In: Education, Lyrics

Test of Poetry

In response to Ron’s Test of Poetry, and his discussion of “the question of naming & context, of anonymity & content”:

This exercise reminds me of the passage in Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis:

suppose that in the desert you find a stone covered with hieroglyphics. You do not doubt for a moment that, behind them, there was a subject who wrote them. But it is an error to believe that each signifier is addressed to you—this is proved by the fact you cannot understand any of it. On the other hand you define them as signifiers, by the fact that you are sure that each of these signifiers is related to each of the others.

Now, it seems to me that what Ron is doing here by removing our knowledge of the author’s identity (and incidentally all the other knowledge that would go along with that knowledge, as of affiliation with different schools of poetics, publishing circles, political alignments) is reducing poetry to the status of that stone in the desert. When he says that “Every element of time, place, gender, all manner of basic dimensions now have to be inferred entirely from the text itself," he effectively forces us to look to the text for exactly the kind of information that is best had elsewhere than from poetry. We know better than to stare at Lacan’s inscrutable stone and try to figure out the “author’s” gender or age or favorite flavor of ice cream. We know better because it is obvious that our lack of familarity with the code in combination with our lack of familiarity with the context in which the code was generated makes for a totally opaque scene of reading, or non-reading.

With Ron’s anonymous poems it is different, but only in part. Yes, we are familar with the code—that is, we recognize at least some of the individual lexical/grammatical/syntactical signifiers—but as a consequence of not knowing who wrote them (actually, I do know who wrote a couple of them, but let’s say I didn’t), I also don’t have access to an entire set of implied cultural instructions for reading. All I have, as with Lacan’s stone, is the awareness, on faith as it were, that each signifier contained therein bears a meaningful relation to the other signifiers also contained therein. In the case of poetry, “signifiers” can be construed to include certain visible habits of style and construction that we have learned to associate with certain “schools,” but those visible markers by themselves can be dauntingly dull. Dull, that is, because they are by themselves, rather than accompanied by their interesting human inscribers.

Certain poems require less context than others, of course. I could read Frost’s “Mending Wall” or something like that, not knowing who Frost was, or when or where the poem was written, and come away with a good deal of useful information about what the poem is trying to do, what its “message” is, just as if I had read a journal entry or a needlepoint wall placard. The more about traditional anglo poetic practice I know on top of that, the greater yet my appreciation of the poem’s construction and content. If I also happened to grow up in an early 20th-century New England WASP family with a lot of puritanical notions about hard work and private property and so on, all the better. But once I have once formed a notion of any single poet’s style and agenda, it is pointless from then on not to read each new poem by that poet in light of my familiarity with every other poem that poet has written, and further, in light of other poems by other poets who know and are known by that poet, or who came after that poet in a conscious relation of influence. More than pointless, it is counterproductive to one of the main goals of any sustained reading of poets and poetry: to establish connections between social relations and practice, community and production, culture and cultural artifacts. I am glad there are some poems out there that can work in a relative social vacuum:

Western wind, when will thou blow
The small rain down can rain,
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again

But one thing such poems depend on for their power is scarcity and distance. Someone wrote that poem, and he or she didn’t sit down with the intention of achieving a haunting anonymity and thereby thrilling generations of future Norton Anthology readers. And in fact the poem is poignant in part precisely because it causes us to create our own imagined persona for the poet. It launches in us a dream of identity.

So what Ron’s exercise calls on us to do is dream such identities for the poets represented on the basis of “the text itself,” that New Critical chimera. But the artificiality of this gesture—there is no need to invent personae for them, as their identities are not only available, but fully meant to be acknowledged—signals an assumption on Ron’s part that I have discussed before. That assumption is that the form of the poem itself is capable of bearing meaning apart from whatever customs of interpretation attend and depend upon a conscious intimacy with the social apparatus surrounding the poem. To be fair, Ron may be anticipating just such an assumption in order to test it himself, so there’s that then, OK.

All that being out on the table, what can I tell about the poems?

A. (“Swamp Formalism”)

It’s dedicated to Donald Rumsfeld. No one would dedicate a poem as oblique as this one to someone like Rumsfeld without ironic intent, so that gives us … what? Not much, other than that I suspect that the author may be making a playful connection between Rumsfeld and the reptiles in the poem. The style is clearly “post-avant” to the extent that it features elliptical anaphoric structures and resists logical closure. I think I know who wrote it, and when I think about the poem being by that person, it instantly “makes more sense,” and furthermore, I enjoy it more. I think the same could be said of almost any poem I were to read under similar conditions.

B. (“95.9”)

I totally know who wrote this, so there’s not much point in pretending I don’t. I’ll just say that again, knowing what the poet looks like adds a whole dimension to reading the poem, just as having some knowledge of the poet’s other work, social circle, etc., before knowing what the poet looked like added a dimension that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, and so on back to the point that Ron mentions, the one in which you read a poem by someone you’ve never heard of for the first time, but even there, you probably have some preconceptions about the journal the poem appears in, and why shouldn’t you? That’s how a journal builds a following, by a kind of implied contract with its readers: “we hereby certify that the poets printed herein 1) know their rules of scansion and obey them consistently; 2) resist hegemonic closure through elliptical anaphora; 3) tell what it’s really like to grow up with a wise [fill in the ethnicity or other social marker] grandmother who cooked these really amazing meals; or 4) will invite you to read at their apartment next month if you buy this.” Please pick one and only one.

C. (“Word Worn”)

I don’t recognize this one at all. One of the things Ron asked was what gender we thought the poet might be. My first thought here was female, but as soon as I form that thought, the alternative seems just as possible. The things I immediately like about this poem I like because I imagine that they sound like the kinds of things a certain kind of poet would write knowing that they’re the kinds of things that don’t sound immediately like the kinds of things a reader like me would like. If they’re not written by a poet like that then I don’t like them so much.

D (“1”)

Again, I think I have a pretty good idea who might have written this. Reading it through that conception of who it might be, I like it better than if I knew it were written by someone whose other work I didn’t like or about whom I knew nothing.

None of these poems, with the possible exception of B, are the kinds of poems I am crazy about on first reading, and with no knowledge of their authors. But I don’t require—in fact I don’t want—all the poems I admire (eventually or otherwise) to be that kind of poem. I want some poems to sneak up on me, or to gain a slow grudging respect from me, or to bully me gradually into infatuation, then subside into a dark recess of my habitual apathy, and then come back years later with a vengeance. And then I want to go have pizza and beer with the person who wrote them.

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