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The Shape of Oblivion: Poetry and the Rollercoaster

Posted 20 December 2013 by | Comments Off


When is a poem like a Rollercoaster? Jack Underwood passes the height requirement and gets strapped in.

I wouldn’t exactly say that I like going on Rollercoasters but my annual trip to a themepark is a recent tradition that I’m keen to uphold. I tend to go in autumn when the queuing time is minimal, the weather especially bracing and I always seem to be hungover. It must be something about mid-October, with its leaf-fudge and back to school realism that promotes an odd craving to feel mortal, vulnerable, uncertain, again. All summer I’ll have been bending my body around the place feeling in charge of it: pleasing its limits with barbecues, drinking indiscriminate booze from midday onwards, falling asleep in chairs for no good reason. I’ll have willfully lied to my body for months, telling it that I know best, and everything is fine. The change in the season announces that the summer lifestyle is unsustainable, so a day of Rollercoasters gets a few facts straightened out.

Rollercoasters (and I mean serious rollercoasters) provoke a sickly, animal terror in me. Especially face-first vertical dropping ones, like Oblivion or SAW. Sometimes this terror-state sends my body into shock (I have gone literally green), whereas other times (and this is preferable) something chemical will give way and I’ll find myself laughing like a cartoon maniac dissolving in a vat of acid. Every ride is a tentative experiment into how my body will react under new and absurd conditions, and while my body is busy deciding which of my vital organs it might shut down first in order to survive, I am somehow able to observe it all cogently, as if from outside of myself. I don’t really believe the mind/body binary because it just sounds like something the mind would come up with to elevate itself. But Rollercoasters do a good job of arguing that we merely inhabit our bodies, instead of being part of them, or a product of them, constructed for their survival – big rides alienate us from our bodies by overwhelming our senses beyond our physical apprehension, and our intellectual comprehension.

This sort of out of body experience can make you philosophical. After all, you are effectively handing over cash to experience the synthesised physiology of near-death, code-red, shutdown. What is that if not Metaphysical? Indeed, that Rollercoasters exist at all says quite a lot about human nature, not least in the context of Western Super-Capitalism and its consumerist barf. Perhaps the Rollercoaster is a monument to the notion of ‘the-experience-as-commodity’? Or the Rollercoaster is a postmodern sculpture self-consciously celebrating our elevation from animalism by dipping us briefly back into it from a great height? I’ve even come to think of Rollercoasters as a kind of poetic ‘language’ of postmodernity, or as poems in themselves. While all this sounds preposterously high-minded, if you can keep your fluorescent blue slushies down, I’ll try and explain.


At Thorpe Park they have a Rollercoaster called Stealth. This is a stupid name because it is probably visible from twenty miles away. It comprises of a hydraulic catapult of the kind they use to throw airplanes off boats, which launches your little train(from 0-80mph in 1.8 seconds) up a bendy-looking 205ft vertical hairpin known as a ‘top hat’ (it looks preposterous, like something out of Dr Seuss). You are fired up this massive hill, over the top, and then you fall, face-first, down again. That’s it. It takes 18 seconds: forwards, up, over the top and back down the other side. It’s a Petrachan sonnet, basically.

I have come to think that form in poems is not to do with so-called rules, or the number of lines and all that guff, but more with how an argument is literally ‘shaped’. Sometimes the relation between formal parameters and how an argument plays out within them is tangible and feels productive, and sometimes it’s less obvious. It’s the old friction between signifier and signified that Structualism talks about. We know that the relationship between the word and the thing is arbitrary, is culturally assigned, but when you examine how language plays out culturally, in terms of selecting words according to their ‘character’ then the specific sound-shape of a word seems integral to its communicative properties. I’ve even come to think of all words as onomatopoeic, because on a certain poetic level all words sound like what they mean. ‘Shoe’ for instance. It’s even shaped like one if you squint.

In other words, saying ‘I went to the shop to buy a Twix’ feels different to saying ‘I absconded from my dwelling and henceforth procured a two-fingered confection’ because of how we have learned to associate sounds and shapes with concepts. We select different words because their character feels right or wrong compared to, and in the context of, all other possible choices.When we construct a sentence, form is the visual and musical shape it possesses in relation to its rhetorical character. Form is also how we interrupt or manipulate a sentence’s rhetorical arc using further systems of visual grammar: line breaks, rhyme, big gaps. Form is the whole shape of the argument, and poetry and Rollercoasters are shaped deliberately unusually, for deliberately unusual effects.

