few years ago, I was asked to contribute an essay to a book
called Why Literature Matters. At the time, the title struck
me as a dangerous seduction, because it seemed to claim that
literature (however defined) should line up with all the other
commodities and inherited habits of our post-modern lives
and defend its usefulness. To be frank, I was not sure that
the study of literature should try to defend itself this way
, because it would always lose. After all, its utility is
not obvious. Poems are unlikely goods in any number of ways.
They cannot be eaten or slept in. They do not help you in
the sheer mechanics of daily life and they rarely, if ever,
generate wealth. There are no poetry start-up companies, no
great improvements in poetic technology, and no great profits
to be earned in poetry futures. Because literature has no
direct material use, its defense usually has to draw on its
invaluable and intangible effects: how it makes better citizens
of either the state or the world; how it humanizes; how it
resists the regimes of oppression, etc.
need to defend the study of literature comes from the sad
fact that resources are (relatively) scarce and all diversions
of those resources need to be defended. But is utility the
only possible justification for human activity? What other
justifications are there? Imagine arguing that literature
matters because it gives pleasure. Now, pleasure is a touchy
subject in our society, in spite of--or due to--the fact that
so much of the world we live in beckons with the promise of
sensual and emotional gratification. But we tend to justify
our pursuit of such gratification in terms of desert. We can
have the "x" we want so badly because we deserve
it, not because desire in itself provides sufficient warrant.
In an odd way, the ambient atmosphere in which we spend a
good portion of our lives incites our desire and then demands
that we defend the desire we have been incited to feel. If
we could overcome our odd and historically very specific ambivalence
towards pleasure we might just say that literature matters
because it is, in however attenuated a way, pleasurable. But
for equally odd and historically determined ways, we probably
cannot do that and still go on to win either the respect or
resources that we want to claim for the study of literature.
in this essay, I do not want to defend the study of literature
or poetry. Rather, I want to look at some of the ways that
a couple of contemporary, and perhaps difficult, poems are
pleasurable. I will take as my examples two very recent works
readily available on the web, selections from Lisa Jarnot's
Sea Lyrics and a sonnet, "830 Fireplace Road," by
John Yau that was only posted at the tail-end of January.
I will particularly look at the way the poems create and master
their abstractions and obscurities through rhythmic and aural
repetition and speculate on the kinds of gratification these
poems might propose.
Fireplace Road" counts as a sonnet because it has fourteen
I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing."
When aware of what I am in my painting, I'm not aware
When I am my painting, I'm not aware of what I am
When what, what when, what of, when in, I'm not painting my
When painting, I am in what I'm doing, not doing what I am
When doing what I am, I'm not in my painting
When I am of my painting, I'm not aware of when, of what
Of what I'm doing, I am not aware, I'm painting
Of what, when, my, I, painting, in painting
of, of what, in when, in what, painting
Not aware, not in, not of, not doing, I'm in my I
In my am, not am in my, not of when I am, of what
Painting "what" when I am, of when I am, doing,
When painting, I'm not doing. I am in my doing. I am painting
is an unconventional sonnet, of course, because it has no
rhymes and does not adhere to any of the traditional metres
associated with the sonnet. But that does not matter, for
it appears to fall into a long tradition of experimentation
with the sonnet form, of attempts to revise the sonnet while
reducing it to its most practiceable essence. We could thus
begin to talk about the intellectual pleasure of recognizing
what kind of thing this poem is and playing our expectations
of that kind of thingˇthe sonnetˇwith the actual poem in front
more striking than the number of lines is the sheer repetitiveness
of "830 Fireplace Road." The title refers to the
address of Jackson
Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist painter of the late
1940's and early 1950's, whose retrospective has been drawing
great crowds to the Museum of Modern Art all winter. The first
line is a quotation of Pollock. Yau, a man who makes his living
writing art criticism, has taken the thirteen words of this
quotation and reworked them in different variations with a
minimum of punctuation to lead the eye or the breath. One
could argue that with the repetition of the words and with
the broken syntax and fractured grammar of this sonnet, Yau
is trying to replicate in words Pollock's canvasses with their
heroic swirls, drips and blots. But his poem, unlike an abstract
painting, does not escape linguistic meaning. In fact, what
is remarkableand fun about this poem is how many different
nuances he can extract from these rather simple words, how
many different shades and statements he can uncover.
all these shades and statements point in the same direction:
"I'm not painting my I." In this latter-day dramatic
monologue, Yau's Pollock (never mentioned by name) makes ecstatic
claims for his painting. I mean "ecstatic" here
in its deep etymological sense, as a "standing-out"
from the self. It seems quite clear that Yau's Pollock is
celebrating the active, non-cognitive, unpremeditated aspects
of his art. He is not painting his own self, not representing
something that already exists, but creating something new
in which that self seems to vanish completely: "When
painting, I'm not doing. I am in my doing. I am painting."
