Sunday, February 11, 2007

Two Versions of Intertextuality

Welcome, welcome, please find a pew and be seated! Reverend Archambeau's sermon today is his much-anticipated exordium concerning intertextuality in different kinds of poems, featuring not one exemplum but two exempla! Yes, I know it's exciting. If you're lucky he may even end with his acclaimed peroration concerning the pleasures of allusion! Oh, look, here he comes now, the great man himself! Oh dear! No! He seems to have knocked that flower-filled vase to the floor with his flowing robes! And now he's tripped on the hem! How unsettling. Maintain your composure, please -- this is the Non-Denominational Church of Ecumenical Poetics, after all...

  • The reverend commences, after an undue shuffing of notes and squinting into the light from the stained-glass window:

    Brethren and, uh, Sistren...

    Stephen Collis and Reginald Gibbons seem like two of the most thoroughly decent, laid-back, generous, non-deranged poets I've ever met. I say "seem like" since I don't really know either of them well: I first met Reg when he came up to a John Peck reading I hosted, and he came over to the house to hang out with Peck afterward. Later, when Reg was one of the readers at the Lake Forest Literary Festival, he proved to be a model of calmness, coolness, and collectness while I ran around like some kind of caffeine-crazed oranguatan trying to make sure all the AV equipment and catering supplies got to the right places at the right times. I think those are the only times we've met face-to-face. And Collis I've known even less: we first met in the Louisville airport after one of those 20th C. Lit conferences: it must have been '97, because we exchanged our first chapbooks, his The Birth of Blue for my Citation Suite. After a few days of seeing (and embodying) the excesses of academic posturing I found Collis remarkably down-to-earth: all enthusiasm for poetry, no axes to grind. (Of course, both Steve and Reg could be cannibals, ax-murderers, or even Bush-supporters for all I know, but all signs, including Collis' incorrigible Canadian-ness, indicate otherwise).

    Anyway, Steve and Reg have both been cool about sending me their new work as it appears (more proof of generosity), and today I found myself thinking about the two poets in comparison to one another. The occasion, really, is the appearance of two things: Steve's new chapbook, just out from Toronto's always-interesting Bookthug Press; and a new poem by Reg, "An Aching Young Man" in the latest issue of A Public Space. What interests me about placing the two poets side by side is this: they're both deeply interested in intertextual references, but in completely different ways.

    The best jumping-off point for understanding the difference is probably the distinction between expressivist and constructivist poetics outlined by Marjorie Perloff in 21st-Century Modernism. Perloff's book came out in 2002, and I remember liking it when it came out, and saying a thing or two about it in a big omnibus review, but I hadn't thought about it since then, until David Orr mentioned in last week's New York Times. Orr does a better job of briefly outlining the expressivist/constructivist distinction than I could, so here's a quote from his piece in the Times (and quoting an essay that quotes a book is in the spirit of intertext, right?):

    In her book “21st-Century Modernism,” Marjorie Perloff, a professor emerita at Stanford and longtime champion of the avant-garde, claims the “dominant” mode in poetry these days is “expressivist,” whereas experimental writing involves “constructivism ... the specific understanding that language, far from being a vehicle or conduit for thoughts or feelings outside and prior to it, is itself the site of meaning-making.” She fleshes out this concept with quotations from several contemporary avant-garde poets, who argue among other things that “there are no thoughts except through language” and “as soon as I start listening to the words they reveal their own vectors and affinities, pull the poem into their own field of force, often in unforeseen directions.

    So (to simplify a bit) for "expressivist" think Romantic, or post-Romantic: the poem as the overflow of what is inside us (emotion, meditation, stored anecdote, what have ya). For "constructivist" think Modern, or post-Modern: the manipulation of found bits of discourse to tease out strands of meaning. Gibbons' new poem seems to me like a good example of expressivist intertextuality, and Collis' a solid and exciting version of constructivist intertextuality. Check it out...

