Fragments for an Essay on Incoherence

By David Lillington, 16 October 2008

Estragon: I'll go and get a carrot.

He does not move.

Vladimir: This is becoming really insignificant.

Estragon: Not enough.

Waiting for Godot..........

This is the code issue of Mute and this piece, which remains in note form, was to be about the appreciation of incoherence for its own sake, about the aesthetics of the undeciphered. During the summer a flyer advertising sarees came through my door. In the list of types of saree was the phrase Marble Chiffon Computer. It occurred to me that while I wanted to know what this meant, not knowing was also enjoyable. Obviously this isn't a new idea, either to me or to anyone else.

Point one then, is delight: if you mean to enjoy the poem as a poem, stop cross-examining it, stop trying to force it to make sense. Or if you must cross-examine, remember that the third degree is not the poem. "Most poems do reveal..." et cetera. John Ciardi1.

"A poem must not mean but be." Archibald McLeish (quoted in ibid)

Encoding in order to make clear later: this is the point of a code. The message sent in code must have two things: absolute opacity at one end and absolute clarity at the other: the point of the code is its clarity to the recipient. Hence usefulness, aesthetic appeal and use as metaphor: as if the world itself were encoded, but the code (goodness, truth, beauty; religion, love, nature, drugs, poetry or magic, made it clear: revelation. is the key here...) And perhaps because of this hope, the code undeciphered has an aesthetic appeal...

The appeal of codes is the appeal of the esoteric.

Fragments for an Essay on Incoherence

The best art is the art we don't fully understand. We say it has depth. Fully grasped, it loses its interest. Both underworld (subconscious, gods, devils) and skies (muses, gods, cosmic rays) are invoked.

"All poetry aspires to the condition of music." Keats

The thesis of John Livingston Lowes in the Road to Xanadu ("one of the most fascinating books ever written", quotes the blurb from the Tribune), a book high on lit Grit's cult list, is that all the bits and pieces the mind takes in are given a unity by the force of the imagination, which he sees in a Coleridgean way - as a creating, God-like principle, so that something of creation is revealed by this other act of creation, that of the poet. Key texts are those in the Biographia Literaria in which Coleridge contrasts Fancy and Imagination. "Fancy" is what we might in daily life call imagination. But Imagination is at once visionary and creative. Coleridge & Transcendentalism...

It's the lack of coherence which makes poetry interesting, or the interplay between incoherence and coherence. The need for obscurity, or complexity, is also perhaps to do with the need to connect mind and body. Poetry is music; its outcome therefore dance. Verbal meaning and bodily movement are brought into one space, the two halves of the brain engaged in the same activity, external things united. Hello trees, hello sky. Only in art are contradictions reconciled. Think of a song you love. You can dwell in that song. Song-space. Everything can happen there. In that space, at least, everyday conflicts are resolved, while existing freely in it. Affinity with prayer then. And sleep, with its dreams. And possibly conversation and sex. And drunkenness. Not sure about sex. 

The incoherent is the drunken, the Dionysiac. Baudelaire: "Get Drunk ...2" Dionysiac implies dancing and dancing sexuality and sexuality unity - and all of this is gloriously obvious. Poetry is a party.

The Road to Xanadu is so delightful because Livingston Lowes is so openly and deliciously seduced by his subject, gleefully immersed, his work itself becoming one long poem - at timesalmost concrete, what with the quotations and footnotes and "bays and bafflements" as John Berryman said of the Bible - one immense lucid drunken wallow in the poetic.

Coleridge himself has once and for all put it in ten pregnant words: "the streamy nature of association, which thinking curbs and rudders.24" And that "streamy nature of the associative faculty,"25 curbed and ruddered by the disposing imagination, is the prime instrument in the hands of genius, and its implications lie at the very root of art.

"Heaven forbid that anybody should suppose that I suppose that in all this I am "explaining" poetry! But the incalculable power which we call Imagination, whose goal is the unfathomable something we name Beauty, is no alien visitant, but an agency which operates through faculties of universal exercise upon that streaming chaos of impressions through which we hourly move. The time for a final appraisal of results has not yet come. But we have at least seen enough to recognize that one office of the imagination is to curb and rudder the clustering associations which throng up from the nether depths of consciousness, until out of the thick of the huddle spring beauty."

