Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Friday, July 1, 2011

Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy

Instructors regret students’ use of crib-notes that seek to provide understanding of a text with a summary and a few formulas. Headnotes in textbooks are as bad. Of course, lazy scholars will use these as well as plot-summaries and instant internet précis to fend off encounters with literature. The damage in such a case is not as bad as for the reader who has, in fact, read the material, only to limit his insight to someone’s severely reductive version. If a poem, novel, or play could be adequately paraphrased in a line or two, there would be no need for literature beyond the apothegm.

The literary text is polysemous; that is part of what distinguishes it from other discourses. This is sometimes figured by the naïve as a series of revelations: the words seem to mean X on the surface; the analyst will see beneath that to the deeper meaning Y; the more acute critic may sketch a more esoteric reading yet and call it triumphantly Z. In truth, all meanings which are encoded in the text operate simultaneously. Some are more potent than others; some more likely to strike the casual reader; some interpretations will be elicited by that reader’s prior interests and inclinations; some remain to be spotlighted by future students. Yet even at times when the text seems either to be simple and straightforward or to insist on a certain reading, it can be useful to explore alternatives.

Mythic narrations are especially rich in theme. The stories evolved to bear an extraordinary burden of significance, and the old ones gain more with each reader. One of the richest myths in European tradition is that of Oedipus. Sophocles’ play (Οἰδίπους Τύραννος) makes an excellent case study for this claim. I propose here to set forth a list, by no means exhaustive, which can serve to demonstrate the truth of the claims about the aesthetic text’s unique support of multiple meanings and about myth’s particular semiotic richness. I will not here propose a hierarchy or more and less important resonances, nor will I provide evidence to justify any of these options or to privilege one over another (though I do begin with those heard more commonly). The list of approaches might itself be useful to readers wondering what to do with an entirely different text.

1. An initial view of the play might be simply as spectacle: the dance, the poetry, the costumes, Dionysos seated among the spectators. In this experience of the play the primary significance of the hero is that he is a big man, at viewing whom the common man may feel a vicarious pleasure as American do when reading about celebrities. Here the point of the drama is pleasure – Oedipus, whatever else is nay be, is an evening’s entertainment.

2. In the realistic reading, Oedipus is Everyman. His name, if it means swell-foot (as Shelley had it) is simply descriptive. The theme is explicit in the play’s final verse when the chorus declares that no man should be deemed happy “before he has passed out of life having never suffered pain.” Though the poet dances about the point elegantly, his view was proverbial in Greece even before this play (see Aeschylus’ Agamemnon 928 and Solon’s “No mortal is happy, rather all under the sun suffer.” (Edmonds, 14). Buddha began from a similar realization. Here fate is ethically random but inexorable.

3. In an ethical reading, Oedipus is the hubristic ego, seeking power beyond others, chastened for pride. Though the realistic reading would insist that all people suffer, this approach regards Oedipus as deserving his fate. What happens to him is an example of the sort of retributive justice of which Job’s friends felt so certain. His missing the mark, or ἁμαρτία (the very word used by scripture translators for sin) led to his suffering.

4. A related reading would be the social or historical in which the hero is primarily a bad king who must be expelled before justice is restored to the community. The harmonious kingdom as a philosophic ideal appears in Lau Dz and Confucius as well as in such modern Marxists as Christopher Caudwell and George Thomson. The critic adopting this view might look either at the conditions of the work’s production or the themes of its words.
5. In the ritual view the play may reenact an act of scapegoat magic in the banishment of the old year-spirit in the person of the aged and ineffectual king and his replacement by a more vigorous successor. Oedipus is, in fact, an important text for the Cambridge School anthropologists for whom drama regularly had a ritual origin. (of whom Frazer, Harrison, Cornford, were primarily classicists). The tragedy’s denouement is then a healing process for the community.

6. In the psychological reduction of theme, Oedipus is the stalled ego who has failed to grow up in the immediate sense of remaining in love with his mother (though he may stand as the type of any neurotic). In less psychoanalytic versions, this reading would approach the ethical one with the character flaw of pride regarded not as a sin but as a self-defeating behavioral habit.

