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Can poetry be dialogic?

November 29th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments


The Vortex

In his essay “Discourse in the Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin “declared that the natural and healthy state of language, which is a changing, socially stratified, multivocal clatter of discourses, is unrepresentable in poetry.” (Scanlon 2007: 1) Bakhtin espouses the view that poetry is monologic: that is, the text speaks with one voice, using one language–that of the author — admitting no possibility for outside voices (heteroglossia), and thus diversity of meaning within the text.  Bakhtin concludes that “the language of poetic genres…often become authoritarian, dogmatic and conservative, sealing itself off from the influence of extraliterary social dialects.” While Bakhtin does allow for some exception, for instance he notes that a “certain latitude for heteroglossia exists only in the ‘low’ poetic genres–in the satiric and comic genres and others,” his stance is quite fixed and sincere. While Bakhtin does point to some examples of dialogism in epic poetry, specifically Eugene Onegin (which is considered a novel even though written in verse), it is likely that Bakhtin never figured on a poetic work like that of Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords.

Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords is supposedly a collection of letters from Arkai Yasusada to a correspondent named Richard.  I say supposedly not only because it is unclear if Richard even exists, but because Araki Yasusada himself does not exist, being a persona of a translator Tosa Motokiyu.  However, the authorial confusion does not end there, as it may be that Motokiyu also does not exist and is a persona of poet Kent Johnson (or Kent Johnson and Javier Alvarez). It has also been asserted by Mikhail Epstein, in an essay at the back of Doubled Flowering , that two Russian writers, Andrei Bitov and Dmitri Prigov, may have created Yasusada.  And in an essay by Bill Freind it was suggested that Mikhail Epstein may not exist and is a “hyperauthor” created by Umberto Eco. (Freind 2004: 151) This confusion of authorial responsibility for Yasusada’s letters is just one of many methods by which Also, with My Throat creates diversity of meaning and challenges Bakhtin’s notion of the monologic poem. Through its employment of many authorial voices, use of multiple generic forms, broken English and mangled idiomatic expressions how Also, with My Throat means and how it’s many voices speak, and to what end, creates a fully heteroglossic work that is dialogic at in its very essence.  The importance of this should not be underestimated, for many have challenged the ethical position of Johnson, Alavarez, and Friend (Soltan 2001) and the ethical implications of the figure of Araki Yasusada.  This requires explanation. According to the description of Also, with My Throat on Amazon.com:

In the early 1990s, a number of respected US literary journals published the poems of Araki Yasusada, a Japanese poet and Hiroshima survivor who turned out to have never existed. The most likely author of this "hoax" (if it even is a hoax) is probably Kent Johnson. For this book, Johnson claims that Yasusada was in fact the creation of yet a third writer who uses the pseudonym Tosa Motokiyu, and who requested (prior to dying in 1996) that his legal identity never be revealed. ALSO, WITH MY THROAT is a collection of letters, in imperfect English, that Motokiyu wrote as Yasusada. Edited by Kent Johnson and Javier Alvarez, this new book might renew some of the many polarizing responses to Yasusada’s first appearance. "This is essentially a criminal act," claimed Arthur Vogelsang at the time. Carolyn Forche, on the other hand, argued that "’Yasusada’s’ writing is an entry into a spiritual space…It is a work of art in the largest sense."

With regard to the ethical implications of this “hoax,” the description notes that “respected US literary journals published the poems” and that Yasusada was a “Hiroshima survivor who turned out to have never existed.”  The ethical implications for the US literary journals are of course that an author or authors published material that, while theirs, was not represented truthfully, and that the journals were a tool in the distribution of this falsity to their readers; but as straightforward as this argument seems, it doesn’t end there, for the question of authenticity comes directly back to the journals in the form of their need for what Johnson refers to as “collective, pathological yearning for simulacral states.” (Freind 142) That is, Johnson contends that what “people are after nowadays is not so much ‘the Authentic’; they are after, rather, authenticity’s simulacral and constructed Figure, ready-made in the Author’s image.” (Freind 138) A fact that holds for journals as well.  More specifically, it is unlikely that “respected US literary journals” would have looked positively on “a white American constructing or appropriating the voice of a Japanese victim of the bombing of Hiroshima.” (Freind 143) And yet, without knowing this fact they were very willing to publish the work.  To this point, the ethical implications for Johnson and others is precisely this last point–to what end does he assume this voice? What are the implications of his fabricating a persona who supposedly bore witness to one of the greatest atrocities in human history–that is, assuming the voice of a witness to and a victim of such an event?  There are several answers that come from Freind, and the answer that seems perfectly acceptable: that “many survivors emphasize not only the necessity but also the impossibility of speaking about atrocity”; (Freind 144) that arguments against assuming a persona would “reduce” the “political to the personal and confine the act of writing to a factual narcissism” and that it amounts to “a denial of imagination” (Freind 145); further, such allegations dismiss wholly the experience that a reader has–as if to invalidate that experience based on the credentials of the author.  Thus, Johnson can be said to give voice to an experience to which victims themselves could not adequately give voice, and give readers access to an expression of that voice to which they would not have access otherwise.  But a more important point emerges when looking at the work through the lens of Mikhail Bakhtin, as noted by William Batstone:

Monologism was a “denial of equal rights”, a “verbal and semantic dictatorship” a “Ptolemaic conception”, whereas dialogism was “the activity of God in His relation to man, a relation allowing man to reveal himself utterly”; it was an act of love.  Dialogism revealed consciousness: “the thinking human consciousness and the dialogic sphere in which this consciousness exists, in all its depth and specificity, cannot be reached through a monologic artistic approach”. And dialogism revealed truth: “It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses” (Batstone 2002: 102)

That is, a dialogic text is an ethical text.  It is one that by presenting many voices inquires about the nature of how one lives one’s life, and through the dialogic nature of literature, asks the same question of the reader. (Scanlon 17) If Kent Johnson had come at the subject of Hiroshima through the voice of a “white American” poet living in the Midwest the directness of the speech act–the poem–and the monologic nature of that voice would not be able to capture truth and frame an ethical dialog.  The use of the persona of Araki Yasusada, the persona of Tosa Motokiyu, the editorial framework of Kent Johnson and Javier Alvarez, as well as the generic form of letters to a reader are heteroglossic and form a dialog that is ethical and provides the reader with a method for constructing truth.