The painter disappears into the process of painting. This
leads to an even stronger conclusion, because Yau's Pollock
is not just his own paintings, but rather, painting itself,
that is to say, allpainting. In this way, Yau has recovered,
quite nicely, the bizarre atmosphere of inspired heroism that
surrounded Pollock (and that Pollock did much to cultivate).
the same time, however, it is hard not to suspect that the
poem itself buys into the worship of the artist and the arts
that it reveals so clearly. If there is pleasure to be hadŢ
in the way that the poem's sense seems to emerge out of the
repetition of its fragments, there is also an important pleasure
in self-regard here. "830 Fireplace Road" celebrates
visual art and, by implication, poetry as well. What is more,
it compliments the reader on his or her education and cultivation,
not only in terms of poetry but of the arts. After all, the
sonnet works on the assumption that you are acquainted with
the history of the sonnet, and that you know who Pollock was,
what his address might have been, what his paintings look
like and what he said.
put all this in another way, the poem draws on at least two
different kinds of pleasure. There is a large degree of play
in the sonnet, a play with language and meaning that is fun
like a puzzle, but also gratifying in that it opens up unexpectedly.
In a related way but on a different plane, there is the established,
but acquired pleasure to be taken in the notion and the products
of the avant-garde. The avant-garde, of course, celebrates
art (and its destruction) through insistent innovation and
experimentation. Its works are meant to be heroic --even in
their anti-heroism, avant-garde productions touch on the apocalyptic
destruction or fulfillment of what has gone beforeˇand difficult.
Most importantly, they stress their novelty, their purchase
on the putative future. This can be a utopian aspiration or
it can be pure commodification. As Hans-Magnus Enzensberger
has pointed out in a rather cynical manner, the avant-garde
sells the future before it has even arrived. And those who
buy it, are acting as cultural investors, showing their cultivation
and acumen by getting in on the ground floor. There is thus
an interesting tension here between the local moments of play,
defeated expectation and surprise, and a larger movement that
restores expectation, that restates values (of "art,"
the avant-garde, etc) that have already been well established.
want to look at another version of this tension and expand
on the pleasures of surprise, by looking briefly at Lisa Jarnot.
The Sea Lyrics look like "prose," because they do
not have line breaks. But they are not conventionally prosaic.
They have neither the structure of an argument nor the logic
of a story. They also resist being excerpted, because their
effect is cumulative:
in Yau's poem, the obvious principle of organization here
is the insistent repetition of the verb "to be,"
especially in the first person: "I amÍI amÍI amÍ."
What saves this from being oppressively narcissistic is the
equally obvious point that these pieces are not biographical
in any conventional way ("I am underwater buying jamÍ").
The identities of this "I" range from the whimsical
("I am all the hot dogs and the roof of city hallÍ")
to the almost incomprehensible ("I am of the new year
sober nowÍ"). What is more, this poem can in no way be
construed as a report on the whereabouts of its supposed speaker.
Unlike the artist in "830 Fireplace Road," Jarnot's
"I" is here, there and everywhere and all at once.
of the wit of this series lies in the way it plays the verb
"to be" ( I am) off the present continuous (I am
writing, I am dancing, etc). It shows quite clearly how the
same words can have quite different uses, at the same time
that it raises the question of the relation between identity
(I am) and action (I am doing). To what extent, then, is the
poem actually about the bits of language it puts into action?
Take this odd moment, whose surrealism does not lie in the
image as such, as in its odd, syntactically almost correct
but yet unimaginable string of words: "I am barbecuing
eucalyptus pigs of hills and brightly colored housetopsÍ."
You can barbecue pork and you can conceive (perhaps) of the
unappetizing prospect of a eucalyptus pig. But what is a pig
of a hill? How can a hill be a pig (on the model of the Irishism,
"He's a pig of a man")? And how can you barbecue
a hill, let alone a housetop? To read this literally, or to
try to recover the action or the things it is somehow "really"
about would be a mistake. Like many an experimental poem over
the past two decades, the piece has declared war on the idea
that language has to refer to the brute stuff of the world
all the time. At this moment, as at othersˇwhen did Elvis
Costello become a place name?--Jarnot's words do not look
at the "outside" of language, but at other words
and the ways they can (and cannot) go together.
