Thursday, August 24, 2006

 

When I reviewed that anonymous collection of poetry on Tuesday of last week, I knew of course that Larry Fagin had a hand in the project, although I didn’t realize that the collection was to be considered Sal Mimeo #6. Larry wrote, sounding a little peeved, wanting to push the question of anonymity further:

I don't care if people know it's me and Sal (my return address is on all the envelopes) even though that knowledge provides them (and you) with yet another scrim, i.e. it's my taste, my sensibility, and maybe I did write all the poems. But what puzzles me, aside from your insistence on tracking and exposing the author / personality context, is your resistance to looking at the poem itself, without immediately contextualizing it. Of course, context is always in the foreground, no matter how we set or re-set our response dials. But, as Curtis says, "Remove that context, and Ron seems out to sea, wondering how to 'read' the poem." In an effort to study one's own case as reader-critic, to review one's lifelong habits, why not study a poem ab ovo, without a predetermined (in most instances) mindset, and only after that, if you must, bring on all the cultural-socio-political-personal baggage? The whole point is to entertain the complexity of the mind, without falling back on predictable habits of judgment. Judgment has been my interest all along, and anonymity / identity is only one aspect of it. As a child of the 1950s, I hated the New Critics (their taste in contemporary poetry above all) and, only recently, have re-read Cleanth Brooks. But there you go, more identity…. I think all the points you make about context are valid. I only wish you could see the nature of their limitations.

My immediate reaction to this is that one can’t remove context without getting into enormous trouble of the sort that Oliver Sacks likes to write about in books with titles like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Or, to turn to an example Wittgenstein used on occasion, there’s a survival value in understanding – instantly – the difference between a wolf & a dog.

What I think Larry is after here is an attempt to read without expectation, to let the text control the reception without recourse to extraneous inferences, as if somehow their “filling in” blank spaces were not integral to the process of reading itself. I think that the mind does this almost automatically & almost instantly upon the confrontation of any text whatsoever – the last time we read without such expectations is, in fact, before we have learned to read at all, when we are hearing stories for the first time from our parents, when we might not yet realize that Babar is a recurring character, long before we note the comingled history of his landscape with the misadventures of French colonialism.

I don’t think you can divorce the New Critics’ call for the elimination of such outside information from their own aesthetic motivations – their taste in contemporary poetry, which ran to the fugitives & the Boston Brahmins & to the meditative tradition within the history of British letters, led them not to any desire to free the text of such outside considerations, but rather instead to hide them. This enabled them to associate themselves with modernist criticism of the visual arts, notably Clement Greenberg, while avoiding any confrontation with the fact that they were propagating a pre-modernist, if not overtly anti-modernist aesthetic in poetry. It also enabled the New Critics to parrot “scientific objectivity,” then much in vogue throughout all disciplines, in order to argue that they were especially qualified readers – this was an essential component of an overall campaign to literally take over English departments throughout the U.S., which they very successfully accomplished between the late 1930s & the period right after the Second World War.

At the same time, close reading is an inherently powerful & valuable practice. It can be employed to good effect regardless of what your aesthetic commitments might be. But at the same time, it also entails – at least if it is used in conjunction with methodologies derived from contemporary linguistics, such as the use of framing schemata & processes like cognitive blending – the incorporation of “externalities.”

This incorporation of outside data occurs even at the most micro levels, and a good name for the process is ”reading.” For example, when you’re absorbing a text such as this one, most people don’t see all of each & every word as their eyes scan the page or screen. Instead, the eye proceeds far enough into the word from its “entrance” at the left for the mind to decide what the remainder of the word is apt to be, at which point it jumps to the next word. Reading in this sense is far from being a continuous or unimpeded – or unaided – process. Older readers, with larger vocabularies, will have more data points in their memories as to what possible words in this context are apt to be, and therefore will have an easier time making their way through the thicket of printed language. But even for experienced readers, if we suddenly come to a string of words that seems discordant – colorless green ideas sleep furiously – the disruption is palpable. That language appears to have no purpose in this text, even though it is grammatical and, in this case, has a significant history within both linguistics & American poetry.

