Imagine you’re strolling past the bus station in downtown Eugene, Oregon. (Never been to Eugene? Doesn’t matter.) You glimpse something on the ground in a shadowed area near a public trash receptacle and veer toward it for a look. An oblong something, larger than a cell phone, but not readily identifiable. You bend and pick it up. A device of some kind, with a mostly black plastic shell; there are several half-worn-off letters on the shell: GLATSKI. There are also a couple of red curving stripes, a row of three buttons (green, gray, and blue), and six tiny, glassy bumps that might be lights of some kind.
You press the buttons in turn, and each makes a different combination of bumps light up, all but one of them amber; the one non-amber light is red and lights up no matter which button you push. You glance at the trash receptacle. Someone, you figure, must have tossed it away and failed to notice that it hadn’t gone into the hole. There’s no reason you shouldn’t take it home with you. You have time on your hands, and the prospect of toying around with the thing is appealing. You’ve always loved a mystery.
If you’re thinking this is some kind of parable, you’re right. Or, to be more precise, it’s an exploration of Williams’s statement that “a poem is a […] machine made of words.” Finding the device is like reading a new poem by someone you’ve never heard of—”Ted Glatski,” for example. As you read, three lines of inquiry shadow the lines: 1) How does the poem affect you? 2) What in the way the poem is structured causes those effects? and 3) Are the effects of the poem on you what the poem’s creator meant to produce in every reader?
Let’s say that Glatski is a young poet whose previous publications (if any) you’ve never seen. Where do you start? You start, of course, with the location.
Just as the location of the device you found near the trash receptacle led you to think it had been thrown away, the place you discover Glatski’s poem makes a difference. If it appears in a poorly photocopied booklet of local poets, you’ll read it differently than if you come to via some link on Silliman’s blog, or if you find it nestled in the latest Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Thus is the old New Criticism vanquished before you’ve read a single line!
What’s worse, if you’re a poetry partisan—if you consider yourself a member of a tribe (avant-garde, social struggle poetry, hybrid poetry, ethnic poetry, performance poetry, mainstream poetry, whatever)—you’ll either embrace or dismiss poor Glatski out of hand based on where you found the poem, and you’ll stand revealed as a fundamentally unserious reader.
But if you’re a serious reader, you’ll give Glatski’s poem the benefit of the doubt. You’ll read it more than once, study its design, press its buttons, puzzle over the different combinations of its lights, and spend a good deal of time thinking about that one red light that appears in each of the combinations. If the poem is compelling enough, you’ll take it apart, trying to understand not just its effects but how the poem achieves them. You’ll examine its power source (ideas, emotions, syntax, music), look for clues in the codes on its various integrated circuits (allusions, received forms, point of view, “voice”), and—if you know a lot about these things—you’ll draw some conclusions about whether the poem is inventively structured or simply a knock-off based on a standard pattern. In other words, the closer you look the more critical you become; the more curious, the more demanding.
Then it hits you: if Glatski’s poem weren’t worth reading, you’d have long ago tossed it in the trash. In the end, you hold on to the poem and return to it now and then; sometimes a new way of thinking about it occurs to you, and you fish it out of a drawer and read it again with fresh excitement.
On the other hand, you may conclude that Glatski’s poem really isn’t worth reading and decide to throw it away. (You’re always in need of space for new poems, after all.) And what is the critical failure that makes you trash poor Glatski? Not his poem’s effects, which may still seem interesting in one way or another, and not the poem’s inner structural characteristics. No, what finally makes the poem unworthy of your attention is that you find what it was meant to do uninteresting, trivial, or utterly irrelevant. That is, you discover that you simply don’t give a damn about Glatski’s intentions.
Think back to the oblong device you found at the bus station: its different buttons hinted at multiple functions. But if, after some serious time devoted to toying with the device, you couldn’t make it work with anything in your life—a TV, a radio, a stereo system, a garage door—then you’re going to conclude that the intentions of its maker don’t matter. Into the trash it’ll go. And so into the trash Glatski’s poem might go.
What I’m suggesting is that the maker’s intentions are what every other aspect of the poem flows from, and that the purpose of reading is to identify those intentions and discover if they are true for one’s own life.
As a reader I couldn’t care less whether a poem gets classified as an expression of this or that poetic tribe. (I won’t dignify our current situation by calling these tribes “schools.”) If a poet’s intentions strike me as uninteresting, trivial, or irrelevant—out the poem goes, with neither apology nor regret. If I read a number of poems by the same poet and feel similarly disappointed, I’ll certainly stop reading that poet. But a poet whose intentions strike me as interesting, important, and relevant to my own concerns will have my attention even when the writing itself seems to flag or even fail. I’d rather read a weak poem by A. R. Ammons than Jack Spicer’s strongest effort, for example.