7. To the aesthetic reader, Oedipus is simply an abstract pattern among other patterns. This reading is based on the conspicuous care lavished on metric play and other musical elements. Indeed, the chorus itself proclaims the principle, though in a negative formulation: if a wicked man prospers, they ask, “How can any man protect his soul from the blows of the gods? If such men are honored, there’s no point to choral dancing!” (893-6) (Thus, if the chorus is dancing, as it manifestly is during the performance, all must be well.)

These clearly feature certain common elements. Apart from the pleasure-oriented first and last, they portray an extraordinary human individual colliding with the cosmos. Aristotle’s “pleasure” and “fear” and “catharsis” are consistent with all.
Not every text is as susceptible to interpretation as Oedipus, and the close attention to Sophocles’ words during the millennia since its composition have only increased the rich potential of the play. Yet every text, no matter how insubstantial, will have not only the pleasure/entertainment reading (it was either a pleasure or it was not), but also historical readings (as every text is produced in certain social circumstances and nearly every text touches on the relations among humans), psychological readings (as every texts must be produced and consumed by the human consciousness), and aesthetic readings (as it must proclaim itself the right sort of writing and seek to displace what has come before). I have found that one may hit upon new insights while pursuing the most unlikely reading.

Openings in the Middle English Romance

(Before long, I expect to post my “Mythos and Non-Myth: The English Tail-Rhyme Romances and Structuralist Methodology,” a detailed study of the romance genre, not yet ready for even the informal publication of the blog.)




Medieval romances, broadly defined, were surely the popular medium of the era, rightly compared by Loomis to today’s “theatre, cinema, radio, and television.” In form, like situation comedies and police dramas, they were highly conventionalized; in theme, like most popular and oral literature, they tended to reinforce readers’ preconceptions. Nonetheless, now as in the fourteenth century, convention is far from a mechanical reproduction of one work by another. Rather, conventional expectations in the reader allow the poet to convey more concise and detailed data.

A rough notion of the breadth of variation in these texts is evident simply from a review of their opening passages. A narrative beginning “Sing, o muse!” must inspire different expectations from one beginning “Once upon a time” or “It was a dark and stormy night,” but each of these well-known phrases is associated with a separate genre. Examination of a few examples of the Middle English romance from those collected in Maldwyn Mills well-edited and accessible Everyman volume indicates a wide variation in initial orientation for the reader. Although many levels of irony or conventional intertextuality may complicate the code, these opening passages in general provide a considerable degree of self-reflective definition of a text’s identity in terms of genre, sources, traditions, and function. In this way the competent reading (or listening) community is equipped to be able to pursue productive directions with the narrative that follows, accurately adjusting expectations and interpretations to produce the most productive reading. A few examples will demonstrate that, far from stereotyped repetition, even this form utilizes a great variety of openings.

1. The Sege of Melayne opens with a definition of audience — it is meant for those who relish heroic tales, heroic nonetheless for being true, as the author is at pains to insist.
This theme allows him to articulate several critical oppositions according to which the world of the poem is organized: first of all, the ordered hierarchy of feudalism (the hero is “Charlies of Fraunce,” “the heghe kynge of alle”) and secondly, the opposition to the pagan enemy, the Muslims, in a political and religious act of self-definition. However, it is clear that the authentic heroic age is perceived as in the past, or, that is, in a “dream-time,” the realm of the imagination. In fact, the poetic text may been seen as the surrogate of the heroism missing from everyday life. Those who cannot themselves do great deeds with the style they can conceive, can at least be connoisseurs. These two axes intersect: the order of European society, from top to bottom, is matched against its evil pagan twin.

2. The first words of Octavian define a larger potential listenership: everyone. The poet speaks to a universal audience: “Lytyll and mykyll, olde and yonge.” Far from detailing their differences, the poet seeks to amalgamate them into an all-inclusive audience, the fan-base that is the target of every writer aiming for the best-seller lists and every television producer.

