Self-Reflexivity

This page discusses a consequence of poetry’s combination of textual sounds and looks: that because of the inherently visual qualities of poetic lineation, poetry is basically “language aware of itself” (I mentioned this as early as the course trailer) Because of this quality, poetry consistently offers up low-hanging fruit to the poet who wishes both to express her or himself and to reshape the genre at the same time. Some of the poems I’m having you read for this week are obviously poems about poetry; but really any poem can take advantage of poetry’s self-awareness to create self-reflexive moments, during which they artfully call attention to themselves.

All art to some degree needs to grapple with the ancient prescription of mimesis that the Greek philosopher Plato placed on all literary representation (mimesis is Greek, and it has the same root that we see in “mimeograph,” an early hand-crank paper copier, and in the internet “meme” which is all about how quickly a unit of information replicates and disseminates itself in culture). Plato felt that the absolute best a work of art could do was to approximate what exists in the real world, and that therefore all art should strive merely to hold a mirror up to reflect upon reality. Plato was not troubled by the fictive quality of representations, because he also thought that physical reality was populated with degraded copies of abstract “forms” or ideals (so it was all of a piece). But the Platonists were not realists: they actually thought that art should use its mimetic powers to promote goodness and clean living, and wished to censor all else. So when we talk about mimesis, it’s important to distinguish between what is being reflected and to what end its reflection is being put. An Impressionist landscape painting, for example, may not look much like a photograph taken of the subject of the painting, but it might still be called mimetic because it reflects what the painter saw. However, most of the time we associate mimesis with the practice of making a copy in art of objective reality, to whatever extent that is possible.

It’s also common that a poet may try to use the mimetic function of poetry to replicate reality in order to comment on it – whether to praise, or blame, or critique. Again, in a very real sense all art always has the power to reflect reality, and by the power of its reflection suggest ways that the real world could and should be different (I would consider this an axiom). But some artworks do this more explicitly than others. If the representation is meant to suggest a similarity between something in the real world and something within the artwork, then we should call that an analogy. If you think the representation is actually meant to be mapped onto the real world, so that every detail or character matched the real situation, call that an allegory. For example, John Dryden wrote a poem called “Absalom and Achitophel” in 1681, during the Exclusion Crisis, when some Protestants in England favored the illegitimate son of Charles II as the heir to the throne instead of the king’s brother, the future James II, who was Catholic. The poem recounts the biblical story of King David’s son Absalom, who rose up against his father thanks to the bad advice of the court advisor Achitophel – in this case, Dryden means to replicate the court intrigue of the Earl of Shaftesbury and his cronies, all of whom are called out in the poem as having given bad advice to Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. That’s an allegory. Or, if you’ve read Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, you may recall that while Gulliver is in Lilliput (the land of tiny tiny people, whom he towers over), he learns that Lilliput has been engaged in a war with a nearby island called Blefuscu, and the main difference between the two islands is that one island prefers to break open their egg for breakfast on the big end of the egg (the Big-endians), and the other prefers to break it open on the small end. Both islands like eggs, though. This is a fairly straightforward allegorical satire of the rivalry between France and England, in which the Protestant belief in “consubstantiation” is contrasted with the Catholic belief in “transubstantiation,” having to do with the Eucharistic sacrament – but both countries are Christian. Allegory again.

Analogy occurs when you detect a relationship between a poetic representation and some situation, object, trend, or condition in the real world, but there’s not enough evidence to declare it an allegory. In some ways analogy is more powerful than allegory, even though it is less useful for satirical purposes in which you need to be sure the target will be recognized by your reading audience, because it can be made to resemble multiple referents. Those of you who are lovers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are doubtless already aware that in his preface to The Lord of the Rings he preemptively castigated those who looked at the ring of power and wanted to map it onto one specific allusion: the atom bomb, or the Holocaust, or Nazism itself (usually the options have to do with WWII, which occurred when the books were being written and published). But Tolkien fought back, declaring himself an enemy of allegory but a friend of “applicability”: that if the reader saw similarities between evils in the fantasy world of Middle-Earth, and evils out in regular Earth-Earth, and then wished to change the real world because they found the comparison striking or profound, that that was awesome. But by suggesting that the ring could mean only one thing, readers were forcing his novels to be unnecessarily reductive (and in truth, I agree that the ring is a pretty complex symbol as Tolkien writes it).

