On “Backward Reading” and experimental poetry

As a fan of contemporary poet Lyn Hejinian’s expansive “language” poetry practice that, in my opinion, has culminated in ‘the book of thousand eyes’ (2012), I was delighted to read this week’s assigned article “Deformance and interpretation” (by Lisa Samules and Jerome McGann, 1999). The article showcases the deformative reading-practice of poetry and its implication of multifaceted interpretations of poetry in the field of inadequate and performative language poetics. The article goes back to Emily Dickinson’s appraisal and defense of  ‘Backward Reading’ and displays some examples of reassembled, omitted, and re-spaced texts that reread — literally, from end to beginning — and reorder Wallace Stevens’s exemplary two poems: “The Search for Sound Free from Motion” and “The Snow Man.” What these experiments demonstrate through the reconfiguration of the word-order isn’t probably new in poetry writing practice as a variety of similar practice have been done in surrealist typographic and collage poetry since the advent of modernist poetry (in the least of romance language tradition) and objectivist poetry (speaking of history of American/British poetry) that includes Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, and Myungmi Kim, among many others. Also, Susan Howe’s facsimile poetic experiments continue this graphic modernism at the intersection with language poetry while it serves the archival intention of poetry writing as well (which I will not further discuss in this post.)  However, I still believe that the article’s ‘displays’ of sample poetry deformed by “backward reading” effectively present the functions and effects of these ‘reversing,’  ‘rewriting,’ and ‘undoing’ experimental reading activities in pursuit of the open-ended interpretations through the looking-glass of the text as opposed to a service to the undecodable intuition, mystery, and authenticity in the tradition of romantic poetics. Backward Reading or deformative interpretation first estranges a reader from the text’s supposed directness and adequacy and deliberately operates a new machine of reading the words in different – both semantic and graphic – compositions.
In these activities or displays, what matters more is the performative transformation of relationality between words in relationship with various reader-responses than the original (if any) ‘content’ of the poem. In these practices, the original ‘content’ undergoes its own reduction and is exposed to the de-hierarchical and re-configuring system of language and its varying operative and interpretative relations. Even if it might first appear as technical or mere engineering of words, this unlocking and remapping of the text as an open self indicates a further philosophical dimension of learning the new constitution of poem-words (in particular, nouns and pronouns) with redistributed semantic weight on each word (as demonstrated in the case of rewriting of “The Search for Sound Free From Motion.” Reordering and redistribution of the words can open the ambiguous texture and meanings of poetry and possibly the socio-linguistic imagination of the indefinite and transformative networks of readers with different approaches to the text-net. Also, as one sees the different graphics of rewriting of “The Snow Man,” the text can also create new interpretations thanks to its visual compositions which remind us of Mallermean visual poetry. While the article didn’t mention Mallermean or post-Mallermean poetry tradition in either romance language literature or American avant-garde poetic lineage, one can further research the practice of seeing a poetic-text as a self-mutating organism in consideration of modernist techniques of internal textual permutations, ellipsis, mirroring, and so forth. Importantly, the article suggests that these techniques of estranging the text and revitalizing it in new assemblages are not just the text-centered practice. The article keeps referring to the reader’s positionality in seeing the text and reconstituting the meanings of the text. So even if Wallace Stevens’s poetry is often discussed as poetry of ‘nothingness,’ one can witness that, through these word-shifting experiments, it can operate many minuscule somethings in the mind of the readers. In addition, I’d like to point out, whereas the article, being written in 1999, didn’t discuss the moving-image transformation of written poetry in contemporary visual art, both analog and digital (as well as hybrid-media) moving image artists have ventured into graphing word-poetry towards visual poetry in motion, which would even more complicate the possibility of the text as a transformative work upon the viewer’s (beyond the reader’s) semiotic and aesthetic engagement with it, especially on digital platforms of literature.