In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘The Fish’, the last few lines ‘– until everything/ was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!/ And I let the fish go’[1] fall only after a painstaking and steady accumulation of details. She develops her examination of the fish, and then develops it further. Her forensic anatomy of the fish begins outside, then goes inside, right to the surface at the back of the fish’s eyes. She takes you to the edge of the fish’s ontology, where she builds up to her joyful epiphany of the sublimity of a material reality, and our weird, implausible ability to almost apprehend it. All this fills up her little rented boat at once, and she holds you there, for just a second, or three and a half seconds – ‘rainbow, rainbow, rainbow’ [pause] – then drops you forty feet, face-first, through a hole in the ground: ‘And I let the fish go’. Yes, Bishop’s ‘The Fish’ has the same form as Alton Towers’ Oblivion.

Rollercoasters are shaped rhetorically, like arguments, in the same way that poems are. What the argument is about depends on how that shape relates to the person strapped in, and what they’re thinking, but the form of an argument is present at every ‘top hat’, corkscrew and volta.


In her book Revolution in Poetic Language Julia Kristeva used the term symbolic[2] to describe ‘the domain of positions and propositions’[3] which order and grammatically govern language. We might like to imagine the formal, physical structure of the rollercoaster, its shape, the way it measures out its movement, its ‘positions and propositions’, as a kind of physicalised symbolic order. The other part of the rollercoaster, the screaming, over-stimulated, visceral mess of the rider, could therefore be seen as what Kristeva calls the semiotic[4]: the ‘raw material’ of signification, the corporeal, libidinal matter that exists outside of the symbolic order and therefore ‘must be harnessed and appropriately channeled for social cohesion and regulation’[5]. In other words, in order to produce meaning you need the dangling, speeding, hapless body of the Rollercoastee, as much as the structural mechanics of the Rollercoaster itself. A Rollercoaster is only meaningful when someone is coasting its rolls; it is the oscillatory relationship between the semiotic rider and symbolic ride that gives the Rollercoaster its significance. And it is the oscillatory relationship between semiotic and symbolic elements that language (as a ‘signifying process[6]) relies upon in order to work. Without the body, without associative, libidinal material, grammar is just a bunch of scratchy glyphs.

Key to Kristeva’s work is how she develops this oscillatory relationship further in terms of poetic language:

In the case, for example, of a signifying practice such as ‘poetic language’, the semiotic disposition will be the various deviations from the grammatical rules of the language…These variations may be partly described by way of what are called primary processes (displacement, condensation – or metonymy, metaphor), transversal to the logico-symbolic processes that function in the predicative synthesis towards establishing the language system.[7]

The ‘semiotic disposition’ can be evidenced in those moments when the ‘grammatical rules of language’[8] are challenged, when there is a resulting conflict within language, such as saying ‘a Rollercoaster is a sonnet’. It isn’t. According to the laws of language ‘a Rollercoaster’ is precisely ‘a Rollercoaster’. But when that basic law is overthrown or challenged by ‘those forces extraneous to the logic of the systematic’[9] it is the semiotic aspects of language that are foregrounded, and transversally complicate ‘straightforward’ denotational meaning. In poems, our unconscious semiotic jelly overthrows the repression of the symbolic mould, allowing for greater wobbling. The rest of the time, the jelly is secured. But we speak and read as much with our unconscious, visceral bodies as we do with our conscious, conceptual minds.

