Three Varieties of Pleasure: Dean Rader’s Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry

/ /

The danger for Dean Rader’s Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry is that it will amount to little more than a book of gimmicks, a postmodern grab bag of gags. Certainly there are gags aplenty: there is the poem entitled “Poem of Prevarication to Begin the Second Section,” which, naturally, begins the second section of the book and is immediately followed by “Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite Title,” which has five multiple-choice-answer lines that theoretically allow readers to select a title; there is the poem entitled “The Poem Chooses Its Own Adventure,” which includes the lines, “The poem smells / like your ass. If you want the poem to smell like / something else, you have to skip down seven lines,” and later, “And now / it’s line 43, and the poem is tired of playing games, / and so it has finally decided, despite everything / you might have expected, to end it all right here”; and there is the poem entitled “Democracy; or Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite Last Line,” which consists of sections A through E, each of them identical for the first five lines but with a divergent sixth line. This last calls to mind Mark Strand’s “Elevator,” a squib consisting of two identical tercets, but Strand had the good sense to keep it short: his entire poem is the length of just one of Rader’s lettered sections. In any case, one could flip through Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry for a whole afternoon and mutter to oneself over and over, “Clever!” Books must be more than clever.

If Rader’s book succeeds as more, it is because it works interestingly at the metafictive level as a vehicle for thinking about poetry and the internet, suggesting between them some uncomfortable connections, among them obsessive self-referentiality and incessant self-perpetuation. One might begin with the table of contents: a rough count yields twenty-three instances of the word(s) “self-portrait,” and another half-dozen poems have titles with the word “poem” in them, as though readers needed reminding (#selfreferentiality). Others reference poets (“Not Long after Rich: A Study,” “Frost on Fire”), and still others invoke Paul Klee, Frog and Toad, and The Bachelorette. Culture builds culture, even in the table of contents, but it is a culture peculiarly tuned to the self and its products. Moreover, this is no mere matter of titles; the poems themselves also arise from a variety of texts. One includes an epigraph “attributed to Mark Twain, but its origins are unknown,” another begins with a quotation (but is it?) from a student paper (“In the ‘First Duino Elegy,’ my student writes, / Rilke uses form to convey meaning”), another incorporates “a line by Cole Swensen,” three are “after” such-and-such a poet, and a much larger batch begin with other more reliably sourced epigraphs. Thus, text begets text (#selfperpetuation). The net effect (#pun) of these attributions is a branching intertextuality that mirrors our hyperlinked world: all poems are connected, all art is connected, all people are connected.

Such connections contain within them the implication of the body politic, and indeed there are five poems that include the words “American Allegory” in the title, as well as the by-now expected sequence of five “American Self-Portrait” poems. For the most part, the politics espoused therein conform more or less to what you would expect from a twenty-first-century American poet, with perhaps a slight emphasis on economic justice. For example, “Want; or American Allegory III” begins,

Dear Mr. Bosch,

I have been watching a homeless man stuff straw
….. into the legs of his pants
we are in a park near a haystack he stands
….. over the stack staring long
into the absence of what he has removed
….. like a sculptor might gaze at
a block of granite after the excess is cut
….. away . . .

Later, the poem notes,

….. ….. ….. ….. . . . this morning a
….. report on poverty in
the United States said that there had never
….. been more people considered
poor even though nothing ever really goes
….. away . . .

The handling of the syllabics, of the line, and of the thematic material is fairly typical, albeit the braiding of present-day socioeconomic concerns with a sixteenth-century painting reminds me of several things. First, it echoes the work of Albert Goldbarth, who has a particular fondness for inviting twentieth-century America to talk back to Renaissance paintings. This, in turn, reminds me of a blurb on the back of Goldbarth’s Combinations of the Universe, where Joe David Bellamy is quoted as saying, “If the essence of poetry is performing ‘feats of associations,’ as Robert Frost used to claim, then Albert Goldbarth’s wild eclecticism is high art indeed . . .”—a high art that resembles, I might add, the hyperlinked world of the internet where four clicks can take you from the Wikipedia page for “Albert Goldbarth” to that for “armored car.” This hyperconnectivity—the infinite potential for poetry’s “feats of association”—might explain why Goldbarth shuns the internet, as he asserts in the “Acknowledgments” for The Kitchen Sink:

No computer was used in the creation and submission of these poems; and so some of the editors of the books and journals above have been especially accommodating during the production process . . . even the one who called me a “a pain in the patootie.” As for my insistent reliance on the typewriter over the computer: I will go down with this ship.

