Poetry, Uncertainty, and the Uncertainty of Certainty

Peter and I have been having a short exchange about Jane Hirshfield's piece, "Poetry and Uncertainty" in the most recent APR. I thought I'd post my response to Peter here as well as over at his blog.


Maybe this highlights a difference in how the two of us think about things.

If I were to put words in your mouth, I'd say that constraints, palindromes, etc. serve a subordinate purpose to the emotion. In a sense, Oulipian procedures and word-play are decorative. They may call attention to the surface, but they don't disturb what lies in the pool beneath.

For me, procedures, etc. are important because they not only call attention to the surface but also highlight the way in which that surface constructs the pool beneath. A poem (or a story or a novel) isn't something that points to the world. It is, in and of itself, an object in the world. One made of language, but nonetheless an object, and one whose relationship to that world is always problematic and always under negotiation. (If this seems totally whack, see, for example, Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar.")

To pull this back down to earth a little bit, I just finished reading Tyler's The Accidental Tourist. It's well-written, the three main characters (Macon, Sarah, and Muriel) are generally drawn with significant depth. It's a solid, mainstream novel. And I'd say I was moved by it (the subject of divorce is still a bit of a touchy thing for me). However, I don't trust a word of it.

The reason I don't trust it is because of its rhetoric of transparency. There's a narrator, but he or she is completely in the background. Things are presented as if this is simply the way things are. There is no sense in the novel that yields any self-knowledge about itself as a constructed thing.

So, if I'm moved by the novel, is it because Tyler has captured the humanity of her characters and their lives, or is it because this is what a bestseller, a consumer item of a particular kind, is designed to do and to yield?

At the same time I was reading Tyler, I was just starting to read Barthelme's Sixty Stories. Barthelme's stories wear their constructedness on their sleeve and yet, because of that, I'm more willing to trust them. They know that they are things in a world of things and don't pretend they are somehow giving me THE world. They're giving me an experience of a particular kind of consciousness and what I do with that is my responsibility.


Blogger Pamela said...

There is no sense in the novel that yields any self-knowledge about itself as a constructed thing.

I'm reading, of all things, Frankenstein, and this comment resonates for me. I was thinking about how it could be read as metafiction, but I like where your analysis of the "constructed thing" takes my experience of the book.

Thanks for the post.

P.S. I might have to disagree with you about TAT/Tyler--I'm going to go back to the book and see if there's not a sense of the "made thing," especially in the structure--and in that opening scene of Sarah and Macon driving.

3/1/06 03:06  
Blogger The Sublibrarian said...

I may have missed some things in TAT. I was certainly conscious of the way in which Tyler interwove retrospective events into the narrative, but I was also reading about narrative structure at the time and attributed my sense of things to that rather than the work.

Frankenstein is one of those things I've had on my "read before you die" list for years but still haven't gotten 'round to. A local theatre did a dramatization of it a few years back. At first it was kind of disorienting because of all the Boris Karloff images I had in my head.

3/1/06 11:02  
Blogger Peter said...

Ron: did you see this on Jonathon Mayhew's blog:

"I guess what I keep coming back to is a poetry that doesn't have any "hook" in the reader. That actively discourages any kind of engagement outside the purely poetic--however that is defined. A poetry that's almost impossible to talk about, because it doesn't offer a point of entry, a selling point. Imagine a book with no blurbs, almost no "premise." No crutches."

I think it captures a bit of what you are meaning? Or not?

3/1/06 15:49  

Post a Comment

<< Home