Wednesday, July 28th, 2010
I usually have no sympathy for readers (suddenly tempted to end the sentence right there) who voice their objections to poetry they don’t like by fretting about how the poems don’t seem to care about the reader, or serve the reader, or give the reader a happy ending and a box of chocolates. One of the reasons I reject these plaintive moans of readerly victimhood is because I find it at least as oppressive to have a poem smother me with its concern for the sugar-fine fragility of my intelligence or the bloated sensitivity of my sentiments. Who’s a good reader? You are! Yes you are!
Is it too much to ask that the poem just shut up and play?
And yet, I do understand how a reader could grow irritated at the poem that pretends the reader isn’t there, all the while conducting itself with the kind of icy deliberation that gives the lie to the posture of disinterest. Ignoring someone is the most conspicuous way of paying attention to them. Miles Davis never did, exactly, turn his back on an audience while playing, but when the audience suspected he was, they turned on him.
Of course, once you are aware of this dilemma, you’ve snapped it into being, since management of awareness is, itself, the problem. The ideal solution would be the poem that cannot betray awareness of a reader because it was never actually written, which is the pleasure of found poetry. A poor name, that: found poetry really should be called not-poetry, to be read as if it were.
What this little device of the imagination circumvents is the writer. Anyone who has ever met a writer knows that writers deserve circumvention, even though – like snakes – they are more afraid of you, reader, than you are of them. But in the formulations I make above, it’s logically impossible to spurn and berate the poem for its neglect of your welfare; it is really the writer you resent. You cannot quite come out and say so, however, because you know that the writer doesn’t exactly exist the way a person does. Even the most preening narcissist might have a hard time vocalizing a complaint about a writer in terms selfish enough to suggest that any given writer has a personal obligation to any given reader. You can fuss about the writing, then, or you can expand the trembling membrane of your selfhood to include, a la The Blob or communism, all readers.
(The stalking horse of the writing as ridden by the writer = the illusion of a you as a proxy for the act of reading: yes, got it.)
Personhood, on either end of the equation, thus presents a problem. A great jolly big dumb exhausting problem.
Liam Agrani, whose Volume One is so anxiously personless as to forego photo, substantial bio, blurb and justifying note, understands the appeal of not-poetry so well that he doesn’t even identify himself as the author of the book, but rather its editor. A sweetly ironic gesture: he isn’t claiming to have written these not-poems, but by claiming editorship he slyly admits that his method (he collects marginalia, just as the title indicates) suggests a more self-conscious authorship on the part of the writers of the marginalia than is perhaps appropriate. But what his “editorial” choices reveal is that marginalia itself is a kind of dress rehearsal for authorship. Whoever writes in the margin does so with at least as many motivations as whoever writes for publication, but obviously without the limitation of presuming readership (however, pardon me, “marginal” it might be). Whatever motivates the note-taking thus influences the adoption of whatever tone or function corresponds to that motivation. Reading these not-poems is like watching someone try on different outfits and practice their flirt, or listening to someone try multiple vocal registers to find out just which sound induces what effect. Because they presume no one is there, they can commit to the imagination of otherhood more freely, and in some ways more effectively, than can the writer who must either solemnly pretend readership or ignore its possibility.
In “Transcription of Selected Marginalia Found in a Copy of Dante’s Inferno…” the marginaliaist or marginaliaista notes
p 37Instrument of grace, elevation of beauty
and in this we hear an approximation of a certain critical tone and rhetoric, a version of literary criticism redolent of the classroom. Yet later on in the same not-poem the marginaliaist writes
p 210Bad news
This takes the question of authenticity and authorship and pulls it inside-out, a twisty taffy knot of how impossible, and possibly how stupid, it is to invest unduly in the aura of the writer and wonder about what the writer wants. Bad news for Dante: it’s unlikely this matches the diction of the classroom, and it doesn’t much “go” with Dante, but it does create a sweet immediacy in terms of our fabrication of the margin-writer, who seems to have let a little concern for Dante into this rehearsal for a clinical analysis of his work – a care pleasingly and confusingly doubled, since there’s no way to distinguish the fiction of Dante the poet from that of Dante the protagonist, two illusions equidistant from the auctorial “fact” of Dante.
And sometimes, of course, the marginalia doesn’t match a traditional diagnosis of the text at all. Even better! “Transcription of Writing Found on the Inside Cover of a Copy of The Trial by Franz Kafka…” begins with an annotation of an assignment:
(inside front cover)
Write an essay exploring the underlying
meaning of the weird relationship between
Huld and Block
But this rapidly shifts to a more conversational exchange.