3. Emare, quite differently, begins with an extended religious meditation on the gap between the divine and the earthly with the implication that this poetry, like a liturgical formula or an invocation in a hymn will itself repair the distance it seeks to describe. To the poet, it is the duty of all “menstrelles” to speak first of Christ, the mediator between heaven and earth. (One is reminded of Skip James, the country blues performer who would customarily conclude his performances with a hymn, presumably clearing the conscience from the “devil’s music” that preceded the sacred.) He speaks of his Lord, not for any reason specific to his tale, but rather because, as a pious Christian, he “sholde.” This mere mention is efficacious. Again, the text is the mediator between opposite conceptual poles.

4. Sir Isumbras takes the religious theme further, in this case specifically asking for blessings for himself and his audience, transforming the entertainment of hearing a romance into an act hallowed and protected by the divine.

5. In Sir Gowther the religious opening is melodramatic, focusing on the devil’s manipulation of women. Here we have no formal nod to the divine, nor a positive prayer, but rather an involvement of the cosmic figures in the story through the actions of “a warlocke greytt.”

Each of these openings seeks to define the binary oppositions that create the world of the story as the creation itself grew from the distinctions between light and dark, high and low, earth and sea. Though all the medieval romances recognize such pairs as god/man, truth/poetry, ruler/subject, us/not-us, they appear not as simple alternatives, but as the foundation of a complex dialectic. Thus Christ mediates between the divine and human realms and the individual believer may imitate him with hopes of being lifted to the celestial realm in the end. Poetry, likewise, though differing from lived experience, is, as Aristotle suggested, even more “true.” The king and serf, though occupying opposite ends of the social spectrum, are both necessary for the smooth functioning of society, and military enemies may one day be defeated.

In spite of this shared ideology, aesthetic, religious, and political, the romances set off on differing notes, each with its own character determined by the narrative to follow and by the artist who composed the particular version of the story. As always, poetry serves to first define the painful, all but impossible, contradictions of life and then to provide an imaginative escape. This commonality, though, by no means implies that each text is a slavish repetition of its models. Rather, the shared conventions allow for a free artistic play intelligible to the audience.

An Evening in Urubamba

1. Chicha

The small town of Urubamba lies below Mount Chicon midway on the ancient route between Cusco and Macchu Picchu. Near to the ruins at Pisac and Ollentaytambo, it has become the hotel center for the region. Across the street from the San Agustin, a place boasting three-stars, several sheds displayed long bamboo poles topped with raggedy red plastic bags. This is the sign of a chicheria, an unregulated vendor of chicha, the local corn beer.

I entered, asked for a chichi, and the woman went back into the earth-floored shack whose boards admitted considerable light on all sides, opened a large plastic container, doubtless the one in which the preparation had brewed, dipped her ladle, and served me a caporal (a half liter) for forty centavos, maybe 14¢. I seated myself outside on one of the narrow wooden benches where a couple of local farmers were drinking. After making a few friendly remarks in my rudimentary Spanish, I tasted my brew and found it perfectly palatable. Room temperature and low in alcohol, it tasted like old beer, though with something of the flavor of corn. People on the other bench were drinking a rosier version which I was told was chicha frutada, with the addition of strawberries.
After a toast or two to each other’s health, I asked my fellow-drinkers their opinion of the election which happened to be held that very day. One of the candidates for the presidency was Keiko Fujimori whose sole qualification seemed to be that her father was Alberto Fujimori, the one-time premier who not only dissolved Congress, suspended the constitution, and ousted judges with whom he disagreed, but who is now serving time for human rights abuses (a euphemism for kidnapping and murder) and embezzlement of millions. Apparently to some these actions seemed so admirable as to deserve loyalty even to the next generation.

Her opponent was an ethnically indigenous one-time army officer, Ollanta Humala, son of a labor lawyer of indigenous descent who was an activist in a Communist faction not far removed from that from the splinter which had produced Abimael Guzman, the founder of the violent Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path movement. As a military man, however, eventually achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel, he was active in suppressing the guerillas as well as in the Cenepa War with Ecuador. In the year 2000 he initiated an attempted coup as waves of revelations of Fujimori’s corruption emerged. Though quickly defeated, he was pardoned by Congress, and allowed to reassume his rank. Now he stood as a populist candidate, promising jobs, education, and health care, and lower gas prices.

