Self-referential literature: poetry and prose (part 1)

As I cracked open my mammoth Riverside Shakespeare, something I haven’t done for many months and years, to find a passage that contains a subtle example of a kind of literature I want to write about, I lost faith in my ability to find the intended passage quickly and decided to google it. Coincidentally, the page I had opened to at random was from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but a cursory glance at the right column of text and the unfamiliar names of the characters, which were abbreviated to boot! (Lys., Her., Dem.), turned me toward online assistance.  After all, I knew the line and the play it comes from, and even the character who speaks it, but under the pressure of a deadline I tried to expedite. There, I found it. According to the first link in the search, I could find that passage in Act III, scene ii, lines 110-115. I looked down at the big book in my lap to get my bearings and was jolted by a pleasant surprise. I had already found the intended passage, through sheer luck, as it was literally under my nose while I searched for it online. A little more perseverance in the search on paper, and I would have found that I had opened to the exact page I was looking for in this nearly 2000 page book. Cross my heart, I would swear on a stack of Shakespearean scripts (all joking aside) that the above actually and honestly happened to me as I began this blog thirty minutes ago. Furthermore, I realize it is an apt example of the very thing I want to reflect upon. First, we have the scene with Puck, a fey creature, speaking to his king, Oberon:

Captain of our fairy band,

Helena is here at hand,

And the youth, mistook by me,

Pleading for a lover’s fee,

Shall we their fond pageant see?

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

One must imagine here a double game.  Puck speaks of the lost, love-hungry youths and their “foolish show”, as the Riverside notes edit “fond pageant”. But through him, through these lines, Shakespeare is tapping us on the shoulder, telling us that we are the fools that Puck speaks of. After all, aren’t we mortal? And don’t we play the fool when we’re in love? We come to the theater, or read, to observe others from a distance, in order to judge, weigh, and consider their actions. And then, suddenly, we find the playwright in our lap. It is a sly, playful trick showing us the mirror and the wink.

In the space remaining, I want to display a much more naked example of self-referential literature but this time with a poem. It is called “The Prediction” by Mark Strand. For convenience, I print it below, but due to a technical limitation it is without stanzas. You can find its true and original form here.

The Prediction

By Mark Strand

That night the moon drifted over the pond,
turning the water to milk, and under
the boughs of the trees, the blue trees,
a young woman walked, and for an instant
the future came to her:
rain falling on her husband’s grave, rain falling
on the lawns of her children, her own mouth
filling with cold air, strangers moving into her house,
a man in her room writing a poem, the moon drifting into it,
a woman strolling under its trees, thinking of death,
thinking of him thinking of her, and the wind rising
and taking the moon and leaving the paper dark.


Isn’t this a poem about the writing of a poem? I feel part of it’s magic comes from the loop of meaning it brings back to itself. However, if  “The Prediction” was merely that, or primarily that, what power would it have? Isn’t it also a meditation on our mortality? When given a moment to stop and reflect, we consider our own frailty, our limitedness, our tragic, doomed condition. Poems are like people: in a stillness, the page is white and life can enter into it (pond water reflects the moon’s whiteness, like a mirror, and that milky color is like the fertile ground of a white page), but with time all things pass and become dark.

In the second and final part of this blog next week, we will look at an even more bizarre bit of self-referential writing in a short story by one of the masters, Jorge Luis Borges.

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One Comment

  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted June 9, 2013 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    Good to reference Shakespeare about self-referential writing. It’s easy to organise your thoughts in such a way that places metafiction as something from the 20th century, modernism and postmodernism. I guess we can trace it back to Chaucer, even further, in fact, to Homer.

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