Figuring the Reader
The situation of the writer as he faces--or rather, as he turns his
back on--his reader is what prompts my writing here. All we can know of
the writer, Henry James wrote in The Art of the Novel, "is the back he
turns toward us as he bends over his work." The point he was making, I
take it, has to do with the difficulty most of us--I include myself--have,
as readers, imagining the writer actually writing. For example, when I
try, hard, to imagine James himself actually writing Portrait of a Lady,
I must confess that he is not there for me, not real to me. I have the
novel he has given me, but I do not have him. He remains a mystery to me:
a ghost writer, as it were.
With his back turned toward us, then, the writer--James or any
other--bends over his work. A man alone, and necessarily so, he goes about
his writing business in private. In good faith, we, his readers, are
obliged to: respect that privacy, keep our distance from him, honor our
contract with him. But I, for one, am curious. I cannot help wondering
what occurs in the mind of the writer as he writes. Do we, for example,
his readers, occur to him? Are we there for him? Real to him? Does he, as
he writes, figure us reading him?
That is what my title, "Figuring the Reader," is getting at: how the
writer figures, or embodies, his reader. For whom does he write?
When I was in China, living and working there, I came across Rewi
Alley's New World Press edition, 1983, of Bai Juyi's poems, his
"re-creations" in English of them. In his preface, Mao Dun claims for
Alley's edition of the great T'ang poet its status as "a milestone in the
history of cultural exchange between China and the West." Having known and
loved Bai Juyi's poems, for quite some time, in the English of other
"re-creators" than Alley, I award him his claim. My special interest here,
though, is not in Bai Juyi or even his poems but in his reader: how he
figured him. Or her.
Bai Juyi earned, in his own lifetime, and deserved his reputation as
the "People's Poet," because he figured the people, his readers, in his
poems. He gave them language bodies; he sang their lives. "The Old
Charcoal Seller," for example, lives, and the school children of China
know him, thanks to Bai Juyi. Legend has it that Bai Juyi used an old
peasant woman, who was herself unlettered, as his first "reader." That is,
he read his poems in draft to her, tested them on her, and did not quit
reworking them until she understood them... until she got them. Only then
did he let go of them: send them out to make their own way in the world.
And they did. In his travels, Bai Juyi reported that he had seen with his
own eyes his poems copied on the walls of inns and monasteries and that
singing girls who knew his songs commanded a higher price.
I have always liked the idea of Bai Juyi trying his poems out on that
old peasant woman... so much that it is a true story for me even if it is
apocryphal, even if it never really happened. William Carlos Williams has
lines in a poem of his, "January Morning: Suite XV," which address,
directly, another old woman:
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can't understand it?
But you got to try hard.
The old woman in Williams' poem, it happens, is his mother. He wrote other
poems--than this one--for her and about her. "Eve," "The Horse Show," and
"Elena" (the second of "Two Pendants: for the Ears") come to mind. But it
is this one, "January Morning: Suite XV," that reminds me of Bai Juyi and
his old peasant woman. Williams' mother was more than real, more than a
mother to him; she was "a mythical figure... a poetic ideal," he called
her in I Wanted to Write a Poem. She served as muse to him, and he
served as poet to her. Not only did he want her to understand his poem,
the body of his work, but also he wanted her to approve of it. Of him.
The line that connects Bai Juyi and William Carlos Williams, like a
bloodline or a river--the Yangtze, say, or the Mississippi--is strong and
runs deep. For the same reasons that Bai Juyi was known as a people's poet
in China, Williams deserves to be known as a people's poet in America.
Whether the people know it or not, he, too, figured them, especially the
women, in his poems. I think of "To a Poor Old Woman." Remember her? How
good the plums she was munching tasted to her? I think of young Elsie, a
working girl, one of "the pure products of America" gone crazy, whose
poem, addressed by Williams directly to her, is called by her name. I
think of "The Young Housewife" who is, in her poem, "shy, uncorseted,
tucking in / stray ends of hair," and to whom Williams bows as he passes,
"smiling." And I think of "A Negro Woman" who, in the poem Williams gave
her, is "carrying a bunch of marigolds / wrapped / in an old newspaper,"
holding them upright "as a torch / so early in the morning." What, he
asks, is she "but an ambassador from another world?"