Can Poetry be Dialogic?

Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian literary critic, linguist, scholar, and philosopher who is perhaps most known for advancing a comprehensive theory of the novel.  Bakhtin did this through many of his works, but the singular work on the subject is The Dialogic Imagination a compilation of his early essays that was put together in 1975.  In this work, Bakhtin defined many terms for how a novel worked, both in relationship to itself—its internal operations—and how it worked in relation to readers and other literary works—its external operations.  One of these terms is “dialogic,” which refers to the ability of a text to present arguments through a variety of techniques: one of the most obvious being the use of different characters who represent different positions; but a text can also relate to, and be informed by, other texts.  According to Bakhtin, dialogism, which “is the characteristic epistemological mode of a world dominated by heteroglossia.  Everything means, is understood, as a part of a greater whole—there is a constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others.”(Bakhtin 1988: 426) So not only does dialogism refer to relationships between texts, it also relates to words themselves: every word means and may mean in ways that the person speaking or writing the word does not intend because no person can predict the contextual understanding of another, for whom a word may mean differently.  In the context of novelization or works of literature, dialogism is the relationship between works and between characters who populate those works—and even between the author and the reader.  For Bakhtin, monologic texts would be those that do not refer to other texts, or which are closed unto themselves, hermetic, and often as not may not even consider or care about any relationship to any outside (a reader, for example).  Within the definition of dialogism is the word “heteroglossia” which “insures the primacy of context over text. At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions—social, historical, meteorological, physiological—that will insure that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they are functions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup.” (Bakhtin 428) For Bakhtin, “the novel is the genre that accomplishes the subversive, ethically necessary act of decentralization, in large part through its incorporation of multiple voices representing clashing ideologies or world views, what Bakhtin calls ‘heteroglossia’ and Michael Holquist has helpfully described as a ‘plurality of relations’ rather than just a ‘cacophony of different voices.’" (Scanlon 2) It is important to note that for Bakhtin, if two different characters are expressing the same view of the world, there is no true dialogism and there can only be heteroglossia if the two characters represent different “stratifications” or worldviews—characters from two different professions, classes, countries, etc.  Other terms used include polyvocal or multivocal, which simply refer to the presence of other voices within a text, usually, but not necessarily, in dialog.  It is important also to note that dialogs can take place through time, forming what Bakhtin refers to as a chronotope. Chronotopes are "conceptions of time and space… [that] determine ‘to a significant degree the image of a person in literature.’”(Burton 39)

To advance his various philosophies of the novel, Bakhtin was often found drawing comparisons between the novel and the poem.  This foil for his theories was an important one for several reasons: first, the poetic styles to which Bakhtin addressed his attention were highly monologic (“Russian and Continental traditions which formed Bakhtin’s ideas of the lyric” (Richter 26)); second, at the time of his writing his theories, the monologic poetic form was being used as a nationalistic device to create a homogonous political world view in Russia (Scanlon 4); and third, Bakhtin was rebelling against a “formalist poetics” (Richter 14) that put itself forward as the quintessential form of literary achievement–creating a distinction characterizing something as “literature” or “non-literature” (Richter 26). This background demonstrates reason enough for the often antagonistic tone that Bakhtin takes toward poetry. But, as other authors have pointed out, Bakhtin took the strange approach of looking narrowly and looking backward as well, not looking toward new poetic traditions that were coming into their own (Richter 26) or even looking across the Atlantic to poetic movements in the United States. The authors of several articles, including Richter and Scanlon have argued that “multivocal collage” (Scanlon 10) poems such as Elliot’s The Wasteland, or Pound’s Cantos demonstrate clearly that heteroglossic possibilities exist in poetry.  Yet, as Batstone points out, “Bakhtin knew poetry well, loved it deeply, lectured on it continually–but never revised his view of lyricness.” (Batstone 100) This notion of “lyricness” is perhaps best stated by T.S. Eliot who wrote: “the voice of the poet talking to himself–or nobody–and part of our enjoyment of great poetry is the enjoyment of overbearing words which are not addressed to us.” (Batstone 101) Thus, Eliot makes clear what most appalled Bakhtin about the monologic nature of poetry: that there was not a thought of a dialog at all–even with a potential reader. As Richter notes in his essay, “like all dramatic poetry the dramatic lyric is ‘objectified discourse,’ the drama of the poet’s discovery of meaning in mute nature allows for very little in the way of ‘discourse with an orientation toward someone else’s discourse.’” This was appalling to Bakhtin because Bakhtin believed that the self was created and understood in the context of others (Batstone 105), in the context of society, and the various languages and world views that societies represent: what Bakhtin referred to as “stratification”. (Bakhtin 263)

In his essay “Catullus and Bakhtin: The Problems of a Dialogic Lyric,” William Batstone also explores the question of whether a truly dialogic lyric can exist.  Batstone notes, almost immediately, that:

Bakhtin drew a stark distinction between the poetic and prosaic style.  The contrast, as Bakhtin conceived it, was between a totalitarian form of thought and discourse…and an alternative form…which depended on the interpersonal nature of the meaning, preserved [in] the multiple voices that inhere in language and society, and celebrated our freedom from the totalizations and finalized images we become for others. (Batstone 99)

For Batstone, there are three requirements for a dialogic lyric and the tiered levels of the requirements expose an approach or an identification of the self that Shunryu Suzuki might himself enjoy. The first, requirement for Batstone is a “poetic practice in which the self is (or can be) polyphonic and interpersonal.  This interiorizes the external dialogue of the novelist into the self-fashioning dialogues that are constitutive of the life of the mind.”(Batstone 104) That is, we all have multiple selves inside of us and each of us is privileged in hearing the discourse between these voices.  The self is a polyphonic creation, where a mix of voices merge to create episodic selves.  The key challenge for Batstone is not to unify the voices nor is it to eliminate or silence voices, but to ensure that there is an “irreducible noncoincidence between the voices.”(Batstone 104) But this is a problem for us, because as we get older the “orchestration of these voices is hierarchical; it is an internal debate decided ahead of time or a constitutive tension over which the “self” presides.  For a truly dialogic lyric to exist, internal dialogue must be grounded in a psychology of the divided self, a self which is intersected by embodied discourses and may speak now with one voice, now with another.” (Batstone 104)

In the chapter “Study Yourself” in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki writes:

If we think of ourselves as our bodies, the teaching then may be our clothing. Sometimes we talk about our clothing; sometimes we talk about our body.  But neither body nor clothing is actually we ourselves. We ourselves are the big activity.  We are just expressing the smallest particle of the big activity, that is all.  So it is all right to talk about ourselves, but actually there is no need to do so.  Before we open our mouths, we are already expressing the big existence, including ourselves.  So the purpose of talking about ourselves is to correct the misunderstanding we have when we are attached to any particular temporal form or color of the big activity.  It is necessary to talk about what our body is and what our activity is so that we may not make any mistake about them.  So to talk about ourselves is actually to forget about ourselves. Dogen-zenji said, “To study Buddhism is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to forget ourselves.”  When you become attached to a temporal expression of your true nature, it is necessary to talk about Buddhism, or else you will think the temporal expression is it.  But this particular expression of it is not it. And yet at the same time it is it! For a while this is it; for the smallest particle of time, this is it.  But it is not always so: the very next instant it is not so, thus this is not it…When we forget ourselves, we actually are the true activity of the big existence, or reality itself.”(Suzuki 2006: 88-9)

In speaking to Batstone, Suzuki might say not to be “grounded in a psychology of the divided self” but to realize that the selves we manifest at any given time are manifestations of a temporal form that will pass away.  A Buddhist approach might suggest to release our attachment to any of the forms that may manifest themselves in us, but to observe them nonetheless.  In art, it is useful, undoubtedly, to let those passing selves speak to one another and form a dialogue.  Because, as Batstone points out, dialogism reveals truth. (Batstone 102) However, equally valid, is to not get so tied up in one manifestation of the self that it distorts who we really are.

The second prerequisite for a dialogic lyric, according to Batstone, is very much Buddhist in its conception—and even more so in its articulation:

If the intersected and polyphonic self is the first prerequisite of a dialogic lyric, the second is a consequence of that self: an elusive self, the event of the self-under construction, the noncoincidence of self-objectification.  From his earliest essays, Bakhtin thought of the “self” as a project, of “a life that is directed ahead of itself toward the event yet-to-come”. But the present is also a coexistent event, and there is an inevitable slippage between the authoring and the authored self…The lyricist who prized this aspect of consciousness would be looking not for his own word but for the word which reveals and hides him, not for the mask or the face behind the mask but for the potential and coexistence that find in the resources others offer us the ways we can appear to (and disappear from) ourselves and others. (Batstone 105)

Batstone’s third prerequisite for a dialogic lyric states, “If, then, it is possible to imagine a polyphonic self which remains elusive and unfinalized, it follows that this voice saying I asks for and expects a form of authorship (creative understanding, hearing) from its readers.” (Batstone 105)

This is precisely the expectation that Mara Scanlon emphasizes in “Ethics and the Lyric: Form, Dialogue, Answerability”.  Scanlon writes:
I am using here, then, two concepts of dialogism, ethics, and literature simultaneously. The first is the concept of the poem’s being heteroglossic and, within the dialogic play of those voices, making meaning. For Bakhtin, this is ethical representation of the stratified languages and voices of the world. The second type I invoke is the dialogue between the reader and the text that results in an ethical responsibility for the reader as she responds to the poem, an accountability that Bakhtin calls answerability. (2007: 9)

In her essay, Scanlon argues that a dialogic poem is possible using Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi,” which layers four or five voices into a relatively short poem consisting of nine quatrains and three interjections by a disembodied voice. While Scanlon finds Bakhtin’s theories to be a highly useful vehicle for the examination of poetry, she disagrees with Bakhtin’s assessment that all poetry is monologic.