What about the intentional fallacy, though? This is the idea that the author’s intention is forever opaque to the reader. Roland Barthes ground this ax so assiduously that he ruined the blade of his criticism, coming to the conclusion that the author is dead; the text exists only as a social object; the reader is free to make anything of any text. Of course, the death of the author never kept Barthes himself from writing books, or cashing his royalty checks. I mean that his idea looked good on paper, but in the real world, writers create with intention and readers can substantially understand that intention. If they can’t, there’s been some kind of failure: in the writing or in the reading or both.
The fallacy is that a failed process can wipe out intentionality. It can’t. It can only leave it a partially realized thing. This incompletion is something all writing shares with consciousness in general, and with all earthly creatures. If life itself were ever to achieve completion, evolution would end and time would cease to matter, if it continued to exist at all. But because we live in time, we are incomplete. We have intentions that can never be fully understood. Even the authors in whom the intentions arise typically fail to understand them completely.
This doesn’t invalidate intentionality, it simply makes it something incomplete—and here’s where readers come in. Readers complete the poem, or try to. But the truth is that all poems remain incomplete, even those that have had thousands of attentive readers. Not because the poems are faulty, but because human consciousness is partial. If it weren’t partial, we would have no need for poems, or any kind of art for that matter.
Now it makes sense why I, a serious reader and lover of poetry, have cast poems and entire poets aside because they didn’t connect with my life, only to find that they connect big time a few years down the road (Patrick Kavanagh and Adrienne Rich, both of whom I found unreadable in my twenties). By the same token, poems and poets I once cared about can become less interesting over time (James Dickey and Robert Creeley, for example, who I read so avidly in my twenties and now can barely stomach). Readers change, and that changes the poems they read.
Of course, sometimes I only think a poem or poet doesn’t connect because I’m reading sloppily, so I fail to understand the poet’s intentions, or even fail to feel the impact of the poem’s effects. That’s why my bookshelves are sagging with books I’ve read only once but can’t bring myself to sell or toss in the Goodwill box: I caught a glimpse of something, perhaps, or the poet is so widely lionized that I feel sheepish for somehow missing the point. The latter is the reason I still hold on to Brodsky’s English language poems, and several of Les Murray’s books, and Zukofsky’s A. Maybe one day I’ll pull one of them down and open to a page where the light has been hiding. Or maybe my life, which is in constant flux, will suddenly resonate with these unfamiliar intentionalities.
I see that the metaphor I began with has broken down, or transmogrified. A poem may be a machine made of words, but the machine isn’t useful in the way machines are meant to be.
How about this: A poem is a machine-made-of-words that encodes consciousness. Instead of working with things in our lives, in the manner of garage doors and TVs, a poem works with our existing consciousness in order to increase it, enrich it, complicate it, make it more resilient. It does this by giving us access to perceptions and understandings we otherwise would not encounter in our own habit-ridden, time-and-space-bound lives.
So a poem is not a machine, really, but a relationship. A relationship of two intentionalities: a giver and a receiver, both of whom come to the poem to experience a moment in the becoming of consciousness. The great French poet Guillevic nutshells this notion in these lines from his sequence, Art Poétique: “The tree / Is rooted in the earth. // The poem takes root / In what it becomes.” Another Frenchman, Roland Barthes, set out to kill the giver in order to grant the receiver an illusory freedom; but the receiver can never be free from the intentions of the giver, although they may be misunderstood or actively ignored. Pound’s anti-Semitism is a case in point: his partisans like to pretend it does not exist or does not matter, but it stains nearly every significant idea in his “epic”.
This is not to say that the poem is something fixed, like a box full of stuff. It is organic. Like Gullevic’s tree rooted in what it becomes, each poem is different for each reader (the tree I picture when I read his lines is almost certainly not the tree you picture), and each generation of readers reads differently. That a poem can encode consciousness at all is remarkable; that it can share that consciousness with readers a century or two or three in the future is damn near miraculous.
Trees are miraculous; machines are not—though my little Mac laptop comes close! But no, a poem is not a machine at all. It is organic. It encodes consciousness in the process of becoming.
Turns out it’s not so hard letting go of a metaphor that no longer works. It’s also not so hard to return to an old saw, a well-worn idea that is nevertheless true. Poetry is communication. And the greatest poetry is more: it is communion.
Can that be what that one red light was all about?