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Monday, July 15, 2013

"Mimesis" by Fady Joudah -- Poetry Daily, 7/14/2013

from Alight (Copper Canyon Press)
poem found here

first lines:
My daughter
                    wouldn't hurt a spider


awwww, out of the mouth of poetastry, the relationship of mimetic representation and convention
– minor editing, Feb. 6, 2015


My immediate response to reading this poem . . . .

Ok, wait. First, there was the immediate response of those first three lines of this poem, which are terrifically bad – but absolutely conventional! – poetry. But, then, my immediate response to completing the poem was experiencing the pain of hearing someone folk-singing "The Riddle Song," followed by experiencing the joy of envisioning Bluto smashing that singer's guitar against the wall.

Writing a poem like this merits smashing the offending pencil. Publishing a poem like this merits smashing the poet's desk. That this poem exists in print makes me write down in my "books to buy" file on my phone, "Fady Joudah: don't even bother looking." This is the kind of poem that, if I heard it performed publically, would have me pantomiming blowing a gun barrel in attempt to trick those accompanying me into breaking the muting of their laughter.

This is an amazingly shallow, stunningly bad poem.

How, you ask? Wait for it:

She said that's how others
Become refugees isn't it?



It's not at all! It is completely different! And anybody who knows anything about anything would recognize that . . . . unless you accept what this poem requests of you: to descend to its level of intellectuality. This is a monstrously daft poem, begging you to turn your brain off and, when sign turns on above the stage, go "awwww, out of the mouth of babes." Well, you know, out of the mouth of babes is mostly silliness. Brief moments of humor. And that's the joke of the idea: that what the said babes are really saying is something very basic and obvious, and, once you step out of thinking at the level of the basic and obvious, something usually wrong.

(Have you yet to notice that with shows like "Kids Say the Darndest Things" the humor is pretty much worn itself out by the second commercial break, but everyone keeps laughing primarily because that's what they are supposed to do? As though, if they didn't laugh, they would be revealing themselves as not part of the social continuum? – How is that not funny?! It's Bill Cosby and a child, goddammit! That's the definition of funny! Well, the definition of humor through convention. In truth, when you think about it, it's the same damn joke, every time: the humor of stating a situation plain faced and wholly removed from context. Same joke, over and over. But awwww, out of the mouth of babes.)

No. Comparing a spider and its web to refugees is about as daft as daft can be. It is, indeed, beneath Hallmark level of intellectuality. And yet there is shown no qualm in publishing it! Poems like these are why the gods invented bic lighters. (And purging rituals!) Or, as I once heard it, poems like these are why the gods invented the word "evocative," so you can say that to the author and then quietly back away with a smile to find a conversation at a table with smarter people.

What people don't seem to realize is that a poem like this screams out the intelligence, talent, and skill of the poet: or, more precisely, what the poet considers an acceptable level of talent and skill for publishable poetry. Which is a far more damning thing.

Intellectually, ideationally, this poem is bathetic through and through. Indeed, it is demonstration of one form of it: an attempt at profundity whose profundity lies wholly within the poem's appeal to pop-poetic conventionality. In this case: writing a poem about something the speaker's child (which is conventionally to be read as the poet's child) is doing, something acceptably childlike, a poem which closes up with the spoken words of the child, words which are ostensibly intended to take a quotidian moment and launch it into profound observation. Correctly written, a pop-poetry reader, recognizing the convention, will appropriately go, "awwww, out of the mouths of babes," and the poem is thus a success.

Except the poem, when you look at it, is as shallow as the dent left in my brain for the absence of the 1,254 cells that died as a result of my reading this poem. The comparison of a spider to a refugee is about as facetious as can be. It just doesn't work at all . . . . unless you ignore the actual details of the poem and just read it conventionally. Then, "awww, out of the mouths of babes."

