×

Is This Any Fun?

Emersonian Pragmatist and Prescient High-Low Cultural Critic Richard Poirier Believed That Reading “Dense” Literature Was Like Manual Labor, or Having Sex
DISCUSSED
Grad-School Lingua Franca, Fiery Jeremiads, T. S. Eliot’s Romantic Troubles, Pernicious Meanings, The Dismissal of Linguistic Skepticism, Damnation by Éclat, Bette Midler, The Metaphysics of Sexual Commerce, Heavenly Blow Jobs, Delicious Catty Streaks, Grief That Teaches Nothing

Is This Any Fun?

Lisa Levy
8 Snaps

I. Getting to Know Dick

When I signed up for Richard Poirier’s seminar at Rutgers in 1996, it was out of obligation. As an American-literature grad student (“Americanist,” in grad-school lingua franca), I was expected to take Poetry and Pragmatism—a course decisively bound to the modernist project, with a syllabus that included William James, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—even though I had come to graduate school to study the works of the early settlers, fiery jeremiads and captivity narratives, sentimental novels and transcripts of witch trials. But the ethos of the Rutgers Americanist demanded I expand beyond my specific interest zone; since there was so little American literature, we were expected to be fluent in all of it, from Winthrop to Updike.

I do not think Dick—everyone referred to him as Dick—particularly enjoyed teaching our class (named after his 1992 book, Poetry and Pragmatism, also on our syllabus), though he was a bit of a ham. He had the weary, bemused quality of an old vaudevillian during his final run. I was also not any kind of teacher’s pet. That role was assigned to a vapid yet good-looking boy who left the program to go to law school after completing his MA. While his student, I didn’t really appreciate Dick’s genius. I grew frustrated when he went on tangents, and kept a tally sheet of his favorite detours: King Lear, Balanchine, The Equalizer, speculation or specious facts about the sex lives of writers, some of which turned out to be true (“T. S. Eliot couldn’t give it away!”). There were flashes of brilliance, to be sure: a charged passage of Stein’s “Melanctha,” Wallace Stevens’s poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” incredible readings of Emerson. Once we talked for an hour about the word impudent in Emerson’s essay “Experience”: its punishing, punning, sexual overtones (the root is pudendum, Latin for “that of which one ought to be ashamed,” commonly used to refer to the vulva). The sentence in which it appeared—“The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness”—might as well have been a motto for the class.

*

As it turned out, mine was the last graduate seminar Dick ever taught; he semiretired soon after to concentrate on his other activities, mainly the journal Raritan (now edited by Rutgers historian Jackson Lears). When Dick died, in 2009, I found myself recalling him fondly, and I started reading more of his work. By then I had left academia, but the lessons I found in Dick’s work apply more to me now, as an independent scholar, than they might have if I had stayed. Dick insisted, “Writing must not be simple. Yet most commentators on the literary, political, or cultural matters treated… give every impression that writing is somehow easy, that words can somehow be set into place and counted on not to move.” Words for Dick were wonderful yet slippery, multivalent, gateways to all kinds of allusions and illusions. Elsewhere he wrote, “Literature is now the process of telling us how little it means.” But he was gently joking, as no one held the literary in higher regard than Dick, though no one was also more willing to puncture categories—Dick was prescient in the ways he anticipated the invasion of popular culture into high critical discourse and the ease with which he wrote about the most complex works, past and present, without jargon or cant—to challenge authors, and to try to find the proper place for the works he loved, literary or not.

 

II. Neutrality Is Power

Richard Poirier was born in 1925, a working-class kid from Gloucester, Massachusetts, the son of a fisherman. He served in the army in World War II, then attended Amherst College on the G.I. Bill (where Robert Frost, whom Dick claimed “knew more Latin than Eliot and Pound put together,” was a member of the English-department faculty). He did his graduate work at Yale (under New Critic Cleanth Brooks), at Cambridge (under the formidable F. R. Leavis), and at Harvard. He describes his time teaching at Harvard in the last chapter of Poetry and Pragmatism, a chapter called “Reading Pragmatically: The Example of Hum 6.”

“Reading Pragmatically” is an excellent introduction to Dick’s literary theory, which he would likely call “a plea for reading.”

