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Friday, November 26, 2010

Poetry and Mind Reading

I was reading a poem that I didn't quite get, but I could get some sense of the meaning and passion behind it, just out of reach, and it occurred to me that if some sort of mind reading were possible, this is what it would be like: Sometimes a message comes through loud and clear and you get it and can either agree or not, or you can at least appreciate it. And sometimes the set of experiences that you'd need for the thought to speak to you are just slightly skew of your own, and you get some vague impressions but at the end of it all you just can't say what it's about. And usually, even when the meaning is reasonably clear, it takes a little bit of intellectual work to unpack it all. I'm not claiming for a moment that this is an original thought, but when I approach it this way, even poetry I don't get provides me with a neat experience.

This is a switch from my experience as a literature major in college and grad school. So much of my schooling focused on decoding poetry, as if we'd intercepted from the front--"If they be two, they are two so/As stiffe twin compasses are two"--"Roger that: the lovers are staying together BRRRSSSCHT!!!" "The white dove sails at dawn" "BRRRSSSCHT!!! Wait--what?!" If you decoded it the same as the professor did, you had succeeded. If you decoded it differently or not at all, you failed. And that's where my discomfort with poetry probably stems from: too much experience of failure. Who likes feeling inept so much?

I've been stumbling across a lot of poetry lately. I suppose discovering Taylor Mali a few months ago reawakened my interest in the form. I don't ever find that I don't know what Mali is talking about. Maybe because he places an emphasis on accessibility, or maybe because, as a teacher, I share enough common background with him that I get what he's talking about.

I'd like to go to a poetry slam sometime, ideally with someone who was into them and knowledgeable. I don't pretend for a moment that I could write anything worthwhile myself, but I'm just enjoying the opportunity to appreciate what others can do. It's a little bit of a relief, actually, to be able to come to art as a consumer only. I think I can maybe appreciate more purely when I'm not thinking about how I would like to do it myself.

And yet . . . and yet part of me wishes I understood the medium better because I'd like to crystallize thought this way. I wrote crappy poetry as a teenager like every angsty, arty kid does. I don't mean that. I mean I wish I had some sense of how to write poetry that captures and evokes something without being self-conscious. Maybe I'd like to experience more poetry in the hopes of getting a sense of how this is done. Lord knows we don't need crappy teen poetry from nearly-forty-year-olds.

Some poetry I've been reading recently, along with how I ended up there:

  • "On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City" by Sherman Alexie. I read this because The Rejectionist posted it on her blog, and I was especially interested because Alexie wrote a YA novel I'm dying to read, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. (You saw what I did there, didn't you?) I have no experience of genocide, but I can thoroughly identify with being a minority who can pass for Anglo, and with having white people say things in front of me they might not say if they realized I wasn't Anglo. So while all of this poem speaks to me, parts of it do so as experiences I share and parts of it as experiences I'm grateful not to share. Here's some more poetry by Alexie:
  • "Love poem in the shape of a cochlear mechanism" by J. Mae Barizo (not a permalink, sorry). I found this poem while looking for more online poetry by Alexie. This poem actually prompted this post, largely because I don't get it. My uncle and aunt are deaf, so I have some passing awareness of what a Cochlear mechanism is and the pros and cons of restoring hearing this way. I feel like I can *almost* sense meaning here, but like I lack some experience that would tie it all together and make it understandable to me. This is what prompted the comparison to mind-reading without the background to make the thoughts intelligible. In the past, coming across a poem like this would make me feel inadequate, like maybe if I were smarter I would get it. This would be followed in short order by anger: This poet is obviously some pseudo-intellectual playing a masturbatory game by stringing together cryptic phrases so that a bunch of snobby elites would stand around and nod thoughtfully, with nobody daring to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Now I'm just appreciating the experience for its very alien-ness.
  • "Narrative 5" by Paul Guest. Another look inside someone else's head. I like the images here, particularly that of the soaked book and the crude drawing of a bus. I feel like a lot of it sails over my head, but that's okay. I ran across his poem when I followed a link to his excellent rant about the idiocy of the new TSA screening procedures, and his uncomfortable experience with them.
  • "Song for an Ancient City" and "To the River," by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Paige Wick, respectively. Elizabeth Bear linked to this page on Twitter, and possibly in her LiveJournal as well. She was linking to "Song for an Ancient City," but I actually found "To the River" more compelling. Later I read here that El-Mohtar wrote "Somg for an Ancient City" as a love song to Damascus and this seemed to emphasize my sense that my ability to "get" poetry depends on my ability to step at least partway into another's shoes*. I'm not going to feel embarrassed if what I took from "To the River" is something other than what Wick intended, or if I missed a world of nuance--because there's the flipside: that our experience of someone else's poetry is our own, neh? I guess the speaker is a ghost or possibly a vampire, but I keyed in on the images of stolen innocence: the ribbon, the knee-socks, the unmade bed. As an adult survivor, these images speak to me. There is a sense, to me anyway, that the speaker is now tempting new victims to the river, which is of course disturbing when I look at the poem in that light. But I focused instead on the confusion embodied in the lines "And I'm hideous and hair-thatched/because I must be trash/for him to throw me to the river/like a used cigarette." Who can't identify with being used and discarded?
Anyway, I don't think I'm fully communicating how much this idea of poetry as imperfect mind-reading changes my appreciation of poetry, but to me it's kind of game changing. It goes beyond a throwaway metaphor. It basically empowers me to enjoy poetry without regard to whether I'm decoding it in the way the author intended, where before I could only enjoy it if it spoke to me perfectly.

*Um, I totally intended to put a footnote here, but now I can't remember what it was. Damn.


David Bowles said...

What really helped me get past this hurdle myself was reading The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom and realizing that a good deal of poetry is written by people who are trying to negotiate their own relationship to a previous poetry whom they admire. Lots of poems that made no sense suddenly began to get clearer for me when I looked into the author, discovered his influences, read some of that, and thought of the new poem as a response.

Rachele Alpine said...

Hey, hey....I'm giving away the arc of DIVERGENT I won on Veronica's blog if you're still interested! The book is awesome!