Now the school thinks Sarah Clark was the 3rd person last night they want to drug test all of them Sarah should go to Shauna and tell her that she should confess because of Sarah is tested well you know
I’m really surprised Shauna
didn’t do this. She thinks
she has a really
This fits more elegantly with “The Trial” than intent could ever allow. You simply cannot make shit like this up, though I don’t know if that is because you don’t exist or because making prohibits serendipity. Chance may favor the prepared mind, but a prepared mind chases all chance into contrivance.
Most of the pieces in Volume One, however, hew more closely to the kinds of notes meant to keep track of thoughts about the text, perhaps because their, uh, authors will have to write about it later – for the audience of an instructor, maybe – or perhaps because they want to explain what they are reading to themselves, for themselves. Sometimes these purposes intertwine in ways that are both charming and insightful, and I can only assume that Agrani edits to accentuates those relationships. For instance, “Transcription of Marginalia Found in Cyril Connolly: Journal and Memoir…” includes more or less conventional notes, such as
p 34Mrs. Wilkes’ distress at her portrait
p 111on his qualities as a reviewer
but the writer also admits more raw and uncritical responses:
p176C. on sex is painful.
p 254famous encounter w/
V. Woolf – nobody can
outdo the English in this
No matter how well-conceived the contrivance of auctorial invention, an idea for a poem cannot replicate this, I think. Yes, there are many things that sustained, self-conscious and reader-directed can do that these kinds of assemblages cannot, but there’s tremendous value in the presence of the private, even if by the irony of acquisition (or the agent of textual accident that is Agrani himself) they have become public.
Flarf, recently institutionalized in our newspapers of record, does recognize the vitality of these energies. And Conceptualism excels in designed contraptions for harnessing them. But Flarf, wonderful as it can be, is like a little brother who tells knock-knock jokes ad nauseam and then farts on you when you tell him to scram, and Conceptualism is like a big sister who sits on your chest and pummels you with your own fists, all the while asking why you keep hitting yourself. Both siblings are dear to my heart, but sometimes I just want! To be left! Alone! – a desire equivalent to wondering whether the poem can just shut up and play.
Unfortunately, we cannot actually achieve a sense of solitude by pretending to be alone when we know we are not. And that’s exactly what “immersion” in poetry, particularly lyric poetry, asks us to do. To circumvent the artificiality of this request, we would have to secret a recording device under our sibling’s bed to catch whatever they mumbled to themselves. These mumblings, mundane as the may seem, can compete (on some levels, at least) with the most powerfully articulated and thoroughly buffed poems. To demonstrate this, consider the whole of “Transcription of Marginalia Found in a 1963 Copy of Robert Henryson’s Poems…”
You know you’re in for human
degredation, perversion through ignorance’s
p 4waxes, lyric,
by his own
p 7arm in arm
p 10again, negative humor
p 11the extra dishes
bring on trouble
p 15In Chaucer there
is a great animal
chase at this point
p 16No great
lover is ever
full of care
p 91sexual desire
p 93in haste
p 94oh Blasphemy!
hope vs. despair
to comb your golden hair
a sign of idleness
p 97the moon closest
to the earth is the
most fickle of
It’s hard to say who is responsible for this. Agrani, to a certain extent, certainly, and of course one Mr. John Collins (well, presumably), one-time owner of the book. And we shouldn’t neglect Robert Henryson. Or maybe we should neglect all of them.
Hard to say, and irrelevant. Not quite found, not quite made. A mechanistic theology states that a god or divinity acts as a watch-winder or domino-pusher; this precludes the void of the random and preserves the comfort of authorship, without making the author or god sit through the humiliating trial of our preferences and judgments. Of course, what good is a god we cannot judge? It is easy enough to claim that all writing is conceptual, and that the only distinction is between those who confess to merely selecting which domino to tumble and those who insist they are the actors and the actions, the inventors of the tiles, the lines they describe, gravity itself. What you gain if you believe this is someone to blame or praise, but what you lose is control. Why should a poem erase the reader in the idolatry or demonization of the author? Marginaliaist, writer, editor, poet. I would rather surrender my idea of each and all, of poetry itself, if I thereby gain the action of the not-poem above. Indeed! One of my favorite not-poems of the year.
Poetry’s just fine, as long as we don’t ask after it. As long as we can continue to find cures for poets, remedies for absentee gods. I think I’ll call them readers. I think I’ll call them you.