Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What matters about asking "Does Poetry Matter?"

Poetry has been slammed by Harpers. It’s been declared dead at the Washington Post. It’s been called AWOL by NPR Books. Whenever recent observers announce poetry’s demise, their autopsies tend to offer impalement by ivory tower as a major cause of death. They tell us that poetry is out of touch, that the genre is too much a part of the incestuous relationship between graduate creative writing programs, literary journals, and publishers, all of which are controlled and operated by (mostly academic) insiders. This has marginalized what was allegedly once a mainstream art and disconnected it from those masses apparently yearning for poetry out there in the wide world. The critics, then, are standing up for the vague notion of a “general” public when they attack the academic version of poetry, though I’m still not sure how any of these folks writing for Harpers, the Post, or NPR is any less a part of the overeducated middle-class literati than any member of the AWP.

The editors of the New York Times took a more conciliatory approach in addressing the state of the art by posing the question “Does poetry matter?” to a forum of highly decorated poets. (As far as I’m concerned, Jonathan Farmer’s response to this exercise in the LA Review of Books far outshone anything included in the original forum.) The editors’ introduction included the sub-question “Can poetry ever regain its relevancy?” Even if I ignore their frame of reference—I’m not sure when poetry ever was “relevant” or ever did “matter” in the way they mean—the fact that these questions are being asked at all suggests there’s a crisis in the art so severe that its very existence needs to be interrogated. On the other hand, even while the editors question poetry’s validity, their decision to present this particular forum seems an endorsement of poetry’s viability as a topic of interest for their general readership, which is a funny thing for dying art. The Times seems to be banking on the idea that there’s enough merit in the question for it to be taken seriously and that there are enough people seriously invested in poetry for the forum to attract traffic to their site in serious numbers. I suspect the argument did exactly that for the Times as well as for the Post, Harpers, Slate, and even here at the Poetry Foundation—and wherever else it tumbled onward.

If there’s a credible complaint in the criticism, it’s that we can’t distinguish art from the context in which it’s produced. The critics, however, focus on factors of aesthetics and personality when they ought to be paying attention to factors of economics and market forces. There is a desire in graduate-educated poets to write for the sake of readers, but there’s also a desire to leverage that writing into a career. We need to impress each other as much or more than we need to impress those outside of our immediate industry. A consequence of this is an interiority to the poetry we produce, but I don’t think that interiority is the result of snobbery, meekness, or obliviousness among poets the way critics have alleged. Too many of us are politically motivated in our writing and politically active in our lives for those accusations to hold up. I think it has more to do with the subtle effects that academia and the privilege inherent to it has on our language. If we intend for our work to appeal to an audience outside of ourselves, the first step might be to acknowledge the isolating effects of that privilege and admit that we need to learn as much about WIC checks and second shifts as we do about disjunctive narrativity and postmodernism. If we come from places that have taught us something about the former, our writing might benefit from not losing that culture and language to the culture of graduate schooling.

This isn’t to say that I have no problem with the critics’ complaints. It’s true there are poets, both established and aspiring, who have long forgotten or never acknowledged the ways they’ve benefited from the class advantages of higher education. There are also poets for whom the esoteric concerns of academic scholars and critics have become the primary motivating force in their writing. Both types of writer have little need for or interest in a mainstream audience. These are aesthetes writing for aesthetes. There isn’t any sin in this, but it does contribute to the perception that poetry is out of touch with the wider culture. Still, one of the reasons I’m not naming names here is that for every staid or esoteric poem, for every too-big-to-fail poet I might offer as an example in support of these observations, I can offer another that counters them. The fact is, there’s simply too much poetry out there coming from too many sources to make for believable generalizations about the art, and the trouble with recent attacks on poetry is that they’re based on too few examples without credible knowledge of the vast numbers of alternatives.

Beyond this, when critics call for a more relevant brand of poetry, their impulses might be well-meaning, but to believe that poetry should trump Facebook, cable, the movies, music, the news, Twitter, and the fact that more than a billion people now carry the entire Internet around in their pants is a weirdly capitalist ambition. It’s a desire for the elevation of one mode of expression over all those others, and I’m not sure why these critics believe that desire should matter more than somebody else’s need for something else. The thing that’s more troubling is that their nostalgia is for a time when self-expression was available to too few, when education and publication were far more limited than they are today. The times and places poetry mattered in the way its critic-defenders mean were those in which freedom of expression wasn’t the default for all.

