Deep South v.2 n.2 (Winter, 1996)
In this paper I will be discussing the theme of a "puzzle" in relation to one of New Zealand's foremost poets: Riemke Ensing. I have chosen to look at examples from Ensing's book "The K. M. File and Other Poems with Katherine Mansfield" (1993) because I consider these poems to have a playful and cryptic purpose like a cross word puzzle. Many of Ensing's poems in this volume require the reader to recognise allusions and references and to link these ideas to the text of the poem. Likewise a crossword puzzle requires the solver to decode clues and fit them into a grid.
Regarding the practise of a literary game or puzzle, Peter Hutchinson, in The Games Authors Play (1983) states:
"Playful writing demands a different sort of effort from the reader than does standard prose. This, then, may be seen as another feature of literary play: it is provocative, seeking to arouse speculation, reflection, deduction."
Ensing's poems require the reader to interact with the text on an imaginative and intellectual level: to solve puzzles, and decode the implications of the text. Ensing's form of "playful writing" encourages the reader to participate in the ways described by Hutchinson: to speculate, to reflect and to deduce.
In "The K. M. File", Ensing's style is characterised by allusions and references - which can be found in a number of places: embedded in the title, the subtitle, the dedication or text of the poem. The clues within the text are frequently highlighted by italicisation and / or accompanied by more specific details in the form of marginalia.
One of the most popular forms of a word-puzzle is the crossword. This form of puzzle most closely parallels Ensing's poetry. When attempting a crossword puzzle two aims should be considered: (1) the individual clues must be solved and be in accordance with designated word length, (ie spaces in the matrix), and (2) answers must fit with letters from other clues. A correct answer will fulfil both criteria.
The history and theory of Crosswords is outlined in "The Complete Cruciverbalist" by Stan Kurzban and Mel Rosen. The authors make two points which I consider to be valuable to my analogy. First: in their introduction Kurzban and Rosen recognise the importance of humour in the composition of crossword clues. They state: "wit is also a tool of the trade". In parallel Ensing's poetry is not only fun, but in many instances it is 'funny'. Second: Kurzban and Rosen describe how the 'key' to a cryptic clue is recognised: "There must be a signal as to the sort of word play that is involved". To illustrate Kurzban and Rosen consider the clue 'Avoidance could be so naive' (7) In this clue the "signal" is the phrase 'could be '. 'Avoidance' is likened in some way to 'so naive'. In fact in this instance the answer is an anagram of the phrase 'so naive' meaning 'avoidance'. Answer is EVASION. A second example is the clue 'Diet I'd straightened up' (6) works on the same level. In this case the phrase "straightened up" has two purposes, firstly to signal the type of word play and second to suggest the synonym. Answer is TIDIED.
Like poets, individual crossword compilers have their own style. In New Zealand the compiler of the "Listener" crossword known only by the initials "RWH" has compiled a crossword every week for many years. RWH uses a number of standard clues in her puzzles including synonyms and antonyms. RWH also uses cryptic clues such as hidden words, puns, literary allusions, quotations, historical references, number, riddles and aphorisms.
For example, consider Puzzle No 2843. In this particular puzzle there are a wide variety of clues: anagrams, synonyms, quotations as well as standard clues. The answer to 5 across "killed by nails" is an anagram of 'nails'. Answer is SLAIN. 18 down reads "Prone to telling an untruth". The answer is a word which can be a synonym of either prone or untruth. Answer "LYING". Many of the clues are stated in two parts. For example 25 across "Supporters, but apparently only for a very short time". The first part of the clue suggests that the answer is a synonym. The latter part specifies that the answer is related to a "very short time". Answer "SECONDS".
Decoding the clues to the puzzles of RWH is considered an intellectual pursuit which encourages the puzzle-solver to either apply existing knowledge or learn new information. The examples I will analyse from Ensing's poems will show not only the use of similar techniques to crossword compilation such as those used by RWH, but an authorial intention to engage the reader in puzzle-solving.
I will show the relationship between puzzles and the poetry of Riemke Ensing by first looking at the poem "Another Exile Paints A Spring Portrait of Katherine Mansfield. This poems manifests the three qualities crucial to the analogy of a crossword puzzle. 1. the poet knows the answer, 2. information is presented on two levels similar to the bipartite structure of many cryptic crossword clues . 3. the poem has a humorous intent.
