Review of Re-reading Poets: The Life of the Author by Paul Kameen 2011; University of Pittsburgh Press
Erica Fischer, University of South Carolina
Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/rereading-poets (Published: June 8, 2015)
Paul Kameen’s Re-reading Poets: The Life of the Author puts forward a provocative reevaluation of current reading practices that have systematically denied the author as a legitimate force. Because Kameen contends that authors can, and should, be collegial partners in our daily lives, it seems appropriate that his text enacts the type of recursive engagement he proposes, for his book “moves in an unusual way,” one that prefers to be experienced instead of recounted (xiii). Rather than speaking from a univocal position, he weaves personal memoir, literary criticism, and philosophy, as well as pedagogical experiences and theories, into active “re-readings” of the lives and texts of his favorite poets. As such, the form of his text encourages one to engage with the same attitude of open reception the content communicates. Organized in four chapters and an epilogue of his personal poetry, the book has a rhythm to it that pulses, contracting in the narrow scope of personal memoir and then expanding to engage with hundreds of years of literary tradition and schools of thought.
The critical move to exile the author, a move Kameen identifies with I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism, sets up the conversation for the first chapter. Responding to the line of criticism that rises in the wake of this move away from the value of the author, he invokes Roland Barthes as he warns, “death is a serious and final matter” (5). Drawing from his own relationships with William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Walt Whitman, Kameen promotes a reading that presumes both camaraderie and collegiality between poet and reader. Such a method calls for one to read not for an attunement to meaning, but rather with openness to provocation and a willingness to engage. He illustrates this difference with his own experiences of reading the same poets differently in different contexts: at school, while looking for answers, and in private, at night under the covers of his bed, inspired and wanting more. The disparity of these relationships informs his aversion to overtly political investments in poetic analysis. The upshot of a reader’s openness to a poet for Kameen is that one develops a life-long relationship by never closing the conversation with the finality of a single meaning.
Later, in “The Other Side of Thirty,” Kameen pulls from his own memories and experiences in order to illustrate how this intimate reader-author relationship develops over time. The author’s narrow scope in his memoir here contrasts nicely with the broad topic of tradition to which the conversation expands in the following chapter. Insightful close readings of and conversations with a host of writers including his three primary poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Whitman), along with Sylvia Plath, James Wright, Gary Snyder, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams populate this chapter, sketching out the different relationships that he returns to throughout the book. Of particular note, he recounts the evolution of his complex relationship with Whitman—one, that to his own admission, got off to a rocky start: “You and I, Walt, becoming one at the atomic level? Not bloody likely" (61). However, he uses this initial impression as an example of one’s potential camaraderie with any poet, for Whitman taught him ”the value of coming back to re-read a poet of interest over and over until you’re ready to get it” (73). In this chapter, he again, comes down hard on New Criticism, the theoretical apparatus that informed the early instruction he received, observing that its blatant agenda as a historically and politically produced approach to texts hinders a life-long development with the author that could otherwise take place.
The conversation expands in scope in the third chapter, accounting for the force of tradition, particularly in literary studies, that often mediates a reader’s relationship with an author. Kameen’s re-reading process attempts to account for and respond to the detriments that come with this mediation, proposing that we do away with the idea of the poet as a fixed figure, whose work can be thought of as finalized body of knowledge. For him, such limited relationships with poets support a pedagogy that relies on a “desire to commemorate” (103). Instead, he favors a recursive re-reading of the poet that “covers the same ground over and over, each passage a temporal remove from the preceding one but intimately contiguous with it, no matter how much actual time has passed in the interim” (84). For example, he calls into question the slow, methodical, and purposeful endeavor of traditional close reading, playing instead with the possibilities of an alternate approach that requires a fast, what he calls “far” reading, likening close reading to sitting on the moon and studying it under a microscope while far reading is akin to sitting on earth and taking in the whole moon in a single glance through a telescope (85). Notably, although he takes close reading to task in this chapter, he does not dismiss the practice completely, and understandably so, for the rich and astute close readings he includes in this very project serve his purposes well.
