In the first imperial collection of Japanese Tanka, known as the Kokinwakashu there are a large number that are anonymous; meaning that we do not know the author of the tanka. Here are two examples:
Now that autumn hues
tinge the bush clover’s low leaves,
will they not perhaps
find it hard to sleep at night –
those people who live alone?
If your affections
were to scatter like blossoms,
would I alone grieve,
wailing as a warbler sings,
to see the end of our love?
According to McCullough about 40% of the poems are anonymous (Brocade by Night, page 176).
The oldest collection of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs, (aka the Classic of Poetry, or The Book of Odes) is entirely anonymous. This collection of poems is one of the Confucian classics and appears to consist, to a great extent, of folk songs and ritual poetry, all unattributed.
It is more difficult to find anonymous poetry in collections of western verse. Perhaps this reflects differences in cultural attitudes. It is a fairly common observation that the west is more individualistic than the far east and the dearth of anonymous poetry in western collections may be a manifestation of that.
But in some of the more extensive anthologies readers do come across anonymous poetry. In The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fifth Edition there is an early section of “Anonymous Lyrics of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries”. But this is a very small percentage of the anthology; nothing like the 40% of poems found in the Kokinshu or the 100% anonymous poetry in The Book of Songs.
I bring this up because I want to touch on an incident that happened in 2014 in American poetry that, I believe, tells us a lot about how we approach poetry today. I tend to avoid remarking about the various squabbles among contemporary poets and poetry institutions unless they directly impact syllabic verse and its place in English language poetry. First, it is inherently unpleasant and, second, it is almost always unproductive. For these reasons I refrained from remarking on the incident at the time it took place. But now that more than a year has passed and it is no longer a ‘current event’, I’d like to make a few remarks.
The incident occurred when the American poet, Michael Derrick Hudson, found that he could not get his poems published. So Hudson adopted a pen name, Yi-Fen Chou. The result was that poems that had been repeatedly rejected were now accepted for publication, including one poem that had been rejected 40 times and was now accepted by Best American Poems of 2014. This anthology was edited by Sherman Alexie, who is Native American. Alexie admitted that he gave the poem extra credit for its minority source. To Alexie’s credit, when the truth came out that the poem was written by a white guy using a nom de plume, Alexie retained its place in the anthology.
There was a lot written about this incident, mostly focusing on the political and ideological aspects. Conservatives considered it an example of SJW thinking run amok. Progressives, in contrast, viewed the author as engaging in a strategy of oppressive deception. But what I would like to focus on here is what it tells us about how we, today, tend to read poetry.
To shed light on how we read poetry today, I want to consider is how we read an anonymous poem. When we do not know the author, how do we engage with a poem? How do we find an anonymous poem meaningful?
In a way this is not a difficult question. If we think of a poem as an artifact then we can make an analogy to other artifacts that we use in our ordinary lives. I don’t know who made the mug I am drinking coffee from, but that does not hinder me from using it, admiring it. I do not know who developed the particular type of rose in my neighbor’s garden, but that does not create a barrier to my appreciation.
In a similar way, I can admire a poem without knowing anything about the author. The poem can speak to me, inspire me, offer me insight even though I do not know anything specific about the author or the circumstances which caused the poem to be written.
Take poem 220, quoted above, from the Kokinshu. The poem comments on loneliness and isolation and uses late autumn as a seasonal expression of loneliness. This poem speaks to us because loneliness is a common human experience and resonates with the fall season in a way that makes sense to us even though we are living in a very different culture and centuries removed in time.
Similarly, poem 798 is about the fear of losing the affections of someone we love. Again, this is a common human experience; one that almost anyone can relate to (the exceptions being those who have never been in love). This poem might have been written by a woman, by a man, by someone young, or someone older, by an aristocrat, or by a peasant. Those details do not really matter because the experience transcends the specific autobiography of the author.
The tendency today is to read poetry through ideological categories; but I think that is a mistake. Such a tendency imposes on the poem the specific intellectual apparatus of a time and place. For example, the Confucian Book of Songs was often interpreted by later Confucians through the lens of their own Neo-Confucian ideology. The result was to take a simple poem, what was probably a folk song, and turn it into an elaborate allegory on duties to the State and Emperor. This kind of ideological apparatus, to my mind, actually creates a barrier to understanding the poem; rather than allowing a poem to speak to us directly we force the poem into our own preconceptions. Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries scholars divested themselves of this Neo-Confucian apparatus. It took a lot of work. But it was worth it.
Ideological analysis always, always, always, diminishes our capacity for understanding art. And I think that is as true today as it was in the past among the Neo-Confucians. In the 20th century the ideologies that dominated were Fascism and Marxism. In the 21st century the dominant ideologies seem to be Progressivism and Radical Feminism. Running at a distant third place is an ideological Traditionalism.
The interpretation of poetry through an ideological lens dominates most University English Departments in the anglosphere at this time. This is a primary reason that I recommend that young people interested in poetry not major in English literature or pursue an MFA in poetry. There are exceptions and if you have found a specific teacher, or even an English Department, which has not been completely taken over by an ideological agenda, then ignore my suggestion. But for the most part I suspect that my observation is correct. My feeling is that a young person’s love of poetry will be badly deformed at most Universities today. I say this because I regularly read contemporary literary criticism and it is as marked by ideological bias as the Neo-Confucian interpretations of the Book of Songs. This is obvious to those who do not share the ideological biases of the authors.
How do we break free from this tendency to read poetry ideologically? I believe that a significant step in that direction is to read the poem as if it were an anonymous poem. For example, when you read Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost, never mind that it was written by someone we know about. Read the poem as if the author was unknown. Assume you have no idea if the poet is male or female; white, black, or asian; rich or poor. And then get a feeling for what the poem is saying. In other words, bracket the authorial specifics. This bracketing of the authors specifics opens up the universal message of the poem.
You see, my view is that what all of us share is more significant than the specifics of our biographies. And what is it that all of us share simply by virtue of being human beings? We all share mortality; we are impermanent. This is a central fact of human existence and poets have been speaking about this, and how it impacts our lives, in a multitude of ways that help us come to terms with this truth.
We all share the experience of parting with those who are our friends and those we love. Again, poets have illuminated this experience in many ways that resonate with us across time and culture.
We all interact with other human beings in ways that are both helpful and stressful. We all have obligations that we are expected to fulfill. And we are all limited in our abilities which can give rise to frustrations of various kinds or appreciations for our own and others’ talents.
Because these aspects of our lives are universal it is possible for an anonymous poet to speak to us about them, and to illuminate their meaning, even though they may be of a different race, class, sex, gender, and speaking a different language. This is what ideological approaches to poetry miss. And to my mind what they miss is the heart of what poetry is about.