Monday, November 8, 2010
ANY ARTIST WHO IS NOT SELF-INDULGENT BETRAYS ART and other foibles
I had lunch last Thursday with Ilya Kaminsky (about whom some exciting news is soon to follow!), along with the PF's amazing Archive Editor, Jim Sitar. I don't normally blog about my lunches, there being an inexhaustible literature on the subject of lunch poetry - but our conversation has led me to the strands of thought in this blogpost, so here I am typing this over breakfast.
Among the many things we energetically discussed (imagine two crazy and hearing-impaired Russians face to face for the first time - OK, 2nd, but first for a conversation - in a noisy restaurant!) was the way in which people read poetry: do we read poems or poets? (Poor Jim has sat through many iterations of every ridiculous idea I have about poetry, and he was, as always, very polite about enduring my lengthy blather on the subject - this while simultaneously contemplating a Japanese spinach salad that looked a little like an asphalted, tattooed cupcake. To him my gratitude and apologies!) Well, as this is just a blog, I can unpack a few thoughts on the subject without pressing, ironing, and hanging them up in any formal sense: it seems to me that when poetry is taught to people - or packaged and sold to them - they do read on the level of the poem. Most people, if they read poetry at all, simply want to know: which poems should I read? The thinking is something like this: "I don't want to read everything John Ashbery [or fill in the blank] wrote - what writings by this poet do I need to know - if any?"
This is survey-course mentality, greatest-hits mode, it's hitting the anthology highway. I imagine that what happens is not so much that there's some kind of kitschy-wrong canon to be promulgated (there's an old hat if there ever was one), but that people want to cut to the chase. Where's the shortcut, what can I click on, what's the takeaway? (The mode of this post, by the way, is shitty metaphor and cliche.) Ashbery's a good test case here: the presumption is that his numerous poems are somehow interchangeable, so you can form an opinion on the basis of a mere sampling: "The one I saw in the New Yorker the other day sucked/was great," etc. This is quite untrue, of course - each of his books reads completely differently... but you'd have to read Ashbery book by book to notice that. But Ashbery is, among many other wonderful things, a red herring, so try substituting any poet you wish and report back to me. Why, the putative reader seems to ask, do I have to be bothered with everything a poet published? Just tell me the good stuff. Tell me if poet X is worth my time. And it's as if the good stuff comes without, or doesn't come within the context of the bad. To complicate things: even though we routinely and conversationally say that a poet or poem is good or bad, we simultaneously pretend du jour that no such judgment is objectively possible. There's no such a thing as greatness, let alone goodness; who are we to judge? Yet let's bring up - as I did during our lunch - Edward Dorn. Ah, then you get something going on the subject of goodness and badness.
I object in principle to poetry a la carte, as you can tell, and find it no trouble whatsoever to read as much of a poet's work as I can lay my eyes upon. In an age when everybody on the bus lugs around the latest Harry Potter book, or more literary types their Roberto Bolaños, you can't tell me people don't have time for or don't need, say, big honking books like the Library of America Ashbery or Frost or Pound or Crane; or the many differing texts of Marianne Moore's work, or all of Larry Eigner (unluggable, to be sure), or Ron Silliman's The Alphabet. But more to the point: how will I know what to think of a poem, let alone a poet, without the experience of having to read enough - maybe more than enough! - to know something?
(I haven't even mentioned rereading! I often try to reread poets whose work I've resisted, paying even more attention to them, in some ways, than to those I already know I care for. John Cage famously used to quote the Zen koan: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it's not boring at all but very interesting.")
Ilya, I think, was not quite persuaded; he's a poem person, and not a poet person!
Your own mileage, as we used to say, may vary...
