My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Sleeping with the Dictionary” by Harryette Mullen is the poetry book that I’m opting to choose to write about during National Poetry Writing Month.
It’s because it speaks to me. I embrace the avante-garde, abstractionism, the strange, the weird yet wonderful types of poetry that some people do not find as intriguing. But, there are many of us around who do love it all.
I’ve been lectured at since university about how to review or critique a work of art. I’m supposed to tell you who Harryette Mullen is and what she may be about. Out of the number of books she’s written, I’m supposed to tell you which one this is. I’m to give you some history and some present connection from the text to the world in order to help you understand why this is important to us. But, as I’ve also learned in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, affectionately aka ModPo, that if I choose, I can choose to buck all of those tendencies in a book review and just tell you what I just want to tell you. So, today, I’m going to do what I want to do.
And as an aside, there is power and there is greatness in doing the opposite of what you’ve been taught to do and taught how to do well, your entire life. It is freeing and it allows me to have my own voice heard. Try it sometime.
There is meaning in poetry that seems on the surface to be meaningless ramble. For me it is about playing with language, words, lines, sentences, poems, sounds, rhythm, beat and musciality. You can likely see on my blog that I don’t always write what most people would think a conventional poem would read as one should. For me, there are no shoulds. And, in “Sleeping with the Dictionary” there is an extensive play on words through OuLiPovian, abecedarianism, puns, what’s called N+7 – there’s just so much. I was introduced to Harryette Mullen through ModPo, in particular “Any Lit” really captured my attention for the pure joy of playing with abecedarianism. And then I also had a chance to read the prose poem “Sleeping with the Dictionary,” same name as the book.
For me to take a text and abecedarian the heck out of something and then take it further by flarfing on it or OuLiPolianing the heck out of it makes words so much fun for me. And what I do seem to find is that this form, instead of forcing me to tell a story within its constraints, in the end surprises me with the story that it tells me. So the poem speaks to me just as much as Mullens’s poetry speaks to me. I don’t think she was necessarily trying to tell us something, although when I do a close reading I can intellectualize it, categorize it all that I want and read about Mullen and knowing that she’s an African American woman I can recount line by line what something may mean and I can reference some of the choices she made back to African American traditions which are highly intriguing to know about. But, I take exception to this straightforward type of interpretation and close reading of poetry that is seemingly playing with language, words and sound.
If I’m going to sleep with my dictionary, if I’m going to fuck around with it, I’m essentially going to play as an adult, and I may take my time, or I may just go for it, and quickly. For the love of pleasure, this to me, is poetry.