Perhaps that insistence derives from Goldbarth’s sense that the internet can too readily simplify what has traditionally made poetry an almost mystical medium: its ability to find counterintuitive, perhaps even revelatory, connections. By contrast, Rader revels in this overlap between the internet and poetry.

The Rader poem that most clearly links poetry and what Joseph Harrison dubs our “fave new world” is the one entitled “Poem for the World”:

The poem for the world begins like this:

The poem for the world is being updated

The poem for the world comes with fries

The poem for the world is
….. a) painted on the sides of buildings
….. b) ironed on T-shirts
….. c) carved into park benches
….. d) crowd-sourced in memes
….. e) on both eBay and Amazon Prime Now
….. f) censored in almost every country
….. g) all of the above

Here one finds an almost complete identification of poetry with technology-driven consumer culture. To further the self-referentiality, the poem riffs on other elements in the book (“Frog is reading the poem for the world to Toad,” “The poem for the world believes it can paint better than Paul Klee,” and “There is no Wikipedia entry for the poem of the world,” for example), and its conclusion is somewhat uncanny in that it feels like a cross between an art-will-change-our-lives affirmation and a repressive-totalitarian-government warning: “The poem for the world wants to write you[.]” I’ll bet it does.

That anaphora, by the way, is characteristic: repetition of all stripes is integral to this collection, one more indication that poetry, the internet, and indeed the world are self-perpetuating. Coupled with the repetition in and of titles, the structural procedures (e.g., each section ends with a poem responding to Paul Klee), and the recurring characters Frog and Toad, the many varieties of self-perpetuation suggest that Rader can create poetry out of anything (and sometimes, of course, out of nothing): one has a vision of an energy-efficient engine churning out “poems,” an engine that does not observe scare quotes. One need only set the machine going—by, say, realizing it’s time to write another Frog-and-Toad poem (and should that prove difficult, one need only look at a photograph by Andres Serrano)—and thereafter momentum itself will take over. “Relational Self-Portrait” is a villanelle; once you’ve got the first stanza, you’ve got half the poem. “America, I Do Not Call your Name without Hope” finds the phrase “this is a song for” in line eight, and the rest of the poem tells you what the song is for. “Becoming Klee, Becoming Color” hammers on “instead”:

Instead of the endless exercise of
….. the sketch, instead of the trace.

Instead of mimicking Manet from
….. memory, instead of absinthe and

afterglow. Instead of the screaming skull.
….. Instead of.

“American Self-Portrait V” describes “the day when Oklahoma gives everything back,” and the rest of the poem lists everything Oklahoma gives back. When in doubt, the book professes, repeat. This is also the logic of the meme: if at first you don’t succeed, meme again.

This clarifies what might be the bigger danger for the book—not that it will become a book of gimmicks, a postmodern grab bag of gags, but rather that it will become too successful an imitation of the thing it wishes to imitate. That is to say, the terms of Rader’s success may also be the measure of his work’s disappointments: the closer he gets to presenting an adequate mimesis of the internet, the less likely it is to be a satisfying cultural experience. After all, the internet, in cultural terms, is at best one big joke; at worst, it is an interminable meeting of raving malcontents or a species of lifeless proliferation. It represents less a culture than a crystalized cacophony, billions of voices shouting without very much to say. This might explain why Rader so often resorts to a sort of hand-wringing humor for his effects: anxious laughter is the internet’s truest soundtrack. In any case, to meditate upon and to imitate are two very different practices: while it is important for poets to meditate upon the internet—and, by extension, the wider digital-technology culture in which we find ourselves—it may be a very dangerous thing to try to adopt its tone or imitate its essence.

That said, I admire many of Rader’s effects. Conceptually, the book intrigues; structurally, the book satisfies. What I miss are lines that I might repeat to myself in the dark. Readers of poetry hunt for lines they believe—rightly or wrongly—may save their lives; and poets, at least upon occasion, must oblige. Unfortunately, I can imagine few lines from Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry winding up in Bartlett’s Quotations. Perhaps this is partly because Rader suspects the poetic tradition of being somewhat exhausted: as he writes in one of the haiku from “Frog and Toad Confront Bashō beneath the Wreckage of the Moon,”

Old pond, old water,
old poem, old sound, old frog,
old toad, old splash, old.

Old, old, old. There is a certain epuisé charm to this, but charm differs from enchantment as a pun differs from a metaphor. While I would not want to live in a world without puns, I could not survive in a world without metaphor. Yet even as Rader joshingly acknowledges the exhaustion of the tradition, he often leans on it with less-than-successful results. In “Frost on Fire,” he alludes to one of the granddaddies of American poetry:

….. ….. ….. ….. ….. ….. ….. ….. ….. Frost
Reminds us of what is to come—the snow,

The sky, the trees, the skin, the sleet, the sleep.
How often have I woken in fear, blind
In my unknowing? The woods are dark and deep,
Even in the day; still the mind will find

Its way into the light, into the bright
Thaw of this life, where we, both flake and flame,
Fire and fall through. Let sun daze, let night
Show day how to blaze, let death drop its name.

