Monday, November 23, 2009

What is American poetry?



The only definition of American poetry that will stick is that it's poetry by Americans.

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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."

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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.

2 comments:

Joseph Hutchison said...

"there are other art forms that do not require ideological posturing to advance, and in which the heterogenous is welcome and fruitful"

A recent Bill Knott post, expanding on some ideas expressed in a Bookslut interview with Adam Travis back in 2005, writes:

"we USAs are bound, constrained to cultivate our own little specialties, to po-hoe our separate plots, each scratched-at piss-patch. What sign appears on every US-Po book? “NO TRESPASSING.” Or to use another metaphor, you buy a six-pack of Coke you don’t want the 4th can to contain Pepsi, you buy a Charles Wright you don’t want to find on page 24 an Olds-type attempt. Buy a Graham, you get Graham, not Levine. Brand names, all of which are carefully quality-controlled by market forces. But somehow the grass is greener in England. They do it better, it seems to me. There the poets aren't locked into straitjacket trademark styles and roles. Think of poor Louise Gluck: imagine her even adumbrating some of Duffy’s different modes. Gluck is stuck. All us USApos are."

Maybe it's the difference between living in an active empire instead of one that's moribund: we are hostages to our various ideologies...

mgushuedc said...

I couldn't agree more--and excellently done, though there is sniping in the--for lack of a better word--modern classical subgroup of music, where the ideological molasses as flows thick and dark as in our own arena.

But even there it doesn't see so riven, I guess.

Generally, I'm with Duke Ellington on this and all the arts: If it sounds good, it is good.