Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reading the Kenneth Rexroth issue of Chicago Review. Put off to some degree by the man's old-fashioned displays of sexism and machismo: these seem rote, tiresome, and predictable, but his affinity with Lawrence (who I feel has genuine insight into the workings of sexual desire and sexual difference, however obscured these insights might be by talk of loins and plasms) might point toward an at least partial redemption of these unattractive qualities. More impressed by his seriousness and sense of mission: though wary of messianisms, I think poets with a genuinely elevated sense of what poetry is for preserve the art as a whole from the inconsequentiality it's perpetually teetering on the brink of—though at the same time I'm glad not everyone thinks this way, it would severely restrict poetry's imaginative range. I can only think of two living American poets who convey a Rexrothian depth of seriousness in all they say and do (without, I hasten to add, sharing Rexroth's essential poetics or politics): Allen Grossman and Jorie Graham. Both produce work that can edge into self-parody, but it's easiest to parody those who actually stand for something: call it the Old Sincerity. Anyway, Rexroth has this to say on the subject in a 1931 letter to Louis Zukofsky that seems startlingly relevant to our present situation:
The poet has, after a few perfunctory struggles, acquiesced in the judgment of capitalist civilization: that he is a weak, lazy fellow, incapable of rational thought, merely a convenient dispenser of vicarious spasms of emotion. The unconscious efficiency with which a class preserves itself is uncanny. The greatest enemy of social stasis is the subterranean transvaluations which go on in the arts, and this enemy operates most efficiently in the art of poetry for the reason that poetry is, or can be, most intimate with the values concerned. Poetry is the symbolic criticism of value and because this criticism can garb itself in even the most random subject, it is specifically inapprehensible. Many a panegyric, written as a set subject for the enthronement of a monarch has been part of the exploration of avenues of thought which has led to the overthrow of his dynasty. Therefore, as the range of value for poetry reduces to a minimum the security of the prevaliing ideology approaches a maximum.
This seems entirely consonant with Adorno's argument in Aesthetic Theory and elsewhere that the critical power of an artwork resides in its "subterranean" negativity, its implicit rejection of things as they are—Rexroth's remark about the panegyric would extend that possibility of rejection even into a poem that superficially affirms "the prevailing ideology." At the same time he seems to say that when poetry is not valued dominant ideologies go unchallenged, but maybe he's saying something else: that poetry needs to be able to address the entire "range of value" or be a test of value in general if it is to have critical and I daresay (for the 1931 Rexroth) revolutionary power. Read that way, Rexroth's paragraph would affirm a diversity of seriousnesses and a variety of means by which poetry can act as "the symbolic criticism of value"—which itself might encompass anything from an attack on prevailing values to a conservative call of return to forgotten or negelected values to a fully Blakean transformation of values. Rexroth seems to have managed all three in the course of his career and I may have more to say about him when I'm finished reading the issue.

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