It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?
The Inner Critic is not at all happy with some of the poems I’ve chosen to learn for my 52 Poems in 52 Weeks Project. As I walk around, exploring and byhearting each poem, it creeps in now and again into my thoughts and tells me that one poem or another should be kept under wraps: “That’s a good one” it will say, “But don’t let anyone know you’re spending all this time with that poem!” I usually don’t answer back, but when I do it informs me that “It’s just that some people won’t think this poem is especially cool or clever or Zeitgeisty. And by association they will then assume that you’re not particularly cool or clever or Zeitgeisty.” I want to be thought of in this manner, so I take heed.
But who are these people the Inner Critic has in mind when it spins me this yarn? Not the average Joe or Josetta, who might read a perfectly good poem, like one on the Underground and have a perfectly good response to it. Maybe: “That’s Nice” or “What’s that about?”. These people I suspect would not turn their noses up at a Pat Schneider poem!
For here is verse that is both pleasurable and digestible: well-made, satisfying to read and recite; as simple, sturdy and beautiful as one of the wooden chairs it contains. Like the domestic objects described in the poem, its accessibility is wholly egalitarian: you can sit on this poem, wear it, soap your hands with it, dry your skin. To slightly misquote a Stephanie Burt book title: The Poem is Yours.
Like all of these so-called “ordinary objects”, when given some careful attention, they invariably transcend their inconspicuous commonplaceness, the poem enacting this transformation in its closing lines which work like a brain-cracking koan might, rinsing the dust off habitual consciousness so that we may see the world anew. Just as these sausage-shaped tubes of meat typing the words you’re now reading transcend their purely material essence in the light of this poem, the slabs and chunks of meat we ordinarily call our bodies or our minds, become spirit and light through the lens of a poem.
Which is good enough reason to read or learn any poem, especially this poem. To love a poem so ardently you want to learn it by heart, to make it your own, is a good enough reason to do so, right? Then why is there a part of me that depreciates a poem like this? It does so with quite a few of the poems I’ve decided to learn by heart. One way of thinking about these inner critics is that they are our Literary Superegos constructed over a lifetime of listening to other people, tell us what is “good” or “right” for us to read or watch, or listen to. And especially what is not.
The Superego is particularly hot on what we might call black and white thinking, a concept that is as old as psychology itself, going back all the way Pierre Janet’s notions about dissociation which forms the bedrock to ideas hold about personality and “taste”. Freud first wrote of the Superego, which he called the Ego-Ideal in his essay On Narcissism, describing the processes by which we internalize the idealized objects of infantile love (our parents), providing us then with a libidinal bridge across which to make contact (cathect) with the world around us. Borrowing the strength of these parental gods, fortified by teachers and other authority figures (literary critics, as well as the hive-mind of various media) we begin to fall under the spell of these outer, then inner injunctions and prohibitions in the form of conscience or morality or taste. As far as literature is concerned: this poem kosher (meaning “proper”), this poem traif (improper, “torn”, from the last verse of Exodus: “you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; to the dogs you shall cast it.”).
So when my Superego says that say a Pat Schneider poem is not worth learning by heart, but Danez Smith, or Wallace Stevens, or Elizabeth Bishop is, I think it’s keying into various Ego Ideal paradigms laid down by literary peers and mentors (teachers, University tutors, critics) of yore but also the present gods of social media who play such a fundamental role in the shaping of our tastes. Unlike the Freudian Superego I suspect the Literary Superego is not a singular entity but more a trifecta, a sneering Holy Trinity. Each of the poets I’ve mentioned above represent different aspects of this Literary Superego which I’d like to expand on below.
THE SOCIAL MEDIA SUPEREGO (SMS)
The Social Media Superego (henceforth SMS) would most likely ignore this poem because it is written by an 83-year old heterosexual white woman and falls into a genre that one might broadly label as “spiritual”, even religious. Had it come from the pen of of another straight, white septua-,octo-, or even nonogenarian writer, one of the more edgy darlings of SMS (Jean Valentine, Joan Didion, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Renata Adler, Diana Athill), it would no doubt be celebrated, which is to say retweeted avidly by the most active Twitter demographic, 18 – 29 year-olds.
