Bewildering Stories

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Metacommentary on “on an Archived Poet”

by Don Webb

Ásgrímur Hartmannsson’s “Commentary” appeared in issue 102.

When Ásgrímur first sent us his commentary, it was received with automatic dubiety; Bewildering Stories had not, as a rule, published formal literary criticism, mainly because we’d never received any. But maybe it’s time to start: on close reading, we find Ásgrímur’s commentary to be a constructive critique buttressed by brilliant insights.

Take #1, for example:

The first poem tells of a man created by an unnamed institution, popularized by paranoid people everywhere under the name “Them.” Apparently “They” are unhappy with a certain property of their creation

The overarching riddle of the entire poetic cycle is thus resolved at one stroke: Who are the famous “They” of song and dance, let alone story? Giant ants under Los Angeles? No, that was Them, this is “thou.” The answer is simple: “They” are a paranoia-inducing group of people who don’t like the poet. Why they don’t like him is another matter, of course, but we may surmise that the list of suspects has been narrowed to the inhabitants of the Solar System.

Locale is much more difficult. Where is the poet pitched from a precipice? South America? Are we actually reading a cryptogram in verse about cocaine smuggling? If so, a hidden story begins to emerge: The poet has fallen afoul of felons in the tropical jungles of the drug trade. They don’t like his looks — mainly his clothes and spiky hair — and toss him forthwith off a cliff. He hits bottom but survives. Which raises a question or two: was the poet given the heave-ho by criminals who thought he was a CIA agent? Or by CIA agents who thought he wasn’t one? Both at once? Do we really have a Need To Know? Do we want one? One thing we can say for sure: they are “Them.” Or “They.” Whichever.

In poem #5, Ásgrímur notes that the poet has plunged into politics or cults or both. The poem’s enumeration of the evils endemic in everyday existence connects circuitously to a current operative in organized religion: Billy Graham. Does this have anything to do with poem #1? Some televangelists may dabble in diamonds, but... cocaine? That seems out of the question. The CIA is another matter, but the CIA is officially forbidden to employ clerics as agents. It is far more likely that the poet has shadowily joined forces with Good against Evil. However, as Ásgrímur points out, that scenario, too, is problematic, because the poet begins to isolate himself; characters henceforth disappear, presumably into jungles and off of cliffs.

Poem #7 is a conundrum. Ásgrímur is right to demand examples for the enigmatic line “Too many writers get famous and quit.” One might cite a few authors who ceased to write poetry at an early age for one reason or another, but they are definitely an exception.

When logic fails, one must question motives. Since we have none handy to rubber-hose, we may question the accuracy of the text itself. Is a negative missing? “Too many writers get famous and don’t quit.” That is, writers ought to quit while they’re ahead. Examples surely abound. On the other hand, does it mean that writers ought not to quit just when they’re beginning to be understood or are beginning to understand themselves? And indeed, what is the meaning of “famous” here?

The rest of the poem contains a logical contradiction, but only in appearance. Here’s a summary:

The writer doesn’t care about his fans.
Fans help make the writer great.
The writer ought to dedicate himself to writing.
The writer ought to dedicate himself to his fans, too.

How can a writer dedicate himself to his fans when he doesn’t care about them? To resolve this dilemma, Ásgrímur hypothesizes austere religious doctrine, one that would presumably call for the writer’s sacrificing himself to those pesky fans. And that segues directly into a seemingly alternative explanation: Satanism. Though startling at first glance, the concept is a stroke of sheer genius. It resolves the contradiction by postulating a higher order of logic: the poet is actually a kind of Überdichter, son of the Nietzschean Übermensch.

The concept of the super-poet is indeed intriguing, because it fits neatly with Asgímur’s very perceptive conclusion to the thematic analysis:

He constantly implies that good things may come to those who seek them. The bad things he mentions are those faraway things mentioned in the media: teens being depressed, drug dealers, and so on.

Optimism in the face of depressing newspaper clippings? The poet is certainly all über it, but is he über it all? It’s doubtful: he definitely never gets über it. La Rochefoucauld’s most sarcastic observation — among hundreds — on human nature contains a recipe for Satanism: “We are all strong enough to bear others’ troubles.” In other words: “Empathy, shmempathy.” Where is the poet in all these stories?

Of course, one may object that the newspaper clippings serve merely as a rhetorical device exhorting the reader to moral or esthetic relativism. Or both. But would that not make the poet an Unterdichter ? We may never resolve the question whether the author is a super- or nether-poet, but we may still wonder how we can dedicate ourselves to our fans without dedicating ourselves even as we... Oh, never mind.

In part II, Ásgrímur’s reanalysis of poem #8 singlehandedly inaugurates an ingenious critical approach to literature: simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction, a bit like borrowing stones from Roman catacombs to build an underground labyrinth. Now, any new school of literary criticism deserves a name: I propose Neo-Transformationism. (“Neo” because it automatically supplants any real “Transformationist” theory I haven’t heard of yet.)

Neo-Transformationism utilizes two main approaches: the “Steam Shovel,” which rearranges elements, and the “Bulldozer,” which eliminates redundancies. In this instance, the “bulldozer” strategy in effect rips off the left-hand half of the page.

Ásgrímur is right: the result is startling indeed. It is essentially blank verse containing all the themes of the original. Since, as Ásgrímur observes, the verses can be read in any order, a “Steam Shovel” reconstruction would surely reveal any number of poets. At one extreme, a Satanic Über- or Unterdichter ; at the other, a young lad who is saying simply: “Please don’t be mad at me because I look funny; I could have done a lot worse in my life.”

Acknowledgement: Bewildering Stories fulsomely thanks Steven Utley for sacrificing to his fans his poem about the switi Neferteetie.

Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb

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