Case Study: Graphic Design #vizpoem

This post is an interview I conducted with my former student, the very talented Justin Tran, some of whose work appears below in order to illustrate his responses. If you are interested in seeing more or contacting him about his work, his twitter handle is @justinduytran and his website is here. I highly recommend it!

1. A visual poem is a poem that uses images (usually digital) to provocatively supplement some text. Considering visual poetry is thus a combination of text and images, how might we distinguish it from graphic design? 
I think it’s important to think of graphic design as type and image coming together to form a whole, where each of these elements maintains a symbiotic relationship with each other rather than image simply being a supplementary element to the text.

2. When you are “doing” graphic design, do you start with images or do you start with text? In other words, do you think of a certain message or tone you want to convey first, and then create the look of the piece, and then put in text, or do you start with a script of text and then think of images to populate the design?

The core communicative portion of a design (the message intended to be carried across), for the most part, lies within the text. For example, when a client needs a poster designed around a particular event or program, there are almost always specific words in the copy included in the brief that the designer must include and design around, whether it be providing illustrations with the type or making some of the type part of the image. All-in-all, type definitely does influence and comes before visual and stylistic decisions.
3. Visual poets, perhaps predictably, have some trouble being taken seriously by more conventional, text-only poets and the audiences they’ve trained to expect only text. What sorts of biases, mistaken interpretations, boneheaded mistakes, maddening frustrations, etc, do you face as a graphic designer that might run parallel to those faced by visual poets?
Originality is probably my #1 concern. I always strive to veer away from what I’ve done in the past in order to increasingly think on my own as opposed to being heavily influenced by other illustrators/designers and current stylistic trends. As with most, if not all creatives, it’s never good to be satisfied with your work, and it’s always due to the fact that I self-assess my work a few days after completion and the verdict always ends up being to exert more energy into future work to be more original and not be swallowed up by visual fads that continue to become more and more ubiquitous. This is likely a direct concern of the realm of visual poetry; I imagine the issue of illustrations being stylistically eclectic while having to appropriately supplement the poem is very present.
4. So, the analogy I’ve come up with between graphic design and visual poetry is similar to the way I think of the difference between a picture posted with captions to instagram and a tweet with an image attached. The former is created with the intention to be looked at first and then read, while the latter is created with the intention to be read and then looked at. Or perhaps we might say that the affordances of instagram are more inherently visual, while the affordances of twitter are inherently textual. This isn’t really a question, but could you wordily respond to my analogy?
While the analogy certainly is similar, a design could differ from either a captioned Instagram photo or a photo tweet in that the two elements (type & image) in both of these instances are viewed separately at a time. As mentioned before, both of these elements as they exist within a design rely on each other to form a balanced visual composition with the intention of drawing the viewer’s eye throughout the entire piece, and thus enjoying the type and image elements simultaneously. Having said all of that, graphic design is sort of a fence-sitter about this one. While a “graphic” design is meant to stimulate visually, its type component remains indispensible in textually explaining the subject of said design.

“In Memory of W. B. Yeats” illustrated #vizpoem

By now it is probably obvious that Yeats and Auden are two of my favorite poets; I assign them often and have published on both. A poem like “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” which is so explicitly an elegy of one poet by another, requires so much context about the departed that it may seem a curious choice in an introductory course. It’s a different matter when I teach this poem in upper-level courses. Yeats was a public artist, intellectual, and politician involved with promoting and sustaining the independent Irish state; he wrote impassioned love poems and political poems; later in his career he grew crotchety and even flirted briefly with affiliating with fascism during the post-WWI depression. I think that’s what the speaker means by “you were silly like us” in part two, although Auden himself was a communist during the same time period and so that’s a bit of a stretch.

But it’s possible to read the poem without all of that extra baggage and appreciate it for what it does beyond its historical referentiality: that it is a poem by a poet saying good-bye to another poet, trying to extricate what it finds valuable about the departed from the wreckage of what it would rather not have to deal with. This is similar to the act of eulogizing someone whose… funeral description was significantly edited from the actual day-to-day events and actions of that person –some of you may already understand this quite well. If the speaker wishes to grant a benediction on an influential poet without making it seem as though he supported everything about the earlier poet’s life, there would need to be some delicate maneuvering and negotiation in order to finds the words that would suffice for the task. This poem takes a pretty novel approach by recasting both poet and poetry as spatial landscapes not necessarily having any relationship to Yeats’s homeland of “Mad Ireland.”

After an initial image of the “dark, cold day” of Yeats’s death, the first section begins to draw a distinction between Yeats’s failing body and how life continues elsewhere:

                                                                Far from his illness

The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,

The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays

Only this is sort of an unusual depiction of life outside of a deathbed watch; I suppose the “evergreen” forest stands in distinction to the decay of the elderly poet (consider how much different this line would be if the trees mirrored Yeats’s decline [eg, if the forest were deciduous in winter]), but why “wolves”? and why, why draw a contrast between the “fashionable quays” of commerce in a bustling harbor and the “peasant river,” apparently poor enough to need a justification for why it is “untempted” by the wealth of the quays. I suppose the same impulse links these lines to this couplet later on:

When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,

And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed

Once again, poverty coexisting uneasily with extreme wealth, with the implication that the wealthy are “beasts” like wolves, preying on the poor peasants. As the evergreens are always green, so too will there always be wolves (bankers), and if Yeats had wished to alleviate the suffering of the poor he failed in his charge.

Oddly, this irresponsible (or ineffectual) version of Yeats is, like the peasant river, identified with a countryside that makes clear the entire metaphor was designed to draw contradictory impulses within the life and poetry of Yeats himself:

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,

An afternoon of nurses and rumours;

The provinces of his body revolted,

The squares of his mind were empty,

Silence invaded the suburbs,

The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities

And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,

To find his happiness in another kind of wood.

For someone who played a part in the revolt of the Irish against the British Empire, saying of Yeats that “the provinces of his body revolted” also suggests that there was something in Yeats that, by dying, his body wished to overthrow, and that is fairly damning. Yeats’s physical self is alternately described as a political entity (“provinces”), an urban landscape (“squares”), outer residential settlements (“suburbs”), a river like the peasant river earlier on, and then it appears his existence stops being his own, and after his death he will live on only in the memories and experiences of those who still read his work.

The speaker of this elegy soothes the homicidal impulse of  Yeats’s body by creating a new homeland for the poet in the minds of his “admirers” which reveals that Yeats’s actual mistake (according to this poem, anyway) was not in the causes he championed, but in believing that poetry should or even could champion causes with any sort of efficacy. It is as if, by writing a poem, I believed I could accomplish something practical like dig a ditch or build a house. I doubt Yeats had any such actual belief, but if we extend the concept of efficacy toward the notion of persuasion, his poems attest to a belief in the power of poetry to persuade readers to follow and enact causes: an independent Ireland, for example (this happened! but possibly not solely or even primarily because of Yeats’s poems), or for his beloved to finally love him back (this didn’t ever happen).

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

There there, Yeats (the poem seems to say). Calm down, you were only deluding yourself in thinking you had such superhuman powers. But of course, in gesturing toward poetic inefficacy (that it makes nothing happen), the speaker is also stipulating that his gesture of trying to soothe the departed poet is also going to be ineffectual, which is depressing. As this voice says good-bye to a poet that doubtless had some influence on his own poetry, it’s reasonable to see this as the speaker similarly saying good-bye to any belief in his own powers to persuade or enact real-world change with his own poems.

Anyway, because poetry makes nothing happen, it is a safe space to say whatever you’d like. Because “executives / Would never want to tamper” with the “valley of its making,” possibly because such executives are too busy executing to read poetry, it can attest to “busy griefs,” isolation,” “raw” emotion, belief, sorrow, and if you count “mouth” as a mode of speaking, a vehicle for identity. Curiously, this is all rendered as landscape — valleys. ranches, rivers, towns, and then the second meaning for the ambiguous “mouth” (the mouth of a river).

Why does poetry need to be spatial? Is it merely to replace the other landscape that the dying Yeats’s body constituted, and which his death overthrew? A gentler, kinder landscape for his spirit to inhabit in death? A reconstructed version of poetic selfhood and professional ambition? Because another question I have about the oft-quoted line “poetry makes nothing happen,” is that the poem almost immediately retracts that notion — by the end of the short second section poetry is “a way of happening,” which the speaker just told us it couldn’t make. Unless there is a huge distinction to be made between a poem “making something happen” and a poem representing a “way” of happening, it seems like a retraction to me. I would also point out that in the peppy third section, the speaker enumerates some very active verbs that poetry can set into motion: “persuade us to rejoice,” “make a vineyard of the curse,” “sing of human unsuccess,” “let the healing fountain start,” and “teach the free man how to praise.”

That’s a lot that poetry is making happen. In creating an alternate landscape for Yeats’s new consciousness, it’s possible that these verbs might only apply to the inhabitants of this other space — lovers of poetry, for one, since the speaker tells us in part one that “Yeats became [his] admirers,” quite a visceral apotheosis since he is modified by the “guts of the living” rather than our hearts or our minds. When guts revolt, the results aren’t pretty; but this is another way of saying Yeats can be thrown out of Poetry Valley if we all stop reading him, or if we can find no use for his poetry in terms of the more useful and less bloodthirsty purposes the inhabitants of that valley seek out in their poems. It’s not really that poetry makes nothing happen, but that we all have to be careful for what we wish for. Yeats desired to make something happen, and thankfully he was not as responsible for ill events as he suspected. But in desiring that responsibility he opened himself up to the judgment of those like the speaker of this poem. By focusing on the good Yeats had done, the speaker forgives him of his silliness while simultaneously abjuring others of pushing the boundaries of taste after Yeats’s fashion.

