This essay starts from J. Hillis Miller’s ‘The critic as host’, an anatomy of reading which connects ideas of ghosting and hosting. If the reader or critic hosts a text, s/he does so both as ‘eaten and eater’, containing ‘the double antithetical relation of host and guest’ (Miller 1977: 442). Miller finds in the ethical reader someone aware of these ‘reciprocal duties of hospitality’. With its images of winding ivy and squirming parasites, Miller’s essay contains a dynamic disclosure of the spirit of attempt that drives it, and the energies of the ‘species of that fanaticism, or rapture, or even revelry that Immanuel Kant calls Schwärmerei’ that, elsewhere, he invites readers to enter (Miller 2005: 253).
These ideas haunt and illuminate my practice as writer, editor and critic. This essay explores the possibilities of applying Miller’s evocation of the ‘reciprocal duties’ involved in inhabiting a text as a reader to these other varieties of habitation. My research into confessional poetry and life writing repeatedly washes up questions of (and into) the liminal spaces between the imagined and something we like to think of as fact. In writing about ‘real’ people, hospitality’s questions become challenging: what to serve, bring or hide in a cupboard; how best to listen; questions of transgression, politeness and pleasure. Similarly, the creative editing of another writer’s work is premised upon a privileged hospitality: an interlocutor can only be effective if a writer has invited her into the work, and is willing to accommodate her reading.
The form of this essay’s exploration is inspired by the poetic assemblages of Joseph Cornell, which Charles Simic describes as ‘vehicles of reverie’ where objects and ideas are shuffled into conversation through a ‘dime-store alchemy’ (Simic 1992).
Keywords: hospitality – reading – writing – creativity
Vehicles of Reverie
He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him, with no clue as to what that image will turn out to be in the end (Simic 1992: x).
Charles Simic’s Dime-store alchemy is a gentle and illuminating response to the work of Joseph Cornell. The poet’s intuitive habitation of the artist’s work takes the form of imaginative citation, recitation and recreation. Fragments of poetic prose, or prose poetry, are interspersed with reproductions of Cornell’s work, shuffling reflection and response in meditative ekphrasis. The book exemplifies the reciprocity and happy cohabitation to which J. Hillis Miller adverts when he poses the first question in his essay ‘The critic as host’:
Is a citation an alien parasite within the body of its host, the main text, or is it the other way around, the interpretative text the parasite which surrounds and strangles the citation which is its host? The host feeds the parasite and makes its life possible, but at the same time is killed by it, as ‘criticism’ is often said to kill ‘literature’. Or can host and parasite live happily together, in the domicile of the same text, feeding each other or sharing the food? (Miller 1977: 439)
Self-taught artist, recluse by nature and door-to-door salesman by necessity, Cornell lived most of his life in a tiny wood-framed house, where he cared for his brother who had cerebral palsy. He shuffled found objects and words into deeply introverted conversations in wood-framed boxes through what Charles Simic calls ‘a dime-store alchemy’ (Simic 1992). ‘Dime-store’ because Cornell gathered materials he found on his working walks, and was never wealthy; alchemy to acknowledge the transmutation of base metals into precious ones, and to gesture towards the movement from esoteric towards exoteric; of outsider art into something with the capacity to exert a wide pull.
Cornell’s assemblages became, as Simic puts it: ‘vehicles of reverie’ (1992: 46), a description that also evokes the dynamics of a poem’s creation and reading. Cornell first aspired to be a writer, before beginning his work on assemblages which often contain or refer to writers and words. Thinking of reverie and correspondence in literal and figurative senses, Simic writes:
I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighbourhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970 (1992: ix).
In one fragment, ‘The truth of poetry’, Simic describes a mobile poetics that includes work such as Cornell’s. While Cornell’s work is not poetry in a conventional sense, it makes connections and hosts ideas in ways metaphor does. It offers a kind of template for poetry and an examplar of poetic dynamics. Simic suggests that Cornell creates:
Dreams in which objects are renamed and invested with imaginary lives. A pebble becomes a human being. Two sticks leaning against each other make a house. In that world one plays the game of being someone else (1992: 46).
In reverie, all is exchange: becoming, making, renaming and transmuting. Inspired by Simic’s words about Cornell, this essay’s exchange begins with assembling and continues into the terrain these gerunds describe. Simic argues that while such artists as Marcel Duchamp and John Cage ‘use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist’, Cornell’s work does the opposite, expressing a belief that ‘to submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions’ (1992: 61). Perhaps an essay’s assemblage, too, might reveal self and obsession even as it continues its wanderings under the guise of a larger kind of attempt. While Lynda Roscoe Hartigan highlights Cornell’s ‘peripatetic intelligence and capacity for inclusiveness’, his works return from their meandering and collecting to ideas of enclosure and disclosure, and the possibilities of correspondence, and these dynamics inform my essay (2003: 15).
