Tuesday, May 22, 2012

We Live in a Hell of Opinions

When I first read Robert Lowell, I had never heard of Robert Lowell, I mean the public figure, the Lowell of Mailer's Armies of Night, the Lowell of controversy who went to jail as a C.O., the Lowell that some reviewers and academic critics love to hate, the Lowell that eludes many younger poets because all they know about him is that he's that anti-Ashbery, the anti-O'Hara, the anti-identity-politics poet who lived on a trust fund.  All of these images are both right and wrong, they are both in focus and out, they elide issues that shouldn't be elided, though it's no crime if they are - issues of aesthetics, of audience, of what the writer owes himself and what he owes to his reader (not much! these days).  But these issues are elided because it takes too much time spent reading to form a judgment, as opposed to an opinion.  As Lowell's friend and sometimes amanuensis, Frank Bidart, once said, "We live in a hell of opinions."  A recent example would be the dustup between Helen Vendler and Rita Dove about Dove's anthology - a moment of uncertainty, of anxiety, of outrage and accusation, of justified outrage, of self-justifiying accusations both on and off the mark, of a charge of racism and elitism against a charge of slackness, or permission versus rigor, of not knowing what to think and feel, or knowing fiercely what to think and feel, in a world of art where Warhol's dictum morphed from "everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes" to Momus's "everyone will be famous for fifteen people" to my not-quite synthesis, everyone will have fifteen fans for fifteen minutes.

And for about fifteen minutes, the controversy felt like what I imagine the pre-Warhol days must have felt like, but undoubtedly didn't... everything sliding this way and that, but the frame still in place - the frame of cultural significance, literary significance, whatever the publisher's notion about selling textbooks.  But do we need a canon to enshrine Lowell, or any poet?  Do we need commentators arguing about the canon?  Is a canon anything but a mirage rearing up from a desert of argument?  Or is it simply a convenience, a faster and easier way to have an opinion? [...]  Does [Robert Lowell] need to be Lowell-ized?  Does he need to be Ashbery-ized or O'Hara-ized or Gwendolyn Brooks-ized to make him palatable to readers who like to think that the structures of consciousness and the structures of art are one and the same?  Because Lowell is already O'Hara-like: if you look at the intimate history that both Lowell and O'Hara lived out in their poems, if you look at the odd Ashbery-like displacements of language that Lowell came to in his sonnet period and in Day by Day, his last great book, the camp mentality evaporates, and Lowell and the New York School, as it's still called (why? - because they happened to live in New York? - for that matter, so did Lowell), lose their antagonistic appeal.  And if you read Near the Ocean, he and Brooks have linked arms, regardless of what either one's detractors say or what they themselves might have said.

But that's why Lowell is so powerful in my imagination: he kept the boundaries between life and art messy.

-- Tom Sleigh, from a fascinating AGNI portfolio, "The Lowell Trail," in issue 75

Pictured: A Hell of opinions

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