Sunday, November 11, 2007

Elizabeth Lee Steere, "The Very List"

Elizabeth Lee Steere
University of Georgia

The Very List: Catalog Structure in the Poetry of C. D. Wright

The titles of C. D. Wright’s poems in the 2002 compilation volume Steal Away reflect the poet’s predilection for cataloging and lists. Wright assigns numbers to groups of poems, such as the “Handfishing Retablos #1-#4,” and the “Girlfriend Poems 1-10.” Likewise, when Wright contributed an essay on poetry to the collection By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, she titled her piece “69 Hidebound Opinions, Propositions, and Several Asides from a Manila Folder Concerning the Stuff of Poetry,” and created a numbered inventory of comments on the nature of poetry. As opinion number 29, Wright suggests that a poet

“must maintain a vigilant sense of when to leave off. When to skip. When to depart. Abjure. Leap. When to let inferences fly . . . It is the quality of omission and suppression I believe which determines the quality and degree of a reader’s participating in the telling—what is latent in the work that the reader alone can render active and integral to it.” (Wright “Hidebound” 387)

To achieve this desired result, Wright often structures her poems themselves as lists, a format that eschews extraneous words, phrases, or explanations. This technique in poetry is not new; Walt Whitman was famous for his “catalogues,” and critics have compared the two poets, noting that Wright’s “long lines and polyphonic voices resemble Whitman, Stanford, and Williams, but have the physicality and openness that is uniquely Wright’s own” (Colburn 207).

At first, the cataloguing technique Wright employs may seem counterproductive to her goal of succinctness, since a list by definition must be a series of names or words, often of a considerable number. However, critics have observed that “Wright’s work succeeds so beautifully because of what she leaves out . . . her best work, her most vital work is free of unnecessary connective devices” (Pfefferle 226). Wright sometimes outlines a narrative by highlighting only the most crucial details in a series, a technique she calls “shining the particulars” (Kirsch 33). Wright is also very innovative in the structure of her catalogues; she creates “lists” of every imaginable shape and form and seamlessly combines the familiar list format with her original, unfamiliar poetic techniques. However, some critics object to Wright’s self-called “hybridity of structure and genre” (Colburn 208). Adam Kirsch protests what he views as Wright’s technique of “deliberate withholding of the whole story, this placing of the reader at a disadvantage” (Kirsch 34). He describes her catalogs as being “like pieces from different jigsaw puzzles all mixed up” (Kirsch 33). Kirsch labels Wright a “discourteous poet,” because in her poetry, he believes that “[t]he implied reader does not need to be invited or seduced into the poem; his presence is assumed, or ignored [and] no effort is made to avoid confusion about the subject or situation of the poem; confusion may actually be invited” (Kirsch 33). Jenny Goodman disagrees, noting that “[i]f judgmental poets and critics are to be jarred by the combination of formal experimentation, personal subject matter and tone . . . other readers are to be greeted like old friends” (Goodman 53). Despite Kirsch’s contentions, there are numerous ways in which, even in the impersonal genre of the catalog, Wright invites active participation from her readers, allowing them to fill in the gaps of her “silences” and to fit together the “puzzle pieces” to which Kirsch objects. The regulated, formal structure of lists belies the very human and interactive nature of Wright’s list poems.

In her 1991 poem “Remarks On Color,” Wright adapts the list format to create a sense of warmth and familiarity. The poem begins by listing descriptions of different scenes or objects for each numbered line, such as “1. highway patched with blacktop, service station at the crossroads” (1), “3. A fully grown man” (3), and “4. Filthy toilets” (4). These lines are reminiscent of childhood games like “Car Bingo,” or “I Spy,” which are played by checking off certain items seen during a trip in order to pass the time while traveling. The easy conventionality of this structure invites the reader to join in the game and recollect popboxes, grown men, and service stations from past personal trips. The nature of the poem changes slightly at the line, “4. Filthy toilets, just hold it a little while longer” (4). The checklist now has a narrator making direct commentary about it, and the reader is invited into a deeper level of interaction with both the heretofore unseen narrator and also with the other people and places described in the list. The reader becomes part of the poem, a non-native who listens to a would-be tour guide point out personal landmarks and tell stories about them as they travel the highway. The narrator’s tone is conversational and familiar, and presumes a rapport with the reader by interjecting apparent non sequiturs into the text of the poem.

