Tuesday, October 31, 2006


It's noon and I'm in a caffeinated tributary of the stupor that's colored most of my last four years, but I've been thinking about reality, and wanted you to know. Part of the awesomeness of this first semester in the Ph.D. program has been reading criticism that surrounds both the poetics from a large span of Western history and the theoretical underpinnings of the art that helps to undermine old notions of identity. I've been trying to combine both of them to figure out my approach to poetry (that is close to my view of being) as it stands, and to see if I want to tweak it in any of the infinity of directions offered by Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetics. I've already been working out of a framework constructed by both, in the last couple of years, but haven't really known what I was doing until now.

Backing up, though, I've had two opposing epiphanies about the criticism that I've been reading, especially the writing of Charles Altieri on the Modernist poets. He's talking about how they use fragmentation and other techniques to show that the work of art we're seeing is a simulation, and not a transparent representation of an empirical reality. This, he goes on to say, helps us to interact with the writing in revolutionary new ways that basically help train our minds to revolutionary ways of thinking. When Williams tells us that the sea twists on a long stem, like a flower, he doesn't want us to see a metaphor of an emotional state, or an image of the sea, but to reflect on our act of seeing. Ditto for Eliot saying that roses "have the look of flowers that are looked at." Ditto basically all of postmodern aesthetics. Liberation from all of the old ways of reading and envisioning will help us to move on to new, post-patriarchal value systems that don't thrive on oppression. They don't build on the idea that we need one system of representation to mediate our reality, the way Christ mediates between Christians and Yahweh. They point toward the naked here-and-now like Zen does.

I'm reducing a lot of different movements into one ramble, but it seems like a lot of them come back to the idea that we can use fragmentation of language, and old ideas of it, as a kind of shattered mask, through whose cracks we can see, if not objectively, at least with a greater consciousness of the artifices and stories that create our realities. It's one epiphany to realize, "Oh, yeah, that's what all of this obscure poetry is trying to do," and another to realize, "If that poetry isn't liberating me into a new perspective, maybe it isn't doing what the authors intended, innovative as they are."

The problem being that, when Williams shows us the red wheelbarrow, starting with "So much depends/upon," we, or I, see these gestures as dramatic versions of a basically conventional voice. That's how they work for me, emotionally. If I look at Stein's portrait of Picasso as a speaker so undone by the chaos in the world around her and the dawn of machinery that she can only see this artist in a stuttering, broken incantation of how he distantly appears to a distant public, then it becomes powerful. If I see it as an explosion of post-referential language whose contemplation will catapult me into new ways of thinking, then it doesn't quite fly.

Anyway, I was immersed in all of this, last night, in a coffee shop in Columbia, MO, and suddenly the conversation of everyone around me turned from background static to something with its own music, a dense texture of interlocking speeches that mixed the personalities of the tan housewives at one table, the 9/11 conspiracy theorists sitting next to me, the blond undergrad girls in front of me, the dishwasher who talks to them and all of the other girls who come in, who like him because he's friendly, and represents himself as the nice guy that he is. And that was my third epiphany.


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