I felt a tangible sense of the oscillation of the symbolic and semiotic while suspended for the 80-second duration of Alton Towers’ Nemesis. Its structure was literally harnessing my visceral jelly. For those of you who don’t know, the ride train is inverted so you’re in a sort of robust ski-lift situation. If I were to give you a sort of symbolic run down of that experience it would go a bit like the ‘Ride Experience’ section of the Nemesis’ wiki:

Once at the top of the 13-metre (43 ft) hill, the train makes a small dip and turns around 180 degrees to the left. The train then descends 31.7 metres (104 ft) down the first drop into the first inversion, a right-handed corkscrew. The train then navigates a right-handed, 270-degree downward helix that features 90 degree banking. Then the train rises up into the second inversion, a zero-g roll, where riders experience the feeling of weightlessness. It then makes a 180-degree right-handed stall turn into the third inversion, a vertical loop. After a left stall turn the train enters the second corkscrew. The train then passes through an underground tunnel, and through one more 180-degree turn, before being stopped by the brake run and returning to the station.[10]

While this adequately relays the sequential, structural elements of the ride, it neglects the body’s role in making the ride meaningful. The phrase ‘where riders experience the feeling of weightlessness’ feels woefully inadequate. To explain the experience of the rollercoaster, to get at its poetic meaning, we would have to acknowledge the body, the semiotic, and for this we need a metaphor, a semantic conflict, a nice lie. You are a jar of olives, for instance, and someone turns you upside-down so all your internal organs (played here by the imaginary olives) float up to the bottom of your body. Then your jar is righted again, and your organs float back into position. That’s what Nemesis is like.

That your body and its gloopy, unconscious business is active in the process of signification becomes more complex when you consider how each of our bodies is unique. We all feel different, all of the time, and poems are unstable things shared loosely between us. Our bodies are also in a constant process of change: we replace all our cells every 7 years, not to mention the fact that bacteria cells in our bodies outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1. We’re never ourselves.

Even with a single reader, the poem read is never the same poem, because the body that reads it is never the same body. If anything, poems are reading us. They inform us, add to us. They frame our concepts or feelings in their terms. They equip us with structures and systems for understanding ourselves, and once read they become integral to our perspectives. We are as much made out of language as language is made by us. When you read a poem into being, it’s doing the same thing back to you.

Now think of all the different bodies in the Rollercoaster cars, in the different seats and positions: each experience of any ride will be unique because each body is positioned differently, and reacts differently to the various stimuli. From the moment you’re strapped in you are as much being made by the Rollercoaster as the Rollercoaster is being made by your experiencing it. It’s a poetic transaction, a kind of empathetic exchange with the rhetorical structure of the Rollercoaster. It’s a sort of poem.


When you start thinking about the shapes of arguments, and things like Rollercoasters being poems, and all of the above in terms of stimuli and stimulated mutually ‘reading’ each other into being, then you begin to see such poems everywhere. The structure of the house you live in declares you daily as you explore and define its limits. Whether you’re looking up at the rhetorical structure of the Eiffel Tower, or entering into the argument of a cave, or reading the poem of the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, there are arguments in form to be found in every corner of the universe that hails you, and you hail back at.

For example, I walked a dried-up riverbed and saw a rock, with a small stone balanced on top. Nature could hardly have contrived it there, so I knew someone meant something by it, had placed the stone, and made an argument that specific way, and so it was a very small kind of poem.

And then a few weeks ago I saw a great big poem. I was standing in a field with four hundred or so people. It was 7 in the evening and my little nephews were there, with my brother and his wife, and her parents, and my parents, and my girlfriend Hannah, and lots of people from the village I grew up in. And we were all stood declaring each other in our unique positions, and relations, with our changing bodies in this muddy field in early November, when the firework display began its great argument.  We all watched it unfold in its sequence, in its form, and we all read it with our bodies, and gasped and swooned, and when it was over felt giddy and changed, and timid in our strange and silly lives.


Jack Underwood is a poet whose debut collection is forthcoming in 2015 from Faber & Faber.



[1] Elizabeth Bishop, http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/22238 [site accessed Tuesday 17th December, 2013].

[2]Julia Kristeva, ‘The Semiotic and the Symbolic’, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p.24.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Julia Kristeva, ‘The System and the Speaking Subject’, The KristevaReader , ed. TorilMoi, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.28.

[8]Julia Kristeva, ‘The System and the Speaking Subject’, The Kristeva Reader, ed. TorilMoi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.28.

[9]Julia Kristeva, ‘The System and the Speaking Subject’, The Kristeva Reader, ed. TorilMoi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.28.

[10]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemesis_%28roller_coaster%29 [site accessed Tuesday 17th December, 2013].


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