POETS' DEMANDS: READERS AND CONTEXTS
IN FOUR NEW BOOKS OF POETRY
Brewer, Gaylord. Give Over, Graymalkin. Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2011.
Grant, Alex. The Circus Poems. Davidson, NC: Lorimer Press, 2010.
Jones, Richard. The Correct Spelling & Exact Meaning. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2010.
Rash, Ron. Waking. Spartanburg, SC: Hub City Press, 2011.
No doubt, there is a lot of free advice about how to arrange poems in a book. The most interesting advice I ever received about "putting together" a book of poems—attention-grabbing, if not entirely useful—came unsolicited from an editor: if you have forty-eight poems in your book, I was told, the arrangement of poems in the book constitutes the forty-ninth. The rhetorician in me has long been interested in this notion. After all, even if they do not have a specific plan, most poets arrange poems in their volumes with a particular effect in mind. This effect no doubt is intended to influence how readers read poems in the context of other poems as well as in light of the book's evolving theme. Saying so probably does not generate much excitement. Still, the position I want to forward here—that authors create not only a text, but a reader as well—continues to raise eyebrows in the poetic community.
From this particular vantage point, readers are defined by the actions they take in responding to the text (actions which constitute reading itself) in an effort to make sense of the poems or stories or essays they read. Reading specialists have become increasingly aware of the fact that in studying texts—the four books of poems discussed here, for instance—we should pay equal attention to the text and to "the actions involved in responding to that text" (Iser 1673). This view, commonly referred to as Reception Theory, works against the training of many writers, including me, which is the cause of the discomfort many continue to feel when we talk about the effect of a text's arrangement on a reader, or even when we call poems or paintings alike by the inclusive term "texts." In part writers respond as they do to theories that place meaning someplace off the page because of their continued commitment to the features of the...texts...they're writing. What's more, the ongoing influence of Romanticism, a view of the writer and writing that has surrounded poets far longer than it has writers of any other genre, privileges the writer working in isolation rather than the reader working in similar isolation.
One characteristic of the various volumes of poetry I have read in recent years, including the four I discuss here, is my sense that the author is the one who decides who the reader is. This seemingly counter-intuitive process gets done in a variety of ways, most often associated with the arrangement of poems in a book or with language choices authors make regarding regional dialect, topics I address here. Some authors like Alex Grant and Ron Rash, among those studied here, provide information that signals how it should be read. Others like Richard Jones take the more conservative and time-tested approach, trusting that conventional poetic technique will render an accurate reading by a "trained" reader. And there are other writers like Gaylord Brewer who work innovatively between these extremes. But the various understandings of what happens when we read still provoke sometimes fierce debate among writers themselves, especially among those on the one hand who resent theory, and those, on the other, who must make sense of a variety of books written quite often in dramatically different styles, like the books discussed in this essay. What makes this topic difficult to address is that it redirects our attention from author to reader, from text to context. Readers and context are not always easy to analyze. But I will try in this short essay to discuss readers and contexts in four new books of poetry which seem to me to reflect a range of possible styles.
William Heyen, an early and ongoing influence on my work as poet, critic, and teacher, expresses one side of this dilemma and, I think, speaks for many of us:
I am human, but my reading of poetry is primarily by way of what became known as the New Criticism. "The text, the text, the text," my heart and head say to me in the sepulchral tones of Douglas MacArthur addressing the West Point cadets, telling them that in his dying moments he would be thinking of "the corps...the corps...the corps." (28)
The New Criticism in its commitment to the technical elements of poems and stories rivals only my early instruction in Catholicism for directorship of how I perceive the world. Though the New Criticism offers a way of reading, it also offers a powerful indictment of those—like myself in this essay—who would offer an analysis of a text in terms of its effect on the reader; the New Criticism rails against an emphasis on the reader, against the "affective fallacy." Wimsatt and Beardsley wrote famously in "The Affective Fallacy" that "The report of some readers ... that a person or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness is neither anything that can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account" (1397). Oh, how wonderfully coherent and scientific the world would be if only it would render and objective account of itself. But in my reading of contemporary verse, I find it increasingly difficult to separate the text as an objective and absolute entity from what seems to me to be the text's instructions in the subjectivity with which it should be read. Things seem to be changing in the direction of privileging the subjective if fallible reader. I believe the recent resounding interest of writers in reading in the ways I will suggest here reflects a trickle-down theory of theory: some principles of theory have been inadvertently assimilated into the literary culture. Like the New Criticism before it, reading theories are often on the minds of writers these days, consciously or not. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that we are engaged in a dynamic twenty-first century aesthetic in which writers most often want to be understood or at least explain why it is not important to them to be understood: MacLeish’s “a poem need not mean but be.” From this vantage point, it just might be that affective fallacy will continue to be among the critical conundrums for readers of poetry in the twenty-first century.