  • Expressivist Intertextuality: Reginald Gibbons' "An Aching Young Man"

    Gibbons' poem in A Public Space is a narrow little thing, running more or less down the center of three pages with its staggered syllabics. It tells the story of a meeting between the (very Gibbons-like) speaker and a young panhandler with a grotesquely injured hand:

    An aching young
            man on the street
    approaches, stops
            me with his eyes
    and saying Sir?
            Sir? he shows me
    his right hand, it's
            purple and red,
    blood-spotted, gro-
            tesquely swollen,
    he says he fell
            while chasing a
    thief who grabbed his
            backpack, with his
    wallet in it,
            he has to get
    home by bus to
            Carbondale, he
    needs sixty-five
            dollars, he has

    (I am inordinately proud of having finally figured out how to create line indentations with html — if you wish to follow in my formerly-luddite footsteps, check out the section called "space" at

    So, okay. The speaker talks back and forth with the injured man for a while, offering the kind of advice you or I would offer. He suggests a visit to the emergency room, an idea the man dismisses, saying "...I don't/have a thousand/for that bill..." He's rebuffed, too, when he suggests that the man should at least get some Advil, and when he suggests that the man not poke or press the wounded hand, he finds himself wondering whether he even knows what he's talking about. This takes us through the first half of the poem.

    Okay, I know what you're thinking, oh advanced poetry reader, swept in from the blogosphere! You're thinking this is just a cliché of our times: the anecdote in which the speaker (a stand-in for the poet) proves his sensitivity by reacting to some suffering. And you'd be right, too, if not for two factors:

    Firstly, the anecdote-of-suffering (or beauty) that elicits a sensitive response from the speaker/poet isn't just a cliché of our times: it is has been a cliché since at least the late 18th century, when it became a mainstay of the Literature of Sensibility. Has anyone got a copy of Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown's Glossary of Literary Theory ready to hand? I seem to have dropped mine among the rhododendrons outside the sanctuary. Ah, yes, thank you, thank you, young fellow. Now let me see. Ah! Here's the passage defining the L. of S., not that you need the refresher, or course, but some of the children may be coming to this for the first time. Ah yes. So here it is:

    "Literature of Sensibility": A term used to describe literature of the eighteenth century which exalts emotionalism over rationalism. According to the School of Sensibility, feelings are more reliable guides to truth and conduct than are principles and abstractions. Against the theories that view human beings as motivated by enlightened self-interest, the literature of sensibility views benevolence and sympathy as definitive human traits.

    So we've seen these kinds of poems for centuries.

    Secondly, this Sensibility business isn't all there is to Gibbons' poem, not by a long shot. The poem goes on, showing us the speaker's sympathy for (and inability to help meaningfully) the injured man, until suddenly our view shifts to a billboard hanging over the scene:

    ...a liquor
            ad, a face half
    woman and half
            leopard, a face
    this age wrongly
            puts on fortune,
    maybe, wronging
            the woman, the
    leopard, and us...

    This kicks things up a notch or two. Here, suddenly, we get an emblem of the society (capitalist, image-driven, consumption-oriented, spectacle-oriented) that has produced the situation of pain and inequity in which our speaker and the injured man find themselves. The speaker can't point to just how the inequities and injuries are the product of this system (one of the many inadequacies — like his inability to give good advice or help to the injured man — to which the poem guides our attention). But he intuits the connection.

    Now here's the interesting thing, and the intertext: this move makes the poem into an echo of Wordsworth's famous poem "Simon Lee," another narrative with a sensitive speaker who witnesses suffering; and also another poem that offers emblems of an unjust society that has indirectly caused the suffering. (This reference to a Romantic text shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did: a year or so ago Reg sent me his Fern-Texts, a poetic reworking of Coleridge's notebooks, so he's been reading the Lake District crew pretty attentively for a while).

    Interestingly, Wordsworth's poem is a reinvention of the literature of sensibility (I'll explain in a mo'), which makes Gibbons' poem (which does have a few key differences from its source text) a reinvention of a reinvention of the literature of sensibility. Here's the deal...

    "Simon Lee" takes the established tropes of the Lit of Sensibility and makes them tougher by adding a political edge. The poem tells the story of an old huntsman (the title character) who has fallen into poverty. The speaker meets him, tries to help him out with his present task (cutting through the roots of a rotten tree stump, a task at which Simon was foundering), and feels terrible about the whole thing, especially when Simon Lee expresses a too-humble gratitude. Here's the end of the poem:

    The tears into his eyes were brought,
    And thanks and praises seemed to run
    So fast out of his heart, I thought
    They never would have done.
    --I've heard of hearts unkind, kind deeds
    With coldness still returning;
    Alas! the gratitude of men
    Hath oftener left me mourning.

    If that had been all there was to the poem, it would lie pretty much in the center of the Lit. of Sensibility tradition: the sensitivity of the speaker (and therefore his virtue) having been established, we could all identify with the speaker, close the book, and feel good about ourselves (there are countless poems like this still being written — believe me: I used to edit a poetry magazine, and wade through submissions as one might wade through a trout stream, seeking the elusive prize amid the emptiness and bone-chilling currents). But there's more!

    There is, for example, the invocation of image representing a social order: we're told that Simon Lee, before he became old, shriveled, displaced and pathetic, was a proud minion of the (now vanished) agrarian order:

    Full five-and-thirty years he lived
    A running huntsman merry;
    And still the centre of his cheek
    Is red as a ripe cherry.

    No man like him the horn could sound,
    And hill and valley rang with glee
    When Echo bandied, round and round,
    The halloo of Simon Lee.
    In those proud days, he little cared
    For husbandry or tillage;
    To blither tasks did Simon rouse
    The sleepers of the village.

    So, where the Lit. of Sensibility offers us a sense of the "benevolence and sympathy" inherent in all of us, Wordsworth adds a socio-political edge. He attributes Simon Lee's suffering to a cause (the end of the agrarian order, the rise of capitalism), and implies that sympathy may not be enough: we may need to take political action to solve problems like Simon Lee's. (This is, of course, a conservative or Tory critique of capitalist modernity, not a left-wingish critique). The Literature of Sensibility is both employed (the plot and circumstances of the poem come out of that tradition) and criticized (Wordsworth implies that the solutions offered by the Lit of Sensibility are inadequate).

    Gibbons' poem, like Wordsworth's, offers an image of the society (the advertisement), but it isn't an image of the just society we have lost (which is how Wordsworth conceives of the old agrarian order). Rather, it's an image of the society that has produced the problem. And where Wordsworth implies that there is a known solution to social problems ("let's all return to the old order"), Gibbons is tougher-minded and more cynical: he doesn't pretend to know how to set the disordered society right, nor does he even pretend to know just how the society works. All he knows is that something is rotten, and he doesn't quite know where to turn. No Wordsworthian Tory sentimentality is available: this is a reinvention of the Literature of Sensibility for the age of triumphant capitalism, when decent and viable alternatives are both desperately needed and, apparently, not available. Sure, the poem is a bit despairing, but it points to a problem unflinchingly, and I'll take that over any tacked-on ending about the need for The Revolution (want to see how such an ending can screw up an otherwise solid, even kickass, poem? Have another look at Gary Snyder's "I Went Into the Maverick Bar": I'm convinced it reads better without the last stanza, with all its Lenin-echoing certainty).

    So what's gained from the allusion to Wordsworth? Well, there's the sense of a tradition and all its changes; how we move down a big entropic spiral, from the optimism of Sensibility's consolations, where If We Care It Will Be Enough, to the tougher edge in Wordsworth, where there's some political work to be done, to the kind of angry, disillusioned impasse that we confront in Gibbons' poem. The allusion gives us a big, historical sweep, and makes a statement about where we're at politically. It also shows us that there's a non-sentimental path through (and not just around) the conventions of Sensibility.

  • Constructivist Intertextuality: Stephen Collis' Compression Sonnets

    Stephen Collis has been writing a poetry rich in intertextual references since before I met him. In that first chapbook, The Birth of Blue he worked in what seemed like a Robert Duncan-ish way, but since then his work has been a bit more Oulipo-ish: more systematic, less intuitive (he's got two full length books out, Mine and the truly wonderful Anarchive ).

    So how is Collis' intertextuality different from Gibbons'? Well, for starters, Gibbons' intertextual references in "An Aching Young Man" are matters of parallel incidents, images, and plot-points. The language of the poem isn't pillaged directly from Wordsworth, but is presented as the speaker's own voice, and the speaker is, quite plausibly, a version of the poet himself. This is very much the "expressive" tradition Perloff describes. In contrast, much of the language in Collis' book comes directly from his intertextual source material, and even when it doesn't, the language isn't really presented as "voice" at all (the poet's or otherwise). You feel less like you're listening to someone, and more like you're looking at words or phrases that have been cut out of various sources and arranged with tongs on a table to form various combinations. You feel that Collis is seeking what the words can tell us, rather than using them to tell us something: an attitude very much in Perloff's "constructivist" tradition.

    As the name of the collection implies, Compression Sonnets is a collection of abbreviated sonnets. Here's some of what "Alfred Noyes" (Collis' pseudonym for the collection — I think he's developing a Fernando Pessoa-like series of personae for his various writings) has to say about the treatment of the sonnet form in a headnote to the collection:

    [The sonnet] at its best, was a form of condensation. I have sought here only to see how far such condensation may be taken. Fourteen lines, if nothing else, every student recalls at least this. What might come of only fourteen words? What of the 'sonnet' remains? A turn after the eighth word? At the thirteenth (a concluding 'couplet' of words)? What of the sonnet's traditional themes? I am interested only in economy — in what might be said with less.

