Forgetting Who

Yesterday I was reading a short story – a work in progress by a friend. The passages that impressed me most absolutely blew me out of the water. They were so good that I forgot all about the author; I forgot my friend had written them.

This observation raises two related points about the editing process that I'd like to think about further: The first is that I read a work in progress much differently from how I read a finished or published work – and it's not the material itself, but my readerly attitude. Reading as an editor means that I can hope to influence the work, to shape it somewhat to my own desires. And so I read quite aggressively; and I keep on reworking the thing in my mind as I go. I try to get ahead of the story. I think especially hard about what every line implies, and I catch myself rereading half a sentence that appears not to make sense when if I would just read the sentence's second half, I'd see how clear it really is. How rude of me!

The second thing I'd like to think about is whether losing track of the author really is a measure of quality in the writing of fiction. Is it analogous to the quality of a performance by a famous actor during which the audience forgets who the actor really is? Yes! – say I. But also no. An author's distinctive voice can be an asset. A storyteller needn't disappear in order to tell a story well. A narratorial voice doesn't convey the guts of a story or novel in anything like the way an actor conveys the world in which she plays. It's also problematic to suggest to my writing friends that their work would be better if they didn't appear to be narrating as themselves. I can't think of a good reason this should be the case.

Ultimately (I've hardly begun this sentence, and I already know I'm getting into trouble) a reader wants to forget herself, not the author; her own reality rather than the fact of the story's being written. ("Oh, that sounds pretty good," I say.) And yet the books that have influenced me the most are those that speak to me just as I appear to myself and make me see my own world as though it is deeply tied to the one I'm reading about; a contradiction abides.


The Chinese Cauldron


What’s this? This is an old toolshed.
No, this is a great past love.

[Yehuda Amichai]

Heart falters, stops
before a Chinese cauldron
still good for boiling water.

It is one of a dozen or more,
it is merely iron,
it is merely old,
there is much else to see.

The few raised marks
on its belly
are useful to almost no one.

Heart looks at it a long time.
What do you see? I ask again,
but it does not answer.

Poetry is my loo reading at the moment, and it’s working well; I’m through an anthology of horse poems, Li-Young Lee’s Rose and into Jane Hirshfield’s The Lives of the Heart, where this poem stopped me, got me to re-read, read it aloud, and then hold a monologue to myself about why I love it. The monologue went something like this:

This poem describes, simultaneously, three different experiences that have made me feel isolated. They all take place in museums or places like museums, places where the primary goal is attention.

The first experience is of not being able to lose myself in anything, of feeling overwhelmed by how much there is to see, and maybe also by what I’ve paid to get in. The frustration of bouncing off the surfaces of everything around me, and getting more and more irritable and harried, can be exacerbated by a companion who’s been caught and stopped by something. Then I am like a three-year-old child: Stop looking at that. Look at me. Mommy, let’s go. I want to join in the absorption, but the only questions I can think of are ones that attack the object of absorption, that list all its unremarkablenesses. “It is one of a dozen or more, / it is merely iron, / it is merely old, / there is much else to see.”

The second and third experiences are similar. One is losing myself in something and being asked to explain it, and either growing tongue-tied or sullen, depending on the questioner, or hearing my mouth give out words while an inside part of me says “What in God’s name are you talking about? That isn’t at all what attracts you. And it’s not even true.” Then I am like the heart in Hirshfield’s poem, either unwilling or unable to answer.

The last is losing myself in something and being alone. It is the experience the poem most directly describes, the most mysterious of the three. In that case, I am the absorbed one and the bouncing-off one at once, the heart and its questioner saying “Why this?”

I see the epigraph as an answer to that question: because this thing means more than can be empirically or pragmatically determined. In this case, the toolshed and the cauldron both mean love, mean long years of work and handling, someone’s devotion.


Re: Poets vs. Critics, part II

I'm going to respond briefly to Ezra's arguments against my poets/critics distinction. I hope to show how our positions differ, but also that we are not in as much disagreement as he suggests.

On the question of what poetry is: as a literary theorist, I first have to insist that poetry, the kind that critics study, is primarily an artifact of language. Poetry is a particular form of language. From a Formalist viewpoint, it is language that is at some level talking about itself, whatever else it may be about.

