Last time, I wrote sympathetically about the role that the reader plays in the discovery of meaning in poetry, indeed, in all literature.
However, preparing for that article I read the introduction to From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (2005), by Jennifer Ashton, which approvingly describes a much more extreme postmodernism which seeks entirely to remove the writer’s authorship from the process, thereby turning the poem from an expressive form into exposition on abstract poetics and language theory.
In doing so, this approach not only renders the poem a mere construct, and too often merely a commentary on its own construction; it also eliminates the act of communication which gives literature its point and purpose.
Of course, according to poststructuralist literary theory, words like “point” and “purpose” give away my lack of sophistication, my lamentable retreat, in an era of erudition about the construct “roses,” into the archaic realm of real roses.
The old poetry teachers — in both senses — among us (and they are some of the most faithful readers of this blog) remember the prescription in Wordsworth’s Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
Time and taste wait for no one, but a bit of analysis in Ashton’s book made me feel like the left behind poetry readers whom Wordsworth described in the Preface, who “will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.”
Armed with several decades of critical scholarship mandating signifiers without arrows (pointing is so impolite!), poets influenced by postmodernist ideas of the oppressive “closed” text practice a sterile, academic, and self-referential deconstruction of the poetic form — and as a result create verse that may be about poetry, its poetics and forms, but that is not in any usual sense really poetry, which is always an act not of the liberation of the reader but of the communication between the writer and the reader.
The main problem, it seems to me, is that this new sort of poetry has become merely an opportunity to illustrate theory. The critical process has become a blueprint, and the poem has been reduced to a schoolroom exercise.
As Wordsworth’s impulse to explain and justify his own poetry attests, this is certainly not the first time that some old fogey like me has despaired the death of poetry. From the presumption that the English language itself was unsuited for poetic expression, through the then-radical poetry of such literary heavyweights as Donne, Wordsworth, Whitman, Eliot, Ginsberg — writers with new sensibilities and expressive styles have been attacked for their innovation.
(Nor am I insensitive to the fact that only a few days ago I criticized a literary elitist for over-lamenting the death of the Western canon. In my defense, I will point out that in the present article I am not suggesting that the poetry I like is the only kind of poetry worth reading. Rather, I am attempting to defend poetry that communicates from the assault of theory that dictates. If you like deconstructive verse, fine. I, too, can get certain cognitive satisfactions from the better of these compositions. But back to the topic at hand.)
Despite their very great differences, the poets I listed above were all on some level attempting to convey ideas, represent states of mind, and evoke emotional response. Their means were very different; their goals were very similar. Postmodernist “theory poems” not only don’t convey, represent, or evoke — they reject the very attempt to communicate as another form of DWEM dominance, to be discarded as part of the glorious liberation of thought from the evils of meaningfulness.
Some of the resulting composition is extremely clever, conceptually sophisticated, even amusing. But it’s much more exposition than expression. It’s technique about technique.
Here’s an example, from a poem praised by Ashton for its adherence to all the principles of postmodernist language theory –most of all, for its determined refusal to mean anything. The poem is “Writing Is an Aid to Memory” by Lyn Hejinian. Here’s a relevant excerpt:
Here’s some of what Ashton says about it. It’s a longish passage, but to get a sense of how much theory drives composition these days, we need more than a snippet quotation.
[One example is] Lyn Hejinian’s Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1978), whose most visible formal feature is the ragged positioning of its lines in relation to the left margin. This raggedness is not random, however; it works according to strict principle, for each line is placed where the first letter of its first word would occur in an alphabet typed across the page in order from ‘a’ to ‘z’.
We can easily see what might count as “literalist” about this text, in the sense that here and through-out the poem its most literal constituents (the letters forming the words, rather than the meaning of the words) are its organizing principle. And the arrangement of those letters confronts us as well with the most literal mechanical conditions of their production (the typewriter keys striking, the carriage advancing). … The amputated suffixes and roots of words (e.g., “ness,”posites,” “victed”) that are the linguistic hallmark of Writing Is an Aid to Memory invite the reader to entertain multiple possibilities: is it “evicted” or “convicted”? “Apposites,” “opposites,” or an alteration of “posits”? And what about the (necessarily “prospective”) “extension” of options for “ness,” which are as many as the adjectives we can bring to mind?
Ashton writes approvingly of how Hejinian has reduced the poem to its barest form, which in the theory is an act of liberation. (Even the poem’s title has been liberated from the defining constriction of quotation marks.) Structure is no longer suited to meaning, of which there is of course none, but is reduced to an alphabetical spacing device, which Ashton praises for stripping the composition down to its most elemental level, that of “the typewriter keys striking.” Even greater approval greets the “amputated” words, which have been freed of concreteness and can mean anything, which is the same as meaning nothing, which is a good thing, according to the “open text” theory:
… Hejinian imagines her readers as more than participants in the composition of the text; she imagines them as agents of its composition. Thus, the “open text,” she says, foregrounds not just “the process of the original composition” but also that of “subsequent compositions by readers,” becoming, in other words, not one composition but many. Where the “closed text” is imagined to have a meaning that exists independent of the interpretations of its readers and therefore remains unaffected by them, the open text is reconstituted every time it is read. And because it is reconstituted every time it is read, there is no prior meaning to be discovered through interpretation. Rather, insofar as every encounter between the reader and the poem becomes a new composition, every new reader becomes a writer of the poem, so that the relation of the reader to the “open text” is no longer to understand what it means, but to become, again quite literally, who its author is.
The death of the author, indeed! Sorry, but for me, engineering the murder of meaning and turning the communicative act of literary composition into a sterile display of denuded poetics is neither a source of satisfaction nor a cause for celebration. Particularly annoying is the superficial assumption that having signifieds to go with your signifiers means that the reader is nothing more than a shackled observer of someone else’s process. Do these people really believe that modernist or, for that matter, traditional poetry is a monologue, a one-way transmission of dead leaves, driven across a withered universe of passive readers?
The notion that modernist poetry is not only “closed” but also “oppressive” is another of the simply silly ideas that theory divorced from reality can produce. American poet Archibald Macleish was one of these “modernist” writers, but who can claim with any seriousness that these lines, from “Ars Poetica,” are a “closed” text, with no evocative or suggestive power beyond a meaning fixed for all time by the author’s intentions?
A poem should be equal to
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea —
A poem should not mean
The only intentionality in these lines is to suggest how suggestive poetry is when it uses well-chosen imagery to elicit response. Maybe the couplets of Alexander Pope, and some of Dryden, are truly “closed” poems, but that’s why no one reads them anymore.
Good poetry is evocative; at its best, incantatory. The reader is an engaged and active part of a time-delayed conversation. A metaphor or simile may be a closed loop in one sense, but if it’s a good one the words it associates resonate in the active reader’s mind. I don’t know anyone who likes poetry who reads it passively, who absorbs it as dead information. That’s why it’s not prose in the first place. It speaks. It provokes. To try to kill it off by subjecting it to an arbitrary theoretical constriction, to murder by meaninglessness, is indeed a crime.
Carl Sandburg had no interest in overly-intellectualized poetry. Long before the current dominion of postmodernist theory, he dismissed “modern” poetry as “an exercise in ear-wiggling.” And the theory crowd has little use for him. But if one wants an example of how “open” a poem can be to participatory imagination, to the collaborative construction of meaning, it would be hard to find a better example than this selection of ten of the famous definitions of poetry Sandburg included in Good Morning, America (1928):
And that, dear and gentle readers, is all there is to say about that.