Sometimes I misread. And sometimes: words.
When I was seven, in school, once a girl ran up to me and pulled me into a neighboring room, saying, “Someone wrote your name on the board.” Why, she wanted to know, did I think that someone would want to write my name on the board. I went into the room with her (was pulled) and saw the board. On the board (a blackboard) someone had written a list of 20 five-letter adjectives. Among these adjectives was the word, “lucky.” I looked at the word. I don’t want to claim that I knew right away that it was not my name. I didn’t, at the time, know what the word was. It took a little while, at any rate, to recognize the intervening “k.”
I often think of this event. I often think of the excitement—and aggression, somehow—with which this girl perceived my name in another word and came to me about it. In my memory, as far as I am able to interpret, misremembering no doubt, the affect of this young girl, she warned me of the fact that somewhere, unbeknownst to me, someone was mentioning, naming me. I was summoned, it was her pleasure—at least this is my memory—to inform me that my name was out in the open, it was baldly there, I was conspicuously named. I was in trouble, she was saying.
This could be an example of the arbitrariness of the English alphabet. The way that recognition happened here was via the presence of a quorum of letters pertaining to one word inside another, with this other word only arbitrarily related to the supposed word. This was the simple mechanism that made for reading.
Anyway, it’s just a grade-school example. However to me it’s not such a leap to move from this kind of simple relationship to letters, to a discussion of style. And this is why I’ve always wanted to write about misrecognition. I think that style is a matter of misrecognizing.
Misrecognition: I am using the term in both a metaphorical and a literal way, at once, probably badly, therefore. It’s a little difficult to explain, but I will do my best. I don’t mean, for example, that when we read we do not see what is really in front of us. I don’t mean that when we read we always misperceive words. Reading is essentially a process of recognition. It’s an exercise in returning to items constituting a preexisting vocabulary. That vocabulary, after a certain point, remains fairly static; so, reading is also repetition.
If I describe reading as (simultaneously) a process of misrecognition, I mean that when we read we are of course also reading things other than the vocabulary already familiar to us—and other than the familiar letters that make up this familiar vocabulary. We are—literally—recognizing words, though there are plenty of things in writing that are not quite really there, in so many words.
I mean that this is style. This is when writing is stylish, when the reader’s misrecognition is studiously controlled, by some agent or situation. I don’t know if this control only has to do with the work of an author. I think this control, the possibility of this sort of control, also has to do with the limits of vocabulary. What if, for example, a writer could make a reader misrecognize a word for a long time very familiar to that reader: I do not just mean that this reader would see that word, “in a new light,” though perhaps I also mean that. I keep using the term, “misrecognition,” because it is a plausible way, to my mind, of talking about a variety of effects, at once, without giving greater stock to one or the other. I think, for example, about a sentence by Gertrude Stein that I have always liked, “Forget grammar and think about potatoes.” Of course here is the problem of putting “grammar” and “potatoes” into the same category such that they may be reasonably compared. And this problem is a large part of Stein’s meaning in this sentence. But I like to think about the task she has in mind when she tells us to “forget,” since I know she doesn’t really want us to forget anything. I know she really wants someone to think hard enough about grammar such that all someone can conceive of are some things—not hierarchies by means of which we organize. Nothing here but potatoes.
Additionally, I should note that someone once told me an anecdote about a friendship that involved the discussion of poetry. This person said that he and a friend of his would play a game. In order to participate in this game, one had to quote a line of poetry by the poet George Oppen. One acquired points in this game—one won—by selecting the most ludicrously naïve line, a line that was preposterously simple, unstudied; a line that even seemed to open itself up to ridicule on this account. It’s a game that’s not so hard to imagine, in the abstract. But one can also imagine that it might require an unusual kind of familiarity with that oeuvre, by which I mean: a mix of admiration and generous portions of skepticism, boredom. There are levels of recognition, of poems, of text, is what this suggests. There is familiarity. And there is familiarity. One is “friends” with a work; one finds “comfort.” A list of ironies follows close on. What I am describing is a misrecognition of a different order from the Stein. It’s a kind of misrecognition that arises when a social context contacts a style. In Oppen’s case, this style is characterized by words selected by an author, largely based on that author’s ability to account for their meaning in a more or less complete or exhaustive way. In Oppen, a line is not transparent but rather objective: If not object- (or potato-) like, here words are styled in such a way so as to be concertedly fair, magnanimous, undeceiving. Perhaps this magnanimity is something that, with familiarity, stops reading as style and begins reading as a kind of overweening desire on the part of the writer, an uninspired fantasy. And thus the writer (poet)’s vulnerability to his most familiar readers. It is not his writing in itself that forms the subject of their character-assassination-as-verbal-tennis, bur rather a kind of light or haze hovering over the words, an affect that is not precisely located within written expression itself, but rather occurs as a time of repeated reading.
Others have written eloquently about the mystery that is the intention of the writer. What I would like to think about these days is the mystery that is the intention of the reader. Sure, this sounds a little like psychology. However, what I most like to imagine is a moment at which the writer makes herself (pretends to make herself) synonymous with the reader. This would be the momentary pretense, the artifice. This would be a style, when it succeeds. And in the midst of this synonymy, there is misrecognition: the notion of a difference, a word. The writer would convince the reader that it is not a word that he or she has seen before.
Lucy Ives was born in New York City and earned a BA from Harvard University, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in comparative literature from New York University. Her first collection, the book-length poem Anamnesis (2009), won the Slope Editions Book Prize. Ives is also the author of...