But, we cannot read strong poets like Grant, Rash, Brewer, and Jones for the features of their texts alone without having to settle for a reductive reading, the kind of reading their poems challenge, as I will explain. And once we find ourselves reading differently, finding other ways to perceive the poem, we will no longer be satisfied to read for the surface alone. As readers have become more important, as they seem now to have become if the attention many poets pay to them these days seems to suggest, they have become complicit in the making of meaning. They naturally come to wonder about the poet—"Who does he think I am?"—understanding that a reader's relations to a poem are no longer simply given by their methods of reading but instead are made by the author. So, how does Grant in The Circus Poems construct his readers?
I hate to use the rhetorical term "manipulate" here because even some of my writer-friends, when I say I have been manipulated by the excellence of their technique, have taken offense at my remark; as a starting position in this essay, then, I contend that a writer may manipulate a reader without being dishonest or deceitful. To be more exact in this, I use the term as Wayne Booth has in The Rhetoric of Fiction, that to manipulate is to employ technique that leads a reader in a particular direction or renders a certain interpretation inevitable. When we use technique to manipulate the reader in this sense, we simultaneously indicate who we expect our reader to be and how we expect future events in the text to be understood. Grant constructs his reader carefully in The Circus Poems, much as he did in his highly regarded Fear of Moving Water (2009). Not just any pedestrian reader can pick up a Grant book and get the full experience. Foreboding as my assertion sounds, it should not scare anyone away from The Circus Poems.
I believe a reader picking up one of Grant's books must be willing to be transformed and, in this sense, manipulated. What I find very interesting about Grant's poetry collections is what seems to me to be his consciousness of his readers and how he constructs them so that they must read his poems a certain way, the way he wants, and thus be the reader the author evokes. This manipulation is not altogether unpleasant. In fact, done skillfully, it is edifying and makes reading possible. Grant must be considered a fine and skilled poet by any reader employing virtually any theory of reading, knowingly or not. But perhaps even more, he does an excellent job of putting together volumes of his poems so that they stand as meaningful wholes rather than as a bunch of poems glued to cover stock. It is difficult to speak of arrangement without also addressing the way an arranged collection of poems is intended to affect its readers. Grant's The Circus Poems is a case in point.
Grant's circus is not the Barnum & Bailey event of my youth, or probably of yours either. We are clued into that possible inversion by two things. For one, those of us familiar with Grant's work come to his poems expecting surprises that require that we open ourselves to the dangers of the world, the inhumanity that abounds. For another, if we are new to Grant's work, he provides us with signals in the text itself that prepare us for the inverted world of circuses that he deftly portrays. In The Circus Poems, these cues generally come in the form of epigraphs, which foreshadow what we will encounter later in the book and influence how poems will be read.
As an example of the use of an epigraph that foreshadows poems in Grant's book, here is the epigraph to section 1 from Marc Chagall that influences our reading not only of that section, but of the entire collection: "For me, a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound." This statement from Chagall prepares readers for a circus unlike any they might have encountered as kids, or perhaps for a circus the way they could not have envisioned or understood it as kids. This epigraph in the rhetorical sense manipulates the reader or in a reader-response context creates the reader. Without preparation, we would not understand the ringmaster, human cannonball, or tightrope walker when they speak out about their earthly dilemmas. Among my favorite poems from this group is "The Human Cannonball." By writing in third person omniscient, Grant allows us to know the Cannonball from the inside-out: "He dreams the same dream night after night—he is shooting down a narrow opening towards a pinprick of light—he hears the muffled voices, clanging metal, the soft, liquid rumble sluicing behind..." (4). As we know from our studies of fiction, third person omniscient and first person involved often provide readers with similar insights concerning the inner workings of a character's mind. In this poem, the dream world (or, is this the world of nightmares?) and the world the human cannonball inhabits when awake (or, is this too the world of nightmares?) melt into each other, not the way they do for a Keats, for instance, for whom in "The Eve of St. Agnes" that integration typifies the highest form of human fulfillment, but in a way that suggests the redundancy of harm to this one man's psyche.