What occurs at the micro level does so also for every text. Fagin’s anonymous anthology doesn’t eliminate this realm, but merely occludes it. The process actually foregrounds questions of context & authorship, rather than the opposite. A better test might be to read a text that doesn’t set up this little mystery, but which operates outside of what Fagin likes to call judgment, which is really the reader’s positionality with regards to whatever the context might be. Here is an example:

My girlfriend sings in the kitchen, she has given me
a grasshopper in a cola bottle
it chews on stalks and gazes with wonder
at the constellation in my eyes. So
I became a grasshopper god, I think
and put the bottle down

My girlfriend has no family, she sings
from the bottom of her loneliness
and lies in the garden in the summer
while I stand with my eyes turned to the sky
and think that everything is good

There are times when we love each other so much
that somebody has to drive us out
of their thoughts

This is a poem by Lars Skinnebach, a Danish-born poet now living in Norway. I took it from The Other Side of Landscape: An Anthology of Contemporary Nordic Poetry edited by Anni Sumari & Nicolaj Stockholm, which contains the work of 17 poets born in the 1960s & ‘70s from five Nordic nations: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland & Iceland. This is an interesting, even exciting book, but perhaps largely because I know so very little about its context. My direct experience of these countries is two days spent in Helsinki in 1989. I know some Nordic poets who write & publish in English, but otherwise my knowledge of the poetry of these nations can be reduced to the work of Inger Christensen, the Danish poet who has both used Fibonacci series to organize works & written a booklength poem entitled Alfabet, but who is older than the poets included here.

What Lars Skinnebach knows or thinks about American poetry I have no clue. Nor do I have any idea, really, what fault lines might apply to the Nordic context – do they have their own School of Quietude, their own post-avant tendency? Where would these poets then fit? Also, does it even matter that Skinnebach is a native Dane or writes now from Norway? To say that I’m clueless here is almost to overstate what I know.

The first line of this poem immediately drew me into it. I like the optimistic tone & domestic scene figured by the first phrase and I like also the idea that the line keeps going. I’m already getting a sense of the poem’s form – my eye has already noted the difference in line length between the first line & the others, & noted that the stanzas are of differing lengths. The specificity of the image in the second line deepens my attraction to the poem as does the absence of a capital letter at the lefthand margin. I don’t know if I’ve ever read about a grasshopper in a cola bottle before, tho I’ve seen them in enough improvised containers during my life to be able to believe the image completely.

The third line begins what might be a new sentence, although there is no opening punctuation of a capital letter nor any terminal punctuation at the end of the second line – this seems completely consistent with the informal, domestic nature of the poem to this moment. The first half of the line offers another concrete image, building on the grasshopper theme. The second half of this line, tho, begins to be a problem: gazes with wonder is an anthropomorphic projection as well as a cliché. Both aspects make the phrase feel far less specific than the material that preceded it. So here I feel as tho something has been blunted. This sense of vagueness continues in the fourth line with the constellation in my eye, an image that brings to my mind the “galaxy” in a cat’s pendant of the film Men in Black. This is my first “importation” into the poem of anything outside it, unless I think about the lack of capital letters at the lefthand margin & the role of such punctuation in the history of verse. But literally I didn’t think about that until I typed up this previous sentence (at which point, frankly, I had now read the poem several times). I find it interesting or intriguing that what occasions these importations is the weakness of imagery itself. Had the poet not fallen back on clichés, would I have gone searching “elsewhere” for ways to shore up the language?

Still, I haven’t given up on the poem yet. The promise of the first two lines may have been challenged but it hasn’t been broken. Again the fourth line ends with a word that a more conservative poet might have dropped to the next line. The fifth line’s primary phrase, I became a grasshopper god, doesn’t do a lot for me, or to me. It sounds vaguely surrealist but in a lighthearted way – it reminds me of poetry I’ve read before, say in a journal like Exquisite Corpse or just possibly by the likes of Anselm Hollo, a poet whose I work I always enjoy. A second-layer thought occurs that Anselm Hollo is himself Finnish & I wonder if any of the poets in this anthology know his work. Could Lars Skinnebach be influenced by Hollo?¹ The last line in the first stanza completes the physical description of action & serves to “tie up” loose ends in the stanza. It’s not terribly ambitious as a line, but it doesn’t jar my sensibilities in any way. [It’s not until a few more readings of this poem that I think to myself that this line might have been necessary primarily to make it run 14 lines. But even recognizing it as a sonnet, recognizing the lurking shadow of the sonnet as a form, would be an importation.]

The first phrase in the second stanza throws me – there is nothing in the first stanza to prepare me for it, unless the figure of the girlfriend itself is thought of in such terms. If the first phrase of the first stanza drew me in with its optimism, this one – which feels more parallel to the previous one than it really is, grammatically – almost breaks my heart. Again the line continues beyond the first phrase and again we greet the figure of singing. But now, in the next line, it is the girlfriend who is being cast parallel to the grasshopper of the first stanza. It sits in its cola bottle, she sings from the bottom of her loneliness. There is a certain creepiness in the comparison here – this guy is equating his girlfriend with an insect – that might be overbearing if there were not a tenderness of tone here as well.