[Ethics and the Lyric] has two purposes: to insist again that dialogic poetry is possible, which I will do by tracing the dialogism of the word and character-based dialogism in a heteroglossic lyric by Robert Hayden, foregrounding especially ways in which the lyric not only allows but even through its form makes possible a Bakhtinian clash of voices and ideas; and to connect this reading to the strengthening field of literature and ethics by arguing that a second dialogue, that between the poem and the answerable reader who attends the text, is implored, demanded, and even enacted by the lyric’s mobilization of voices and forms, including its use of call-and-response traditions. (2007: 2)

Interestingly, Scanlon not only traces the interplay of voices in the poem–that is, the dialogism between characters–but she also traces the dialogism between words, which is equally to the point of Bakhtin’s theory that every word means and words cannot be separated from their objects. This clash of voices is the heteroglossia that Bakhtin so much seeks.  In Bakhtin’s definition of heteroglossia it is interesting to note that there are reflections that resemble what Ezra Pound espoused in his idea of Vorticism.  A simple comparison of statements regarding the ideas will reveal their connection, but it is important to remember that Pound was referring to all art, while Bakhtin was referring to texts–however, Bakhtin’s ideas could be expanded.  In an early pamphlet, Pound writes:

The vortex is the point of maximum energy, / It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency. / We use the words "greatest efficiency" in the precise sense–as they would be used in a text book of MECHANICS. / You may think of man as that towards which perception moves. You may think of him as the TOY of circumstance, as the plastic substance RECEIVING impressions. / OR you may think of him as DIRECTING a certain fluid force against circumstance, as CONCEIVING instead of merely observing and reflecting. / THE PRIMARY PIGMENT. / The vorticist relies on this alone; on the primary pigment of his art, / nothing else. / Every conception, every emotion presents itself to the vivid consciousness in some primary form. / It is the picture that means a hundred poems, the music that means a hundred / pictures, the most highly energized statement, the statement that has not yet SPENT / itself in expression, but which is the most capable of expressing. / THE TURBINE. / All experience rushes into this vortex. All the energized past, all the past that / is living and worthy to live. All MOMENTUM, which is the past bearing up on us, / RACE, RACE-MEMORY, instinct charging the PLACID, / NON-ENERGIZED FUTURE. / The DESIGN of the future in the grip of the human vortex.  All the past that / is vital, all the past that is capable of living into the future, is pregnant in the / vortex, NOW. / Hedonism is the vacant place of a vortex, without force, deprived of past and of / future, the vertex of a still pool or cone.  / Futurism is the disgorging spray of a vortex with no drive behind it, / DISPERSAL. (Pound 1)

Bakhtin writes of heteroglossia:

The basic condition governing the operation of meaning in any utterance.  It is that which insures the primacy of context over text. At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions—social, historical, meteorological, physiological—that will insure that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they are functions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve. Heteroglossia is as close a conceptualization as is possible of that locus where centripetal forces and centrifugal forces collide; as such, it is that which a systematic linguistics must always suppress. (Bakhtin 428)

In both statements we see the stress that is placed on how the thing means.  For Pound meaning is achieved through the “primary form” be it word, sound, picture; for Bakhtin the thing is the word.  Both place an emphasis on the context, what Pound characterizes in terms of the past becoming and moving to the future, spreading through “race memory” and what Bakhtin refers to dialogically and chronotopically and through stratification: “social, historical, meteorological, physiological” contexts; and both emphasize the “vortex” and the “centripetal” forces as well as the “centrifugal” forces, which Pound refers to as “dispersal.”  These forces are always operating in a living culture, what Pound refers to as man DIRECTING and CONCEIVING–active, not passively laying by–and these forces are always operating in a living language, what Bakhtin refers to as heteroglossia and dialogic, where “everything means, is understood, as part of a greater whole–there is constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others.” (Bakhtin 426)

Given this, as Scanlon points out, it is ironic that Bakhtin would characterize poetry as monolog.  But, interestingly, it is the very power of poetry that Bakhtin turns against itself.  Bakhtin states that the word in poetry is so fully charged and so fully heightened in its use, that there is no room for the play of meaning in the context of the word–the dialog is drowned out by the sheer force of meaning that is layered upon it. (Richter 10) But this does not foreclose the possibility of poetry or other poetic forms from being dialogic.

the heteroglossia of longer poems and twentieth- century epics commonly known as collage texts, such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, provide one example. These long poems and others like them show, of course, modernist fragmentation and radical juxtaposition at its most intense, the lines and stanzas themselves composed of dense quotation from multiple sources in numerous languages: newspaper, popular song, personal conversation and letters of the poet, Shakespeare’s plays, economic treatises, history texts, myth. Although one can debate unceasingly whether these long poems are heteroglossic (truly admitting different world views) or simply multivocal-that is, for instance, if Eliot’s alternate title "He Do the Police in Different Voices" suggests finally one speaker and intention, or if Pound’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to wrest control over his collage text and use it for his own economic, cultural, and political ends work to smother the heteroglossic tendencies of the collage they certainly admit at least the possibility of dialogic illumination within the poem. (Scanlon 9)

David Richter agrees, and in his essay “Dialogism and Poetry,” Richter argues that there are four lyric forms that demonstrate the variety of expressive forms available in poetry: some of which are dialogic and some of which are not.

For Richter, a useful framework for considering dialogism in poetry is the “formalist classification system” (Richter 15) that characterizes the “variety of speech-acts poems enact”(Richter 15) as articulated by Ralph Rader.  These are referred to as the “four subgenres of dramatic poetry” and are the dramatic lyric, the expressive lyric, the dramatic monologue, and the mask lyric.