‘Toward the Blue Peninsula’
Simic writes of Cornell’s wistful ‘Toward the blue peninsula’, dedicated to Emily Dickinson, that if ‘her poems are like his boxes, his boxes are like her poems, the place of unlikely things coming together’ (1992: 75). For each artist, the box and enclosure become fructive spaces, and from confinement springs disclosure.
For the purposes of assembling some unlikely things for this essay, I imagine passing Cornell on the street and borrowing one of his boxes as the space to collect them in. The essay is a form that might wander—might at heart be errant—but its imaginings are ultimately confined. It might be peripatetic itself, or in compact with the ambulatory, a thought Robert Macfarlane returns to in The old ways: a journey on foot when he suggests that ‘a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells’ (2012: 18). But for all its mobility, the essay walks in a box—it has its word limit, and it arrives at a kind of ending, however provisional, even as it reaches beyond that closure.
Part homage, part reflection, this essay is haunted by the imprints of Cornell’s poetics, and Simic’s articulations of them. Assemblage, a term first used in an artistic context by Jean Dubuffet in 1953, has connections with the experiments of poets such as Mallarmé, piecing together word-shards and fragments of text to explore their connections and disjunctions, and to surrealism’s juxtapositions. In hosting this piece of writing within the terrain of the assemblage, I am interested in intuitive connections, chance conversations and serendipity: raising questions rather than seeking to answer them.
In In the skin of a lion Michael Ondaatje suggests that ‘[t]he first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, there is order here, very faint, very human’ (1987: 146). Cornell’s assemblages and perhaps all poems whisper similar reassurances, and this essay does too.
The Critic as Host
Cornell himself and his reclusive, hospitable craft evoke the next piece of my assemblage: J. Hillis Miller’s essay ‘The critic as host’. Miller’s essay contains an anatomy of reading that collects hosting and ghosting in what I imagine as a delicious shiver of etymological unravelling. It produces a poetics of criticism that comes to rest with the idea of ‘reciprocal duties of hospitality’ (Miller 1977: 442) for those who host a text as critics. Hosting a text, one becomes eaten and eater, consuming and consumed by the ‘double antithetical relationship of host and guest’ (Ibid: 442).
In exchange, the artist, like the critic, enters a similarly antithetical relationship, embodying hosted and hosting. Miller traces the origins of the word ‘parasite’ back to its history of referring to benign sharing of a meal, before it acquired negative connotations in biological and social contexts. His vision of guest retains each of these senses, carrying the ‘bifold sense of friendly presence and alien invader’ (Miller 1977: 442). Of the prefix ‘para’, he writes:
the strange logic of the ‘para’, membrane which divides inside from out-side and yet joins them in a hymeneal bond, or allows an osmotic mixing, making the strangers friends, the distant near, the dissimilar similar, the Unheimlich heimlich, the homely homey, without, for all its closeness and similarity, ceasing to be strange, distant, dissimilar (Miller 1977: 443).
Cornell was introverted and lonely in the small wooden box he made his home, but hospitable in the humility and welcome evident in his art. His boxes within boxes frame and reframe ideas of containment and excision, and the transmutation of the strange into the domestic and vice versa. On the day he died, he said to his sister: ‘I wish I had not been so reserved’ (Simic 1992: xiv), yet in tension with—and stemming from—that reserve is an artistic generosity and disclosure through the intimacy and risk of reverie. Simic writes: ‘Perhaps the ideal way to observe the boxes is to place them on the floor and lie down beside them’. They invite us ‘to start our childhood reveries all over again’ (Ibid: 41). They evoke, and invite us to, a place beyond the inhibitions of privacy and adult boundaries, perhaps. Bruce Hainly’s suggestion, that ‘Cornell’s works buzz with the cerebral perfume of the pornographic—its cleanliness and make-do precision, its insouciance, ubiquity and repetition’, might partly originate from this idea (Hainly 1996: n.p.).
Miller’s essay brings into focus an ethical imperative to inhabit a text with courtesy. If we are aware of the responsibilities in hosting a text, and aware that in one sense we have received no invitation from the writer, we might start by taking off our shoes at the door instead of trampling in whatever we have collected on them on our way to the text. When critics become too large in their criticism, texts disappear; the critical problem becomes stuck, like something stuck on a shoe-bottom.
Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own envisages this as shadow of the vertical pronoun obscuring the landscape of the text:
After reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’. One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it. Whether that was indeed a tree or a woman walking I was not quite sure. Back one was always hailed to the letter ‘I’. One began to be tired of ‘I’ (1992: 86).
In a particularly pyrotechnical instance of this, James Wood dispenses with the text at hand to ventriloquise and parody his subject, Paul Auster. He inhabits the space and voice that Auster and his writing might have occupied. Wood begins:
Roger Phaedo had not spoken to anyone for ten years. He confined himself to his Brooklyn apartment, obsessively translating and retranslating the same short passage from Rousseau’s ‘Confessions’ (Wood 2009: n.p.)
The piece is called ‘Shallow graves’ and its conclusion is that Auster’s language might more properly fall into the silence that abuts it:
The classic formulations of postmodernism, by philosophers and theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Ihab Hassan, emphasize the way that contemporary language abuts silence. For Blanchot, as indeed for Beckett, language is always announcing its invalidity. Texts stutter and fragment, shred themselves around a void. Perhaps the strangest element of Auster’s reputation as an American postmodernist is that his language never registers this kind of absence at the level of the sentence (Wood 2009: n.p.).
To put aside this idea of ‘the classic formulations of postmodernism’ and turn to a response by Auster, in a letter to JM Coetzee he refers archly to ‘the Woodian attack on my work, my life, and whatever it is I seem to represent for him’ (Auster and Coetzee 2013: 119). Reading Wood’s piece brings to mind Vonnegut’s image of the outraged critic as someone who has dressed in full armour to attack a hot fudge sundae. Yet buried in the parody is an odd sort of homage and intimacy, speaking despite its having been silenced. In Margaret A. Rose’s account of the etymology of parody, she finds the marriage of the prefix ‘para’ with ‘ode’ to describe a singing in imitation (1993: 8). Wood’s parody inadvertently discloses the same strange logic of the ‘para’ Miller describes, drawing together oblique appreciation and mockery.1
Contained in this kind of criticism, though, is a more negative and invasive possibility. The critical ‘I’ replaces both novel and author with a shadowing ‘I’ and its needs to compete, to dismantle, to speak instead of the voice or voices that have spoken. The critic as poltergeist emerges, moving things around noisily and aggressively.
There is an editorial version of this transgression, too, exemplified in questions of control and collaboration, one surfacing, most famously, not in poetry but in discussion of Gordon Lish’s editing of Raymond Carver’s stories. There are reports of Carver’s feeling stifled, exhausted and fearful in the face of editorial suggestions. Ezra Pound’s extensive editing of TS Eliot’s ‘He do the police in different voices’ into ‘The waste land’ appears to have been less contentious, but anecdotes—or apocryphal stories—about the editor who crushes a writer’s ideas or work abound.
In writing poetry about evidence of ‘real’ lives, related dangers proliferate and the same kinds of words become talismanic: courtesy, hospitality, invitation, guest. But it is in the critical reception of certain poets’ work that Miller’s ideas, arguably, are most intensely apparent.
Plath, haunting and clairvoyance
Her psychic gifts, at almost any time, were strong enough to make her frequently wish to be rid of them (Hughes qtd. in Alvarez 1971: 43).
These words, Ted Hughes’ about Sylvia Plath, resonate when Jacqueline Rose writes that ‘Sylvia Plath haunts our culture’, each statement evoking, as it does, ideas of the supernatural, and Plath haunted and haunting. Rose suggests that the poet
hovers between the furthest poles of positive and negative appraisal … in that space of what is most extreme, most violent, about appraisal, valuation, about moral and literary assessment as such … she lays bare the forms of psychic investment which lie, barely concealed, behind the processes through which a culture—Western literary culture—evaluates and perpetuates itself (1991: 1).
Over a ouija board and a tarot pack, Plath learned from Hughes ways to produce words by means of what Al Alvarez calls ‘spooky games’. Yet isn’t all poetry, to some extent, a poetry of ouija and spooky games; of connections drawn into the light, and of the correspondences ghosting the found and serendipitous, so striking in Cornell’s visual analogues? Alvarez is dismissive of Hughes’ uses of the astrological and supernatural, without a sense of these being like wooden wedges to keep an imaginative door ajar, and to allow space for the irrational.
If such ideas are too readily dismissed as Romantic or ‘soft’, their resemblances to Marjorie Perloff’s ‘unoriginal genius’ and Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘uncreative writing’ have not, arguably, been adequately countenanced. Each involves recognising the limitations of the ego, and the circulation of ideas in ways that poetries centred around ideas of originality, authority and the personal tend to occlude.
