We’ve created a three-part mini-course/sampler of metapoems — one proto-modern, one modern, one postmodern. Listen to a brief audio introduction and then watch three video recordings of several of us working through close readings. The readings are meant to be suggestive rather than complete or definitive. Our concern was to teach ourselves something about the metapoem. The metapoem of course is a poem about poetry, a poem that is somehow aware of itself as a thing made of letters and words. We wanted to choose three poems — otherwise different in so many ways — that are each about reading and/or writing. Poems about the reading of poems. Poems about poets reading. Poems about their own inscribing. Poems that use reading as an allegory for loving, and loving as an allegory of understanding. Poems that cannot be understood topically (thematically) unless first one understands the ways in which they are about themselves — about the words they deploy, about the love or loving of words felt as they are being written. About, as Harryette Mullen puts it, “the secret acrostic of a lover’s name” — a name you will discover as you read the very poem encoding that secret in its alphabetical existence — what Wallace Stevens in “Large Red Man Reading” calls “the literal characters.”
1. listen to a brief audio introduction
2. read Emily Dickinson’s “We learned the Whole of Love”
3. watch video discussion of Dickinson's “We learned the Whole of Love”
4. read Wallace Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading”
5. watch video discussion of Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading”
6. read two pieces from Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary
7. watch video discussion of two pieces from Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary
Until I looked at Sophia Le Fraga’s “W8ING 4 ,” I never really thought of seeing the lines of a “text” on a phone as lines of a poem. Since I love the look of poetry, the visual arrangement of words on a page, it seems silly that I didn’t see those parallels until now.
There is a lot to look at in “W8ING 4 .” The rows of emoji leap out at me with sentimental feeling. They make me think of sticker collections, tiny patterns on cotton dresses, little parts of Joe Brainard paintings. They are buttons, digital and tender.
The human figure Le Fraga’s texters are waiting for is abstract, grey, and genderless, which means it could represent a man. But the poem the texters create together is animated by a girly liveliness: notes in bubbles, all the “likes,” the instant transmission of intimacy, the slangy surface of their writing, the big-hearted depths. “I was starting to think you/ were gone forever.” “W8ING 4 ” is the girlification of Godot.
“W8ING 4 ” goes fast. As the poem unfolded and the letters of the alphabet flashed up before my eyes my attention was sucked into the condensed world of the screen. I was transfixed; it became everything. But almost as quickly, it is the emptiness in and outside the poem, in and outside the texters, in and outside language that compelled me. Mediating between big gaps of emptiness, Le Fraga’s phone is a hand, a typewriter, and a heart.
Once, late at night, I was at a low point in the writing process, brain dead. Words, ideas, and definitions I thought I possessed drifted away as I reached for them. I texted my husband (who teaches philosophy) and asked him a question: “What is metaphysics?” He wrote back: “Being as Presence. Are you okay?” Both my husband and metaphysics were temporarily absent from me, but became slightly more “present” through his textual expression of care. I wish I had kept those texts. No doubt I deleted them into the electronic ether. Are they recoverable?
“W8ING 4 ” reminded me of this little exchange. The poem moves in the same metaphysical territory. The texters call out for “contacts” and traffic in the desire for presence, a desire both expressed and impeded by language. Though the texters are “there for each other” on screen, something big does not get across. Perhaps the bland silhouette of the human represents that “something” that never arrives.
I love the flashing grey ellipses that say: there is writing on the way, there is writing you are about to see.
There’s an assumption floating out there that texting cheapens and truncates language, makes it the opposite of smart, and subservient to the instantaneity of the image. This claim isn’t completely unfounded. But “W8ING 4 ” is a poem because it makes the writing of texts—in all senses of the word—an opening to reflect upon language, emptiness, and our (failed) relations to others:
“this being here together at last”
“I guess let’s try and have a/conversation”
“soooooooo/ say something”
Being together in language is elusive. We are waiting for it to arrive, and it comes — fleetingly — as we write about the fact that it isn’t here.
Kimberly Lamm is currently assistant professor of Women's Studies at Duke University. Her research fields include contemporary feminist art, contemporary poetry, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century US Literature. She is currently completing her first book The Poetics of Address: Writing the Other Woman in Contemporary Art and is looking forward to getting back to a project devoted to contemporary poetry by women, tentatively titled The Sense of Arrangement. Kimberly is a graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program, has published art criticism in The Brooklyn Rail, curated exhibitions of contemporary art (including Imaginary Arsenals for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council) and written catalog essays for a number of contemporary artists.
Cheap signaling and vernacular poetry
Since I’ve been offering commentaries about multilingualism for several months now and haven’t yet devoted any time to addressing poetries that use nonstandard varieties of English, I want to turn my attention to that particular elephant in the room. The question of what type of language poetry should use is, to employ another familiar expression, as old as the hills. Debates over what Wordsworth called “the real language of men” and its place in, or relation to poetry are at once passé and radically contemporary — a source of perennial debate.
