In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Gentleman of Shalott,” the title character is caught in an ambiguous fix of self-regard: unlike Tennyson’s lady, who is forbidden to turn back towards the reality her mirror reflects, and who weaves her art from the reflected world, this gentleman can’t separate himself from his image; he refuses to give up the stance of self-scrutiny. But his predicament is not uncomfortable:
. . . The uncertaintyhe says hefinds exhilarating. He lovesthat sense of constant re-adjustment.
Even if part of this exhilaration is confidence, or narcissism, “constant re-adjustment” still means he hasn’t got it right yet, either: Bishop’s gentleman exists in a state of failure. His stance before the mirror reminds me of the rhetorical device epanorthosis (Greek for “setting straight”), recalling a word or phrase in order to replace it—“a bird! No, not a bird, a plane!”—a figure often taken more generally to mean self-correction.
Bishop also loves re-adjustment; she corrects herself incessantly. In “The Armadillo,” her attempt to differentiate between planetary bodies and illegal fire balloons in the Brazilian night sky broadens to an increasingly careful survey of the visual field. It is hard, she writes,
to tell them [the balloons] from the stars—planets, that is—the tinted ones:Venus going down, or Mars,or the pale green one.
Although often interpreted as meticulousness of perception or exactitude of description, self-correction here doesn’t end in correctness. Instead, the poem slips from naming to seeing, from human-made balloons to recognizable planets to something graspable only by its color and by the paleness that is the sign of its distance from us. Instead of working toward getting the words right, epanorthosis leads to questions about what the world is doing (or failing at), and about language’s (here, faltering) place in it.
This poetics of self-correction is a poetics of attention and imagination in equal measure, a poetics of remembering and recalling and analyzing, doing it over, keeping up a series of approximations, and living in a state of failure that could be, nevertheless, a creative endeavor. When it is not enough, or not possible, simply to correct, it is necessary to go back, rehearse (not a bird, a plane), and figure out what is still possible to say. Along with Bishop, I’m thinking about this way of writing in contexts, personal and political and ecological, of things going wrong, as a way of writing into and before things that are difficult or impossible to think about—complicities, catastrophes—without being silenced by them.
For poets like Bishop—Jorie Graham also comes to mind, or Ammons—self-scrutiny and failure manifest rhetorically, in residues of thought and perception. The poem on the page is not a result but something more like a fossil or a footprint or a path left by water—a record of the poetic mind’s attempt to account for itself and for the work it does. Not all poets write like this about failure, although many write about it: you could, for example, read failure into the dashes that tatter Dickinson’s quatrains, or into George Oppen’s white space. Philip Larkin addresses it head-on in a monument of a sonnet, concluding with elegant, depressive grandeur:
It is these sunless afternoons, I findInstall you at my elbow like a boreThe chestnut trees are caked with silence. I'mAware the days pass quicker than before,Smell staler too. And once they fall behindThey look like ruin. You have been here some time.
The work of Catherine Wagner presents yet another way to write failure, one that neither risks silence nor in some sense enacts mastery. Throughout her four books—Miss America, 2001; Macular Hole, 2004; My New Job, 2009; Nervous Device, 2012—the failures Wagner encounters are personal and political both. The problems she writes through—how to carry out or move past a relationship, how to think about pleasure and desire, how to bear one’s place in an unfeasible and destructive economic system—are not faced only by poets. Her solution, though, draws on particularly poetic resources—draws on them, but also reminds us that they belong to the whole failed world, from and for common use. Sometimes Wagner breaks into actual song, recycling the rhythms of the ditty and the ballad, riffing on their repetitions and nonsense words, and evoking their tradition of anonymous or communal authorship. From Macular Hole, for instance:
I told you I’m ugly and I’ll tell you whyOh, ho, blow the man downI saw you today and you looked mighty fineGive me a rhyme to blow the man down
Here is a speaker who has turned from mirror-gazing, who has reported what the mirror reflects and is about to dive deeper into poetic introspection (in the first line) or self-positioning (in the third). But in each instance self-scrutiny stalls and the poet jars the poem into ballad-mode to continue: the absence of rhetorical connective tissue exposes a poetic structure that relies less on the speaker’s private identity and more on a set of tropes and phrases that repel “personality,” located instead in the socially and historically charged rhythms, rhymes, and cadences of song. The musical introjections are not semantically toothless—they are aware that they want to destroy by the force of rhyme, or the force of breath—but they do refuse to participate in the same sort of language and subjectivity that makes up the rest of the poem. It is a brilliantly childish, or childishly brilliant, move: failure’s poetry is not silence but song.
Wagner uses this singsong strategy in multiple books: the folksong “Hole in the Ground” provides a figure for the exploration of sex and exchange she undertakes in My New Job, as well as the title for a long section of that volume. The poem “A Well is a Mine: A Good Belongs to Me,” from Nervous Device, stages a dialogue, mostly in couplets, about oil dependence and identity politics, slave labor and global relations, that breaks down, near the poem’s end, into mathematical equations:
“Freedom________ = Art.”Reality“Then Art x Reality = Freedom.”“Freedom________ = Reality?”Art“Where art is politics.”
You could dwell a long time in these calculations, which are not jokes. But the questions they are asking don’t have calculable solutions, and the poem registers this in its two final couplets:
“Where am I to go? Oh hey, hey, hey, Johnny, where am I to go?“I am where to go! I am where to go, dear Johnny.”“What are you to me?” “Hey, hey, hey, Johnny—I’ll tell you when you’re mine.”“Go our separate way together, tell me when you’re mine.”
Calculation, dialogue, and logic reach a standstill before systems that baffle and threaten silence, although they, like the Lady’s mirror, also can’t be turned away from. While Wagner’s shift into the key of folksong doesn’t leave thematic concern behind—the ballad-words stage what they do (lead somewhere away from confusion) and what they don’t (escape problems of relation and possession)—it keeps the poem going past the moment of failure, but not into false success or authority. The ballad phrases with which the poem concludes provide not only the pleasure of their music but also an alternative way of thinking the self or self-scrutiny—one that comes closest, perhaps, to slipping out of the contours of a subjectivity too rigidly conceived, or at least to imagining a self without so much self.
Of course, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot deliberately very badly, it is necessary to think about the self in order to want to change or surpass it. Self-scrutiny and self-correction are necessary, even enjoyable, but possibly nevertheless paralyzing: it is like having a crick in your neck that prevents you from moving but still hurts when you are looking straight ahead, a failure-state that no amount of self-adjustment can quite fix, in part because you are still trying to fix the same self. That stance is not unfamiliar to Wagner’s work. In “My New Job,” in fact, it's intense:
I am Invested inby a Huge FundHeavy highqualityfurnitureSense of heavyAddiction glossy pleasanceI was lying Down on a yoga matMy bonesbasketing air Barely draped inskinthe basket Effulged by localAir Highquality scentedhumid airto support My orchid Skin
Epanorthosis and song might finally be thought together—the former as stasis (“I was lying Down on a yoga mat”), the latter as a motion out of it. A multivalent survey of the embodied self—its position in the world thought through phenomenologically, economically, physically—maps out immobility and failure, but there is still enough air for breath inside and outside that self: oh, ho, blow the man down.