Thursday, July 17, 2003

The new-and-improved lime tree wonders:

It’s so easy to sit down and close-read or deconstruct a Lowell poem. It practically writes itself. It’s a critical cliche on wheels. So what kind of reading, if we can even talk about a discrete “reading” as an approach to analysis in such cases, is appropriate for a poem by Barrett Watten or Stephanie Young or Amiri Baraka or Julia Tsuchiya-Mayhew or…?

I wonder this myself. In grad school I've found that "close reading" has become a tool or method whose New Critical origins have been forgotten or obscured; more to the point, close reading has become what we teach undergrads as "basic" lit crit, the necessary foundation to whatever more sophisticated things it is we professionals do. Most theoretical paradigms up through and including deconstruction rely on close reading in this way.

If close reading is on the way out, it's probably being replaced by cultural history and historicist methods--the pendulum seems to have swung back from text to context in literary studies.

The problem, of course, with challenging the centrality of close reading is that close reading isn't just what put Lowell or poets like him at the center of literary study; it's what put poetry at the center. Most surveys of contemporary literature, trying to engage questions like political and social context, race, gender, sexuality, are all about novels and narrative and how such narratives fit in with larger cultural narratives. Close reading is built for poems.

It's interesting that Kasey asks, if "close reading" something like Lowell's work seems to produce only critical cliches, what an appropriate method might be to read a poem by, say, Barrett Watten. One objection I often seen to criticism of experimental poetry is that it's already developed it's own set of cliches: all poetry is about language, the indeterminacy of reference, the critique of dominant discourses, etc. I've certainly been guilty of this on more than one occasion. Language poetry succeeded in part because it simultaneously developed the paradigm through which it should be read, so that I'm much more likely to read a poem by Charles Bernstein "through" Bernstein's own essays than through, say, Eliot or Derrida. Whether you like or approve of the poetry or not often depends on whether you've accepted the paradigm.

It's not entirely clear that this new experimental paradigm is that distant from close reading, though, as Kasey points out in his observations on Silliman's blog, which is as interested in the structure of sound in a poem (and its meaning) as any good formalist. What Kasey seems to object to--and what this new paradigm may have left behind--is the idea that the close reading's goal is to produce a coherent paraphrase of a poem, a clear sense of the thing that the poem means.

Kasey seems most interested in poems that are actually conscious that they are being read and that might even try to sabotage our own earnest efforts to make sense of them, even to tease us for doing so. Sometimes I like such poems; sometimes I feel they're all cleverness and no heart. I guess if my attempts to read something are being blunted I want to have a sense that there's a reason for that, that I'm being taken somewhere else even if I might not like it.

No comments: