Wednesday, January 29, 2003

John Erhardt wrote another thoughtful e-mail to me which I will repost here with his permission. It begins with a quotation from an e-mail I sent him: "One question I didn't address in my post is why you spent so much time reading Palmer if you found him so unrewarding. Was it just the sense that other people like him and he just has to be good? Or was there something there that provoked you into further investigation until you became satisfied that there was nothing going on that you could value? I'm curious."
Well, I think you answered it at the bottom of the post, when you write "I do believe that Palmer and poets like him are extending our sense of tradition and newness, simultaneously, even as they begin to pass, through familiarity, from the sublime to the merely beautiful." I would be more aligned with the "poets like Palmer" than I would with Palmer himself, though I'm willing to hear you out on why he himself is important. When I say that I spent a lot of time reading Palmer, I don't mean, of course, that he was the ONLY poet I was reading extensively who was challenging me -- I read a great deal of Leslie Scalapino, and Fanny Howe, and Ann Lauterbach, and Rae Armantrout, and a few others. While yes, I do like Shakespeare, and Donne, and Yeats, and Frost, and Wordsworth, I also know that an Elizabethan diction (or a Romantic one) doesn't really seem appropriate in 20th or 21st century America. We've got other things on our mind.

So I don't read Palmer (or others) because other people do and therefore, by extension, he must be good. I read them for alternate exposure, I suppose. I love reading Heaney and Auden, for example. But the questions I ask myself while reading their poems are largely the same questions I ask myself while reading Yeats. And so I move on to Medbh McGuckian for an entirely different experience, an entirely new set of questions that I haven't even learned about yet. Hopefully they are questions that I can use to illuminate something AWAY from the world of poetry, but this is all too often a pipe dream. Frank O'Hara has written: “I dislike a great deal of contemporary poetry – all of the past you read is usually quite great – but it’s a useful thorn to have in one’s side.” I agree with that in many ways, but I also know I took the quotation out of context. I think he's right -- I don't always like or admire what current poets are doing, but I'll give 'em a shot. There's a lot I admire, for example, in the poetry of Ann Lauterbach. Palmer, more often than not, writes about writing. A blurb like "{Palmer's poetry} makes possible a place where words initially engage their meanings..." doesn't tell me a whole lot. It tells me that he has language issues. But what poet DOESN'T have language issues? Isn't that what a poet is? Someone who explores discrepancies in meaning? Someone who is perpetually saying "hey, wait a minute..."? The only difference is that Palmer is largely one-dimensional.

Though I'm glad you cited from AT PASSAGES, which contains a poem by Palmer I actually like. If you read "Seven Poems Within A Matrix For War" with the Gulf War, Iraq, George I, and Operation Desert Storm/Shield in mind, it's a poem that reaches outside of its own language to attempt something decidedly non-literary and completely human/e. I suppose it's that flicker that keeps me going back, sometimes, to Palmer and others; there's at least a CHANCE they can/might write about topics I would be interested in that DON'T involve postmodern litcrit buzzwords. Perhaps they've already written about these things somewhere in their poetry and I'm simply missing them. Most of the time, though, it's as if they're carpenters who insist on using funny-shaped tools, and then they complain that all the houses they've built are unbearably ugly.

The quote from O'Hara reminds me of another one I like from Mark Twain: "Every time I read Jane Austen I want to dig her up and beat her about the skull with her own shinbone." This is cute, naturally, but it also implies something crucial -- he continues to read her even though he doesn't always like the experience. That's called "reading," frankly. Dana Gioia famously whined about American poets increasingly turning inward. I don't think ALL of them do, but enough do so that they give the whole lot of 'em a bit of a tarnishing.

I think I want to let the debate rest here for now, but I do feel compelled to make one observation. I find myself wondering if Michael Palmer's Gulf War poems, which strike me also as more immediately engaging than some of his earlier work, seem to reach "outside its own language" only because it was written for/about an event that I myself experienced. Palmer and his generation are a generation of '68: I suspect there is a highly politicized context enframing books like Notes from Echo Lake and Sun, and the even earlier books (Blake's Newton, The Circular Gates, Without Music—that last title sums up Palmer's poetics even if it doesn't adequately describe his poetry) that is simply not terribly accessible to poets in their twenties and thirties (I'm making a large presumption here about John's age in assuming he's a peer). How poetry like this expects to "live" beyond its original context is a question; no doubt some poets of Palmer's generation would immediately deny that their context has passed despite all evidence to the contrary.