This past summer, the publication of Daniel Tiffany’s essay “Cheap Signaling” drew renewed and welcome attention to the question of poetic diction and how it ought to relate to “real” language. Tiffany explores a wide array of contemporary poems that use a “fabricated language of the ‘underneath’” to queer “the diction of poetry,” mixing “a nice tranche of idiomatic talk” with the “glam-tags of theory.” Although he seems to enjoy the chatty verve displayed in these poems, Tiffany nevertheless argues that poets who mix demotic speech with high theory (a rather wide swath of contemporary writers) fail to live up to their purported mandate as a political and aesthetic vanguard. “Sheltered by the university,” he explains, these poets risk institutionalizing a “cult of the poet-intellectual” that would obscure the structures of domination that their poetry appears to unveil.
A number of responses to Tiffany’s essay were published in September, and these engaged and interrogated his claims from a variety of perspectives. What surprised me a bit, though, was that none of the responses sought to investigate Tiffany’s central terms, “cheap signaling” and “synthetic vernacular.” The first, his title, is drawn from a poem by Prageeta Sharma, who in turn borrows it from a sociological term describing fake or light or merely aesthetic defiance. “Synthetic vernacular,” which appears about five or six times throughout the essay, was coined by the critic Matthew Hart to describe modernism’s split commitments to the local and the global. I want to focus on these terms because their own “garbled histor[ies] of transmission,” to use one of Tiffany’s evocative phrases, demonstrate the significant ways in which his discussion of class is dependent upon but hostile to a discussion of race.
The poem from which the phrase “cheap signaling” is drawn, “She Did Not Want to Embody Cheap Signaling,” deals explicitly with immigration and its attendant affects. Sharma’s elliptical phrasing refuses to pin down an exact definition, but her first stanza strongly suggests that in this poem “cheap signaling” refers to the reductionist equation of a writer’s poems with the story of her ethnic heritage: “In poems from her book she did not want to import a code of signals / that took her father’s voice / solely for her imperatives / in which they appeared as grenades, taglines / or hashtags.” The poem goes on to describe how the writer figure’s father’s “long-buried / Hindu self” cannot be captured by “untoward epistemic arrogance.” For Sharma, then, the imported signals are a specific set of narratives containing the so-called truth of ethnic experience, but they are also a readerly shorthand, a “cheap” engagement that forecloses upon the “emotive force / … hidden in the language of authorial tumult.” They are cheap because they reduce the speaker, the “she,” and the father to stock characters in an already-knowable tale of becoming (or never quite becoming) American.
Relatedly, in Hart’s coinage, “synthetic vernacular” refers specifically to the mismatch between language and nation; Hart contends that when poetry turns to the “real language of men” this language must always be synthetic. In fact, Hart suggests that poetic vernaculars can’t be authentic because poets create these vernaculars in order to express and navigate dreams of nationhood, which may ever be unfulfilled. He draws the concept of “synthetic vernacular” from Hugh McDiarmid’s invented version of Scots dialect, which McDiarmid understood as a means of reconciling Scottish nationalism with socialist internationalism. Moreover, Hart reads McDiarmid’s synthetic Scots as an expression of the contradiction between Scotland’s role as an engine of empire abroad and its dominated and politically marginal position within the United Kingdom.
Although Hart’s concept begins in late-modernist Scotland, he traces it through mid-century and contemporary Afro-Caribbean and African American poetries, examining the work of Kamau Brathwaite, Melvin Tolson, and Harryette Mullen, among others. Rooted (or routed) through the poetics of the African diaspora, the term “synthetic vernacular” specifically connotes a grappling with anti-colonialism and with the contradictions of nationalism. Take Brathwaite, for example: the new poetic diction he called “nation language” was a necessary response to what he described as the limitations of “the standard, imported, educated English.” Although nation language was created in order to authentically express “the natural experience, the environmental experience” of life in the Caribbean, this vernacular is still synthetic in the sense that it is a poetic creation. In addition to reflecting an everyday life that the iambic pentameter of conventional English verse couldn’t capture, nation language was created to reflect something more than what currently exists—Brathwaite described this as the innovation of new perceptual models that would guide the articulation of life on the islands. Nation language, then, inaugurates a revolutionary consciousness.
Although the backbone of Tiffany’s terminology seems to derive from Hart’s careful study of these racialized and localized vernaculars, the synthetic-ness they embody doesn’t line up with his answer to the apparent predicament of “cheap signaling” in contemporary poetry. Rather than accepting these carefully created vernaculars as synthetic, Tiffany argues that for their authors they are, problematically, "somehow authentic or genuine," not "forged." Instead of looking to these vernacular, anticolonial, nationalist, or perhaps Black dreams, then, Tiffany argues for “poetics of kitsch” in which poems cannot be extracted from their own “garbled histor[ies] of transmission.” Such poems would use what is apparently “cheap” to create “authentic defiance and revolt”; linguistic knockoffs would become the “instrument[s] of class warfare.”
Here’s what I don’t understand, though: the poetries of Brathwaite, Tolson, Mullen, and any number of others who use nonstandard englishes are written in anticipation of a future that radically departs from the present. In dismissing this work as inadequately synthetic, Tiffany misses the ways in which their vernaculars are signaling something more than the cheap limits of what is possible. Their striving for something beyond might be a creation just as synthetic as the invented poetic diction in which it is expressed.
If it's a vanguard you want, why look any further?