Saturday, October 27, 2007
Enigmas of Lyric Pedagogy
My first proto-adult contact with lyric poetry was The Pocket Book of Modern Verse, edited by Oscar Williams and Hyman J. Sobiloff. The anthology was first published in 1954 and revised in 1972, and I started reading it in around 1975 or 1976 (when I was about 12). It’s a fairly capacious book; it begins with Edward Lear and Whitman and ends with James Tate, and is able to bring itself to include both Vachel Lindsay and Bill Knott. I returned frequently to the poems at the end of the book: for example, W.S. Merwin’s “Some Last Questions” (“What is the head / A. Ash // What are the eyes / A. The wells have fallen in and have inhabitants” ) and Knott’s “Goodbye,” which reads in its entirety: “If you are still alive when you read this, / close your eyes. I am / under their lids, growing black” (570). I kept looking at them because I was hypnotized and perplexed by their seeming authority. All of the poems had a perplexing authority, in fact, but theirs was the most perplexing because I was so little able to explain to myself to what they were appealing. This experience of staring at Merwin’s and Knott’s poems contrasts with Robert Pinsky’s experience as a seventeen-year-old reading Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”:
I was so struck by [the poem] that I went home and typed it up, and pinned it on the wall in the room where I had breakfast, so I could stare at it and think, “How did he do that?”
Its difficulty. The fact that I knew I didn't penetrate it…thrilled me. (Pinsky, “What Shall We Teach the Young,” published in the electronic library of the organization Grantmakers in the Arts, Spring, 2002: www.giarts.org)
Pinsky captures the mystique of lyric when he comments that one line within “Sailing to Byzantium”—“It knows not what it is”—“summed up so much, including [his] response to the poem itself.” Pinsky is not talking about “difficulty” merely in its sense of artifice or about syntactical complexity; he is talking about enigma, and means fully the erotics of “penetration.” The passage goes on:
Difficulty is very pleasurable. I can remember as a kid how I loved reading books that I knew were too old for me. Sometimes it was literally sex, but more often, there's just something sexy about reading big words, or mysterious information about a country, you know Scotland or somewhere, and place names, and objects that I had no notion what they were.
Freud references all this when he writes in his Da Vinci essay that the love of “research” is first of all the fascination of learning about sex. (Woody Allen as a child took advantage of these connections—that is, he inverted and parodied them—by being “always able to use sophisticated and esoteric terms without necessarily knowing what they meant”—i.e., making jokes about Freud to freak out the teachers [Eric Lax, Woody Allen: A Biography, revised edition (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000), 62.]) To perpetuate itself indefinitely, a “love” of learning would need to keep enigma going after the student does have the cultural information and cognitive ability to understand the denotations and connotations of sentences. Foreclosing the very possibility of the thrill’s ending, to be unwilling ever to let it go, means taking up residence in a self-abnegating jouissance--permanent studenthood—which the literary academy is all too happy to support.
Of course, it may be unrealistic to imagine untroubled enlightenment. “Difficulty” in the sense of poetic artifice wasn’t able to explain Knott’s three-liner, yet my fascination responded to this very inability. In the case of such a poem, I knew that I didn’t need to learn how to do it; I needed to learn why to do it. An explanation of the effect of Knott’s poem would be about his understanding of the institutional history within which his avant-garde gesture was legible. Yet the poem fascinates all the same, and so lyric power—finally, any aesthetic power—cancels and redoubles itself. Since even presenting this problem as prosaically as possible can, in the institutional setting, seem “amazing,” it may be more effective to sidestep the problem of lyric enigma by dissolving the distinctions, not only beween lyric and literature, but between aesthetic experience and any experience whatever. To that end, talking about the potential interpretive inexhaustibility (not in principle but in practice) of ordinary sentences probably helps the most.
Image: book page of John Cage, Anarchy