SOS illustrated #vizpoem

Here is my reading of “SOS” by Haroldo de Campos. It’s possible to think about the SOS in the middle of the concentric circles as not so much a voice crying out for help but the words (or letters in this case) themselves, trapped in the middle of the maze, waiting to be found and studied for what they have to say. SOS is actually a pretty interesting story – and here I mean the Morse code alert signal, not the de Campos text. It’s been rendered in multiple languages and antecedents, from “save our ship” or “save our sailors” to “seeking out succor” (which sounds British to me). But in truth it doesn’t stand in for anything: Morse made SOS the emergency code because it was easy to remember but very deliberate to signal, so that you couldn’t telegraph the code by accident [dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot], in much the same way that, on the old touch tone phones, 911 is easy to remember but hard to punch in accidentally. It’s an intriguing mixture of meaninglessness and intentionality, and de Campos seizes on this and hauntingly visualizes it.

Here were some twitter redirects during the conversation my summer 2014 class had about this poem:

The Morse signal SOS is a completely arbitrary sequence of letters, in that there’s nothing particularly alarming about their sounds or even their combination of sounds. But it’s recognizable as the sound someone in distress makes when she or he reaches out for help, regardless or who the person is or what the trouble might be. It could be you were struck by an iceberg; it could be your boiler room is on fire; it could be that you are audibly slipping from identity to selflessness, all the while having that slippage captured within a concrete poem that gives form to your horrible dissolution.

So as you spiral inward toward the evacuated non-word emergency signal, you really are devolving from the persona of a stranded, perhaps shipwrecked voice, to a collection of white letters on a black background: the speaker is losing himself (“We wander without voice / Silence / SOS”) and as he does we lose touch not only with our idea of his persona, but also of the semantic register of language.

On the other hand, the outer circle is “I” in multiple languages, the particular first person pronoun of identity, and what replaces the outer circle in the center is the universal language of Morse code. You could think of this as: in order to get help the speaker must surrender what made him unique but incomprehensible to those around him, and he reentered a system of exchange and reciprocity (telegraph only works if someone is tapping and someone else is listening, so everyone using the same code is extremely important). But you can also think of this process as the death of the poetic persona as such, in favor of the triumph of communal language over extreme forms of individual subjectivity.



“Musee des Beaux Artes” illustrated #vizpoem

Next week we will read some elegies, including Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and in preparation for that, I’d like to explore the vexed issue of allusivity. Allusion gets a bad rap, as I have argued elsewhere; too often it turns off readers who mistake it for unoriginality or pretentious posturing. Far from name-dropping, though, Auden uses intertextuality as a means of assaying the mutually illuminating features of artistic representation. Done well, an intertextual poem will provide a new vantage on the alluded-to text even as it uses that text to further its own representations in ways it couldn’t on its own. The example I’ll use is an ekphrastic poem called “The Musée des Beaux Artes” from the late 1930s, based on Pieter Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

According to the myth of the fall of Icarus, one of the more famous stories of Greek mythology, Icarus along with his father Daedalus tried to escape from a tower by gluing bird’s feathers to their arms with beeswax. Despite his father’s warning, young Icarus flew too high in the air and therefore too close to the sun, and his wax melted, whereupon he fell to his death. But in this painting, no matter our preconceived notions about the story, or how we might have imagined ourselves reacting to the same scene had we been there, the other people in the painting simply go about their lives instead of trying to help or even batting an eyelash in surprise. I could point out that most of the people in the painting are reasonably far away from Icarus, and so might not have heard his cry. But this seems beside the point, because the painting is clearly understating the importance of Icarus’ fall in the grand scheme of things. The myth of Icarus is a story about hubris and unchecked aspiration which is then punished extremely severely (many scholars and students of mythology, in fact, think the punishment does not at all fit the umbrage of arrogance). Brueghel’s painting of the fall of Icarus includes Icarus in the title, so we know we should already have a baseline familiarity about the myth, and we should be looking for him somewhere in the scene. But, here the fall is not only not located in the center of the painting, but it makes no stir in the audience that the painting represents for us (and which we, the contemporary viewers, can use as a convenient foil to contrast to our own responses to the scene). If Icarus’ fall were right in the middle of the canvas, then we could speak of it in terms of the “Bystander Effect” (in which nobody helps because everybody assumes somebody else will), because Brueghel would be implicitly saying that Icarus was indeed the most important person in this situation and everybody else in the painting was completely wrong not to have seen the hand of the gods at work in their midst in the form of divine retribution. But he isn’t: he’s off in the corner like an afterthought, and if anything the farmer at his plough looks more like the main character of the scene because of perspective; he’s so much bigger than the others, and he’s the first thing you notice in the frame.



