Dear Reader or I Want!

William Blake, I want! I want!

I’ve been obsessed with the poem Dear Reader by James Tate for some months now. I forget how I came across it—probably someone posted it on twitter. I linked to it on facebook, asking for interpretations, discussions but didn’t get any takers. I wonder why. Do responses from writers expose too much? Do readers have to address too many uncomfortable questions like, why am I shut up in a casket? why am I being hated here? I have said I am obsessed with it. I guess I just exposed myself. I do indeed have wishes for my poems and these emotions can be strong. But I don’t express them in the poems and don’t consider it my business to do so. Neither do I hate the reader, I’m pleased to say. Below are my impressions of the poem.

I’m attracted to, or I should say I recognize its ambivalent tone. I imagine many writers would recognize it. The last couplet: both halves will consume a person. “Eaten by the moon” I take to refer to one’s desires: being “eaten” by one’s yearning, here the yearning to somehow embrace a reader, which is impossible, and hating oneself for yearning for the impossible.

Some of the terms and phrases are shocking. To pry open the casket of a reader, as if to say to the reader: you are dead to me/why are you dead to me? The utter impossibility of a living connection to the reader.

Not just a snowflake, but a burning snowflake. One recalls Frost’s, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” from the essay, The Figure a Poem Makes. Frost is referring to the form a poem takes as it comes into being. Like paint dried on the canvas of a good painting, a well-crafted poem will “always” stay fresh (here I disagree with Frost. He says “forever” but I say everything has a shelf life). It’s a sort of paradox: the movement that produced the poem is gone, used up like a piece of melted ice, but the trace of it—the poem or painting itself—is always there (frozen as it were like a piece of ice or dried paint). This way of viewing a poem is especially true of Frank O’Hara’s poems, I think. Ashbery wrote about how his friend didn’t keep good track of the poems he wrote “because his thoughts were elsewhere, in the urban world of fantasy where the poems came from.” But I digress. Tate plays on this, but his “burning snowflake” puts the emphasis on the urgency of making the poem and he’s trying, with a high degree of frustration, to transfer this urgency to the act of reading. Unfortunately, this is not the writer’s business.

The making, the urgency of the making, keeps coming on like sleet. The maker “can barely see” because he’s getting the writing part of the process (the only part in his jurisdiction) confused with the reading, the part of the process he has no claims on and can have no point of view on (apart, that is, from his subjective point of view as one reader among others). The writer is not in a position to see it.

“If this trick works”—what trick? Is this poem, Dear Reader, this attempt to address the reader going to break through an impossible barrier? Does he really hope for this?

With the words, “I don’t know” he’s finally beginning to tell the truth—to himself, that is.

The writer wants what the writer wants. He wants the ice of the poem to light a fire of recognition in the reader. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. A reader may respond to a writer—send a fan letter, say a few words at a book signing, write a review—but reading and writing are like two halves of a coin: if you’re “heads” you’re on the wrong side to see “tails”.

Isn’t it a little bit outrageous to want to be on both sides? The poem may be a love letter, but all the writer can do is send it out. The rest is not his business.

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7 Responses to Dear Reader or I Want!

  1. angela says:

    Mark, you really do not need anyone else’s help with this cipher. I wish I were a better decoder, but my penchant is for the literal interpretation, ugh! Love how you entwine Frost into this as the reference is very apt. In a way, the trick did work because he captured your attention. Now, I’d closed the window after one pass because I’m not wise enough to understand, you, however are his reader in which to share a bit of fire. The only thing I would dissent on – is he perhaps half eaten by the moon because he is working working into the night? He writes of losing sleep, so again, I’m being very literal.

    As an aside, you bring up O’Hara, I’m encountering his name a lot currently on a ModPo subform discussing James Schuyler. Most interesting and many feel his style is akin to O’Hara — I don’t really agree but that is probably because I know so little of Schuyler’s work. Curious if you know of him?

    • Yeah, he got me, didn’t he. Your reading is perfectly legitimate. I wanted other interpretations so that I could see alternatives from my own.

      I don’t think Schuyler’s style is like O’Hara’s either. In fact the 4 always associated as the “New York School of Poets”–Schuyler, O’Hara, Ashbery and Koch–all have distinct styles. Of the 4 I find Schuyler most difficult to appreciate and O’Hara the easiest. I’m breezing through O’Hara’s collected poems but I’ve always kind of picked my way through Schuyler and never for very long.

      • angela says:

        I appreciate your reply of Schuyler since I know you’ve delved into the NYS poets/artists for much longer than I. Interestingly, his work has really captured my interest, one can almost step into his internal struggle of what type of poetic voice he wishes to embrace within several of the poems I’ve studied. Oh, and some are quite painterly, and now I’m finding that he was obsessed with collage, ergo, he seems to adopt that a bit.

        Your man Tate is quite the fellow! I had no idea that he had such a literary cannon — to which each one, for me, is a puzzle. Good lord, would you please give me a clue on how to read his poems, such as this gem . He’s another Ashbery — beautiful to read, but to understand, oy!

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    That burning snowflake got to me right off. Straight past the brain, an arrow that hit its mark. (Oh, gawd, the metaphors I’ve mixed.) Your comment “It’s a sort of paradox: the movement that produced the poem is gone, used up like a piece of melted ice, but the trace of it—the poem or painting itself—is always there,” reminded me of something Agnes Martin said when asked about her paintings, something on the order of liking best when they went out the door. Freeing her, I assume, to get on with the making, which is the whole point.

    I was thinking of you just today, reading bits from Auden as I waited for the window-washer to arrive (my god, BTW, I can actually SEE the mortar binding the bricks across the way now; how beautiful it is). Anyway, here’s a poem that, while likely far from Auden’s best, somehow spoke to me today:

    A Shock
    W.H. Auden (1972)

    Housman was perfectly right:
    our world rapidly worsens.
    Nothing now is so horrid
    or silly it can’t occur;
    still, I’m stumped by what happened
    to upper-middle-class me,
    born in ’07, that is,
    the same time as “Elektra,”
    gun-shy, myopic grandchild
    of Anglican clergymen,
    suspicious of all passion,
    including passionate love,
    daydreaming of leafy dells
    that shelter carefree shepherds,
    averse to violent weather,
    pained by the predator beasts,
    shocked by boxing and blood sports,
    when I, I, I, if you please,
    at Schwechat Flughafen was
    frisked by a cop for weapons.

  3. Pingback: Of Ice Crystals and Flaming Hearts | The Mockingbird Sings

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