Could we have those trees cleared out of the way?
And the houses, volcanoes, empires? The natural
panorama is false, the shadows it casts are so many
useless platitudes. Everything is suspect. Even
clouds of the same sky are the same. Close the door
is voluntary death. There is one color, not any.
Prove to me now that you have finally undermined
your heroes. In fits of distraction the walls cover
themselves with portraits. Types are not men. Admit
that your studies are over. Limit yourself to your
memoirs. Identity is only natural. Now become
the person in your life. Start writing autobiography.
from 1–10 (This Press, 1980)
I won't go into a lot of ponderous theoretical detail about Watten's use of the "New Sentence" or whether and how much this poem critiques the traditional bourgeois subjective lyric "I" or any of that stuff. Not that those aren't still interesting and important approaches, but I want just to say why the poem figures prominently in my own mental anthology. When I first read it, sometime in the mid-nineties while procrastinating writing my dissertation, I was intrigued by the way the individual utterances in the poem generated a complex but simple instant deniability: everything was in invisible brackets as though ironic, but the usual features of irony were absent. It was like "blank irony," rhetoric without motive. Or at least the motive wasn't made immediately available through accessible gestures. I had just been reading a ton of Elizabethan sonnets of widely varying quality, and there was something similar going on in all of them: a tension between competing goals of on the one hand ambitious self-fashioning and on the other self-effacing immersion in the anonymity of extreme conventionality. Things are said and in the same stroke of the pen unsaid. Things are meant in order to unmean. A famous example: Sir Philip Sidney's "I am not I: pity the tale of me" from Astrophil and Stella.
Watten's use of this auto-cancelling trope is different, of course, in that he does not court the reader with elegant paradoxes that are ultimately revealed as humorously sly pick-up lines, and in that his difficulties are not just ones of metaphoric conceit or local syntax. Rather, they are problems of what he might include in his definition of "total syntax," a referential and counter-referential field of both formal and social determinants that affect the way we feel, understand, and value writing. "Mode Z" requires imaginative participation from the reader of a different (though not necessarily any more or less rigorous) order from that required for appreciation of Renaissance sonnets: we must constantly invent and revise contexts in which the "voice" of the poem makes sense, or in which its failure to make sense makes sense. Well, I guess some Renaissance sonnets do that too.
For me the poem is as though "spoken" through a bullhorn by a figure in black pajamas standing on top of an imposing but faceless public structure. The orders and advice and observations offered by this speaker are offered, in front of a constantly changing geopolitical backdrop, to a likewise shifting audience. That blank irony I mentioned colors everything, including the pauses between sentences. It's like poetry translated from human into Vulcan--no, Romulan--by a robot, for insects, only the insects are also robots. And Romulans. And when you read it, you, like, become one of those Romulan robot insects. AND THEN IT MAKES YOU OVERTHROW THE GOVERNMENT, or something. I may have oversimplified this somewhat.