Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Reply to Soft Bulletin

As an undergrad I had a Professor of German Poetry (Duncan Smith) who was a Marxist and had created the only exchange program between an East German University and an American one. He taught this unusual course where he didn't really care so much if we understood completely the words of the German lyrics. He more encouraged us to perform the poems for the class. At first this meant simply reading the poems out loud. He would have different people read the same poem and comment on the reading style and talk about what was missed by pausing or not pausing or accenting or not accenting in certain places. He believed we could understand just by hearing it correctly. By the time mid-terms came along we had to partner up and make projects out of these poems that became sensual experiences for the class. My friend Greta and I used Rilke's Orphues poem (of course, we were way into Spicer) and created some sort of blind labrynth for our class to walk through. The production involved dry ice. Another project (I can't remember what the point was exactly but I think it was connected to a Holderlin poem) involved a video we made of me walking on a winter beach with a metal detector. What I'm getting at is that Duncan refused to watch the news. He was probably the first person to show me that poetry was a way of looking. And to continue looking through poetry he stopped watching the news. In this he differed from my teachers who were actual poets. They seemed not so eccentric but studious practitioners. Duncan was more of a quirky uncle who gave you permission to play with poetry in a way that a writer wouldn't. For Duncan poetry was about creating a reality where everything was a poem. I remember him pointing out a way of seeing a particular matchbook as a poem. I don't know what I would think of him now that I am a skeptical self-conscious adult but there is a way that his class permitted us to really go head first into the existential questions posed by the lyrics we read. Or just by the act of reading poetry in this world. We really felt what was at stake in the poems. Philosophically and existentially. And this was directly related to the performance of them. The low-tech antics were crucial to freeing our imaginations to fully imagine what was posed by the reading. I remember being shocked when he told me he had several years earlier stopped following the news. He didn't read or listen to the news and he was frustrated with Postmodernism. He was in the Modern Culture and Media Department which was the Mecca of PoMo at Brown and he detested the way PoMo was debunking everything. I think I agree with him now more than I did then. There was a reverence he had for the poetry. He believed whatever motivated it was a real human (intellectual and emotional) need. It was not just about debunking ambigious syntax and coming up with the cleverest and most skeptical reading. It seems that rejecting the news was a way of rejecting a world view -- a skeptical world view. But often the poems he loved most were the ones that revealed a psychic fissure caused by the world outside the poem. He was one of the first people to point out to me that the German word for poetry "Gedicht" comes from the verb "dichten" which means to seal off. For instance if there is a draft in my room I get something to make my windows "dicht." A poem is something that is air-tight sealed-off from the outside. To dichten is to make something so. A poet is a Dichter. One who seals off. But over and over again he showed us in the poems that this wasn't true. There was always a fissure. It seemed that not knowing what was happening in the world was one way he tried to fend off many possible fissures.

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