Pieter Brueghel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Auden notices this too, and expects his readers to know about both the Icarus myth and the Brueghel painting. I’m confident about this last sentence because I can tell you that “The Musée des Beaux Artes” was written right before the outbreak of World War II, and it occurs alongside many other extremely compassionate poems Auden wrote during those years to draw attention to the plight of people who were dying in the satellite conflicts leading up to WWII (like the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Spanish Civil War) and making connections between the suffering of people in far off lands at the hands of practitioners of fascism, militarism, Nazism, etc., that would shortly, if Western democracies did not stand up to them out of love for those who do not belong to our own countries, visit the same sort of destruction and suffering on America and England. That sort of political awareness of the wartime context makes this poem (for me at least) much more interesting in that it’s not just talking about abstract “suffering,” but about the many linkages between suffering, wherever, whenever, and to whomever it occurs around the world, to our own physical / mental comfort and aspirations.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

So an opening line like “About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters,” is one that really ought to spook you. First of all, just as whenever you take a multiple choice test, you should always beware the statement that’s phrased as an absolute, because even if you can only find one instance in which the statement isn’t true, its whole truth claim is still invalidated. And maybe this painting by Brueghel is the one instance in which the old masters (Brueghel among them) was wrong about suffering. Also, clearly the poem continues on beyond this first line, so the speaker’s point must be more complex than simply agreeing that yeah, Brueghel was right to deemphasize the fall of Icarus, because ethically speaking, nobody’s suffering is inherently more important than anybody else’s. And we all suffer to some degree or other, even if our suffering may not take on an exotic form involving beeswax.

Consider: to any one of us, deeply enmeshed in our own individual reality, the story of Icarus might mean more than it would if its events actually transpired before us. In other words, if we valued the myth precisely because it was a parable about how the arrogant deserve extreme comeuppance, or as an excuse not to fly too high using untested means of conveyance, then it actually has very little to do with Icarus beyond the fact that his character makes that object lesson about human behavior and physical limitations more concrete and interesting because it’s embodied in mythic narrative. So there’s no reason to have any expectation that the sun might have stopped shining at the moment before Icarus’ beeswax melted, or that the wind should stop blowing so that the ships could turn around and pick him up before he drowned… although it’s true that that sort of thing happens sometimes in Greek myth, and also sometimes in Hollywood. But not in real life. The possibility of a miraculous salvation for the falling hero (Zeus catching him in his hands out of the clouds, for example) does get a nod in Auden’s poem, but only in the form in its negation:

                                                                              the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Nobody asked the sun whether it wanted to keep shining, and nobody checked to see whether the wind cared or the ships felt remorse. Because that would be absurd: these are metonyms for the bystanders rather than typological allusions to the Olympian gods. It’s more appropriate to ask why the human beings in the scene didn’t do more (since the human beings could certainly have done more), and whether either Brueghel or Auden regret that Icarus died through the bystanders’ negligence. After all, if the Nazis had taken over the planet in WWII, the sun would have kept shining and there still would have been ships and wind; there also still would have been people, and life would have gone on. But there would have been a lot more suffering.

I think Auden’s tone is admirably precisely rendered, although not particularly clearly in terms of the intertextual linkage to Brueghel’s painting. At the end of the first stanza the speaker weirdly calls up for our appraisal an unplaced moment in one or more works by unspecified old masters, in which suffering is rendered in some sort of characteristically understated way, as

                                                    some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

On the one hand, as a dog-lover I love the fact that Auden is talking about dogs (“with their doggy life”) and what they might have desired in a poem alluding to the high seriousness of Greek mythology: I don’t get the sense that we’re talking about a Great Dog like three-headed Cerberus or something – Cerberus didn’t have a doggy life, he guarded the Underworld for Hades, that’s a pretty non-doggy big deal. But why do we get mention of the “torturer’s horse” as being “innocent”? I’m not trying to suggest that the horse is not innocent of the torture its master makes his profession, but it’s a weirdly dissonant image to being up, and the speaker apparently felt the need to call the horse an innocent, so something is amiss here. It should call to your mind a lot of questions about the relationship between proximity and culpability: whether being at the scene of a crime, even if you are definitely not the perpetrator, might make you somehow complicit in that crime. Maybe the torturer’s horse is guilty of not throwing his master, since he must on some level know his rider is a bad dude, horses and riders know each other pretty well, I gather. Or maybe, like the contrast I just made between the desires of the inanimate landscape and the moral obligations of human beings, the contrast is being made between what animals witness, know, or do, and the much greater responsibilities we should assign to human beings, who ought to be measured to a higher standard. If it were “the torturer’s best friend” rather than “the torturer’s horse” we would like that other human being a lot less than the horse, who can’t be expected to choose his master in the same way we choose our friends. So ask yourself how far removed you would need to be, as a human being, before an audience would feel comfortable calling you an innocent if you were standing right next to a torturer while scratching your behind against a tree: the torturer’s second cousin? The torturer’s casual acquaintance? Someone who didn’t know the torturer and was five miles away? 500 feet away? The guy that happened to be standing right next to the torturer but didn’t know him from Adam and is now appalled to learn he is a torturer and, oh, hey, yes the torturer does appear to be torturing that guy over there now that you mention it and he bothers to look?