My question here is simple: is this good? Regardless of the presence of Mr. Frost, do these lines do good poetic work? At other times, Rader seems to throw up his hands at the very idea of poetry, a gesture that, again, perhaps has its charms but lacks all enchantment:

I want to save everything. Even the goat horns
you strapped to the skull of the little girl,
and yes, both of her hands. No, I don’t really
know what that means, but so what?

Indeed: so what?

Although a suspicion about the tradition might explain some of the shortcomings of these lines, there may be a simpler explanation: Rader’s poems lack quotable lines because quotable lines do not interest Rader. Note this passage from “Fun with Fake Truths: The Wikipedia Poem,” a short essay that appeared in Wingbeats II: Exercises and Practice in Poetry:

Creating prose poems can be a lot of fun because they free you from the tyranny of the line. I often talk about readers of poetry feeling “poetry angst,” but that can extend to writers as well. We feel pressure to deliver a big, gorgeous line; we want to knock out our audience with a turn of phrase or a singular image that will make readers weep with admiration and envy. And so we freeze up. Writing “poetry” is hard, in part because we only write in verse when we write poems. For better or worse, verse is a form that has a very limited use. On the other hand, we use prose for e-mails and essays and letters and fiction. We are fluent with prose; with that fluency expect for things to loosen up a bit.

Not only does this passage help explain Rader’s approach to technique—despite the intended point, “verse is a form that has a very limited use” might as well say the alphabet is really only good for spelling—but it also provides us with some of Rader’s goals: to relieve “poetry angst” in both reader and writer, to avoid freezing up, to be fluent (even if it means one’s poems are indistinguishable from e-mails), and to “loosen up a bit.” I recognize, of course, that these sentences come from a writing exercise, one that may be intended for beginners, but the implications here trouble me. Reading a writer decry the tyranny of the line is like hearing a jazz musician bemoan the tyranny of the saxophone.

What we have, then, is not so much a grab bag as a mixed one: this is a book that satisfies through its general structures, procedures, and ideas, but not through the specifics of its poems. It both pillories and pillages the poetic tradition. What centers the book is Rader’s remarkable bonhomie, his sense that poetry and the internet and the world are all part of the most grief-riddled, most complex, most marvelous conversation. Among my favorite poems was “Self-Portrait in Five Rooms,” which identifies itself as taking place at “Pablo Neruda’s house at Isla Negra.” The figuration here succeeds. Rader observes

from every
run through
the tiniest
of pins,
flagless poles
the creature
for some
lost poetic
I imagined
breaking free
a march,
of liberation,
the land
the way
an insurgency
unpins the
body of
its country.

Later, Rader captures superbly Web 2.0 poetics with the sentence, “Even the / voice of / this poem / is / now / part of your / collection,” and in the iconic minuscule lines and unbroken columns of Neruda’s odes. For me, both the politics and the poetics are at their strongest here. Rather than lamenting or lampooning the tradition, Rader engages with and builds upon it.

As I have waffled between disappointment and delight while thinking about this book, I have realized that Rader has taught me anew there are at least two distinct types of aesthetic pleasure in poetry: textural pleasure and architectural pleasure. C.S. Lewis helpfully reminded us of this years ago in his Preface to Paradise Lost:

The misunderstanding of the genus (narrative poetry) I have learned from looking into used copies of our great narrative poems. In them you find often enough a number of not very remarkable lines underscored with pencil in the first two pages, and all the rest of the book virgin. It is easy to see what has happened. The unfortunate reader has set out expecting “good lines”—little ebullient patches of delight—such as he is accustomed to find in lyrics, and has thought he was finding them in things that took his fancy for accidental reasons during the first five minutes; after that, finding that the poem cannot really be read in this way, he has given it up. Of the continuity of a long narrative poem, the subordination of the line to the paragraph and the paragraph to the Book and even of the Book to the whole, of the grand sweeping effects that take a quarter of an hour to develop themselves, he has had no conception.

