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Essay

Aislinn Hunter on Anne Simpson's "Wordsworth"

(How Poems Work, September 2004)
“Wordsworth,” by Anne Simpson, is from a series called “Gesture Drawings.” Technically a gesture drawing is “a quick sketch based on careful observation” –an apt series title for a poem that “sketches” a poet. But “Wordsworth” is also a nod to inspiration. Here, in a lovely reversal, the present day narrator evokes the historical muse: “Give the guy a picnic” and “Let him have” are a retroactive permission. But not a High Romantic permission–the diction here is offhand. Wordsworth is “the guy” not “the great poet”, words like “fondle” and “needs” are derisive; the chopped syntax of “Oh how. And how” approaches mockery. So why the irreverence? Simpson’s poem (like Spalding’s and Zwicky’s) is intertextual. Intertextuality speaks not only to the relationship between texts but to ideas of individualism (“originality” “creativity”) and inspiration. The philosopher Barthes wrote “A text is … a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings…blend and clash… The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them”.
In “Wordsworth” Simpson examines the context of Wordsworth’s inspiration–but in a way which is counter and which speaks to other ideas as well….

“Wordsworth,” by Anne Simpson, is from a series called “Gesture Drawings.” Technically a gesture drawing is “a quick sketch based on careful observation” —an apt series title for a poem that “sketches” a poet. But “Wordsworth” is also a nod to inspiration. Here, in a lovely reversal, the present day narrator evokes the historical muse: “Give the guy a picnic” and “Let him have” are a retroactive permission. But not a High Romantic permission—the diction here is offhand. Wordsworth is “the guy” not “the great poet”, words like “fondle” and “needs” are derisive; the chopped syntax of “Oh how. And how” approaches mockery. So why the irreverence? Simpson’s poem (like Spalding’s and Zwicky’s) is intertextual. Intertextuality speaks not only to the relationship between texts but to ideas of individualism (“originality” “creativity”) and inspiration. The philosopher Barthes wrote “A text is… a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings…blend and clash… The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them”.

In “Wordsworth” Simpson examines the context of Wordsworth’s inspiration—but in a way which is counter and which speaks to other ideas as well.

“Wordsworth,” by Anne Simpson, is from a series called “Gesture Drawings.” Technically a gesture drawing is “a quick sketch based on careful observation” —an apt series title for a poem that “sketches” a poet. But “Wordsworth” is also a nod to inspiration. Here, in a lovely reversal, the present day narrator evokes the historical muse: “Give the guy a picnic” and “Let him have” are a retroactive permission. But not a High Romantic permission—the diction here is offhand. Wordsworth is “the guy” not “the great poet”, words like “fondle” and “needs” are derisive; the chopped syntax of “Oh how. And how” approaches mockery. So why the irreverence? Simpson’s poem (like Spalding’s and Zwicky’s) is intertextual. Intertextuality speaks not only to the relationship between texts but to ideas of individualism (“originality” “creativity”) and inspiration. The philosopher Barthes wrote “A text is… a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings…blend and clash… The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them”.

In “Wordsworth” Simpson examines the context of Wordsworth’s inspiration—but in a way which is counter and which speaks to other ideas as well.

One of the trickier aspects of intertextual reference is that different readers bring different depths of knowledge to the poem; readings vary. For example, Wordsworth’s famous “I wandered lonely as a cloud” poem (referred to obliquely in Simpson’s last line) is famous for its “truth” and beauty but also for the fact that both Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy (mentioned briefly in Simpson’s poem) wrote about the outing in 1802 when he was inspired to write his poem. Scholars argue that Dorothy’s journals rendered the day true (“the wind was furious”) while William bent the truth (and the weather) to suit the epiphany that was his poem. Simpson’s references to “the clear skies of recollection”, and the line “Give him what he needs”—could easily be seen as a commentary on that occasion.

More obviously “Wordsworth” pokes fun at the Romantic requirements for inspiration: a picnic, hedgerows, ruins, Romantic idealism (“heart leaping up, little heart fish”). What shouldn’t be lost on the reader—and what isn’t lost—is the fact that two hundred years later Simpson herself is drawing her own inspiration from Wordsworth’s subject matter and work. Art is like that —we draw from life and from those who have preceded us. We may write against them, but they are there. I think the wonder of this small poem is its complexity. Imbedded in it we find biography, literary theory and a muse-like playfulness. And Simpson, irreverence aside, gives Wordsworth his due—by writing about him in the first place, and by ending the poem on “cloud,” which is his image, a gesture that speaks to his wanderings and the words he set down.