Three meta-poems: Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Harryette Mullen

from left: Lily Applebaum, Dave Poplar, Al Filreis, Camara Brown

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

Here are some discussion prompts.

Audio introduction:  After listening to this introduction, are you able to define what meta-poetry is? The implication in this presentation is that meta-poems are especially interesting and provocative. Do you agree? Ponder for yourself what a meta-poem can do that a poem that is not self-referential—does not refer to itself as a poem—cannot do. What are the advantages of such self-reflexiveness?

Video on Dickinson’s “We learned the Whole of Love”:  How might a meta-poem about love differ from a love poem otherwise? What does Dickinson point to in a person’s life experience when she says that we learn “the Whole of Love” through alphabet and words? Isn’t love conventionally deemed something beyond language or prior to language—an emotional knowledge rather than a lexical one? What does love have to do with wisdom and, alternatively, with ignorance?

Video on Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading”:  Insofar as we realize that the reader in the poem (presented in the third person) is the speaker, what evidence do we find in the poem itself of this identification? The reader in the poem seems also to be a writer. Whose phrases are “his phrases”? Are these the phrases in the book he reads? Is it possible that he is reading a poem he himself had written?  Because the speaker longs for reality (would himself have “wept to step barefoot into reality”), is reading a limitation? Is the reader doing something the poem contends is not as good as living in reality? Does reading offer any consolation to the reader who feels shut off from the world? What is the tone of this poem?

Video on two passages from Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary:  As you read “Any Lit” ask yourself how the word “beyond” functions in each line. The word prior to “beyond” in each line sounds like “you”—one half of a relationship. The word after “beyond” sounds like “my”—the other half. Each line seems to claim that the object of love is better or greater than the subject (the one doing the loving). So we are left thinking about the two random-seeming sound-words in each line. Try working with some of these pairs. What is the relationship between “Yukon” and “Micronesia”? Is the implication there that the subject is boreal and the object of love is tropical? Practice the experimental logic of each pair. Try to work with each one. It’s difficult. Does a pattern emerge? What is Mullen saying about relationships—about relation generally? Are they always multiple? Are they inherently improvised? The terms are driven by sound. What does that do to semantic sense?