Date: Fri, 5 Jul 2002
Subject: Close reading close readings

It's nice that Andrew Rathmann is serializing these close readings (I like the project and its recurrence): it provides a recurrent, intermittent feature to the List, one of a different type than the vaguer but necessary opinionation and merchandise/reading promotion, --- sort of like television commericals or public service announcements interrupting regular programming. Brian Kim Stefans used to post "micro-reviews" of books on-List, similarly. One risk is that it can seem like "practice" for grown-up review-writing elsewhere, as Stefans indeed "graduated" to stop posting such here and publishing reviews in the likes of The Boston Review. Consistent with Andrews' stated endorsement of on-line poetry, he helpfully is relying on URL-trailable examples. But it's good, too, that Lawrence Upton takes Andrew to task for the somewhat gratuitous, casual assertions. (Then some Punch and Judy head-bopping!) Especially as one of the main features of these close readings, proceeding out of their over-all departure from the general rule of dialogue/symposium that governs the List, is to ignore any subsequent dialogue they spur (most of the close readings have been trailed by responses that Andrew does not answer ["when the girls came out to play Georgie Porgie ran away"-ism]), some of which replies, like the one about drag and blackface, are more "potent," memorable and volatile than the close readings themselves.

But given the ambivalence toward criticism that keeps variously expressing itself on the List, criticism itself should not be allowed to escape with its own transparencies and subterfuges, better in turn that it too should be subjected to close reading, to determine how its stylistic prerogatives succeed in maintaining a power position over the text in question (the real outcome of Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author" criticism, despite the earlier misinterpretations and objectionable gay-bashing that passed, like the attack on drag, unchallenged here ["Barthes, a frustrated gay writer, had to force himself into the critic-closet & his revenge was . . .", "while Foucault went to SF for the actual jouissance of MS, with unhappily lethal results]: the post-authorial critic is revealed and self-confessed to be a repertoire of rhetorical tropes, too. The "good" critic, like Barthes, should deconstruct himself, simultaneously).

Tomorrow, I'll go on a diet and eat only macrobiotic snacks, make parfaits using Rice Dream recipes.

It interests me, as someone who has published a handful of criticism/reviews that I vainfully pride myself upon, how the close readings (narrowly?) imitate a particular stripe of review-writing, readings that may be "close" but that are unadventurous in their style, reproducing a mode of extant criticism rather than wrenching after an innovative approach to the very role of critic itself. Reviews are a genre and the genre characteristics assert themselves with unconscious force, I'm all too aware: thus, glib cleverness like "have her persimmons and eat them too". ["Eat"? Did someone say "eat"?] Some others (like Lisa Samuels' "deformative criticism" or Benjamin Friedlander's tracings over previous criticism in Qui Parle, or the sort of neo-criticism that Telling It Slant advertises itself on, etc. . . . or even Tom Beckett's fleeting use of Tracing Paper criticism) take the interesting gauntlet of criticism to be that the critic now needs to depart from pre-designated and adopted modes as much as the poets under study. In a book like A Wild Salience, essays about Rae Armantrout, it even seems that "poets' criticism" equals the poems under discussion themselves in obscurity.

My chest is covered with a Hansel and Gretel trail of snack food, such as Cracker Jacks and Wheat Thins, handfuls of General Mills cereals, that I stuff my mouth with, gluttonously chomping, chomping as I type with my "free" hand, rolling along the floor to the scale to weigh myself again: yep, over 600 lb.

This familiar shadow of established critical tactics in the close readings, or sense of deja-vu (deja-lire), is there but somewhat difficult to pinpoint in the close readings --- a tendency toward, as Lawrence objected, unsubstantiated generalization; a structure that begins with an in media res assertion of either a question ("Why has the pun become so ubiquitous a device . . . ?"; "Who said the lyric speaker was dead?"), the proverbs of a canonical hero ("Heidegger says something to the effect . . ."), an imaginary controversy ("Language writing's censorship of the individual voice", "The works of a number of younger poets, especially post-MFA poets, reflect a desire to get out of the workshop mode") that concerns itself with surveying, in fact, not the close reading of a single poem but continually treating poets as a sort of flock, multitude, concerned with what ~many~ poets are doing and then deducing down from that bird's-eye view, ---or such, which introduction becomes the pretext for a loosely drawn "issue" or ersatz critical thought which the close reading is then played off of (so that the tension of the close reading is displaced onto how the text addresses that straw dog issue, defusing the protagonist-antagonist relation between poet and critic, . . . a checkmate that still, as in provoking Lawrence's objection, filters through [pyoo?]).

But the general flavor that is left, and that is so familiar from prior criticism, is the disappearance act of the close reader into a semi-objectivized stance, an impersonalization, ironically, at the same time as taking exception with the de-personalized poetic mode. Compare, instead, other critical (earlier) modes, such as Melville's "Hawthorne and His Mosses" [title??], for example, where the critical posture was effusive, rapturous, even eroticized enthusiasm and self-depiction (Melville portraying himself as chancing upon the book and reading it lying down in hay in a barn or open field), or Pound's schizo-critical correspondences, which critiqued by frothing at the mouth. The movement toward feminist "personal criticism" called that impersonal façade "Archimidean" (in the sense of: give me a point outside the world and I will be able to move the world with a lever), and regarded it as untrustworthy because it erases its basis in gender, class, and such.

Later, I can eat a Beef Jerky Yum. Salty meat snacks.


Curiously, the close readings are able to keep the pressure of re-personalization stifled for only so long, and they habitually end with striking frequency (unconscious self-imitation) on a valedictory sentence where the strain it takes to keep "I" out of the picture falters and the first person (singular or plural) re-enters only to depart, much like the similar, well-known habit of pronouns at the closing line of a John Ashbery poem ["I promise the sun was a switch, or tickler", "if we should ever get to know them", "We may live more patently . . .", "I think / the theme created itself . . .", etc., etc., etc., from Can You Hear, Little Birdie or elsewhere].

Rathmann close reading closing sentences, after an otherwise "I"-hygenicized critical screen: "I myself think her refusals of solemnity pay off in many cases", "At least we can see . . .", "I think poetry is better served by Option #2", "I wonder if [Rebecca] Wolff will become more song-like".