One of the things I seem to keep coming back to in this blog is the question of what can and cannot and should and should not be articulated. In my last post, I invoked the myth of Cupid and Psyche in order to argue that there is a value to keeping dark corners unlit, that certain experiences are impoverished by the telling. Today I’m going to investigate some critiques of that point of view from some experimental poets, and I’m going to connect all of this to a discussion of Burning Man, a yearly festival of art, free expression, and self-reliance in the Nevada desert that I have just returned from for the second time.
The Cult of Silence
Most mainstream US poetry, since at least the 1950s, has organized its emotional economy around a conspicuously absent center. Concrete details point to a an epiphany of resonant silence, where the emotional force of the poem is expressed through its very unexpressableness. Consider, for example, Robert Hass’ poem “Meditations at Lagunitas”. The speaker begins with a sort of critique of Platonism, arguing that concrete instances of things should not be viewed as degraded versions of their ideal forms. Then he turns to words, the bottom of Plato’s hierarchy (because they are imitations of imitations of the Forms), and argues that just “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” we should not think that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies.” (It’s tricky, of course, because all this is stated in the positive & not the negative, but the framing of the first few lines makes this criticism apparent.)
At this point, you might think that Hass is rejecting the numinous, vague world of forms — but as the end of the poem makes clear, he is in fact holding it more sacred than anything, so sacred that it cannot be described. The mistake is not believing in something beyond words, but failing to put that thing properly beyond words. As he thinks of his beloved, the speaker is driven to a series of recollections, presented paratactically in a series of concrete details, first about his childhood and then about the woman herself. The gaps in the parataxis point to what cannot be said, and the final chant of “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” walks a weird line between signifying everything and signifying nothing: the true essence of those afternoons and evenings is safely hidden where attempts to explain it cannot limit or contaminate it.
“Meditations at Lagunitas” is one of my favorite examples of this kind of poem, but as you might guess, the premise that the most important revelations are beyond words can lead to a lot of really dubious poetry. Ron Silliman, probably the most widely-read poetry blogger today, pejoratively calls this tendency in mainstream US poetry the “School of Quietude” — this is the sort of writing more widely known as “workshop lyric” because it’s the kind of poetry that’s generally encouraged by creative writing classes. You know these poems, even if you’ve never heard these terms — this is the poetry of quiet, serene epiphany, often taking place in nature. Poets of this school would agree with the declaration in my last post that “love suffers in the naming” — these are what you might call reticent poems, which rely on evocative concrete detail. Silliman calls this tendency a “school” to emphasize that it’s just one way of making poetry, and should not be thought of as the “normal” from which avant-garde poetry “deviates.” (He claims, furthermore, that every single US Poet Laureate has been a member of the SoQ, with the sole exception of William Carlos Williams, who declined the position due to illness and never served.)
And if running an institutional hegemony that’s been crowding out other styles of writing for the past few decades weren’t enough reason to dislike it, the “School of Quietude” also has plenty of critics of its aesthetic practice. In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984), Charles Alteri characterizes this kind of poetry as “the scenic style,” explaining that these poems “achieve closure by a leap from the narrative to the visionary levels, as if sensitive experience reached its climax in moments of resonant silence” and goes on to criticize this approach pretty sternly: “finally, the pursuit of resonant silence may not allow the poet to say enough, may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence, especially when a cult of silence makes it easy to luxuriate in vague emotions” (15).
Alteri’s critique gives us an economics of style, where silence is a poverty taken on almost monastically as a prerequisite to visions that may or may not turn out to be worth the sacrifice. But he clearly sees hypocrisy in this “cult,” in which an initial vow of asceticism devolves quickly into complacency — the silence that was supposed to make us all seekers has instead dulled that impulse and made us all either converts to or heretics of a new orthodoxy.
