Here is a link to an edited/condensed version of our original thirty-three-minute ModPo video featuring a close reading of two poems from Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary. It has been added to the main syllabus of ModPo, the free, open, noncredit online course on modern and contemporary US poetry.
Michael Hennessey, one of the founding participants of the PennSound archive, and now its editor, stopped by the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House a few months back. He and Al Filreis played and discussed five recordings Mike chose from among the tens of thousands of recordings available in the archive: Bernadette Mayer, “Chocolate Poetry Sonnet”: LINK; Allen Ginsberg, “After Lalon”: LINK; Lew Welch, “A Round of English”: LINK; Harryette Mullen, “Sleeping with the Dictionary”: LINK; and Tuli Kupferberg, “The Hidden Dissuaders”: LINK.
Many scriptural traditions promise a “living word” or some variation on a “word made flesh,” and new developments in genetic art also engage in an organismic language. DNA’s four-letter alphabet of ATCG is a tetragram like the names of gods ranging from Zeus to Jove to Deus to Gott to Odin to Lord, but one that rearranges at will like a protein’s palimpsest, forever half-erasing and rewriting itself. Bio-poetics can now forge new DNA molecules able to pass a cell’s reading test, in acts of virtuosic 5,000-bit spelling, placing codes inside of codes and (in the case of the very first synthetic organism) scratching Richard Feynman’s “What I cannot create, I do not understand” as a piece of defiant graffiti inside of a cell.
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?
In 2009 and again in 2010, I invited six poets — each year, so twelve total — to teach one poem each to high-school juniors and seniors. Each session lasted twenty minutes. And we preserved all twelve sessions as video and audio recordings. Go here to watch or listen to them. The poems were:
1. John Ashbery, "This Room" 2. Erin Moure, "The Frame of the Book" 3. Harryette Mullen, "Trimmings" 4. John Keats, "[This living hand]" 5. Yvor Winters, "At the San Francisco Airport" 6. William Carlos Williams, "The Last Words of My English Grandmother" 7. Lorine Niedecker, "[I married...]" 8. Robert Creeley, "The Sentence" 9. Helen Chasin, "The Word Plum" 10. Frank Sherlock, "Wounds in an Imaginary Nature Show" 11. Harryette Mullen, "Zombie Hat" 12. Basho, selected haiku; John Ashbery, "37 Haiku"
The Darkness of the Present: Poetics, Anachronism, and the Anomaly Steve McCaffery 6 x 9 · 256 pages ISBN: 978-0-8173-5733-7 · $34.95 $24.47 paper ISBN: 978-0-8173-8642-9 · $34.95 $24.47 ebook
“This book raises important ethical/political issues for the practice of art in the twentieth century. The Darkness of the Present calls them to rigorous attention in a series of critical studies. It finishes in a deliberate move to stand back, in order to reflect on the issues from a cool critical vantage, like Tennyson’s poet at the end of The Palace of Art.”—Jerome McGann, author of Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web and Are the Humanities Inconsequent?: Interpreting Marx’s Riddle of the Dog Google boosk preview here.