“In defense of close reading or, reading the minuscule”
AFEA 2018 Symposium « Magnifying America : the poetics and politics of details »
22-25 May 2018
Nice-Sophia Antipolis University
PANEL “In defense of close reading or, reading the minuscule”
This panel proposes to read texts to the letter, to risk close reading as a challenging methodology. In le Risque de la lettre, Isabelle Alfandary explains that “the negativity of writing depends on the otherness that is always already introduced at the heart of an impure and heterogeneous system, one it contributes to shaping—language. Writing does not go without a risk, the risk literature and language run through writing lies at the heart of language itself, and constitutes language as risk. From this point of view the literature of the letter carries the trace of the risk inherent to any act of speech” (Alfandary 2012, 27). Besides, reading a text to the letter, whatever its nature, means having it run the risk of writing. In paying close attention to the letter of the texts, to their typographical details, punctuation signs, we invite the contributors of this panel to show the invisible parts of a text, its hidden meanings, what goes on between the words, in the boustrophedonic turns of the poems’ lines.
From the dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poetry to the “lyrical minuscule” of E.E. Cummings—as Isabelle Alfandary calls the first-person in Cummings’s poetics— these signs are characteristic of poetics that value the miniature and the minuscule. However, even with poets such as Walt Whitman, the so-called “cosmic poet,” what is said in the smallest interstices of the American language reveals poetry as a space of and for writing, and as a threat to jeopardize language: in the poem “Out of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” the line “from the memories of the bird that chanted me” the verb “chant” oscillates between transitivity and intransitivity, thus turning the minuscule space between verb and complement into a grammatical instability and a semantic void. In her poetry collection Singularities American poet Susan Howe appropriates the literary canon by “incorporating the letters of her own name into those of the Founding Father of the American letters. In metamorphosing the name Thoreau into ‘Thorow,’ Susan Howe americanizes the European –if not Francophone— “eau” into an American diphthong: ‘ow’” (Olivier 2017, 120). In Dictée, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha disfigures the American language through collages of poems, autobiographical texts, photographs, etc. in order to challenge the status quo, thus demanding the reader to reconstruct an identity out of fragments, to compose with the silence saturating fragments or isolated letters.
In his holopoems that play with light and the instability of letters, Eduardo Kac transforms the linguistic sign within 3 D space, urging readers to multiple deciphering gestures. In « Perhaps » (1998), a digital poem, Kac offers twenty-four linguistic avatars to be chosen by readers. Thus, readers are able to create a unique and flexible poem: the semantic experience focused on particular details is renewed each time with a click of the mouse. In cyber poetry, a fragmented poetics based on numerous sources of inspiration (graphic arts, drawings, architecture, documentaries, natural phenomena…) is offered to readers or « vusers » (Bill Seaman). By striving to handle and cope with all these details, readers become actors or co-creators of the poem. « Seattle Drift » by Jim Andrews (1997) is a case in point as the observer is invited to click up left to ‘do’ the mobile poem that lets letters and original stanzas drift at random. The reader tries to visualize and read at running speed all the details that escape his vision/understanding before clicking again in the hope of stopping the poem on the page.
Reading poetry closely, on the page or on screen means considering it as writerly and visible. Behind that attention to details, viewers are thus invited to challenge the text’s authority, create their own assemblage of words or letters. They should read the poem for what it is, accept the infinity value or the mystery it might suggest at the expense of its historical and biographical context.
Papers will focus on the multifaceted forms that American poems have taken since the 18th century: prose poems, long narrative poems, concrete poems, calligrams, kinetic poems, cyber poems, video poems, hyper poems, holopoems, computer-generated poems….
It is this particular focus on detail that allows poems to be recognized as a fascinating form of writing. Readers encounter unprecedented texts, hoping for an intriguing and playful exploration of miniature worlds, books are read/seen with magnifying effects.
Each textual dimension encourages a specific research method, a different aesthetic analysis. This workshop invites to decipher texts that disturb reading habits and linguistic authority/austerity. From Walt Whitman’s verse to Cummings’s typographical tricks added to the coded language of digital poetry, the relevance of poetry is rooted in little things or nothings, trifles or little extras like « a chain of miniature birds » (Barbara Guest) offered to our view. These apparently insignificant punctuation marks, little puns and trivial alphabetical tricks are part of a miniaturization process that invites scrupulous and attentive readers to scrutinize this small world of details where the meaning of the text is at stake.