We acknowledge soon in reading this volume that the circus of our lives, when we view it as Grant directs us to, has had horrifying potential all along. Only stupid luck keeps the human cannonball from exploding in our laps. By introducing the next group of poems from section 1 with an epigraph from "The Helsingfors correspondent of The Stockholm Journal," in which we are reminded of the Bolsheviks' relentless inhumanity to man, Grant enlists us to read for that particular horror, that circus of despair. "The Road to Archangel" recounts "Seven days through rutted snow turned red/by White Army brigands" and that "to be born human/is like coming up for air in an infinite ocean/and finding your head inside the only ring that floats" (9). What kind of circus is this? It is the circus inhabited by "The Contortionist," "The Strongman," and "The Tightrope Walker," who reminds us "we all walk without the net" (5). Section 1 ends fittingly, coming full circle to "Marc Chagall's Lament," Chagall for whom "Every morning is the same." This is an endless and tedious journey, life as it is lived in the world's large circus and in which we perform the same mundane act day after day. Grant's introductory epigraph leads us to believe a world such as the one we live in has parallels to the seemingly endless journey in the winter of 1919 to Archangel.
Other sections of the book are similarly introduced by epigraphs that are intended not only as introductions but as signals to the reader about how the section should be read. Section 2 is introduced by lines from The Rubaiyat, which set up poems about the clown, the bearded lady, and the fortune teller. I found some of the best poetry of the book in this section. For instance, the clown says despairingly, "Things are always collapsing. You climb the staircase of years, the steps crumbling quietly behind you" (17), sentiments especially pertinent in the context of the epigraph which notes, "The moving finger writes, and having writ, /moves on--nor all your piety nor wit/shall lure it back...".
Section 3, which brings to the fore the consciousnesses of the dwarf, the knife-thrower's assistant, and the barker, among others, is set up by a quote from Emerson: "The most dangerous thing is illusion." The source of illusion in this section is the imagination as exemplified by "The Lion Tamer," who "remembers a boy with wild eyes beating a dog with a stick" or by "The Dwarf," who "In his trailer at night...looks up at the moon and imagines his body, enormous and celestial...". Section 4 is set up by a passage from the well-known soliloquy from Hamlet, "What a piece of work is a man." We are intimately introduced to the rubber man by Grants' excellent use of third person omniscient point of view. These fine lines come from "The India-Rubber Man":
Pinched skin in the claw of his hand, drawn out like putty from a window-
pane, he bends his leg like a bamboo cane, spreads his fingers like starfish
scuttling air, twists his head to face the man behind him. (41)
Along the way we take an excursion into the myth of Prometheus, perhaps to help us see the predicament of those who—like Prometheus, the human cannonball, the rubber man, you and I—endure the same insults day after day.
These poems sometimes employ third person omniscient but also on occasion use first person involved, both of which give the author control over the inner workings of his characters without having to be a tangible presence in the poem. These various points of view are signature Grant, as in "The Fire Breathers": "For my sins, I stood outside a crematorium and sniffed the air...". By using point of view as he does, in a manner the New Critical understanding of genre would have us associate with the elements of fiction, Grant-the-author distances himself from the narrator and, by doing so, seems inaccessible to us, the events seemingly verified by someone far away who is all-knowing in this world. Thus, Grant masterfully sets up each of the four sections here. Indeed, anyone theorizing the nature of readership at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century would have to remark on the control an author like Grant takes over how his poems get read, the instructions for reading that, consistent with Reception Theory, tell us how to read his poems and inform us of who the reader must be. I have been his audience here and gratefully so. Because he works from an aesthetic less personal than Rash's or Brewer’s or Jones’s, I believe Grant does more to construct his reader than do the other authors discussed here, and uses foreshadowing and narrative distancing to do so, hallmarks of Grant's aesthetic. By using foreshadowing in this way, he creates a distance between the author and narrator; the author does not need to intrude into the poem to give us directions for reading. The directions are implicit in other choices this skilled poet has made in constructing his book. No doubt, a part of the creative achievement in The Circus Poems may be found in the way Grant's poems have been arranged. If we conceive of Grant's manipulation of his readers by directing their attention to certain thematic issues as on the "macro" level, we might argue that Ron Rash in Waking does this as well but also works on a "micro" level by using the language of cultural insiders in a way that makes that language accessible to outsiders as well.
Causes Alex Grant Supports
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