I have noticed that George Saunders has a favorite quote. Well, maybe it’s not his favorite favorite, as if anyone really has one of those, but he has cited it often, in interviews where it had absolutely no place at all. The quote is attributed to Gerald Stern, but Saunders dominates the first page of results if you type the whole thing in your search bar.
“If you set out to write a poem about two dogs fucking,” the quote begins, “and you write a poem about two dogs fucking, then you’ve written a poem about two dogs fucking.”
Let’s take some time with that one. In his essay on Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” Saunders uses this idea to explain how readers want the endings of stories to do something that was at the beginning unimaginable. We do not want a story to do what it sets out to do. We want shock, we want surprise, we want a punchline that makes us laugh. We do not want a dogs fucking poem.
I think about this quote often, not least of all because I am a little besotted with George Saunders. He is a hard crush to get over. His tone in interviews is so warm. His philosophy of fiction is so tender, his hard-earned success so enviable. As a persona, he acts the part of your favorite teacher, all cleverness and gravity at the right moment. O Captain, etc.! This is where I would sigh for effect.
But enough, this is not the point. I mostly think of this quote, the dogs fucking quote, because I have the occasion to think of it. By which I mean, I think about it all the fucking time. Like last week: Patricia Lockwood, a poet I adore, published a poem called “Rape Joke” that does so much with language and the experience of autobiography that it ought to be seen as more than its narrative. It surprises you. It does more than what it hints at in the first lines.
That narrative though — can anyone ignore what is so starkly stated? To talk about “Rape Joke” without talking about rape is like talking about Sylvia Plath without mentioning her suicide. What, you think you’re too good to rubberneck? Why wouldn’t you mention this horrible thing that’s right there in front of you if you weren’t pretending to have good taste? What kind of gross agenda do you have if you want to ignore a woman talking about rape?
Well. That said, “Rape Joke” is not a dogs fucking poem. It’s about more than its plot; it’s about, I think, splintering selves, separating the observed and the observer, acknowledging as Ted Hughes once acknowledged (pace Janet Malcolm’s interpretation of his two forewords to Plath’s journals) that the person writing and the person being written about are not one seamless entity. To write autobiographically about a trauma that effectively and violently separates a person from her sense of self is to control the separation, to set its terms. Writing about trauma gives the traumatized the sanctity of distance that she did not have when it was happening to her. This is what one means, I think, when one talks about having a voice. One means being as far away from events as one can be while the body’s still warm. This is all basic memoir theory stuff.
Lockwood’s voice emerges in “Rape Joke” funny and full of control. She is that way in her other work, too, but in this poem she is so much more direct. More direct, yet subtler, too. It’s a good trick; I wonder how she pulled it off. In one of my favorite parts of the poem, the speaker is called “interesting” to her attacker, like she were “a piece of knowledge.” This makes the following section, a few lines later, wring out meanings, the most important of all being the horrible subjectivity of age: “How can a piece of knowledge be so stupid? But of course you were so stupid.” She was old, but not that old at all. She was interesting, but shouldn’t have been. Her knowledge was idiocy, her age not really the marker of being ready for anything. Break it down: what is artful about something artless? Everyone finds out.
This kind of sadness makes me never want to write criticism again. I just want to say something like, oh man, how great is that? I thought to myself after reading “Rape Joke” the first time through, after seeing the comments underneath, how can people focus on “argument” in a poem, as if there were only one? How can you paper over this piece of storytelling when language is used like that?
But people do focus on argument, on narrative. It’s no one’s fault. There was a poorly fact-checked piece in The Guardian that I admittedly could not read past its lede, and there was something at Salon about the debate over rape jokes. To be sure, there is a lot to be said in this corner. I’m not dismissing this corner. But I’m slightly more interested in another place in the poem, where that “piece of knowledge” line lives. Where does the knowledge go? How do you write about it?
I use this column often as a kind of diary, but it’s more accurate to call it a catalog of stupid things I’ve known and smart things I’ve tried to know. I am often saying: here is a story about something that happened to me or to someone else, and here is a poem or a book or a movie that echoes in my ears as the soundtrack of my life. The best stories don’t end up doing what you set out to accomplish with them, and the best poems or books or movies end up saying different things to you as you age and as your desires change. It’s facile, but true: meaning is slippery. Meaning doesn’t have a chance of standing on firm footing. This is all basic literary theory stuff.
There is another wonderful Barthelme story called “The Balloon” that is a fine exploration of art’s capacity to mean much more than its author intends. A balloon expands and floats above New York City, becoming a part of its landscape equal in effect to the skyscrapers and the bridges. The balloon is analyzed and discussed feverishly by the public, but they’re all wrong. Barthelme’s narrator admits his inspiration in the final paragraph.
“The balloon, I said, is a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation, but now that your visit to Bergen has been terminated, it is no longer necessary or appropriate.” The balloon is taken down and “stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness, some time, perhaps, when we are angry with one another.”
Ted Hughes allegedly destroyed Sylvia Plath’s journals from the several months before her death because he did not want their children to read them. Can you believe that guy? What could we have known had it not been for him? But maybe he was right; perhaps forgetfulness is a form of survival. Or perhaps humor is. Or perhaps balloons and poems are. Or perhaps burning it down, putting it back up, all of it at once is a kind of survival, a kind of fiction that shields us from the fact that (again, this is paraphrasing Malcolm) we do not “own” the stuff of our lives. Anyone’s concept of privacy should include the caveat that, should anyone want to, anyone could learn more than we’ve ever cared to share.
Being the one to chuck privacy is not an act of desperation. It’s an act of recognition. It’s, as Lockwood writes, a crucial admission. It’s far more than basic theory, basic argument, basic anything. It’s spreading a balloon out over the whole city and taking it down whenever you decide.