Is a first reading possible? Perhaps a quick reading, or a reading on the fly… Inevitably, even my quick reading has a trail – from learning to read (“sound it out”), to habits learned in school (close reading; theme-based reading; the ongoing baggage of New Criticism), to the informed readings we are expected to practice in essays and reviews. There are plenty of other theoretical, historical, and cultural frameworks that (for me) might become a part of subsequent readings. In this reading, what I mean by a first reading is one that does not reach much beyond my initial impressions and thoughts. Or, another way to think of a first reading is (ideally) a radical empiricism, or a reading that moves in the direction of beginner’s mind.
So, a quick first reading: what strikes me first is the deliberate absurdity of the prose poem’s plot. The prose poem sets up its own logical world, with the ants as the doers, as the ones called upon to solve the divorce difficulties of the unnamed couple – human? something else? It is interesting that what they are is unnamed. The penumbra of the absurd spreads as we read. The first substitution – for lawyer, counselor, relative, friend, advocate – breaks the simple logic of the poem. Until the ants appear — “they give up and decide to call the ants” — all is “normal.”
From the beginning of my writing, I have been concerned with (floored by) the fact of a word, or a letter, as a thing, a physical, elemental, thing — and the act of contemplating such a thing. In the late ’60s, I noticed the poems of Aram Saroyan — one word, say, “crickets” — printed repeatedly in a single column, in Courier type, down the page. My first works were less poems or writing per se about something than memorials to the fact of words, that they appear and seem to signify.
Ben – Maybe Not: Ben Yarmolinsky Hank Eats the Shell ("The Shrimp is a poem in itself" Marjorie & Joe: Marjorie Perloff Claude's Prepositions: Claude Royet-Journoud Alan's Print Performance: Alan Loney Li: The Snow of Yesteryear: Li Zhimin
In the fall of 1975, while a second-year undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I attempted to enroll in an introduction to poetry writing course being taught by a doctoral student named Hank Lazer. I went to the first class meeting and found some 40-plus eager students hoping to gain a spot in the 15-person workshop. At the front of the room sat our long-haired, handsome, almost beatific instructor, distributing questionnaires meant to assess our interest in the class. What kind of music stirred us? Did we engage with visual art? How? By whom? Who was our favorite philosopher? Why? What foods did we most enjoy?
A 19-year-old from New Jersey, I had never met anyone quite like Hank, fresh from California’s Stanford University, in his Earth Shoes, sipping apple juice. Nor had anyone had ever asked me about myself and my artistic and extra-literary inclinations in quite this way. I’m still not sure how I gained a spot in Hank’s class, though I thank whatever compelled me to erase “Bachmann Turner Overdrive” and replace BTO with Rachmaninoff, whose compositions, brought to life by Arthur Rubenstein, scratched out of the family stereo cabinet throughout my childhood in a way I suddenly felt invited to appreciate.