Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A letter to you



Dearest reader:

Maybe we met last night for a drink. Maybe you were too shy to talk to me at all, preferring instead to blush, or to avert your gaze. But it could be that, after one drink had turned to more-than-one drink, you asked me to comment on the poem I posted for May Day. Maybe you were curious — about why I didn't comment on my process in writing the poem, about why I didn't list sources, about whether this failure to comment represented something about the process by which poem came into being. Maybe. Maybe, you thought, it's a more conventional poem than my others?

Whatever you meant, I didn't answer. I'm sorry if you were offended. But I resolved — silently — to wait and answer the question in the public of writing, which I'm doing now, and which you're reading now, too.

Let's start by saying that, in a sense, you're right — the poem is an off-the-cuff improvisation. It's not a procedural poem. I didn't begin writing it with a set of rigid rules and source texts from which the final results were shaped, or built, or sculpted, or held together with tape and glue. But before you get ahead of yourself, lean in close, so I can whisper something else in your ear: I also didn't begin by saying "I want to write a poem that says...," or even (in this case) "a poem that means..." Nor was I trying to convey a particular emotion or feeling. I'm sorry if I mislead you then, so I'll say now that the poem isn't a communique, memo, manifesto, love letter, or declaration.

Now, I say "improvisation" — you hear "stream of consciousness." But that's not it, either. (Isn't it funny how our attempts to communicate are always marked by misdirection, by crossed signals, by breakdown?) Call the poem's process "stream of idiom," maybe, or "stream of discourse," if you want. I'm not committed to a particular label, here. But I am trying to trouble assumptions — not yours, but our culture's — about writing's roles and functions. Let me explain: we usually assume that using language implies communication, don't we? And that communication, in turn, implies that the phrase or sentence or line begins with a particular and stable author, who is trying to tell you something, like I'm doing now, or to get you to submit to his or her wildest and most moist fantasies.

Rest assured — this poem doesn't want those things. It's activities are located within, and relative to, its language, not its author. There's no hidden message that I buried there for you to diligently decode or unravel.

Like I said, the poem — the one we're talking about, not "the poem" as a category — is neither a communique nor a love letter. Nor did I begin with set rules or specified sources. So how did I write it? Gertrude Stein somewhere talks about enjoying "the feeling of words doing as they want to do." The act of writing as letting words, for want of better words, do things. That has a lot to do with it — I've learned quite a bit from Stein over the years. So I often start with sound. I like the way its patterns thump and thud and slide and roll. Lately, I like labiodental fricatives and sibilants, and the ways they mix with the liquid L. So I sound out, remembering that "to sound" is also "to measure."

Then, I borrow. I know — I didn't list sources, so you thought there were none. I'll list them now, so you can see: American-English idiom, transcriptions of the hand movements in the ASL lexicon, shamelessly bad puns and homophonic translation, William Shakespeare, and things overheard on the television. I should also say that, either despite or because of my love of sound, I mishear quite often. I miscopy, too. And I didn't begin with a plan to use these sources — that's why I didn't list them. I picked them up, objets trouvés, as I found them, and moved on to another scavenger hunt, and me without a map to retrace my steps. Even if you needed to know, even if our very lives depended, I couldn't always tell you where I trouvé-ed 'em.

Dear reader — dearest — I can imagine the look on your face, right now, as I write these things. Because facial expressions are sometimes keys to the innermost thoughts, I can guess at what you're thinking right now. Maybe you think I mean to say that I reject meaning, or poetic meaning. But I don't. What I am saying, though, is that I don't write a poem with the intent of conveying a particular meaning. Meaning, in the sort of poems that I have been writing for the past while, is more like an experience than a message; it's a collaboration between you, reader, and the poems themselves. An ethics of reading, if you want to call it that, or an unfolding process. Like origami in reverse, if you want to be cute.

It's the same with feeling. If it makes you feel any better, I can admit that I feel quite a bit when I write. Surprise, pleasure, a sort of melancholy we might call "sweet sorrow." Whole ranges of emotion, Tehachapis and Alps of feeling. Like Stein, I feel, and like the feeling of, "words doing as they want to do," and so I let them do. And I feel my tongue in my mouth — and that matters, too. But I don't mean to make you feel anything. It's not that I don't care, dear reader. I do. It's just that I'd rather you tell me what you feel when you read. That's a collaboration, too, and a process. Sunsets don't want us to feel anything, they don't mean to make us sentimental, or melancholy. They don't want us to fall in love, or to make our hero ride horseback into the west. But they do, and we do.

And that's what I do.


4 comments:

steve roberts said...

I would put myself in the category you seem to put yourself in. I "don't write a poem with the intent of conveying a particular meaning" either. That said, there are several meanings that convey themselves in my poems, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Meaning is best when it is not rhetorical but self-evident.

Nathan Austin said...

I'm not saying meaning doesn't occur -- it's just that I'm trying to rethink the idea of "conveyance," the idea that the meaning is shipped from one location to another. Or, to carry my nautical metaphor further -- I don't think meaning is, at least within my own practice, something that the poet puts, as cargo, into the ship of the poem, to be received at an exotic port by the reader.

Maybe we could think of it as a stowaway? The poet builds the ship, and the meaning gets on somewhere, en route to that exotic port.

And I'm not sure what you mean when you talk about the possibility of a meaning that is "not rhetorical but self-evident." Isn't any use of language rhetorical by definition? It would seem to me that poetry is exceedingly rhetorical, what with its heightening of languge's "material" qualities (sound, figures of speech, metaphor, etc.).

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