Tuesday, June 15, 2004

I'm going to weigh in on Tony's conversion narrative meme. For me the road to Damascus was the road to Stanford—in preparation for California I decided to familiarize myself with California poetry, which as far as I could tell meant this newfangled Language stuff. So I immersed myself in Hejinian and Davidson and Palmer and whatever else I could find, only to discover that the spirit of Yvor Winters yet presides over the Stegner poetry workshop. The cognitive dissonance I experienced simply by being both at Stanford and in the midst of the Bay Area poetry scene was severe. No doubt my frustration at the conservative aesthetics dominant at Stanford pushed me even farther to the left than I might otherwise have been inclined to go. But really the awakening came much earlier; although I arrived at Montana sympathetic to the New Formalists (or I would have been had I known who they were), I was made restless by another form of cognitive dissonance. This was brought about by the contrast between the deep and wide-ranging reading habits fostered in my literature classes and the smugly self-limited attitudes I found in some (though by no means all) of my fellow creative writing students. My experience was very similar to that described in an article in the newest Bookforum (not yet available on the web); I don't remember the guy's name but it was a very well-written response to this rather predictable lamentation by Sven Birkerts. Anyway, he writes that he found himself pushed from the MFA to the PhD side of the spectrum by the absence of intellectual curiosity that he found in his fellow students. I won't go that far—the cohort I was with at Montana proved to be a remarkably talented group, whose members exhibited restless intelligences and appetites (some names: Sarah Gridley, Richard Greenfield, Nils Michals, Catherine Meng, Deborah Wardlaw Pattillo). But I was appalled by the number of students who'd read almost nothing beyond the most usual 20th century suspects (Ginsberg, Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Berryman) and seemed blandly cheerful about the fact. There didn't seem to be any compelling reason for an MFA student to read. But because I was drawn to literary study—because I took a course which forced me to read Derrida and Foucault for the first time (I had gotten my BA in English from Vassar without so much as cracking a book of theory), and because I loved that experience of disorientation rather than resenting it, I think the seeds were planted for my eventual conversion. Reading theory built up my appetite for negative capability, for openness; I began to be drawn to practices of indeterminacy. (Not that all "avant" or "advanced" poetry proceeds by indeterminacy; I'm becoming increasingly interested in writing whose difficulty stems rather from the sheer complexity of the processual, currently exemplified for me by the writing of Jennifer Moxley and Chris Stroffolino. But that's another post.)

Which doesn't mean I want to abandon everything in the house that grew too small for me. I still love Berryman and Lowell, and Richard Hugo too. I still write sonnets, of a sort. But I really did have the experience that attracts phrases like "my eyes were opened" and "it was a whole new world." What interests me most about this experience from the perspective of Tony's discussion was how this took the form not of self-discovery, strictly speaking, but rather of my birth into a more collective sense of poetry and being a poet. On the road to Stanford my most romantic notions of the poet as individual seer and genius began to die, and I began to embrace poetry as a form of cultural and intellectual labor that I could not and did not want to practice in isolation. Which doesn't mean I've given up all the aspirations and pretenses of authorship; I still sign my name to the things I write, and attempt to recuperate in the ego what I've spent in real and economic terms. But I'm not convinced that's all there is. That's maybe the third stage in the narrative: moving beyond the delighted discovery of "weird" writing and recognizing the obligations (and, perhaps, rewards?) of a socially engaged poetic practice. Or at least trying to imagine what such a thing might look like.

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