Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Been too hot and distracted to contribute to the conversation on ethical poetry that's been evolving in my comments box below. In addition to getting our wedding invitations printed and sent, we're preparing to travel to Montana on Saturday for almost ten days' vacation, the climax of which shall be my cousin Daniel's wedding in Livingston on the twelfth. Sad that I won't get to see Patricia as I'd originally hoped to do.

It occurs to me that "fully ethical" poetry might in some circumstances be better described as wisdom poetry. Curious the binary that sets up: "ethical" is cool and intellectual, while "wisdom" is warm and mystical, inclining maybe too quickly toward the likes of Kahlil Gibran, as Gabe suggested. I like wisdom because for me it has a sense of investment in the bodily—there's something overly Cartesian about ethics. (And I'm also thinking of how, in Dungeons and Dragons, Intelligence and Wisdom are separate character attributes, and you use the latter to determine whether your character notices something unusual, say, or to tell if another character is lying.) Real wisdom comes with thinking as a body among other bodies, and it also means thinking the past in such a way as to redeem it—to liberate the energies that historical trauma turns into bruises and contusions. To my mind that has something to do with the thinking of futurity that Benjamin Kunkel talked about in his essay on the memoir in last week's NY Times Book review, and which was also a topic in his magazine's "American Writing Today" feature that I blogged about a few months back. You can find a good summary in today's post at Long Sunday.

Anyway, as far as poetry goes, I agree that you can never abandon form and constraint without abandoning the terrain of poetry altogether. I'd just like to feel through to the significance of content a bit more quickly in my own writing, or at least some of my own writing: I reserve the right to simply fool around and see what develops, which is maybe only permitting language itself its own wisdom.

Reading quite a bit. Two sides of the pastoral manifest in two recent acquisitions: Paul Naylor's Arranging Nature (nicely reviewed here by Hank Lazer) and Gary Lenhart's The Stamp of Class. The one is a Romantic, downright Ronald Johnsonian excursion of the self into nature—but Naylor always maintains a kind of ethical reserve, sensitive as Adorno says we must be to natural history, which is the history of suffering that humans have inscribed on nature (in the same fashion that Kafka's torture machine inscribes prisoners). And yet nature promises someday simply to be, as lyric promises the rounded personhood that eludes most of us day by day and minute by minute. Can't quote the most gorgeous parts here because of the formatting, but it's a book I'm looking forward to going more deeply into. As for the Lenhart book, it's an engaging survey of American poets' engagement with class; among other issues, he looks at how rural and working-class poets have been fetishized for their supposed connection to the natural, which is of course the pastoral gesture par excellence as described by William Empson. That train of thought has brought me into closer contact with the work and life of John Clare, who features prominently in recent scholarship on poetry and ecology (I'm thinking particularly of Jonathan Bate's The Song of the Earth and Angus Fletcher's A New Theory for American Poetry). But Lenhart's poets are, after an initial chapter on the eighteenth-century English poets Stephen Duck and Ann Yearsley, variously American: Whitman of course, and Williams, but also Marcia Nardi (infamously assimilated into the good doctor's own Paterson) and David Schubert (subject of a lovely essay in Ashbery's Other Traditions), and chapters on Melvin Tolson, the New Americans, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, and Diane Wakoski, Eileen Myles, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, and Tracie Morris. Lenhart's concern, of course, is to establish and historicize the subjectivity of working-class poets; but he can't do that without also talking about how they've been used and abused (when not simply ignored) by the patrician literary establishment. (It does not seem irrelevant that every scholarly book I've linked to in this paragraph, including Ashbery's, was published by Harvard University Press except for Lenhart's, published by University of Michigan Press.) This too is important for my thinking about pastoral, which usually exploits the "natural" but which can also work to liberate the voices of those who have been history's objects—trees and humans alike.

Wisdom, futurity, redemption. Lenhart quotes a fragment of David Schubert's that seems relevant:
A ghastly ordeal it was. In
Retrospect, I am no longer young.
Wise, sad, as unhappy as seeing
Someone you love, with whom life has
Brought suffering, or someone you
Have nothing in common with, yet love--
Unable to speak a word.

If when I say this I weep, it is not
Because my heart has turned into a
Lachrymose commentator; the
Discus thrower's still
There--the shining one, quick. It is because
In my moment of rejoicing, I
Thought that one who has suffered with me shall
Rejoice. There was no
One. Not one answered.

Of suffering, who wants to be reminded?
Perhaps the best description of the heroism demanded from readers and writers of lyric poetry available.

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