This distinction proves useful, and to it I might add metafictive pleasures, although I would also add that these tend to be, at best, of the nature of a well-timed quotation at a dinner party: comedic, memorable, and without much substance. To elaborate more completely, I would identify textural pleasures as those we derive from lines, phrase-making, stanzaic ingenuity, and localized tropes; architectural pleasures as those we derive from the relationships of these parts to each other and to the whole, which is to say proportion, echo, narrative, and governing conceits; and metafictive pleasures as those we derive from the relationships between the work and its contexts, traditions, and winkingly acknowledged progenitors and peers. (Naturally, I mean this not as a comprehensive list but as a starting point.) Particularly if Rader’s book is considered as a single work—which, in some ways, it invites us to do through the titular repetitions and recurring motifs—then it succeeds on two of the three levels of pleasure enumerated here.

Yet the other thing I have learned is that textural pleasures are essential to poetic enjoyment, at least for this reader. Architectural pleasure tends to be intellectual and pattern-based: one perceives the pattern established (e.g., by ending every section with a Paul Klee poem), and one takes pleasure in both the recognition of that pattern and in the fruitful ways the pattern is complicated or even violated. Architectural pleasure also arises from sensing ourselves in good hands: we are reading a poet with an orderly and calculating mind, a poet with a plan. Textural pleasures, on the other hand, are immediate and often more sensuous. When one reads, “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon,” one feels the surprise of the sudden reiteration of “morning,” one savors the humming play of consonants in “morning” and “minion,” one starts back at the unexpected line break on “king- / dom,” and one swoons with the dizzying proliferation of d’s in “-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn,” not to mention the music of vowels in the caught-dawn-drawn sequence. These pleasures are explicable, of course, but they are also immediately perceptible, which is how they may differ from architectural pleasures. In great poets, surely all these pleasures work in concert. Even Milton, whom Mr. Lewis seems to criticize implicitly as a line-writer in our excerpted passage, has this to say:

With thee conversing, I forget all time:
All seasons, and their change, all please alike.
Sweet is the breath of Morn, her rising sweet . . .

One notes, for example, the musical connection between thee, seasons, please, and sweet. One notices that “With thee conversing” happens first, as though that conversation were the whole of the speaker’s world initially, and only at the end of the line does one see what has been forgotten: time. One notices how the third line here begins and ends with “sweet,” as though all of morning has been encapsulated in sweetness by way of epanalepsis. Of course, clearly if I am invoking epanalepsis to explain a pleasure, it is an intellectual pleasure in addition to a sensual one; moreover, any reader of fiction knows that one can feel the effects of architectural brilliance on the pulse (generally, in novelistic terms, it is called the climax); but I stand by the general principle that textural pleasures have immediate effects and architectural pleasures have considered effects.

The astute reader will note that I do not address metafictive pleasure above, nor do I intend to here. I will only offer a brief and tentative reason for not doing so. Metafictive pleasure locates the pleasure of the work outside of the work itself in a connection between the work and another work, the (dis)connection between the work and its generic expectations, or in the reader’s and writer’s cosmopolitan abandonment of artistic fictions (as in the breaking of the fourth wall). This seems to me of limited utility, and I doubt it can serve as a work’s primary vehicle of pleasure. Thinking about metafictive pleasure has also helped me refine my understanding of allusiveness: while allusions can certainly enhance appreciation of a poem even as they deepen understanding of it, they cannot be the primary vehicle of pleasure for the poem or the poem will concede its pleasure-giving capacities to some other work. What does this mean for The Waste Land? It means it better have some damn good lines.

A brief vignette will concretize this whole line of argument. I imagine an eager chef, a culinary artist of the highest order, serving a seven-course meal. “You’ll note,” the chef says, “that the dishes have been color-coded according to the spectrum of visible light: red, orange, yellow, and so forth.” “Ah, of course,” the dinner guest might say. “Additionally, all of the ingredients, when organized alphabetically, form a rhopalic list increasing one letter at a time.” “Marvelous!” the dinner guest might say. “In the sixth course, you can sense the whole history of the turnip!” the chef effuses. “Well,” the dinner guest might say. “Finally, the arrangement of vegetables throughout is an exact evocation of the historical meal shared by Pope Leo I and Attila the Hun while the former convinced the latter not to invade what would become Italy.” “Ah, yes,” the dinner guest might say, “of course.” And when the chef asks whether that dinner guest has enjoyed the meal, and the dinner guest apologizes and says no, the chef should not be surprised if the first thing the dinner guest says by way of explanation is, “It just didn’t taste very good.”

Of course, I might be participating in the very consumer capitalism and poetic commodification that Rader explores in Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry by presenting poetry as a meal—indeed, I might go so far as to call poetry a feast—but I have good precedent: in “Poem for the World,” Rader writes, “Ask not what the poem for the world can do for you, ask what the poem for the world wants for dessert.” Lines, Mr. Speaker, and not just for dessert. Big, gorgeous lines.