Now swap out “torturer” and replace with “Nazi.” Now swap out “spatial proximity” and replace with “being able to make a difference before somebody who is suffering actually dies from their suffering,” like the sailors on the ship or the farmer at the plough, or for the case of WWII, any of the Western democracies who had the resources to intervene in China or in Spain, or for the Jews fleeing from Germany before the war, but who chose not to because they were much too caught up in their own suffering to intervene to stop the suffering of others.

OR, consider that there may be a difference between the farmer at the plough, who is facing away from the direction Icarus must have fallen, and the sailors on “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen.” That’s my reading for why Auden’s speaker, even though he masks the agency of the people in the scene by talking passively about the ship instead of the sailors, says “must have seen” – there’s no doubt that they were aware of Icarus’ suffering. And they did nothing, perhaps because they believed that if it wasn’t Icarus falling it would be someone else, and so what difference did it make? Well, it made quite a difference to Icarus. And so by our awareness of someone else’s suffering, which poems like this one endeavor to promote, we become partly responsible for assisting those who suffer. You enter the poem thinking about art, within a poem which is obviously about art commenting on itself, which may not seem at all related to the politics of WWII. You exit the poem having been made aware of a profound moral imperative toward other people who are suffering. The first step is recognizing that Auden and Breughel agree that all suffering is valid, and that qualifying some people’s suffering as being more important than other people’s suffering is a trap that can lead directly to discrimination, inanition, and extermination. Hitler based everything Germany did during the Third Reich on what he called the unnecessary suffering the Allies inflicted on the Germans through the peace conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, and he argued that the past suffering of the Germans should be more important to the Germans than the suffering of the Jews, the Gypsies, homosexuals, and eventually the Poles, Russians, French, English, Americans, and all non-Aryan scapegoats in general. But Auden goes even further than Brueghel to say that suffering, although perhaps a constant, is not so great an enemy as indifference to suffering, which makes villains of us all.

I’m actually not sure that Auden and Brueghel disagree about that, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen it in Brueghel’s painting without Auden’s help.

“The Woodchucks” illustrated #vizpoem

Maxine Kumin’s “Woodchucks” begins with an ambiguity concerning how aware the speaker is of her own culpability in massacring the family of woodchucks destroying her garden, and ends with an ambiguity over whether her self-blame has gone too far. The opening line, “Gassing the woodchucks didn’t work out right” is suspended between an acknowledgment that the “knock-out bomb” she got from the Feed and Grain Exchange (a farming co-op equivalent to Southern States here in Richmond) was inadequate to the task of exterminating them and a recognition that it was the first of many steps she would undertake to get rid of them (it didn’t work immediately, or outright). Two lines later the attempted extermination is qualified as if it were an execution after a trial and conviction: “The case we had against them was airtight,” where the speaker is more of a courtroom prosecutor than a hobbyist gardener. This too is ambiguous, since in order for underground gassing to work one would need to close off the openings and make it as likely as possible that the gas wouldn’t dissipate until the woodchucks were killed. The fact that the gas didn’t work (despite “both exits [having been] shoehorned shut with puddingstone”) also suggests that the speaker believes in retrospect that she did not, in fact, have just cause to kill the woodchucks, however mercifully painless might prove to be. And in retaliation the woodchucks respond with an execution of their own: the carrots are “beheaded.”

“Quick at the bone” gas would kill woodchucks just as completely as her next weapon of choice, the .22 calibre handgun; the main difference is in the attitude of the speaker towards the act. She is much more invested in the deaths of the woodchucks while packing heat, because she is personally responsible for carrying out their deaths — and the diction shows it: “drawing a bead”; “I dropped the mother.” The speaker notes the dissonance of this new appropriation of violence into her character — she is now a “lapsed pacifist,” but only very recently lapsed, as in the moment she picked up the gun was when she lapsed. Also, the righteous thrill she feels when the gun is in her hand is not the righteousness we might normally associate with justice (the justice obliquely invoked in the first stanza) but that of “Darwinian pieties”: a different standard of morality that would justify the killing of the wookchucks because of the speaker’s superiority — and survival is won by the stronger/fitter species, in this case the one with the bullets and the Scotch whisky. But of course, such a view completely negates the speaker’s earlier attempt to justify the woodschucks’ extermination as a trial, conviction, and execution, since there was no due process or jury of the woodchucks’ peers. Once she invokes Darwin, there’s no going back to any sense of fairness or equality between the woodchucks and the farmer. “The food from our mouths!” also rings false, since anybody growing backyard swiss chard is not starving. That’s a coterie niche green.

