Tuesday, November 30, 2004

After a long hiatus, Chris of Cosmopoetica has returned to blogging; he's going poem by poem through Best American Poetry 2004 and doesn't seem to be enjoying it much. Why he feels compelled to read an anthology he finds so unrewarding is beyond me. He's also engaged the "difficulty" conversation and raised some valid questions. The most urgent point I'd like to refute is Chris' image of me as some kind of humorless dogmatist (he seemed to have a similar reaction to my HCE interview). Chris, you seem to be reading me a bit selectively. I do believe that poetry has a peculiar power to access some kind of collective unconscious by opening up the writer/reader's singular unconscious through/in language and is therefore worthy of reverence. But that doesn't mean I don't like funny poems! Didn't you read the Caroline Knox poem I posted? I see the serious/non-serious dichotomy (which is of course simplistic, like all dichotomies) not being so much about serious/funny as about being ambitious, rigorous, vigorous, and reverent toward the human potential in poetry versus a writing that is only interested in comforting and being comfortable (which almost always seems to mean being anti-intellectual). And "rigor" doesn't mean "humorless" either, because the rigor should apply to the poet's overall project, not to every individual poem. (Frank O'Hara is a poet of rigor.) Rigor manifests in many ways: it can be primarily formal (I include techniques associated with Oulipo, the New Sentence, etc. in this category), it can be a shaping source of energy akin to genre (satire, for example, the energy of ridicule roused against what the writer finds contemptible), it can be a form of endurance detectable only from the poet's larger life-context (simple poems written by a poet under a repressive or violent regime, for example). Slackness, too, has many forms: shapeless free verse, unmotivated formalism, narrow tastes in reading, a ready acceptance of authority. A slack poet can be clever, a rigorous poet can be funny, and most everybody writes a good or bad poem now and then if they stick with it long enough. I'm biased toward writing that seems to come from a larger project into which some degree of conscious thought has been put, and I'll cut individual dull poems a lot of slack if I think they're part of a larger, more interesting project. (This is why I continue to esteem most of the writers Chris has addressed in his BAP review, though I agree some of the poems are not that interesting—an anthology rarely does justice to precisely this most interesting dimension of writing.)

The other point I want to take up is the "major fallacy of generalization from one’s particular perspective to the whole" that Chris accuses me of. He argues that opera and other arts continue because some people in the audience do feel called to participate in it: true enough. But there is no art I know of that has a lower barrier of participation than poetry: all you need is paper, a pencil, and a native language. So I do think there is something more universal about poetry. And while it is certainly a logical fallacy for me to attribute my perspective to a whole, I don't claim to do that: I only claim that something I've thought and felt is likely to be recognized by others (not ALL others). Furthermore, that perspective is not just somehow ejected onto the page where it flops around distastefully: it emerges from and through my experience, which includes my literary experience, and assumes a form that most would recognize as poetic. Of course poetry is a craft that has to be learned and practiced if you want to achieve the deepest and most subtle effects you're capable of. (Which can be humorous effects! I feel like I constantly have to be on my guard now against being seen as too "serious.") But craft alone isn't enough; individual details of craft are always interesting, but at some point you want to know it well enough to be able to transform it from an ends into a means toward some kind of vision. It's like that scene in Waiting for Guffman where Lloyd the music director is telling Corky St. Claire, "I want them to really learn the music, so they can forget about it," and Corky replies, "Well, they've already forgotten it!" If Lloyd equals craft and Corky equals vision, we need to harmonize them somehow—or rather, Lloyd needs to be sublated by Corky. (There's a thought.)

Expression preceding thought might make more sense to Chris if I emphasize that they are both modes of cognition. By "expression" I mean an aesthetic way of thinking, in which you judge words and other linguistic elements primarily by their appeal to the senses (sound mostly, but also their appearance and, to a lesser degree, the images they generate) and by your mostly unconscious sense of that word or phrase's context and/or history (it could be an allusion to another poem, or a deployment of language from another specialized field like medicine, or a fragment of pop culture, or the remark of someone famous or unfamous). By "thought" I mean the more ordinary cognition that does its level best to use language in a neutral way, as a means toward communication. Both forms of writing will carry unconscious messages, bits of history, etc., but the poet is open toward that unconscious in a way the communicator is not.

Okay, I really have to get my day started now.

No comments:

Popular Posts