In other places where this continues to be the case, poetry does have a truly existential value. Poets are being executed in Iran and jailed in China. Their voices matter because there are so few of them in those countries and because they are willing to say things that nobody else is willing or able to say. Meanwhile, in this country where terrible injustices and inequities continue to persist, poetry is only one of many ways to confront them. Poems of witness and protest are being written, and they are being published, and they can be extraordinarily powerful. If they seem more difficult to find than they might have been at a moment in the past, it isn’t because they don’t exist. It’s because they’re part of a much larger cultural machine in this country founded on freedoms of speech. In such context, it doesn’t seem to me that poetry has suddenly stopped mattering. It’s that a whole lot of other modes of expression matter too.

-- excerpted from Jaswinder Bolina, "The Writing Class;" read full essay at Harriet

Monday, July 21, 2014

"New movements in literature are those which copy the last century but one."


New movements in literature are those which copy the last century but one. If they copy the last century, they are old-fashioned; but if it is quite clear that they are much more than a hundred years old, they are entirely fresh and original. It is true that there are certain literary men, claiming to inaugurate literary movements, who try to avoid the difficulty by various methods; as by writing their poetry upside down, or using words that consist entirely of consonants; or publishing a book of entirely blank pages, with a few asterisks in the middle to show that there is a break in the narrative. These or similar scribes are conjectured to be trying to copy the literature of the next century. They may freely be left for that century — to forget. Moreover, parallel perversities, if not exactly the same ones, are also to be found scattered through the centuries of the past. Of such a kind, for instance, were the Renaissance games or sports which consisted of shortening or lengthening the lines of poetry, so as to make the whole poem a particular shape, such as the shape of a heart or a cross or an eagle. Anyhow, if we eliminate a few such eccentric experimentalists, who think they anticipate the intelligence of the future by being unintelligible in the present, the general rule about change and rejuvenation in literature is much as I have stated it. It is essential for the pioneer and prophet, not so much to go forward very far, as to go back far enough. The general rule is to skip a century, as some hereditary features are said to skip a generation.

G.K. Chesterton, ca. 1936; via Berfrois, where you can read more

Monday, July 14, 2014

On sentimentality













Philip Larkin once said he didn't understand the word "sentimentality," figuring that Dylan Thomas's definition of alcoholic—"a man you don't like who drinks as much as you do"—worked as well for "sentimental:" "someone you don't like who feels as much as you do."

Sentimentality, whatever it is, is not popular in contemporary American poetry.  I suppose that poems that are sentimental fall into the category, roughly, of poetry that has palpable designs upon us (though who was more sentimental than Keats, whom I've paraphrased?).  Or maybe it has to do with the endless quotidian work of demolishing, or at least distrusting, subjectivity.

Anyway, there was even recently a Pleiades symposium, led by Joy Katz, on "sentimentality" (PDF of the forum here); and the subject, pardon the pun, comes up again in a review of Matthew Olzmann's book Mezzanines at The Margins.  So... a few bits from my commonplace book.

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- from Oscar Wilde,"The Critic as Artist":
the real artist is he who proceeds, not from feeling to form, but from form to thought and passion. He does not first conceive an idea, and then say to himself, 'I will put my idea into a complex metre of fourteen lines,' but, realising the beauty of the sonnet-scheme, he conceives certain modes of music and methods of rhyme, and the mere form suggests what is to fill it and make it intellectually and emotionally complete. From time to time the world cries out against some charming artistic poet, because, to use its hackneyed and silly phrase, he has 'nothing to say.' But if he had something to say, he would probably say it, and the result would be tedious. It is just because he has no new message, that he can do beautiful work. He gains his inspiration from form, and from form purely, as an artist should. A real passion would ruin him. Whatever actually occurs is spoiled for art. All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.

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Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people's ideas of concrete objects in the world (click link for details).

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Because of the growth of entropy, we have a very different epistemic access to the past than to the future. In retrodicting the past, we have recourse to “memories” and “records,” which we can take as mostly-reliable indicators of events that actually happened. But when it comes to the future, the best we can do is extrapolate, without nearly the reliability that we have in reconstructing the past... -- via 3 Quarks Daily

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Even for the one — before all for the one — for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, this encounter has to begin with the darkness of the self-evident, [that which] makes every encounter with a stranger strange.: “Camarado, this is no book, who touches this, touches a human.”

Only from this touch — which is not a “making contact” — comes the way to intimacy. Aisthesis is not enough here, man is more than his sensorium. It is a question of conversation, as it is a question of language: (noesis does not suffice; it is a question of the angle of inclination under which one came together; it is a question of fate, as is the case with every real encounter, of the Here and Now, this place and this hour. -- Paul Celan, via Pierre Joris

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Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian and post-Victorian writing was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake. -- Richard Hugo

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Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. -- G. K. Chesterton

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I
t is therefore plain that the culture of transgression achieves nothing save the loss that it revels in: the loss of beauty as a value and a goal. But why is beauty a value? It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict. Maybe the degeneration of beauty into kitsch comes precisely from the postmodern loss of truthfulness, and with it the loss of moral direction. That is the message of such early modernists as Eliot, Barber, and Stevens, and it is a message that we need to listen to.

