I tried to post this in Tim's comment box, but it was too long to be accepted:
The point is not that without recourse to intention, the text can mean anything anyone wants it to; it’s that it can "mean" certain things (within a finite set of possible meanings) that are counter to the raison d'etre of the text. This is good if it's a text you want to co-opt for whatever purpose, and bad if you're the author or another interested party who has a specific meaning in mind.
Of course, co-optation doesn't have to be conscious. The immediate example that springs to mind is Frankenstein, which I'm teaching in my freshman core course now. A standard reading of that novel's "moral" has been "don't mess with Mother Nature," "don't play God"--and one can certainly find these sentiments in the text. But a major reason we think of the book as bound to this theme is that a huge part of its original readership insisted that it mean that: they were troubled by other, more radically skeptical implications of the original 1818 text, which hinted among other things that moral society was a cruelly ironic impossibility, and they eventually pressured Mary into rewriting it, so that the 1831 edition conforms more amenably to the conservative interpretation.
One reason we have literary study at all, rather than everyone just going out and enjoying books on their own (heaven forbid!), is to get at crucial nuances of intention, historical context, authorial psychology, and all those things the New Critics tried to banish. Otherwise, overdetermination conquers all.
It's obvious that Romeo and Juliet can't intelligently be read as being about airplane repair. But what about, say, Gertrude Stein? If we're left with "the text itself," in a sense all we have are words whose "meaning" ultimately depends on another authority besides autonomous linguistic signification. If we don't know something about Stein, her education, her politics, her personal relationships, her intentions, the text doesn't mean as fully or successfully what it's "supposed" to mean. Some may say it doesn't even then, but that's a whole other dimension of the problem.
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Friday, March 19, 2004
I’ve been thinking about nearly everything the past few days in the context of Drew’s instantly-classic insight, “Poetry has the capacity to deal with the nonevents of life in a way that other art forms couldn’t possibly manage.” Michael Gottlieb’s new book Lost and Found (Roof Books 2003) both illustrates and complicates the truth of that statement.
On the one hand, many of the poems in here are structured around non-events. To be more exact, they resist any easy placement within standard narrative schemata, drawing instead on the banal cadences of bureaucratic or just plain pedestrian jargon to recreate the sort of mental states of reception one would ordinarily classify (assuming one would classify them at all, which they generally wouldn’t, which is the point) as entirely separate from the domain of events and event-based description. These poems are as close to phatic as one can get while still using (usually) complete sentences.
On the other hand, underlying the entire book, and particularly the middle section, “The Dust,” are the central events of the American Twenty-first Century so far, the “events” of September 11th, especially the attacks on the twin towers. In this sense, Gottlieb’s poetry is obviously concerned with very real events in space and time and their toll in human lives.
It is concerned with these events, however, not so much in their dimensions as spatial/temporal occurrences—actions to be recounted or recreated—as in the inaccessible points of observation in between each moment of the events as they unfold: the points, in essence, that Zeno finds it impossible to imagine in his paradox. In the case of “The Dust,” the slowing-down is accomplished before the fact of the poet’s intervention: it is simply a catalogue of items (lost and) found in the rubble of the World Trade Center:
Knoll workstation fabric panel, 3'6" by 2', with crepe
Knoll workstation fabric panel, 3'6" by 2'6", with crepe
Knoll workstation fabric panel, 3'6" by 3'6", with crepe
BPI workstation 1/2 plexiglass panel, 5'6" by 2'6"
Hon workstation 1/2 plexiglass panel, 5'6" by 3'
Interior Concepts workstation T-base for non-raceway panels
Anderson Hickey workstation connector post, 6'
Global workstation full plexiglass panel, 5' by 2'6"
These lists are interrupted by spaces (“stanza breaks?”) that suggest ellipses, indicators that the full list comprised by the poem as a whole would be much longer than what appears (the poem is fourteen pages). As we move from one subsection to another, the items listed become more familiar and everyday, including articles of clothing, snack foods, and personal products:
Lancome Revitalizing Cream
Revlon Fantastic Blusher
Chanel Age Delay Rejuvenation serum
Clinique Pretty Long Lashes mascara
Estee Lauder Multi-Dimension powder
Ortho Novum, Dispensa-A-Pak
Tampax lite days
Flonase 50 mcg
Lescol, 25 mg
And by the time we get to part two of the two-part poem, all these items are mixed in together with other, more disturbing items:
C++ for Dummies, Stephen Randy Davis, 4th Edition, IDG Books
Lite Source, Inc. portable lamp, Model BF51520
Totes Automatic collapsible umbrella, Black
Fisher Price “See N Say” Baby Says
John J. Tipping, II
At-A-Glance Reversible Erasable Wall Calendar, 36" by 24"
Instinet Russell 1000 Reconstitution Preview—update, pdf
Bordeaux, La Fleur, Petrus, 1998, 750 ml
Part of the chilling quality of this litany is typographical: we have to read carefully to differentiate proper names designating product brands and authors of books, or even incidentally capitalized regular nouns, from proper names designating what is left of real human beings. The inclusion of the Fisher Price baby doll adds to this effect of anthropomorphizing the debris, or vice versa. Nothing “happens” in this poem, except in the surface of the poem itself, in the way it directs the reader’s attention to particulars that evoke the inadequacy—but also the unexpected power—of language to convey tragedy in a culture whose co-optation of affect and identity in the name of corporate accountability has emptied the tragic of its mortal weight.
