Monday, April 25, 2005

The estimable Ange Mlinko objects to my reading of Anne Winters and more generally my use of "avant-garde" as a living category, calling it "just a marketing tool." In both respects she seems to be in agreement with my chair Roger Gilbert, who points out in an e-mail that I have obvious reservations about the Winters poem and therefore haven't succeeded in arguing that for me the set "good poems" is not necessarily a subset of "avant-garde poems." He also has a bone to pick about my opposing avant-gardeners with "conventional" poets, noting that a-g poetry is rife with its own conventions and responses to convention. Perhaps I should just concede the point: I am simply unlikely to be really satisfied by an encounter with a poem that does not use some aspect of form to problematize its ready reception. Not that Winters' poetry is "transparent" or even necessarily "accessible" given the lushness of her diction; and I also admire her ambition for large-scale social description: a quality that for me at least partly participates in a poem's resistance to easy assimilation: the delay or gap in understanding makes it possible for larger constellations to form. One reason we keep returning to The Waste Land as a useful description of our modernity is because its formal density (I am obviously including devices that call attention to a poem's reception and framing such as allusion in the category "form," here) connects enough dots that the poem is like unto a system (without actually being one) that can be used to read its environment like a tricorder on Star Trek: feed it the data of your own experience and you will always get back something useful, or at least interesting. (Though the end of the poem tries to foreclose the openness of the rest of it, the weird appendage of the "Notes" helps preserve The Waste Land as an open text.) But I still believe that negativity is the fundamental resource of possibility, and confining it largely to subject matter makes an encounter with the novum unlikely. That said, I'm still capapble of being dazzled by an adroit use of traditional (really we should be more specific: Italian) forms: I have always been easily seduced by the baroque. Here's a Winters poem both of us admire:
Villanelle

Bone-ivory thins out to sparkling gauze,
and the helices spell out their last revisions:
cascades of microscopic cellular flaws.

Dark quadrants in the X-rays of my jaws
mark the retreating toothbed, new excisions,
the ivory thinned out to sparkling gauze.

The synovial sea that bathed my knees withdraws,
leaving bone nubs to clickings and collisions,
cascades of calcium, microscopic flaws.

What's worse, this age of ice-flares and failed thaws
that might clear nights for rare auroral visions,
instead blows through my sleep like cradle-gauze,

filled with nursery-rockers, pastel night-lights: straws
that wove about those years of small decisions
a screen against the tide of cellular flaws.

Why should the ova and the menses pause
for this bleak text of lapses and elisions:
bone-ivory thinning out to sparkling gauze,
cascades of tiny intracellular flaws.
This srikes me as an effective adaptation of a traditional form to the inescapable rhythm of bodily decay. So many of the traditional form poems I come across are sunk by there being no organic connection between the form and the often banal subject matter it frames; it doesn't matter if the rhyme and meter are perfect if the poem lacks spit and fire. Perhaps this poem proves that my reservations about Winters may stem less from my supposedly doctrinaire stance than quirkier issues of personal taste. For example, I find I have little patience for discursive poetry, or (what often amounts to the same thing) poems with very long lines that don't seem to have some sort of structural (rhythmical, syntactical) integrity (or a structurally surprising breakdown in that integrity). This is my chief objection to Jorie Graham's poetry, though not to Graham herself, who has been taking a hell of a beating lately: first there's l'affaire Foetry (I think Ron Silliman and Tim Yu have come closest to expressing my own thoughts on the subject) and now there's David Orr's hatchet job in this week's NY Times Book Review. I have no wish to defend Graham's record of choosing former students for prizes (a habit duly noted by Orr), which reflects poorly on her (but more poorly, perhaps, on the publishers she was working as a judge for); but I suspect that she mostly gets a lot of shit simply for being a powerful woman: she's the Hillary Clinton of the poetry world. So while I may agree with Orr that there's often been "something strangely bleary in Graham's writing" (just as there's something strangely bleary about my Senator's liberal credentials), you have to notice that more than half of his article is devoted to backhanded compliments and attacks on Graham's person rather than her actual poetry. I also think Graham is such a big target because she is big, and she insists on the largeness of the poet's vocation: she's diametrically opposed to Billy Collins's desire to reduce poetry to friendly and digestible little meditations. Graham would be a seer, a priestess of the invisible, a speaker for and to the entire Western tradition, a sibyl tracing signs in the dust forewarning of apocalypse. It's easy to be cynical about such grand aspirations, since they must come in an inevitably human and fallible package; but I believe that Graham's famous ego is subservient to the aspirations of her poetry. Graham's poetry wants to be great in the way The Waste Land, Song of Myself, and yes, damnit, The Cantos are great: they are poems occasioned by real crises in the Western psyche, which is to say subjectivity as we know it, and they answer those crises with cries from bodies and souls steeped in very long cultural memory. To take on that large a task, that big a risk, is to restore nobility (another word we have trouble taking seriously nowadays) to poetry. It doesn't mean to be flawless; if anything it means to court flaws, and Graham has them aplenty: the aforementioned bleariness, the shaggy lines, and most damningly for me, the complete absence of a discernible sense of humor.

So again I've found a poet not generally associated with the avant-garde (though isn't sheer difficulty often treated as an a-g quality? Graham is certainly difficult) for whom I have a great deal of admiration, if not a lot of affection (it's hard to feel something as simple as friendliness toward a prophet). Perhaps what prevents her from being an avant-gardener is where she locates negativity: Graham doesn't feel the need to create it, but to counter it. The bleakness of negativity surrounds her; as Cal Bedient puts it in his recent review, "she is more than ever obsessed with the x everyone and everything fundamentally is (or fails to be)." Her orientation is fundamentally an ontological one, whereas the avant-garde poets I admire never entirely give up on the ontic, contingent, and political world that we navigate at best haphazardly. Winters is a lesser poet for me because she takes the ontic as her turf without hazarding much on a formal level; Graham's ambitions are greater than those of many poets I admire, but my affection (Whitman would call it adhesiveness) is reserved for those who breathe the same bad air, eat the same junk food, love/hate the movies, harbor guilty consciences, and dream utopian dreams.

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