If one were to translate Rader’s description of the four subgenres of dramatic poetry from his own formal/phenomenological notation to Bakhtin’s idiom of svoi and chuzhoi," one would discover a curious symmetry. The dramatic lyric presents the poet’s acting self as though emancipated from time and memory: the Self as Other; while the mask lyric presents a concrete character in circumstances that inwardly are identified with the poet’s: the Other as Self. Meanwhile the expressive lyric presents the poet as simultaneously thinking and speaking, finding in him or herself the language to suit his or her thought: the Self as Self; while the dramatic monologue, both thought and language belong to a created character: the Other as Other. All these forms would minimally belong to Bakhtin’s second category, since all would have to be considered "objectified discourse," the "discourse of a represented person," because the poet by definition represents himself or others within a setting. (Richter 16)

This characterization of “speech-acts” allows us to conceptualize the speaking voice, that is the poet’s self, as Self as Other; Other as Self; Self as Self; and Other as Other.  When considering how the poet acts or relates to the poetry that is created, it is curious to note the similarity of this discussion with that of Mikhail Epstein’s essay at the end of Also with My Throat, where Epstein writes:

As far as authorship is concerned, one could say it always points to something or somebody else behind the alleged author: God, Muse, a prompter, an inspirer, a shadow, a ghost, an anonymous writer, a crowd, a social class, the will of the people, imagined voices and fictive figures, modes of representation and hallucination.  This does not imply that authorship is a false or “outdated” (since when? Since Plato?) concept, but that its content is very different from its conventional definition.  The concepts of “self” or “identity” do not cohere with it.  Authorship is far from being a possession of the finished work and/or its meaning; it is, rather, a state of being possessed.  It is not a point of origination but rather a path of transgression.  Authorship is Othership.  By becoming an author I “other” myself, or the Other appropriates me. (Johnson and Alvarez 45)

It is interesting to note that in a recent interview, Ray Bradbury said that “he will sometimes open one of his books late at night and cry out thanks to God.”  That, "I sit there and cry because I haven’t done any of this….It’s a God-given thing, and I’m so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is, ‘At play in the fields of the Lord.’ "(Blake 1) It is also interesting to note these two conceptions, by both Bradbury and Epstein, carry the notion of God; and to put this in light of what Suzuki says in his discussion of “God Giving”:

“To give in nonattachment,” that is, just not to attach to anything is to give…every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us…Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.  But this “I” which is creating and always giving out something is not the “small I”; it is the “big I.”  Even though you do not realize the oneness of this “big I” with everything, when you give something you feel good, because at that time you feel at one with what you are giving. (Suzuki 69)

But for Richter, the notion of the Other as Self has the potential for creating a fully dialogic poetry in the sense that Bakhtin implies:

the subgenre that most directly contradicts Bakhtin’s views on poetry is the mask lyric. The mask lyric is dramatic in the sense that the speaker is defined as an Other, with a name, time, and place that may well be distant from the poet’s: Tennyson writes of Ulysses in Homeric Ithaca, and T. S. Eliot of J. Alfred Prufrock in fogbound Boston, not of themselves. But it is lyrical in that it continually demands of the reader an emotional and intellectual empathy with the protagonist, rather than clarity of judgment of his character and predicament… the mask lyric presents the poet with manifold opportunities to objectify the speaker and set him into dialogical relations with others. (Richter 23)

There is no firm answer one way or another to the question of whether a dialogic poetry can or does exist.  The very definitions of the context make the discussion somewhat slippery.  For instance, even given Richter’s presentation of the four subgenres with, per the above, the mask lyric looking like a strong candidate for a dialogic poetry, Richter is forced to concede that “All these forms would…have to be considered ‘objectified discourse,’ the ‘discourse of a represented person,’ because the poet by definition represents himself or others within a setting.”(Richter 16) For Bakhtin this would imply that the poem is an image of a poem, not the direct thing itself–that is, “objectified discourse” and thus novelistic.  So, there is a sort of chicken and egg situation with Bakhtin in that any literary activity that meets a certain set of criteria becomes a novelization: hence the notion, for Bakhtin, that Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse, and not merely an epic poem. (Bakhtin 44) In his essay, Richter may put his finger on the problem precisely when he writes, with regard to the question of prose versus poetry in Bakhtin’s cosmogony, “the reasons of this opposition may be seen in the fact that the poem is an uttering act whereas the novel represents one."  Thus, Also, with my throat, could be both depending on which persona is speaking at a given moment.

Also, with my throat, I shall swallow ten thousand Authors

It is within the context of the discussion above that this paper will now approach Araki Yasusada’s Letters in English.

What is interesting here, in the context of Yasusada, is primarily the notion of heteroglossia and dialogism–with a stressed focus on the interaction of the various authors as well as the direct address to the reader. Again, heteroglossia and dialogism refer to not only the presence of many voices in a text, but the presence of many different or distinct worldviews–and how they comment on and inform each other.  As we’ve discussed above, to Bakhtin, a multiplicity of voices forms a dialectic that forces all of the voices into conjunction and expands the understanding of the text with the complication of the different perspectives.  The Yasusada letters accomplish this on an amazing number of levels, and in fact, accomplish them on the astonishing level of the sentence or line, what Scanlon refers to as an internal dialogism: “that is, the interplay of and tensions between voices in a multivocal text.” (Scanlon 9) But for Yasusada, the tension of voices arises at the very level of the sentence: the play of voice occurs between the author’s inner voice (the voice framing the correspondence and choosing what to say) and the English language translation of that speech-act.  The mere mis-interpretation of idiom in many cases is enough to pop a hole in what would ordinarily be a mundane literary vehicle (a letter–i.e. one authorial voice) and allow a plethora of vexing voices to flow in–including the monolithic and austere voice of culture (or some sub-culture)–what Epstein’s essay refers to as “authorial position” or “genre.” (Johnson and Alvarez 45) But as noted at the outset of this paper, it is difficult to refer to the notion of the “author’s inner voice” especially in the context of Also, with my throat.  First, there is the issue of Araki Yasusada, who does not exist, as well as the possibility that the correspondent, Richard (in Ohio, no less) also does not exist, which means at the very least the letters have been written by an assumed persona–or to use Richter’s terminology, the Other as Self, mask lyric, that is, the presentation of a “concrete character in circumstances that inwardly are identified with the poet’s” (Richter 16) or the Other as Other, dramatic monologue, where “both thought and language belong to a created character.” (Richter 16) This immediately sets up a complex dialogism between the true author (whomever that may be), the assumed persona as letter writer (Yasusada), the persona as recipient of the letters (Richard–and often in the text there is speculation as to how Richard would react), and the actual recipient (the reader).  A complex dialog is formed in many different ways, none of which has to do with the actual sentence-level construction of the letters, which, as mentioned above, creates its own internal semantic and syntactical dialog.  As discussed above by Batstone with the notion of the divided self, the author of the letters, in assuming the voice of Yasusada, had to both identify with and embody the particular internal self that would allow this voice to speak honestly and directly to the reader.  No small challenge, and one that would make Constantin Stanislavski proud.  Having done this, the speech-act is directed outwardly at a fictive reader who must also be imagined in order to be addressed.  This act is nearly the equal to the act of embodying the letter-writing persona.  Further, great care is taken to establish the immersive world in which the letter writer lives–what Bakhtin again refers to as stratification, the immersive social context in which Yasusada finds himself.  As Bakhtin notes:

