It is 11AM on a Tuesday, and I am confused. I am teaching my Intro to Poetry class, a group of twenty-two people who are recalcitrant, skeptical and defensive—certain only that they registered for the course because “it fit my schedule.” It is my self-appointed duty to ensure they end the semester not only acquainted with contemporary poetry and the basic tools needed to unpack much of it, but it is my duty to serve as a cheerleader for the pleasures of sympathetic or what I call submissive (as opposed to passive) reading.
On this day I am confused because one of my students has asked me a question of such simplicity that in the face of it, I find myself recalcitrant, skeptical and defensive. We are reading a poem called “Fictions” by William Kulik. It is a prose poem that begins, “In that novel you bought at the chain, a young woman looks back on her life.” The poem wends toward the memory of a fight between parents (a memory provoked by the novel) and ends with “you and your brother huddled in a corner of the room hugging crying Mommy daddy please stop we love you we’re sorry.” The difficulty of reading a poem like this in an introductory class is not so much that it is written in second person, a move intended to blunt the taint of solipsism evident in a speaker’s epiphany of childhood trauma brought on by having read a book featuring characters with whom he identifies. We can’t get enough of such navel gazing, in fact. The difficulty is not so much either in having to undo the convolutions and folds of meta- and subtextual narrative. The difficulty, I find, is in answering the question regarding coincidences between A) the novel within the poem, and B) the literal level of the poem. The young woman in the “novel” is a mother of two boys. My student wants to know if the two boys in the novel are the same two boys we encounter at the end of the poem. I’m speechless. Of course, these boys are not the same people. I stammer. Perhaps this is a difficult poem, I say. Let’s try something easier. Let’s consider, for example, Shakespeare’s foils and narrative echoes. Foul ball. They haven’t read Shakespeare. What now. Listen, the two sets of boys represent one of the several coincidences crafted by the poet, which are designed to conduct the charge of equivalencies the climax of the poem relies upon. Am I making any sense here?
Later, at home I describe the classroom exchange to my wife. She suggests it is an example of a member of one culturally privileged class (me) feigning inability to comprehend the patent, unsubtle reasoning of a layperson (my student). I don’t get your point, I say. She says, take your head out of your ass. But we’re talking about coincidences. The point is coincidences do not simply occur. Constructing associations between events and between characters is a generative act. It requires use of the imagination. Coincidences are like metaphors in that they are subject to the same logic that requires the reader to reconcile two discrete occurrences. It takes creativity to identify a coincidence, which is neither meaningful nor meaningless. In a poem, coincidences, like metaphors, are intended to provoke the reader to extrapolate an ever-greater complex of associations.
Child psychologists say that children are naturally synesthetic. This is something we grow out of. We grow into the discourse of teasing out, reasoning, favoring the perfect over the slant rhyme. We accumulate the calluses of rough-handling objectivity. Perhaps it is a fiction of autobiography, but I feel I’ve always been inclined to identify a thing in terms of its family of relations, however oddball such relations might be. I’ve always been provoked by the overwhelming oneness of things. I admit there is something egotistical about begging provocation. If we divide society into the subjective class and the objective class, I am antagonistic toward the latter. I am not proud of this. But provocation is nuanced and delicate. When I say I want a poetics that provokes, I mean I want a poetics of flux and intonation, a poetics that challenges this primal binary of subject/ object, a poetics of equivalencies rather than one of resolutions. Whether the poem uses the second person or is written in the present tense, it should do something to seduce me into submitting the defenseless child of my subjectivity to its care. I want to be indiscriminant, prodigal, promiscuous, yes, submissive in the safe house of the poem. I have to trust the poem is not going to let just any old body in.