So my question at the end of the poem is not whether the speaker believes it was right or wrong to kill the woodchucks — their deaths haunt her dreams, so it’s pretty clear she has a guilty conscience. Rather, I’m wondering whether the speaker blames herself too strenuously for what she did. There is no circumstance under which comparing your actions with the Third Reich could be favorable: “if only they’d consented to die unseen / gassed underground the quiet Nazi way” is utterly self-condemnatory, even if so ironic it would not be admissible evidence in court (perhaps). Of course she wishes that, now that her dreams are haunted just as much by nightmares of the slain woodchucks as of the one that got away — which is further evidence that this recently emerged side of her personality has not gone away and was perhaps always there to begin with. Of course she wishes never to have been so personally involved in their deaths — although since gassing would still have been extermination, perhaps in a way she is grateful for having had her choices made so real by that involvement, so that she was forced to become aware of what she was doing and her personal responsibility in ending their lives.

HOWEVA, let’s take a step back for a moment. She’s a gardener, and vermin were eating her crop. Is that the same thing as the systematic extermination of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany? Does the comparison of her killing of the woodchucks to the Holocaust look like an overly cavalier reference to the Holocaust, and make us dislike the speaker even more for the gall required to compare her emotional discomfort to that far vaster horror? Or is it a helpful reminder that the “Darwinian pieties” that led her to the complacent assumption that her backyard was more important than the lives of living things was exactly the same impulse that led the Germans to their own overly complacent assumptions, which may have sounded harmless during an election (Germans are better than Jews) but were absolutely and utterly unspeakable when the Nazis zealously put them into practice?

This is the sort of HOWEVA moment we will come back to in two weeks when we discuss posthuman poetry. For now, let me end by saying that this poem is a great example of the ways poems can send us back to the beginning, possibly several times, unfolding new layers of meaning each time we do so. Our reckoning what a speaker is truly saying, and why they are talking in the first place, and what they meant to accomplish by saying what they have to say, gets modified each time we get a new piece of evidence, or consider alternate explanations for why this word or figure and not this other one was chosen, or for why the form of the poem draws our attention to features of what the speaker says in ways that may or may not be in league with that speech. For example, the rhyme scheme of “Woodchucks” is one of the best reasons I can give you for why the first and third lines are ambiguous — “out right” is rhymed with “airtight,” and since both of those phrases prove to be ironic because of the content, and those ironies are related to one another, I can reasonably say that the poem means for us to consider both ambiguous options (justified retribution vs speciesist holocaust) simultaneously.

“The Road Not Taken” Illustrated #vizpoem

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a rhetorical exercise in self-promotion that functions almost exclusively via the profound expectations within its American audiences. Long trained in cultural narratives like American “exceptionalism” and “rugged individualism,” to hear triumphal notes in the voice of the speaker, these readers assume that the speaker triumphed over staggering odds: but not so fast, my friend.


From Analysis to Argument #vizpoem

This week has been mostly about the many different things to notice within poems. The three major concepts we played around with during Tuesday’s twitter conversations had a tendency to overlap, as many of you noticed: one student’s example of metaphor could easily bleed into another student’s example of ambiguity, or irony. This is because there are smaller and larger uses for each of these figurative strategies (I will call them “local” vs. “global” effects, here in this post and elsewhere). For example, the personification of  the worm as a “fellow” in Dickinson’s “[A Bird, came down the Walk]” is a local metaphor: we need to decipher what the metaphor is substituting for, but it has little bearing on our reading except for that one line. But the metaphor of the flea for the speaker’s relationship with his beloved in Donne’s “The Flea” is a global effect: it seems to be what the poem is tasking the reader with figuring out, and it has ramifications for every part of the text. In fact, by convention we call this sort of global metaphor a conceit, and Donne’s poem is an oft-cited example of metaphysical conceits. But as time passes for the reader within the complex comparison of the speaker’s love to a flea, we might have good cause to wonder whether he is serious about the parasitic nature of the flea, or being ironic, and of course there might be times within the poem when the comparison seems one or the other, or even both (hence, ambiguity).

