Sunday, September 30, 2007

Reading Practices: Do Poets Think?

Virginia Jackson's essay, "Thinking Dickinson, Thinking Poetry," raises fascinating questions about readership and form. Jackson's argument builds along two trajectories, in one she argues that Dickinson wrote - and thought - in poetry but that poetry had a different meaning for Dickinson and for her contemporary readers than it does for readers of today. In another, she argues that scholarship about Dickinson provides a template for how we think "through lyric poetry in the last century and a half." To explain the first element of the argument Jackson mounts a close reading of Dickinson's poem which begins, '"Lethe" in my flower.' Jackson's close read of the poem in consultation with historical material demonstrates different reading experiences that Dickinson's contemporaries - and the recipients of her poem, in this case Susan, would have had, especially contrasting them with current reading traditions and assumptions.
I was intrigued because the construct of a "speaker" or "narrator" in a poem has been the subject of much conversation in an internet community that I participate in. Generally, all support the notion that there is a performed narrator that is not the poet with Sharon Olds being an extreme contemporary example of this. (Olds is known to respond to audience members who query her about her daughter by saying, I don't have a daughter, why do you assume that I do? As background, Olds' work includes many poems about her - or the speaker's/poet's children.) Jackson writes, "Once we decided (as just about everyone has decided, at least since late in the nineteenth century) to read poems as the dramatic monologues of fictional "speakers," then the drama of poetic forms struts and frets across the state of reading, which is to say that the relation between the poet and the poem is the relationship between an audience and an actor--or that would be the relation, if the actor were actually in front of us. . . . That is to say that for modern lyric reading, poetic thinking is an act of vicarious identification."
I wonder, what if we were to reject that vicarious identification and instead of seeking vicarious identification to seek through poetry an empathic understanding in which we identified the poet as not an actor but as a person making visible to others the real and understood emotions, not in a scripted drama, but in a factual and imaginative rendering?
Part of my wondering about this is the reading through of Swenson, though to be fair it isn't just Swenson for me but other poets, but I'll use Swenson as a common example. I feel like the emotional kernel of her work is too often not authentic or well-examined. I don't mean to suggest that this is intentional, always, on her part, but that without an authentic and well-examined emotional basis, her work becomes more of the work of language - as she suggests it is in her writing. This is fine, but as a reader I have greater expectations for poetry. I want not the vicarious identification, but the imaginative renderings of an authentic emotional life. I don't feel like Swenson can deliver on that. She had a secret and that secret over time turned into a lie.
I think that Mary Oliver has the same challenge in her work.* While she writes beautifully rendered poetry about nature that appears to build a metaphoric resonance for human emotional life, it too is flawed in not being honest. Over time, the function of the natural world for Oliver obscures the authentic exploration of her emotional life. We cannot vicariously identify with her work because we cannot on some basic level identify ourselves with a lie, with a half-truth, with obfuscation. I realize that the lie, half-truth, and obfuscation are three very different things, and that it is at best lazy to conflate them and at worst an intellectual sin, but for the moment, I leave it there to be explicated more fully later.
This sense of an authentic rendering, of course, is resonant with the arguments that Hart and Chung make in their article, "Hearing the Visual Lines." The work to understand the world in which Dickinson was writing and what she was doing with her manuscripts is about excavating an understanding of what Dickinson's emotional life was like. Hart and Chung and Jackson also intersect in their writing about print and manuscript-and-print culture. Now, we are in this transition where print and manuscript culture continue to exist but we add in an online-web, Internet, virtual?-culture and try to understand what the norms and expectations are there. The Dickinson Electronic Archive becomes a boundary object among these different cultures existing simultaneously in all three while also refusing in some ways each.
This question, Does literature think?, or alternately, Does poetry think?, for me begs the question, Do poets think? Reading the narratives of poets writing about their own work, I often think the answer is no. Swenson addresses this in her essay "A Poem Happens To Me." She writes, "It sometimes happens that I am unwilling to write the poem but that it forces itself from me without permission. A poem that happens in this way will often be inexplicable to myself, as to source, content, or significance." Rukeyser in A Life of Poetry describes a parallel process. In this case, each poet contends that the poet doesn't think. Yet, we know, by we, I suppose I mean we readers, we people who analyze and appreciate the art object, we know that poets must think, must have that self-reflexive process of apprehension. I would argue it is the thinking, of the poem, of the poet, separately and together, that makes the art great.

*Bishop may as well. I'm reserving comment on that, but it is keenly on my mind.

No comments: