Friday, September 07, 2007

Spring and All

I was interested to read this recent post by Ron Silliman. So often people talk in abstractions (“accessibility,” “slippage”) about poetic issues that it’s refreshing to see a couple specific examples, one of them Robert Creeley’s great poem “I Know a Man.”

I stopped when Silliman said, “Creeley’s famous ‘I Know a Man’ derives much of its power from precisely the fact that the reader situates the key verb, drive, into two possible contexts, one in which the word belongs to the narrator, the other in which the word belongs to John …. Creeley himself said that the former was his original intent, but even he had to acknowledge that readers everywhere could hear both.”

Is this true? Yes, the drive is ambiguous, but is it true that the poem “derives much of its power” from the ambiguity? I would guess that most readers, while acknowledging the ambiguity, read drive as belonging to John, for a variety of reasons such as the stanza break before “drive, he sd.” I would say that most of the poem’s power derives from the sudden shift to “John’s” perspective in the last stanza, and that the ambiguity is relatively uninteresting. What Silliman says about the poem being “a text about primal need in an existential universe” is undeniably true, but isn’t that still true if we read drive unambiguously as John’s command? I’m not objecting to ambiguity per se. I think some poems do derive their power from the multiplicity of interpretations open to the reader. I just don’t think this poem is one of them.

Silliman’s other example is a section of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Grace”:

a spring there
where his entry must be made

signals him on

What does this mean? (Don’t cheat and read ahead for the “answer” as I confess I did when I read Silliman’s blog.) My initial impulse when first reading the passage was to take spring as the season, and “his entry” as an almost abstract (dare I say Merwinesque?) quasi-spiritual quasi-pastoral being (let’s say the magical stag in Harry Potter rather than Merwinesque). I would have had a different take if I’d dwelled on it for another 30 seconds, and yet another take if I’d dwelled for yet another 30 seconds, which is partly the point. Anyway, Silliman’s very interesting point is this:

Whenever I’ve asked students to “tell me what this means,” whether at San Francisco State in 1981 or at Naropa as recently as last summer, I’ve been offered a variety of narratives – … one being the idea of a diver in that instant leaving the board before the arc & splash of the event, the other that of the “step into character” that comes over an actor or actress as they make their entrance from backstage. Never in 26 years has a student offered the narrative Armantrout herself gave me when asked, that of vaginal lubrication. But this doesn’t make any of these narrative scaffolds wrong. All three, in fact, line up the key terms in this passage into roughly the same configuration, tho Armantrout’s own version is the most intimate.

This raises so many questions. It’s certainly true that, of the three narratives, Armantrout’s is the most intimate, although the actor’s story may be the most interesting. The question is whether the power of the poem is increased or decreased by the openness and multiplicity of interpretations. (I just noticed I spelled “Rae” as “Ray” above, which might make someone think Armantrout is a he, which might or might not affect the interpretations, especially the “intimate” one.) Another question: If the multiplicity of interpretations is interesting, would it be more or less interesting if the ambiguity were “clarified”? If the simultaneous perception of diver/actor/lover is interesting, would it be more interesting or intolerably clichéd to make it explicit (“When he entered her he felt like an actor stepping into character …”)?

It’s interesting that Ron talks about how these poems derive their power, as power is the key issue. Obviously one of the distinctions between experimental and mainstream poetry is that experimental poetry typically wants to share more power with readers (regardless of readers' possible desires for a poem to exert its power over them), or to abandon all power in a Buddhist-like renunciation. My instinctive reaction is that if Armantrout is not “attached” to whether I “get” her erotic interpretation or substitute an interpretation of my own, then why should I care about the poem? (I like many of Armantrout’s poems very much, by the way—that’s not my point.) The instantaneous collage in the reader’s brain of spring as “stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf,” spring as erotic arousal, spring as Slinky toy, spring as Sierra thaw, etc. etc. does not inevitably strengthen the poem. So much of contemporary poetics seems to revolve around this strange power struggle where writer and reader fight over the right to transfer their power to the other like a hot potato.


Jilly said...

That is fascinating.

Lisa said...

um, I read the fragment as Armantrout intended.

(and, um, should that last word be in quotes? Sigh.)

Robert said...

Hey, Lisa, if Ron Silliman had had students as sharp as you over the past 26 years, the whole history of language poetry might have been different!

Yeah, I'm afraid "intended" should be in quotes. "Quotation marks" are "like" a "spice" that makes "everything" taste "better"!

Lisa said...

"Thank you!"

Maybe I should add a few more exclamation points and a smileyface, no?

Lisa said...

Or I could just connect the dots of the quotation marks in your response, and write a poem based on the resulting shape.

Lisa said...

OK, now my mugshot is starting to look like it's smirking. Time to quit before I reach full-speed snark.

Robert said...

Hmm, you do sound a bit snarked-off. But seriously, don't you think Armantrout did not really "intend" the vaginal lubrication (hereinafter "VL") meaning, because "VL = spring" is just the sort of cliche metaphor that poets (especially postmodern poets) try to avoid at all costs? Or she must at least have intended to express VL in language that would give a whole different twist to its meaning?

Lisa said...

I was directing most of my snark at LP, mostly just because I was having a snarky day and needed an outlet. So the bit about the quotation marks was an easy jab at folks who question even the possibility of authorial intent, yadda yadda. Call me old-fashioned. And cranky.

I haven't read the complete Armantrout poem, so can't really comment on the effectiveness of the metaphor - though I'd say it can't be *that* cliched if 26 years of students couldn't identify it from a fragment.

And to be fair, believing in/admitting the validity of authorial intent doesn't negate the possibility of admitting, or even cultivating, multiple meanings, arising from poet, poem, or reader. I have may intents when I write a poem; I may be more or less attatched to any given one in terms of how important it is that a reader/most readers "get" it. I'm also gratified when the poem surprises me with some meaning(s), or when readers see things I didn't intend - though if the latter undercuts my own intended effects/imagery/whatever for too many readers, *and doesn't make for a better poem,* then I need to reconsider what I can do to resolve that conflict. That could mean clarifying or reworking the elements that reflect my intent; taking what the reader brings and running with it in a different direction; or grumbling, pacing, and beating the poem or myself with a stick until I give up in despair and shove it in a drawer.

Lisa said...

To clarify; That's "admitting" as in "allowing in", not as in "admitting to."

Robert said...

We've got to stop meeting like this! That's kind of what I meant ("I'd say it can't be *that* cliched if 26 years of students couldn't identify it from a fragment")--that it *would have been* a cliche if she had made that meaning more readily identifiable, that she must have intended the multiple meanings hovering.

Really what I meant is that the only test is (as you said more clearly than me) what makes for a better poem. Sometimes the meaning you intended makes for the best poem, sometimes a meaning you didn't intend makes for the best poem, and sometimes a collage of intended and unintended meanings makes for the best poem. I just found that fragment an interesting test case because you could imagine half a dozen versions of it. I'm not sure what would make one version better than another, but I think it's NOT that one version has more potential meanings than another, or that one version is clearer than another.

Lisa said...

Yes, what you said.

More is not better. Better is, well, better. And if I knew how to define "better" beyond "I know what good is," there'd be some money in it, even in poetry.