For this Friday’s blog post, I’d like you to pick a poem that is on the list for this week but not one of the three example posts that will follow this one, and perform a reading on it. Instead of being really prescriptive with my instructions, I’d like to leave the instructions minimal for what a reading is, beyond saying that a a close reading of a poem ought to include an argument about its meaning and to draw upon your recent acquaintance with textual analysis. Instead of assigning you to hunt for ambiguity, I’d like you to read my instructional pages carefully, pick a poem, determine for yourselves what you think the poem means, and then write up your reading in such a way that you support your claim with evidence from the text. This is a practice exercise for the types of writing you will compose on the exams, so although it won’t be graded I’ll offer direct feedback. It’s a low-pressure assignment to help you practice new skills, chief among which are precise use of defined terms, and robust explanations for your analysis (your glosses).

I think the first thing we need to be clear about is that arguments in English aren’t a free for all: not every claim is correct. Although I would agree that there are an infinite number of reasonable claims about a given poem, that’s like saying there are an infinite number of numbers between 1 and 2 in the set of real numbers. A number like “1.5” or “√2” are both reasonable members of that set; but 5 is wrong. So is i, because that’s an imaginary number. So you can’t, for example, argue that Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is about the Apollo Space Program. That’s impossible! But other readings are readily available for a poem like this one, and will have the advantage of being supportable with evidence too.

Throughout Tuesday’s twitter discussion, I have been trying to get students to be more precise with their comments, and the reason is that you need to be precise about an observation before you can use it to prove a larger point. Consider: whether you’re saying something like “I think the Jabberwocky refers to some child’s nightmare confabulation of many scary things” or ““I think the Jabberwocky refers to snails,” even though the first statement is probably more correct and interesting, neither statement is persuasive yet as an argument because no evidence has been given. In order to argue persuasively about texts, you need to cite words (specific moments, events, character details, speech), and then demonstrate how you can manipulate those words (by showing how they are ironic, ambiguous, or metaphorical, or by linking them to other words through rhyme, or by proving the text emphasizes them through meter, or via enjambment, etc) by linking your evidence to your claim through reasons. Keep in mind that we all read the same text, but we all come up with different interpretations when left to our own devices. So you will have to be able to demonstrate the persuasive appeal of your claim precisely because poems trigger subtly different responses in all of us — we need to explain ourselves fully because there’s no guarantee we’re all thinking the same thing.

So as you think about how you might prove a case to somebody about what a poem means, consider that a claim (thesis) usually is of a higher order of ambition than any of the body paragraphs. So the claim of a short analysis would tell the reader what (or why) the poem means, and the body paragraphs would generally set out to explain how you see the poem accomplishing that meaning, through the various methods we’ve talked about this week.  I’ll be looking to see that every piece of evidence you use is linked to the claim in some way (so that there are no mentions of rhyme scheme or meter that don’t support anything in particular, beyond a student proving that they can identify rhyme scheme or meter). I’ll also be searching for signs that you can be thorough with your reading and organized with your presentation. You might consider simply constructing one paragraph per technique or poetic element I suggest, and sticking to that element as you prove the claim. Or, you might think of two or three holistic ways in which the elements we’ve discussed might be made to support that claim, and then take me through those reasons talking about all the suggested elements in each paragraph (this path is suaver, and I like it better, and I will prize the effort you expend more highly, but I admit it’s a harder path for beginners).

What follows are three (four with the mystery poem) example readings of poetry, each of which will start with an introductory paragraph that poses a problem of interpretation and resolves it with a claim at the end of the paragraph, and then analyzes the poem to support that claim. Note: I’m not suggesting my examples will be exhaustive! Not every reading will require analysis of every bit of evidence from the text to be persuasive. I invite you to add comments to these posts (or to tweet me your feedback, if you prefer that) to let me know if I’ve forgotten to mention data that could support my claim, or to argue against my reading altogether.

“We Real Cool” Illustrated #vizpoem

I love the pairing of Stevens’s “Emperor of Ice Cream” with this poem, since both of them have an ambiguous relationship with ephemerality (that which is disconcertingly fleeting). The speakers (We) are seven in number, if we take the epigraph to apply specifically to the poem’s situation; they’re at a fictional pool hall called “The Golden Shovel,” which if that is a pun for playing pool it’s a pretty bad one. On the one hand much of what the speakers claim about themselves is a running boast designed to establish their coolness. On the other hand, that coolness comes at a price. But you’d have to compare the speakers’ claims (and their tone of arrogant awesomeness) to the presentation created by the enjambment of each line and the rhyme scheme in order to have any chance of parsing whether that last line is ironic or not.

Hey, she said "Golden Shovel," not Golden Eagle.

Hey, she said “Golden Shovel,” not Golden Eagle.

In other words, who is this poem’s persona? At first glance, it might be seven pool players, who dropped out of school, lurk late outside of a pool hall, often get into fights therein, admire those who break the law (“sing sin”) but not to the point that they do not wish to be caught for their own misdeeds — this is how I read “thin gin,” which is to pour water into a gin decanter so that nobody realizes you stole some. But even if it were possible for the seven of them to speak in unison, is it likely that they would admit their unsavory qualities (in however intimate a setting), or more to the point, that they would have the self-awareness requisite to realize they’re on a one-way trip to imminent dissolution?

