As a child, I was terrible with riddles. (As a bright child, I resented my inability to master the form on the form's terms-which only added to my antipathy.) A successful solver of riddles must decode on two levels: first on the semantic terms of the riddle itself, and then in terms of the host culture, which dictates the one "correct" answer. That there is only one correct answer is never in doubt. I well remember the first time I was offered that twentieth-century children's chestnut, "What's black and white and re[a]d all over?" After some careful thought, I offered this answer: "a bloody zebra." Perfectly true. "No, a newspaper!" crowed my gleeful interlocutor, having learned the proper answer elsewhere. It turned on a pun, of course-a homonym. To this day I remain highly suspicious of puns (and rather more fond of bloody zebras, for what that's worth).
There are ways to circumvent the coercive logic of the riddle, of course. Bilbo Baggins does it-by accident-in The Hobbit. Lewis Carroll does it in Alice in Wonderland. The Comte de Lautréamont's ante-surrealist vision of convulsive beauty begs the question splendidly. But in the backwash of the New Criticism, where for some reason we still live, it remains widely the fashion to interpret the lyric poem as a riddle: to presume that the poem, to whatever extent it seems initially inaccessible, must therefore be a code. The reader's goal is to break it. I spend half a semester each and every term attempting to wean my students from this bad habit. "Do you ever return to a code you've broken?" I ask. "A math problem you've solved? A crossword puzzle you've finished?"
Charles Simic writes-concerning Joseph Cornell-"A toy is a trap for dreamers. The true toy is a poetic object." Or, putting it another way: "How to construct a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer and keep him company forever."
When I taught at Deep Springs College, I suggested to my students that one measure of literary "value" might lie in whether or to what extent a work infiltrates our dreams. My students there, New Critics all, were at best suspicious of such an imprecise measure, at worst openly scornful. The test of whether that's an actual body, an actual zebra on the table is to cut it open. (This was before, one after another, they came to me to complain that Brian Evenson's lyric novel Dark Property had given them bad dreams.)
One irony here, of course, is that in the very same culture that gave rise to that childhood newspaper riddle, in living memory even, the newspaper itself has passed. The visionary poem, the imaginative poem, evades the spare-change logic of culture for something that breaks the skin. When, in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's Mrs. Phelps cries at hearing Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," this is why she cries. She has been laid open, as by a knife. Or, perhaps more accurately, she has been made aware of the wound she already, like the Fisher King, bore.
The contemporary lyric poem of vision has many offices, but in one way it resembles the ancient Anglo-Saxon charms that, alongside riddles, constitute some of the earliest extant poetic output in our language: its role as an agent of healing, through vision. It is revelatory, that is, it reveals. And, in revealing, proffers possibility.
"However long its tether, poetry wounds itself in our hands as we are wounded, in turn, by its escaping," wrote René Char (in Gustaf Sobin's translation). A poetry that does not risk this sort of wound, this sort of wounding, is a poor art, limited to aphorism and anecdote. It is, after all, the wound that reassures us: that we are still alive, that we are still needy.
The visionary poem, as per Simic, keeps us company, into and through the long night.
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