Reading can be a civilizing process, not because the meanings it gathers may be good for us—they may in fact sometimes be quite pernicious—but because that most demanding form of writing and reading called literature often asks us to acknowledge, in the twists and turns of its language, the presence of ancestral kin who cared deeply about what words were doing to them and what they might do in return… Good reading and good writing are, first and last, lots of work.

The natural clarification is what is meant by “work” here. In Dick’s mind work is what writers do, what readers do, what critics do, and what piddly little graduate students must be taught to do. “Do your work, and I shall know you,” he would bellow, quoting Emerson’s words from “Self-Reliance,” sometimes hitting the seminar table for emphasis.

One of the goals of “Reading Pragmatically,” and of Dick’s work in general, was to revise the lineage of post–World War II literary theory as well as to make criticism a more rugged pursuit. (This was a major theme of his, the equivalence of literary labor to other kinds of labor.) Dick seized techniques of close reading from the New Critics (an epithet he found “exasperatingly inexact”) and dismissed the Derridean and poststructuralist claims of originating linguistic skepticism—how ridiculous to think that the first people to find language inadequate came along in the late twentieth century!—and relocated them in a genealogy he dubbed Emersonian pragmatism. These writers, Dick’s writers—Emerson, William James, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens—shared several pertinent, urgent qualities. One was that they all wrote for the public and were conscious of their audience (performance was a subject Dick thought about deeply). Another was that they all shared “a recognition that language, if it is to represent the flow of individual experience, ceases to be an instrument of clarification or clarity and, instead, becomes an instrument of a saving uncertainty or vagueness.”

For Dick, this is where work comes in, for to read these writers is to actively engage with them: to try to puzzle out their vagueness and dig to the root of their uncertainty. But the point of such exercises was never to make declarative statements or draw easy conclusions. One of his favorite passages from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” instructs us of exactly that: “As soon as he has once acted or spoken with éclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality!” In neutrality there is power, there is potential; in speaking with éclat we damn ourselves to conformity, to a means of expression, i.e., language, which is always inadequate. Emerson again, from “Circles,” an essay I fell deeply in love with over the course of the semester: “The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.”

Only in not committing, by abandonment, can we keep thinking, working, learning. The lesson of Hum 6, which Dick carried into his teaching at Rutgers, was to ask, “What is it like to read this poem?”, never “What does this poem mean?” So we read poems, and read philosophy like poetry, with Dick pushing us to grapple with metaphors, to really think through the language on the page and to hear it ring in our ears (Dick loved Frost’s statement that the ear was the only true writer and the only true reader). He forced us to always be active, to be creative, to be self-reliant.

Work was not only key to Dick’s literary theory, it was paramount in his pedagogy. He cared about teaching, and thought about it both in terms of what he did in the classroom and of how literature should be defined or delineated. Spending the majority of his career at Rutgers, a public university, in the cauldron of the protests of the 1960s and then the curriculum wars of the 1980s and 1990s, Dick wrote eloquently and fervidly on the debates of both periods. In an essay first published in 1970, “What Is English Studies and If You Know What That Is, What Is English Literature?”, Dick argued that “all the elements in what is called English studies are, or ought to be, in motion, including the student and the teacher. A beautifully liberating instability, a relativity rather than a ‘relevance,’ should be all we know and all we need to know about English studies.” It was this instability that Dick would elicit from the works we studied, the linguistic skepticism of the pragmatists: in our first class on Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” he led us through a reading of the essay where to speak with conviction is to conform, and nothing was more dangerous than conformity in language, particularly in writing. (Phrases from the essay stick with me: “The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner” is one of them.)

The pragmatist vision, Dick told us on day one of class, is “bleak.” There are no absolutes, only local verbal constructions that collapse under scrutiny. Literature, like life, is all struggle. As he wrote in his essay on English studies, “Literature has only the possibilities of a special relation to our daily lives, and even then a constricted one. So much so that there is little evidence, I think, that people of conventionally achieved literary culture or people who produce literature are any better at ‘the exploration of life’s problems’ than are some, and not a few, who cannot read or write.” So what, then, is the point of reading or writing or teaching or studying literature? For one, if it is worthwhile literature, then reading, teaching, writing, or studying it is work, and work is worthwhile whether it is physical labor, mental labor, sexual labor, or some other honest effort. Yet just as important for Dick—and this I did not know until after I had read his work—it is fun, and fun is equally worthwhile. It may not help us with the exploration of life’s problems, but it does make them seem a tad less difficult to bear.

