Thursday, August 16, 2012

Part of The Bounty reviewed at Galatea Resurrects!

Somehow I missed this when it happened: John Bloomberg-Rissman engages with "You're my sister" from The Bounty in Galatea Resurrects. Thanks, John, for this attentive, sensitized and thoughtful response.

The desire to feel certain about the about of a poem is one that many enthusiastic readers of poetry think we're not supposed to have or feel. There are many equally enthusiastic readers of poetry who have no problem with this desire -- but the two batches of readers usually, I suspect, prefer different batches of poems. If John's question, "[H]ow can a poem be said to hide anything, when it's nothing but itself and there's nothing but itself to read?" is read as rhetorical (i.e., the answer is "it can't" or "suck it up") this can cause us to deal with a poem on its terms rather than on the terms of our expectations, and may make it more likely that we'll be moved, changed, uprooted, shaped by it and by our efforts to work with it. It may also lead us to make guesses anyway, and then comb the poem for support for those guesses, and then feel simultaneously frustrated because we aren't sure and because we're not "supposed to" want to be sure.

Treating John's question as real rather than rhetorical leads me to this response: in some poems, much prose, and the various kinds of functional language we use in everyday speech and communication, the about is separable from the words that make it up. A reader can paraphrase it, can summarize it. In other work, including a lot of mine, entwines the about with the language -- its stresses, its sounds, its evocations -- calling attention to the way they create each other. John also writes of a sequence in my poem, "I can't parse this ... but I can feel it," and this is, I think, often what we're left with when we read a poem whose about is not easily disentangled from the words that create it. The about may be biographical. It may be procedural, based in method. A poem may even be about what John describes as the "surface" it creates. Enthusiastic readers of poetry may be open to reading a poem in all of these ways, and to getting pleasure or provocation from some of them if all are not available.

But I don't believe there's any shame in wanting to know the about. John writes, "I have an unfortunate tendency to attempt to find meaning in much of what I see." I disagree that that tendency is unfortunate! It's one of many ways to read and build (or tear down, maybe) your thinking with what you read. What would be unfortunate is if a reader were unable to engage with a poem in any way because they couldn't engage that way. If they were to say, "This isn't giving me what I want, so it can't possibly have anything to give me," and give up.

That doesn't seem at all to be what John has done here. He's not comfortable on this poem's quaking ground, and in this response, at least, he resists building a platform to stand on (to keep on with the bog analogy) because he's concerned that all the pieces of the platform might be coming from him, not from the poem. That's brave. I do want to ask a question in return: what would happen, John, if they did come mostly from you? If you said, "Here's the scene I see in this poem, here's the impression I take away?"

He wrote, "I actually want to apologize to Schapira if I'm doing her poem too much violence." I don't accept that apology because I don't think that's possible. You can be wrong about what made someone write a poem, you can be mistaken about its references, you can be off-base about its ethics or dull to its atmosphere, you can fail to pick up its rhythms or miss some of its layers, but I don't think you can hurt the poem by doing that. When we read, we build a version of what we've read into our mind. We change it, and that's true (maybe more true?) even of the most paraphasable, summarizable writing that exists. But the writing itself is still there. I'm not saying "every interpretation is correct", because I don't think that's true. I'm saying that it will often happen, probably, if you (general "you") love to read, that you'll want something from a piece of writing that it doesn't give you. That in itself doesn't make the writing bad. But it doesn't make you bad either. What you do next can change your experience: you can see it as a reason to shut down -- and a person can't read everything, I get that -- or you can see it as a possibility, an opening.

John, I value so much your (specific "your") generous and speculative approach to this poem of mine. If you want actual, biographical answers to some of your other questions, you could email me at my gmail address, publiclycomplex -- but what you've written here suggests that you value the questions as well, so it's up to you. One thing I can tell you that you're right about: the love is unbreakably deep.

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