Sunday, December 02, 2012

From the "Dumbest Joke Ever" file

The poem is everything else except the lines on the page
By Brian Doyle
from The Oregonian
I have a friend who calls himself a poet because he published a poem in a magazine once, but then for fun he published the exact same poem in another magazine, just to see if he could, and ever since it's been the deluge. By his count he has published the exact same poem in 11 little magazines and journals and reviews and webzines so far. He has published no other poem in his poetic career than that poem, which I have to say is a pretty good poem, although reading it 11 times, as I have, dilutes the salt and song of it a little -- I know where the surprises are, the twists of phrase, the way he cracks his lines so they have a little extra pop and swerve in them. Still, though, as he likes to say, it's a pretty good poem, serviceable, sturdy, not too self-absorbed and self-obsessed and self-indulgent like so many poems are, and as there are no sudden phrases in French or Greek, which happens sometimes in arty poems, and when that linguistic crime occurs, as he says, you want to get a serious baseball bat and have at the ankles of the arty poet for being such a pretentious doofus, although cracking poets on the ankles for being such narcissistic dolts is frowned upon, even by editors, some of whom actually do have baseball bats in their offices, in case of emergencies. 
[So unpack this with me.  Or maybe not.  Maybe we should just make jokes.  Jokes are probably the best course of action at this point.  But, be careful, this next bit gets pretty existential.]
I have asked my friend why he is so intent on publishing this one poem over and over again and he pretty much has a different answer every time I ask the question. Sometimes he says he thinks it is a fine poem and the more times it appears the better, on principle. Sometimes he says it's an indictment of our culture that so few people read poems that no one yet has noticed that he publishes the same poem over and over again. Sometimes, on dark days, he says I guess I am not much of a poet, because it looks like all I have is the one poem in me and I am wedded to it until death do us part. Sometimes he says he is playing a shell game with poetry magazine editors, and he does not feel bad about that because it's not like he is getting paid anyway. Sometimes he says his calculus is that poetry magazines are read by so few people that each time the poem is published it is read by a maximum of seven people and therefore the poem has been read by 77 people to date, excluding him and me, and he will quit when he gets more than 100 readers total, including him and me. Sometimes he says that the poem is actually different each time it appears because it is printed in a different typeface or on a different weight of paper or different electric screen, and context is everything in poetry, and therefore the poem is by definition a new poem, given its new context. Sometimes he says that the poem is actually different every time because we are wrong to think that we know anything certain about something we have read before; for one thing we immediately forget most of what we read, and for another the whole point of a poem is to have layers and hints and intimations and subtexts and shimmers and suggestions of other meanings and depths, so each time you read the same poem it is not the same poem because you are reading it a different way, on a different day, and of course you are not the same person you were when you read it before either, so how could the poem be the same if you are different when you read it?
Which is a pretty good point, actually.
Obviously a fan.
[Or not. As the joke goes, why not cut to the chase and just publish the same poem over and over because isn’t that what most poets do anyway.  And then, yes, of course, it is an indictment of the poetry-reading world that one could publish the same poem in 11 different journals and no one would notice.  But really, it’s mostly just kind of a sad morning.]
My friend also says look, the whole point of a poem is to jazz your perceptions, to send you sideways mentally and emotionally for a moment, to stimulate you to see things in a slightly different and ideally refreshing way, so really he is doing readers and editors a subtle service in presenting a poem that you can read in lots of different ways depending on what sort of paper or screen it is appearing on, and the typeface, and the time of day, and who you are when you read it. If you think about this carefully for a moment, he says, I am turning the whole dynamic around, so that the poem is the same but everything else is different; in a sense the poem is no longer the lines on the page or screen, but the whole panoply of things that are different each time the poem appears in a new magazine or journal or review or webzine. The poem is everything else except the lines on the page, get it?
This is a pretty interesting point, actually, but every time he explains this slowly and carefully to me with that glint in his eye I am not sure if he is making a brilliant and subtle point about poetry and art and perception and metaphysical existence or if he has gone over the edge altogether and I am being sold a pile of nuts. So, in classic editorial fashion, I will leave this question to you, the reader, and tiptoe gently out of the end of this essay, leaving only my byline below as evidence that I was here.
[I don’t find it all that interesting a point, but good taste and interesting points aside, there still are issues about our culture on display here, none of which please me.  And, even as I point, I’m passing over in silence.]
 Cheers from Joe!


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