Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The entire book is only a "language experiment"

That's what (the words in quotation marks are his) Walt Whitman sometimes thought of his own Leaves of Grass. H.L. Mencken comments on this in his own greatly obsessive work, The American Language, saying that "As everyone knows, Whitman delighted in filling his poetry and prose with ... new words, among them, the verbs to promulge, to eclaircise, to diminute, to imperturbe, to effuse and to inure, the adjectives ostent and adamic, the adverb affetuoso, and the nouns camerado, romanza, deliveress, literatus, acceptress and partiolist." Well, I'm very interested in a thread over on Harriet that began rather innocently with some praise for a poem by Larissa Szporluk. I don't have any particular dog in that fight, but I do wonder why such gusto as is shown by Whitman's experimentation - which boldly risked a kind of failure masked by LoG's now-canonical status (and this despite enormous textual questions!) - isn't seen as (to use Mencken's apt word) a delight, rather than a burden or lab result. As W.C.W. put it - if it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem... but what's your pleasure?? That's the rub...

By the way, Mencken was a decent poetry reviewer in addition to everything else: check out what he says about Ezra Pound in his Smart Set reviews! He presciently told EP in November 1936--"You made your great mistake when you abandoned the poetry business, and set up shop as a wizard in general practice."

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Speaking of Harriet, I posted a quote there on Linh Dinh's "Are You a Poet" thread that I've been mulling over for ages, and feel like reproducing it right here, as well.

"... no society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types. This necessary classification is the basis for all social discrimination, and discrimination, present opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, is no less a constituent element of the social realm than equality is a constituent element of the political. The point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is - as distinct from the question of who he is - which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless."

- Hannah Arendt, forty years ago (in The New Yorker, of all places!) - reprinted as the introduction to Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

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Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure -- i.e., that he is difficult, i.e., that he is neglected -- they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry. But most of the time neither is a cause... It is superficial to extract two parts from this world-high whole, and to say of them: 'This one, here, is the cause of that one, there; and that's all there is to it.'

If we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help. Matthew Arnold said, with plaintive respect, that there was hardly a sentence in Lear that he hadn't needed to read two or three times...

Randall Jarrell, "The Obscurity of the Modern Poet"

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Also brewing: poets on politics, love, and war. Or not.

2 comments:

the unreliable narrator said...

Funny, because *both* threads on Harriet--the one concerning allegedly hermetic poetry, and the one alleging poets' "liberalism"--have put me in mind of the very same Jerome McGann essay:

http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/mcgann.html

Hollander's poem imagines what it knows (or thinks it knows) about poetry and society alike. Such an imagination, however, can mount no effective resistance against its own terrible revelations: vacancy in luxurious words, dismemberment in the way we live now. It is all mirror and meditation, a story and a set of reflections on the story. In this respect the contrast with writers like Bernstein and Silliman is striking and unmistakable. In them antinarrative and nonnarrative continually work against and move beyond the enchantments of what has been given and what is taken to be "real." They are the inheritors of Blake's early attempts to dismantle those prisons of imaginary beauties: social and personal life in its cruel apparitions, and art as what reflects upon such things.

McGann has his shiny pomo axe to grind, bien sûr; but with what panache and erudition is it ground. (Yet Hill does just as well with his single nonpartisan sentence.)

Or there's this from Brodsky: "Self-criticism…is what imparts to his voice in this poem its lyrical poise. If you think there are other recipes for successful poetic operation, you are in for oblivion."

Au fond, I find myself just as contented with strenuous writing whether it has been birthed from one supposed ideological standpoint or the other; and I reckon I'm grateful we don't live in a world where we'd be forced to choose between Wordsworth and Blake. (Though I'd probably take Blake. But would he even be meaningful without Wordsworth?)

Infinite cheers for polyvalence!

the unreliable narrator said...

And PS further: What about that staid accommodating/neocon poet John Milton, ferchrissake?! Tedious inventor of difficult and impenetrable conceptual neologisms, he:

http://www.christs.cam.ac.uk/milton400/matters.htm#language