To mount a full riposte to the habit of desecration, we need to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized. This is no easy task. If we look at the true apostles of beauty in our time—I think of composers like Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen, of poets like Derek Walcott and Charles Tomlinson, of prose writers like Italo Calvino and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—we are immediately struck by the immense hard work, the studious isolation, and the attention to detail that characterizes their craft. In art, beauty has to be won, but the work becomes harder as the sheer noise of desecration—amplified now by the Internet—drowns out the quiet voices murmuring in the heart of things.

One response is to look for beauty in its other and more everyday forms—the beauty of settled streets and cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial landscapes. It is possible to throw dirt on these things, too, and it is the mark of a second-rate artist to take such a path to our attention—the via negativa of desecration. But it is also possible to return to ordinary things in the spirit of Wallace Stevens and Samuel Barber—to show that we are at home with them and that they magnify and vindicate our life. Such is the overgrown path that the early modernists once cleared for us—the via positiva of beauty. There is no reason yet to think that we must abandon it. -- Roger Scruton on "Beauty"

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And here's Kevin Prufer on "Sentimentality & Complexity."

"Instead of offering a surplus of inappropriate emotion, it seems to me that sentimental literature often reduces strong emotion to a single channel.... And it was here that it occurred to me—not for the first time!—that the way we teach poetry in our schools—the way I was taught poetry in high school!—is deeply fucked up. I remember learning that a poem was like a puzzle. If I could just sort out what each element in the poem symbolized—the window, the fly, the keepsakes, the light—then I could put them together and voila! solve the poem! Or, put another way, I’d been taught to think of poetry as a kind of coded language, a medium in which writers resisted communicating with readers. Poetry, I’d learned, is a kind of really hard crossword puzzle, but with a meaning at the end."

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FINE PRINT RE ASISTHESIS (Via Preceptaustin):

Cf. Philippians 1:9 in the New Testament:

kai touto proseuchomai, hina e agape humon eti mallon kai mallon perisseue en epignosei kai pase aisthesei
(And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment
) aisthesis from aisthánomai = to apprehend by the senses, to perceive and in NT speaks primarily of spiritual perception; our English = aesthetic; the root verb is aio = to perceive) refers to the capacity to understand referring not so much to an intellectual acuteness but to a moral sensitiveness. It thus speaks of moral perception, insight, and the practical application of knowledge--the deep knowledge Paul had already mentioned. Aisthesis therefore is more of an immediate knowledge than that arrived at by reasoning. It describes the capacity to perceive clearly and hence to understand the real nature of something. It is the capacity to discern and therefore understand what is not readily comprehensible. It refers to a moral action of recognizing distinctions and making a decision about behavior.

It is interesting to note that the meaning of aisthesis is almost the opposite of the English word “aesthetic” which is derived from the Greek word. Aesthetic speaks of one who is appreciative of, responsive to, or zealous about the beautiful. It has largely to do with personal taste and preference. Paul calls believers to put aside personal tastes and preferences and to focus instead on achieving mature insight and understanding.

The English dictionary states that discernment is the power to see what is not evident to the average mind and stresses accuracy as in reading character or motives.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Not On My Shelves!


The idea that somehow poets, and publishers, are failing the public at this time, in not delivering the goods, is a pernicious error that some poets (those especially who neither understand or engage in, business, much) are trying to spread, because it relieves them of having to face the wider horror of an abysmal culture barely poetry literate.

Instead, small presses... have gone out of [their] way to make books beautiful to hold, read, and share - by excellent poets - accessible and/or innovative - writing on subjects of great current interest - the economy, ecology, desire, love, sex, politics, humour, time, life, faith, science - that could hardly be of a wider range.  The books are priced the same or less as novels of the same standard, and can be found in local shops and online, easily.  They get reviews so people can hear about them and there are also plenty of readings, tweets, posts and status updates, to get the news out and about.  There is no stone or bulletin left unturned. 

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... let me remind you, the reader, of one thing: every time you don't make a poetry purchase, that poetry press lacks a sale.  And, sooner, or later, without funding or patronage, presses that don't sell a lot of books have to close.

Simple as that.  Salt cut its brilliant poetry list to the bone, not because the publisher hates poetry (he loves it) but because it ceased to make business sense.

