Monday, January 27, 2003

John Erhardt wrote me a long, considered, and exceptionally courteous reply to yesterday's post. I'll excerpt what strikes me right now as the heart of the matter, which starts when John explains that formalism is not what he demands from a poet like Michael Palmer, though he does point out that Palmer has written a sonnet or two. He goes on:
I've put an awful lot of time into reading Palmer over the last few years. I've read all of his books, and I've hunted down most of them. But the reward I get from reading him is almost nil. Most of the time I haven't the slightest idea what he's talking about. I remember nothing from his books; I don't remember any lines, I don't remember any thematic similarities between individual poems, and I don't remember any differences between volumes of poems. His lines aren't musical, and, if not for the titles, I wouldn't have any idea where one poem ended and another began -- it's simply arbitrariness at most levels. And that's what I object to the most -- the fact that once a young poet learns about signs, signifiers and the signified, they combat the arbitrary relationship between those three with poems that are totally arbitrary, and then they wave their results around the room as if we should all be floored by their discovery. They then wield a Derridean vocabulary and talk in circles all semester. Reading Palmer, I get the feeling that I'm being exposed to an utterly pointless intellectual exercise.

Now, that's not true in all cases, obviously. But I get the feeling that many poets proceed as if the greatness of a poem is directly related to how much discourse it can produce. I hope I'm not coming across as if this is an ad hominem accusation of Palmer being a "discourse slut." I am personally not interested in writing about every poem that I read, nor am I interested in reading an endless library of supplementary material to explain each new poet to me. I am more interested, frankly, in being a casual reader of poetry; someone who enjoys the cultural/literary/intellectual experience of reading a poem, someone who enjoys witnessing a craftsman wield his/her tool: language. I read poetry for pleasure. "Pleasure" in this case doesn't mean "entertainment." I don't read poetry for a good laugh (a la Collins), nor do I read it for a quick emotional fix (Sharon Olds or someone). "Pleasure" also does not mean "easy to grasp poems that are probably prose anyway." I read it because it gives me the intellectual stimulation of thinking about an issue that exists away from the page, and I don't think Palmer exists away from the page.

Is it not possible, then, to be a "casual" reader of poetry? I have quite a few intellectual interests -- politics, science, philosophy -- and if I require too many peripheral "helpers" in order to understand ONE book of Palmer, forget it -- my bookshelf is filled with books I haven't read, and I'd rather move on to something else. Keeping up with current poetry alone is a Promethean task -- I simply can't continue to do it if I need to keep up on each volume of criticism as well. Poetry, for me, needs to have its own legs. Palmer has always relied on the legs of others, as has Watten, some Silliman, etc.
I think John has done an excellent job of re-posing that perpetual and ornery question, Who reads poetry? Most of us are, of course, poets ourselves; but the meaning of this is changing. More and more of the poets I'm aware of and interested in are, like me, also scholars or would-be scholars: the number of poets seeking PhDs seems to increase hourly. This is partly derived of course from the exigencies of the job market; I wonder too about the ressentiment beneath the surface, as poets with books and PhDs struggle to get jobs in institutions where baby boom poets with MFAs and anti-intellectual attitudes are commonly senior faculty. John is not disclaiming his status as an intellectual in his message—he may not want to write about every poem he reads but he has produced at least one smart review that I'm aware of (read it at the Contemporary Poetry Review, an online journal whose other reviewers often indulge in profound smugness). Nor is he a populist of the more vulgar sort. He simply wants to be able to read some poems "casually," and for this to be possible the poem in question must have some existence "away from the page."

