Monday, November 23, 2009
What is American poetry?
The only definition of American poetry that will stick is that it's poetry by Americans.
All this baloney about the supposedly new, improved, more interesting National Book Awards has sent me back to my basement hole to read books and not hype (most good books don't win any prizes), listen to music, and tune it all out. Lo and behold (as Dylan sang)... there are other art forms that do not require ideological posturing to advance, and in which the heterogenous is welcome and fruitful. Thank goodness for the cornucopia, say, of American music. The late music writer and musician, Robert Palmer - no, not the 80s rock star guy, but the legendary Memphian, and now subject of an incredible film, The Hand of Fatima - wrote the following (in 1975) about American music and "the big picture." My inclination is to find in it analogous ways of thinking about Am PO:
... the conversation naturally turned to what it is that makes American music ... American. [Michael Tilson] Thomas suggested that "we have a musical culture forming now in this country which is made up like our social culture, of all these different elements." Then he thought some more and added, "And there's this interesting sense of non-proprietariness." American music is nonproprietary ... in that American composers (and performers) innovate and then move on. They don't, as Thomas remarked, "ask themselves how much more mileage they can get" out of their creations.
Nonproprietary, imagine that! Here's something Sun Ra once told Palmer:
"People have tried to build a better world, but they've failed because they don't have a blueprint. You can't tear something down you know, unless you've got something better... I'm not doing this on faith or on what I think. I'm not even dealing with intellect. You have to have this intuitive plan. The whole thing is a wilderness and you've got to have some pioneers to go out there and discover and achieve."
These quotations come from a swell new sampler of Palmer's music writing, Blues & Chaos, which contains the following, so resonant with my Mid-South sense of American music, writing, art - and everything:
"Blues and trouble, that's the cliche. The reality is: blues and chaos. Blues is supposed to be - what? - nurtured by trouble? So is most art that reaches deep inside and demands unflinching honesty. Is blues about trouble? No more than it is about good-time Saturday nights and murder most foul [wow, an allusion to Shakespeare!], sharecroppers' servitude, and sweet home Chicago. Is blues a cause of trouble? Not directly. But what sort of thing almost inevitably causes trouble in our oppressively regimented world? You guessed it: chaos."
Chaos and a bit of an intuitive plan. No pigeonholes. No name-calling. No choosing sides, because art is not one-sided.