Monday, May 11, 2009

The poets talk only among themselves

"He writes for a coterie, the poets talk only among themselves. They live in a world of flattery and selfhood." It is my belief that it is somewhere in this messy denial of the thought of poetry that an explanation can be found for the importance of community. That poets do band together. I am demonstrably bad at the kind of communism one dreams of, yet I have repeatedly worked in and added to a community of this sort. The reason is that only in such communities is the necessary talk of this high, serious realm possible. Such communities tend to build a structure for men who wish to keep, hold, and record the passionate relation with the outside that the world, the nation, need. This is the only place where such talk goes on. That we have reached a point now here where such discourse must include the nation, our politics, the scholarship in which we tend to lay down the images of poetic thought - is obvious. This is a kind of memory theater in which the poet with his craft is after not some thing or place remembered, but present. Nothing would be more painful or more costly to the mind, and ugly in a sense that great poetry may be very ugly, than a poetry in which the present war was present, held in sight and sound and intellect. Not opinion or reflection or dialectic about the presence. Few poets have caught the terror, which is the other side of the world. -- Robin Blaser, 1967

In Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie, Lytle Shaw’s ostensive subject is how “coterie” works in the poetry and poetics of Frank O’Hara. The opening chapters provide a cogent discussion of the role of proper names in O’Hara’s poetry within the context of a linguistics-inflected examination of naming and reference. Shaw notes the different levels of proper naming in O’Hara’s work – figures of popular culture, political and social figures, as well as different levels of his personal circle (from identifiable artists and poets to obscure names).

For Shaw, coterie is not a closed world of intimates but an interlocking, open-ended set of associations and affiliations. He links coterie to the socio-historically self-conscious poetics of the local, community, and other collective formations. The poetics of coterie is presented by Shaw as an alternative to universalizing conceptions of poetry. O’Hara’s location of himself not in an homogenous elite but rather in intersecting constellations of persons (real and imagined affiliations), together with his famous time-stamping of his poems (it’s 12:18 in New York as I rewrite this sentence) both work against the Romantic Ideology of timeless poems by great individuals.

Still, no discussion of coterie can completely free itself from the negative connotations of clique and scene. For best effect, the first chapters of Shaw’s book should be read beside Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry. Epstein offers exemplary Emersonian readings of the intricate web connecting individual talent and collective investment in the poetry and poetics of John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, and O’Hara. Averting the Cold War myth of the individual voice in the wilderness of conformity, Epstein gives us voices in conversation and conflict, suggesting that resistance to agreement is at the heart of a pragmatist understanding of literary community. -- Charles Bernstein, "Is Art Criticism Fifty Years Behind Poetry?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don, incidentally, did you know that Lytle Shaw thinks the hypothesis of Koch as possible author of "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island" is perfectly legitimate and tantalizing?