In this poem the poet teases the reader with information identifying the exiled artist. The reader knows that the poem is about an artist from the phrase "Paints a Spring Portrait". However the artist's name is not stated in the title all the reader can ascertain is that the artist like Mansfield was "another exile". The second clue appears in the sub-title " for Eric McCormick". The name "Eric McCormick" is undoubtedly a direct clue to the identity of the artist: McCormick is well known as the biographer of New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins. If the reader is aware of this information then the "exile's" identity is revealed. If not, then the reader is spurred to find the nearest dictionary of New Zealand biography.
The third "signal" to the artist's identity is indirect and cryptic compared to the McCormick reference. The poet describes in detail a painting: "The portrait is a yellow table / a ginko leaf shaped fan you think / might smell of sandalwood...". Ensing is specific about shape, smell and particularly colour: "a Chinese / vase of 'yellow-grey, 2 blues and brown'". The use of italics (point to the text) should signal to the reader that this phrase contains key information. In the margin is a parenthesised "guess who". This is a challenge from the poet: she knows the identity of the artist. Is the reader able to deduce the painter's identity from the references to specific style and colour?
The theme of a puzzle or game is continued until the final couplet. This does not directly answer the riddle: it is a riddle in itself. In a matter-of-fact tone Ensing states "And there's your still-life portrait / landscape in a figure". This juxtaposes four types of painting as one and reverses the usual relation of "Figure in a Landscape". However, the italicised "still-life portrait" is the crucial "signal" for the reader to look at the notes in the margin. It is here that the answer lies: "(yes, you've got it Frances Hodgkins)". In effect the poet has described Hodgkins's painting style without directly stating the artist's name. The reference to Eric McCormick is the big clue to her identity, Ensing plays on the fact that not every reader of this particular poem will know of the link between McCormick and the other clues. The poet wants the reader to enjoy the deductive process as they might enjoy a crossword.
The next poem for analysis also reveals Ensing's technique as playful. "Katherine Mansfield contemplates a painting of Elizabeth I". In this instance Ensing imagines Mansfield's response to a portrait of Elizabeth I. The title provides the reader with the frame of reference for the poem. Again it is the subtitle which specifies or 'signals' the play or puzzle contained within the text: "for Roy Strong and Julia Trevelyan and their book". The book in question is Elizabeth R. Evocation by Roy Strong, spectacle by Julia Trevelyan Oman. comprises a series of images of Elizabeth I derived from paintings. The accompanying text including data from archival material. Detailed close-ups of specific parts of the paintings are included, showing the intricacy of needlework on Elizabeth's gowns or the delicacy of jewels.
Ensing's poem operates on a similar level to Strong and Trevelyan's text. The first clue to this is in the title: where the close relationship between the poem and Strong and Trevelyan's book is stated. Ensing directly refers to Strong and Trevelyan's book by drawing attention to phrases through italicisation (point to text on overhead). An accompanying note in the margin (point to overhead) tells the reader where the italicised phrase originated. For example the first four words of the poem "'apples flashed like stars'" is a reference to Mansfield's journal, specifically the entry dated "Sept 1920". Ensing blends this reference with a description of Elizabeth's gown: and a link is established between Katherine Mansfield as the observer of Elizabeth's painting and the text by Strong and Trevelyan.
Ensing plays with language when she imitates the Elizabethan language in the next lines, thus closing the gap between Mansfield and Elizabeth (between the sixteenth century and the twentieth century). Mansfield's journal is cited a second time in line 11. Here the excerpt from the journal is blended into the text of the poem - Ensing might have written it herself. As in the previous poem, Ensing uses humour to great effect in the line "a pluck of virginals" alluding to Elizabeth's famous virgin status. As well as imagining Mansfield contemplating Elizabeth's portrait, Ensing includes some of Elizabeth's poetry into her text. The final lines of the poem are noted as being from a poem by Elizabeth herself. Ensing unites Katherine Mansfield and her journal, with Elizabeth and her poem and the text by Strong and Trevelyan. All the while Ensing mediates this unification, blending words and images, and playing with language and ideas.
The third poem for analysis is "Birthplace". In this poem, memories and fragments of Katherine Mansfield's life are visited by the reader. The narrator takes us on a guided tour: specifically Wellington and sees people who remind her of Mansfield. The woman who smiles at a baby "in that aloof head-slightly-bowed way/ is the spitting (why spitting) image/ of the Estelle Rice oil a la chinoise look". A woman looks like a painting of Mansfield, not to be confused with Mansfield herself. In case the reader does not pick up on the reference to Estelle Rice, "portrait" is noted in the margin.
