Vagueness Theory, Briefly Explained

June 26, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: John Fenlon Hogan on “Differentiation, or To Quarterbacks Tan and Taupe Seem Just the Same” by Susan Blackwell Ramsey

Truism #1: Expectations are everything.

Truism #2: Expectations are rarely met.

The sooner we come to terms with these facts, the more ably we amble through life. At least that’s the epiphany the narrator of Joyce’s “Araby” stumbles into during his junket to the eponymous bazaar. The decorative vases, floral teacups, and jejune accents of the bazaar’s patrons fail to conjure the Middle Eastern experience our boy fabricated in his anticipatory imagination. What’s more, he abandons his intention to buy some kitsch as a gift for the girl next door because he realizes—as his eyes burn with “anguish and anger”—that this particular girl will fall woefully short of the Girl Next Door he encounters in his daydreams.

Where Joyce’s narrator ends, the speaker of Susan Blackwell Ramsey’s “Differentiated, or To Quarterbacks Tan and Taupe Seem Just the Same” begins: she’s cheesed-off—epistemologically unnerved even—that Spring let Winter walk all over it, leaving its grubby snow-prints all over her daffodils.

But her anger soon gives way to a wonderful reflection on how humans engage with the world:

When a child steps past the particular
     and starts to see things linked in constellations—
not just Spot, but Dog, then Animal—
     her world grows wider. Like a bag, a basket,
a concept makes small things easier to tote.

I can’t count the number of times on ten hands an English teacher at any level drew a sweeping circle around a patch of my inked-out thoughts and scribbled the comment “vague.” My sincere thanks to Ramsey for demonstrating here that vagueness can be a good thing. If we lived our lives mired in the particulars, we’d hardly be functional. Language, for example, would be impossible. It’s our ability to classify and categorize and generalize which enables us to share a dialogue. Without it, I expect, most conversations would consist of gesturing toward one particular after another, shouting “That! That!” Our lexicon would diminish to emotive grunts.

But the speaker also cautions us “if we build too big a box / that world becomes One Size Fits All, a label / we’ve all learned is a lie.” Though humorously masked in the language of a sneaky retailer, the message is not diluted: get too abstract and meaning will again be lost.

There’s a further complication: we have expectations of the other when we interact, and oftentimes those expectations differ drastically. The speaker gives us an appropriate if not all-too-easy image of love: “A raccoon and a Komodo dragon / staring in their drinks and miserable / because they can’t be peacock for each other.”

We become acutely aware of how vague the concept of love is. When we say “I love you” to someone else, that person probably misunderstands what we actually mean. Moreover, we say we love our parents, our children, our significant others, and our favorite athletes. It’s an excruciatingly weak verb when you think about it, such that we probably don’t even understand what we mean when we utter it. As this poem is well aware, that may be a problem endemic to English. Any language can be specific and vague in different ways: “Japanese had just one word / to contain the blue/green range, but had midori / to denote the tender green of springtime grass.”

So we negotiate between abstract and particular, attempting to find the right focus: “It can help to look through different lenses / ‘This one.’ Click. ‘Or this?’”

Here, I think it’s worth dwelling on the title. Without any biographical knowledge, I’d be willing to bet that Ramsey is or was a teacher. While “Differentiated” could imply several different meanings, the secondary title—presumably referencing dumb high-school jocks who aren’t as refined and detail oriented as the artist—promotes the sense of differentiated learning, a buzz term in the education world which means teachers should tailor each student’s education according to the way she learns.

Whereas before I read the poem I took the QB reference to be pejorative, upon completion of my second or third reading I understood it much differently. A quarterback qua quarterback doesn’t need to distinguish between tan and taupe. Every sports team has at least two uniforms, typically contrasting in color, so that when teams play each other jersey colors never confuse anyone. It’s always white vs dark or red vs blue or some iteration thereof.

At the end of the poem, the speaker expresses a desire: “If only we could samba between Concept / and the smell of his temples, between Ideal and fur / on her upper lip.” This is one of those rare occasions where it’s actually important to distinguish between speaker and poet, though I’ve done it several times in these vague paragraphs, mostly for the sake of following convention.

In contemporary poetry, people love to poo-poo a didactic poem. That’s too bad because I love to be taught, and this poem is essentially didactic, however artfully rendered. While the speaker leaves us in a state of desire, the poet’s anger thaws like snow on daffodils on a perfectly conceptual spring-ish day. Ramsey demonstrates that we do get that samba. To the quarterback, color may be an afterthought on the field, but what’s to stop him from becoming an artist as soon as he walks off?

In a world where we discuss privilege a lot, Ramsey reminds us of a privilege we frequently take for granted: our ability to look at the world through different lenses, and to be able to contemplate each focus in the process. Let’s get caught up in the beauty of what is, and not in our expectations of how it should be.

John Fenlon Hogan works in commercial real estate and lives in Virginia. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, and West Branch, among others.

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