Thursday, May 17, 2012
Classes are over, so I am reading some poetry. That is my work, believe it or not. 40% of my effort should be directed toward research, according to my contract, and I am a specialist in poetry. A lot of what I read will never find its way into my published articles. Not every experience I have as a reader will result in an academic argument. Most of it is background, yet a background that is, in some sense, more significant than what's in the foreground: the published work. Yesterday, when I was reading in the coffee shop, I was thinking about what I was doing. The poetry I was reading was by Andrés Sánchez Robayna, a poet from the Canary Islands. I stopped to memorize a few short poems. Occasionally, I thought of ideas I could use in my book, but mostly I was experiencing the poetry as a sacred act of communion with nature. It is a sacred act for the poet, and for me as a reader. This has nothing to do with any particular religion. It is the sacred in its purest form. (Some people need religion to get at the sacred, and others use religion to avoid the sacred. The guy at the table next to me had a Bible and some other religious books that he was studying, but I don't know which category he fell into.) So what is the relation between my academic work, work that fulfills requirements for research, and the fact that what the poetry I study is actually about is the experience of the sacred? In Borges's story "El etnógrafo" a student named Fred Murdoch is presented as a respectful everyman, naturally believing in what is written in books. At the beginning of the story he is a tabula rasa, a man with no identity and open to any possibility, whether puritanism or the orgy. A professor suggests that he go to live with the Indians on the prairie and undergo what might be described as a vision quest, revealing the sacred "secret" of this particular tribe. He does this, but on his return he decides not to write the dissertation. The experience is not ineffable, but the secret in itself is less valuable than the experience that led up to it. So one model is the ethnographer of the sacred who doesn't write of his own experiences. There is no graphia in this ethnography. The other model is that the experience of reading poetry ends up in a secondary form of writing, called literary criticism. Then the problem is that the canons of literary criticism impose restrictions that seem irrelevant to the experience of the sacred. Rather than seeing this as a negative, however, I see it as a good thing. Academic literary criticism provides a forum and a discipline for this experience. Otherwise there would be no way of articulating the experience to anyone else. It is too important to keep to myself.