From the streets of Wellington the reader is guided to an art gallery: the 'National'. The note "(gallery)" beside 'National' seems superfluous: with a little deductive reasoning the reader could guess that this is an art gallery, but that is not the point of the note. The marginalia are little highlights - an essential part of Ensing's game. Within the Art Gallery is the "stunning Matthew Smith/ 'dahlias in green bowl'" - purchased by Mansfield's father no less. But Ensing chooses not to annotate this gem, instead she includes the colloquial pronunciation of Beauchamp: "Beach'em". And don't gloss over the ominous coughing child: remember Mansfield had TB. Mansfield is everywhere - on the faces of people, on canvas, printed and bound, and on a postcard.
These three poems show how Ensing blends the allusions into the text. The detailed descriptions within the poems such as Hodgkins' painting, Elizabeth's portrait, the description of Wellington and the effect of Mansfield contains puzzles for the reader to solve. The reader is intended to follow the clues or hints contained in the title or signalled in the subtitle and to re-tie the strands which relate one aspect of the poem to another. My final example will show that Ensing has the potential to be much more cryptic. "The Katherine Mansfield Signature as Zen Painting" contains allusions so intricate that it would seem that Ensing has transcended the encoded poem containing clues and puzzles, and moved on to a style that can be described as purely cryptic.
Unlike most of the other poems in this selection there are no notes in the form of marginalia: there is, however, a symbol or 'signature' in the left hand margin that is according to the title Katherine Mansfield's signature. Barely discernible as anything other than a childlike squiggle the signature takes on spiritual proportions when combined with the metaphors and allusions in the poem.
The poem compare Mansfield's signature to a Zen painting: parallels are created between the line of the signature and "that fine down line turning/ up the tail end of a winter/ branch." An imaginative reader might well envisage the similarities: the physical and literal is beside the metaphor on the page. At this point the simplicity of description is cast off in favour of a more cryptic technique. Ensing continues by stating "Niten's Shrike and maybe Tohaku/ is there making mountains/ in the morning mist." The reader is aware of the relation of Zen to the poem, maybe has a brief knowledge of Zen philosophy but is quite possibly befuddled by these allusions. In fact Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) also known as Niten was a Japanese soldier and painter of the Tokugawa period. He worked predominantly in the sumi-e ink painting genre and invented nitoryu (line - above o and u) two sword fencing. Ensing also alludes to Fennollosa and Mu-chi. The former, Ernest F Fenollosa (1853-1908) was an American Orientalist and Educator who was primarily concerned with the preservation of traditional Japanese art. After his death his widow gave his transcripts of Early Chinese poetry to Ezra Pound whose Cantos include allusions to Chinese poetry. Fa-ch'ang Mu-ch'i is a thirteenth century Chinese Bhuddist painter whose work was influential on Japanese art. Ensing combines these references in the poem to support the parallel between Katherine Mansfield's signature and Zen painting. The puzzle of the poem is for the reader to relate to the images and relate them in turn to the content of the poem. The simple curving line that represents Mansfield, as a signature represents each of us, is metaphorically linked to the great artists of China and Japan.
The poems I have analysed require the reader to interact, solve puzzles, and decode the meaning as described by Hutchinson. Hutchinson's comments are compatible with the theory of Reader-Response. and I quote:
"Behind much playful writing there is a clear creative test. It is the sort of writing which is, to use the concepts of Roland Barthes, 'writerly' (scriptable) rather than 'readerly' (lisible). It does not aim to encourage passivity on the part of the reader, but rather to draw him so fully into the process of reading that he actually participates in the text."
From Hutchinson's statements it would seem that the writer is in a position of literary power: the control of the information and data. However the reader is in an equally dominant position: without the reader the text does not come into existence. This idea is suggested by Wofgang Iser in his article "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach". The two main points of Iser's article are (a) reading is a creative process and (b) the reader must interact with the text in order to interpret the text. He states: "in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text, but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text." Thus the reader of "Another Exile Paints a Spring Portrait of Katherine Mansfield" has to use a process of deduction in order to reveal the identity of the "exile". Likewise the reader of "Katherine Mansfield Contemplates a Painting of Elizabeth I" re-creates Elizabethan costumes, their fabric and composition.
Iser goes as far to say "The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence" and that the reader reveals the text's "dynamic character". I argue that if the text is 'alive' so is Elizabeth I, Katherine Mansfield and Zen painting. Through the process of decoding the poem, and interacting with data, the reader recreates the text and all that it represents. As Iser suggests, during the reading process the reader embarks on the voyage offered by the text. whether it be to relate to Frances Hodgkins, Elizabeth I, Katherine Mansfield or the great painters of China and Japan.