I expressed my preference for Humala, delighting my companions. We discussed class consciousness, the rich and the poor, in the United States and in Peru, and when I finished my chicha and excused myself, one of my interlocuters seized my arm and, while I spoke to him, the other purchased me another drink. Calling them my hermanos politicos peruanos, I managed to depart.


2. The Election

That evening I heard the music of celebration some distance off. Checking the computer, I saw that exit polls had declared Humala the victor. I followed the sounds to the local headquarters of his Nationalist Party where a live band was playing as couples in traditional garb, men as well as women, danced. A good-size crowd had gathered, some with children on their shoulders. The Peruvian flag and the rainbow wiphala banner of the indigenous people were waving alongside banners with the candidate’s name. The music alternated with brief speeches and chanting until a group with a street-wide banner came out to lead the celebrants up a narrow street, altogether blocking traffic. “Aqui, alla! Ollante presidente!” People waved from upstairs apartments; others danced in the streets. In spite of the exhilaration, none seemed to be drinking.

In the main square in front of the church under the impassive eyes of four or five National Police, the procession paused for a rally. More speeches with recorded music only (the large harp would have been a chore to transport). After a time they set out again, but I returned to the hotel. Ninety minutes later, I could still hear the music.

There is, of course, no telling what his administration will do. The chief charge against him I heard in Peru was that he admired (or received funds from) Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Humala has been distancing himself from Chavez’s increasingly centralized administration for several years, and even a returned American missionary, no friend of the president, told me that Chavez did good things at first. We have also the models of Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Brazil’s Luiz Lula da Silva (now succeeded by his colleague, the moderately liberal former urban guerrilla Dilma Rousseff).

One can only guess at what is to come for Peru. Watching the people of Urubamba dance and sing and cheer from windows, though, bearing in mind their oppression under colonialism, home-grown dictators, ultra-left guerillas, and multinational corporations, the visitor could have no doubt that, for once, in their own minds at least, they had won one. Having endured so much, Peruvians had a right, as I told my companions at the chicha stand, to expect a better future.

Wordsworth Speaks German

Ein Schlummer siegelt meinen Geist.
Keine Furcht verwirrt mein Verfahren.
Es scheint mir dass sie fühlt gar nicht
den Druck den irdischen Jahren.
Sie hat nun weder Regung noch Kraft,
nichts hörend, auch nichts sehend,
herumgezogen im irdischen Lauf,
mit Felsen und Baüme drehend.

The target language of literary translation is, of course, ordinarily, the translators’ native language. Yet I was charmed to see an English schoolboys’ book, a slim preparation volume for examinations, called This Way and That which included pieces of Shakespeare and Milton done into Greek and Latin. So, as an experiment or an exercise or a pastime, I offer here a version of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal.”
The shape of Wordsworth's poem is determined, first of all, by the emphatic common measure and the abab rhymes. To carry over as much as possible of this pattern is the first priority in translating particularly since the same stanza is common in German with very much the same folk associations as in English. I was willing to jettison other considerations and to tolerate some awkwardness to keep the gross structure ballad-like. Even so, the odd line rhymes don't appear in my German, and I bought the ones I do have at considerable cost. Even in the rhythm, I deviated from Wordsworth’s absolute with a few stray syllables here and there, but the same number of stresses per line announce themselves, I think, pretty clearly. I maintained a fairly conversational level of diction, but allowed for such reminders of poetic profundity as Wordsworth’s “diurnal.” (The reminders are more generalized in “mire,” but no less present.)
“Schlummer” seems inevitable — equally cute in English and German. “Geist” is made to order, too. I hesitated momentarily over ver- and be- with “siegeln,” since it seemed a little bare and unusual by itself, but I do think it carries the meaning best as is. (This first line translates itself — I expect to see an identical rendering from someone else.) The going gets more dubious in 1. 2 where I introduced “verwirren” and “Verfahren” without textual justification, solely to set up the coming rhyme. (Better to place the weaker structure first, so the conviction of rhyme will properly carry through when it happens.) “Verwirren” isn't too distracting (in fact, it suggests by contrast the automatically functioning natural world of the last two lines.) “Verfahren,” the rhyme word, is a problem. It implies inappropriate action on the part of the passive speaker and even gives that action some shape (course of action, procedure, method) that corresponds to nothing in Wordsworth. Exactly how intrusive the implication is, how wrong the word, I'm not quite sure. Line three looks good to me — idiomatic, short words with portent peeking through. “Druck” is certainly more one-way than “touch,” which might in another, context have a positive — tender or magical — sound but the sacrifice of the ambiguity seemed justified.
I had packed an extra syllable or two in 11. 2 and 4, but l. 5 does arrive like a mouthful, sounding more rhetorically declarative than Wordsworth's downplayed mystery. The participles of the sixth line are tactical — again I'm preparing for the rhyme — this strikes me as the most obvious infelicity of my version. The link created by the grammar between “sehen,” “hören,” and “drehen,” is satisfactory with regard to meaning, but it's syntactically unlikely. The fact that the whole second stanza refers to “her” at least means that confusion of basic meaning is probably not a problem. The seventh line I'm almost satisfied with. “herumgezogen” sounds grandly German but natural. I repeat “irdischen,” but that seems all right. “Lauf” conveys a cyclic sense. The last line is rather stumbling. I gave up trying to retain all three elements, and the supernumerary stones went over the side. This participle is even worse than the ones before.