When poets meet, they often ask each other the lovely question: what poet are you excited about just now? I'm excited about Geoffrey Hill's new book, Oraclau/Oracles, the new Pound selected, and The Capricious Critic, by Ari Martin Samsky - yet I mentioned to Ilya instead that I've been pretty absorbed in Dorn lately, heaven knows why. Probably just that I picked up a few old books of his in a used bookstore - among them, a signed copy of Yellow Lola that only cost a few dollars. So: not the Dorn of Way More West - but the Dorn of the older Collected Poems and Selected Poems. Dorn is certainly a poet who inspires heated debate, something I learned vividly back when Harriet had comments (re Aram Saroyan's "The Hero and the Gunslinger"). Silliman explores much of this interestingly here - in a blog post that's especially significant, I suppose, because it's cited in Dorn's Wikipedia entry. Ron writes that "the real question" is whether "Dorn is as good or significant a poet as the Black Mountain acolyte gone bad of received wisdom." Ron discusses Dorn in light of the way he has recently been represented in Way More West; he concludes that "there is no more tragic tale than that of Edward Dorn, who got political only to be revealed as incoherent. Way More West is an important book, precisely because it is such a sad & ultimately disappointing one." My own experience was to have been disappointed in WMW not so much for the politics, but as a reading experience - not because it's a bad or un-useful book, but because I find the way-earlier Collected Poems so exhilarating. It's not that Dorn's politics and prejudices don't matter - they sure do, and Ron shows why; but one can, one must in this case, exercise a bit of negative capability. And what I get from Dorn's work at its (dare I say) best is an angry response to and rejection of the movieland, picture-postcard mythology indelibly associated with the places of the American West. He finds poverty, fly-specked bars, vast spaces that must be crossed in shitty old automobiles by people searching for work - and, needless to say, much, much more. In the current political environment, I should think Dorn's reality-check West would be of great contemporary interest. And I'm not defending the man who, for example, Jane Dark referred to as "that prick Dorn;" I am humanly incapable of ignoring the things Dorn wrote or said about AIDS just as I never forget what Pound said about Jews. I am, however, trying to read him. That's the only way I can make up my mind about him, and maybe learn something. I might even learn about hatred and bigotry; if that's something I've learned already, it doesn't hurt to learn it some more. But I also find some terrific poems, some certain peaks among the low and desolating waste places. And now I direct readers to this constructive (and sorrowful) exchange between CA Conrad and Dale Smith on the matter; in fact, if you stayed with me this far, you MUST read it.
What the foregoing inadequately documents is a struggle with what we call, these days, subjectivity. I'm also reading Marjorie Perloff's new book, Unoriginal Genius, a book about "what can be done with other people's words." I suppose one way to dispense with the kind of all-too-human bigotry you might find in a poet's work or life is to reject utterly the lyrical interference of the ego - a project that's been with us for quite a long time now (that italicized phrase is from Marinetti's 1912 Futurist manifesto, notwithstanding Marinetti's own conspicuously dire views and ego.) Perloff documents the evolution of an ego-mitigating citational poetics from Walter Benjamin's Arcades project and The Waste Land onward. It's an excellent book (I'd only quibble that she refers to the "venerable Poetry Foundation of America" when the org is simply called the Poetry Foundation, and it's only five years old!). Among its many virtues are a brilliantly lucid and exciting explanation of the way Benjamin organized his Arcades material; a vital history of the Brazillian concrete poets who argue for a need to recover the avant-garde by casting a critical eye upon postmodernism (because the latter employs a tactic which, as Augusto de Campos puts it, wants to "put aside swiftly the recovery of experimental art and to say all of this is finished."); and much more besides.
The concretist poets are particularly fascinating, and it's great to see them discussed and illustrated in the book; as Perloff notes, their work marks an
... important distinction between avant- and arrière-garde. The original avant-garde was committed not to recovery, but discovery, and it insisted that the aesthetic of its predecessors - say, of the poets and artists of the 1890s - was "finished." But by midcentury the situation was very different. Because the original avant-gardes had never really been absorbed into the artistic and literary mainstream, the "postmodern" demand for total rupture [with the past] was always illusory.