As vehicles for inquiry into the forces of tradition that hinder productive relationships, authors T.S. Eliot, Martin Heidegger, and, primarily, Mikhail Bakhtin, help Kameen explore possible methods for conceptualizing traditional reading practices differently. Though they approach the concept of inheritance in different ways (Eliot as legacy and Heidegger as possibility), Kameen points out that Eliot and Heidegger both believe in the merits of inheritance because it represents potential wealth in the narrative of tradition. In contrast, Bakhtin does not rely on such a limiting mediation. What I found particularly interesting here was Kameen’s interest in Bakhtin’s use of the chronotope to integrate both author and the reader in an interactive relationship. The value of the chronotope for Kameen is that it allows for the, to use Bakhtin’s words, “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” (84). In other words, Kameen’s reading of Bakhtin allows for all the dynamic aspects of the re-reading process to exist simultaneously, claiming that it is “an ideal method for re-reading poets” (99).
Toward the end of this third chapter, Kameen points to his life-long relationship with Parmenides as an ideal example of his re-reading process and the “distracting and irritating effects of the many sorts of screens through which we ‘inherit’ the tradition” this process brings to light (105). Parmenides along with the other pre-Socratics serves this role well because their work exists before the division of disciplines, when “human knowledge seems all of a piece rather than a pre-sliced multi-disciplinary pie” (105). As such, Kameen sees two primary conditions of contemporary scholarship that afford us a facility with these particular scholars: 1) our current familiarity with post-disciplinarity grants us a certain ability to think outside the categorized sections of knowledge, and 2) the scope and definition of contemporary poetics has become so broad that it is easy for us to read the philosopher Parmenides as a poet, and thus, for Kameen this means the ability to cultivate an on-going conversation with him (106). He recounts how his thirty-year relationship with Parmenides—from textbook summaries in his undergraduate study to extensive close readings of the original texts as an adult—changed over time. He discovered in the process that he had been misreading, or misunderstanding, Parmenides. Most notably, he concludes that, “[m]eaning and its inherent authority is not regulated in this case by linguistics, but by rhetoric,” for the mediating forces of the various textbooks and translations he had encountered over the years influenced their relationship (111). Again, this development is evidence of the upshot of openness, a willingness to maintain an active relationship, with a poet. At the close of the chapter Kameen further contends, when we read we are entering into the play of authority and ultimately it is up to us as the reader to choose how to engage with the poet and his words (113). This chapter’s investment in the rhetorical situation of one’s relationship with the poet adds a valuable nuance to his project.
Using John Stuart Mill’s seemingly contradictory views of poetry as a framing device, the fourth and final chapter parses out the range of influences, both public and private, that come to bear on the very concept of the poet. Asking such questions as “Does one need to be writing in order to be a poet?” and “Is there a point at which a poet ceases to be a poet?” Kameen not only illustrates that the “role of the poet is assimilated as a function of personal identity” (115) but also, he calls attention to the “private, inner struggles of a poet trying to grapple with his own identity as a poet” (118). In dealing with the problems of establishing poetic identity, he addresses what he calls “contamination,” the desire to cultivate original work outside the influence of other poets. He cites an example of this anxiety that appeared in his own classroom: a student who expressed fear about losing her original voice in the act of reading other authors (126). Though not directly, his response implicitly invokes Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, for Kameen explains to his students “the value of 'contamination' and the limits of ‘originality,’” in relating to other poets (126). This anxiety serves as yet another example of how the force of tradition mediates one’s communal relationship with poets. Kameen offers a number of his own poems and the contexts in which he wrote them to discuss, first hand, the challenge of establishing a poetic identity. Of particular note, he insists that the ineffable was crucial to his own development as a poet (141). He concludes with the same question he posed at the start: “What is poetry good for?” and he does not leave his reader unsatisfied. He provides a number of answers to this question on personal, philosophical, pedagogical, and pragmatic levels.
Because this book reads like a memoir in conversation with the literary tradition, it has potential to speak to a wide range of audiences. Teachers, students, writers, and readers of poetry all have a stake in Kameen’s argument. Though this book does not outline a strict pedagogical method, it has the ability to perform like a writing workshop, where the author offers up his own work and calls upon the experience of his fellow poets, which he has gathered together. If the book does have a heartbeat, as I alluded to earlier, the pulse most certainly echoes a theme of openness and a willingness to engage.
Kameen, Paul. Re-reading Poets: The Life of the Author. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2010. Print.