Essay

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p. Although the words “sheep” register their meaning on sight, it feels as though one does not initially _read_ this poem. There occurs, simultaneously with the acknowledgement of the words on the page as text, a visual encounter with the poem punctuated by a non-linguistic acuity of what is conveyed by the concrete image their repetition creates. Syntax and semantic have been pared away. What is left is a sparse pasture on which the sheep can roam: here lies the hill, there graze the sheep. Oh, there’s a lamb there, too. The poem manages to evoke the four-dimensionality of the scene; the page is an observer’s field of vision, neatly time- and date-stamped on the bottom left corner, as though that observer had casually glanced at their wristwatch while pausing on a countryside stroll…


Although the words “sheep” register their meaning on sight, it feels as though one does not initially _read_ this poem. There occurs, simultaneously with the acknowledgement of the words on the page as text, a visual encounter with the poem punctuated by a non-linguistic acuity of what is conveyed by the concrete image their repetition creates. Syntax and semantic have been pared away. What is left is a sparse pasture on which the sheep can roam: here lies the hill, there graze the sheep. Oh, there’s a lamb there, too. The poem manages to evoke the four-dimensionality of the scene; the page is an observer’s field of vision, neatly time- and date-stamped on the bottom left corner, as though that observer had casually glanced at their wristwatch while pausing on a countryside stroll.
(For the record, there is a “Position of Sheep II” poem, occurring a few minutes later while the sheep have slowly ambled to other places on the hill, where, I suspect, a few tufts of uneaten grass remain).
But don’t get me wrong. “Position of Sheep I” doesn’t collapse the distinction between phenomena and our interpretation of them via Broca’s Area. With a greater degree of subtlety than Magritte’s painting [_Ceci n’est pas une pipe_], the poem illustrates the fact that however innovatively we may use words to mean something, even in a pictorial manner beyond their semantic function, they remain representational. After all, one cannot knit mittens from wool sheared off the back of the word “sheep”. One cannot even knit the word “mittens”.
The poem does succeed, however, in drawing attention to written language’s own thingness; it’s in-the-worldness as stone etching, as inkstain, as laser-burn, or liquid crystal display, whatever the technological means may be. Words themselves are objects, and language, as an extension and intrusion into the world it seeks to define, has changed the relationship between seeing and what is seen. We see sheep when we see “sheep”, but we also see “sheep” when we see sheep. Our relationship to language has a physical and perceptual attribute, and this attribute is an often neglected aspect of poetry fore-grounded in “Position of Sheep I”.
In fact, “Position of Sheep I”, much like the rest of the collaborative book [_In England Now That Spring_] by Steven McCaffery and bp nichol in which the poem appears, is a rather deft inversion and re-invention of the enterprise of the English Romantic poets–where once Shelley wrote as existential interpreter of the natural world whose words sought to swell the empty emotional vessels that were his untrained readers, now write McCaffery and nichol, who attempt to diminish their own role to the function of perceptual filter, leaving only the stripped, codified, measurable remains of their experience and, consequently, the reader as primary interpreter.
Why do I like this poem? It is delightful. It allows the reader to delight in the very simple yet profound pleasure of perceptual apprehension. Why do I think this poem works? It is more than merely a clever idea poorly executed. It speaks outside of itself, and proves, in its way,
every word is a concrete poem.
Prompting us to ask what exactly this means.

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