Saturday, January 27, 2007

Readers' Responses to "Beautiful Suspect": Some Thoughts

Some readers posted thought-provoking comments on my poem, "Beautiful Suspect." I am posting here my thoughts on their comments. My reply may make more sense if you read their comments first.

Thank you, Anonymous, Greg, monkey and Larry for your thoughtful responses to the poem and to each other. I only wish the "poem," not even a draft but a jotting down of ideas and phrases, deserve such deliberations. The discussion is important, of course, because of the issues raised by the "poem."

I frame these interrelated issues thus:
(1) What is the relationship between the speaker and the author of a poem? What is at stake when we conflate the two, as we so easily and commonly do?

(2) Should an author treat subject matter of a dubious morality, in a manner that that is not condemnatory nor ironic? This assumes that the author, in his real person, thinks of the subject as immoral in the first place.

My thinking on the first question:
The basic relationship between the author and the speaker is one of creator and creature. The creature may be made in the image of the creator (possessing some of the creator's autobiography, attitudes, intelligence, and what have you) but the creature is not the creator. But some creatures are more like the creator than others. In the Christian account, man is more like God than a platypus is. So some speakers are more like their authors than some other authors' creatures. Even within the same species, some men, and most women, are, arguably, more like God than others. So within a single poet's work, some of his speakers are more like him than others.

Monkey reminds us of the useful concept of "implied author." The concept is useful not only because it emphasizes the differences between speaker, implied author and actual author, and how those differences play out differently in different texts, but the concept is also useful because "implied" reminds us that our ideas of that author is an act of interpretation. So Larry read the implied author as a mock confessional portrait of a young gay man wanting to make it but frightened by the terrors of the city, while the first Anon read the author as a self-hating Foley. Also, "implied author" is a critical (i.e. readerly concept). As a writer, I think of the speaker and him as both creations.

If we have read much and well, we know all this, and yet we so often conflate speaker and author. Why? One reason could be that we read poems to confirm our own understanding of the world. So we read something in a poem that triggers a response in us, and we want to praise or condemn it.

Praise, almost always, means the poem says something we agree with; condemnation means the opposite. But both come from the same source. We become literalists when we praise or condemn a poem's content. What is the alternative attitude? Keats's negative capability, with which we hold the mind open to ambiguities, nuances and possibilities, with which we resist reducing a poem to a message, whether Satan's or Gabriel's.

Does that mean the author can get away with saying anything? Perhaps. At the very least, a poem grants the privileges of a careful hearing and of a suspension of judgment. For me, that is the fun of reading and writing poems. That is why literature, in the ocean of texts and media, is so vital.

I find myself at the second question. I think of monkey's response to Kundera's "The Hitchhiking Game," and I bless his soul. If it were up to the woman friend who read the same story, she would have burned the book, abetted by the male friend who was swayed by her view. My "poem" is no masterpiece like Kundera's, but the principle is the same. The only relevant judgment is whether the literary work is psychologically simplistic or complex, aesthetically ugly or beautiful. (And I think that kind of judgment is inapplicable to a poem that is not even a first draft. Thanks, Larry, for the aesthetic suggestions for the poem.)

But I think monkey hesitates over some of the implications of his intuition. He is disturbed, like Larry, by the apparently flippant tone of "The Poem as Autobiography." But, in terms of appropriacy for literary treatment, what essential difference lies between flippancy towards child abuse and denigration of women? Is child abuse more prevalent? More damaging? Is flippancy more dangerous than hatred? More simplistic? Answers to that question quickly run into trouble. This probably signals my limitation, but I sincerely cannot see any difference.

Larry provides a clue to the disturbance felt. He described child abuse as a taboo. It is a strong taboo in this historical moment, one reason why writers want to write about it. In so many poems, child abuse gives the abused speaker's voice authority and sympathy, qualities so alluring to a poet marginalized within the wider culture. That allure is one reason why I exploit, and question, that topic in my poem. So in my mind, both Larry's and monkey's responses to the poem justify my choice of the topic. Of course, what you are reading here is self-justification after the fact.

Eagleton defines a poem, in part, as "a fictional moral statement." However much we want a poem to give us unmediated access to the writer's mind, a poem is a fiction, or, in my terms, a creation. I am beginning to see the moral "statement" my poems make: my poems give me permission to say anything I want in any manner I wish. To put it in an unattractively self-aggrandizing manner, it is a moral vision that values every thought and feeling the human is capable of thinking and feeling.

I want to thank you again for giving me your thoughts on these issues. Your opinions have made me think, and will continue to do so.