is no "true self," however ecstatic, that you could
construct from Jarnot's peculiar amalgamation of linguistic
transpositions (one kind of name for another; one kind of
adjective for another, etc). In a similar way, we might do
well to assume that the Carol Burnett the man in the laundromat
wants to be is a media fantasy, the product of many years
of watching situation comedies. As with the drag queen who
is not yet ready for the big time (is Heather her stage name?),
identity in this poem does not reside in the heart or in the
self. Like the cool sneakers of the third section, the self
consists of a neat set of fashion accessories. In another
context, Jarnot has articulated precisely this fluid sense
I learned from those early heroes was what I had intuited
from childhood, that one's identity existed as one's invention,
and that as
a creative person, one's identification and explanation of
the self might
always be in flux, like the whole of the universe is in flux,
existing as a
place of multiple possibilities, dependent only upon one's
the messages arriving from the outside.
the self that Jarnot discusses here, Sea Lyrics plays with
the words that people use to make up identities. It shows
how identities are fabricated at the same time that it renders
that process of linguistic self-creation rather comic, in
that it is susceptible to grammatical fun, if not absurdity.
would seem that the sweet scandal of Jarnot'sSea Lyrics is
that they promise lyrics, that is, the expression of the single
(often suffering) self that two centuries of Romantic and
post-Romantic poetry have led us to expect. And then they
do not deliver on that promise. The defeat of the audience's
expectation has been the common aspiration of much experimental
or avant-garde writing since the mid-19th century and Jarnot
definitely fits into this tradition. There is thus more than
a touch of progressive rebelliousness here, of an attempt
to overcome the encrusted prejudices of a complacent, middle-class
common sense. We thought our language expressed our true identities
and she is showing us that our identities are not "true"
in the way we thought.
the same token, it could be argued that when Jarnot makes
much of the fluidity of identity, she is not rebelling against
our entrenched bourgeois culture, but rather represents it
at its worst. It is not only the intellectual and artistic
avant-garde that has been telling us that identity is constructed
from accessories and external messages. In their ads, Bennetton
and the Gap have been showing us the same thing for years.
In an odd way, then, the post-modern critique of identity
dovetails quite comfortably with the shopping mall.
this account, it would seem that the pleasures that Yau and
Jarnot present have similar structures. They play with the
fluidity of identity (ecstatic in one case, post-modern in
the other) and seem to open up horizons of truly new experience.
At the same time, they rest on expectations and social categories
that are very well established, entrenched and accepted. Is
there not a danger in these pleasures, then, in that they
sell us a bill of goods and not the goods themselves?
would like to propose another way of looking at all this.
My argument above contains a dim echo of a distinction made
by Roland Barthes, whose wonderfully flawed book, The Pleasure
of the Text, still remains the best account I know of on this
subject. Barthes distinguishes between the "text of pleasure,"
which ultimately reaffirms the world as it is already constituted,
and the "orgasmic text" which shatters our fixities
and delivers us to something new. While I have great sympathies
for Barthes's desire to get beyond the limitations of the
present, I suspect that the true orgasmic text would be quite
literal nonsense, incomprehensible to those of us lodged within
the present's horizons. This text would not the source of
fascinationˇthat is, of pleasure or discomfort (pleasure's
dialectical opposite)--but of indifference.
can recast Barthes's terms, and though we will lose some of
the apocalyptic pathos of his "orgasmic text," we
might gain a better handle on the distinctions here. About
twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I became very
interested in a relatively little-known figure in literary
theory, a Russian by the name of Yuri Lotman. Lotman started
off in literature, but as life became more difficult under
Stalin, switched to cybernetics. After Stalin died, Lotman
returned to literary theory, but with a bent towards information
theory. In the roughest of terms, he argued that the literary
text is always threatened by two opposite temptations: boredom
where no information is transmitted because it was all already
known) and noise (where no information wis transmitted because
there was simply too much to be assimilated). The test of
a text's value, according to Lotman, is its ability to embody
the greatest amount of information without dissolving into
cognitive bias of Lotman's account should be plain and there
is a danger here of reducing all the non-cognitive aspects
of the literary textˇits sounds and rhythmsˇto some kind of
information. So I want to make a suggestion, which draws on
the experience of reading "830 Fireplace Road" and
Sea Lyrics. In the end, gh I think the case can be made more
clearly with Jarnot's poem because it is not so neatly anchored
in more or less common historical references and therefore
seems, at first blush, more confusing. Sea Lyrics breaks any
number of rules of grammar, syntax and word choice. As in
the case of the barbecued eucalyptus pigs of hills, the language
often threatens to fly apart, to become dispersed into sheer
nonsense. That it does not is a tribute in part to its skills
of repetition of sound, rhythm and rhetorical structure ("I
amÍ.I amÍ").These repetitions allow us to see the patterns
of transposition and thus permit us to see the pattern and
the poem as meaningful. The pleasure in these poems, then,
might not just come from the mastery of a difficult game,
or from the compliment that they pay to our culture and erudition,
but also from the sensation of surprise. And surprise is nothing
to be scoffed at. It is the intimation of the truly new that
lies just this side of noise.