prosopagnosic poetics, or facing up to oneself
What do these three things have to do with one another?
1. Lat week I gave a reading in a black box theater on the campus of a great university in a small state. I liked the students a lot-- I even liked all their questions (Q&A periods are inherently flattering to the answerer). One student wanted to know (I paraphrase) whether I considered myself a performance poet, or felt any connection to slam conventions, since (she thought) I read with such drama and verve. I told her I was flattered-- and I was-- but I didn't think of my own work as connected to performance poetry at all. Why do I remember that particular question?
2. I received this weekend a new book of poetry by a Michigan writer who also writes essays and stories: the new book of poetry has to do with becoming a stepmom in a blended family-- I recommend it highly to anyone with a particular interest in that topic-- but the accompanying material revealed that the author is also at work on a book about living with prosopagnosia, the medical condition in which patients-- whose vision and cognition are otherwise fine-- cannot recognize people by their faces. Why does this strike me as an appropriate disorder for a poet to have?
3. It's Thanksgiving! My wife and my son and I (but not our cats) are at my parents' house, where, by nightfall, we will have met a few dozen of our relatives, including some people we see once a year at most, and perhaps some people I've never seen. What does that have to do with poetry? What does a black-box theater have to do with a prosopagnosia memoir-in-progress? And what do they all have to do with Martin Buber? Read on and find out...
The links between #2 and #3 will be pretty clear. Thanksgiving in a family where there's a large gathering involved prompts fear of the feeling that prosopagnosics must experience all the time: what if I see someone who expects me to recognize him or her, but I simply have no clue who they are, and have to use language, awkwardly and directly, to find out?
As for #1, though... if I'm surprised, even taken aback, to be asked whether I consider myself a performance poet, I can't rule out the possibility that the surprise comes in part from unacknowledged snobbery or racism on my own part, since performance poetry as an art form is marked (in the linguist's sense) as nonwhite, and since it carries less prestige in some (not all!) academic circles that the kind of poetry Elizabeth Bishop (for example) wrote. Maybe my surprise was just an example of white privilege.
I think, though, that my surprise at the (truly flattering) question had less to do with skin than with face and voice-- and with a way of thinking about lyric poetry as a kind of art, and as a kind of work that writers do. By one important account of lyric poetry in general, the most general, maybe even the most ethically important, work that lyric can do involves making persons present to one another across time and space: saying "I am me, and no one else; you are you, and no one else" to readers (imagined as listeners) who aren't in the same room, maybe not even in the same society or the same country, as the person who writes.
Quite a lot of touchstones or "perfect examples" (to quote Hüsker Dü) of lyric make such acknowledgement explicit: Donne telling his lover that they will be connected even though distant in space (separated by seas); Gwendolyn Brooks acknowledging (and asking us to acknowledge) the "cry of art" in a boy who throws a rock because he feels ignored; A. E. Housman deciding that a Roman soldier thousands of years ago shared his thoughts; Keats posthumously offering us (or perhaps offering Fanny Brawne) his living hand.
When we read such poems, if they work properly, we may feel that the qualities we associate with the recognition of faces, with face-to-face meetings between human persons, could arise instead from encounters of readers with pages, face bent not to another face but over words. (In Keats and in Brooks, we can feel those qualities working between poet and reader even as they fail to work between the poet and some third party-- the boy breaking glass, or the cruel fair, who might never want to read the poem.)
This account of face to face encounters as what lyric, generically, tries to bring about-- what lyric creates, what lyric evokes-- comes mostly from Allen Grossman, who got it by applying to literary reading (with appropriate alterations) ideas in the philosophers Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. (You can find similar accounts in the recent writings of Susan Stewart, and very persuasive claims about feminism and face-to-face recognition-- though not much about poetry-- if you read the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin.) It is, to me, the most convincing (though it is not always convincing) modern model of lyric-in-general, and one of the claims it entails (as Grossman says) is the absence of a face: the lyric person, Grossman writes, must be "departicularized in order to attain its efficacy for another"; the head of Orpheus, in order to sing for us, must be severed, and must face away.
To say so is to make lyric poetry in general the disembodying kind of writing, the kind of writing that insists by its nature that the presence of a person is not the presence of that person's body in real time.
But to say that is to make lyric poetry the opposite of live theatre in all its modes, from scripted stage drama to slam poetry, modes which insist on the live presence of a real body as part of our reaction to the work.
So... to say that I'm like a performance poet is a great compliment to the way I read my work. (I remember when a very distinguished poet and scholar-- one who had less than no interest in performance-poem genres--offered to give me and my friends lessons in how to read our verse out loud, since he'd seen us and obviously we didn't know how to do it.) The question and answer, and my later surprise, might simply show how far printed-page verse over the last 250 years has retreated into a culture of silent reading, since- if you go far enough back- all verse, including lyric (that's where "lyric" comes from as term) was meant to be declaimed, recited, set to music, or otherwise performed. I know that some very powerful writers, including at least one important Harriet member, see synergy rather than conflict between their poems read aloud and their poems on the page. I like giving readings. (I like attention, honestly.) I very much want to see how some performance-identified poets react to my reactions, if anyone bothers to read this far down.
And yet... I don't want to believe that my poems are part of a theatre genre: I don't want to believe that they need me there to read them, nor that they are part of a genre that requires performance, nor that they are connected to my physical presence, nor that they project me, or some part of me, in a way dependent on, rather than severed from, the physical, recognizable, presence of my (or anyone's) body and face. I want to think of the kind of poetry I write, that is-- as Grossman thinks of lyric poetry generally-- as a literature of prosopagnosia: one in which you need never see me, or know me personally, or know my face, in order to know the person the poems present.
I also want to recognize the people who show up today for Thanksgiving: I fear that I won't know them, but they'll recognize me-- before I can say a single word.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...