But lest we forget, look at that title! Not only bathos, but pretension! Mimesis?! Here's ye ol' Princeton Encyclopedia on it:

In the general sense, which is the one canonized by Auerbach, mimesis amounts to "realistic representation," namely the verbal capturing or conveying of experience in such a way that the mental image or meaning created by the words is judged similar, analogous, or even identical to what we know about the world from sense-data directly. ("Representation and Mimesis," p. 1038)

To reduce it to a phrase: "drawing from life." So, what do we then have here?

First, we have a poem that has zero metaphoricity in it. It's straight description of an event. So the title then leads us to believe that "this really happened!" Yet, one of the most important learning steps for any writer is to recognize that "that is how it really happened!" is utterly irrelevant to, and almost always detrimental to the creating of literature. So, the poem is immediately pointing out "I didn't craft this, I copied it from life." Yay.

Second, there is the comparison made by the girl in the poem, which we are also to accept as mimetic description of life: to wipe out a spider web is direct representation of, say, destroying a town with a bombing raid and creating refugees. Which is not at all the case! A web is not a spider's home per se. It is a trap built by the spider to capture some food. The spider hangs around the web because that's where the food is going to be. If the web is destroyed, the spider simply builds a new one, there or somewhere else. The spider never gives it a second thought. In fact, such behavior is exactly opposite of that of a refugee. A refugee leaves the bombed out home to live elsewhere. A spider shrugs the destruction off, and builds again. Can you see now how the example of a spider rather paints refugees in a not so great light?

Third, bringing it together: Oh, but, wait! Don't read the spider that way! Mimesis, right! Read the conventions, not the poem! . . . . . "Awwwww, out of the mouths of babes." And we see that what we really have is a poem whose title is in fact a plea for the readers to read it mimetically: because, if you can eschew the actual ideation of the poem and follow the guidelines of the poem, if you can accept the dictates that the poem is "drawing from life," that the girl is "drawing from life," and that thus both must be true, you will be able to reach that "awwwww, out of the mouths of babes" moment. You don't have to decide for yourself the veracity or depth of the presentation: you've been told ahead of time.

Which is actually no small thing: because convention-governed literature rests upon mimesis and direct representation. Conventional poetry demands that the reader see what the poet is expecting the reader to see. For such to occur, there has to exist within the culture a set "language" of poetry and representation. 'A' in conventional poetry has to mean 'A' and nothing else. If it is permitted to mean something else (including "holy Dyson, that poem sucks"), then the conventionality of it rather falls apart. Indeed, the very notion of direct representation functions wholly through established convention. This is what was under assault in the Salon by painters like Manet: painting from life is not merely representation, demands the Salon mentality, it is representation according to the established rules of how to paint representatively. Thus how impressionism so disrupted the Salon conventionality, because it moved painting from "if you are to paint a nude, these are the recognized conventions you must follow" to "I am going to create, through my painting, the experience of the nudity of an undressed woman."

The great irony of this little piece of banality is that the call to mimesis in the title is wholly an appeal to conventionality. It is an announcement: "I am going to make a profound statement in the way a profound statement can be made through the conventions of contemporary (pop-)poetry." And that is exactly what it does. It writes out of convention, it appeals to the reader to read it through convention. It is a wholly nomic poem. (And, on top of it, a really bad poem.)

All markedly different from an aesthetic version of such: say, Picasso's Guernica, which, instead, creates for the viewer the experience of the destruction-from-above of one's home. Granted, a little unfair in that Guernica is a masterwork, while this is a thirteen line ditty. But, that does not escape the accusation: why, if you intend to speak profoundly, are you treating your subject so trivially?

Which is also to ask: Why are you so content in your art such as to publish – publish! – such a bad poem?

But let me leave you not with that accusation, but with an idea to carry forward. A simple question: Given the two modalities -- copying (from life) vs. creating of an experience -- which do you think is more likely to create resonance?


By the by, you're missing an absolutely not-optional comma on the last line (and a mostly needed comma on the preceding).


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. [Deleted nineteen, mostly anonymous, mostly substanceless comments, some negative, a couple positive, some I couldn't tell, that showed up all at once. Smelled like students stumbling along in the wake of their professor's own, mostly-passing reply. (I screwed up and deleted that first without intending to.)]