The use of this technique contradicts Kirsch’s criticism that Wright “ignores” her reader (Kirsch 33), and exemplifies Goodman’s sense that “the intimacy of Wright’s poetry . . . surely invites readers to identify with her experience and to understand their own… anew through her poetry’s transformations” (Goodman 53). The lines “20. E-Z on E-Z off” (20) and “21. out of wedlock, wedlocked” (21) are not apropos of the lines before or after them, but they are referred to so off-handedly that there is a sense there must be a history behind them. Perhaps these words are part of an in-joke between the author and the reader; the reader is likely to have picked up on an earlier in-joke when the narrator says she must “run on to Rhonda” (18) and then offers the famous song lyrics, “help me Rhonda help help me Rhonda” (19). The narrator’s voice and attitude suggest that he or she might be speaking these poems out loud, which further defamiliarizes the checklist format by humanizing it. When spoken or called out loud, a formal, numbered checklist may often receive its own commentary from the speaker, but such commentary itself is rarely written down. By including these trivialities and digressions within the poem, Wright places the listener, and therefore the reader, in an active role, creating a conversation between friends. Thus, the poem subverts its own form; lists are generally straightforward, pithy, and convey little emotion. At first glance, this piece does not even look like a poem, since poetry is rarely confined to such strict, linear numbering, but ultimately this numbering becomes a kind of comforting consistency within the poem, connecting unexpected and unpredictable lines together. The format of the numbered lists reins in the tangential comments and provides a focus and structure for a poem containing advice, philosophy, vivid descriptions of people and places, riddles, queries and commentary.

Another poem that fuses cataloging with commentary is “Why Ralph Refuses to Dance.” The opening line claims, “He would have to put out his smoke,” (1) and every other odd line thereafter makes comparable declarations, such as “His ice would melt. He’d lose his seat” (3). This list is familiar and easily recognizable: it is a list of excuses, the “con” column of a Pro/Con list. The reader is invited to imagine Ralph ticking each criterion off on his fingers as he haltingly outlines why he chooses to remain a wallflower. The poem’s wording suggests that perhaps Ralph hesitates between lines as he desperately seeks to inflate his own list, groping for just one more reason, no matter how ridiculous—such as “He would begin to smell of baby shrimp”—that will explain his rationale completely and invite no further inquiries (19). However, the poem is complicated by its alternating even lines, which depict Ralph’s erratic, often disturbing inner monologue. Without these lines, the poem could seem simplistic, even comical, but the dark edge to Ralph’s personal thoughts creates an uneasy, asymmetrical balance within the poem. The “list” half of the poem represents Ralph’s outer composure, rationality, and attempts at decorum. He is in a social situation, so he attempts to abide by society’s given rules; his reasons are related methodically, rhythmically, and demonstrate an attempt to salvage his dignity by causing as little embarrassment to everyone as possible. As he rationalizes, Ralph’s words follow the rules of English grammar and punctuation, but his inner monologue has no such constraints. In Ralph’s own mind, his words run together, are uninhibited by proper sentence structure, unbound by the burden of logic, or the courtesy of explication. The structure of “Ralph” works because the mind does not naturally create analytical, coherent “lists,” but rather functions organically, producing unfiltered thoughts that later must be “polished” for the consideration of society, even if this changes their essential meaning and function. Wright imposes the format of the list to show the discrepancies between what people think and what they say; she demonstrates how even the most ghoulish or offensive thoughts are rendered more palatable and digestible by introducing elements of order and rules.

