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Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry

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Alice Fulton, “Fractal Poetics: Adaptation and Complexity,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Manney, Surrey, UK, 2005, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 323–330.


Feeling as a Foreign Language

Excerpts from Reviews of Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry

Graywolf, 1999

“In this feisty and original collection of essays, the poet Alice Fulton leads us into new ways of thinking about the nature of postmodern poetry, suggesting innovations in its elastic content and form that draw on mathematical, scientific and philosophical theory. She also scrutinizes the rich legacy of such diverse female poets as Margaret Cavendish and Emily Dickinson.

Fulton’s mood in these essays is consistently experimental and subversive.... Taking dead aim at some of mainstream literary America’s complacent assumptions about the postmodern poem, she advises replacing its flat, transparent surface with a rough-edged, multi-textured work in which the surface of language does not remain static but continually shifts. Boldly imagined ... [this is] a call for nothing less than a revolution in the language of both free verse and free verse criticism.

The jewel in this collection is ‘Her Moment of Brocade,’ the finest essay I have read on Emily Dickinson since Adrienne Rich’s ‘Vesuvius at Home’ ... Here, as elsewhere in the collection, Fulton brilliantly uses scientific and philosophic theory to interpret poetic phenomena.

Feeling as a Foreign Language is a book that satisfies as it provokes ... challenging complacency at every turn. It should attract not only readers of poetry but all readers who enjoy the vigor of bold, original thought.”

Rita Signorelli-Pappas
Women’ Review of Books


“In this, her first prose collection, Fulton writes with scientific curiosity about her own work and with judiciousness and generosity about the work of others.... My favorite essays are the first and last in the book: ‘Screens: An Alchemical Scrapbook’ and ‘A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge.’ I'm taken by the careful artlessness of the former, with its vast emotional and geographic ranges.... In ‘A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge,’ Fulton’s penultimate plea is for a poetry that ‘treats the tongue as a muscle.’ The trenchant insights that build up to this request include ... the need to ‘edge into realms more conscientious and more spacious than poetry has lately allowed’ .... This book’s lasting contribution, however, lies in the theory of ‘fractal verse’ that Fulton explicates in the two essays of the ‘Poetics’ section.... A 1986 essay proposes Fulton’s fractal theory as one of many excellent solutions to the critical problem of how to discuss formal elements in what might otherwise be considered formless free verse...This is an important book. Anyone with a stake in contemporary American poetry should be aware of what Fulton has to say about the state of the art in the U.S.

The Missouri Review


“Fulton argues persuasively that ‘fractal’ would be a more fitting description than ‘free’ for the kind of verse many poets write today. In her erudite survey of the development of form in poetry, Fulton makes some fascinating observations....

Dickinson is the subject of a later essay, one of the best I’ve read on her.... Fulton reaches even further back in history to examine the work of another ‘eccentric’ poet, Margaret Cavendish. If, like me, you've never heard of this 17th-century poet, Fulton’s essay is the perfect introduction and in fact deserves to be printed as such next time a publisher issues an anthology of her writings.

Fulton bends over backward to provide sympathetic readings of a dozen or so recent books, reading them more closely than most poets dream of, and couching her objections as generously as possible. These are models for how to review poetry, and at the same time provide a useful overview of many trends in contemporary poetry.

The book concludes with ... an argument for how Fulton would like to see poetry develop in the future, discarding narcissism and tired arguments to explore ... ‘that slightly skewed domain where things are freshly felt because they are freshly said.’

Long considered one of our best poets, Fulton emerges here as one of our best critics as well: erudite, sensible, ‘original brain’d, generous,’ and wonderfuly readable. Even if, or especially if you don’t read much poetry or poetry criticism, Feeling as a Foreign Language deserves your attention; it will be repaid tenfold.

Steven Moore
Rain Taxi


“Fulton’s elegant and provocative essays in this collection range from a consideration of chaos and complexity theory as touchstones for contemporary aesthetics, to an investigation of aberrance as a source of power in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, to her complaint embodied in ‘A Poetry of Inconvenient Knowledge,’ perhaps the dominant understory of all these essays: the refusal of American poets in the last years of the twentieth century ‘to encounter unspoken premises.’ Unless poets write mindfully, Fulton charges — unless poets interrogate received beliefs — ‘the imagination of American poetry will serve the ‘traditional system’ or ‘party line’ of American culture.”

In place of that unquestioning poetic mind-set, Fulton would have poets employ imagination ‘as an active rather than passive metabolism, pressing against cultural assumptions in order to reinvent them .... Not a didactic or polemical poetry,’ she cautions: ‘On the contrary, I’d like poetry to unhinge the prevailing culture with the same degree of subtlety — insidiousness, if you will — that it has used to uphold that culture.’ ”

Robert C. Jones
American Book Review


“Poet and critic Alice Fulton suggests that poetry is endowed with a good and productive strangeness.... Fulton invokes a scientific metaphor as she tries to form a critical language that can do justice to the goodness and the strangeness of an emergent form of postmodern poetry she calls ‘fractal verse’ .... For Fulton, the fractal serves as a potent metaphor for a poetry with a form that exists somewhere between utter shapelessness and the Euclidean order of regular meter and genre, a poetry whose volatile, irregular patterning exists on the threshold of structure.... Her essays make for a spirited read, roughing out one possible language for understanding poetry in the age of quantum mechanics.