The Heresy of Eloquence
David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg were already heretics in 1965, when they began the poetry magazine some/thing with a manifesto railing against this aesthetics of resonant silence. It’s a problem for much more than poetry, they argue; the cult of silence is diminishing our ability to understand ourselves and others:
THE MOST TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE OF THE LAST THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS HAS BEEN THE GROWING CONVICTION THAT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ASPECTS OF REALITY HAVE BECOME UNSPEAKABLE WITH THE CONSEQUENCE THAT THEY HAVE ALSO COME TO FEEL UNREAL THEY ARE UNREAL
STATEMENT: I CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP
QUESTION: BUT WILL THEY COME
THE FEELING THAT SOME/THING LIES OUT THERE THAT WE CANNOT LAY HOLD OF IS THE FEELING OF THE INADEQUACY OF THE EXISTING ORDER IT IS THE DEMAND FOR A DIFFERENT ORDER THE CONDITION OF POETRY THE NEED TO GAIN GROUND
Antin and Rothenberg up the ante, then, when they say that the problem is not just the emotional economy of a particular style of poetry, but a general trend in consciousness. Once we start to treat our “most significant” experiences with reverent silence, these experiences start to feel unreal — and consequently become unreal, for what are they but feelings? The quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV in this context is not about devils, but about emotions: you can name them, but will you feel them? Antin and Rothenberg want to turn this skepticism about the connection between words and experience into a positive force: instead of passing over in silence that which we cannot speak of, we ought to be constructing new ways of speaking.
A tall order, you say. Shall we concoct a new alphabet? Put together new words out of nonsense syllables? No and no: all Antin wants is for people to listen to each other, rather than assuming that the truth of another person is out of reach or, worse, already understood. In a piece entitled “tuning,” he writes,
at this point i think its very important for us to form a new notion of human rapprochement thats not based on understanding and i would like to contribute to not understanding i would like to contribute to human not understanding i would like to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding so that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are approaching or leaving other people and see how far away they are and whether there is any reason or prospect for reaching them because one thing thats been promoted endlessly in the world is the fantasy of understanding the notion that its always possible desirable and costs nothing
For Antin, subjectivity is always in motion, a state of affairs belied by our traditional metaphors for understanding, such as “getting,” “grasping,” and “finding common ground.” In “gambling,” a companion piece to “tuning,” Antin says that such metaphors “reinforce the static sense of knowing whereby it seems a kind of standing instead of going” and suggests that “there is another way of talking about all this because wherever im standing ill only be there for a while.” Antin would like to replace these static notions of understanding with the concept of “tuning,” the process whereby musicians, by alternately sounding and listening, come to a point where their notes match up. He likens it to walking side by side, where the longer-legged person shortens her stride, and the shorter-legged person speeds up a little bit, so that they can move together harmoniously. When we walk we do this more or less unconsciously, but when we talk we ought to know that we are doing it; we ought to be aware that we are coming from different places, and that my words might not mean the same thing to you that they do to me, and we ought to take turns talking and listening until we are both satisfied that we hitting the same — or nearly the same — notes.
The Price of Vision
It’s not news that the Burning Man festival costs a lot of money and time, and hence is only open to a certain, economically privileged section of the population. Problematic as that is, I want to talk about a different kind of price tag. Charles Alteri set up this economy for us earlier when he said that “the pursuit of resonant silence . . . may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence.” In the “School of Quietude,” vision is purchased by giving up words, by foregoing the hope that the numinous can be made concrete, by declaring eloquence to be worthless. At Burning Man the numinous is made concrete, again and again and again. At an art installation called CheckPoint DreamYourTopia, visitors were asked to fill out lengthy, complicated forms, endure harassment from border guards, and undergo interrogation by customs agents in order to be granted passports to the “Land of Dreams.” A giant duck with a disco-ball head that shot flames roamed the desert hosting a mobile party. The temple burned, as it does every year, sending the hopes, fears, regrets, prayers, and messages of the thousands of participants who wrote on its wooden walls literally up to the heavens in smoke.