In any given historical moment of verbal-ideological life, each generation at each social level has its own language; moreover, every age group has a matter of fact its own language, its own vocabulary, its own particular accentual system that, in their turn, vary depending on social level, academic institution…and other stratifying factors…Thus at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom. (Bakhtin 290)

And great care is given to create the fictive environment in which Yasusada is bounded: his overbearing English instructor, the events of his daily life, his family, friends, networks and peerages, institutions he encountered, journals to which he subscribed and applied, conversations with editors, and so on.  Then, to include in this the intentionally anachronistic errors, which form a dialog with another time, serve as a running commentary on that time, and directly challenge the reader to be engaged with the text.  But the complexity does not end here.  For layered in atop this is the suggestion that the actual writer of the letters was Tosa Motokiyu. Throughout Also, with my voice, Motokiyu is an editorial voice both translating and commenting in notes on the text of the letters.  To discover that this writer could also be the author of the letters implies an author who is commenting on the writing of his own persona.  The level of dialogism within the text drops another story in the layered meaning that the text embodies.  But again, there is no floor, as it is revealed that Tosa Motokiyu could also be a persona! Can a persona embody a persona?  At what level does the true author (whomever he may be) become schizophrenic in this kaleidoscope of personas and speaking selves?  And there’s more, at least within Doubled Flowering, as Bill Freind points out:

Furthermore, the notes are written, allegedly, by three people: Tosa Motokiyu, Ojiu Norinaga, and Okura Kyojin, and they utilize the first person plural pronoun ‘‘we,’’ thus suggesting that the presentation, or representation, of the poems is a group effort. (Freind 149)

So there may be more than one persona, each with his own unique stratification of voice, class, education, perspective, etc. And, of course, the coup de grace, is that the whole of it may be written by Kent Johnson, or Kent Johnson and a group of others:

Even Doubled Flowering is something of a group effort, since it includes essays by Johnson and Alvarez, Marjorie Perloff, and Mikhail Epstein (1997), who further muddies the waters by suggesting that two Russian writers, Andrei Bitov and Dmitri Prigov, may have invented Yasusada. Epstein later noted that some subscribers to Russian Journal, a scholarly Web site, began to speculate that ‘‘Mikhail Epstein’’ was actually a hyperauthor created by Umberto Eco. (Freind 151)

The hyperbole with which authors are or are not the authors of the text is explosive and eventually withers the will to continue to look at the matter, as the author simply disappears into a mesh of possible authorial voices, all of which are vying for the reader’s attention.  Freind addresses this question explicitly in a number of ways: “Yasusada mounts an implicit and sustained critique of what Kent Johnson has called ‘the ideology of the author’” (Freind 139) and more directly in quoting from Michel Foucault whose “notion that writing is not a purely individual process but is instead shaped and bound by various social and political forces,” and notes, finally, that in a “culture in which the author function has disappeared” (Freind 140) that other questions will become irrelevant:

questions which explicitly invalidate any privileging of the biographical author: ‘‘Who is the real author? Have we proof of his authenticity or originality?’’ (ibid.) His essay’s final sentence clearly summarizes that position: ‘‘And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?’’ (ibid.). For Foucault, this is a fundamentally liberating movement, since the author function has served to limit the meanings of the text and to control the play of language. (Freind 140)

This notion of authorship only confirms the Buddhist conception of God Giving as expressed by Suzuki above as “Dana prajna paramita,” or “the true wisdom of life is to give.” (Suzuki 69) And thus, Suzuki quotes Dogen-zenji as saying, “To produce something, to participate in human activity is also dana prajna paramita.” (Suzuki 70) Further, Suzuki would remark that the obsession with authorship is “the danger of human culture:”

And when we repeat, “I create, I create, I create,” soon we forget who is actually the “I” which creates the various things; we soon forget about God…to create with the “big I” is to give; we cannot create and own what we create for ourselves since everything was created by God.  This point should not be forgotten. But because we do forget who is doing the creating and the reason for the creation, we become attached to the material or exchange value.  This has no value in comparison to the absolute value of something as God’s creation…Not to be attached to something is to be aware of its absolute value.” (Suzuki 71)

With Foucault’s quote above in mind, though, it should be pointed out that the notion that the “author function” serves to limit meaning and control language is precisely the Monologism that Bakhtin strove to dispel. And, in fact, in the end, it is the sheer variety of authorial voices available in Also, with my throat that make the text truly dialogical and heteroglossic:

Internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its historical existence is the indispensible prerequisite for the novel as a genre.  The novel orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions.  Authorial speech, the speeches of narrators, inserted genres, the speech of characters are merely those fundamental compositional unities with whose help heteroglossia can enter the novel; each of them permits a multiplicity of social voices and a wide variety of their links and interrelationships (always more or less dialogized). (Bakhtin 263)

Bakhtin asserts that this is something fundamental to the novel.  It is without a doubt present in Also, with my throat, which leads us back to the earlier question of whether the text represents a novelistic form or a poetic form.  Regardless of the answer, Also, with my throat is a profoundly heteroglossic and dialogic text.

