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Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Robert Sheppard: The Necessity of Poetics 6: Don't Explain

Don’t Explain

 (This short, but important section was not included in the original published The Necessity of Poetics, here)

None of the above poetics explain works of art. They permit. Explanation is not to the point of poetics. But why do I think that poetics cannot, or better not, describe? Part of the story, as I’ve hinted above, derives from the usefulness of poetics; but there is another, perhaps deeper, reason, that we should consider. As CG Jung stated:

Being essentially the instrument for his work he (the artist) is subordinate to it and we have no reason for expecting him to interpret it for us. He has done the best that is in him by giving it form and he must leave interpretation to others and to the future. (Jung, p. 9)

Being the self and in his or her tightly scheduled now, how can the writer provide this kind of discourse, or be the work’s reader? As I read, as I do, poetry magazines from cover to cover, I occasionally come upon my own work. Try as I may, I cannot get it to inhabit the same space as the poems that surround it. I cannot read it, partly because as I read I read every design decision I made to complete it. There are palimpsest versions beneath the text. It is like trying to look at the back of my head; I cannot map it with a freshness reading requires.

Writers, in any case, are notoriously bad at reading their own work; indeed, that they deliberately misread it in the service of speculating about future works is a constituent of poetics. This can be very productive, but is baffling for critics and for readers, who expect the kind of match they themselves might provide.

There have been a few examples where artists have been compelled to become their own works’ explainers. I would like to mention one of the most notorious of these. In 1946 Malcolm Lowry, faced with a hostile reader’s report and the threat of non-publication, was forced to write Jonathan Cape a 30 page letter, explaining, chapter-by-chapter, the meaning of his novel Under the Volcano, and was forced to evaluate it, and write about it like this: ‘The chapter is a sort of bridge, it was written with extreme care.... It is an entity, a unity in itself, as are all the other chapters; it is, I claim, dramatic, amusing, and within its limits I think is entirely successful.’ (Lowry: 72 ) This strikes the false note of impossibility. Indeed, the letter and the novel together might constitute an anti-model for the creative writing PhD as I envisage it: a text and commentary by an exegete who is also the writer. Put thus, and admittedly as rhetorical as any story, does it not sound narcissistic? And if not that, then possibly harmful? Especially when it is recalled that, unmentioned in the letter, which is discursive and explicatory, Lowry attempted suicide at the anguish of this epistolary nightmare.

The letter ends, though, with a piece of writerly poetics, one which actually shows the futility of the exercise itself (and indeed it deconstructs the notion of the monologic reading implied by reading one’s own work): ‘For the book was so designed, counterdesigned and interwelded that it could be read an indefinite number of times and still not have yielded all its meanings or its drama or its poetry....’ (p 88) And not all of those meanings are accessible to one reader, let alone the writer, with his or her unique memories of the experience of having conceived and written it (and in Lowry’s case, re-written it).


Return to part one (and an index to all parts of The Necessity of Poetics) here.