In America, Walt Whitman wrote, in his "Preface" to the 1855 edition
of Leaves of Grass, "the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him
as affectionately as he has absorbed it." Alas, poets in America keep
failing that test, because their country men-and-women have proven
themselves, over time, unprepared to "absorb" them at all, much less
"affectionately." Williams, embracing the people fiercely, as he did,
comes as close to being theirs, belonging to them, as any poet in America
ever has. Or likely ever will.
Whereas Williams' old woman was, Bai Juyi's old woman was not, his
mother. But she might just as well have been. Psychologically, all women
in a man's relational life are "other" women than his mother, for whom
they all are standing in. Reading up on Bai Juyi, I find that he
experienced his mother's death as a hard loss. Most men do, whether they
recognize and honor it as such or not. Because Bai Juyi was a man who
wrote poems, though, he did just that. He processed his grief by writing,
as Williams did, poems for and about his mother. I know two of them,
"Admiring Flowers" and "The New Well," but I know them by their names,
their titles, only. Rewi Alley, again, in the "Translator's Preface" to
his New World Press edition of Bai Juyi's poems, mentions that he wrote
them after his (Bai Juyi's) mother "had died by falling into a well while
looking at flowers." That is all the information I have regarding them,
and it is not much to go on. I have not even read "Admiring Flowers" and
"The New Well," because I have not been able to find them in English... or
in Chinese, for that matter. They are unavailable to me as I write this
essay. So what am I to do?
It occurred to me--immodestly, perhaps, but not irreverently--to write
"Admiring Flowers" and "The New Well" myself. Why not write my own
versions of Bai Juyi's missing poems? In English, of course, and in his
spirit and manner. After all, the spirit and manner of Bai Juyi's poems
have everything to do with that old peasant woman. His mother? And to
honor him is to honor her, is it not? But I let that notion go, almost as
soon as I had it.
Instead, I decided to respond to Bai Juyi in kind: with a poem of my
own for and about my mother, whose death, as it happens, I have suffered
and survived. My poem is not about a well, new or old, in which my mother
drowned, but there are flowers, "Hydrangeas," in it. And how she loved
Once again, it was time
to bury them...
the hydrangeas in the flower bed.
It was October
and winter was growing
somewhere inside a blackbird's head.
never missed a thing.
When she saw that blackbird
settle down in that evergreen
she went right to work
with gunny sacks and black dirt.
'They'll bloom better in the spring,'
she said, knowing all along
it was going to be her last
winter. She said:
'When I die, I want you to bury me
here... in the blue hydrangeas.'
She always liked the blue ones best.
In his book of essays, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo declares
that "jealousy is impossible for a poet because he has written every poem
he loves." He goes on to say that among the "beautiful" poems he has
written are "Leda and the Swan," "Memories of West Street and Lepke," "The
Farm on the Great Plains," "A Guide to Dungeness Spit," and perhaps a
hundred more. Any reader who knows English language poetry knows that Hugo
did not really write those "beautiful" poems himself; rather William
Butler Yeats, Robert Lowell, William Stafford, and David Wagoner did. What
Hugo meant was: It is as if a man who writes poems has written all the
poems he loves because, loving them, he has made them his own. He has, as
it were, signed his name to them. And no poet, worthy of his name, could
or would be jealous of that act.
Perhaps I deceive myself, but I like to think that Bai Juyi would
approve of my substituting for the love of his mother, as he must have
expressed it in "Admiring Flowers" and "The New Well," the love of my
mother, as I have expressed it in "Hydrangeas"; for his grief words upon
the loss of his mother, my grief words upon the loss of mine. Reading
other poems of Bai Juyi, I am convinced that he knew, full well, and
appreciated not only the power of winter "growing / somewhere inside a
blackbird's head" but also the fact of spring with blue hydrangeas
blooming in it, never far behind.
Bai Juyi's peasant woman, his mother; William Carlos Williams' old
woman, his mother; my mother. What a goodly company they make, as I
introduce them to each other! The tie that binds them all together is
this: In a very special and powerful sense, they are our first--and
last?--readers. It might interest you to know that I wrote "Hydrangeas"
before my mother died, not after, and that she actually read it herself
during "her last / winter." All the writers in this essay, including Henry
James, are men, and the readers--except for me--are women. I know that.
