Monday, April 25, 2011

The Anti-Anti-Accessible versus David Orr, or, Poetry as Perversion

To me talking/writing about poetry is not about getting it, the one kernel of meaning; it’s about expanding my ideas of it, of opening the poem up, bringing in new connections. The poem doesn’t need to “resist” full interpretation because there is not complete interpretation – interpretations expand my idea of the poem. Joyelle placing Plath in her necropastoral space is very insightful, but it doesn’t close down my reading of Plath, it makes her poetry even more interesting.

The kind of poem I want to read can seem mysterious and riddling when I’m twenty, and much less mysterious and riddling when I’m forty, but retains the capacity to astonish throughout. It is an adventurous poem that reflects the unknowable adventure that is life, and is full of the knowledge that only coalesces in hindsight, with experience. I, personally, don’t think of that as code. But if anything that interferes with literalism, that invites interpretation, or god forbid research, is figured as code, well then. I’m on the other side of that line.
The first quote comes from the latest in a series of posts by Johannes Göransson over at Montevidayo on the question of poetry and accessibility; the second from Ange Mlinko at Harriet. Both are part of a larger conversation sparked by the publication of David Orr's book Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. Orr, who reviews poetry for The New York Times Book Review, has produced a book seemingly designed to irritate actual poets and lovers of poetry (the unlovely but accurate phrase "poetry's stakeholders" comes to mind). Its efficacy in attracting more general readers to poetry remains to be seen. There are as of this morning 26 Amazon reviews of the book, mostly favorable, but as one reviewer I think rightly remarks, reading the book feels like stepping "into the middle of someone else's conversation." Another writes, "I would recommend this book highly for somebody who is 'sort of' interested in poetry." This "sort of" is at the heart of the book's difficulty, as it tries to stake out a middle ground between stakeholders (the denizens of what Orr calls "The Fishbowl") and the indifferent. Does this "sort of" really exist?

The question that the quotes above are concerned is one plaintively posed by another of Orr's Amazon reviewers: "Should poetry be such demanding, strenuous exercise?" Göransson's and Mlinko's answers to that clearly fall into the "Yes" category. Johannes has been unfolding an attack on the fundamental anti-intellectualism of Orr's approach in terms of the resistance he sets up to the idea that poems are there to be interpreted; they are instead there to be uncritically "loved," a sentimental approach curiously akin to the American discourse around children and childrearing, as if poetry cannot risk having its self-esteem bruised by critical reading. The problem with this of course is that we are never completely outside interpretation, just as we are never completely outside politics: the claim that poems need not be interpreted simply sets up the existing interpretive framework as the unmarked case, a "good" universal approach next to which all other approaches are particular, "academic," and "bad."

The general thrust of Johannes' critical enterprise is toward multiplicity: "interpretations expand my idea of the poem," for the idea of the "closed" singular interpretation of any given poem (what it "really means") is the mirror image of the notion that poetry is a beautiful mystery that we murder to dissect. Both ideological moves function to place poetry outside the bounds of what we commonly call "life": poetry becomes a standing reserve, a supplement to ordinary and multiple practices of living and reading, that is at once supremely important ("beautiful") and supremely irrelevant and unnecessary ("pointless").

Ange Mlinko, meanwhile, asks what's so bad about seeing poems as encoded or as riddles to solve. I've been guilty of this move myself; just the other day, I tried to encourage a couple of creative writing students who are both talented writers but skittish when it comes to poetry by telling them not to worry about meaning. Which leaves them with what? they might reasonably have responded. Sound? Mood? That's not nothing, of course, but they're right to be dissatisfied, and it's unreasonable of poets to expect that readers aren't going to at least initially approach poems as they would any other instance of language: as bearers of information and significance. Mlinko stands up for what we might call the erotics of encoding: solving riddles is a basic human pleasure, as the legions of folks devoted to Sudoku and crossword puzzles will attest.

It's instructive to compare the general thrust of Orr's book to Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, "Against Interpretation," which ends with this demand: "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." The erotic is a mode of the aesthetic in that word's oldest sense: aiesthesis, perceiving through the senses. Sontag attacks the priority that hermeneutics gives to content, what a poem "says," in favor of a critical focus on form: "a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art." That word "loving" is crucial. As Johannes put it in his first post on this subject, the stance that Orr seems to represent holds that the poem is there to be loved: "It’s uncorrupted by interpretation." The trouble here may be less the insistence on purity than on the hollowing out and de-eroticizing of "love"; a false antimony is set up between love and criticism, if not love and interpretation. Sontag, as I read her, is not against interpretation so much as she is against the rush to interpretation; the form of an artwork is there to capture our senses, to tarry with and not be taken for granted (in this respect Sontag's "form" is indistinguishable from Shklovksy's ostranenie).

Orr's version of this argument is immeasurably weakened by an absence of a sense of the erotic. In his account the pleasure provided by poems, even in his most moving example (of his dying father's fondness for a line of Edward Lear's), is fundamentally infantile. More seriously, neither he nor Sontag seem to allow for the possibility of an erotics of interpretation itself. It's not Johannes' ripest language, but when he writes that "interpretations expand my idea of the poem" I imagine a certain tumescence; when Mlinko writes that "the kind of poem I want to read has a snaking logic of underground caves and aquifers," here too I see an embryo expression of the erotic pleasure to be found in interpretation. That is, the polymorphously perverse pleasure of more, of the multiple, of the ever-ramifying codes and contexts that interpretation gives birth to over time. Ange suggests that poems become less "riddling and mysterious" with age and experience, but the reverse can be as true.

Put, finally, another way, I think as I do so often of Keats' definition of negative capability: "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." I want to revise that slightly so that the "without" becomes a "before," and so that the "irritable" takes on a meaning closer to that of an itch that must be scratched, whose prolongation through Mysteries is itself a kind of pleasure, jouissance. And it's this erotic tension that the blandest theories of poetic engagement, like Orr's, sacrifice on the altar of accessibility.

"If they don't need poetry then bully for them. I like the movies too": so saith Frank O'Hara. Let's remember that for O'Hara "the movies" are not simply a Hollywood commodity (though they are, gloriously, that) but a sexual cruising ground (c.f. "Ave Maria"); by implication and association then poetry too is eroticized as something more than a matter of taste: it is a need, in the deep blues sense of, "I need you baby." It is a site productive of desire, perverse, leading nowhere but (pleasurably) astray. Whatever else it is, it certainly isn't "good for you." And it may only be in embracing its perverseness that poetry has any chance of obtaining the kind of purchase on its readership that I or David Orr might wish for it.


Henry Gould said...

I think the really good poems have an unparaphrasable intelligibility, a built-in sense. You don't understand them; they understand you : at least that's the feeling you have, reading them. You say "that's right!" when you read them - even when you don't understand them entirely. They have layers, maybe ("codes") - but the codes are optional, for those who seek.

I would say a good poem has this kind of integrity which transcends the clear/obscure, easy/difficult dichotomy.

tom said...

Let me be literal & ecstatic
in one word: yes!

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