Monday, October 18, 2010
It's an ill wind that blows no ill!
If you're going to be a moralist, keep in mind that the business of moralizing leads, by logical extension, to the renunciation of poetry. The brilliant queen of renunciation in poetry was Laura (Riding) Jackson. In the extrapolated version of her unfinished opus, The Failure of Poetry, there's a great and extremely provocative dismissal of Lowell. Keenly prefiguring Adam Kirsch's revaluation of R.T.S.L.'s Day by Day ("If Lowell had lived longer, "Day by Day" might now look like a modest, transitional work, a prelude rather than a conclusion. As it is, Lowell's last book stands as the last word in his achievement--but not the last word on it."), and comprehending more acutely than he does the implications of poetic preludes, she remarks, "His poetic turn-out is a flow of formalized loquacity. Each example suggests that no one doubt that there will be more, and more..." (209)
More importantly, she observes that everyone "in" poetry is in "the business of vanity," vanity in our time becoming the "norm for poetic literary performance," with "literary performance of the individual self as the universal cause." She says that this kind of performance - producing things that are "rhetorically identifiable as poems" (210) - is "a phenomenon of the dissipation of moral sensibility--in its making, and in its standing as something intellectually, literarily, and, even, spiritually notable." This is so because it means that by extension "human beings are not creatures unto themselves except by self-depravement." We use poetry, and nothing, to paraphrase her, disturbs our aplomb. She quotes Lowell on Berryman and himself: "We both used the language as if we made it." But: "No one can use the language as if he made it: what he does in treating it as his creation is to make what is a common possession an instrument of vanity." (211)
All is, as the words we've inherited us tell us, vanity...
Speaking of moralizing -
"Causistry justifies everything, but what can one do in the case when no one pays attention to a poet unless there is a scandal. Maritain observes that to refuse to use force, as of Gandhi, is to deny the fact that one has a body. The same kind of justification probably works for an editor, who prints insufficient work for the sake of all that is sufficient and is going to be so."
- Delmore Schwartz to John Berryman, May 29, 1939, from Partisan Review on deciding to print a poem of JB's that he found "vulgar" but accepted, anyway.
Pictured: Philippe Derome's "Cherry tart vanitas" 1978, oil on canvas
[Addendum-de-dum: Henry Gould responded: "Milton, Chaucer, Langland, Donne, Herbert, Spenser, Dante, the Psalmist et al. might disagree..." To which I riposted disingenuously: "There are some real renunciations in that bunch, notwithstanding which one could locate a tongue in a cheek, were one to seek it. One could also weed out the would-be moralizers/poetasters from the poets, though Riding is surely right about their hubris and fallibilty."