Forgive the metaphor, but I do have a moderate excuse for my lateness—this post was originally meant, in my mind, for yesterday. Seeing Get Him to the Greek last night was an effective rain-out to the baseball game that was this entry. So now, here we are, in the middle of a day and night doubleheader. Or rather a night and night doubleheader, because I’ve slacked off a bit this Sunday. Or a night and day one, as I’m not sure if I’ll get through both of these topics before midnight.
That said, let’s get right into it. I think it’s somewhat beneficial to write these two posts back to back, because I’ve got somewhat linking ideas, sort of an expanding theory, if you will. I’ll let you in on a little secret, the original thought that I had for yesterday’s post got canned, because I envisioned it earlier in the week and then the day came and I couldn’t get myself to write it. That’s the problem with plans: you get ahead of yourself; you get to thinking that sure, you can do that when the time comes, even though you can’t see yourself doing this activity at this exact moment, and obviously that fact doesn’t change, just because time has moved on. But whatever, enough of my cry-baby antics, and onward to our double feature.
Now, not to poke fun, but my digression has given me a slight bit of a transition to a letter to the editor from the June issue of Poetry, which states the following:
“I notice that you are publishing, in cahoots with the authors, lengthy explications of their poems. I have a suggestion: why publish the poems at all? Just print the explications and your readers can imagine the poems for themselves. Thus you would greatly stimulate their poetic imaginations and spare them reading the actual work.”
This was in response to the April issue, which apparently included the cited “explications” which so bother our letter writer. I feel as though I am completely right in assuming that the letter was written to mock the idea of poets explaining themselves, so I’m going to apologize now for the possibility that that might not be the case—it would make it a very interesting letter indeed, were this not to be the case.
The facetiousness of poetry is due to the sort of mindset that lies behind the close-mouthed poet; this character has been mocked as far back as Socrates, who claimed that he met with the poets and found that they did not know why they wrote what they wrote and they knew no more than he did (in fact he thought he knew more than them, because he was aware of what he did not know). I’m not a Platonist, but I do see some truth to the words that he gives Socrates here, because there are certainly parts of the creative process that you aren’t sure about, that seem to force themselves upon you. I write from the voice in my head, basically typing down what I speak to myself, never putting enough thought behind each individual word or turn of phrase, so sure, there are certain bits that I can’t explain.
But to pretend that an explanation is not beneficial is to be stuck-up about an art. Poetry seemed to be having some fun in picking the letters to the editor that they would publish, making sure to grab a somewhat fair number of dissenters to their decision of combining new poems with self-commentary on those poems. I, at first, had little respect for the people who wrote in against the commentary because of a comment from Neil Gaiman regarding his short story collection, Fragile Things, which ended up including poems, along the lines that the poems weren’t going to make the book cost more, so you could simply have skipped over them if you wanted to. The problem with this, I will say, is that Poetry is a monthly magazine that (from the first two issues I’ve received anyway) ranges from sixty to ninety-ish pages, so I guess you are entitled to comment on what you want to see taking up that place.
However, this letter is trying to be funny, I think, and in doing so it really just bothers me in a way, when it suggests secretive authors who are somehow “in cahoots” with the magazine to create “lengthy” companion pieces to their verse. In a time where any Stephen King review from someone who didn’t like the book says that the man is money-hungry (although he often ends up giving away his profits from writing these days to various charities), and in a world so dependent on currency, I find this comment essentially insulting. You write because you want to write and writing about what you’ve written, well, this is a good thing as well, because it can allow you to figure yourself out a bit. It’s good to know what you’re talking about and when you are a writer, the best way to learn, at times, is by writing. Therefore I’d say that you can’t just say that since these poets were no doubt paid for their commentaries, they are somehow selling out or something along those lines. In fact, they might have been enthused to write down their thoughts more for what benefit it could do them than the money itself. But I’m speaking for other people and paying too much attention to a somewhat clever joke, so I’ll move on.
The other thought that came to my mind when I read this letter was that someone like Borges would support this idea entirely. He would create a concept of a poem that would be impossible and then he would write a commentary on it. Instead of not printing the poems, which is, if the writer of the letter was being serious, a stupid idea, it would be interesting to create the “explications” without ever creating the poems. The concept would parallel The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture book that calls for its readers to write stories to go along with each of its images.
Any irony in the letter soon became overshadowed by this thought, in my mind, even before I got back to reading Life is Elsewhere, Milan Kundera’s second novel. This book is ironically, in a way, a sort of “explication” presented without the original poem. The protagonist, Jaromil, is a poet and at times Kundera treats us to parts of his poetry, but at other times he simply explains them or he commentates on single lines cut from long pieces of work. And it’s a great book, quite enthralling, if far from perfect. So, that writer of that letter, well, maybe he would’ve been on to something, if he’d been writing letters like this back in the late sixties, while Kundera was composing the novel.
It’s all so very interesting, the idea of fictive layers, a “non-fiction” piece written on a “work of art” that has the misfortune (or not) of simply not existing. I just think it’s a lot of fun to contemplate. I’ve got ideas for a bit of it in my own literary future, but let’s not dig into future projects that may never see the light of day at the moment, so I’ll sign off for now (or not, as I will be writing another entry in the next hour, but allow the poetic license, please).
See you soon…