Tipp-Ex Sonate, or The Poem that Meant Nothing

So I thought I would attempt something fun today.

And by “something fun” I mean this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-27680904

I’ve actually not read the article apart from the poem itself since I imagine it’ll spoil me with versions of answers and really, having answers takes all the fun out of questions in the first place.

So, Tipp-Ex Sonate by Andre Letoit. I know nothing about the author, or about the history of the poem or those kind of contextual things that a student might normally receive in lectures. So how then to read the poem if I know nothing about it and it has nothing in it? Can I make something from nothing and if I can will it be anything more than all the hot air I can muster to fill the voids left by Letoit’s empty parentheses?

Well, how do I usually do this kind of thing with a regular poem? Let’s assume I’ve done my revision and I have an understanding of the period and the political, social, economic, philosophical, and theoretical concerns behind, over, around, in, under, on, and drowning the poem. I’m meant to link the words written in the poem and their various meanings to one or more or the above in either an allegory to some political, social etc. etc. motivation or a close textual reading which tends to demonstrates something about the poem itself usually but not always in the context of the period and its political, social blah blah blah etc.

I think it is fair to say that this is what is usually expected of an English student. I overwhelmingly prefer the second method and that’s partly because of my exposure to and belief in (Derrida’s breed of) Poststructuralism and partly because I was a lazy schoolkid and thought it much easier to make a convincing argument based on the poem itself than remembering legions of facts, dates, and historical contexts to go with every single line I read. Small wonder I didn’t end up being an historian (much as I think the study of history is a great thing).

So upon seeing Letoit’s poem my close reading senses immediately revolt at the idea of a poem which can only be read by reference to its author, history, politics, etc. since it purports to have nothing in it itself. But then that in itself is an interesting reading. Letoit’s poem as pure allegory, a poem which completely fails to have meaning ‘in itself’ except through appeals to some ‘external’ knowledge. So Letoit’s poem presents itself as unreadable without study. It is a poem which literally fails to exist without context. It recedes into its parentheses and becomes bracketed blanks with punctuation. Since parentheses are usually digressions or qualifying remarks which are grammatically independent from the rest of the sentence, a poem composed entirely of qualifying remarks which serve to qualify nothing and are nothing can only mean nothing whether quoted, questioned or exclaimed. As such the poem comments upon the method of reading itself, either decrying or celebrating (depending on your interpretation of nothingness and your own stance as reader on the matter) reading as purely referential, as allegorical.

Or at least that’s what one might conclude if one believed that there really is ‘nothing’ in Letoit’s poem. But Letoit’s poem is not entitled “empty sonate”, it is called Tipp-Ex Sonate and as such refers not to a poem which contains nothing, but a poem which is full, and full to bursting with erasure, with things deleted, with things obscured. To anyone who doesn’t know, Tipp-Ex is a brand of correction fluid. Tipp-Ex produce white-out fluid pens and white-out tape amongst other things. Thus, it only makes sense to understand this poem not as a poem consisting of blank spaces, but a poem consisting of hidden words, of obliterated meanings.

The poem then illustrates a systematic destruction of meaning. Let’s recall that parentheses constitute qualifiers or digression grammatically independent from the main sentence. The poem therefore consists of parenthesised qualifiers, all of them masked by the hand of the author, who Tipp-Exes them himself. It is unknown what the invisible qualifiers refer to or where they digress from. The author hides these too by omission. From this perspective the poem suggests that the influence of the author is a completely destructive presence in poetry. It can be read as an attack on intentional reading, an illustration that any appeal made to the author’s intention in the reading of a poem obscures and drowns out the potential of that poem, masks over the myriad other meanings that could be drawn from the text of the poetry itself.

However, to read the poem in terms of the author’s deleting hand doesn’t quite sit right with me, especially given that my reading just illustrated that reading in reference to an author at all is itself a practice which desiccates the poem of its meaning potential. So what else to read it in terms of. Well, what is left behind after the erasure of the the poem’s words? An absence. And if you happen to be a follower of Derrida, then you know that as far as Derrida is concerned absence is the form of language and meaning itself as we know it. For Derrida, any attempt to trace language to a solid meaning, an ‘origin’ will always lead the reader down endless chains of supplementary, differing and deferred meanings. Thus he finds that language itself is not composed of words with direct links to originary roots, but of signifiers filled with absences, or endless digressions which only lead to more digressions. And I won’t explain more Derrida here because Derrida is too big to explain here. And because explaining Derrida is impossible if you believe Derrida (which, for the most part, I do, but I might try it anyway at a later date). So the poem thus enacts a complete Derridean poststructuralist system of meaning. Its meaning itself consists of absences and erasure, of parentheses and digression. Of course the paradox is that if one makes absence meaning, then the poem bursts with meaning and can no longer be absent meaning, and you get a lovely logic loop, or what Derrida might call an aporia, which illustrates the present/absent oscillation in the search for meaning in language itself.

So yes, those are a few of the things I might have said and answers I might have given in more detail had I actually been given that as an exam question and studied for it etc. etc. And that’s without suggesting that the poem might be a reference to the politics of say, Guantanamo bay, where histories are erased and rewritten into confessions born from torture or any other torture chamber for that matter (I suspect Letoit is South African and I’m sure the Apartheid regime had a few of torture chambers). Or that the poem might be a critique of art and poetry in general which provokes the reader “is this poetry, is this art?” and I’m sure plenty who read the poem are provoked by it, one way or another. Or that the poem could be a critique of academics and their institutions, flatout mocking them in the first place for trying to extract anything at all from what could happily be (and probably is by plenty) considered an utter nonsense piece of fake poetry.

So yeah, those things. So in conclusion there’s plenty to say about a poem which has nothing in it. Even if we’re talking about ‘nothing’. Or maybe ‘nothing’ just means more than it’s generally given credit for.

Anyway. I hope you enjoyed reading and had as much fun as I did writing this one.

Later everyone!