This raises a larger question for me as a (relatively) young person entering the academy, where most of my professors are in their late forties to early sixties and so belong to or are affiliated with the generation of '68 or the more "Big Chill"-like group that came to consciousness with Watergate and radical feminism in the early seventies. Coming to cognizance during the Reagan administration left me with a political cosmology that is already nearly useless for life under Bush II—how much more adaptable can someone be who used to chant, "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Of course the day after the State of the Union a number of pundits are calling Bush, "Reagan Jr.," but that says more about the will of the baby boomers to repeat familiar history than it does about history itself. Bush himself, along with his cronies, have managed to replicate the Cold War by finding other faces for the absolute "evil" that crumbled into something more recognizably human around 1989. This will to repeat puts us once again in the situation of being terrified into submission by our leaders, and yet it completely ignores how radically different the world has become since the Berlin Wall fell. The right hasn't had to adapt because the old wine looks so good in the new bottles. The left is in utter disarray because it has accomplished all its positivisms—negative dialectic is its only remaining weapon, and a weapon is not a tool for building. Marxism, the engine of left wing thought for the entire 20th century, still serves as a viable critique—it's as useful as it ever was for pointing out the Man to you in the crowd and telling you what he's up to. But a postivist Marxism—the Marxism that builds institutions—has lost all credibility. Oh sure, most Western European countries look socialist compared to the U.S., but their socialism flourishes under our nuclear umbrella. A socialism that depends indirectly on a capitalist country to survive is compromised, to say the least. Which is not to say that those countries shouldn't criticize us for not living up to our own values. But moving to Paris or Amsterdam, as I occasionally daydream about doing, would solve nothing, not even for me personally. I live in America and have to bear my share of responsibility for American power. It isn't the solution for me or for my benighted country to lay that power aside in exchange for ethical cleansing.

Whew. Where was I? I guess the point I wanted to make was that some of the most politically inflected poetry is of necessity married to its moment, and Palmer may be less comprehensible, mayhap even less pleasurable, to us than he is to his contemporaries. The fact that he addresses and references and puts his contemporaries into the poems is another indication of this—though someone will now point out that Frank O'Hara is constantly talking about his friends and it doesn't make it any harder for us to enjoy O'Hara's work. To which I say, Basta!

One poet who engages the impact of changing times on her poetics and politics is Adrienne Rich, who we discussed yesterday in the Contemporary Poetry & Poetics class I'm taking with Jonathan Monroe. I don't always love Rich's work. Her tone can be self-righteous and her means of "writing the body" primitive: I feel like I get a much stronger sense of a specifically feminine eros from poets like Lucie Brock-Broido, Susan Mitchell, Chelsey Minnis, or even Björk. Much of her language has passed, in the way I described, from the sublime of startlement to the merely beautiful, or even the merely unbeautiful self-consciously plain: there's simply no way she can alert all my senses to something new and ferocious the way she could for those encountering her in the 1970s and 80s. In spite of this she remains an indispensable public poet, whose engagement with aesthetic and political history is broad and deep, and all over the poems in her latest book, Fox. In class yesterday we spent most of our time discussing the 13-section poem "Terza Rima," in which Rich not only engages in an agon with her poetic forefathers (as we might expect of her) but also with herself as her own poetic foremother. This poem, and the book as a whole (also the preceding book Midnight Salvage and its crucial final poem, "A Long Conversation"), rigorously questions the role of the poet in history, who begins by describing a new territory (in Rich's case, the territory of women's writing, which the poem implicitly compares to the gigantic territory described in the Divine Comedy) and ends in finding herself trapped there. How long a leap is it from Diving into the Wreck to Oprah bestsellerdom and victim's lit? Not long enough, Rich discovers: "theater of love   Ninth Circle / there are so many teachers / here no fire can shrink them." The teachers, who include Rich herself, are in the circle of betrayers. How to escape the cycle of commodification, as relentless an ourobouros as Heidegger's hermeneutic circle? Rich sees hope in the everyday:

Where the novice pulls the guide
across frozen air
where the guide suddenly grips the shoulder

of the novice   where the moss is golden
the sky sponged with pink at sunset
where the urine of reindeer barely vanished

stings the air like a sharp herb
where the throat of the clear-cut opens
across the surrendered forest

I'm most difficultly
with you   I lead
and I follow

our shadows   reindeer-huge
slip onto the map
of chance and purpose   figures

on the broken crust
exchanging places   bites to eat
a glance

Rich is both guide and novice, Vergil and Dante, and the moment when the guide grips the novice's shoulder is, I believe, the moment of arrival in Paradise—the place no guide can enter. Rich's Paradise is earthly and magical at once, stained with "the urine of reindeer," and its paradisal nature is found in the ordinariness, the communion, the publicness of the activities that go on there.

It's not a beautiful poem; it's not a beautiful book. Nor does it carry with it the sting of the new; the language is altogether flat. Yet I'm impressed with the rigor of Rich's self-questioning: she has a lot to teach us in that regard. How does a poet, especially a political poet, grow old? Restlessly, painfully, unsparingly. Like this.

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