Notes on the Difficulty of Reading a New Poem

Poem WalkingWhat happens when we encounter a new poem? New poems can seem impenetrable. But maybe the idea is not to penetrate. If the poem is new, the reading experience is also new, unfamiliar, foreign to our eyes and ears, to our sensibilities. What happens when we read a poem?

In the darkroom, the developer slides the photographic paper into the chemical bath. Slowly, an image emerges. Reading a new poem is a similar process in as much as the full picture does not immediately reveal itself. But that’s as far as that analogy might go. A poem is not a photograph.

The poem as montage, as mosaic, the narrative line pieced together stitch by stitch. Begin anywhere.

Poems are made with words, usually, and words have two basic kinds of meaning, denotative and connotative. With regard to connotative meaning, words suggest, have associative meanings, colloquial twists, and personal meanings. We have our favorite words, and words we find distasteful. “Are you going to eat those adverbs?” “No. I got sick on an adverb once, in grammar school.” Cultural, contextual meanings. We can’t control language.

When encountering a new poem, we ask the traditional questions: who is speaking, with what voice, and what is the intended audience, remembering not to confuse the speaker with the author, the audience for ourselves. What’s the speaker doing, talking about? What the diction, what the tone, what the setting, what the irony?

Here’s the poem under question: “Foxxcan Suicide (Stylish Boys in the Riot),” by Russell Bennetts (the editor of Berfrois). We look for help. Suicide we know. Painless, as the song says, though we doubt that, and that song is not about suicide. A soldier’s choices are limited. Are a reader’s choices similarly limited? Does “Foxxcan” suggest Foxconn, the so-called Foxconn suicides?

I recognize Starnbergersee, from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but is a single word enough to create an association? Why not? Eliot’s poem is fragmentary. “Foxxcan Suicide” is fragmentary, or so it seems. What if picking up on an Eliot reference is wrong? We could ask the author. No. What can the author know of the reader’s experience? Words are out of control once they hit the paper. The poem is a reading experience. And something more than Starnbergersee reminds me of Eliot: the many references, obscure to this reader, though I know who Axl Rose is, sort of, but I can’t say I know him, though he’s from my home town, big town. And the Roses had a label: UZI Suicide. So? Threads, though, links. And I know who Legacy Russell is, though not well enough to get the three asterisks at the end of that line, asterisks that point to no footnote.

Still, I like the new poem. I like the fragmented narrative. I like it for its changes in diction and speech, its orality, its lyrical last stanza, or paragraph, the socio-economic comment it ends on. I like the almost hidden poetic characteristics, the rhyme, for example, of “Legacy,” “easy,” and “please me.” Gradually, more of the picture seems to emerge: the teen spirit (Nirvana). Maybe it’s language that has become suicidal. The poem casts this reader as a kind of outsider, beyond the pale. Maybe I just don’t get it. “Well, how does it feel?”

Some time ago, in a workshop with David Biespiel, we used a kind of shorthand response technique as a way of quickly getting at new reading experiences. David called the technique, “What I See.” You had to tell it, what you saw, in 25 words or less, or so. Kenneth Koch taught a similar kind of technique, an attempt to get at the poem’s “idea.” What’s the idea, Koch asks, of Blake’s poem “The Tyger”? The speaker is asking questions of the wild animal, but of course the Tyger does not respond. The questions the speaker asks seem to have something to do with who made the Tyger, the maker’s character. Blake uses images of a blacksmith to try to picture the Tyger’s maker. For Blake, the blacksmith would still have been a powerful and practical individual, a maker of things useful, but his work was being subsumed at the same time by larger manufacturing forces that would come to be known as the Industrial Revolution. And that revolution would give way to more: “Stylish Boys in the Riot.”

What happens when we read a poem? From the Paris Review Interviews, this one with August Kleinzahler:

INTERVIEWER: Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?
KLEINZAHLER: No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.

Targeting the Philistines: The Diversion of Literature and Disease of Criticism

How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts arrived, but is somewhat disappointing. By John Sutherland, retired from University College London, the book is a commercial cut and paste job. But that’s OK; it’s actually a bit of fun, its structure designed as if for on-line consumption, a mosaic approach combining linear language with magazine layout. The only thing missing might be JPEG photo inserts or cartoon drawings. It is pedantic while attempting to appeal to the anti-pedantic in its use of sarcasm, but the rib-poking, jargoned-filled references might create a confusing tone. We are unsure what the author’s attitude toward his subject is, but picture a historic, bronze statue in an old city park. None of the current locals can name or explain the statue. The statue is covered with graffiti equally obscure. And there’s Sutherland, standing on a soapbox like a street corner preacher, explaining to passersby how bronze statues are made. No one is listening, but that’s of no importance, because the age of statues has ended.

Written using a desktop publishing platform, the page layouts contain text boxes, multiple font sizes and styles, and copious but short references but no consistent citation method. A timeline across the bottom of the first pages of each chapter is interesting. There is a glossary, which is useful, but, as it turns out, it’s a glossary to a glossary, for that’s what the book is, a glossary, each chapter devoted to a single literary concept, though most are arguably little more than literary terms that are each reduced to a single, pithy takeaway statement called in the text “the condensed idea.” There are two Jeopardy-like quizzes, with answers following the glossary, textbook style.

The book is not about how literature works, but about how literary criticism works. The note-like introduction offers an apology. Eliot and Lawrence help support the deferential claim that criticism should be left to those who create literature. “What would one not give for Shakespeare’s view on his own drama?,” Sutherland asks. This is silly, for if we want to know Shakespeare’s view on his own drama, all we need do is read Shakespeare’s drama. It’s a Uriah Heepian humility Sutherland invokes, but the attitude explains why critics like Harold Bloom and James Wood might be more effective. Wood’s recent book, How Fiction Works, is literature compared to Sutherland’s book, and there’s irony in the comparable titles, Sutherland apparently cribbing an idea from Wood. But the ideas are not new, and the critics are passing them back and forth wrapped in different packaging.

A comparison between Sutherland and Wood illustrates two very different approaches. For example, Sutherland uses Robinson Crusoe’s “two shoes that were not fellows” to explain what he calls “Solidity of Specification” (the title of chapter 29, and by which he means, simply put, attention to detail; but he gets the term, he tells us, from Henry James, and comments that it’s the only time James uses the term in all of his writing – yes, because Henry James wasn’t in the business of writing text books, of creating terms that would find a home in the Canon of the Glossary). But Wood has already referenced the same two shoes Crusoe finds on the beach. But Wood does so indirectly, by quoting at length J. M. Coetzee’s discussion of the Defoe Crusoe shoe passage in Elizabeth Costello, a work of fiction. Wood’s book is deeper, for he immerses the reader in the discussion, while what we get in Sutherland is primarily definitions, terms, pithy sayings, stand alone quotes. One senses a complex love for literature from Wood and Bloom, even as the expression of that love exposes them to the occasional purple pathos, while Sutherland, who values Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as the best poem ever, may like the idea of literature more than literature itself. Literature can be a diversion or a disease; the criticism will follow suit.

At the end of Sutherland, we have to listen to yet another eulogy for the book. All is not well in the literary world. The philistines are crowding at the gate, and there’s a multitude of them. There is too much to read, most of it inferior work. Paper is disappearing; the book in your hands is as dead as a doornail. Perhaps the philistines are the target market for How Literature Works, but literature is not dead, while talking about it appears also to be a pastime still alive and kicking.

How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts, by John Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 205 pages, $14.95, paperback.