How and Why to Signify or How to Make the Truth Dance

This is my closest approach to an informal literary credo. I have only just now tried to collect the ideas that I have found useful in productively interacting with texts.


The intellectual must analyze the assumptions that underlie individual judgments. In the field of literature the poet need not, but the scholar and the critic must. Examining the implications of the patterns of one’s discernment is an ongoing part of the process for generating well-justified decisions. People who pooh-pooh theory, pretending they have none are either unselfconscious about their own or ignorant. This phenomenon is common in the free-for-all of the American political realm where the illusion has been constructed that only conservatives have values. The literary counterparts of the opportunistic timeserver have less opportunity to wreak harm, perhaps, though who is to say that poetry and art do not provide a part of the sustenance needed by humans.

All human groups possess art, though some may lack metal, pottery, even fire. It is surely absurd to imagine that this devotion of energy to symbolic structures created apparently, in play, is inessential. Human beings are, after all, preeminently a semiotic species: the creation and manipulation of symbols is more our distinguishing characteristic than tool use or an opposable thumb. Though the species had already a hundred thousand years of history, David Lewis-Williams suggests in The Mind in the Cave the simultaneous development of art, language, and religion about forty thousand years ago. Poetry is one indication of the fact that humans build imaginative structures as spiders build webs; it is our nature. The ability to state conditions contrary to observed fact allows lying, fabulation, hypotheses, poetry, and myth.

Most of my own basic assumptions have been set forth in other essays, some numerous times in various forms, but I shall here isolate them from specifics so they may be better judged on their own merits.
Poetry means only things made, constructions, artifacts, and indeed every object made by human hands carries within its design the intentionality of its maker. The students of stone blades have shown what expressive subtlety, what range of skill and inventiveness may be discerned even in such conventionalized and functional objects. From the earliest times, people also made objects for aesthetic purposes that were no less carefully designed, that were, in fact, specifically constructed to bear an astonishing load of meaning.

Art is the more densely significant information-bearing code. In poetry this efficiency is achieved because all elements of the text may be read: not merely what one may take for the straight denotation, but also what is left out, what is stated ironically. The text may also be fruitfully read for its turns on earlier similar texts, each deviation bearing new implications. The aesthetic text uses many figures of speech and thought, each of which requires an attempt to formulate something inexpressible using only its simple terms. Further, the material basis of the poem is itself significant. The series of phonemes that form the poem’s body is also expressive in ways that emphasize, extend, alter, qualify, or deny one’s first reading.

Analysis of a single word can expand in ever-widening waves. The semantic field of any word is unlimited, when one takes into account denotation, connotation, associations, prior uses, sounds, antonyms, homonyms and near homonyms, rhymes and half-rhymes, and the myriad other links. Increasing the unit of speech to the line and the paragraph, to the narrative and the conversation entails vastly more complex networks of interpretation, and moving then to the speech, the lyric, the fiction lifts the hermeneutics yet again.