Baudelaire's "Correspondances"3

The connection of things: the unity of mind and body and of heaven and earth, in a Platonist way, and as in religion, Catholic or otherwise, (the mass is a long performed poem.)

And later with Freud in psychoanalysis and the belief in the absolute mystery of the unconscious, such that this is equated with the fatalism of Greek Myth, but also its (the unconscious') partial accessibility, like striptease or sexy underwear - revealing but concealing: psychoanalysis is seductive, as Surrealism realised, and created just a few of the century's most seductive objects and pictures - notably photographs, and that damn teacup.

Andre Breton realised that this had always been the case and made a list of past "Surrealists", the writers include Rabelais, Joyce,, who ended up writing Finnegan's Wake...

But also: clarity is both poetic and mysterious and a writer like Spinoza... etc, etc, etc.


Some Thoughts for Cybernauts.

I'm not sure who said some of these things. If anyone knows, please tell Mute. Also some quotations may be slightly inaccurate. Not significantly.

Never photograph anything you're not passionately interested in.

? to Lisette Model

The search for a partner is the search for an alternative self. The person who realises this has immense power.

Maurice Oppenheim?

If my neighbour is stronger than I, fear him; if weaker, I despise him; if we are equal, I resort to subterfuge. What motive could I have for obeying him, what reason for loving him?

Jean de Rougement

Every fashion has its legitimate charm.


The veil makes vision possible.

John Livingston Lowes

Origins prove nothing.


Don't compare things which are different.

? I'm especially keen to find the origin of this one. I think it was a classical Roman.

One of the great things poetry does is that it keeps the eye open when everybody else is flinching.

Clive James

The happy man is the one who can connect his end with his beginning.

I can't refind this one. It's somewhere in Dante...

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.


The palace of excess leads to the palace of access.

Mark E Smith

Let's breakdance.


No limit to the stations and no hope of crucifixion.

Samuel Beckett

Come on get in the car. Let's go for a ride somewhere. I won't hurt you as much as you've hurt me. Let me take you there. Before the sun goes down. Come on gimme your love. Come on baby all you have. I wanna to take your breath away. Come on baby. Just like that you say. You make me feel so crazy. Come on get in the car. Let's go for a drive somewhere. I won't hurt you. You make me feel so crazy.

Sonic Youth

Nothing bodes more ill than the loss of a friend.


Only great pain is the true liberator of the spirit.


If you use only abstract words you can say anything and get away with it.

Mark Arnold

Subversion requires strategy.


The truth comes through the strangest door.

Francis Bacon

We are all the prisoners of our liberators.

Paul Tournier.

1 John Ciardi, 'Mid-Century American Poets', Twayne, 1950.

2 One of the prose poems in "Paris Spleen: Little Poems in Prose", 1869. This is it:


"One should always be drunk. That's the great thing; the only question. Not to feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and bowing you to the earth, you should be drunk without respite.

"Drunk with what? with wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please. but get drunk." And if sometimes you should happen to awake, on the stairs of a palace, on the green gran of a ditch, in the dreary solitude of your room, and find that your drunkenness is ebbing or has vanished, ask the wind and the wave, ask star, bird, or clock, ask everything that flies, everything that moans, everything that speaks, ask them the time; and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird and the clock will all reply: "It is time to get Drunk! If you are not to be the martyred slaves of Time, be perpetually drunk! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please."

(Translation of Louise Varese, Paris Spleen, New Directions, 1970.)

24 My computer can't cope with the idea that I want the footnotes number but not the footnotes

25 .....

3 A sonnet, and the fifth poem in the Flowers of Evil (1857) . It became a Symbolist manifesto.

'The pillars of Nature's temple are alive

and sometimes yield perplexing messages; forests of symbols between us and the shrine remark our pasage with accustomed eyes.

Like long-held echoes, blending somewhere else into one deep and shadowy unison as limitless as darkness and as day, the sounds, the scents, the colors correspond...'

(Translation of Richard Howard, Picador, 1982)