Sunday, December 28, 2003

I'm struck by the question of classification that Gary has raised, partly in response to the perennial division of post-avant vs. School of Quietude that Ron has again reaffirmed as pertinent to the case of Marianne Moore. Whereas Ron posits what he must see as two reasonably coherent traditions (or at least SoQ is coherent, to the point of being ahistorical; its "Other" seems to vary according to period, from Pound's Modernism to Objectivism to Projectivism to the Beats to the New Americans to the New York School to Language Poetry, etc.), Gary distinguishes between the distinguished and the distinguishers: many of us carry potentially paralyzing "maps of poetry" around inside us and work to expand the borders of whichever map we think is best; but another breed "force us as readers & poets to completely rethink it"—it I suppose referring both to existing maps and the territorializing impulse that is the transcendental precondition for mapping in the first place. It's an anxious-making distinction for the likes of yours truly, who against Ms. Moore's advise has gone to pursue a PhD and who is therefore necessarily obsessed with this kind of mapping. There is no particular tradition whose borders I claim to be expanding, Meriwether Lewis-style; but this may simply mean my actual position is undertheorized and my ideology covert.

To even think this way reinforces my sense that I am probably not one of Gary's "disruptive" poets, and this makes me sad. In spite of the technocratic lineages that have become available since Mallarme, I like most people can't help but think of poetry as being at heart this fundamentally disruptive activity that "force[s] us to rethink what we thought we already knew"; and by a kind of metonymy this seems to require one to have a kinship beneath the skin with the visionary likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Blake. This is romantic nonsense to a degree: the practice of poetry may have a kinship with the systematic derangement of the senses in its effect, but that doesn't mean you personally have to blow your brains out with chemicals. Nothing in Gary's post suggests that the contemporary poets he mentions are personally cut in such a Romantic mold. But there does seem to be something intrinsically Romantic about the notion of a poetic force so strong that "you simply have to make room for it, regardless of how you imagine the world to have been composed previously." That kind of writing isn't experimental, at least not in the white lab coat sense: it seems in Gary's formulation to be something innate, a kind of charisma (the OED says: "A free gift or favour specially vouchsafed by God: a grace, a talent"). The word "commitment" does suggest other possibilities: it makes me wonder about cases of poets who begin in a tradition, perhaps even achieve success in that tradition, only to make a decisive break. Whitman and his place in poetry comes to mind, as Lawrence wrote:
Whitman, the great poet, has meant so much to me. Whitman, the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman, the one pioneer. And only Whitman. No English pioneers, no French. No European pioneer-poets. In Europe the would-be pioneers are mere innovators. The same in America. Ahead of Whitman, nothing. Ahead of all poets, pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life, Whitman. Beyond him, none. His wide, strange camp at the end of the great high-road. And lots of new little poets camping on Whitman's camping ground now. But none going really beyond. Because Whitman's camp is at the end of the road, and on the edge of a great precipice. Over the precipice, blue distances, and the blue hollow of the future. But there is no way down. It is a dead end.
A dire formulation, to be sure. Even if Lawrence's pessimism is misplaced, Whitman's path, or any teacher's path, leads us to just another camp, however strange. But listen to what the man said:
I am the teacher of athletes;
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own, proves the width of my own;
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
You can't destroy the teacher until you have accepted the teacher, at least for a time. There's some hope for me then, and for all of us who've learned it by book. But you can't simply choose this kind of commitment, any more than you can choose to have your work read by the standards of another period. This is our moment and we can't make that moment any bigger or smaller. I struggle so hard every day against the myths of the giants of old. Let there be no more giants if that means tyranny—but not all charisma is evil. We need it—it's the beginning of something. Charisma, confidence, commitment—opens a way. More: it makes ways imaginable.

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