We humans are an odd lot. What other creature in the history of the earth has ever had so much leisure time to ponder meaning. Why are we here? How did we get here? Where the hell are my car keys? Is this thing on? No, I am certain most creatures are too busy eating or being eaten to worry about such things. Surely the furry mouse does not ask the python, “What does it all mean?” as the last breath is squeezed from his tiny little lungs (or, perhaps he does in his own squeaky way, but since I don’t speak “mousian” I can only address human behavior). So that brings me to language and how we humans perceive the world. Ever since we learned in childhood that every story needs a beginning, middle, and an end we experience life through the narrative. When confronted with poetry that doesn’t supply us with a narrative, we desperately try to find one anyway—often behaving like a genetic hybrid of forensic scientists and keystone cops—spending hours on the Internet or in the library chasing obscure references nestled in the poem in order to find the ever-elusive “meaning.” In Kenward Elmslie’s poem Big Bar, we can’t help but want to know who this Hank Wurlitzer fellow is and to puzzle over the obsession with weights. There certainly seems to be some kind of meaning going on in the poem. But is there really? Maybe Elmslie is just having some fun with us.
Perhaps Billy Collins (yes, that Billy Collins) explains the incessant hunt for understanding in poetry best in his poem Introduction To Poetry, which someone serendipitously passed along to me not long after our classroom discussion on Tuesday.
Introduction To Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I bring this up not only to introduce Billy Collins into one of my papers for the sheer joy of pondering your reaction, but also to—oh wait, that is pretty much the only reason. But Collins does, in his pleasurable little poem, nail it. We are so intent to beat the life out of a poem to find meaning that we sometimes miss out on a highly enjoyable experience. For me, Big Bar, was a highly enjoyable experience. Elmslie’s poem reminds me of a circus sideshow or a great Monty Python skit. It both inspires awe and makes me laugh out loud at its absurdity. Instead of trying to elicit a confession from it I just allowed myself to be entertained and—hopefully I’m not hyperbolizing too much here—it has made me a better person. I love it that much!Bernadette Mayer has a hard act to follow, in Elmslie, with her poem Gay Full Story. Mayer’s poem is fine, but it is difficult for me to not juxtapose it with Big Bar, having read them so closely together. Or, perhaps, I’m already beginning to tire of the “new sentence” poems. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t get into it the way I got into Elmslie or even Silliman. I like the way the poem seemingly mixes directions for scrap booking with an Audubon Society field guide to birds before flitting off to “vaporous vege-/tating vitalization monkeys” (43-44), but I was left feeling a bit wanting. More than Gay Full Bar, I enjoyed Mayer’s essay, The Obfuscated Poem. In many ways The Obfuscated Poem does what Gay Full Story promises (or purports to promise—actually, come to think of it, it makes no such promise), in that it is absurd without seeming absurd. Maybe because it is ostensibly meant to be serious we are caught off guard—shocked even—when confronted with lines like “Abdication of feeling in life or in the mind creates a liverish potential for dead issues” (659). I think she “tells” it (the essay) better than she “shows” it (the poem). And, I wanted to add for the record, in case you were concerned, that no mice were harmed in the writing of this essay.