Monday, April 29, 2013

"You don’t look contemporary to me….."

If you have a programmatic critical reading of what’s happening now, that defines itself by virtue of your agenda to promote a certain kind of writing over other kinds, then I’d say you have a critical problem that you’re not dealing with.  But this is less of a problem for the maker than for the critic (the poet is partisan; the critic can look at the entire field with one disgust).  The bigger knot is that there’s never a disinterested party at the party of the present.  Critics, too, have an interest in promoting one work over another, as being worthy of attention, however different their investment.   I think Goldsmith and Archambeau would acknowledge that.  But we can’t wrestle this gator without grappling with the fact that poets do most of the writing about poetry.  The buyer is the seller.  Only Agamben, the philosopher, doesn’t get muddy in the market; particulars are the mud, and there’s no making without it. [...]

Another problem is that everyone writing seriously thinks he or she is contemporary, in many of the ways that Agamben suggests. Because Agamben doesn’t really deal with individual artists, or works, but with aesthetics.  –"Hey everyone who’s making art, whoever doesn’t think he’s contemporary, raise your hand…. What, no one? Come on, not everyone here is contemporary, I gotta see some hands….  Hey, how about you!  Or you!  You don’t look contemporary to me….." etc. etc.   This is nothing but a farce in the arena of literary history & critical discernment.   Dostoevysky or Tolstoy?  Beatles or Stones?  Whitman or Dickinson?  Frost or Pound?  Bishop or Lowell?  Twombly or Warhol?  Goldsmith or Glück or Hejinian or Bidart or Seidel or…..? (I can only have one?  I’m not on a diet…)   Who gets to decide?  Of course, we all do, we duke it out, and the struggle keeps changing with time, as various arguments and advocacies gain momentum, run their course, and dissipate, or continue.  The maker has one ideology, let’s say, but her readers are legion.   (I want to sell my books, but if they were the only books I had to read, I’d stay at the movies….)  The contemporary now is what readers of the future decide contemporary was back when we were living it.  It’s never not historical.  Because reading is always historical; only writing can be contemporary.  What you’re writing right now; others will have to let you know.  Eliot’s most salient point in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is that the authentically contemporary changes how we read the past.  But we’re all historians of the present.   The most pernicious fiction about poetry is that of mutual exclusivity.   The vicissitudes of time make a mockery of our theses.  Or to quote Stein on Picasso, “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches.”  The question for me is always, what’s at stake in making definitive choices?

Joshua Weiner