Within the ocean of words that forms the body of literature itself, every text reacts against every other. Some gestures must be understood as hommages or as deliberate defiance of the reader’s expectations. A set cadence must be established before rhythmic play may begin, and the same rule applies to semantic and other phonic elements. As soon as a recognizable literary convention appears, its opposite, its contrary, its inversion, a whole field of possibilities is generated whose understanding depends upon the original. For too long critics have thought in terms of tradition and innovation as opposed rather than complementary terms.

One of literature’s spectra is that from highly conventionalized and predictable to wildly inventive. Around the one pole work becomes boring and repetitive; around the other the semantic codes weaken and the work approaches incomprehensibility.
It is for this reason that the literary text is distinguished by its polysemy. Though undergraduates may think of the search for multiple meanings at first as a sort of crossword puzzle and later as a license for the validity of any reading whatever, in fact the semantic field of a successful literary text is precisely controlled, its every ambivalence or ambiguity corresponding to traces in the reader’s consciousness.

The text, of course, always is understood with reference to lived experience. Every poem, story, or play implies certain propositions about life off the page. This is by no means always the most significant element in the work, though it is the one most commonly pursued in schoolrooms. (Often the chase is announced with the instructor using the execrable expression, “What is the author trying to say?” as though the poet was all but impossibly tongue-tied.)

The information the literature suggests about the world is itself of a particular type, differentiated from other discourses, such as scientific, philosophical, or historical. The aesthetic text specializes in information generated subjectively: the irrational, the ambivalent, ambiguous, conflicted, the self-contradictory. In this way, art more accurately reproduces the data of experience, often simplified or edited out altogether in everyday transactions. Admitting that pleasure is a primary goal of all organisms, art foregrounds and privileges this drive. The emotions, which are often suppressed as a matter of decorum, are the focus of poetry. Whereas most utterances are concerned with limited subjects, art projects an entire world-view in its every fragment. Furthermore, the literary text can create new thoughts, never before uttered, and thus allow change and progress.

Through these practices art gains its license to investigate the mysteries: the student of love does not turn to a psychology study, the student of death to a medical volume, nor the seeker after Ultimate Reality to theology. If they wish to learn what these things mean to human beings, they will read poetry.

The poet is not, alas, the bearer of revelation from higher realms he was long thought to be, but he is a bearer of a sort of provisional truth, what the world might have seemed like to one person at one moment, and there is no closer approach to truth in life. Whether the poet is wise or foolish, the written record of human reactions with reality, concretized on the page, allow the reader to triangulate and thus compensate for the limitations of every individual view.

The methods of poetry are then necessarily different from those of other discourses. Whereas most uses of language value concision and clarity, seeking a transparent language through which the meaning will appear with a single clear meaning, the literary text foregrounds the material of words itself and makes use of ambiguity and even obscurity. The simple act of framing art in a way that is non-functional in the ordinary sense creates new meaning: a junkyard cannot look the same in a photograph as in a casual glance and the act of recording a moment’s reaction to scenery changes that reaction forever. Always pursuing new shades of meaning, the poet uses music: rhythm, rhyme, half-rhyme, assonance, alliteration. The immense array of figures of speech and thought are all “tropes” that bend language to forge novelty.

The writer may originate poetry and the critic may examine it from a variety of stances. A focus on the author will lead to an expressive theory of poetry (Romantic theory if semi-sublime, art as self-help as the modern epigone). Placing the text at the center will result in an ars gratia artis (as well as New Criticism and all formalist practices). If the writer or reader wish to look particularly at the effect of the text on the audience, the result will be didacticism in some form, Christian, Marxist, or otherwise. (Actually, all popular and oral forms lend themselves to this sort of approach.)

As I said toward the outset, these assumptions underlie my own criticism. They rest on my experience of poetry more than of criticism, though eight years in graduate school can hardly have failed to leave a mark. This is a collection of observations rather than an exposition of an aesthetic. I invite dialogue. It is a pleasure to learn something new, to see reality from a different perspective. Is this not one reason that we read literature?