Monday, November 01, 2004

A Minor Distraction from the American Election

“...was it fair for me to believe that I didn’t think something was good writing even if I let myself like it?”

Maggie: I know poets who don’t really like poetry, though they love the idea of *great* poetry. I don’t think that’s what your doubts imply. After all, this blog celebrates the minor poet: we’re not eating a steady diet of Wallace Stevens here (“There are not leaves enough to crown,/To cover, to crown, to cover—let it go—”). (Then again, rereading “The United Dames of America” before a crisis election does take the top of my head off.)

To quote one trustworthy poet on this question: “But he has exactly what’s missing in ‘the poetry should be written as carefully as prose’ poets: sensibility and heart.” Quoth James Schuyler, quoted of Hart Crane, quote quoting Ezra Pound.

To be steeped in Schuyler’s letters—just published—is to find one’s own world suddenly wearing his colors; and it is a more marvelous world for being all heart, sensibility, *and* well-written. It overflows with references to books, movies, and music. It conjures a world where people want to give one another pleasure, especially verbal pleasure. It is, finally, a lost world, and one measure of how far we’ve fallen is the recent shrinkage of what’s intelligent to what’s intellectual.

“Anti-intellectual” is a word much bandied about. Even I implied, in my post on Mayer, that that she was intellectually correct by introducing Barthes, et al., to Poetry Project workshops.

But Schuyler’s letters—a window into his friendships with Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Ashbery, O’Hara, and Koch—aren’t even proto-Barthesesque. What theory was for poets in the 1970s-90s, novels, music and art was for them. They educated their sensibility (feelings + mind), not just their mind.

This sort of poetic training is, I think, being massively repressed by the post-avant critics of our generation. Is it intellectually correct, or simply emotionally arrested, to speak of New York School poets—lovers of Balanchine and Hollywood, Firbank and Pasternak—as political poets, say? By what pretzel logic does one recuperate O’Hara, let alone Schuyler, for an Adorno-steeped post-Language critical agenda? I’ll tell you where to begin, actually—begin by completely ignoring what the poets actually thought and wrote about, for example O’Hara’s essay on Dr. Zhivago. No contemporary poet who wants to be properly “intellectual” would dream of making an entire poetics from their love of Dr. Zhivago.

So let me backtrack and say it’s not the critics’ fault poets are scrambling to seem narrowly intellectual. It’s our own fault for buying into it. I have no quarrel with poets reading Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Adorno. Poets should read *everything*. I do have a quarrel with how far intelligent has become equated with intellectual, how loosely the invective anti-intellectual gets thrown around, how capital accrues around scholarship at the expense of poets’ unique perspectives. (Even Ashbery’s Other Traditions, it seems to me, got short shrift by the post-avant scene.)

So to bring this back around to your question, Maggie—which is, to paraphrase: “Can I trust my taste?” There’s something about our educations that has made us skeptical to everything, even (or especially) ourselves. (Self-interrogation, comrades!) Let’s reclaim what we have lost. Nobody else can tell us what’s good. What do we believe in? Good writing for its own sake? Heart and sensibility? Or do we judge primarily by political relevance and belief in Hegelian historical necessity (avant-garde progressivism?). This is one issue a good poet can’t afford to muddle.


Henry Gould said...

Seems like a good poet finds a way to draw on both intellect & sensibility. An artwork is not a rational discourse, but (usually) a sort of re-enactment or re-presentation of experience. So maybe there's sort of a middle ground between intellect & sense - call it "perception", for now. In poetry, perception is a free creative act in itself: the choice to dwell on or notice something & re-present it, free (for a moment) from the need to ARGUE about its moral or political valuation.

I find in poetry, & literature in general, sort of a faint & distant echo of my own (childhood?) experience of free perception. DIRECT sensuous perception, wild & free & mysterious. & I want more. I don't want proper opinions or lectures or managed identities; I want a free perception of something which I can re-experience, & about which I can come to my own conclusions.

pam said...

This is a good discussion on how we read poems and evaluate whether they’re “good” or not. I’ve sometimes worried if all the time I’ve spent in the writing community thinking and talking about works critically hasn’t “spoiled” my ability to read. Of course it hasn’t really— I can still read for the pure pleasure of reading, but this pleasure approach is now just one of many reading approaches I can choose from. I also find myself reading strategically or critically (in the sense of criticism), trying to fit the reading into some personal canon of mine or into some school of aesthetic or political or theoretical thought I’m interested in. This happens more if I’m reading pieces in a magazine or journal. If I catch myself doing it during the first reading of a book, I try to smack myself back in line.

The current emphasis on justifying the value of a work on the basis of how well it manifests certain critical or theoretical criteria—I guess I see this not only in academic discourse where it’s par for the course, but also in reviews, in the way a new book is “pitched” by the publisher, and in blurbs, natch. I think reviews are pretty influential as far as framing new books for readers. Reviews basically reflect the reading approach of the reviewer, and reviewers (especially of the kind of peer essay review that we’re used to inside the writing community rather than the judgment type of review in a newspaper) are basically proposing a reading approach to the public. To quickly counter an reading interpretation that you think has been misplaced on a book, write a review!

It’s funny that for all the analytical, intellectual qualities that they’re so well known for, the poems of the Language poets attracted me initially because they expressed certain emotions, certain emotional states, that I had never before encountered in writing. I’d encountered these emotions before in film, in painting, and of course in life, but not in literature to the same degree until the Language poets, and John Ashbery and Leslie Scalapino, among others.

On another note, I was listening to a recording of a reading Ted Berrigan did at Naropa in the 1980s, and I was so struck by the passion and vulnerability of his delivery. His voice was actually quivering at times, and the way he emphasized certain words like the “never” in “I am *never* going away...” really made me feel the high stakes of the poem, and of the poet making the poem. And yes it made me feel nostalgic, because the emotional risk and self-exposure of this kind of personism is not as in vogue nowadays though it is still here, people keep it alive...

rozydesouza said...

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