Poets tend to forget that most small press publishers risk savings, and marriages or partnerships, to work for years on end, often unpaid, for very little in return. The least they should expect is that people who read, and enjoy, and appreciate poetry, should stump up and keep buying their books.

Not buying poetry books - and there are a million good reasons, but only give them to me if you are unemployed and never buy alcohol, tobacco, or food in restaurants - is like saying you love the environment, but never recycle.  It's like wanting a democracy, and not voting.

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There is a kind of NOMS - Not On My Shelves - idea - that it's a nice idea that other people buy books, just not me.  Of course it will always mean a sacrifice, and one can't buy all the poetry books, but - and only if - if one actually wants a small press to survive, wishes won't be enough.  You need to support them, by buying books.

-- Todd Swift, Eyewear blog, Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Pejorocracy

"Poetry and fiction have grieved for a century now over the loss of some vitality which they think they see in a past from which we are by now irrevocably alienated."
-- Guy Davenport in the Georgia Review ca. 1974, in his essay, "The Symbol of the Archaic;" he discusses the "pejorocracy" and much more. You can read it here.


Pictured: The narrow passage that leads to Petra.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

On hierarchies of purity


Historically, there are hierarchies of purity. Certain aspects of poetry are very, very pure. The lyric poem can’t be anything but the lyric poem. If you want to do what Sylvia Plath is doing, you cannot get discursive, you can’t get philosophical. You’re caught and wriggling on the psychological pin in the way that she was, basically. And that’s the experience of the poem. Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is essayistic and discursive. A lot of Ashbery’s gestures are a part of the world of lyric poetry. But a lot of them are part of the world of the essay. He used to write art criticism, and so was steeped in prose. The barriers between genres were low for him. The barrier, on the other hand, between the short story and everything else is high, very high. The short story is protected, enclosed in its garden: what Lorrie Moore writes, what Alice Munro writes. But Ashbery wrote a book called Three Poems comprising three long pieces of prose that are extremely essayistic in the way they think and move. They don’t resolve, they don’t get anywhere, but they’re like essays.

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Phenomena are always determined by history. You abstract certain qualities and say that they define a genre. A long, discursive Ashbery poem is nothing like an essay by George Orwell, which has an intention. The intention of an essay by George Orwell, like “Such, Such Were the Joys,” is to change society by making us aware of class differences and their harmful consequences. And a long, discursive Ashbery poem has little in common with that. But it has a lot in common with an essay by Montaigne, because Montaigne is inviting you into his mind, and the movements of his mind…rather than the content of his judgment. So you can’t say, “Well, the essay is this and the poem is that.” You can’t make credible hard-and-fast characterizations, especially now, when there’s so much intermingling.

-- Vijay Seshadri, at The Believer Logger

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Scandalized


I’m not, in all the foregoing, attempting either to defend or critique what conceptual poets are up to. I just don’t see why people can get so aggravated about what these poets do. Is the spectrum of contemporary poetry not broad enough to accommodate their work? If not, why not? A century ago, people were scandalized by Prufrock, The Rite of Spring, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and countless other modernist works. Are people today really so shocked or annoyed by conceptual poetry? If so, these poets are onto something. If not, then we haven’t learned from our own literary history; and worse, have arguably become inured to that which is truly shocking: the things that go on in this world. Though not without its foibles like all else in poetry, conceptual work is a legitimate and probably inevitable response to “lyric narcissicm,” text-fettered writing, dullness, complacency, boredom, and much else besides. If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.
Read the rest here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Translation is outdated"



Translation is the ultimate humanist gesture. Polite and reasonable, it is an overly cautious bridge builder. Always asking for permission, it begs understanding and friendship. It is optimistic yet provisional, pinning all hopes on a harmonious outcome. In the end, it always fails, for the discourse it sets forth is inevitably off-register; translation is an approximation of discourse.

Displacement is rude and insistent, an unwashed party crasher — uninvited and poorly behaved — refuses to leave. Displacement revels in disjunction, imposing its meaning, agenda, and mores on whatever situation it encounters. Not wishing to placate, it is uncompromising, knowing full well that through stubborn insistence, it will ultimately prevail. Displacement has all the time in the world. Beyond morals, self-appointed, and taking possession because it must, displacement acts simply — and simply acts.

Globalization engenders displacement. People are displaced, objects are displaced, language is displaced. In a global circulatory system, components are interchangeable; there is no time — and certainly not enough energy — for understanding. Instead, there is begrudging acceptance and a blinkered lack of understanding, ultimately yielding to resignation. Nobody seems to notice anymore. Translation is outdated. 

-- Kenneth Goldsmith, The European, May 5, 2014

Friday, April 4, 2014

A mass of badinage


I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable.

-- Walt Whitman, ca. 1870