 

III. A Love of Drag Queens

Dick published brilliant essays on T. S. Eliot, the Beatles, Herman Melville, and Thomas Pynchon (among many others) while also writing monographs on Frost and Norman Mailer. In these essays he describes the qualities of literature and of writers that fascinated him throughout his life: selfhood, politics, performance, work, and the pragmatic verbs doing, being, and knowing. He routed his thinking through his theory of the performing self, also the title of his 1971 essay collection. Dick loved to talk about drag queens, Bette Midler (he wrote an essay insisting Midler’s 1975 Broadway act, Clams on the Half Shell, should be considered parody, not camp), Mae West, and the ballet (especially Balanchine, “a classic American genius”). Dick was light-years ahead of his time in erasing the divide between high and low culture. In the introduction to The Performing Self he wrote that the book

proposes some ways of locating energies in writing and in the popular arts which most academic criticism and training ask us to neglect, preferring, oddly enough, to offer as elucidation precisely the schemes which the works in question provide in often comic over-abundance. Behind this argument is a supposition, with which I’ve experimented in teaching but haven’t yet been able to articulate fully: that anyone who can describe any kind of performance with accuracy and fascination—in rock or in a sonata, in boxing or in ballet—has already developed an attentiveness and a vocabulary which can be adapted to a reading of, say, the plays of Shakespeare, a better reading, indeed, than they have received from all but a few Shakespeareans.

This emphasis on the attentiveness to the vocabulary of performance, to being able to describe with accuracy and fascination, feeds into his particular bailiwick about writing and reading as an extension of identity: again, do your work and I shall know you.

It was part of Dick’s critical project to write about popular culture in as serious a way as he did any Frost poem or Emerson essay. In his much-lauded 1967 essay “Learning from the Beatles,” originally printed in the Partisan Review and later included in The Performing Self, he limits himself to analyzing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He discusses the tendency of regular rock criticism to categorize, and how that simply is not descriptive enough for intelligent people to understand the relevance of something like Sgt. Pepper’s. “Any effort to account for what the Beatles are doing will be difficult,” he writes, “as I’ve learned from this inexpert and not very extensive try, but only to the extent that talking about the experience of any work of art is more difficult than talking about the theory of it, or the issues in it, or the history around it.” He writes about the myriad musical references on the album, its allusiveness to music halls and Bob Dylan, to orchestral music, jazz, and Judy Garland. He finds satire, irony, nostalgia, self-parody, and punning in its lyrics. In short, he writes about it like it is a complicated and deep text: he works it through close reading. “Listening to the Sgt. Pepper album one thinks not simply of the history of popular music but of the history of this century,” he declares. Yet he also makes the excellent and salient point that the Beatles are meant to be fun: “Perhaps in some such way the popular arts can help restore the arts to their status as entertainment and performance. To help this process along it isn’t necessary that literary and academic grown-ups go to school with their children. Rather, they must begin to ask some childlike and therefore some extremely difficult questions about particular works: Is this any fun? How and where is it any fun? And if it isn’t, why bother?” For as much as he valued hard work and difficulty (which will be discussed in a moment), Dick was a lot of fun. He thought life should be fun, and that work should be a kind of play: all of the asides about the sex lives of his beloved writers, for example, were his way of being intimate with them, of playing around.

 

IV. Difficulty v. Density

Dick had a frank and fluid attitude toward sexuality, both masculine and queer. He was casual about it in conversation, and it recurs as a theme in his criticism. He claims, “A writer’s imagination of sexual activity is a clue to his way of writing because sexual commerce somehow involves itself in the metaphysics that belong also to the act of writing: seduction and power, waste and creation.” In my class notes, I recorded a comment Dick made about an angel giving Whitman a blow job, a comment based on a well-articulated argument in his essay called “Elusive Whitman”: “Indeed, in section 5 of ‘Song of Myself’ the soul as muse quite graphically descends on Whitman by apparently going down on him: ‘I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning; / You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me, / And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart, /And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.’”