I say no. It’s more likely that the persona is implicit, the person who imagined their claims to coolness and then set them up for examination. To this person, perhaps watching the seven of them from across the street, it would be far more plausible to call their cool strutting “lurking,” which is diction that has overtones of menacing loitering. She (let’s call her she, because why not) would also be more likely to call their actions sins than they would (they would call each of them “cool”). On the other hand, she would also need to know enough about pool halls to know what goes on inside them, to be able to recognize the seven of them as a type that she can impute thoughts to, to be able to sympathize or at least be half-drawn to their coolness, which she would need to be in order to romanticize at least some of their actions as “jazz June,” which I admit is a really cool phrase.

To “jazz June,” I expect, is to play the summer like a jazz piano — improvisationally, with virtuosic but always different music pouring from it. No two jazz sessions ought to be the same, and the summer is the time to do it, since that’s when the year’s energy peaks. There’s an art to the seven pool players’ performance of cool, surely. But it is known first and foremost for its one-time-only appeal, that when jazz is good it’s good in part because everything has come together in that one moment to produce a combination of riffs and extended showcases of different instruments, and you can’t guarantee that confluence will ever happen again. So the persona couples the rhyming “Jazz June” and “die soon,” which is an identification of the peak energy of cool with the ephemerality of an unusually short life. In that sense, the tone of this last line can either be seriously supportive of coolness needing a short life in order to constitute coolness, or ironically deflating the “we”‘s pretensions to coolness which will cut them off in their primes. There’s the poem’s essential ambiguity.

The enjambment of each line draws this out even further — the evidence of cool comes first in each line, from the opening claim of the seven players to the last line predicting their untimely deaths. Each line ends with an enjambed (and therefore interrupted) “We” after a slight pause following each claim sentence’s period. Their actions are more important, as a testament of coolness, than themselves; they are after all a collective “we,” an interchangeable group of seven players. The last line, of course, has no enjambed “we” at the end, in part because they’ve died by that point. As we miss what had up to that point seemed almost superfluous when compared with their awesome coolness, we recognize that we’ve now lost the possibility for any sort of specific knowledge about them: the poem is more specific about the pool hall than the loitering players.

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” illustrated #vizpoem

UPDATE: This poem has been updated. See below.

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is a poem about a woman who, like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, takes to creating a tapestry in order to convey the inner pain she can’t express in words. There’s nothing in the poem that speaks to the cause of that pain except “the massive weight of uncle’s wedding band” — something about her marriage to Uncle Jennifer’s Husband is very oppressive (or he gave her a uranium wedding ring which is heavy and radioactive to boot). So what’s wrong with their relationship? There’s no evidence that she was mistreated in any way. But there is evidence that it’s not even necessarily Uncle’s fault: the institution of marriage (as such) is the thing that weighs so heavily upon her: the ring. And the formal evidence of the poem’s scansion and of its odd metaphorical habit of treating tigers as if they were horses is how I will prove that this is a feminist poem written against the expectation that women were made to marry. I’m assuming the speaker is Aunt Jennifer’s niece, since she seems so preternaturally sympathetic to Aunt Jennifer’s situation, although vastly preferring her artistic achievement to the oppression that served as its catalyzing crucible.


“The Emperor of Ice Cream” illustrated #vizpoem

Wallace Stevens’s “Emperor of Ice Cream” is a great example of a poem that, while limiting itself to a relatively small number of poetic techniques, is still a nice little thought puzzle. Almost every phrase is both metaphorical and ironic; it’s a great example of poetry as compression: the attempt to squeeze absolutely everything that can be contained in the most economical fashion into the shortest amount of lines. It’s also an awesome reminder of why persona is a necessary shield for poet’s voices; the things Stevens hints at in this poem are not necessarily what he might want associated with him for realsies. For the case of this poem, the relatively reasonable proposition that desire trumps all other responsibilities and authorities gets modified in the second stanza (after the turn between the first and second utterances of the refrain, “the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream”) so that we gradually become aware of the speaker’s complicated relationship to a recently deceased woman whom he loves.

The first thing to reckon with is the artful use of diction to suggest profound ways of thinking about why we act in the ways we do: who is the emperor of ice cream? And no, it isn’t Haagendacz Q. Breyers, inventor of the sugar cone. Something poetic and punny is going on! “Emperor” suggests somebody in authority, somebody who outranks generals and politicians and kings, and here the emperor of ice cream isn’t some historical person like Napoleon, Emperor of the France, but something akin to the sound that comes out of this vehicle:

Bow down before my orange creamsicles!

Bow down before my Good Humor bars!