Monday, November 29, 2004

Poetry is in the air at the turn of the year: first the New York Times Book Review, now the online center-left magazine Slate is devoting its day, perhaps its whole week, to poetry. Today already we have three articles: James Longenbach on Richard Wilbur, Dan Chiasson on Anne Winters, and Adam Kirsch on Derek Walcott. Despite the inclusion of Winters the tone of the thing seems very male to me: thin-lipped judges arranging the hierarchies just so. The Chiasson piece is the best, if only because it points me toward a poet I'm not very much familiar with and because I too am interested in Winters' combination of intricate music with (according to Chiasson) doctrinaire Marxism. The possibility that her poetic might actually derive from a dialectical approach to Winters' own position as observer does not seem to have occurred to him. All three poets chosen have a grand, high lyric style to them—I'm actually rather fond of that style, but to devote the whole "issue" to that kind of poetry begins to feel stifling. The piece on Wilbur is another attempt to rescue his reputation from the New Formalists for whom he was their chosen mascot back in the eighties; of course he's a more interesting poet than that, and "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is one of the great anthology pieces, genuinely beautiful. I've admired Wilbur and recognize something of myself in his formal impulse and his desire to find the beautiful (Kirsch actually writes rather well about Wilbur as praise poet in this New Yorker article), but he's not a poet of much use to me at the present time. Kirsch's Walcott article seems like a puff piece: Walcott is a very great poet who I've read with tremendous enjoyment (I like especialy his early stuff up to "The Schooner Flight" in the Collected Poems, 1948-1984), but what I've seen of The Prodigal seems slack and sentimental, not at all the Yeatsian surge Kirsch wants to see. It's good to see poetry getting some attention in a mainstream publication, but the kind of attention offered doesn't seem likely to excite Common Readers. Maybe as the week goes on they'll talk about some poets under 40; or better yet, find someone under 40 to write about some poets. (But the only critic who does this who has any mainstream cred that I'm aware of is Steve Burt, who's writing as fast as he can.)

Jeffrey Bahr over at Whimsy Speaks has done something of a post-mortem on what he's dubbed the "difficulty" conversation that was going on last week. I was struck by a paragraph that he wrote in his comments section:
There seems to be a whole lot of recent work in one of two camps: poetry that takes itself too seriously, and poetry that doesn't take itself seriously enough. The first class has a long history, of course. The second category is chock-a-block with poems consisting of line after line of ironical observation. Either can make for difficult reading, and it's particularly confusing when members of the former persuasion laud members of the latter -- say, when Ramke blurbs for Rohrer.
This is a wonderfully simple take that, rephrased, gets to the heart of what gets me so itchy about the so-called "popular poets" like Collins and Olds who have been my collective straw man. That is, I think such poets—particularly Collins—fall into the "don't take poetry seriously enough" camp. They may take their subject matter seriously, or THEMSELVES seriously (never an attractive choice), but they don't take POETRY seriously. Every line I've read by Collins (who's all about "ironical observation," after all) seemed calculated to diminish poetry as an art, to make it your easygoing buddy that would join you in mooning everything associated with High Seriousness and the sublime. At best, such poets use poetry to assume the privilege of a bardic position without actually permitting language to use them, without becoming inspired in Plato's sense. Bahr seems to worry a little more about those who take poetry too seriously, arguing that poetry is fundamentally about entertainment and not in itself important when compared to "saving lives or raising children." Well, this is kind of a dead-end argument, isn't it? Nothing in the aesthetic realm has any practical use, by definition—poetry doesn't get your shoelaces safely tied, let alone raise children. Nonetheless we talk about "needing" poetry and even "dying for lack of what is found there"—if you accept that human beings have non-material needs without which life seems not worth living, then poetry surely attempts to satisfy those needs. I have no wish to make poetry into a religion, but I do get some of that sense of participation that I associate with the religious from reading and writing poetry—participation in a collective effort toward the greater coherency of human energy, the larger extension of the franchise of personhood. (I'm going to have to spend some more time with Grossman and write about it here; but every time I sit down with The Sighted Singer [I just typed "The Sighted Signer"] I simply end up wanting to quote the whole thing.) So I'm not sure it's possible for us to take poetry too seriously, except insofar as we might come to neglect political and ethical obligations in favor of feeding our private muses. For what it's worth, I happen to think Matt Rohrer takes poetry very seriously, just not himself or poetry-as-institution. Frank O'Hara took poetry seriously too.

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