This description is somewhat disingenuous in the context of my previous post, however, since I was using poetry metaphorically (as I think Ezra does in his response) to describe a number of different actions and expressions. In that wider sense, I agree with Ezra that poetry is "a quality of grace…a kind of victory." This is the more general creative impulse that I group under the name "poetry" in my post.

On to the question of whether poetry is "a mixture of critical and aesthetic focus," whether "every good work of art practices criticism." I want to clarify, first, that I am not using criticism to describe the practice of evaluation, but rather a practice of organization. That said, I appreciate Ezra's argument that poetry practices criticism of the world. Much poetry is undoubtedly a practice of organization of features of the world; an attempt to understand and explain it.

Perhaps the distinction I'm trying to make is more between the particular and the universal. In my experience, creative work explains the world in terms of a particular event, a particular description, a particular instance. The work I would call criticism tries to draw generalities from the works of art. (Works of poetry can perform criticism by expressing generalities as well, but I think it is less common.) I think the difference in focus, on generalizing or explaining creatively by example, is more important to the distinction than whether a work is a "poem" or not.


How Do Seasons Work?

We all agree that the seasons follow each other: spring comes after winter, summer after spring, then fall, then winter again. We're also familiar with a sense of uncertainty about the transitional periods. After Monday's cold weather I thought, "Fall has definitely begun." But what on earth did I mean? Fall began when the calendar said so, which is also to say with the arrival of autumnal equinox, didn't it? And if it didn't, then I was probably wrong on Monday, because Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were beautifully warm, even if leaves in striking yellows and reds were everywhere on the ground.

My question is simply whether season transform one into another or replace each other (or both). Are they sets of astronomical conditions? Atmospheric conditions? Subjective human experiences? And again strangely – from the perspective of philosophy of language – they seem to ride a line between proper nouns and common ones.

Autumn, Winter, Spring – Summer subsists on them all then lends back her warmth.

re: Riding Bareback

I'm surprised by Stephanie's characterization of Julie Brown's view of language ("I don’t believe communication is ultimately possible. But I believe it’s necessary to live as though it were.") as a statement of faith. What faith does the statement evince? It disavows faith in the possibility of communication. A comparable statement that showed faith might read, "I don't believe communication should ultimately be possible: it seems riddled with failure – and yet we do communicate." That would show faith in the existence of communication, whereas if Julie's statement shows faith, it must be in some form of human resilience, in our ability and continued willingness to behave as though we are communicating when really we aren't!

That said, I too am drawn to W. Bynner's "Horses." I'm not sure whether the poem works as a metaphor for words as signs, but it definitely has something interesting to say as a metaphor about words and their meanings. Let's take it apart carefully:

"Words are hoops," and, we as word-users, are like trained dogs or seals, or like anything that leaps through hoops. Pets leap through hoops in order to be rewarded. People leap through figurative hoops in order to get ahead. So catching meaning, or making meaning, is a reward or a success. So far the poem seems encouraging enough: to get ahead and get meaning (perhaps to communicate), we have to leap through the hoops of words. This devalues the word itself (just a hoop to jump through) and puts the weight appropriately enough on the meaning. Great! If I want to mean, now I know what to do.

But it's more complicated than this. Meanings, the metaphor says, "are horses' backs / Bare, moving." Hard not to think at once of the beauty of a barebacked horse in motion. So these valuable things we leap upon are beautiful, too. Excellent. But what is bare is vulnerable; and what is moving is hard to hold. The horse in this metaphor might be unbroken, even wild.

Words may be the way to leap upon such brilliant things as meanings, but we are leaping to a moving target, and the poem doesn't promise that we'll always land on the horse's back. It just tells us that the way there is through words. Meaning becomes beautiful, but very likely alterable and difficult to catch.

None of this addresses Stephanie's insight that this poem has something to say about subjectivity. What it says depends upon how we reading the barebacked, moving horse. If the motion is constant and inevitable, meanings must be somehow temporary – subjective even if we all (all the subjects) agree for the time being and communicate successfully. What if meanings move unpredictably, like bucking broncos? We might catch meanings only for ourselves, and sometimes it certainly feels that way. But then again, we might sometimes catch and bridle meanings once we've jumped onto them through hoops. Maybe we can all ride meanings easily into the sunset, beautifully, certainly, and with no possibility of a hangman's posse on our trail.

re: Poets vs. Critics

I find a lot to argue with in Hannah's post, "Poets vs. Critics." I suppose one might look at the following comments as an instance of the poet trying to take a critic to task. But in fact I want to attack the distinction, and not the critic at all.

