Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Yesterday I met up with Jasper at Gimme! Coffee to talk about the longish poems we're writing: his Toward a Pornography of the Sublime and my "Kiosk/Stylus." It's been ages since I did anything like a workshop for one of my poems, but I really wanted some feedback for this one since it's unlike anything I've attempted before: a 20-pg. or so continuous poem without a formal device (the quadrant in Fourier Series, the sonnet in Severance Songs) to unify its structure—although as Jasper pointed out, it does have the visual look of a somewhat narrow column on the page, rather like a skyscraper (much of the poem is set in Manhattan). Anyway, he gave me some enormously useful pointers and critiques, and some equally useful praise: confidence is one of the most valuable resources we have in trying to sustain a project. Jasper's own poem, which he read a few sections from at his Soon reading, is even more ambitious: it should eventually be a book length subjective epic of Los Angeles, a kind of contemporary Waste Land. It's a mix of stances and forms: lyric forms the backbone, but there's also a long narrative or dramatic section, "Promissory Notes" that gives considerable ballast to the poem as a whole. The overall theme is a cognitive mapping of the city as a spectacular site of the repressed Real—if that sounds too much like one of Gary Sullivan's blurbs, I can put it this way: a hallucinatory journey through L.A. as City of Dreadful Night. Maybe Jasper will post a section or two on his blog so you can have a taste of it; I'm eager to see this work in its complete form, and I hope someone will have the wisdom to publish it the minute he's finished.

Speaking of Gary's post (and the other Gary's response) on "The Market," I've been reflecting on the question of who we write for and why and the ethics of going to market. If I understand Gary Norris correctly, he sees contemporary poetry as inherently, ipso-facto resistant to the market, a monkey-wrench in the machinery of consumption. Markets are built on the manipulation of desire, and our culture's desire is now overwhelmingly for a common code of unambiguous Plain Speech; whatever poetry is, that ain't it, and so it's unsellable. In place of a market as such (whether you conceive the market as a place or a process) we have what Gary Sullivan calls the pseudomarket of compulsive categorization: the experienced poetry reader locates via the blurb (or just the name of the blurber) a given book within one of the categories she recognizes as "hers"; a book (note we're in an economy of books here, not magazines or webpages) that falls into a category she doesn't recognize (in both major senses of that word) will go unpurchased and unread.

Meanwhile the much lamented Common Reader, if he goes to poetry at all, must rely on what filtering prose-oriented outlets like the Times Book Review can offer, or else he restricts himself to a category of the name: it's my impression there are plenty of poetry readers out there who ONLY read Mary Oliver, or Billy Collins, or Sharon Olds, or whomever—poets who still offer a semblance (if ONLY a semblance) of the address of authenticity that most people still expect from a poem, what Simon DeDeo calls the address of the poem to The Beloved. Simon's post comes at this discussion from a slightly different angle: he claims that Americans prefer prose (the natural home of Plain Speech, right?) because poetry too often: 1) shuts out narrative; 2) asserts a restricted tonal range (chamber music of poetry versus orchestral symphony of the novel); 3) loss or obscuration of the traditional audience/addressee of the poem, The Beloved. I'm not especially persuaded by the first two in the context of the what-happened-to-the-audience question many people pose and re-pose; I think it's the condition of poetry, after all, to be different from prose, and I don't expect it will ever be truly able to compete with prose on prose's own ground. In other words, I don't think poetry used to be popular because it contained narrative or because it had tremendous tonal variety; Longfellow was popular because poetry was still seen as the most appropriate and prestigious literary mode of establishing cultural value. Longfellow was literature; Dickens and Twain were mass entertainment. The novel enjoyed the prestige of the epic poem for a good long while; but I'm not sure our culture goes to ANY sort of literature for an affirmation of central values anymore, except in the passive, symptomatic sense (Laurel Snyder mentions the novel The Lovely Bones as symptomatic of our desire for reassurance about death without the inconvenience of religious observance). There is still a largely academic subculture trying to maintain the prestige of literature that will trumpet the latest "important" novel by Philip Roth or whomever; but personally if I was interested in narrative and tonal variety per se, and I wanted to say something to my culture on any sort of scale, I'd go write for The Sopranos. One of the reasons I write poetry is because I'm interested in the resources that only language has access to; I like a story as much as the next guy, but for sheer story I'd rather go to the movies than read a novel. When I read a novel, it's usually for a sense of immersion in a world that movies, for all their frenetic attention to detail, can't sustain in the same way; wit and rhetoric and the flavor of sentences is another attraction. When I read poetry, on the other hand, I'm trying to discover something about what's sayable, and I'm trying to hear language, which predicates all thinking, in new ways. And what we might call the ethical pleasure of being the addressee of someone whose language bespeaks an intensity of intelligence and feeling is also a very big draw—Eric Sellinger calls this the pleasure of character.

The categorization Gary Sullivan talks about is a version of this ethical division: if I choose a Language or post-Language book, I want to be spoken to as a socially conscious intellectual; if I choose a New York School-ish book, I want to feel urbane, savvy about pop culture, and emotionally open. If poetry can be popular in the sense that it can speak to a larger chunk of the subculture of readers than the usual 500 - 1,000 people who recognize its category, it will be a poetry that addresses a Beloved that people want to be. I believe the readers of Collins and Oliver and Olds are looking for the experience of Belovedness: they read these very simple and accessible poems for the aura they simulate by seeming to address you in your privacy as a person you'd like to be: wry and self-deprecating, at one with nature, or filled with operatic griefs and exaltations. Charles Bukowski is another good example: his genuine popularity comes from his readers' feeling they are intimate with the gritty authenticity of a down-and-out street rebel in touch with his politically incorrect desires. Now as a D&D fan I'd be the last one to indict these writers for the pleasures of character they offer: I think offering people contact with parts of themselves not often or easily expressed is one of the most valuable, maybe THE most valuable, services writing can offer. But I think their language is lazy and the characters they generate have become worn and two-dimensional through constant repetition: it's mass-produced authenticity. A more positive example would be someone like Robert Creeley; I suspect that he owed much of his success and popularity (For Love was a bestseller in its time) to the complex pleasures of character that derive from reading his deceptively simple langauge. In fact, I would say he's a poet whose innovations and originality largely depend upon his use of the ethical axis. The one living poet I can think of who's successful at ethical address who is also a growing and attentive artist is Anne Carson: a very considerable audience has discovered the pleasures of being intimate with her erudite, witty, yet humble and at times swooningly romantic persona. It's true she still risks commodification (I saw an episode of Showtime's The L Word in which a rather silly writer character talks about how much Carson's work means to her), but as long as she keeps moving artistically and seeks to satisfy not her audience directly but the shapes of the words in her head, she'll remain a vital and interesting poet. Anne Carson is not a bad poet "to be," so to speak. I still have hopes for my poetry that it will be able to break out of overly restrictive categorizations and make that ethical appeal to the largest possible audience. But I can't achieve that by pandering; I can only write what my impulses, and my sense of my historical moment, seem to demand.

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