An Outbreak of Severalness
Literal Meanings are Packaged Commodities for Passive Consumers
By Wendy Bourgeois
—Dean Young, "House of Geodes"
Literal meanings are packaged commodities for passive consumers. In poetry the reader is incorporated into the work, and all the Lord’s people become prophets.
—Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body
As if I have nothing better to do, I kept thinking, than watch you jerk off.
Who was I talking to? I’d come to the lecture of my own free will, not like getting dragged to church or anything. And philosophers are just regular folks trying to puzzle things out like the rest of us, right? So what if he went long, re-explaining the point he could have made twice as elegantly in half the time? Maybe the rest of the audience wanted that overdetermined demonstration of onanistic pyrotechnics. Maybe they liked having the blanks filled in for them.
Well I don’t want my blanks filled against my will.
Jesus Christ. Clearly, I’d stumbled into some land mine of buried misandry that (hopefully) only exists with regard to philosophy. I wish this feeling didn’t have to do with gender, but I’m afraid it must, otherwise why all the genital metaphors? Why the poor waiter? Why did it feel like church, or like a friend says, “flipping the bird at a closed door?”
Norman O. Brown says in Love’s Body that in poetry the reader is incorporated into the gaps between meanings, so that “all the Lord’s people become prophets.” Maybe it’s my Protestant background, or maybe just megalomania, but I want to be a prophet. I want my language to do everything that Freud’s and Hegel’s does, but more elegantly, and in one hundred words or less. I want to leave gaps in the meaning as profound as entire books, and I want everyone to cheer. I also want, at sixty, to be smug, beaming, forty pounds overweight from all the expensive dinners I eat in out-of-town restaurants, and in general so replete with cultural capital that people wait in line to hear me blather.
(But sort of)
It’s funny to me that the only time I ever experience what by now I’m sure every armchair psychoanalyst reading this has accurately diagnosed as penis envy is in the world of books and ideas. Same place it came from. Freud learned a few things talking to all those smart neurotic women about what happens when intelligence coupled with a cast iron ego goes to waste. And I often wonder what would have happened to me as a writer and a person if I ever felt like I had infinite space and time to communicate whatever zany idea came into my little head. Would I have been a philosopher instead of a poet? Richard Rorty says only poets are free from the literal and the rest of us are “doomed to be philosophers.” This comforts me, but I won’t lie; my desire to generate some new theory, some new grand design, runs deep.
Still, my favorite poetic form is the sonnet. Sixteen lines to make an argument. That’s all you get to convince the reader or the beloved or yourself of your grand design. Strictly formal, and yet the best ones sound like they just fell out bed, tousled and perfect. They’re tiny things of great beauty, hard to make but cheap to buy. Like doll house furniture.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. In the spring she wrote about a line by John Ashbery.