Above and beyond that, though, we need to contend with what I called “low hanging fruit” a few paragraphs ago: the fact that with all the different terms that poetry has associated with it, the possibility for puns about the composition of poetry is considerable. I would suggest you strongly consider, for any poem, but especially for poems that are about poems or the composition process, whether the nouns in the poem might also be referring to all or part of the poem that you are currently reading. Mentions of feet, foot, measure, numbers, skipping, running, walking, moving, standing, stopping, hopping, etc. may be references to the meter of the poem. Mentions of figures (as in, “my mistress’s figure,” meaning ‘sexy profile’), and synonyms for vehicles or substitutions may be references to metaphors (A. C. Swinburne has a poem called “Ave Atque Vale” that includes the phrase “he trod no tropic feet,” meaning walking in a hot climate like Jamaica’s, but also evoking self-reflexivity three times over since metaphors are figurative tropes). Climates, moods, and emotions help set up the tone of the poem, but they can also self-reflexively refer to the process of assessing (reader) or creating (poet) tone. Talk of structures, like house, houses, rooms, buildings, can refer sometimes to poetic stanzas (as in the last line of “Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop, in which the speaker talks about the “child draw[ing] another inscrutable house,” which is a veiled self-reflexive hint that the child will grow up to be a poet like Bishop herself, perhaps because of the formative experience she’s just gone through. Probably most of all, any mention of containers (sealed or unsealed), vessels, letters, shouts, speeches, or especially songs (!) may refer to the actual poem you are reading. I’m not insisting that they must be self-reflexive moments, but I want you to consider the possibility whenever you see it happening.

What do we do when we notice one of these self-reflexive moments? I think the model I proposed above, to consider reflection first (either earnest or ironic) and critique second, will stand you in good stead, although the potential of self-reflexivity is certainly not limited to a positive or negative reflection of reality. At least be aware that the presence of self-reflexivity raises the probability of irony. Anne Bradstreet’s poem “The Author to Her Book” is extensively, nearly unremittingly humble, and yet – she’s talking to her book, as its creator/mother, and it’s hard to believe that she doesn’t like it, even if only a little. Plus it can’t be all that bad, or it wouldn’t have been published and then anthologized over and over these three hundred years or so since it first was written.

Now compare that explicit self-reflexivity to Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” in which the speaker, whom I assume is old and embittered by the fact that he notices young people having a lot more (or a lot better) sex than he is all around him, decides to forego the land of the living by “sailing” to Byzantium, a city that doesn’t exist under that name anymore (unless he’s contemplating time travel, which is doubtful). Worse still, they seem to be neglecting “Monuments of unageing intellect,” which since we know that the speaker himself is aging and decrepit, must refer to something else. I suggest: poetry, and specifically the speaker’s poetry, which he would be understandably miffed about if folks stopped reading his work. Then in the next stanza we see:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

The first two lines describe a scarecrow (a “tattered coat upon a stick”), an older man’s body. But part of what appeals to this older speaker is that poetry offers some mitigation to the bitterness he’s feeling: “soul clap its hands and sing” is a metaphor for a poet writing a poem, and singing louder “for every tatter in its mortal dress” sounds like a poem written to complain about basically becoming a living scarecrow, which sounds like the first stanza of this poem. In other words, this poem is not just self-reflexive about the act of writing poetry, but about the causes and circumstances of the writing of “Sailing to Byzantium.” In order to escape his bitterness, which was caused by feeling excluded by the youth-obsessed culture of 1920s Ireland, he turns to writing poems; but since there’s nobody around to teach him how to write a poem to solace such bitterness, all he can do is reread his earlier poems “monuments of [his soul’s] own magnificence,” which unfortunately were written much earlier in his life, which remind him of how much he’s aged, a reminder he’d hoped to avoid by turning to poetry. Also, turning away from the world to concentrate on poetry only redounds to his first problem, that he felt excluded and isolated- it’s a nastily self-reinforcing problem, such that he feels eventually that the only thing he can do (“therefore”) is to leave for Byzantium. Some interpret that “sailing” to mean dying, some to becoming a poem (since that’s the only way people encounter Yeats nowadays since his death in 1939). The poem doesn’t end there, but continues on for two stanzas that describe what life looks like from within a world that truly values men of letters in their “unageing” quality. But consider whether or not you feel like the speaker gets off the boat, and whether or not Byzantium is all it seemed like it was going to be cracked up to be.

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