Saturday, March 20, 2004

I don't think I've made a habit of "shredding" anybody's poems. But thanks to Chris for refusing the temptation to shred my poem all the same. Still, I have to wonder: is he really proposing "there's no accounting for taste" as an adequate replacement to the binary thinking he accuses me of? Would it be a better world if every blogger and critic simply quoted poems they liked with the obsequious headline, "For your consideration. . ."? Wouldn't the proper answer to binaries be not an agreement to disagree but something more dialectical? I also think the word "new" is being used by Chris in a way that I find limited and limiting. I would never propose that "newness" is the sole value to assess a poem by. That's absurdly reductive. But the contemporary poetry that I find most engaging ("what I like") is usually trying to break up reification (a more social way of describing "the frozen sea within us")—ways of seeing and imagining the world that have become fixed and dead and which therefore tacitly support the world/consciousness/the dominant ideology as it has been given to us. Because we are social creatures, and because a certain amount of filiation is inevitable and necessary, traditions or counter-traditions which attempt to break up the dominant ideology are bound to arise. Of course these counter-traditions can then and usually do become reified themselves; and much of the ire directed at Ron and his epigones results, I think, from poets and readers who find his brand of reification more palpable and threatening than that of commodity capitalism, patriarchy, etc.—the guiding structures of a normative discourse in which people still routinely use "man" to mean humanity and poets looking to publish their work have a tome called Poet's Market to guide them. Still, I return again and again to the Pound/Williams/Olson tradition because it is that paradoxical thing, a tradition of the new—or more precisely, a tradition of discovery, which foregrounds the destruction of reification as one of its primary values. (Having broken up the pattern of reification the question, Now what? does tend to arise; and it's here I think that this tradition runs into the most difficulty; the utopias of Pound, et al, are not particularly appetizing or even very democratic; and the Marxism of the Language poets, while to my mind constituting a nigh-irrefutable critique, does not in itself seem to point the way toward a viable polis, in poetry or elsewhere. That's why I'm interested in pastoral as a description of the impulse to resist totalization in the name of bodily, contingent experience.)

Many poets and readers of poetry, of course, have no interest in criticizing the existing structures of feeling (the attacks on political correctness or so-called "schools of resentment" as practiced by Dana Gioia or Harold Bloom are directed toward consolidating existing power). Others who do have such an interest may feel that poetry is already marginal enough, or that their own work is self-evidently sincere enough, to function effectively as an axe against that frozen sea. Some pick their battles. A poem of mine like "'Desire, and Hurt Not'" (the quotes are part of the title) is, I would agree, not particularly "new." A fair number of the poems in Selah rely on sheer lyricism in their attempt to overcome habits of mind and feeling in myself which would otherwise prevent me from having full access to the experiences that occasioned those poems. Others, I believe, are meant to bring larger ideological contexts and questions into the space of the book: Jewishness, masculinity, the family, and the wholly inadequate cultural formations within which we deal (or fail to deal) with death. But plenty of people will read the book and see nothing "avant" about it, even if they're aware of such a category. Does that reduce the question of the new to a fallacy of intention? I rather choose to think that my engagement with several traditions—Language poetry, confessional poetry, Stevens' philosophical lyricism, Whitman's "language experiment," Miltonic grandeur, 17th-century metaphysical poetry, and Elizabethan drama (all of which, in their day, were innovations upon literary forms that were no longer adequate to represent the full range of intellectual and emotional expression) does mark me and the unfinished arc of my writing. For me, articulating a poetics is an act concurrent and concomitant with the writing of poetry, and I hope to cease not until death. "I like it," "I don't like it"—that's not good enough; I need to explain these decisions to myself and I've chosen to do it in public because I'm a poet (that is, I'm like everyone else but more so) and I read poetry and poetics and blogs because I live for those fleeting moments of genuine whole-heart whole-mind connection. Wholeness requires sophistication and articulation; otherwise you have to leave things out.

I'll stop there. There's plenty of other good stuff on Chris' blog to think about. Like whether there can be arcs and functions on the axes I've proposed as approximations of my gut reactions (but my math skills are nonexistent!). And though I've defended thinking in terms of traditions and filiations here, obviously he's got a point about how quickly we pass over individual poems, and even whole poets, because either our attention spans or our vocabularies for close reading (better, "close appreciation") have become so impoverished. So I too regret the apparent lack of hits Jonathan's appreciation project has gotten him. I think his admire/hate list is probably more accurate and user-friendly than my own grids have been for describing my general reactions to poetry.

Incidentally, I'll be off to Chicago on Monday (to hang with my grandparents in Skokie, then AWP on Wednesday). Internet access will be spotty, so get your licks in while you can if you're want me to reply.

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