Thursday, November 17, 2011

Carol Chan's Review of "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait"

I take my reviewers seriously. I take them seriously because I really like to know how my poetry impinges on an informed and acute sensibility. I take them seriously because I want to know the faults and limitations of my writing, and so learn how to write better. A negative review is more useful to me than a fulsome, ignorant one. What follows is my attempt to read a review carefully in order to understand its reservations and learn from it. It is also, of course, a piece of self-justification, but I hope it is not merely that.

Carol Chan does not like Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. For her the book "unfolds like a series of scientific experiments that don't quite take off." By "experiments" she means to indict me for being overly intellectual: "He frequently makes the wrong bet, falling in love with the idea of a poem, the idea of art." To support her contention, she quotes in full "Bulb" from the sequence "What We Call Vegetables." After criticizing the poem for its "weak" imagery and "clumsy" execution (though she acknowledges the poem's apt mimetic music), she judges that "The reason 'Bulb' exists is that it accompanies an idea, is part of an experiment...." That is true of the process of writing the sequence. I would not have written "Bulb" if I were not writing "Bud," "Leaf," "Stem," "Tuber," and "Fruit." Her description connotes, however, that the poem is merely an intellectual exercise, i.e. an experiment.

She continues, "But I'm not quite convinced that there is any substance here...." She then defines substance by referring to A.C. Bradley's 1901 lecture "Poetry for Poetry's Sake." She interprets Bradley as saying that "the poetic is that which satisfies the reader's contemplative imagination." The obvious implication is that "Bulb" does not satisfy her contemplative imagination. But why not? She does not explain of this poem. Is it because of the "weak" imagery? But what is weak about the poem's deployment of the onion image? No explanation. Is it because of the "clumsy" execution? But Chan herself commends how the poem's sound patterning "recreates aurally the acts of 'slipping', 'unbuttoning'."

A clue to her dissatisfaction may lie in the next part of her paraphrase of Bradley--"A poem convinces the reader of a particular world or moment it inhabits." A particular world or moment. I gloss that formulation by looking at the poems that do satisfy Chan's contemplative imagination. After praising the title sequence "Seven Studies for a Self Portrait" for its precision in words and imagery, Chan highlights the first three lines of "Study #3, After Vincent van Gogh":

God sank a mineshaft into me for a reason
I could not see in the coalmining district.
Coal dust ate the baby potatoes and beer.

She comments, "Not a word is out of place--the gravity and bleakness of much of van Gogh's work immediately translates onto the page with the apt word ("sank") and vague, ubiquitous detail ("coal dust")." Gravity and bleakness do characterize the "particular world" that the poem depicts. It is a "world" recognizably human, what with its mineshafts, coal dust, baby potatoes, beer and God.

Not so much a "world," but a particular "moment" is another extract that Chan quotes with approval, this one from "The Cave" in the sequence "Bull Eclogues" about a speaker very much like Ted Haggard, the ex-Evangelical pastor exposed for paying for gay sex.

At home it makes a smaller sound, the grief.
The click of a light switch. No mercy
in the darkness or the light the house repeats, 
but hiding for a time, however brief,
in me, as in my den, I hear the plea
of an unfired bullet in the drawer firing.

Chan reads this sensitively. She comments, "Koh's specific shade of grief is "the click of a light switch", startling, acute, blinding, immediately omnipresent," and then states flatly, "this is poetry--an experience composed of but cannot be reduced to that puree of sound, image, rhythm, substance." To my ears, "this is poetry" sounds dogmatic and absolute although it intends to praise. Sure, the lines are one form of poetry, but poetry comes in many forms. Contra Bradley, it is not limited to depicting a realistic world or a psychological moment. It may not be grounded in a recognizable lyric subjectivity. In fact, Seven Studies, as its name suggests (and not Seven Portraits, the shorthand that the review uses for the book), explores the different ways of looking at the self. The sequence "What We Call Vegetables" looks at the self as the communal "we," as still-life paintings that come to life, as a form of conceit linking human and vegetables. Here is "Onion," which Chan holds up as Exhibit A of my "inclination towards the cerebral, literary":

When we unbutton
our skin, our whole
body slips through, 
and leaves behind
more fleshy skin
for unbuttoning, 
and skinnier body
for slipping through
the shrinking hole. 
The rounded life.
An onion. A mouth.

The poem does not depict a world or a moment. That is not what it sets out to do. It enacts, instead, an idea of a form of life. Call the life self-devouring. Chan is right to call attention to the poem's ideation, but why can't such thoroughly enacted ideation provide something for a reader's "contemplative imagination"? The speaker is not van Gogh nor Ted Haggard, a lyric subjectivity; it is, instead, an onion, a mouth. The poem does not resemble Pope's "An Essay on Criticism" or protest poetry, but neither poetries would have fallen into the ambit of Bradley's definition either. When I wrote the sequence, I underestimated its challenge to a predominant, if fusty, view of poetry. Now I think that this sequence, and others to which Chan objects, gives the book whatever traction it has in questioning our sense of self.