The stanza turns at this point on the word and, a conjunction that has a precedent in the first stanza as well. Here it proves to be far more crucial, since what is now being set up is this larger image of the girl in the garden & the narrator turned with his “eyes turned to the sky,” a tableaux so overdone in its mock profundity that the deliberateness of the humor is tangible. It’s quite a comic scene, actually, but part of the comedy comes from knowing that the assurance that everything is good is patently false.

The third stanza is much more problematic for me. First, it makes us recognize that the first two stanzas function much like the first two components in any syllogism: If X & if Y. The third stanza is the Then Z. Except that it is much more vague than the material that came immediately before it and that the image in the last two lines is again in that tone I think of as Surrealist Lite or Exquisite Corpse-like. It’s intended to make the implications of the first two stanzas feel both intense & likeable, which I suppose beats unlikeable but doesn’t feel terribly ambitious to me. Again, I think of the requirement of 14 lines and wonder if the poem might not be better if it had ended at the conclusion of the second stanza.

I have no way of knowing how accurate the translation might be, so I’m treating it here as tho it were a cipher. At least nothing in the poem has that “this is not in its first language” feel, which is the death blow of bad translations.

Overall, the poem isn’t great, isn’t terrible. It tries some things that are interesting, but not all of them are equally successful. So it has a mixed feel to me. Nothing in the poem makes me dislike it, and yet nothing compels me to read every other Skinnebach poem here & find what else may be available in English. If that first line hadn’t popped out at me when I was thumbing through this anthology looking for an example of “work without context,” I probably would have finished reading & never thought to have written about it here. I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell you who Lars Skinnebach is.

This is the point where, Tuesday a week ago, I tried what I called my magic tricks. I can imagine reading this poem as tho it were a piece by Anselm Hollo, but I could just as easily imagine reading it as tho it were a poem by Dean Young, a far more conservative & derivative writer. Or I could imagine it as a sluggish example of the NY School, gen 7 or whatever. I don’t think anyone will have trouble acknowledging it as a work by a male heterosexual or, for that matter, as a poem of this cusp between the two millennia – it’s very much a work of our time, tho it might be interesting to see at what moment that time will have passed, at what moment this poem will suddenly look as “quaint,” say, as the Sherwood Anderson chants I wrote about not quite a month ago.

Does invoking such names, playing my “magic tricks,” change the text in any fashion? Not really. Does it change my reading? Not much in this instance, tho that may be because of the inherent weakness of the poem. There is a good piece on the psychology of expertise in the current issue of Scientific American, tho, which may explain why some readers invariably invoke such information while others do not. This is something called, literally, chunk theory. The difference between experts in many fields, including music, math & chess, and us mere mortals is not that experts are any smarter or can remember more, but rather that they have organized whatever it is they’re experts in into larger chunks. Whereas in chess I can think through the next move or two in any given chess game, I have to do so by thinking through the possibilities of each piece on the board in its current (and potentially future) position – a lot of different things, especially once we’re past the immediate opening of the game. A chess grandmaster will see the same combination of pieces, tho, as if it were a single formation or two that she or he has probably seen before. They can therefore think out many more future moves because these now seem much more predictable. It’s not unlike the trick of memorizing phone numbers as a predictable sequence of three numbers – area code, prefix & suffix – rather than as a scramble of ten different numbers, each of which can be anywhere from 0 to 9, which is far harder.

More experienced readers, my hunch is, look at a text on a page rather like the chess masters. Even before they recognize a word, they visually absorb stanzaic patterns & structures & associate this with what they already know about the history of poetry. A work is perceived as having visible kinship to a Creeley or Zukofsky or to a Carolyn Kizer or David Ignatow, whomever, before even the first word of the title is interiorized through actual reading. It’s the same process we have of recognizing words individually, simply carried out on a different level. What Fagin calls “all the cultural-socio-political-personal baggage” is, in fact, just a second tier of literacy, and a not terribly exceptional tier at that.

Now it’s possible that a reader can import material that is truly irrelevant to a given text – there are incompetent readers. But a much larger problem in our society is that of inexperienced readers, particularly in MFA programs. The problem that Fagin should be addressing is not how to take such information out of a text, but rather how to contextualize works so that these relationships are even more perceptible. That’s where an exceptional literary journal – whether Jacket or Conjunctions or Shiny or Combo or Sulfur or How2 – excels.

 

¹ Later, looking to see who the translator might be – it’s Barbara Haveland – I see that Anselm Hollo has translated some of the Finnish poets in this anthology. Hardly “evidence” one way or another, but a sign at least of the compactness of these literary communities.

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