April 27, 2010

The Delight of Ruined Expectations

The act of describing one person to another is a dying art. If you ask someone to describe, for example, a friend of theirs who you don’t know, they will immediately look uncomfortable. Suddenly they are overcome with sensitivity; describing a person is, after all, political and personal. Political, because a truly discrete person won’t mention any distinguishing features beyond height (unless the person occupies either extreme) and hair (only in the vaguest terms), and certainly they won’t discuss body parts or race, though they will be secretly proud to have made the omission on both accounts. And describing someone to someone else is personal because we don’t want to half-disparage our friend by saying they have beautiful but teary eyes and an untameable haystack of hair. Describing a person if often used as a punishment which we inflict on those who we dislike: saying, for example, “That Cutie Parker has ape-arms and dog’s teeth.” Vivid descriptions have become more punitive than communicative.

And certainly there are occasions where we must pretend that we are all featureless, gray sock puppets. But this phenomenon isn't relegated to the office any longer. It's become part of the social contract. Many people would rather just present a photograph, and spare themselves the delicate negotiation of describing a person.

This is all a tragedy because having a person you don’t know described to you engages the mind in a wonderful way: I imagine what fills the gaps in the description; I fill in the missing parts with ideal faces or family faces or the faces of colleagues; I paint the body of the stranger out like an artist paints Orion onto his constellation; I guess.

Later, when I meet the person who has been described to me, I will be quietly surprised at how they look nothing like their description. But the surprise is delightful, because I realize that the person I’ve imagined looks like a mangled version of me. Who wants to have that expectation ever fulfilled? Who wants to meet themselves wherever they go?

In much of contemporary poetry, the task of describing a person’s physical appearance is frequently passed over. We are often presented with the disembodied “I,” or a tabula rasa nouns of “man,” “woman,” or “child.” Many of my poems fall into these categories, partly because I prefer to describe people by their action and thoughts, and partly because I often write about archetypes rather than individuals. There’s nothing wrong with omitting physical descriptions. But the omission is also, at least in part, the result of verbal habit. I rarely describe anyone anymore.

I find it interesting, though, that when poets decide to more fully describe the people who occupy their landscapes, the descriptions are often romantic, florid, and purple with praise. This may be because there is an intimacy to describing someone’s physical appearance, but it also seems to be related to the poetic tradition of describing the “classically beautiful.” These idealized descriptions are so prevalent as to merit their own sub-genre: the fair lady poem. While I enjoy some works in this mode, the descriptions tend to strike me as generic and dishonest.

There are those readers who suffer from Back-Flap Disease: the compulsion to begin a book by looking at the small author photo on the back flap. I’ve done this on numerous occasions, and, invariably, the act enables a slew of unfair conclusions: Isn’t she pleased with herself, or He smiles like a fraud. But if I read the work before I look for a author photo, I discover pieces of their face everywhere; I find their limbs and appendages strewn about the landscapes they paint; I assemble them and the gaps I fill in with myself. This is perhaps because poets are highly trained in the art of self description.

When I finish the book and finally look at the back flap, my expectations are never realized, but I am not disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. This is so true. I hate when someone asks me what so-and-so looks like because I want to say "she's slightly chubby, with beautiful black eyes and springy, curly hair" but instead I just say, you know, that girl that looks like . . . and then I try to think of someone both of us know who isn't ugly or chubby or homely. It's ridiculous.