An anecdote: a story entirely without an answer. As part of my PhD research I spent time at Smith College Neilson Library’s Mortimer Rare Book Room reading through the Plath archives, at that stage a collage of manuscripts, locks of hair, shopping lists: a swept desk on the edge between the rare book room and the dime store where the ordinary coexisted with the extraordinary, each piece more radiant for the juxtaposition. Boxed and curated and acquiring value as fast as Cornell’s assemblages, there was a sense of literal and figurative poetries brought together, collecting household scraps on their way into libraries’ quiet rooms. I was looking for some pages from a draft, and unable to find them. I suspected there may have been a number of pages missing from some forty pages of drafts of one poem (thanks not to my own clairvoyance, but to Plath’s meticulous numbering).
That night I had a dream a black telephone was ringing on the bedside table. I answered it to hear the clear, trans-Atlantic accented voice of Plath’s last interview with the BBC’s Peter Orr. The voice instructed me to look in the yellow folder. The next day, desperate, I asked the librarian whether there was, perhaps, another folder—maybe a yellow one. There were a few other folders, she said, containing bits and pieces. Bits and pieces between which were the numbered pages missing from the folder I was reading.
I wish there had been some clear way of recording this and other strange episodes my Plath research entailed. Within days of this event, I was invited into the attic apartment where Plath and Hughes had lived in Northampton when the owner of the house—the same man who had owned the house when they rented it—insisted that I must have been ‘her daughter’ and allowed me into the apartment. He had never before invited scholars or biographers into the apartment. In our conversation, there were things I knew from reading Plath’s published and unpublished journals which confirmed his suspicion: how else could I have known that it was a lemon meringue pie that cooled on the kitchen windowsill? Of Hughes, when asked, he commented only that he was ‘hard to know’. And I find it hard to know any of this, from a distance of decades, and with strangeness ossifying into familiarity with re-telling, and any of our stories freighted with dream and the connective tissue of want and hope.
Circumnavigating the lost
Perhaps in hosting and being hosted by ideas associated with another person, whether as a critic, writer or reader, some kind of clairvoyance is accessed. In 2009, I began writing about Donald Crowhurst, prompted by a conversation with a close friend, his niece, who told me the story of her uncle’s being lost at sea after entering the first race to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly in 1968.
I know some parts of the story directly from my friend. Yet, after my own research, and as more and more material becomes accessible online, I will have seen material some of the family have chosen not to. Crowhurst’s final journals, for example, can be accessed online. In these, he assembled his own ‘unlikely things’ amidst the extremities of solitude and desperation: questions about God, humanity and creativity, in ways that, at the time, quickly saw him judged to have ‘gone mad’. The suite ‘Equal Footing Mermaids’ takes its name from a line in a telegram Crowhurst sent, and begins with an evocation of the choral effect of the various voices entwined in the story:
Songs of the drowned
and mermaids’ enclosed words
surface to counterpoint
voices looped in rigging.
Salty phrases past
present and future cut
adrift. Your prayers
broken, bold and faint
strung on cordage-fretted lutes. (Plunkett 2014: 87)
The poem collects Crowhurst’s words with my recording of his recording of the voyage, such as these images of a segment of film he made at the turn of the year:
Into the face of BBC camera
‘And now let’s have something merry!’
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
as it happens: glorious
drowning harmonica. (Plunkett 2014: 90)
Crowhurst’s journals, telegrams and media comments and commentary on his voyage are all available to the researcher. Yet the tensions in a writer’s responsibilities is obvious.
In 1967 Francis Chichester returned from a solo circumnavigation of the globe, prompting the announcement of a competition to do the same—only this time, non-stop. Among the extraordinary sailors who embarked on the challenge in 1968 was Chay Blyth, who had never sailed. Huddled beneath the deck frantically consulting his sailing manuals during a fierce storm, Blyth commented that the experience was like ‘being in hell with instructions’ (Nichols 2001: 50). Then there was Crowhurst, a maverick young inventor.
Crowhurst imagined the race as a way to live heroically, yet set off in a boat he knew to be unseaworthy, his unfinished navigational inventions coiled in the hull like twisted intestines. Faced with the prospect of sinking he used his mathematical genius to fake reports of his positions whilst waiting in the Atlantic to follow his competitors back to port. He became absorbed with questions of solitude and love, writing a diary to some version of God. He disappeared, most likely having drowned himself, probably more as part of a mystical experience and in despair at his impossible situation than any diagnosable ‘madness’.
The vast array of materials relating to Crowhurst’s voyage includes a documentary, Deep water, songs, his recovered journals and a photographic exploration by British artist Tacita Dean of his abandoned trimaran disintegrating on the shores of Cayman Brac.