None of these artistic feats could have been accomplished under an ideology of resonant silence. Burning Man has got an ideology of riotous noise, incarnated not only in the thumping electronic music that is audible at all places at all times of the day and night, but in all of the creations, costumes, and events that the participants bring to life. The giant duck you build may not quite be the giant duck of your dreams, but it makes your dream real for thousands of other people, and allows them to live their own dreams. Over and over again, you find yourself saying “fuck it — let’s do that” — let’s climb that tower, let’s swing on those swings, let’s light those lamps, let’s talk to that guy, let’s use that giant mechanical hand to pick up and crush cars. Any possibility that you don’t seize and turn into a reality there, you will eventually regret. (I didn’t bother to wait in line for the giant mechanical hand, and will basically never forgive myself.)
Furthermore, I’ve never been to a place where Davin Antin’s notion of “tuning” was more possible — people at Burning Man are far more open to one another than most people in what burners call “the default world.” One source of this is certainly the sense of camaraderie, the sense that you all share certain fundamental beliefs and inclinations. But I think another source is a heightened sense of subjectivity as something fundamentally in motion, like Antin describes — burners come from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and walks of life, and share a single bizarre space for a brief time. Moreover, the city is so chaotic and people keep such different hours that the likelihood of you seeing any one person a second time (unless you are camping with them, or try really hard) are pretty slim. All encounters are understood to be momentary crossings of paths: you fall into step with somebody, you talk, you go your separate ways.
I didn’t write on the temple. Part of it was that I didn’t know what to write, and part of it was the pervasive influence of the cult of silence: if I did try to write something personally sacred, wouldn’t I mess it up by writing it wrong, or writing it only partially, or failing to do it justice? This afternoon, David Antin reminded me that “the weakness of representation is also its strength . . . all representations are at the expense of other representations, and the only way to deal with this is to preserve some sense of their provisionality.” This, I think, is what Burning Man does in spades: every year, the man is burned, the temple is burned, and a whole city of 50,000 people vanishes without a trace when the festival is over.
The price of vision, then, is provision. If you want to keep what you hold sacred inviolate and pure, you are going to have to keep it to yourself. But if you want to bring it into the world and share it with others, it’s not going to come out in quite the way you imagined, it’s not going to last forever, and it’s probably going to get a little dusty.
Yesterday I had the minorly excruciating and entirely bizarre experience of sitting through three hours of personal introductions on the first day of a nine-person seminar class. The class, which I am considering auditing, is being taught by a Jesuit monk turned professor turned journalist and recently re-turned professor, so perhaps he doesn’t know that most graduate seminars consist of intellectual exchanges between people who, for the most part, don’t know each other very well outside the classroom and form their ideas of one another largely on the basis of how smart they manage to sound when talking about the assigned texts. Most graduate seminars begin with “introductions,” but these take the form of “Hi, I’m Mary, I’m a second year in the English department, and I work on Victorian novels.” This professor, by contrast, demanded that each of us give an account of our relationship to Americanness, to religion, and to poetry (this being a class on American religious poetry), and then proceeded to interrupt each of us numerous times with sincerely interested questions. “Oh, what town in Texas was that?” “Would you say your connection to Catholicism is more cultural, then?” etc. For the nine of us to account for ourselves and answer his questions in sufficient detail took the whole three hours allotted for the seminar, which was on the one hand excruciatingly boring and on the other hand fascinating.
What fascinated me was not the particular details of my colleagues’ stories (though they sometimes were quite interesting), but the process of accounting for myself in this way, and of watching other people do the same thing. My “religion” and my “poetry” stories are both things I have recounted so many times that my telling of them in class today was more like a recitation than a process of self-discovery — but my “American” answer was a little more roughshod, and I ended up feeling dissatisfied with it, like I hadn’t really expressed what I’d wanted to. What happened, actually, was that I recited a couple of things about my parents’ families, but I didn’t really get a chance to think or talk about my own “American” experience, which has far more to do with my growing up in suburban New Jersey than with my mother’s family being Irish potato famine immigrants.
