Gatekeepers (Part Three), on comparing apples to desperate, near-extinct marsupials braving the Pacific in coconut dinghies
At its most basic, a literary editor’s job is a series of “either/or” decisions, or a long and hopefully-not-very-drunken game of “would you rather”: the editor takes a stack of poems/stories/essays and weighs them against each other to choose what gets published and what does not. This is the most-fundamental-possible description of the job: editors judge quality, however subjective “quality” may be; they accept and they reject.
This task is pretty straightforward during early rounds of editorial consideration. But as the field of contenders for an issue narrows, often warranting long, drawn-out discussions, editors frequently have to make quality-judgments about two or more works which are so drastically different that comparing them to each other seems impossible and absurd.
Yet editors have to compare them. When a team of editors has a disagreement, a discussion is necessary, and some works of literature are just-plain-easier to discuss than others. This might seem like a minor problem, but it has a huge impact on what gets accepted and rejected by many journals. At least in my own experience, easier-to-discuss poems or stories are more likely to carry the day: traditional lyric, narrative, or discursive writing will typically win out over more language-centered, process-oriented, or surrealist texts that resist conventional explanation, precisely because they resist explanation.
It’s my objective here to suggest why this might be true, to explore whether it’s true by accident or by necessity, and to suggest how we might overcome what is essentially a problem of language, not an issue of quality.
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Recently I served on an editorial panel with my long-time friend and fellow poet Laura Eve Engel, whose late-night, cocktail-fueled conversations have contributed immensely to this essay (though she hasn’t exactly signed off on it, and so should not be held to anything I claim here). During its discussion, the panel hit an aesthetic deadlock regarding two packets of poems. Forgive my vagueness as I attempt to describe each packet without outing the poets or panelists involved:
Poem Packet One consisted of narrative, descriptive-meditative poems that seemed to explore the poet’s path to adulthood through childhood memories of the poet’s parents. It contained arresting similes and metaphors, was rhetorically convincing, and did not stray from the actual lived experience of the poet, as far as any of us could guess.
By contrast, Poem Packet Two was what some might call “disjunctive” or “dissociative,” using clashing diction and off-the-wall imagery to draw attention to and comment on its own attempted acts of sense-making. By turns jokey and sentimental, straightforward and opaque, Packet Two’s intentions were clearly very different than the intentions of Packet One—it was much more meta-textual, and much more invested in “making strange.”
Some members of the editorial panel loved Packet One better than any other contender, partly because of its accessibility and simplicity, but hated Packet Two for its arbitrariness and lack of meaning. Laura Eve and I, on the other hand, disliked Packet One for its limited imagination and its contentment to stay within the well-trod bounds of narrative and rhetorical convention, whereas we admired Packet Two for its constant endeavors to push outside of its own control and understanding.
In other words, we liked Packet Two partly because we could not fully explain what we liked about it or how it worked… the moment we attempted to describe what an individual poem from Packet Two was “about,” I felt that we had already lost the argument, and that we were doing the poem a great disservice by trying to pin down its intentions or meaning. It was as if the panelists were speaking different languages, despite the fact that we were all admirers of one another’s work.
What was happening here? Did Laura Eve and I simply lack a sufficient vocabulary to express what we loved about Packet Two, to discuss the exact nature of the tonal peculiarities created by its diction-clashes and surrealist imagery? The defenders of Packet One were able to explain how and why its similes and metaphors “worked,” whereas I couldn’t do the same for Packet Two, nor did I particularly want to. Moreover, the ease with which a person could describe what Packet One was “about” and how it created meaning was part of what I disliked about it.
Can there be a vocabulary for mystery? How does one defend, with words, what seems un-nameable? How can one win an argument without making one? And if poets developed a more exact vocabulary or classification system for the ways that a surrealist poem makes meaning—or for that matter a language poem, though I’m sticking to surrealism here for the sake of brevity—wouldn’t it defeat the entire purpose of surrealism or language poetry?
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Fortunately I am nowhere near the first to wrestle with these questions. In 1918, Pierre Reverdy made the following statements about the use of unsummarizable imagery, which André Breton then quoted in his 1924 “Manifesto de Surrealism.” Reverdy wrote, “The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison, but from a juxtaposition of more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between two juxtaposed realities is both distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality” [emphasis added].