Beyond the historical narrative surface is a set of figurative ideas about navigating—about desire, solitude, challenging the self—all intricately bound up with poetry. My current work involves using historical narratives and the sailors’ writing as a compass into the figurative realms; navigating by the lost stories of sailors. My creative questions are about the found, serendipity and narrative—how to work with non-fictional poetry without too obvious a narrative scaffolding.
I am grateful to David McCooey for highlighting this question for me in a review of my first book, Vanishing point. He commented that a ‘contrast of obliquity and directness sets the tone for the whole book, which deals repeatedly with the desire to speak about things as they are, and the recognition that “things as they are” are so strange and complex that only the most indirect or symbolic language can speak about them’ (McCooey 2009: 33).
Some of these oblique connections to poetry include Crowhurst’s departure point of the British coastal town of Teignmouth, where Keats spent weeks drafting ‘Endymion’. Though Coleridge wrote ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ without having travelled further out to sea than a crossing of the Severn on the Chepstow ferry, his biographer Richard Holmes writes convincingly that his poetry embodied the idea of a writer’s life as a ‘perilous, solitary oceanic expedition’ and that this idea passed powerfully into the poetry that followed. The metaphor remains compelling for its motifs of risk and imagination, and dangerous for its own risks. I am drawn to the idea that writers—and all of us, in our lives—set out using the craft we have, but make and remake it throughout the voyage.
I wrote a poem ‘Underwater caulking’ about the experience of another of the sailors, Robin Knox-Johnson—the only one to complete the race—who was faced with a shark-circled boat leaking from its seams: another echo of J. Hillis Miller and the guest as ‘eater and eaten’, this time literalised: the boat would have sunk without repairs, while repairs involved diving under the boat among the sharks, hammering caulk into seams (something usually done with a boat out of water). It was only in remaking his craft that Knox-Johnson could survive, though, and his continued success today reminds me that although I find metaphor in this, it was at first nothing so figurative, but a non-fictional narrative; the story of the preservation of a life.2
The term ‘non-fiction’ is a negation, always haunted by its troubled relationship with the fictive. Jacqueline Rose provides my favourite description of the term when she describes the patient in analysis, relating a dream and, when asked what she thinks the dream means, replies immediately: ‘it’s not about my mother’.
Non-fiction is kept awake by voices, hauntings and the ghosts of the real, but its assemblages reveal their brokenness, accidentally, like the hem of a skirt stuck in the car door. In The old ways Robert Macfarlane writes about modern wayfaring and life writing. Quoting Richard Holmes, he meditates on the idea of biography as a kind of pursuit, a tracking, with glimpses of the subject at best an afterglow. He extends his exploration of the ‘beat of the placed and lifted foot’ back through the Irish scholarly tradition of navigatio, literally a journey undertaken by boat with a circular itinerary of exodus and return, but more profoundly ‘an apprenticeship to signs of strangeness’ (Macfarlane 2012: 119).
Hosting the Crowhurst story within my own writing, I think of these glimpses over water; of Crowhurst like Cornell, apprenticed to the study of the strange and of estrangement, and of what any of us might see, looking out across the solitary ocean into, as Macfarlane puts it: ‘a darkness that [seems] to lift from the sea rather than falling from the sky’ (Macfarlane 2012: 130).
And next to this, against the extraordinary loneliness of sea voyages literal and figurative, I frame ideas of hospitality. Via Cornell, and Dickinson, I think of the spooky games by which both isolation and invasion might sometimes reverse themselves, as Denise Levertov writes in ‘Ways of conquest’
What I invaded has
invaded me (1972: 19).
While writers of non-fictional prose, such as Hermione Lee and Richard Holmes, describe yearning after the subject, and the impressions of the vanished subject’s steps, writers of poetry that limns the re-imagining of the factual and historical might be beguiled both by mutual hosting and by the question of haunting. As Czeslaw Milosz puts it in ‘Ars poetica?’ ‘at the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: / a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us’:
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience? (Milosz 1988: n.p.)
And yet, it is in precisely this openness that, Milosz’s wry tone notwithstanding, poetry can dispense with property, and hosted and host might, as in Miller’s image, share food within the house and frame of the poem:
or our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
- 1. I have written more extensively about Woods’ parody of Auster in ‘Second Murders’ in Sydney Review of Books http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/paul-auster-report-from-interior/
- 2. My poem ‘Grave-craft: Fall and Nightfall’, published in this issue of Axon, works in similar ways with materials by and about Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, lost at sea in 1975.
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