Whether or not it was true, it looked to me that my colleagues’ stories were, for the most part, more “authentic” than my own — they seemed to be answering these questions for the first time, and saying something “real,” rather than just rattling off the stories they’d told to themselves and their friends a billion times before. I realized immediately, even as I was having this thought, that it probably wasn’t true; it was just that since I was hearing their stories for the first time, they seemed more spontaneous.
I began to think, while walking home, that it would be a very interesting exercise to try to write one’s autobiography — or even just bits of it — completely without the help of one’s familiar store of stories about oneself. That is, to try to dig up and put into words the parts of your life that you’d never put into words before, not even to yourself. It may be that I’m an academic and a writer, or it may just be that I’m a human and everybody does this, but I am constantly, constantly telling myself stories about myself. Even as I know that I’m fictionalizing and oversimplifying, it’s helpful and reassuring to be able to trace certain kinds of continuity, to be able to say “I presently feel this way because of these other things that happened in the past” and “I did that terrible thing because I couldn’t help it, that is the kind of thing I have always done, but at least I did it less terribly this time.”
I suspect that, the farther back I tried to reach in my past without the aid of my stories, the less I would find. From my elementary school years, I don’t think there’s a single thing my mind could touch that is not already part of my Grand Narrative. But from middle school, and certainly later, there must be things lurking in my mind that are not crystallized into words in the same way that the more “important” events are.
I recently gave a paper at a conference on excess and obsession, which is one reason why I’ve been driven to think about the above things. In a lot of ways, the most illuminating panel at the conference turned out to be the one I had most snickered about to my friends beforehand: the panel on fandom. What the fandom scholars were able to articulate that the more traditional scholars (myself included) were not was, more or less, that what we are talking about when we are talking about “excess,” in any kind of literary/cultural way, is emotion, and that emotion is embarrassing. When you’re a Trekkie, a Xenaphile, or an emo kid, you are identifying with an emotional attachment that is viewed with skepticism by the rest of society because of its publicness and because of its fervor. It seems to me that we are generally expected, these days, to have our emotions quietly and at home. (And hasn’t this always been the case? With the brief subcultural exception of the Summer of Love?)
Many of the conference participants, in other words, seemed to be coding “excess” as “authentic,” to be buying into the idea that that which is unarticulated is unspoiled in much the same vein as my autobiography speculations above. This was particularly true of the queer theorists, at least two of whom focused on queer reading practice as something that draws on textual possibilities rather than textual actualities to move toward an imagined utopian future that is acknowledged as imagined, and yet still must be imagined.
I found their frankness about possibility very helpful. There probably are parts of my life that I haven’t articulated to myself, but the minute I discover them I begin to articulate them, and they become assimilated into the already-existing Grand Narrative, becoming just more examples of this or that Trend In My Life At That Time. Perhaps the only way these parts of my history can have power is as possibilities, as dark corners that remain dark. One of the keynote speakers at the conference remarked that, as a writer, “one has to hide one’s intent” — when I asked him in the Q&A to elaborate, he more or less said that your intent is not going to sell books; that you have to give readers something they want, and smuggle your “real” message in the back door. I can empathize, of course. Nearly every paper in my academic career has had the secret or not-so-secret message of “please please try to love one another,” and I think I would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, enduring works of art have exactly this message as well. But slapping a sticker on the front of Ulysses reading “LOVE IS IN HERE” would not particularly have helped Joyce sell more copies — because, as I said, emotion is embarrassing. You have to give readers something else to tell themselves that they want: the challenge of the experimentation, the pleasure of the text, the possibility of pornography, etc.
Probably the best readings of texts are the ones that leave some of the dark places unlit. Psyche should not have lit her lamp to look on Cupid’s face, and love suffers in the labeling.
The New York Times’ Style section ran two articles this weekend advising readers on how to make peace with the experience of receiving a bad gift. The Sweater Only a Mom (and Analyst) Could Love by Matthew Weiner argues that most gifts are disappointing because of the anticipation programmed into us by movies and commercials depicting scenes of joyous, perfect gift-receiving involving ribbons and hugs and tears:
But the reality is that getting a gift is like being set up on a blind date. Like it or not, your friend or family member is sending you a message telling you in a coded way what they think you want, what you deserve and, on some level, who they think you are.