They wanted, as Haroldo de Campos puts it, "to free poetry from subjectivism and the expressionistic vehicle" of the dominant mode while at the same time appreciating continuity.
Keeping, in other words, baby and bathwater.
If I dispense with the subjective, then I don't have to worry about the darker side of a Dorn or a Pound. But don't I lose something thereby? I guess I'm quaintly and hopelessly attached to a notion of poetry as a system of recovery: recovery from bigotry and history, among other things - a poetry which recovers, even as it transforms, what we can piece together of the past, notably including the terrible. Many of Dorn's poems are a joy to me. Then, too, his is a scary - and possibly emblematic - story; a pure product of America, maybe he went crazy. I can learn from Dorn, and not just stuff about poetry. Today's poetics may aspire to what Jameson calls "the end of the entrepreneurial and inner-directed individualism;" but individuals are causing a whole lot of wreckage and heartbreak on this planet, and I sure want to understand more about how that works, even from the work, however deluded or fabricated, of an inner-d poet.
I'm glad not to have to advocate any "kind" of poetry. As a reader, I am thankfully free to read anything, everything I possibly can. And so it's fine with me if the much-vilified ghost of Robert Lowell still walks among us (he turns up in Perloff's book, sure nuff, though I disbelieve that he haunts poetry at all these days), and I simultaneously adore his work alongside that which employs the techniques of "appropriation, citation, copying, reproduction," to borrow Perloff's list. (I wish, by the way, that she had a chapter on Christian Bök, though she does talk about him.) As she says, these techniques have been around in the visual arts for many decades; and as somebody who reads lots and lots of poetry submissions, I certainly hold no particular brief for the kind of "original expression" in verse that, Perloff notes, "dies hard" in the realm of the written word. At the same time, we can take another lesson from the visual artists. In his first Diasporist Manifesto - itself a work of free-verse collage and appropriation - R.B. Kitaj finds it amazing to be walking around among "shadows," among those who survive and remember the tragedies of genocide; those shadows, he points out, happen to be actual people. In his second Diasporist Manifesto, he contemplates and advocates (more to the point) an art that "will comport with an idea of social justice" -
Prophetic ethical concern for social justice in a modern interiority of... painting, beyond Mondrian; picture ethics.
I like the sound of that, and wonder what the analogue in poetry might be for "picture ethics." And he says:
ANY ARTIST WHO IS NOT SELF-INDULGENT BETRAYS ART.
Not just Art with a capital A, but ART. And he adds: "Anyway, I've never met an artist who knows how to forgo self-indulgence."
The other side of self-indulgence is ethical concern; and it takes interiority and subjectivity to tell the difference.
Silence, Kitaj says, is good, too, so I'll shaddup now.
... but first, another quibble. In a chapter on Susan Howe's The Midnight, Perloff quotes Roger Stoddard's famous sign in the Emily Dickinson room at Harvard that explains why access to E.D.'s personal collection of books has been limited; the sign points out that no annotations in Dickinson's hand have been found in the books. Howe was unable to examine them. Perloff says: "She who knows that the Dickinson fascicles to indeed bear crucial marks revealing the poet's intent is not permitted to examine them." Stoddard's sign, however, explicitly and exclusively refers to the books in Dickinson's library - not the fascicles. Full disclosure: 1.) I was Roger's colleague when I was a curator at Harvard, and 2.) I don't know anything about what transpired when Howe was visiting the Houghton beyond what is reported in her book. I don't think many people get to see the fascicles, but this isn't so much the function, in my opinion, of what Perloff calls "the regime of power" as an attempt to care for the fascicles as physical objects. The Houghton carefully digitized Dickinson's Herbarium, access to which is free online; and work will be done on the fascicles, too. So though I'm not unbiased, I think that "library control" isn't quite fair in the description of this episode. Just my 2 cents, and it really doesn't detract from Perloff's ingenious and sensitive reading of Howe's wonderful book.