Thursday, July 15, 2010


American poetry folks can get pretty darn angry: at rejection, at neglect of their work, at each other, at differences in taste, and/or (which may be the same thing) "poetics." All I have to do is mention the old Harriet, and you'll get what I mean. Is this good (poets care!) or bad (they're tantrum-throwers & mudslingers)?

Keith Farnish, in an essay online at Guernica (originally at Chelsea Green) called "Anger Is Good" lucidly points out that "What makes us angry is when the things we value are threatened. This is human nature: it is survival, and without this response we are little more than machines." (I realize that some poets will bridle at the dismissal of machines here, but you get what he means.)

Here's how anger shakes out for him:

Destructive Anger doesn’t achieve anything useful, and can sometimes make things worse than they already are. Interestingly, this means that the vast majority of protest marches, rallies and other symbolic events, if fuelled by anger, are destructive. Constructive Anger, on the other hand, does achieve something useful—even if it may not be exactly what was originally intended.

Of course, you'd have to define "useful," and who'd agree about that? But the distinction he makes is worth thinking about, especially the part about making things "worse than they already are." For this reason, I'm not sure why he says: "When quotes like Seneca’s 'The best cure for anger is delay" ... are seen as a way of reasoning against one of our most powerful instinctive urges, then we clearly have lost sense of what it means to be human." That Seneca quote is considerably more nuanced and mordant than Farnish seems to credit. Anyway, he's really trying to get people to rethink the idea that anger is bad, that we need self-help books to help us get over it, because

angry people understand that there is a better way to live. The angry people are different: they have the potential to change things because they do not meekly accept the circumstances that civilization has forced upon them.

I'd wish for more subtlety, much as I believe this. Just because people don't find ways to change things doesn't mean they "meekly accept" the circumstances that are - as he acknowledges himself - "forced upon them." There are people who are quite powerless; and so others may be obliged to help them, or at least to speak for them. By the same token, however, there can be hubris and arrogance in presuming to speak for somebody else, in judging them to be weak.

As it happens, another piece about anger appeared recently in The New Republic - Ruth Franklin's "You Wouldn't Like Her Angry." How "unusual it is for poets, and women poets in particular," she writes, "to express anger."

To the extent that such things can be generalized about, there is a distinct style of contemporary American poetry that tends not to range dramatically in mood. For the most part it is serious, elegiac, wistful, perhaps with a sideline of dark humor. It coolly offers images and observations; it does not judge or rabble-rouse or incite revolution. This is why the work of Sylvia Plath still feels incendiary today: not only for its brilliance but because its brilliance cannot contain its fury. “I eat men like air”—when was the last time you read a line like that in The New Yorker?

Even, presumably, in Plath's day such lines were rare; and anyway, I'm not sure the New Yorker's in the revolution business (wouldn't go well with the ads), but the better question is the one about gender roles. I wish the piece had explored them more deeply (there's an excursus about Joan Rivers, instead), and not conflated being "cruel" with being angry (which is where Farnish comes in handy), but there you have it.

Anyhow, I find plenty of constructive anger in contemporary poems, which is better than finding destructive anger among poets... and so we come full circle. And yet...

Francis Bacon covered anger nicely a billion years ago; "Be angry," he says, "but sin not." You can read his essay on it here. Montaigne's essay on the subject is worth a look, too: "Saying is a different thing from doing; we are to consider the sermon apart and the preacher apart;" he distinguishes beween anger (the constructive kind) and scolding.

I don't know whether the meek will inherit the earth (let's hope the angry people make sure that planet will be in good enough shape to leave to others, no matter who they are), but perhaps there's also room for the gentle. Another quote Farnish probably wouldn't care for comes from that Bacon essay: "Whosoever is out of patience, is out of possession of his soul." As David Shapiro wrote in his own response - neither quiet, nor meek - to these articles:

when I hear an angry voice I immediately
feel guilty, as if we had gone to Tuscany and left others
'with biology textbooks--

one drop of oil and the animal dies in the arms of Blake

Pictured: The Wrath of Achilles


Anonymous said...

Angry poets - there are too many of them - and they give me a pain in the ass. Like poets in general, they tend to come off as too self-absorbed even if they are attacking the "larger" issues. I admire Daniel Berrigan's protest poetry both because he manages to avoid sounding self-righteous and has put his skin on the line in ways few of the side-line intellectualizers would. Very good that Seneca.

Shelley said...

When did we last see a line like that in The New Yorker, indeed! Thanks for asking that question.

As for my own work and its reception, I'm beyond anger over the literary establishment: I have only to drive by any hospital to remember that there are so many worse fates in life than this one.

Lemon Hound said...

“I eat men like air”—when was the last time you read a line like that in The New Yorker?

I agree, good question. When is the last time I read such a line anywhere. But this is not anger in the way we seem to understand it today, it's anger tempered by wit, a rare commodity le deux. There's something very luxurious about Plath's rage.

More wit, more humour, that's what I would wish for. I am currently in training.

I hope to be a good pupil.