In What Do You Mean, Giving Me That?, Guy Trebay reflects that “the strange and the ambiguous and the mixed and and the heartbreaking intentions behind gift-giving are an overlooked bonus.” Furthermore, he writes:
I feel less lost at Christmas if I conjure an image of the person she was imagining I might become. If the problem with presents is that they reveal too much, that is also their value. Even with the most ludicrous or empty of presents, the exercise of following the object back to its intention is beneficial.
I was struck by how identical these messages were. First of all, are we actually expecting bad gifts now? Are we so pessimistic that the Times had to run two articles mentally preparing us for the experience? But if it’s interesting that these two pieces address the same problem, it’s even more interesting that they propose the same solution. “It’s the thought that counts” is a commonplace, but both these authors play a new tune on the old saw by specifying that one ought to think about the person that the gift-giver imagines one to be. This turns gift-receiving into an occasion for reflecting on the mystery of our relationships — I am surely not the person that my aunt imagines would love to wear a long, faux-tribal necklace made of seashells, but she loves me in spite of and because of this inaccuracy. We can only know each other through fantasies — filters — veils.
Sylvia Plath confronts precisely this question in “A Birthday Present”, which I recommend that you go read before continuing further (it’s just a little too long to reprint here). The first time I read this poem, knowing the standard Plath suicide mythology, I figured that the unnamed gift the speaker longs for was obviously death: “Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger. // Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty / By the time the whole of it was delivered, and too numb to use it.” But the gift is stubbornly unspecified, and the only time it is called “death” is in the conditional: “If it were death // I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.” This opens the door to other possibilities, and in a few places the poem outright contradicts the “death” reading — “only you can give it to me,” for example, doesn’t seem to refer to death, especially given Plath’s multiple suicide attempts. What is it, then, that can only be given by a particular “you”?
Let’s look at the first lines: “What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful? / Is it shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges? // I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.” Here, the desired “it” is at least possibly a person. I propose a counter-reading, then — both alongside and against the “death” reading — that what the speaker yearns for is the truth of the other person. She rails at this person to “let down the veil, the veil,” but this is impossible because this person sees “only transparencies, clear air.”
Death stands for profound otherness here, for anything “beyond the veil” and unknowable. But we must recognize veils before we can contest them. This is what the Times’ columnists are trying to tell us about gifts: they are rare opportunities to see how others see us. But if it’s true that we always see each other through veils, then every gift ought to be a “bad” one, to some degree. Somehow, this is not true. Weiner closes his article with an anecdote about the one good gift he received that ruined him for all others — he was a struggling writer supported by his wife’s meager salary and feeling like a failure, when the following happened:
My birthday came, and the gift I wanted was to be shot in the back of the head while I slept — to be mercifully put out of my misery before I gained any more weight or finished the extremely depressing movie I was writing.
My wife handed me a large, very heavy flat box. Inside was a silver Zero Halliburton briefcase.
Now, if you missed the ’80s, let me explain what this was. It was the ultimate briefcase. It was the one you saw in the movies, carried by Feds, moguls, guys in sports cars, drug dealers. It was the kind that was filled with rows of hundreds and then handcuffed to somebody’s wrist. I had admired one in a window at the mall. My wife had clocked that and delivered. It cost $300. Our rent was $800 a month.
It was so extravagant, so ridiculous, so desired. I was speechless. My wife knew what I wanted. I wanted to feel successful. I wanted to go somewhere everyday with my papers in that gleaming hand-held Learjet.
When I saw that gift, I knew that no matter what I felt like, she somehow saw me as the kind of person who carried that thing. She somehow saw me as a success. And yes, there were hugs and kisses and tears.