In Dick’s introduction to one of the Library of America editions of Stein’s work, he tells the story of how Stein’s longtime lover and long-suffering typist, Alice Toklas, changed all of the instances of the word may to can in Stein’s early novel Q.E.D. because of Toklas’s jealousy of Stein’s early affair with a woman named May Bookstaver, an affair chronicled in Q.E.D. Dick argued that for Stein sex often occupied the vague or in-between spaces of her difficult language: “Her delight in the female body isn’t separable from the pleasures she finds in the twisting of syntax and of individual words out of their normal or customary shapes. Either activity is, for her, and she hopes for us as we are reading her, a liberation from conformity to patriarchal assumptions.”

One of the questions Dick liked to ask was, “What does it mean to be a difficult writer?” A further question is whether that difficulty is connected to (or endemic to) the modern project. In his 1987 book, The Renewal of Literature, he writes, “Twentieth-century criticism and theory have tended to prefer ‘difficulty’ to ‘density.’ Difficulty gives the critic a chance to strut his stuff, to treat Literature as if it really were a communication of knowledge rather than a search for it.” Rather than worshipping difficulty, Dick is on the side of density, which “does not announce itself in literature, any more than it does in some of our most intimate conversations.” Furthermore, “density is very often something that strikes the ear rather than the eye; it is often something you hear happening to voices as they modify words and phrases which, at another point, seemed quite clear or casual. Density is usually accompanied not by the extruding allusiveness of modernism but by the covert allusiveness of troping.” Dick rejected what he argued was the T. S. Eliot line of thinking in modernist literature (as expressed in Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), which held that difficulty and allusiveness were crucial to the modern project (just think of all of those footnotes to The Waste Land). Dick advocated a different kind of difficulty—we joked about there being various cults of the difficult in grad school—what he names here as “density.” He loved the wordplay of Gertrude Stein or Robert Frost, not writers who used fancy words but who made plain speech suddenly mean something revelatory and different. Dick’s favorite examples of this were works like Stein’s Tender Buttons or the first line of Frost’s “Mending Wall”: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” What sounds like plain speech is actually quite complex and provocative.

“This struggle for verbal consciousness should not be left out in art. It is a very great part of life,” Dick quotes D. H. Lawrence, another writer he very much admired, in Poetry and Pragmatism. We are always and everywhere trapped in language; it is our central means of self-expression, yet it is imprecise, maddeningly slippery, not equal to our thoughts or our feelings. Emersonian pragmatism is ineluctably bound to this problem. Dick’s writers trope, pun, invent metaphors, and use other forms of wordplay to try, albeit unsuccessfully, to find their way out of it.

 

V. An Inconvenient Loss of Property

“Keep cool but care” was one of Dick’s favorite lines from Thomas Pynchon, a writer whose work he championed in the pages of the New York Review of Books and often mentioned fondly. Other critics did not impress Dick, and he had a delicious catty streak. In class he mentioned Susan Sontag’s “well-known difficulty with the English language.” Shakespearean New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt he dismissed with the comment that he was “no better than my high school English teacher, who was very good.” Yet he was generous with and talked up his friends—Leo Bersani, Myra Jehlen, Harold Bloom. His generosity is mentioned over and over again in the reminiscences I read about him, especially by Raritan contributors.

One of Dick’s favorite tropes in Emerson and James was that of capitalism, and he found metaphors of the world of commerce everywhere. A particular favorite was Emerson’s claim in “Experience” about the loss of his son, Waldo: “In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So it is with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” Dick wrote (and explained to us in class) that Emerson was not failing to grieve here, but writing about how language was inadequate to his grief. This was his supreme example of how language failed, how it could not even begin to express what was contained in a man’s heart. This feels to me like Dick’s real legacy, Emersonian pragmatism with all of its complications, the incredible readings he did and those he is sure to inspire. His impudent knowingness, pun intended.

More Reads
Essays

My Feminist Friend

Rafia Zakaria
Essays

A Natural Mother

Bianca Giaever
Essays

Good Shepherds

Meghan O’Gieblyn
more