Ocean Vuong, Classical Allusion, and the Limits of Interpretation

Thu Truong (Princeton University)

Allusion, the device that signals the relationship between one text and another, is among the chief objects of fascination for classicists due to its aesthetic value and power to endow the text with additional depth of meaning. This phenomenon has been differently defined either as the result of the author’s active intentions (the ‘intentionalist’ school: Hinds 1998; Farrell 2005) or as located in the activity of reading (the ‘nonintentionalist’ approach: Conte 1986; Fowler 1997; Edmunds 2001). Previous theories of allusion, however, whether intentionalist or nonintentionalist, have always presumed the existence of a knowing reader who possesses the knowledge of the source text(s) as the key to unlock the meaning hidden behind the allusion, and one of the goals in solving the ‘allusion riddle’ is agreed to be the euphoric reading experience that readers can achieve. This paper questions the validity of such premise and proposes a new way in which allusion conditions our reading experience, by examining the role of the reader in Ocean Vuong’s 2017 poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. I argue that classical allusions in this collection are part of a larger network of different referencing systems (including literary, historical, linguistic, and personal/experiential), each of which requires a different ‘knowing reader’, whose access to the poetry is in turn limited by the system(s) she could operate in. This ‘imperfect knowing reader’, faced with the references she could observe but does not have sufficient knowledge to produce meaning from, becomes conscious of the limits of her interpretation and her exclusion from other reading experiences of other ‘imperfect knowing readers’. Classical allusions, hence, are used in Night Sky with Exit Wounds as a way to preclude instead of inducing euphoric reading: what the text creates is, this paper argues, a poetic experience not of culmination, but of frustration.


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