Monday, April 23, 2012

Canned Tomatoes

Except when the dog is barking in her sleep, a train is blaring through Gainesville and diced tomatoes are eating through my stomach lining at the same time I am chewing literary cud, I rarely give up, get out of bed and surrender to middle-of-the-night writing urges, usually because I am too lazy, but more often because I don't want to make getting up at the right time more difficult.  But this morning (and my clock reads 3:41) I thought, "Katherine, all great writers sleep with notebooks by the bed and jot down the brilliant ideas that come to them in the wee hours."  Well, I'm not great, I don't sleep near a notebook, and I am just now wondering if "wee hours" were named that because that's when we usually have to abandon covers and slog our way to the bathroom.  I don't have to wee, though the dog does (doesn't she always?) but I thought I would give in to my impulse and just deal with the daytime sleepiness that might or might not follow.

I'm procrastinating.  I've edited those lines above several times now because I think I am still a bit fuzzy headed and I don't want to add to the pool of rot that already plagues the Internet.  "But you can always edit later, Katherine," my invisible writing friend tells me.  "So get to the point and then get back to bed."

Okay, but let me begin by saying this entry started in my head Sunday afternoon at our church writers' group where a regular member, Bill, who is a genius (seriously), injected us with his piece aimed at literary critics whom, he asserts, missed the obvious in interpreting Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar."  Bill's ideas were grounded in a school of critical theory called New Criticism, which I know little about except to say, based on what I do know and on Bill's description, I think it's limited, like all schools of thought.  I don't think Bill is a hardcore follower of New Criticism, but it's not my intention to represent Bill or anyone else here.  This is more about the conversation that has continued in my head long after our workshop ended.

I am anti-single-school-of-any-thought.  I think schools of thought tend to be exclusionary, and I'm pretty much anti-exclusionary in every area of my life, which brings me to my belief that everything is metaphor.  Critical theories are metaphors for exclusionary behaviors.  Exclusionary behaviors are evident in every culture and history.  Racism, discrimination, classicism--how are these similar to strict adherence a single philosophy?  Ooops...I am getting way ahead of myself, into the example before I introduce my own theory which is, of course, superior because it's mine, making me an ironic metaphor for literary critics or a satire of myself--it's getting a bit muddy, now.  Let's start over.

Here's are my two main ideas in their simplest forms:

1.  Everything is a metaphor because everything in the universe is connected to everything else; therefore, nothing exists in complete isolation, which means everything can be compared to something.

2.  Since all communications are filtered through a receiver (in this case, words read by an audience), every piece of literature, for better or worse, becomes deconstructed, whether we believe in deconstruction theories or not.

Note on my number two: I am not a deconstructionist, if for no other reason than, as I mentioned before, I don't adhere to any one school of thought in any discipline.  (This refusal to sign over my will to a particular philosophy could be used as a metaphor for my spiritual life: I'm Unitarian.)

I would be hard pressed to tell you how those two ideas fit into the fascinating argument we had during the group except to say there was a lot of talk about how to interpret poetry.  Bill's point was that the literary critics missed the obvious in interpreting Stevens' piece--that the jar referred to moonshine and the rest of the poem, the economy surrounding the industry, something I could not refute because I had not read the critical pieces, nor am I familiar with the history of liquor making in Tennessee.  I accused Bill of being a literalist, and he accused me of over-thinking, all in the spirit of respectful debate.  The more he explained his views on moonshine and the economy, the more I believed he was heading towards Marxist theory, and when he cited Wallace's background, I told him he was using a historical approach. Twenty or so minutes of discussion and wading through sometimes vague literary terms yielded a kind of consensus that poetry should be read first for what is simply on the page and then for the extended meaning.

So why am I still thinking about this?  First, I have had a pretty active writing month, much of which has included writing poetry and analyzing my own processes.  Second, I am always fascinated by the ways in which people interpret writing, especially poetry.  Third, I usually find metaphors and extended metaphors far more interesting than simply what is on the page.  I told my writing group I hope no one ever reads my work in a purely literal fashion because, as I have said here, to me, everything is metaphor.  In fact, I have already written a Haynaku on this, a metaphor for our group discussion and everything else in the cosmos:

little literally.
I'm mostly metaphor.

What I love about metaphor is not only its abundance, but its scope.  I needn't travel a theoretical universe to find profundity--picking a pebble off the floor, watching my cursor blink, eating Tums after canned tomatoes--these are the things that make metaphor, that make poetry, that make connections with seemingly disconnected elements of life.  Try reading a poem and asking, "What is the writer trying to say?"  The answer might not be too clear.  We aren't the writer, and words are slippery.  But try asking, "What in the world, in the universe, in my head, is similar to what I am reading?"  Now there is meaning, the spark of understanding.

When I say I write poems I hope are accessible to most readers, I am not saying that what's on the page is simply what's on the page.  I try to make what's on the page intelligible so that everyone can get something out of the piece without having to worry about missing the "secret meaning," the "hidden message" our English teachers always seemed to find but we never could.  I don't want to scare my readers away from poetry.  On the other hand, I wouldn't want anyone to mistake my work for the purely literal or the superficial.  My poems aren't as random as they might appear.  The applications of image and idea are never limited to the concrete unless the reader chooses them to be.

I read the same way I write--for the basics, yes, but then for the more important extended meaning via the metaphors, the similarities, the connections.  Perhaps strangely, I live the same way I read and write.  The way I perceive the world isn't exactly straight forward.  The way I think about things is sometimes considered odd by the mainstream, illogical by the scientific minded and stupid by the pragmatics.  I would say, then, that my writing is a metaphor for my life and that literary critics are metaphors for all critics.  So here's some canned tomatoes for you, critics:

are loud
crickets. Shut up.

And thank you, Bill, for the intellectual stimulation.  You really are brilliant.

I might edit this when the hours are not so wee.

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