(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….