Monday, May 5, 2014

To the Lighthouse: Denis M. Garrison's Dreaming Room and Roland Barthes's Writerly Text

(updated on May 6: Part III: The Pleasure of the Text and one tanka added)

Part I: Denis M. Garrison's Dreaming Room

mounted butterfly
hanging under hardened glass
floating over cork
just enough room for your dreams
meadow breeze . . . a sapphire flash

Denis M. Garrison

... How does one write tanka, once one recognizes the essence of tanka? Amongst many correct answers to this question, the one I wish to clarify in this case is: “Leave the reader dreaming room.”

By “dreaming room,” I mean some empty space inside the poem which the reader can fill with his personal experience, from his unique social context. To the degree that any poet makes a poem so specific that the poet’s intent is forced upon the reader (i.e., the reader is led to the poet’s preconceived notions and conclusions), the reader is limited by the degree of congruence between his and the poet’s life experiences and values. Such a poem means one thing and only that. Readers feel compelled to “get the poem,” to correctly “understand” it. Given the current (and longstanding) fad of obscurantism in English poetry, “getting the poem” is a heavy burden, indeed, for the reader and hardly a pleasant one.

Everyone “gets” a good poem. Obscurantism is cover for incompetence, pomposity, a paucity of insight, and a host of other poetic shortcomings. Obscurantism is a classic technique for the creation of an elite on the basis of a faux meritocracy.

Tanka are notable for their accessibility. Why? Because most good tanka have “dreaming room.” They have been composed with the technique of understatement, of suggestiveness, of open-endedness. Words and details which limit the universality of the tanka have been omitted with careful attention to what is not said. What remains is a poem that is a framework upon which readers from widely different contexts can hang their own experiences and values and discover meaning, experience epiphany. What tanka poet and translator, Amelia Fielden, has called “a certain haziness” in tanka translates into clarity for individual readers. Hence, ambiguity is a positive value for tanka.

Tanka has a special dynamic, a cognitive tension, which is called a turn, that multiplies meaning. Part of the attraction and value of tanka is its special quality of dealing with the ineffable. It is this quality of tanka which puts tanka in the category of high art. This is the quality that was being sought in the pursuit of the “objective correlative” in imagism. Tanka specializes in existential paradox, that is, it does what cannot be done; it says what cannot be said. The secret at the heart of it is knowing what to leave out (like the beginning and end of the story), so that the reader can complete the poem so that it speaks eloquently and directly to him.

There is another lens through which to look at this same technique: the concept of multivalency. “Valence” is used in biology to refer to the forces of reaction and interaction and is used in chemistry to refer to the properties of atoms by which they have the power of combination. This informs the use of the adjective, “ambivalent,” which refers to confusion and uncertainty. So, we use the term “multivalency” to refer to the property of words to react to one another, interact with one another, to be fungible and suggestive. A multivalent tanka is one with dreaming room. It is a poem which may be read in many different ways, all of them correct. It is this freedom for the reader that we refer to as making the reader a co-creator of the poem. The reader’s experiential context determines the true meaning of the poem, for that reader.

If, in your indulgence, you have read this far, please indulge me further and return to the poem at the head of this article. Let us do an exercise. Read the poem as a drug addict. Now, read it as a political prisoner. Now, as an abused wife. Now, as a soldier. Now as a concerned ecologist. Etc., etc. ad infinitum.

I certainly am not suggesting that a tanka, to be tanka, must be capable of a full range of alternate readings. I am suggesting that a tanka gains potency through multivalency; that ambiguity is a positive value; that readers need room to dream their own dreams.

-- excerpted from Denis M. Garrison’s "Dreaming Room," which was first published in Modern English Tanka, 1:3, Spring 2007 (Thank Dennis M. Garrison for his kind permission).

Part II: Roland Barthes's Writerly Text

The poetic ideal, “dreaming room,”  explored in Garrison’s article is close to that of what Roland Barthes did in his 1971 book, titled S/Z, a structuralist analysis of Honoré de Balzac’s short story, "Sarrasine" --  writerly text:

The writerly text is a perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitably make it past) can be superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages (S/Z, p.5)

Based on the definition above, a writerly text is not fully complete, and it actively encourages the reader to take part in the creation of meaning(s) of the text, which means the reader is given "dreaming room" to fill in the gaps between the lines of the text, becoming  an active participant, co-author. In contrast to a writerly text, a readerly text does not locate the reader as a site of the production of meaning(s) (i.e., the reader as a co-producer), but only as the receiver of a fixed, predetermined reading as described in Garrison’s article:

To the degree that any poet makes a poem so specific that the poet’s intent is forced upon the reader (i.e., the reader is led to the poet’s preconceived notions and conclusions), the reader is limited by the degree of congruence between his and the poet’s life experiences and values. Such a poem means one thing and only that. Readers feel compelled to “get the poem,” to correctly “understand” it.

In accord with his proclamation made in a 1967 essay, titled “The Death of the Author,” Barthes insists, "the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text" (S/Z, p.4).

I conclude this post with the following tanka sequence written for Roland Barthes (12 November 1915 – 25 March 1980), which was first published in Lynx, 26:2, June 2011.

The Death of the Author

after opening
the envelop stuffed with my poems
I take out my heart
wash it clean
and start writing again

by a swarm of buzzing words
I squash them
in the rhythm of
short, long, short, long, long

I keep
stacking blocks of stanza
the poem collapses in silence
I am buried alive

under the gaze
of Calliope's love
my next poem
is about to take flight
but Heaven's window is shut

I skip
a stone of words
across the lake
of another time
another place

Note: For readers who like to know about Barthes's view of haiku explored in his 1970 book, titled Empire of Signs, see my Haijinx essay, "Breach of Meaning?: Roland Barthes’s View of Haiku"

Updated, May 6

Part III: The Pleasure of the Text

In his 1973 book, titled The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes divides the effects of texts into two: "pleasure" (plaisir) and "bliss" (jouissance, which carries the meaning of "orgasm"). This distinction corresponds to a further distinction Barthes makes between "readerly text" (texte lisible) and "writerly text" (texte scriptable).

The “pleasure” of a readerly text is to devour a well-crafted piece of work, to experience the emotions the reader is supposed to feel, and to get the secrets/meanings the reader is supposed to find. The text doesn’t challenge the reader’s position as a subject. The reader takes in the text passively, acting like a consumer who enjoys what has been produced for him/her.

On the contrary, the “bliss” of a writerly text  is to allow the reader to break out of his/her subject position due to the indeterminacy of the text, and see the "text’s unity as forever being re-established by its composition, the codes that form and constantly slide around within the text." The text can always be written anew by a participating reader who reenacts the actions of the author. It is when the reader sees the text from the writerly (NOT authorial) perspective that the reading experience is blissful, even orgasmic -- la petite mort! (The French phrase for "the little death" is an idiom and euphemism for orgasm)

La petite mort
rolling off her tongue ...
for me now
there is no separation
between sex and poetry
(for Roland Barthes)

1 comment:

  1. I just added three paragraphs to briefly explain "pleasure" (plaisir) and "bliss" (jouissance) explored in Roland Barthes's 1973 book, titled "The Pleasure of the Text" and one tanka written for him.