Friday, February 26, 2010
More impressively, they do so while resisting the poet’s inclination to subvert an instinct most people take for granted: the simple desire to know what things mean. Critics trade in explanations, poets do not. While the poet may rightfully ignore any effort to press her about what she means in a poem the critic is under a different obligation; the only mystery is why so many settle for writing about whatever ill-defined, ephemeral effect a line of poetry has on them instead of its underlying meaning or truth.
Instead, a rough “gloss” will do, invariably made up of large, rather vague abstractions that really don’t tell us anything about anything - like the one we encountered last week when a reviewer discovered new poems “that are not only haunting for their language, but also for what they tell us about humanity.” When the writer uses the word “about” here, her failure to unpack whatever qualities of “humanity” she says exists in these poems makes it clear she doesn’t really mean it. She can’t tell you what these poems are about. She can only offer us what most reviewers offer - a gesture towards, an approximation of, truth or meaning.
Jacques Derrida tells us there’s a reason for this. Even a cursory glance at your OED reveals that talking “about” anything is hampered by basic etymology. Far from reflecting our capacity for fixed meanings the word “about” is defined variously in over a dozen entries as “around”, “circular”, “on every side", "nearly",
“approximately”, “in a circumlocutious or winding course”, and “less definitely.” Only one entry defines “about” in the sense that we’re discussing it here, as “touching”, or “concerning” the constitution of particular things. So, as much as you believe you can say what a poem is about, your ability to identify very precisely what that something might be is impeded by the imprecision of language itself. Or as a quantum theoretician might put it: you can’t fix something using tools that appear broken, unfixed, uncalibrated.
Our position is made even more precarious by the fact that most poems are themselves largely meaningless, which is only to say that they’re less concerned with providing fixed, indelible, memorable meanings than they are with producing a handful of salubrious effects, a wash of meaningfulness as in “I found that poem to be really meaningful, but what it means to say precisely, I can’t tell you.” It’s this expectation that poets now write to and to which critics have become inured.
An example of this can be found within the pages of a review by American poet and reviewer Joshua Mehigan in last month’s issue of Poetry. It’s plain to see that Mehigan likes the poems in Stephen Edgar’s History of the Day very much. He makes two very strong statements at the beginning and end of his review: Early on, he says these poems “yield meanings sharable by reader and writer...a brand of mystification that leads to some very satisfying eureka moments”; the poet, he concludes, “modulates his language in the service of meaning.”
Testing these propositions against the rest of the review you’d be forgiven for concluding that meanings are actually few and far between in Edgar’s collection. Mehigan discusses Edgar’s “radical zoom” technique, his abstractions and his use of “Thought-provoking references…to Beaumont and Fletcher.” He details Edgar’s use of science to take poetry “into territory untrodden by most poets,” a large statement mostly undercut by the science-as-poetry industry that has sprung up all around us in recent years. Edgar’s “mastery” of rhythm and meter, his irony, a veiled suggestion to his “aplomb” - it’s all there. But “meaning”? “eureka moments”? Hardly a whiff.
The closest we come to heightened feeling in the presence of newly discovered meaning is following Mehigan's partial citation of the poem “Succes de scandale”, surely the best part of the review:
The annelids, the giant dragonflies
With wings of sunlight peeled from the water’s surface
Stretched tight, incinerated sauropods
Among the ferns that saw the holocaust
Unfold and ripple like a hot aurora
Pouring from heaven and, in pits of pitch,
Attempts at deer like bottled specimens
And smiladons appended by their fangs
Deep in the black museum – all wasted effort.
The feather in the shale like a pressed flower
In a book of verse, a fetal hunch of bones
Delivered from the rocks: unshockable,
Completely ill-equipped to get the point.
The poem makes me want to go out and buy the book; the review does not. Instead, a strong, artful poem is summed up this way: “Edgar’s perspective, vast or miniscule, conveys something important about his worldview. There is nothing starker than that of nature, or more sublime.” That’s it. Forgetting that reviews are not just vehicles for carrying poems, but for explicating them, Mehigan opts for a large, overworked abstraction that far from showing his excitement about the poem pins a flat, uninspired gloss on the thing every bit as dead as the specimen on an entomologist’s wall. It’s the closest we come to the meaning Mehigan promises us is in the poem - meaning better suggested by the poem itself, than uncovered by the critic.
Some, likely poets, will say this is as it should be. Others, notably critics, will say the writer has fallen down on the job.
Coming up: an interview with one of Canada's foremost poets, Patrick Lane.
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