If you read that quote and think it sounds like a load of pretentious bullshit, believe me I sympathize—the French Surrealists weren’t shy to make sweeping generalities about “reality” and “purity,” and we are right to scoff at them a little. Furthermore, Reverdy’s formula suggests that traditional similes or metaphors, because they are for the most part explainable, somehow aren’t as poetic as less-easily-definable methods of image-making, which seems like an awfully exaggerated and short-sighted insinuation; we harm ourselves by limiting what’s permissible when it comes to poetic imagery. But Reverdy’s notion of distance and truth can be useful if we turn it into something more pragmatic.
Below is a diagram I use when I teach “the poetic image” to my undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin. It models the distance of a poetic image from the idea or scenario it is meant to represent or otherwise correspond to. At the far left, we have the referent itself (in this case, “a troubled but loving intimate relationship”). And at the far right, we have an image with absolutely no perceivable connection to the referent—visually, tonally, sonically: the connection is as close to “zero” as possible within the bounds of language.
In general, I think most writers and critics would agree that as we move to the right on this scale, the images become less and less clearly representative of “a troubled but loving intimate relationship.” And yet, we don’t have words (as far as I know, and please, readers, tell me if I’m wrong!) that represent the degree of distance from referent-to-image for the vast majority of the stages on the right-hand side of this diagram.
On the left-hand side, we can’t really call “a couple alternately bickering and making out on the L-Train” a simile for “a troubled but loving intimate relationship”; rather, it’s even closer to the referent than a simile: it’s more like an example or a corollary, in the same way that the-Korean-War-as-depicted-in-M.A.S.H. might be a corollary for, but is not a simile for, the war in Vietnam. One step to the right we have something that could easily operate as a simile, though: “two squirrels chasing each other through snow.” If pressed to interpret this image, we might say that the squirrels represent the couple, the chasing represents both desire and conflict, and the snow represents coldness or hardship. These images aren’t hard to read.
Another step to the right, we have a metaphor: “the pepper shaker has salt in it, the salt has pepper, but everyone knows that, so it doesn’t matter.” Here we could argue with little contention that the two shakers could be understood to represent the couple; things are fundamentally wrong for them—things are backwards—but it’s a backwardness that is easy to understand and to work around.
But then we get “The lightning-struck tree lives on.” Do we have a word, a universally understood literary term, for how this relates to “a troubled but loving intimate relationship?” I don’t think we do. This image is a symbol of perseverance in hardship, which has something in common with “a troubled but loving intimate relationship,” but it’s not close enough to be a metaphor. And I don’t think we have words to describe the degree of distance for the next few steps to the right, either, until we hit “a near-extinct marsupial braves the Pacific in a coconut dinghy,” which we’d be correct to call nonsense.
There are no words to describe the images on the right side of this scale. Arguments between the right side and the left side of this spectrum therefore tend to resolve in the left side’s favor because the left side has a vocabulary to explain how it functions. Arguments necessitate words; they necessitate vocabulary. But most proponents of the right side actively resist creating such a vocabulary. In his 1924 manifesto, Breton wrote, “The countless kinds of Surrealist images would require a classification which I do not intend to make today,” and as far as I know (though admittedly, my knowledge is limited), the day never came when Breton or anyone else detailed such a classification.
Maybe it’s good that he didn’t. As Louis Althusser and Lord Voldemort both know, to “name” something can mean to make it controllable, and thereby to rob it of its power. If we were to catalogue and make sense of the various kinds of image-making used by the surrealists, or the various means of linguistic disjunction employed by much language poetry, would it still mean as much on an emotional or a psychological level as it does today? Or would the very act of naming spoil its mystery and allure?
I’m going to venture a guess here: No, it wouldn’t. When we read Phil Levine or Mary Oliver or Marie Howe or Mark Doty or Robert Hass, it’s not often that we are perplexed by their meaning, or how their images function. And yet, it doesn’t ruin our enjoyment of their poems. The same would be true of surrealist methodology: having an accurate and unpretentious vocabulary to discuss surrealism will only help us to articulate its merits, and perhaps to push surrealism into more interesting (and yeah, maybe, even more un-nameable) territory.