Why Do Poets Ampersand?

The poem is “Sacrament I” by Robin Gow (Poetry, March 2020).

Excerpt, first stanza:

& all the faucets pour oil or milk.
We fill father’s bottles, the brown and green;
thick glass blood cells, a throat-slit pouring silk.
When will the baptisms make me feel clean?

When a poet tenured in creative writing at Adelphi leads with an ampersanded sentence fragment, I suspect I’m in the middle of something; at the same time it shunts me somewhere else.

I heard Robert Creeley and Gregory Corso give a reading in Chapel Hill. It felt like discovering modern poetry. Corso’s pee-stained underwear made an appearance in one of his poems, and both men pulled steadily at a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy sitting between them on stage. The event was outrageous and enthralling.

A similar moment was when ampersanding poetry got my attention. It screamed “modern.” I knew I was supposed to say “and” each time I passed the old abbreviated Latin copulative tiddle, but I fell into the perverse habit of saying “ampersand” instead.

I read the first line of this poem as: “ampersand all the faucets pour oil or milk.” It has a ring of its own.

Paraphrasing a famous painter: What you read is what you read. And a tenet of drawing: Read what you see, not what you think you see. The goddamned ampersand points me in the same direction: Don’t try to stretch the poem’s words and symbols beyond themselves; let them sail free of their common cargo and mapped routes.

I’ve read several rationales behind ampersanding. One that moves the needle for me urges experiencing the poem as a made object. Something you look at more than construe? A cunning box made with words? Whatever it means, this mindset comports with my attraction to free jazz, which also drives me to abstraction. I’m striving to allow the language analog of such music to infiltrate me; to collude, not collide; to grow my proprioception in poetry space.

There’s more to write myself about Robin Gow’s poem, but not now; this jot would go too long. The ampersand deflected me from my original theme: What makes poetry ‘hard’? It almost always does.

(c) 2020 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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