Rich Murphy

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has taught writing and literature for more than twenty years at Bradford College and Emmanuel College in Boston. He now teaches expository and creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. His credits include an upcoming book of poems “The Apple in the Monkey Tree” by Codhill Press, due out summer 2008; chapbooks Great Grandfather in 2007 by Pudding House Publications, “Family Secret” due out in July 2008 by Finishing Line Press, and “Hunting and Pecking” due out in 2008 by Ahadada Press; and essays in Fulcrum, The International Journal of the Humanities, Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, Reconfigurations: A Journal for Poetics Poetry / Literature and Culture, Fringe, and soon in Contemporary Poetry and Crisis anthology.


A Weekend Splash for the Big Toe


Saturday Night


A few feet before

the dance ticket is punched



Totalitarian Jig Gig


When dancing with the jailor,

innocence doesn’t jingle

and the partners syncopate the finale

to the choreography.

A cell also gets in the way

of the rhythm, and the music’s key

frees the inmate from thought outdoors.

The convict’s movements collaborate

with a court’s chug and thug.

Sitting on the bunk

points out the bunk until the guard

jiggles another wallflower using a spoon 

to tunnel from the mess.

Unlocking the prison gate

behind the eyes opens Zen’s cliché wilderness,

but even the guilty bank robber

may lose himself in the forest.

A far away meadow that possesses options

for revenge relaxes the ribcage in the evening.

Exiles jitterbug with tailors

according to tyranny’s tango

witness who also sings bars and stripes forever.

The other shoe flops with a charge

and limp limbs. Skipping the protest

the worker, who never spends

his jumping jack cash,

plays the clown to a crown.





If the reader would return to “Saturday Night,” I may be able to illustrate the use of the postmodern / post-avant in my own work. The poem is an interrogation of the sixth and last night of the week, the peak of the weekend, known for its revelry and violence. Saturday being the last day of the week makes it a kind of winter, the end while it is the day of leisure and fun. The first line of the poem gives us little. However, the reader has not one, or two, but perhaps three feet before. Irony is in the number of feet: a few, not a couple. Two feet would suggest one person, four would suggest two people. A few hints at three feet, so what does that mean? Irony is also in the second line in the pleasure of dancing violence (Bacchus?) in the punching of the dance ticket. Saturday night slang could play a role in the poem with the idea of death being a checking out or ticket punched. But perhaps we are not at a dance at all nor is it Saturday night. What else could those “few feet before” suggest? The irony in “Totalitarian Jig Gig” begins with coinage “dancing with the jailor,” and it interrogates that idea to its “clown and crown.”

Aporia: Dancing Lessons Through the Sublime

Let us face it: beauty is a bit of a bore. -- Cakes and Ale – W. Somerset Maugham

If the beginner line dancer follows the instruction below, he or she could (if he/she is jester enough) be writing poems such as the two above in ¾ time. Now-Now-Now-

Warm Up Stretch

We find fewer uses for beauty in postmodern / post-avant poetry because harmony and justice are suspect. The difference between modern poetry and postmodern poetry can also be attributed to modern poetry’s putting forward the sublime as “missing contents” at precisely the right moment among beauty. The exercise is supposed to be therapeutic in a Wittgensteinean way. Usually the sublime moments are meant to substitute something transcendental, a oneness. Postmodern poetry ignores beauty and form to attempt to put forward the unpresentable. One is sublime while the other is referred to as non-transcendental sublime or aporia.

The sublime in poetry relies on the ability of the poet to overwhelm the reader and for the reader to empathize with the persona. To do this the poet sets up the reader using the elements of beauty to encourage empathy and build contrast to what is to come. The moment of sublime is one where the poet brings the passion or compression of language in an attempt to say more than what can be said, to attempt to go beyond language and thus overwhelm the reader standing in the persona’s shoes. 

Referring to Longinus’ “echo of a great mind” idea when plumbing the history of the sublime, Anne Carson uses the idea of foam as in the foam in mouth of the passionate speaker that then is transferred to the listener as a contagion, as though spittle from the speaker hits the listener and excites with the sublime. She also summarizes Longinus’ discussion of Demosthenes, telling the reader that the sublime is achieved through a brutal juxtaposition of coordinated nouns or noun clauses, that physical violence is transposed into the violence of syntax of facts spilling over the frame of original context and pummels the reader. (46) She goes on to describe Longinus’ understanding. “Its bigness is always threatening to go out of control, to submerge and vanquish the soul that seeks to enjoy it. Threat provides the sublime with its essential structure, an alternation of danger and salvation, which other aesthetic experiences (e.g. beauty) do not seem to share.” (48)

The pleasure comes from a combination of the reader seeming so unimportant and tiny and yet somehow a part of the sublime experience. Romantic poets made great use of the idea of unity in the sublime. The reader can experience it in “The Daffodil.” The reader see the transcendental as Wordsworth works it with his connections of personification of daffodils, of the reflection of the daffodils in lake water, of the water itself in its waves, of the stars: making one the human world, the world of nature, and the supernatural world. A poet (and Christian religious leaders) cannot but be gay with the transcendental quality promised. This oneness makes simple Emmanuel Kant’s notion that the experience of the sublime is the victory of reason over sensible being.

