Teaching P.K. Page's "The Permanent Tourists"

by Shirley Neuman

Let me begin by confessing that when I first thought about what I might say here, I also began to feel as though I had crossed into a country of speculation merely.  I cannot tell you how I would teach "The Permanent Tourists" for I cannot predict the subjects (in the Foucauldian sense) who will shape the classroom event: Myself, first of all, the teacher speaking about the poem, who cannot be identical to the subject speaking here, today, to you.  The students, secondly: their physical presence the way they sit, move, speak their insights and misunderstandings: their subjectivity.   Nor can I predict completely the whole series of such events the course into which this discourse about this poem would fall.  That course could demand that I teach the poem in a number of very different contexts.  The volume Cry Ararat!, P.K. Page's entire oeuvre, contemporary Canadian literature, literary Modernism, travel literature, a feminist poetics of the gaze, the "metaphysics of presence" underlying our literary tradition and now questioned by it, the role of the reader in the poem: any of these might be central to the ongoing discourse within which I might find myself teaching the poem.

     Given, however, the first- or second-year survey course of students drawn from several disciplines that Professor Ricou has hypothesized for this panel, I would be unlikely to emphasize the skeleton of theory over the flesh of the poem itself.  I think that what I most consistently try to do in teaching is to re-enact with my students the process by which the accomplished reader arrives at an understanding of the text and of literary conventions.  That done, I frequently move outwards to consider certain literary problems now being discussed under the rubric of "theory."  What I will briefly sketch here is one possible re-enactment for P.K. Page's poem, a re-enactment I would be likely to undertake, with only slight variations, as a prelude to any of the possible contexts in which I would then seek to place the poem.

     Speculating, then, about teaching P.K. Page's "The Permanent Tourists":

     To begin with the poem: by reading it, letting it teach through me.  Letting it register those of its resonances I cannot describe, or choose not to describe, or by describing inevitably limit.  To read the poem is to direct the student to the acknowledgement of two different discourses, that of the poem and that of our speaking/writing about the poem; it is to subscribe to the notion of a mystery in the poem that cannot ever be quite reproduced; and it is to imply that the task of our teaching is to read that mystery as closely, completely and accurately as possible.

     To go on by working close to the text, in this case, by looking at the rhetorical structure of the poem in terms of its figures of speech and of its speaker."  Here I would raise for discussion three figures; one playing on the physics of light, a second exploring "otherness," and a third which is the oxymoron of the poem's title.

     To begin, perhaps, with the figures of seeing and reflection and with one of the questions central to this poem: how do tourists see?   One might note here the paradoxical nature of tourism: that we travel, turn, tour [from the French tourner] in order to look, see, seek to understand by letting the other environment, the other culture, enter us, that tourism is simultaneously active and passive, invasive and receptive.  That P.K. Page's tourists are such passive vessels, "their empty eyes/longing to be filled with monuments."   But by the end of the poem, while the tourists' eyes remain 'passive', the signification of the figure has turned from emptiness to seeming plenitude, from the registering of the visual image on the retina or the film to reflection.  Giving the image back, their eyes are now like a "placid" river which gives us back the monuments on its shores.  That is, by the end of the poem, the ontology of the tourist site the notion that something called a tourist site exists out there in the world independently of its observation has been undone: it has become a reflection in the eye of the beholder.

     The tourists 'alter' in a second figure of speech: that is, they become one of two as they enter foreign cities.  They are "other," never part of the city, of the entire event, less so than the meanest dog in the meanest weather.  They remain on the "verge," edge, border of the community and cultural life emblemized by the public squares.  But in the poem's last stanza, by the slippage, the elision, the turning of the single word stamp, their tread also imprints the plaza, characterizes it.  In their seeming plenitude they assume the architectural attributes of the places they visit, become 'classic'.   They are the monuments in the sense that it is their presence that calls them into being.

     The third figure: in what sense can those who travel, turn, tour be permanent?  As a purely pedagogical manouever it is this paradox that I would stress, for it is one sufficiently strange, sufficiently arresting, to stay with the student during the time needed for learning to take place.  The contradiction of the oxymoron can characterize the experience that is both the poem's subject and its method.  In what senses, then, can tourists be permanent?  Among possible suggestions, I would try to elicit two: that tourists can remain permanently tourists, never assimilated, always on the verge, always superficial; they can remain the tourists P.K. Page mocks as they appropriate their histories from the notes on menus and assure each other that travel is broadening, and that she mocks in another way in the facile alliteration of "Philosophies like ferns bloom from the fable" and the too-rapid rhythm, the too-predictable rhyme of "that travel is broadening at the café table."  But the permanent tourist could also be one who has made himself "immemorial," "classic," who has stamped the plaza, become that part of the site which makes it available, reflecting it, to others.