The other poems in the collection are more conventional in their structure, but are similarly concerned with the inscrutable interims of expectation and loss. Here is poem 8 from “Issues of Error,” the book’s first section:
Stout denial, that is the
traditional remedy among my people.
We study the coordinated outfits,
the assemblages and accommodations
that are wheeled up when we seek to break with it all.
Waiting for the carousel,
the forfeit and the suborned.
The shy platform.
The water hazard.
Like the exercise of the Peak And End rule.
As if that union
wasn’t always fated
trying to marry such poor passagework
to the inevitable breakage and peradventure.
We were once very good friends, you should know,
with our extremities.
Now, we have barely any ambit left.
We throw up like girls.
The “Peak And End rule” refers to the psychological phenomenon in which persons experience different events as equivalent not according to their duration, but according to the intensity of their peak moments and conclusions. Gottlieb’s language is full of non-peak moments and inconclusive endings, as though in an attempt to recover whatever it is that’s being missed in the “exercise” of that rule. Expression that at first seems flat, awkward, lacking in direction, becomes telling and emotionally urgent. It’s hard to imagine a more “unpoetic” final line for a poem than “We throw up like girls,” but this spasmodic, incongruous image (if one can call it an image—it seems indifferent to its referential content, focused instead on its blank ungainliness as an utterance per se) works like a last-minute hook to yank the rest of the poem back up to the reader’s attention, like a carpet accordioning into one small stretch of floor. Everything must be re-read to find the hidden emetic that led to such a distressed finale. In the space of the non-event, what is lost may not be found, but it may be properly remembered, mourned, or at least finally recognized for what it was.
Tuesday, March 16, 2004
I’ve been thinking about several recent posts by different bloggers—Josh's xy grid, Ron's test of poetry and various responses to it including my own, Mike Snider's exchange with Gary Norris, and others--all revolving around imputations of elitism and closed circles of reference. For me, the really helpful post on this was David Hess's quotation from Bourdieu, but he's gone and left us again, removing recent posts in the process, and I don't have access to the source of the quote, so it's difficult to frame these comments intelligibly, but here goes nothing. David remarked that he had quoted Bourdieu as a joke more than anything, as what the passage evoked for him was the chaos involved in attempting to chart the myriad social effects at work in any instance of poetic reception, but that absurdity was pretty much my point as well. When I said that I wanted to have beer and pizza with poet X, I wasn't just expressing an anti-intellectual refusal to theorize the aesthetic effect produced by the poem "itself": I was trying to convey the multiple kinds of subjective and communal interference that inevitably intrude on such concepts of textual autonomy, and to suggest that those effects do inevitably become part of the field of observation, albeit in a different way for every reader, depending on lots of different factors, including the reader's familiarity or lack of familiarity with the poet (the person, her work, or both), what kind of education the reader has, what kind of musical taste the reader has, the reader's political affiliations, what journal or other source the reader encounters the poem in, whether the reader only reads the poem or hears it spoken aloud, and on and on.
I am skeptical for this reason about readings like the one Ron does today of "parallel constructions" in Brenda Iijima's poem in comparison to Lisa Jarnot's similarly anaphoric poem, where he introduces statistical data of this sort: "'as if' accounts for just 20 of the 146 words [in Jarnot's poem], 13.7 percent. ‘Unlike’ represents 25 of the 87 words in Iijima's text, 28.7 percent." Such observations might have a good deal more weight if the poems were static structures in a wind-free environment, untainted by microbial contamination or soot from passing trains. But the fact is that many of us perceived the Jarnot-ness of Iijima's poem, or vice versa perhaps, or perhaps thought one or both of the two poems were very Juliana-Spahr-like, despite Ron's perfectly accurate claims that there are measurable differences in the structural principles of each poet's work.
Leaving aside the question whether the same ratio of differences would persist in a more thoroughgoing statistical analysis of multiple works by the same poets laid side by side (who would want to do such a thing?), it seems to me that the similarities, and their liability to lead readers to associate the writers with one another, are considerably more significant than technical mechanical differences. Or rather, that the truly significant differences are to be located not in word counts and such, but in the particulars of each poet's community affiliation (which often overlaps with the other poets', of course), and in the particulars of each reader's biases, expectations, and preconceptions. Another way of getting at this is to suggest that if you took Iijima's poem and put it in Jarnot's book, or the other way around, and no one were the wiser, it is very unlikely that anyone would think, "hey, this poem really sticks out." And in saying this, I am not saying that the poems are negatively generic or unoriginal or anything like that. I'm just saying that in many cases, our perception of a poem's "essence" is dictated at least as much by factors tangential to its internal construction as by "objectively" observable facets of its physical makeup. And this is true not just of "post-avant" work, I would claim, but of many Elizabethan sonnets (or New Formalist sonnets, for that matter), 18th-century heroic couplets, or Imagist poems.