I happen to be a huge Michael Palmer fan (full disclosure: I took a workshop with him at Bread Loaf, of all places, the summer of 2000). Glancing through The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995 I do indeed detect a certain aggression in the subterranean way Palmer deploys his allusions (which are legion), a certain exclusivity in the way he conducts conversations with other actors not present who the reader is presumably supposed to know. The pleasure of his poetry, for me, is precisely the pleasure of renunciation, of an austerity surrounded by a rich, only partially visible sense of engagement with a tradition. That tradition seems more Continental than Anglo-American, more Mallarméan than Eliotic or even Poundian. He indulges himself and the reader with a speaking that is always on the tightrope, always on the verge of falling into silence. It's flirting with, if not death, then the death drive as it resists being spoken—in other words, Palmer's heritage is Dickinsonian rather than Whitmanian. He's Dickinson with a political agenda and, yes, a lot of Derrida under her belt. Yes, he does write an awful lot about writing, probably too much. Yes, he makes a fetish of flatness. But some of his more recent work is downright rollicking in its multiple engagements with history, philosophy, and the other poets he's always addressing:
Autobiography 2 (hellogoodby)

The Book of Company which
I put down and can't pick up

The Trans-Siberian disappearing.
The Blue Train and the Shadow Train

Her body with ridges like my skull
Two children are running through the Lion Cemetery

Five travelers are crossing the Lion Bridge
A philosopher in a doorway insists

that there are no images
He whispers instead: Possible Worlds

The Mind-Body Problem
The Tale of the Color Harpsichord

Skeleton of the World's Oldest Horse
The ring of O dwindles

sizzling round the hole until gone
False spring is laughing at the snow

and just beyond each window
immense pines weighted with snow

A philosopher spread-eagled in the snow
holds out his Third Meditation

like a necrotic star. He whispers:
archery is everywhere in decline,

photography the first perversion of our time
Reach to the milky bottom of this pond

to know the feel of bone,
a knuckle from your grandfather's thumb,

the maternal clavicle, the familiar
arch of a brother's brow

He was your twin, no doubt,
forger of the unicursal maze

My dearest Tania, When I get a good position in the courtyard
I study their faces through the haze

Dear Tania, Don't be annoyed,
please, at these digressions

They are soldering the generals
back onto their pedestals

I come not to praise Michael Palmer nor to bury John—nor do I want to cry, "Can't we all get along?" and make another empty plea for pluralism in po-biz. I guess I want to understand more about this creature, the casual reader of poetry. The causal reader of poetry is an easier concept for me to grasp: witness the instrumental deployment of poetry as comfort (especially that Auden poem, heard everywhere) after 9/11. Presumably the casual reader is not interested only in comfort—nor is he or she automatically opposed to being made uncomfortable, as most will agree the best art often does. S/he wants "pleasure," which John is at pains to distinguish from "entertainment," and rightfully so. Anyone who chooses to entertain by writing poetry is playing a mug's game, in my opinion: there are better laughs and quick emotional fixes to be found at the movies, as Frank O'Hara would be the first to point out. O'Hara said, "If they don't need poetry, bully for them." What, then, is the special pleasure we need from a poem? John wrote, "I read [a poem] because it gives me the intellectual stimulation of thinking about an issue that exists away from the page." Intellectual stimulation, yes, but it's more than that—for me it's a stimulation that crosses the line between intellectual and bodily pleasure. The poems I value the most excite me because the language is operating on me, often in ways I don't immediately apprehend, in order to enlarge my sense of what's possible. It's an electric feeling or chill (frisson) that frightens nearly as much as it emboldens and expands, in good Wittgensteinian fashion, the limits of my world. It is sublime. I need to study up on my Kant before I start flinging these terms around, but poetry which provides what is primarily an experience of beauty—poems that are mimetic of something in the world "that exists away from the page"—isn't quite as valuable to me. It's interesting to realize that a poem of the first type inevitably becomes a poem of the second type when it becomes familiar enough—when one has accumulated enough interpretive context to discover its existence, its relevance, its participation, "away from the page." Of course this process of increasing familiarity is highly individuated, especially in a culture which doesn't teach poetry well or at all; people are coming across Yeats' "The Second Coming" as adults and getting that chill of the sublime from it. Which is fine except insofar as it retards innovation: and yes, I do believe in innovation because art is historical. The art of today is by no means "better" than the art of any other period—it's only the art that's newest to us, and that speaks to where we stand or sit, and ideally grabs us by the ear and pulls us up out of our cozy chairs and to the window where the world stands revealed as it most urgently is in all its particulars.

Yes please, let's read Tennyson and Stevens and Shakespeare and Donne—let's know our tradition, absolutely. A young poet who knows only Palmer is bound to be a bore. But 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.

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