A familiar type of list to the average reader would be the “to-do list,” and Wright creates a radically different spin on this list in her poem “Living.” The poem reads as though it might be prefaced with a “note to self,” since its contents and tone are intensely personal. The reader is made to feel almost as if he is intruding, reading private papers or a personal diary. The writer of this piece has held nothing back; she reveals the guilt she feels about her actions toward her high school boyfriend, she schedules an AIDS test and a Pap smear, and she admits that she must “practice” to maintain the love for her partner. Many of the entries are also written in a kind of personal code that only the author would understand: “If this is Wednesday, mail B her flyers and K her shirts” (3). The reader does not immediately recognize who B and K might be, but the use of personal shorthand for close family and friends is readily recognizable. Acquaintances of less significance are, almost counterintuitively, allowed more space, their names spelled out more fully, as in “Moss” or “Pete.” By using the “to-do list” format, Wright creates a poem that feels excruciatingly personal for both the reader and the writer. The poem begins, “If this is Wednesday, write Lazartigues, return library books, / pick up passport form, cancel the paper? (1-2). These lines are so manifestly trivial and mundane that it seems strange to read them in a book of poetry. It is this dichotomy that makes Wright’s technique in this poem so unexpected and human. Like “Remarks on Color,” this poem fluctuates between immanently recognizable lines, like “Phone hardware to see if radon test arrived” (38) and obscure, personal insights, such as “no matter where I call home anymore, fell like a boat under / the trees” (57-58). Although the writer has no directly apparent audience, she humors herself with personally gratifying jokes, as evidenced in the phrase, “Because because because of the horrible things we do,” a parody of a familiar line from The Wizard of Oz. The writer of this list also “plans” actions that most people would not; she even notes that she will “Make time pass in line at/ the P.O. imagining man in front of me butt naked” (44-45). By choosing to deviate and conform the average to-do list in a number of ways, Wright creates “high art” from the banal.

C. D. Wright accomplishes an exceedingly difficult task in her “list” poems; she adopts a limiting form, but explores limitless possibilities of language, structure, and diction within it. Wright is constantly seeking “to challenge poetry and language itself to be as expansive as possible” (Colburn 208), and she has been lauded for “expanding and stylistically blur[ring] the lines between poetry and prose” (Goodman 41). Wright uses an economy of words, so in each “list,” every word, with its denotations and its connotations, is singularly chosen for its contribution to the effectiveness of the poem. Wright also considers the pauses and silences between these words to be of “high poetic value,” so she welcomes the reader to speculate on the items that are left off of her lists (Wright “Hidebound” 389). Wright’s unusual use of formalized classification and inventory may be unfamiliar to her reader in the context of poetry, but as experiments, they prove successful, because the list form itself is so readily familiar. Thus, the purpose of Wright’s catalogs is not, as Adam Kirsch presumes, to revel in “novelty and complexity,” or to invite confusion in the reader (Kirsch 33). Instead, Wright communicates by seizing upon the preconceptions associated with her chosen format and utilizes these expectations to enhance her readers’ understanding. As Jenny Goodman points out, Wright’s voice is not meant to reverberate as the “descendant of high modernism scorning her unschooled readers. She belongs to the everyday world and finds an array of artistic resources in it” (Goodman 47). Her ordering, archiving, and cataloguing of words combine the blasé nature of checklists, charts, and to-do lists with the artistic sensibility of poetics. In doing so, Wright defamiliarizes the familiar without obfuscation; her work is accessible to her audience precisely because of its grounding in the quotidian nature of the list.

Works Cited:

Colburn, Nadia Herman. “About C. D. Wright.” Ploughshares 28.4. (Winter 2002-03): 204-09.

Goodman, Jenny. “Politics and the Personal Lyric in the Poetry of Joy Harjo and C. D. Wright.” MELUS 19.2. (Summer 1994): 35-56.

Kirsch, Adam. “Discourtesies.” The New Republic (October 21, 2002): 32-36.

Pfefferle, W. T. Poets on Place: Interviews and Tales from the Road. Logan: Utah State UP, 2005.

Wright, C[arolyne] D. “69 Hidebound Opinions, Propositions, and Several Asides from a Manila Folder Concerning the Stuff of Poetry.” By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry. St Paul: Graywolf P, 2000. Ed. Molly McQuade. 380-97.

---. Steal Away: Selected and New Poems. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon P, 2002.

---. “Provisional Remarks On Being/ A Poet/ Of Arkansas.” Onward: Contemporary Poetry & Poetics. Ed. Peter Baker. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. 163-66.

Elizabeth Lee Steere earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from Wake Forest University and later received a Master of Education in Language Arts and a Master of Arts in English Literature from North Carolina State University. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in English at the University of Georgia.

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