    So the book consists of 14-word poems, of five lines each. The metric is: four lines of three words each, followed by a single two word line. These are grouped into five sections (the first one of these has 14 poems, suggesting a kind of sonnet-of-sonnets form). The sections do different things: the first section, for example, seems to meditate on the conditions of poetic production, featuring poems like this one, which references Adorno's famous interdiction on poetry after Auschwitz (and you thought I'd make it to the end of this without dropping Adorno's name! No such luck, oh long-suffering interlocutor!):

    A poem appeariing
    After Auschwitz dear
    Unflappable ghost we
    Must address a
    Torn fragment

    But it is the second of the five sections that most interests me in the present context, because it is among the most thoroughly intertextual sections in the book, and because I'm most comfortable with the allusions in this section. They come, cleverly enough, from the works of the great innovators of sonnet writing in England, guys like Wyatt, Spenser, Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, and a probably a few others I haven't caught yet. Here's an example:

    Great sonnety huntsman
    Self same assay
    Upon swept strand
    Subtle second hand
    Washéd away

    Didja catch the source text? Come on, anybody? Yes, the bearded fellow in the back, with your hand raised. Right! Exactly! Edmund Spenser, "One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Strand" from the Amoretti. What's that? You can recite it from memory? Okay, great, have at it!

    One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
    But came the waves and washèd it away:
    Again I wrote it with a second hand,
    But came the tide and made my pains his prey.
    Vain man (said she) that dost in vain assay
    A mortal thing so to immortalise;
    For I myself shall like to this decay,
    And eke my name be wipèd out likewise.
    Not so (quod I); let baser things devise
    To die in dust, but you shall live by fame;
    My verse your virtues rare shall eternise,
    And in the heavens write your glorious name:
    Where, when as Death shall all the world subdue,
    Our love shall live, and later life renew.

    Uh, thank you. That was a little loud, and I'm not sure the oratorical gestures were entirely merited, there, Mark, but if you'd help Mrs. Ferguson pick her hat up from where you knocked it I'm sure she'll stop glaring at you. Thank you.

    So, to return to the contemplation of the text. As you no doubt noticed, there's a reference here to another one of the Amoretti as well, the one in which Spenser compares himself to a huntsman and his beloved to a pursued doe (no, no Mark, no need to declaim that one as well, thank you very much). So the "sonnety huntsman" is clearly Spenser himself. And the washed away text? Well, in Collis' slicing-and-dicing of the original, it ceases to be the name of the beloved that Spenser had wanted to make endure, first in his writing on the sand, then in his sonnet itself, where he claimed it would live eternally. Now the washed-away text is Spenser's own sonnet.

    What does this signify? I suppose it says something very similar to Spenser's own poem: that art endures. But the emphasis is different, as is the nature of endurance. Where Spenser stressed the sonnet as a vehicle to enshrine a love and make it endure in fame, Collis' poem doesn't reference love directly; rather, it emphasizes writing. So it isn't the referent that endures, but the act of writing itself. The emphasis shifts from referent to writing. And the durability is only ambiguously affirmed: we aren't dealing with an undamaged text, but a partial one. What to make of this? One way to think of it is as roughly parallel to Shelley's "Ozymandias," a poem in which a carved message, meant to express an enduring sentiment, is changed even as it survives. Another way to look at Collis' poem is as an assertion that writing endures not in some gallery of canonical splendor, enshrined in the anthologies, but in its influence, in how later poets pick it up and work with and through it. The real survival of poetry is (to borrow Auden's phrase) "in the guts of the living."

    There's more going on here than I've covered (I'm convinced the way Collis has grouped the poems in this section, in subsections of 3, 3, 2 and 2 poems respectively, is in some way important, for example, possibly in relation to the two unequally weighted parts of a Spenserian sonnet). But already I'm impressed with what he's able to do. The methods are very different from those of Reg Gibbons, but the effect is every bit as interesting.

  • Peroration? What Peroroation?

    You still want that peroration concerning the pleasures of intertext? Really? No, I didn't think so, and anyway I'm out of breath and I've got the DVD of The Battle of Algiers due back soon,so that'll be all for today's sermon, the moral effects of which I'm sure are already uplifting you all. The tithe box, brethren, will be prominently visible to your left on the way out. Give 'til it hurts!