There are, of course, many poems that immediately announce themselves as being stamped with the unmistakeable "personality" of a particular poet. But that's a whole other issue.
Monday, March 15, 2004
Thursday, March 11, 2004
Received: a copy of Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Dana Gioia, David Mason, and Meg Schoerke (McGraw-Hill, 2004). Upon a quick glance at the table of contents, I was pleasantly surprised: this is a text I would consider adopting for a course on 20th-century poetry, if only because it puts in one place many of the essays I generally have to spend hours photocopying and cramming into a cheap copy-center-produced reader. It contains most of the texts you would expect: Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Pound’s “A Retrospect” and “How to Read,” Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Frank O’Hara’s “Personism,” and so on. It also contains Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation,” Louis Zukofsky’s “An Objective,” Robert Duncan’s “The Homosexual in Society,” Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” John Ashbery’s “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” Lyn Hejinian’s “The Rejection of Closure,” and Ron Silliman’s “The Political Economy of Poetry.” There’s a lot more here that’s stimulating: Williams, Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Hayden, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Creeley.
Ultimately, however, the interesting choices make me desirous of more rather than satisfied with plenty. It has Jack Spicer’s “On Spoken Poetry,” but none of the really juicy stuff on dictation or Martian radio or baseball from the Berkeley lectures. Ron’s “The New Sentence” is conspicuously absent. Some essential poet-critics are neglected altogether: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Charles Bernstein, Robert Grenier, Susan Howe, Nate Mackey, et al.
The us-vs.-them issue that comes up all the time, and that often seems to amount to no more than a trivial contest of personalities or surface styles, can be seen here to have a real objective correlative: too often, the strain of perverse juxtaposition shows itself in these pages, in, for example, accidental pairings—Lyn Hejinian next to Louise Glück, Ron Silliman next to Timothy Steele. Actually, Glück’s reading of Oppen in her selection, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” is intelligent and engaging, and not entirely irrelevant to many of Hejinian’s concerns. The Silliman/Steele coupling, however, opens up an entire chasm of dichotomous critical priorities that is nowhere explained or contextualized by the editors. In the preface, they do acknowledge this rift between perspectives briefly:
Twentieth-Century American Poetics contains essays of differing and even irreconcilable opinions because there is no other way to represent the period faithfully. The history of poetics has less to do with conclusions than with questions—and never was this truer than in modern America. The editors have collected the last century’s various and divergent definitions of poetic theory and practice in the spirit of Walt Whitman’s quintessentially American pronouncement: [“I contain multitudes ... I contradict myself, etc.”]
The appeal to Whitman is a cliche and a cop-out. Of course there are differing and irreconcilable opinions! But what good does it do to acknowledge this if no context is offered to explain how or why they are irreconcilable? A beginning student of poetry reading Silliman and then reading Steele is going to get a very strange and inaccurate notion of the state of contemporary poetics if she thinks that these two essays are supposed to represent concerns that are of equal weight and relevance to the same imagined reader’s concerns. At the very least, there should be some introductory apparatus that alerts the reader to the social fact that Silliman’s and Steele’s understandings of form are as hostile toward each other as Israel and the PLO (please, no attempts to interpret which is meant by which—the analogy is meant to be reversible).
Furthermore, a partisan bias on the part of the editors is thinly disguised at best. Here are a few excerpts from the bio at the beginning of Silliman’s section:
A committed leftist and former editor of the Socialist Review,* Silliman associates his efforts to deconstruct poetic hierarchies with social egalitarianism. Yet his revolutionary attack on the literary status quo has found its most positive reception in the heart of the literary establishment, university English departments, where poststructuralist thinking has most deeply taken root....
Despite his leftist politics, Silliman rejects a populist approach in both his prose style and methodology. Rather, his thinking and procedures owe much to the elitist avant-garde of the Modernist era, and his work seems consciously addressed to a vanguard of fellow progressive experimentalists.
Not that Silliman is the only writer in the collection to suffer from left-handed and sometimes just plain bizarre commentary: why, for example, do we need to know that “Steele’s first brief marriage ended in divorce”? Nevertheless, the jabs are plain to see in Silliman’s bio. One can’t help but feel that the editors are more interested in displaying with what grudging reluctance they are including Silliman at all than in representing his views.
Finally, there is only one poet born after 1960 in the collection (one Christian Wiman, whose “A Piece of Prose” originally appeared in a 1999 issue of Poetry, but could as easily have appeared in 1972 or 1985, it is so blandly oblivious to all but the most generic concerns of contemporary writing). Better none at all.
Still, until something better comes along, this is the closest thing I know of to a useable collection that offers a wide range of vital, short prose pieces by modern and contemporary (i.e., aged 50 and older) poets.
*I know I saw Ron discussing this himself somewhere recently (how he was not actually the editor of SR, etc.), but I can’t find the reference in the archives to his blog.