Next to the presence of multiple authors is the importance of the presence of multiple genres or generic forms.  For Bakhtin, this is also a method by which heteroglossia can be introduced into a text. (Bakhtin 263) For Bakhtin, such an introduction of other genres is an introduction of different voices, but usually with the intent of parody or irony, that is, the represented genre “in no way function[s]…as the primary means of representation (as they would function in a direct, “serious” song…); rather they themselves have here become the object of representation, or more precisely of a representation that is parodied and stylized.  This novelistic image of another’s style (with the direct metaphors that it incorporates) must be taken in intonational quotation marks within the system of direct authorial speech.” (Bakhtin 44) An example of this is the Heian poem by Lady Murasaki presented to Dick in one of Yasusada’s letters.  The poem becomes, for Bakhtin, an image of a poem because it is not presented to the reader as something to be understood and engaged as directly voiced from the poet, but rather as contextualized within another narrative context–as an example of something.  That this is parody cannot be doubted by the mere fact that Yasusada is translating the poem, complete with his malformed idiomatic phrases, and further confirmed by the notes, provided by the “editors,” which remark that the “parenthetical interjections” inserted by Yasusada into Lady Murasaki’s poem do not exist in the original, and that most of the passage is “willful invention.” (Johnson and Alvarez 29) A further extension of the heteroglossia introduced into the text is the direct editing of existing text on the page presented in later letters.  There is the notion not only of an incomplete text, but a text whose meaning can never be final because other possible meanings, presumable excised by Yasusada, are left intact by the editors.  This also furthers the illusion of authorship, as Freind notes:

There are also a number of references to illegible words and phrases, smeared ink, tea stains. Again, those are common features in writers’ notebooks, which might be the point. The notes seem to suggest that we, as readers who are deprived of the original notebooks, unable to read Japanese, hindered by blurring, smearing, and tea, can never gain access to the original, autonomous text. This is supposed to be proof of its authenticity: … translations, commentary, and annotations without an original. (Freind 149)

Although, Freind here is referring to Double Flowering his observation still holds for Also, with my throat.

Authorship, however, is only one part of the equation for a dialogic text.  As many authors that this paper has looked at have pointed out, the second part of the equation is the reader of a dialogic text.  For Batstone, the reader is the third prerequisite for a dialogic poetry (Batstone 105) and Scanlon states that “the dialogue between the reader and the text that results in an ethical responsibility for the reader as she responds to the poem, an accountability that Bakhtin calls answerability.” There can be little doubt as to the expectation of a readerly response in Also, with my throat.  The genric form that the text takes, epistolary, is a form that demands a reader response: as there is little, if any, concealment of by whom the letters are being read.  As well, the relentless questioning by Yasusada not only begs a response, but it many cases the nature of the questions are such that the reader most likely responds to them before even realizing he or she has responded: that is, the questions are of the mundane and common sort that a person might encounter in any run-of-the-mill social environment: where do you live? Are you married? Do you have kids? What is the weather like? How are you doing?  These questions are the “easy” ones, though, and mask the questions of a more profound nature that follow soon after.  The early questions lay the ground work for a reader response, that is, they almost make the response inevitable.  This works to adjust the reader to having to respond and makes it difficult to sidestep later questions that require more effort.  Also, as mentioned above, the shattered idiomatic expressions used by Yasusada momentarily fracture understanding and force the reader to pay attention and work at understanding, and, one hopes, the effort already undertaken is continued on to the answer.  For example, early on Yasusada writes, “How are the present things? How is the family, so lovliness in a photo?” (Johnson and Alvarez 10) These are questions that are relatively common.  The phrasing, again, forces the reader to pay attention and think about the nature of the question.  The phrasing also transforms meaning, causing the reader to participate in the act of creating meaning: or as Scanlon would say, “Creation is then a process of relation in which both parties are potentially changed.” (Scanlon 3) But then Yasusada continues with, “How angry are many leftists in the orchard?  Did you lock some doors to spite their blossoms?” (Johnson and Alvarez 10) Given the time period, one can presume that Yasusada is inquiring about worker strikes on the home front, as well as whether or not Richard locks his door at night to keep their rioting out.  But the mangled idiom is far from clear and breaks upon the reader’s mind in potentially dozens of ways.  Meaning is created and the strange context of the words explode like fireworks in the mind, creating strange associations that the language poets strive for, or that Ezra Pound strives for in his Imagism.  One must work to reach understanding of the text, because interestingly, if the reader does not, Yasusada’s letters will leave the reader bewildered and a strange, unnerving otherness will linger in the mind until some meaning is hammered out.  Scanlon also makes an interesting observation with regard to the nature of the use of the second person, which is inherent in the epistolary form:

a second-person address is particularly surprising or, I would say, compelling…the work of William Waters on the "du" address of Rilke helpfully theorizes the effect of the sudden introduction of the second-person address. As Waters writes about the lyric "you" in his work, it is a pronoun which "tends to hail; it calls everyone and everything by their inmost name. . . . One can read unidentified ‘I’ or ‘she’ with comparatively small concern, but the summons of unidentified ‘you’ restlessly tugs at us, begging identification" (Scanlon 15)