Thankfully, unlike other Superegos, this young-adult SMS doesn’t lower itself, on the whole to overt belittling (the exception, such as the recent backlash against Rupi Kaur, proving this rule). Poets, critics, and other writers on social media are usually well-mannered, polite and supportive of the written word. But if they don’t care for something, silence is their weapon of choice. Liking, Retweeting and Sharing are now the three forces driving this natural selection process that shapes our tastes. The unLiked/unRetweeted/unShared poem, or story or painting simply fades into a vast ocean of data from which it had briefly surfaced, hungry for its 15 or 1.5 seconds of fame, before disappearing again.
The SocialMedia Supergo is supportive of me learning poetry by heart, especially if drawn from one of their youngish cohort (poets usually in their 20s or early-30s). Extra points for learning poems written by women, and/or people of colour, and/or LGBTQIA poets. But when I am learning this poem by Pat, my inner Social Media Superego is lukewarm to cold in response: “OK, that’s fine. At least you’re learning a poem, this is a plus. But otherwise, meh.”
And yet, like all of these Inner Critics, I wouldn’t for a moment want to get rid of my Social Media Superego as I think it champions and supports people, causes and literature that the mainstream, more canonically focused media often ignore. I love and respect my feisty SMS, but sometimes, at least for middle-aged bods like myself who grew up in an entirely analogue world, it can become a little bit too charged and uncomfortably overactive in head and heart.
THE CANONICAL SUPEREGO (CS)
The Canonical Superego is often at war with The Social Media Superego, and would probably give SMS favourites (Smith, Vuong, Akbar, say) as well as Pat Schneider a wide berth. Schneider because she is (so it tells me) “two-a-penny common in the kind of poetry she writes”. “Twee” is a word the Canonical Superego uses when talking about this poem. With regard to my SMS favourites, it might label them as a form of modish froth or spume tossed about on the transient waves of literary fashion. The Canonical Superego is to a greater or lesser extent misogynistic, racist, and elitist. Not a good combo.
I really wasn’t aware of this Superego until I got to Cambridge. My beloved secondary school teacher, Mr Baglow, was resolutley Catholic in his tastes, enthusing with the same kind of ardour about the metaphysical poets as the latest Brian Moore or Ishiguro novel he thought I should read. Or even a fantastically well-written TV drama he’d seen the night before. It was only at Cambridge that I discovered the Canonical Superego in the shape of John Casey (I was at a small college, Caius, had only a choice of three tutors, Casey being the most rigidly Canonical of the three).
Casey, but also my Canonical Superego, had very clear ideas of what Fine literature is inherently about, literature worth studying and reading, maybe even learning by heart. He had equally clear ideas on what was just trash. Casey himself had memorised vast swathes of Pope, Dryden, and Milton just to give you a flavour of what moved his viscera to transports of delights. The rest was negligible. He might have responded to my byhearting of this poem with the following words: “Why would you want to waste precious brain cells on committing this bagatelle to memory, Wasserman?!” Or as he once put it when I played a bit of Verdi in a tutorial to underline a point I was making in an essay about Othello: “I didn’t realise you were such a sentimental sap!”
The Canonical Superego asserted itself in the last century through the canonically-focused “schools” of F.R. Leavis and Harold Bloom asserting that the wheat, the anointed writing could always be stringently separated from the chaff. Casey’s withering elitism felt incredibly dank and claustrophobic at the time to my 18 year old self, as did most of the Cambridge tripos which stopped at T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, as if there really wasn’t anything worth reading after that monumental poem.
What the Cambridge English Literature course involved, and still does as far as I can see, was the study of predominantly cis white men (as SMS would now have us call them), the odd woman, but not a single poem, novel, or play created by a person of colour. SMS’s concerns over Stevens’ racism for example would be answered by Canonical Superego with an eye-roll and shake of the head. “Stop getting your ruddy knickers in a twist,” it might say. During my years at the hallowed institution, Fred D’Aguiar and Ben Okri were writers in residence, but their work would never have made it onto the syllabus itself. This was literary tokenism at its finest.
Of course the Canonical Superego does well for itself in this world, as many of my peers at Cambridge have done well for themselves in the subsequent decades. Perhaps because they were truly brilliant, or maybe also because we are drawn to certainty and sense of rightness, which even at 18 years old, this lot had in spades. Residing as we do in a cloud of ambivalence and unknowing with regard to pretty much everything in our experience, their floodlit conviction and authority cuts through the fog of equivocation in a way that is charismatic and often compelling.
