Collected Poems, trans. Oliver Bernard (London: Penguin Books, 1986), p.281.
4. Arthur Rimbaud, Letter to Paul Demeny, 15th May 1871, in Collected Poems, p.10.
5. W.S. Graham, ‘What is the Language Using Us For’, in New Collected Poems, ed. Matthew Francis (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), p.202-203.
6. W.S. Graham, ‘Five Visitors to Madron’, in New Collected Poems, p.189-190.
7. Ibid., p.188.
8. W.S. Graham, ‘A Note to the Difficult One’, in New Collected Poems, p.206.
9. W.S. Graham, ‘Approaches to How They Behave’, in New Collected Poems, p.182.
10. W.S. Graham, ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’, in New Collected Poems, p.154.
12. W.S. Graham, ‘Approaches to How They Behave’, in New Collected Poems, p.178.
13. W.S. Graham, ‘Approaches to How They Behave’ (London: Donut Press), p.ix.
Prose Poets is a new series of short prose essays on poetics by poets. Each essay uses a word and definition excerpt from Samuel Johnson’s first edition of the English Dictionary as a spur towards an exploration of poetry, language and literary criticism, combining a casual, subjective treatment of the chosen theme with personal anecdotes and reflections.