     To draw some conclusions from this look at the poem's figures of speech: What we have in "The Permanent Tourists" is a travel poem of a peculiar indeterminacy: we can, for example, visualize neither the tourists nor the sites they visit; both are presented so imprecisely as to be hardly even generic.   The conventional mimesis of the travel poem, in which the site is represented in terms of the resolved perceptions of the poet/traveller is absent.  Instead each of the figures of speech I have marked is employed in the service of a rhetorical structure that is consistently oxymoronic: the poem's major tropes are configured in mutually exclusive terms.  Both terms of the trope emptiness and reflection, otherness and essence, tourism and permanence inscribe the experience the poem addresses.   (And here we must tack for a minute toward what looks like a digression but is in fact central to teaching poetry.  As a way of staying close to the poem itself, we must note that this oxymoronic strategy is a matter of the poem's resonances as well as of its structure.  If the alliteration, rhythm and rhyme of stanza five parody the tourists in their facile and superficial activity, the back vowels, diphthongs and murmuring m's of the rest of the poem suggest a stillness that resonates with its images of what goes on for ever and ever in the same way in every tourist city and that reiterates the moments frozen in snapshots or sculptured stone.)

     This reading of the way a series of figures of speech rhetorically structures the poem and this listening to the poem's resonances turns toward the point that this is a travel poem that is neither about tourists nor about the sites that they visit, but about the way in which the tourist creates the tourist attraction, the way in which a monument becomes "classic" because the tourist gaze reflects it as such.  The "immemorial" stone (too ancient to be remembered) is "called up" (invoked, remembered) in the passive gaze which reflects it.  Underlying the poem is an ontology which posits the existence of monuments, or by reading metonymically cultural values, only by virtue of the gaze, an ontology which makes the observer central to the scene and which says that we cannot know things apart from the ways we think about them.  Tourists make the monument; their gaze gives it the value which remembers the immemorial.  Language makes the poem; its configurations have contained and directed our gaze at the tourists.

     And now: to move into another register.  To query, in this poem structured around images of passive looking and reflection, the imperative verb, "Look": "Look, you can see them. . . ."To draw attention to three presences in this poem, the tourists themselves and two observers.   What I would wish to note here is a further layering by which those who observe — the tourists — are themselves observed.  By whom?  By someone who says 'Look' to someone else also present and, by so saying, calls up the tourists as they are said to call up the monuments.   In the absence of specific characters attached to speaker and listener in the manner of, say, the dramatic monologue, the rhetorical strategy creates a complicity between the speaker, whom we tend to identify with the poet, and the listener, with whom we as readers tend to identify.  (I acknowledge the critical heresy of this identification but it is in fact what readers tend to do, whether or not with the poet's sanction.)  The poem tries to create the illusion that we are there, watching the permanent tourists.  This is the point, of course, at which to raise the whole process by which the poet assures us of the poem's authenticity and, at the same time, creates the sacralizing effect of compelled speech, by allowing the poem to masquerade as speech utterance.  But this is also the point at which I would wish to turn the discussion from this poem to the question of how we read poems by noting that poems, in our tradition, are not speech utterances, but writing and by emphasizing the importance of the "you" implicit in the "speaker's" command to "look."  For the experience of reading the poem is analogous to the experience which it inscribes; writer and reader, figured as the speaker and the "you like the permanent tourists stand outside the "entire event" that, this time, is the poem.  But like permanent tourists, in the complicity of writing and reading, they call up the poem-event.  What my hypothetical students and I have just done, is to create a poem from the words on the page through the shared conventions of reading.

     Because my first obligations in teaching, as I see them, are to the text and to the students, I use theory as an instrument to make the text available to the students.  In a first- or second-year course I try to use the instrument unobtrusively so as not to make it more important than the poem itself.   As I have speculated about teaching "The Permanent Tourists" I may therefore have seemed simply the practical critic I was (very thoroughly) trained to be.   I may even seem to have set aside the subject of the panel, "Theory in the Classroom," in favour of an implicit question, "Do we need theory in the classroom?"  But perhaps, in this close reading which emphasizes tropes and rhetorical structure rather than the image, and which endeavours to be self-conscious about the reader in the poem, traces of the poststructuralist theory which led me to frame my enactment in the way I did can still be discerned.