Poetry Review: The Travesties of Plato by Sean Cearley

The Travesties of Plato by Sean Cearley
Spacecraft Press 2015
$3 plus Canadian postage fees


The Travesties of Plato arrived with no great ceremony at my home, carried up from outside by the Better Larger Non-Threatening Cat with whom it is my great pleasure to reside; and to tell the truth I did not know it had arrived until the Lesser Larger Non-Threatening Cat finally arrived home and delayed in feeding me—an offense he has repeated numerous times, and which shall not escape punishment although I bide my time—to rifle through some papers the Better One had placed in the entry. Once after my many demands had been heard and I finally had been fed, Lesser Larger sat down at his desk and turned on the light I need in order for my fur to stay warm (a small gesture). It is a very pleasant light. When I hopped up to the desk, however, he was trying to open and inspect a folded piece of paper that was exactly where I wanted to sit. This, too, is an offense that shall not escape punishment in due time.


One learns to be patient with the Larger Non-Threatening Cat type—one is ashamed almost to feel dependent upon them, in moments of weakness, discerning that the bowl is full or the bed warm or the string only motile in their presence, the blanket duly crumpled—and on occasion one’s patience is at least partially rewarded. So it was with The Travesties of Plato, a work stamped by character and imagination that portends great things for the future of both its author and the press that helped produce it.


Although it arrives as truly a “slender volume,” the Travesties is all the same a fitting shrine for a special suite of visual poems by the poet S. Cearley. I myself do not know what a “poet” is, of course—we cats don’t have them—but I understand it to be someone who does imaginative things with (a) words and (b) ideas and lets A talk to, resonate with, and amplify B in ways that an ordinary straightforward use of language wouldn’t. If this is so, then SCE is clearly a poet and a very good one at that; for he has taken the material of a major figure I now know (after having slept on his book) as being associated with the history of ideas. In so doing, he has challenged typical assumptions that those larger non-threatening cats we call humans would otherwise tend to hold about their relationship with words.


In the poet’s own, well, words, he “subjected ten of the philosopher’s famous dialogues (from Jowett’s 1871 translation) to the ‘Travesty generator,’ an online tool for converting text according to poetic formulae derived from the tenets of literature movements such as Dadaism. [He] also ‘compressed’ the original text using the travesty generator, limiting the transformed version of each dialogue to 400 characters. After this output was generated, the resulting text was imported into a spreadsheet, with each word in the poem in its own cell. [The poet] then applied colors according to the structure of the words.”


A number of interesting sidelights are revealed by this methodology. First, there is the idea of travesty: of “absurd representation,” as if things could be made more evident by means of expressing them in utterly incongruous ways, in terms of other things that they clearly aren’t. The conception is almost ludicrous, especially when it comes to Plato (a real father of solid ideas), until we consider the transvestitism that underlies travesty as not so much a diminution through ridicule as a kind of apophasis. By giving voice to and commenting upon Plato in a form that the philosopher himself could never have imagined, Cearley pays tribute to some of the clarity and analytical precision that humans associate with him. He suggests, too, that our contemporary “data-driven” context has a tendency to essentials important matters in the wrong way. It could be that colored blocks based on algorithms are not the best way to apprehend the works of a major figure. The love of algorithms for their own sake, however, begins a tendency that has its natural culmination in a printed book: a form still chosen to enshrine ideas, even though books are usually lumpy and not nearly as delightful to sleep on as a good magazine across the lap.


Cearley’s incongruity—his “travesty”—points toward the ordered world conception, the idea of linear and finely articulated verbal arguments and even poetry, that a more direct direct poetic encounter could not. In fact it is probably safe to say (or so Lesser Larger opines) that such a more-direct poetic encounter would not be published (certainly not by its current press, which handles exclusively works “inspired by science and technology”). Poems composed from words arranged in lines with meter and verbal imagery already smack of the archaic, of the obsolete; even those who enjoy such poetry know that. As a choice of subject matter, an ancient Greek philosopher long enshrined in the canon of so-called Dead White Males simply doubles down on that investment in archaism, meaning that a poem about Plato is just about as straightforward a contribution to contemporary artistic representation as a trip to a Renaissance Festival is to our accurate understanding of the Middle Ages. This being said, there is probably no way of getting at the subject of Plato in a modern reader’s mind than the one that Cearley has chosen although I suppose that more words would be welcome. Just as I have a human typing this review as I dictate it, so too our poet could have placed his images in juxtaposition with key passages or mid-transition selections of the Platonic dialogues he has transformed.


More important than the issue of “travesty,” then, there is the grounding idea of Plato: a man known only through his dialogues, works that focus on another man even lesser known and that man’s interactions with other individuals of an even more fragmentary and possibly fictitious quality than his own. As a cat, I was rather excited to make my first encounter with this milestone in the history of philosophy via such an accessible introduction. Right there, laid out on this small but tactile volume’s single spread like the stages of a Gantt chart for civilization itself are the Platonic dialogues in extenso, colored predominately in a sort of orangey pink that is my very favorite color in all the world and deserves therefore at least a few head bumps or purrs. For the “illiterate” Felix domesticus of independent means, nothing could be better. Double that for this reviewer, since my busy schedule makes a nap–play balance a challenge; it’s hard to fit in a lot of extra reading of anything, let alone a corpus of subtle texts at the foundations of Western philosophy.


In terms of Plato’s corpus in Cearley’s hands, then, the only recommendation that I might come up with involves paying tribute to the long reception history of the various dialogues (something that might be more feasible in a digital supplement to the edition). Since the Timaeus was the only dialogue known for several hundred years and had been interpreted in terms of a medieval Christian cosmography, for instance, surely that deserves a special shading. The Meno and Phaedo, “rediscovered” in the twelfth century, also have a complex reception history. The sheer volume of commentary on each dialogue could also be treated visually, with selections that receive more or less critical attention receiving a different a slightly different portrayal, assuming that the poet were able to access and then crunch the corresponding “big data.”


Although I am used to having my way at all times from larger nonthreatening cats, I would not want to impose more work for its own sake on a poet I had never met. I would, however, want to see more from S. Cearley. The overwhelming impression one gets from sleeping on or reading through The Travesties of Plato is of a brilliant textile: a fabric made of words, words that I would like to nuzzle against. A longer book by Cearley would be an event: something to sleep in comfort either on or next to—or, if you are a human being with less visceral an interest in words, to read. In fact, although this volume does not do it full justice, Cearley is one of the most talented and interesting of contemporary “concrete poets.” A quick search through Twitter of the #concretepoetrythursday hashtag will reveal some of his skill in producing works that it would be delightful not to sleep only next to but also inside. We all deserve the opportunity, feline and human alike, of seeing an author and artist’s full potential. For this one that includes not only printed pieces but also digital, and even sculptural, forms. Nothing about enabling such a range of visual-verbal expressions from Cearley could be further from a travesty. In fact, it might well bring such poetry closer to its Platonic ideal.

As dictated to M. L. Harrison.

M. L. Harrison is a sometime editor, recovering medievalist, and relapsed
poet. He tweets here.




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