Aporia is different. We find that we are “without way or passage,” at an abyss, something open and unresolved that inspires suspicion, doubt, and “difficulty in choosing” (Royle 92). In his book Aporias, Derrida defines it as,

a matter of the nonpassage, or rather from the experience of the nonpassage, the experience of what happens and is fascinating in this nonpassage, paralyzing in this separation in a way that is not necessarily negative: before a door, threshold, border, a line, or simply the edge or the approach of the other as such. It should be a matter of what, in sum, appears to block our way or to separate us in the very place where it would no longer be possible to constitute a problem, a project, or a projection, that is, at the point where the very project or the problematic task becomes impossible and where we are exposed, absolutely without protection, without problem, and without prosthesis, without possible substitution, singularly exposed in our absolute and absolutely naked uniqueness, that is to say disarmed, delivered to the other, incapable even of sheltering ourselves behind what could still protect the interiority of a secret. (12)

Aporia is suspicious of all frames (harmony and justice that make up beauty), reminding the reader that there are no frames except for the ones that are made or the only conventions we have are the ones we make. The poem is not going to lead the reader to a sublime moment but challenge the frames of the familiar, the beautiful, the harmonious at every turn of phrase. So when the familiar or conventional performs as a frame, aporia emerges. The frame promises convention while aporia disturbs. There isn’t an intimation of a transcendental oneness. Instead it attempts to present something unpresentable. The postmodern poet is in the position of a philosopher: his text is not governed by preestablished rules that his text is investigating.


The paradox suggested in irony is the tool that frustrates easy reasoning toward resolution, keeping the problem, the frame, the poem open. The effect reminds the reader of the limits of language that the medium isn’t going to pretend it is something it isn’t. This kind of sublime is another kind of overwhelming, the overwhelming of the apparent absence of meaning or what David Shapiro in his essay “The Mirror Staged” refers to as “deferred sense.” While aporia is the overwhelming of limitation, it is also the overwhelming of possibility; because if it reminds the reader of limits of convention, it reminds of possibility also, the freedom of possibility. This is its pleasure. Using aporia is not a one-time shot in the poem but a regular reminder of the limits of language and using those reminders to further the poem. The regularity of aporia in these kinds of poems may also be seen as recognition of the sublime that is ever-present. For Nietzsche’s cosmic dancers every moment is sublime.

To this end I offer the following sequence of assignments to assist experimenters and novice to the postmodern / post-avant world.

Choreography: Two Leaps of Ironic Imagery

Step One

Compose a cluster of ironic or paradoxical images as each comes to mind. Do not attempt to connect them and avoid making each elaborate. Use concrete language as much as possible. When you have composed a cluster of about twelve ironic images, “step back” from them and look for a common theme or idea in them. You may find that six of them may lead in a direction that lends itself for writing more. Use one as a prompt and begin writing. Use the other five as needed, connecting what you find would be effective to the writing. Compose other new images if needed and if some of the images are metaphors, that is fine also. Keep unresolved irony as a guiding principle when bringing a kind of unity of interrogation perhaps that remains open at its close.

Hop Too

Compose a cluster of ironic images as each comes to mind and do so around a topic, theme, or idea. Do not attempt to connect them and avoid making each elaborate. Use concrete language as much as possible. When you have composed a cluster of about twelve ironic images, “step back” from them and consider the common topic, theme, or idea. Use one as a prompt and begin composing  in a direction that lends itself for writing more. Use the other five as needed, connecting what you find would be effective to the writing. Compose other new images if needed and if some of the images are metaphors, that is fine also. Keep unresolved irony as a guiding principle when brining a kind of unity around interrogation, commentary, or narrative that remains open at its close.

Each exercise will have its own logic, essay-like or narrative, but dancers will need to keep alert for the quick turns, half or quarter or almost pirouettes. Dancers need to follow their investigation not a predetermined conventional choreography. Dancers shouldn’t stare at their feet if possible. However, they should work against the music or use the music to bring in the less than intuitive expectation, not for its own sake but to further the game of feet that is being played. Play is the limber muscle: tip, tip, hooray.



Works Cited

Carson, Anne. Decreation. NYC: Knopf, 2005.

Derrida, Jacque. Aporias. Tr. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.

Royle, Nicholas. Jacques Derrida. NYC: Routledge, 2003.

Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.