But I intend no politics by it... other than the politics of my heart. It
is just that, with their backs turned toward us bending over their work,
the men who matter to me here, Bai Juyi and William Carlos Williams, are
figuring their readers as women; are embodying, in their minds and in
their poems, their readers as women.
Frank O'Hara, in "Personism," his playful manifesto, says that
Personism, "a movement which I recently founded and which nobody yet knows
about..., puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person..., and
the poem is correspondingly gratified." It is, he says, "at last between
two persons," where it belongs, "instead of two pages." O'Hara is saying
what the Chinese people have always said about Bai Juyi: that he is theirs
and that his poems are between them. What Walt Whitman said to the
American people: that he wanted the same thing, love, from them and for
them? And what William Carlos Williams said: "All this-- / was for
A poem by Ted Kooser, in his book of poems, Sure Signs, makes
O'Hara's point, and mine, convincingly. His title recalls the title of my
essay: not figuring but "Selecting a Reader."
First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She would be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on the shelf. She will say to herself,
'For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned.' And she will.
Imagine Kooser, at his writing desk, imagining the woman in his poem; he
would have her as its reader. I say its reader, rather than his
reader, because Kooser's poem, in my reading of it, is in the book the
woman has walked "carefully up on." It is one of the poems that she thumbs
over--it has to be--before she puts "the book back / up on the shelf,"
which act I shall return to.
"Selecting a Reader" has its life, such life as it has, between the
pages of Kooser's book, but he would have it, his poem, between persons,
himself and the "beautiful" woman in the bookstore. Where it belongs.
Finally, it all depends on her, because Kooser has already done everything
he can do to make that happen. He has written the poem. It is her move,
the reader's move. And she makes it. She puts "the book," with his poem in
it, the very poem in which he selects her as his reader, "back / up on the
shelf." She refuses him.
"'For that kind of money,'" she says to herself, "'I can get / my
raincoat cleaned.' And she will." But what does that mean? It means that
the reader Kooser desires will not spend herself on him. Putting "the book
back / up on the shelf," the woman turns her back on him,
suggesting--remember Henry James--that is all Kooser can know of her. I
have emphasized the fact that when she speaks she is not speaking to him
but to herself. Kooser is left, alone in his poem, still figuring his
reader. Like Bai Juyi and William Carlos Williams, like me, he cannot have
the one reader he truly desires--his mother?--because she is not there for
him. He is writing for himself. We all are.
The remarks of Mao Dun and Rewi Alley that I have quoted are from the
latter's edition of Bai Juyi, 200 Selected Poems, published in Beijing
by the New World Press, 1983. The passage having to do with Bai Juyi's
poems "on the walls of inns and monasteries" and singing girls knowing
them is from Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry,
edited by Liu Wu-chi and Lo Yucheng, published in Garden City by Anchor
Books, 1975. The poems of William Carlos Williams that I have referred to
are from his Collected Earlier Poems ("January Morning: Suite XV,"
"Eve," "To a Poor Old Woman," "To Elsie," and "The Young Housewife"),
published in New York by New Directions, 1951; his Collected Later Poems
("The Horse Show" and "Elena"), the revised edition, published in New York
by New Directions, 1963; and his Pictures from Brueghel ("A Negro
Woman"), published in New York by New Directions, 1962. Williams'
description of his mother as "a mythical figure... a poetic ideal" is from
I Wanted to Write a Poem, published in Boston by Beacon Press, 1958.
Henry James' line, in which the writer turns his back on the reader "as he
bends over his work," is from The Art of the Novel, edited by R.P.
Blackmur, published in New York by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934. Walt
Whitman's "proof of a poet" line is from his "Preface" to the 1855 edition
of Leaves of Grass, which is included in his Complete Poetry and
Selected Prose, edited by James E. Miller, Jr., published in Boston by
Houghton Mifflin. Richard Hugo's remarks on "jealousy" and poetry are from
The Triggering Town, published in New York by W.W. Norton, 1979. Frank
O'Hara's remarks on "Personism" are included in his Collected Poems,
published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf, 1971. Ted Kooser's poem,
"Selecting a Reader," is from his book Sure Signs, published in
Pittsburgh by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980. My poem,
"Hydrangeas," is from the journal Plainsong, Winter 1985.