Chan also feels the disjuncture between subject and form in the sequences "I Am My Names" and "A Lover's Recourse." "I think," she writes, "I could imagine the rationale behind his choice of the ghazal in his meditations of unrequited/lost love, and the riddle to explore responsibilities and definitions of the self--but I only understand these decisions intellectually." It is a pity that she does not expand on what she thinks is the rationale behind the choice of the forms. It is a curious feature of the review that it does not engage with any of the work's stated intellectual influences, not with the Nietzsche epigraph nor with the Roland Barthes of the ghazal sequence. Instead, Chan quotes Bradley and American critic Stephen Burt for an essentializing view of poetry--"this is poetry"--in order to find my book wanting.

When Chan comments on the riddle form, her critique puzzles me. "Visually, and read aloud, the riddle only almost works--the declarative answer at the end of each poem ... hints at pretension in the poet's claim to universality...." I don't understand how the answer to a riddle claims universality. An answer to a riddle is ... an answer to a riddle, somewhat gleeful if the answerer gets it wrong, somewhat deflated if the answerer gets it right. To give an answer like "My name is Anon. I am a father" seems more personal than universal. Personal too, the evasion of the poet's own name throughout the sequence.

Of the final ghazal sequence of the book, Chan writes, "Here, as in elsewhere, one gets the sense that Koh is writing for the sake of writing, because he has to fill up the pages...." As is typical of Chan's critical method throughout the review, she cites examples from the poetry without explaining why the quotations are "throwaway lines," "cliches," or "awkward imagery." Why is "Time is a river. That is if you are a fish./ If you are a sunflower, time is a fire" a throwaway line? Why are caves, windows, train stations necessarily cliches? She gives "door as apple's skin" as an instance of awkward imagery, but she gets the comparison wrong. I wrote "The apple wears its skin so well--I mean, so tight--/ I cannot find the catch to open the door."

And yet she can read the ghazal form sensitively. Of the bell ghazal, she writes, "In each couplet, the bell is variously a metaphor for the poet's ego, conscience, sexual desire, poetic voice and critic. The bell is presented via a different voice--a command, a musing, an irritation, an action, an effect. These voices and situations work with the central image to develop the complex tensions in desire, thought and action, rendering the abstract "bell" in the final couplet all the more meaningful and powerful in the light of the lines before...."

So alert to tones, Chan puzzles me when she fails to consider that apparently throwaway lines are intended to sound casual or flat. "I see I am the last man drinking in the bar" works only because of its starkness. Or that what Chan cites as "clumsy lines" have good reason to be awkward. In a road accident, the result is not always smooth-flowing but is often grotesque, as Frida Kahlo discovers: "a bus handrail is sticking in my uterus like a huge thumbtack." The sound must seem an echo to the sense, as Pope says. The sound of a line cannot be judged apart from its sense.

Chan has in mind a particular sound, just as she has in mind a particular conception of poetry. We all do, but it's worth asking ourselves whether our conception limits what we read and write or opens us to different senses and sounds. At one point in the review, Chan accuses me of intellectual "hubris." It is a severe charge, of impiety to the poetry gods. What then should I make of her conclusion on my book that "In his risk and search for the 'bigger picture' (meta-narrative and intellectual coherence of the collection), it seems that Koh has not quite come to terms with the value of poetry ... --what poetry is for, why we write." I am a proud man, but I don't assume that I know what poetry is for, and certainly don't think that everyone should agree on the same reason for writing. The presumption in "we" quite takes my breath away.


Featherless Biped said...

It's good to see you respond to a negative review. I'm usually more afraid to have negative responses to a poem than I ought to be, so it's helpful to have a demonstration that yes, it's OK not to like someone's poem if you have a reason, and it's OK to say so. Phew!

Jee Leong Koh said...

I think there are good and bad reasons for not liking a poem. Reasons are not created equal. What seems crucial to me is first understanding the poet's intention. Then one can evaluate whether the poet has achieved what he sets out to do. After which, one can evaluate whether the poet's aim was worth striving for.

Featherless Biped said...

Fair enough. In the case of someone who dislikes a poem because they've failed to understand it, I'd argue that the fault lies with the misunderstanding and not with the disliking. (As you observe at the beginning of your post, misguided praise is pointless too.) That might seem hairsplitting, but I think it is important to fostering a proper spirit of criticism. In Chan's particular case, I think you are right that she's not as clear about her reasons for disliking the book as she ought to be (so it's hard to evaluate whether they are good or bad).

As to the actual content of the review: do you understand what either Chan or Bradley means by "substance"? I ask because I am confused. Chan doesn't include a representative quote, and when I looked up the Bradley article on Gutenberg, I couldn't find the bit where he defines his terms. He introduces the word "substance" by contrasting it with "form", but that only helps if you know (a) what form is and (b) what kind of contrast is meant. (This is further complicated by his claim that form and content are "identical", but I think he's overstating things there, so I'm just going to pass over that.) My best guess is that "form" is the poem understood at the level of sonics and scansion--regimented sound, but not meaning--and "substance" is something like meaning or what I as a philosophy egghead would call "propositional content". But the onion poem clearly has propositional content: among other things, it claims that there are some onions, and that these onions are (like) people, and that the onions/people keep getting skinnier and skinnier.

Jee Leong Koh said...

It's a poem about dieting, obviously!