Frank Kermode put his finger on it when he described Leavis’s “gnarled manner” of speaking and writing, his urgency and seriousness as having an “exhilarating quality” to those who read or heard him. “At his best, Leavis seemed to move with the most exciting movements of language…He believed that such study [of canonical writers] was a principal means of access to a civilised society.”
Replace the words “civilised society” with whatever you’ve got your sights set on, and then try to see why its so hard, if not impossible, to give the heave-ho to the Canonical Superego.
THE INDISPUTABLE SUPEREGO (IS)
The Indisputable Superego is perhaps not as vocal or as visible as the other two, perhaps because it doesn’t really have to convince you of much. For its taste in art or literature is…well…Indisputable. Which is to say that not even Social Media Superego or Canonical Superego would have a problem with me byhearting an Elizabeth Bishop poem. “Yes of course you love Bishop,” they say and smile at each other, half-surprised at being briefly in agreement. I’m trying to think of the select few writers who the Indisputable Superego might champion: perhaps you can help me out with this? Writers who are edgy enough to please SM Superego as well as firmly cemented into the canon. Samuel Beckett? Hopkins? Thoreau? Dostoevsky? DeLillo?
But the Indisputable Superego is just as toxic as the other two. It’s so fucking smug! In fact, this is a trait shared by all three Superegos. I love Bishop as much as the next IS-inspired reader, but a number of her poems (as a number of any writers’ poems) are kind of tedious, better as short stories perhaps. However, there is no space in the realm of the Indisputable (or any of the Superegos, which is why they exist as Superegos) to say this without sounding stupid or churlish. All of The Superegos can be incredibly patronising, and no less Indisputable Superegos: “There there, my friend. You. Just. Don’t. Get. It. One day, like the most delicious of cheese or wines you will Understand, and then we can Talk. Until then: peace be with you ignorant one!”
Indisputable Superego doesn’t care for Schneider’s poem either. It might not side with Social Media Superego, thinking SMS a little bit overwrought at times, but it would probably agree with its Canonical sibling. Indisputable Superego is perhaps a slightly more chilled version of Canonical Superego, a Superego in a hammock: “It’s a perfectly good poem, and you’re quite welcome to learn it, but it’s hardly Neruda now, is it?” it might say.
GETTING THE SUPER-EGOS OFF YOUR BACK
So how to deal with these three Literary Superegos. They do need to be dealt with. Persistent Superego/Inner-Critic activity can satanically grind us down if left unchecked.
Let’s go back to average Joe/Josetta sitting in their tube carriage reading a copy of Metro and suddenly looking up to see a poem, maybe even one this one, pasted on the panels above their heads which usually display adverts for products.
And here’s an average response to this poem: NICE (maybe read again, Instragram-it, make a mental note of the poet/poem), or DON’T GET IT/LIKE IT (move on). My belief is that we’re all reliably “average” in this sense, whatever poem we’re reading. We’re all Joes and Josettas deep down. Which is to say that even the most rarefied conneisseur of poetry (whatever that means) when first reading a poem, at a very basic level either responds to it as NICE or I DON’T GET IT/LIKE it. And this response is as much an interplay of the different parts of their psyche, including the three Superegos mentioned above, as well as what they had for breakfast that day, whether they were breastfed as a child or not, and a whole host of other impossible to pin down factors.
What then happens in the so-called Literary World is that these very simple, ordinary responses, gets dressed up in lots of fancy words, for fancy words is what the educated members of our species spray about, and so we come up with all sorts of fancy reasons for why we like one poem or novel or painting as opposed to another. Much of it is Ego and Superego talk. The Id-iot that responds initially to the poem is often carefully hidden in this process.
Recognising this is it not necessary to say to our Literary Superegos, as often as we can GET OUT OF MY WAY! And then if more explanation is required, I say: “Listen, I realise you might have a problem with this Wallace Stevens poem, or Ocean Vuong poem, or Kaveh Akbar poem, or Pat Schneider poem, or Keats, or Rumi or whatever. But can you just leave me alone for a while so that I can read, and think, and love what I love? Please?”