7 comments:

Rui said...

"The only relevant judgment is whether the literary work is psychologically simplistic or complex, aesthetically ugly or beautiful."

Lolita! one of my all-time favourite novels. not being humberthumbert myself, i dunno if it's psychologically *realistic*, but it doesn't strike me as simplistic, and as for aesthetic beauty - well, the writing has got to be among the most swoonfully breathtaking writing i've ever come across anywhere.

and i kinda like reading stuff that jars, that makes me uncomfortable. when i'm in the mood for that sort of thing, anyways. i think there's only that much being jarred anyone can take. at other times i just wanna read literary comfort food or terry pratchett. :)

though i'm still thinking about what to think about pple who don't know how to read and end up interpreting things weirdly. i mean, i'm all for *valuing* every thought and feeling the human is capable of thinking and feeling, but valuing does not necessarily mean endorsing.

2 cents. :)

monkey said...

Hi Jee Leong,

I could feel just as disturbed, if not more, by denigration of women in a work of literature. I reacted differently to Kundera's story because (having read little of his other work) I saw misogyny in the character but not the implied author, and I did not feel that the story denigrated women. Regarding my friend's position, I honestly don't know how I would feel if I were in her shoes - i.e., if Kundera had written a similar story with the abuse directed at an oppressed group that I belong to.

You write, "The only relevant judgment is whether the literary work is psychologically simplistic or complex, aesthetically ugly or beautiful." I agree as far as literary value is concerned, but I think it's appropriate to ask ethical questions that go beyond literary value.

I'll confess that I don't know any more about the "implied author" concept than what's in the Wikipedia entries I linked to. I think I came across it many years ago in the table of contents of Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep, but I didn't actually read the book. I remembered the term while thinking about my reactions to the two poems, and when I looked it up, it seemed to fit. I ought to read Booth's book - he's concerned with the relationship between literature and ethics.

These are difficult questions and I appreciate all the thought you've put into your response.

Greg said...

Jee Leong, I especially appreciate your comment that "At the very least, a poem grants the privileges of a careful hearing and of a suspension of judgment. For me, that is the fun of reading and writing poems. That is why literature, in the ocean of texts and media, is so vital." If I understand you correctly (in this entry and others), for you that view is connected to morality--to the view that there is something morally worthwhile about NOT judging but instead carefully listening. I agree with, and like very much, that insight as well.

Connected to this, the phrase "art loves chains" has been in my mind as I've read this set of blogs & responses. I've been thinking of creativity as involving sometimes resistance to, and even hatred of, defining judgments, while also (paradoxically) as needing a framework of definite ideas, or judgments, to play off of. These definite ideas/judgments could include pro-women ideas, misogynistic ideas, pro-gay ideas, homophobic ideas, ideas about what does and does not constitute skillful use of language, etc.

How are others struck by this way of viewing creativity as interplay between constraint and freedom, or between judgment and suspension of judgment for authenticity's sake? Could it be useful for considering more deeply the topics of this ongoing discussion?

Larry said...

Well, here's some tinder for the discussion:

The Source

I sucked my father's dick
when I was only five.
Some say that it can make you sick
but I sure did survive.

I've sucked so many dicks,
I've long since lost the count,
but not one matched that early fix
when Father was my fount.

Larry said...

I am beginning to see the moral "statement" my poems make: my poems give me permission to say anything I want in any manner I wish. To put it in an unattractively self-aggrandizing manner, It is a moral vision that values every thought and feeling the human is capable of thinking and feeling.

This is surely wrong, as it obliterates any distiction between good and bad writing, and voids any critical evaluation of what is written. Your right to express yourself is never in question (except in your own mind, which might push you to write poetry as an act of defiance) - it is the value of the expression which comes under consideration. I refuse to believe you equally value any thought that people are capable of thinking. You might have meant to say that you have a willingness to explore repressed ideas and behavior, but unless you do it artfully and intelligently, you will end up boring everyone but the least sophisticated readers.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi rui,
I agree that valuing a feeling or thought does not mean endorsing it. Thanks for your two cents!

Hi monkey,
thanks for clarifying your viewpoint. I am reminded of a point made, I think, by Isaiah Berlin, that each ethical situation (or poem) should be judged based on its own merits and circumstances, and not by some grand abstract principles. My abstract statements defending my practice are, I hope, open to the nuances and details of particular cases, and do not rigidify into a code.

Hi larry,
"The only relevant judgment is whether the literary work is psychologically simplistic or complex, aesthetically ugly or beautiful."

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, greg, for weighing in with your ideas.

Jee Leong