Susan Duhig
Chicago Tribune


“The perceptiveness and innovation of these essays encourage our greater understanding of emerging postmodern poetry and places such poetry in a domain where it cannot be dismissed. Fulton’ collection works as an invocation to poets to find their voices within a ‘poetry of unnatural acts,’ to embrace dichotomies of uncertainty and tension; at the same time Feeling as a Foreign Language provokes readers to examine closely a range of works that might otherwise be discarded as formless and to seek their inner patterns of dynamic structure.

Carrie O. Ferguson
Georgia Review


“Alice Fulton considers poetry’ uncanny ability to access and recreate powerful human emotions. In beautifully written essays, she contemplates feeling, the nature of fractal poetics, the aesthetics of complexity theory, the need for “cultural incorrectness,” electronic, biological, and linguistic “screens,” argues for a Dickinsonian tradition in American letters, and a great deal more. Feeling as a Foreign Language is greatly rewarding reading for the student of poetry, language, and the emotional impact of literature.

Midwest Book Review


“In previously published, ground-breaking essays, Alice Fulton calls for a new non-Euclidian ‘fractal’ poetics based on complexity and chaos theory, to help poets and poetry readers define what is really going on in the misnamed ‘free verse’ style. She provides ‘a new vocabulary of poetic forms in which nesting, regression, digression, interruption, and irregularity of all kinds will become nameable patterns. As poems are ‘linguistic models of the world’ working,’ these terms make sense of what has been heard as ‘formless’poetry.

Fulton clarifies her claims: irregularities certainly exist within formal, metered poetry, but are not the same as pervasive irregularity in a poem with no traditional pattern. In the first case, a template exists against which the irregularity creates a limited, temporary friction. In the second case, the texture of the poem is ‘bumpy’ throughout with uneven and broken spaces between events. A taste for ‘subterfuge’ is developed; accidents, slippage, and mistakes are valued. The resulting turbulence gives a quality of ambush.

World Literature Today


“The book opens with a remarkable collage piece ... shot through with wide ranging intelligence and wit....

‘Fractal Amplifications: Writing in Three Dimensions,’ [1998] which elaborates on an earlier [1985] essay, soars with its sense of possibility....

Fulton insists writers must read, and here is where I find this collection particularly instructive. The centerpiece of the book is a series of critical essays....

Fulton expects her readers to take their time and pay attention, but she doesn't expect anything else (certainly not love, worship, or even appreciation).”

Steven J. Lont
Grand Rapids Independent


“More than ten years ago [in 1985] Alice Fulton introduced the concept of fractal verse, however few have been the poets willing or able to implement such a poetics without falling back into techniques more akin to language poetry, neo-confessionalism, or post-modern bricolage. Fractal verse reveals itself as a more necessary form as our contemporary age moves closer and closer to a viewpoint expressed by Fulton in a recent interview: ‘Who needs more reality? There’s enough of that around us everywhere. What I like, and what we need, are forms that go beyond or extrapolate reality.’ Far from being escapist or transcendental, Fulton posits following through the myriad possibilities of the present tense. Fractal verse doesn’t ignore the present or the past, but has a grander approach to historicity. The fractal poet seeks to demonstrate, through the poem’s ‘varying densities,’ a “modulating depth of field’ which would allow ‘us to experience the poem as a construct of varying focal lengths.” Therefore, fractal verse ‘is interested in that point of metamorphosis, when structure is incipient, all threshold, a neither-nor.”

Daniel Sunrall
Rain Taxi Review of Books


“In this meaty, laudable collection of essays, Alice Fulton constructs a rich and multifaceted investigation into some of the most fundamental and thus far neglected topics in postmodern/twenty-first century reading, writing and thinking.... From her enlightening [1985] discussion on the exhausted debate between formal and free verse, to her [1989] call for a Dickinsonian lineage in American letters, Fulton’s essays demand an immediate ear and a flexed tongue.

In addition to her [1985 and 1998] discussions of fractal poetry, Fulton’s reconstructive essay on the neglect of Emily Dickinson is of particular interest.

Fulton’s highly textured language and complex original insights bring to light many shadowy topics in contemporary poetry. These essays will raise the roof and open the windows, whatever your school house of poetic thought. Recommended for mature students, writers and thinkers of poetry, and anyone who seeks to use “ ‘the tongue as a muscle.’ ”

Jennifer Sperry

full text of essay online at ForeWord