There’s this theory I have about reading. It’s that, at this moment, in rooms about this very nation, over seminar tables, hunched and with a hand, perhaps, against the face, perhaps—this pose of and perhaps even activation of thinking, hinging on the show of it—, young people in MFAs are not reading they poems they are, at this very moment, reading. They have not read the poems they have read and are speaking about. If this is indictment I count myself indicted. Many of the poems I’ve read I haven’t read. Nor am I interested in disparaging the MFA. If there’s a single axis of responsibility for this non-reading reading phenomenon, it’s the workshop; it’s just that the MFA’s ecosystem—one that comprises the broadest institutional reach of readership, authorship, and scholarship—is the workshop. And the workshop’s matrix is of speaking on, of creating the most convincing words about. Reading the text as the text does little to further this outcome. The workshop’s framing interaction with a poem is rarely culled from the poem itself, from its words—the (maybe) right ones in (perhaps) the right order. The workshoppers search for words, for words to say, as though the words are elsewhere.
In Joseph Mosconi’s Word Search, the words are right there, both in plain sight and hidden in plain sight. The words themselves are not Mosconi’s; they’re Robert Creeley’s. The order of the words, however, is not Creeley’s. It is either chosen by Mosconi or randomly determined—but either way, what’s important about the order of the words in the keyword list is that it has no discernable logic. The words of Creeley’s poems have been stripped of everything but their words, and they’ve been placed into a word bank. The reader’s job is to search for the word bank’s words in the square block of capital letters above—to read the words into the block of letters. Or rather, to read them out of it.
“The Pool,” unread
Is this process of interacting with Word Search a way of reading? At base level, it is certainly a way of recognizing. Say I’m searching for “embarrassment” from “The Pool” (you know how a word search works but humor me here for a moment): I scan row by row searching for the easy-to-spot pairs of letters, “ss” and “rr,” and if I find either combination, I scan around the pair in a little loop to see if there’s useful connective tissue. This seems to me a sensible approach. But it hasn’t netted me great success. I have the impression that I’m a subpar word-searcher; it’s taking me an extraordinary amount of time to find “embarrassment”; it’s embarrassing. But the fact that I can’t consider my task complete until I’ve located the word qua word—that I can’t settle for approximations via connotation or overconfidence in vocabulary and can’t read around the word with an analysis narrative or invocation of theory—speaks to the linguistic integrity of the project. The only way to interact with these poems is to locate their language. Once located, nothing is to be done with what’s found. There is no second step. The word remains word, and the circle of a pen lassos it, corrals it, walls it off, makes a monument of it, a mausoleum.
“The Pool,” read
Not all of the words in Word Search meet with the finality of finding them, however. Where Word Search deviates from the traditional word search puzzle’s fundamental criteria is its inclusion of one- and two-letter words—articles, abbreviations, prepositions—that may appear five times within the letter grid for every inclusion on the keyword list. To continue with “The Pool” as our example, the article “a” appears in the keywords list six times. This alone disrupts a word search’s integrity, and it is all the more confounded by the fact that there are 35 As to be found in the letter grid. Even with all the other words found, and all the As saved for last, there are still an extra eight unaccounted for As. Which As are the right As? How can such indeterminacy factor into a project exemplifying the linguistic integrity I claimed above?
While it is useful to focus on the determinacy involved in Mosconi’s project, the gaps that chance and uncertainly open up in the project are a reminder that a poetic system shouldn’t be foisted into a separate context to be engaged with, just as it shouldn’t be regarded distantly, abstractedly only, a closed and sealed-off system. The question of selecting the “correct” A finds its analogue in the anxiety of interpretation, which, I contend, is the drive shaft of the non-reading reading tendency. Perhaps Mosconi’s experiment can serve as not only a game, but as a model of the instrumental practices of reading a text that can often get lost in the teleological process of having read. Though the process of reading the poems in Word Search takes the form of a puzzle, there is no way to engage in them without reading faithfully. The operation is defined and determined, but the game must be played for there to be a game at all.
Available from Poetic Research Bureau Publication as a free PDF. Originally published by OMG! in 2010.
An Ohio native, Logan Fry lives in Austin, Texas where he received his MFA at the University of Texas and teaches at Texas State. He is the founder and co-editor of Flag + Void with Matthew Moore, and his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Artifice, Columbia Poetry Review, DIAGRAM, Bestoned, The Cultural Society, Forklift, Ohio, and elsewhere.