I approach from two angles. First I want to claim that every good poem and every good work of art practices criticism – not of itself (so the poet is not necessarily a literary critic) but of some feature or bug of the world itself: a structure, a pattern, a piece of chaos, a failure. Second, I suggest that poetry is something other than all the things that are poems, taken collectively.

We speak of poetry in physical movement, in the changing of the seasons, and in a thousand other places. Poetry is not poems, though good poems are usually poetry. Think of poetry as a quality of grace; think of poetry as a kind of victory; think of poetry as a lovely mixture of critical and aesthetic focus – critical and aesthetic success.

That is poetry.

Riding Bareback

[Witter Bynner]

Words are hoops
Through which to leap upon meanings,
Which are horses’ backs,
Bare, moving.

I love this poem for several reasons.

One: It is about horses. Or at least, has horses in it, and the writer has captured something of how horses move, and of what it feels like to ride bareback.

Two: It is a wise poem, in its laconic brevity. There is an authority in the description here that has to do with being willing to say one thing, precisely; one thing, not everything.

Three: The lineation. Each line is a simple, compelling statement, which builds on the previous thought but adds something distinctly new. Each line, in fact, has the quality good story endings are supposed to have, of feeling surprising yet inevitable.

Four: I read the whole poem as a metaphor for words as signs, for the relationship between signifier (word) and signified (meaning). Its brevity works for it here, too, in that it shapes the image, in four strokes, and leaves it there. In the debate over whether words have anything like an objective meaning, what I find interesting is the tension. Common sense seems to demand an acceptance, simultaneously, of both extremes: Words clearly do not mean the same thing to each subjective person, and the possible slippage, and failure in transfer of meaning, has no limits; and yet in experience there are moments, both mundane ones and transcendent ones, when words make that leap and land, against all the odds, on meaning. Julie Brown, a poet-critic friend, put another view of the paradox to me once: “I don’t believe communication is ultimately possible. But I believe it’s necessary to live as though it were.” Her faith here reminds me of the two central claims of Christianity, which are both unresolvable paradoxes: God is three, yet one. Christ is fully human, fully God. The orthodox creeds assert both extremes without seeking logical resolution. Similarly, the taut physicality of Bynner’s bareback metaphor, the leap that is at its center, rides the central paradox of what human words are capable and incapable of doing, and being, in the world.


Poets vs. Critics

When Stephanie asked me to join the conversation on this blog, I was nervous to be writing with two “real writers.” I don’t consider myself a writer, in the creative sense. Through my education, I have focused on analytical writing and criticism. Instead of being a poet, I became a critic.

Let me explain the distinction that I draw between “poets” and “critics,” which I think applies outside of the realm of literature as well. A poet is someone who creates. Writing poetry is an inherently creative process. The poet makes something from nothing. (After all, the words “poet,” “poetry,” and “poem” come from the word for “to make.”)

The critic, on the other hand, describes the work written by the poets. The critic’s job is to categorize: to find similarities between the work of different artists and determine a “school,” or to understand the underlying processes that make the poet’s work “work.” As a critic, I am interested in understanding poetry as a whole, not just the expression of an individual poem. Of course, poetry consists of poems, so in order to generalize about poetry one must carefully study the individual works.

The poet creates; the critic categorizes and explains. I don’t think this distinction is only applicable to the criticism of poetry. Criticism seems like more of a science; poetry, more of an art. Consider the work of mathematicians, however. While the study of math in classes is focused on generalizing, and you understand new mathematical concepts by analogy with concepts you already know (working in a “scientific” manner, like a critic), the practice of research in math is a creative process. The research mathematician chooses a particular area to focus on, and studies that area, trying to understand/invent interesting properties it has. (There is often discussion among mathematicians of whether math research is a process of discovering things that already exist, or of creating them. While I tend to sit on the "discovery" side of the fence, there is no question that the act of discovery can feel a lot like the act of creation, as inspiration often has to strike essentially out of the blue.)

The distinction is not complete: poets benefit from understanding general principles of the form in which they work (by doing critical work), while critics can write poetry (although my poetry, at least, is often more informed by my understanding of poetic form than any essential inspiration). In many studies, however, it seems that the work can be divided up between the creative and the critical. What would it mean to bridge that divide? Is such a synthesis something that would improve our understanding and production of art, or is it better for artists and critics to specialize?