Categories and labels appeal to inattentive minds. In poetry, for example, more people may use the terms "confessional" or "Beat" or "Romantic" than have paid attention to poems by Sylvia Plath or Alan Ginsberg or John Keats.

Michael Palmer has been associated with "non-referential" or "language-centered" poetry. There may be some truth to these categories, but they leave out or neglect too much. And the better a writer or a particular work, the less useful any label that may be applied to him.

Here is Palmer's poem "Study":

In a darkened room they

speak as one against the

religion of the word, against

the prophetic, the sublime, the

orphic call. It is a

strange conversation, coming as it

does after hours of making

love, mid-afternoon till now, at

this their second meeting, shutters

closed to block the lamplight

outside. Seated on the bed,

the curve of her back

toward him, she is smoking.

It is unclear whether they

believe what they are saying.

The narrative presents its reality as reliable. The poem's final sentence goes so far as to say that the two characters have an inward reality -- the degree of their belief -- that is independent, beyond what the poet who makes the "study" of the title can say.

Or is the study a room: a room containing the author, or containing the couple with their intellectual judgments and lovemaking?

The poetic term "stanza" comes from an Italian word for "room"; in a poem entitled "Stanza," Palmer considers what is contained in a body (the ringing left ear can signify an out-of-body experience), in a room containing the words in books or voices, in things that can't be found, in weather -- in the dizzy enigma of the last line, which seems to dramatize the escape of meaning out of all its containers, including language, including the room of this poem.


"A ringing in your left ear . . . "

Some of the books can't be found

and likewise certain rooms

with words in them

or built of words

appear to have been sealed

Sealed against what? First

light perhaps, nails of the hand

tendering the spine a glance

Rain must have its place, its chance

at the music -- text

now lost, now gone

Does distance cause the call

Do nights spin

(Michael Palmer's poems "Study" and "Stanza" are from his book "The Promises of Glass." New Directions. Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by Michael Palmer.)