The reason this gift is so successful is that the way the wife sees the husband is the way the husband wants to see himself — which is very different from the way he does see himself. This anecdote also calls to mind Jacques Derrida’s Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, in which he argues that for a gift to truly be a gift, it has to be unrepayable. Most gifts are not really gifts, because they open up cycles of debt and repayment — once you give somebody something, they are obligated to reciprocate. It’s been a long time since I read it and I don’t have it on hand, but I think he does eventually admit that unrepayable gifts are possible — but only if the gift itself is, in a sense, impossible, as in the case of the Halliburton briefcase. What makes this gift impossible is not only that it is “so extravagant, so ridiculous, so desired,” but that it literally does not correspond to reality — Weiner was not the kind of person who carried that thing, but his wife knew that he could be, and now he is writing for the New York Times as well as executive-producing Mad Men and The Sopranos.
This leads me to a different and better reading of Plath’s poem: it is not just the true self of the other person that she wants — though this is part of it — but her own true self. Here is the end of the poem:
Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death
I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.
There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter
Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.
What the speaker wants is for the other person’s knife not to impose its own order by “carving,” but to simply cut her open. Death turns into birth, and “the universe” inside her becomes visible. Good gifts, then, can teach us something about who we are — just because our loved ones’ perceptions of us are not always the same as our own doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Love gives us to ourselves.
“Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.”
— Wallace Stevens, from “Sunday Morning”
Hello again dear readers. I had a post in mind about Robert Frost that was actually going to be relevant to the topics I was exploring last time, but that will have to wait because today my heart cries out to write about Sappho. I was dutifully reading some Amy Lowell for my upcoming Ph.D. exams, when I came across the following passage in her poem “The Sisters”:
There’s Sapho, now I wonder what was Sapho.
I know a single slender thing about her:
That, loving, she was like a burning birch tree
All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote
Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,
A frozen blaze before it broke and fell.
Holy Jesus, I thought. Amy Lowell, sometimes you really do succeed at Imagism no matter what Ezra Pound says. This image, it’s perfect. That is Sappho exactly. Observe Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s Fragment 31 from her beautiful, necessary book If Not, Winter:
He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.
People have been translating Sappho for centuries, and these translations reflect the poetic styles of the time. My books are all packed away in boxes, with the exception of my poetry shelf, but otherwise I’d whip out Yopie Prins’ Victorian Sappho and share with you some of the florid, iambic-pentameter ways the above has been rendered. I love the sparseness of Carson’s Sappho, because the fragmentary nature of her text is essential to our experience of it today. It’s interesting to think about: Sappho was presumably not, herself, a reticent riddler, but because her manuscripts were scattered by the winds of time (and torn into strips to wrap corpses in Egypt!), her poems today exist only in scraps and tatters. She has been a huge influence on verse, particularly verse by women, inspiring a whole ideal of sparse, cryptic, reticent lyric, without herself ever quite having been any of those things.
Part of what people are inspired by, then, must be the action of history on Sappho’s text. When H.D. writes her fragmentary verse, she is imitating not Sappho, but what time has done to Sappho. She inscribes the violence of forgetting into her poems. Anne Carson, in turn, is influenced by H.D. and others like her; her own verse has a similar sparseness. When she applies this style to her translations of Sappho, what we get is loss squared. 75% of Carson’s book is white space; she puts only one fragment on each page, even if it is only three words long. The words cry out to be understood, and incite the imagination to try to figure out what is missing.
But Lowell is right: the glimpses we get are of a magnificently strange voice, speaking of powerful love. Even the smallest of fragments sing. For example, Fragment 125:
I used to weave crowns
The silence surrounding this becomes profound, even if Sappho didn’t write it that way. Well, and what now? Who did you weave them for? Why have you stopped? Why is this no longer a world made for crowns?
Today I discovered what has instantly become my favorite love poem ever. Are you ready for it? Fragment 45:
as long as you want
What do you think? Should I get it tattooed between my shoulderblades? Maybe in the Greek, so I don’t quite give myself away.