Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Innovation Versus Elegance

I've been reading Bernadette Mayer and Bill Berkson's correspondence and interviews as collected in What's Your Idea of a Good Time? from Tuumba Press. One question asked was something like, "Do you think elegance and innovation are mutually exclusive?" Something I've been worrying at, because it gets at the heart of a tension in my own work: the desire for highly polished surfaces versus the desire to get gritty or the willingness to be messy.

On Friday the a capella San Francisco supergroup Chanticleer came to Ithaca, of which one of my oldest and dearest friends, Eric S. Brenner, is a member. They are virtuoso performers and seeing them gave me the thrill that seeing any artist at work at the top of his/her/their game does, aside from the beauty and playfulness of the music itself. They are currently touring with no fewer than three separate repetoires, including the brand-new And On Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass. It's wonderful music, but what's most compelling about the project is the fact that it was composed piecemeal by different contemporary composers of different backgrounds; I'm particularly interested in the "Credo," the most Catholic moment in the Catholic mass, which was written by an Israeli composer named Shulamit Ran. Talk about threading the needle: it incorporates Hebrew into the mass! Less successful—or perhaps just less elegant—is another section which invokes "Muslims and Christians and Jews" as participants and interlocutors in the mass. But I find myself wanting to draw a connection between the Chanticleer mass and the Berkson-Mayer question, because here are artists being asked to innovate within a rigid classical structure.

There are some poets whose pleasures are primarily instigated by their virtuosity, and only secondarily by what visions, experiences, or ideas they have to offer: for me this list would include Auden, Paul Muldoon, Heather McHugh, Mary Jo Bang, and Caroline Knox, to name a few. They err on the side of artifice and formal innovation, and their work either succeeds in ravishing me utterly or else seems slight; there's little ground in between. Then there are poets for whom the pleasure and drama primarily comes from the tension between the linguistic resources available to them and the difficulty or abstraction of what they are trying to express or construct: I tend to group Language poets and their followers and fellow travelers in this category. Another grouping whose work stimulates and challenges me would be poets for whom the disruption or challenging of elegance and/or "the poetic" is one of their primary energy supplies: this would include some of Frank O'Hara (but he usually achieves a tossed-off elegance) and most of the second- and nth-generation New York School poets (Ted Berrigan, Mayer herself, Alice Notley come to mind) and also the flarfists.

These may not be terribly interesting or satisfying categories, but they help me in trying to understand what moves me—and what has movement—in poetry, and how it is that I instinctually gravitate to formal virtuosity yet am constantly provoked, and sometimes shocked and delighted, by shaggier work. Sometimes I think it all comes down to Dickinson and Whitman, and the paradox of my own makeup that they represent for me: I am viscerally thrilled by Dickinson's agility and intensity, but find Whitman's ungainly, rambunctious mode of engagement with both himself and the larger (American) world more fun to think about. She's Latin, he's Italian; she's Hebrew, he's Yiddish; she's New England, he's Brooklyn; etc. Of course Dickinson is marvelously irregular and elliptical, while Whitman's catalogues gesture toward precision, but I still find the dialectic they present useful for thinking about American poetry in general and my own aesthetic impulses in partiocular.

Fourier Series represents, in part, an attempt to synthesize, or rather present in mixture, both tendencies: grids of short-lined, high-tension lyrics are broken up by prose "landscapes," presenting a slightly more schematic version of the old contest between line and sentence that charges verse. In some ways the model book for me in expressing these impulses would be Dante's Vita Nuova (sonnets interspersed between prose sections that purport to explain the poems but often don't) or the Japanese haibun. (Emily and I are traveling to Europe in a few weeks for our long-delayed honeymoon, which presents an ideal occasion for haibun.) But it may be more a question of the long line, or the page-as-field, or the disjunctive poem, versus more regular verse. Or it may really come down to attitude: fierceness, profanity, and the palpability of bodily experience versus a smooth surface corrugated by the tension of tamped-down forces. Bernadette Mayer herself presents an interesting working-out of this dialectic in her sonnets.

I suppose that it's the tension between form and content that we mean by the very word "art"—a tension somehow missing from its companion word "craft," which to my mind connotes the ideal subdual of one's ragged edges toward some utilitarian end. I like the danger of art: the high-wire act of virtuosity, or the uncertain quantity of seriousness and satire, or—hardest for a spectator to bear, and most rewarding when it works—the presentation of human vulnerability.
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true —
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe —

The Eyes glaze once — and that is Death —
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

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