This is certainly the case in Yasusada’s letters, where this reference is made literally manifest when Yasusada writes, “Thank you that I am asked to write in your intimate name.” (Johnson and Alvarez 29) But this intimacy also occurs where the nature of the questions evolve to being highly personal, and move into that area of “inmost” concern: “What was there before your birth? / What was there after your death? / Who or what is it, at this moment, that is reading?” (Johnson and Alvarez 5)


The direct question asked at the outset of this paper may not be directly answered, but preferring the method of Mikhail Bakhtin, it is hoped that the truth lies somewhere in the mix of all the voices and dialogs that have been presented to discuss it.  Much of the answer depends finally on one’s opinion as to what makes something a poem and what makes something prose.

Also, with my throat, places inordinate power on the individual word and in this manner hypercharges the meaning, which is very like the poetic approach to text construction.  As well, Batstone quoting Bakhtin, states that one marker of poetry is that “all fully signifying authorial interpretations are sooner or later gathered together in a single speech center and a single consciousness; all accents are gathered together in a single voice.” (Batstone 103) “Authorial interpretations” in this case being a criticism of the poet’s attempt to unify the language of the work, or more darkly perhaps, to subordinate the language to that of the poet’s unifying vision: that is, voices are not left to live or mean on their own.  This paper has hopefully demonstrated that this is not the case with Also, with my throat, which is so interpenetrated by the voices of authors, translators, editors, and other generic forms that if any attempt has been made at unifying the language it has failed miserably.  On the novelistic side, it is put forth by Bakhtin that the novel requires a “plurality of unmerged voices and consciousnesses. They may agree or disagree, they may even disagree with the author, but their essential characteristic is that they speak ‘as subjects of their own directly signifying discourse.’” (Batstone 102) Ultimately, the most important point is not whether the text is considered this generic form or that generic form, but what it accomplishes, and as was noted early in this paper, perhaps the most important achievement is the realization, through a complex form, of Also, with my throat as a truly ethical text: one that finds human meaning and truth through the interplay of many dialogs and many voices, including that of the reader.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M., et al. The Dialogic Imagination : Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988. Print.

Blake, John. "Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury on God, ‘monsters and angels’." 2010. Web. 3 August 2010.  <http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/08/02/Bradbury/?hpt=C1>.

Batstone, William W. "Catullus and Bakhtin: The Problems of a Dialogic Lyric" Bakhtin and the Classics. Robert Bracht Branham. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002. Print.

Burton, Stacy. "Bakhtin, Temporality, and Modem Narrative: Writing ‘the Whole Triumphant Murderous Unstoppable Chute’." Comparative Literature 48.1 (1996): 39. Print.

Freind, Bill. "Deferral of the Author: Impossible Witness and the Yasusada Poems." Poetics Today 25.1 (2004): 137-58. Print.

Johnson, Kent, and Javier Alvarez. Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords :Araki Yasusada’s Letters in English. Combo Books, 2005. Print.

Pound, Ezra. "Blast (1914-1915)." Web. 3 August 2010. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/blast.htm>.

Richter, David H. "Dialogism and Poetry." Studies in the Literary Imagination 23.1 (1990): 9-27. Print.

Scanlon, Mara. "Ethics and the Lyric: Form, Dialogue, Answerability." College Literature 34.1 (2007): 1-22. Print.

Soltan, Margaret. "The Bicameral Mind: Response to Bill Freind’s ‘just Hoaxing’." Angelaki 6.3 (2001): 221-4. Print.

Suzuki, Shunry¯u, et al. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Boston: Shambhala, 2006. Print.

  1. marilyn miller
    December 15th, 2014 at 03:28 | #1

    This is a wonderfully concise, articulate and illuminating essay of Bakhtin’s ideas around Heteroglossia/the dialogic text and poetry. I would love to read any more by this author particularly in relation to modernist poetry or specifically The Waste Land.

    NB: Bakhtin and Kristeva have similar ideas but use different terms: eg her semiotic chora and intertextuality (cf Plurivocal/dialogic

  2. May 5th, 2015 at 19:38 | #2

    Love this.

  3. Steve Pierson
    November 8th, 2015 at 22:51 | #3

    Hello, good overview of the question. However, an even more effective analysis would include the following:

    1) a distinction between the dialogic of all utterances and the way way in which not all types of utterances represent the dialogic of actual uses of languages and its types. To understand why an utterance is artistically monological, Bakhtin’s thinking about author and hero (as treated in his early writing) is essential.

    2) Bakhtin’s comment in PDP (p. 200?) that the twentieth century marks a dramatic change in poetry: it becomes novelized and therefore more dialogical. In a sense, Bakhtin’s critique of poetry as a monologic speech genre is applicable only up to the twentieth century.

    Does any of this make sense?

  4. December 27th, 2015 at 14:47 | #4

    I love how academic your blog is! Some of it is over my head which is great! What you have witertn about Twitter here I already know, but you wrote it so well that it gives me ideas about how I can teach my colleagues about Twitter and engage them in a conversation. I might even link to your article as a source for how to use Twitter to enhance a conference experience. I’m attending and presenting at the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Region V conference in June and the Conference of Interpreter Trainers in October, and this blog post reminds me to enroll my colleagues in using Twitter. Thanks!

  1. December 28th, 2018 at 13:06 | #1

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