Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Henry gets his whacks in on the tennis ball that Mike and I have been batting around. Henry, I need some clarification here. Are you saying that "difficulty" in poetry stems simply from the fact that words don't mean what they say—that difficulty stems from the gap between form and content? Doesn't that apply, potentially to any utterance? Or are you arguing for the importance of the framing that happens off the page—the question of poetry as an institution (Mike would double-damn it as a homogenous institution)—and deeming inadequate any approach that doesn't either attack institutionality or expand its mandate?

As for Henry's last statement about "the ethical implications or demands that words sometimes entail," I hardly think my notion of the community of writers (or maybe better, wreaders) as friends & lovers is without ethical implication. In some ways I think I'm very close to the notion of poetry advocated by Allen Grossman, who sees its sacred duty as being the representation of the person (that is, the human recognized as human, with human rights and a "face" in something close to Levinas' use of the word). Difficulty then becomes perhaps a question of not insulting the reader's personhood by creating a prefab construct to which they'll have prefab reactions. But I feel now I'm falling into the trap of exalting my side of a dichotomy when I'd rather be dialectical, or at least aware of the problems created by my position. For example, there's the question of my family as audience. They don't seem to have a great deal of trouble with the poems as such (they don't feel like they're getting the full "meaning," but they like the sound and some of the imagery—they have an experience), but they have proclaimed themselves baffled by what's been written about my work (particularly the Boston Review review and Michael Palmer's appraisal of Severance Songs in the new Conjunctions. So I went and wrote a little "translation" of what Zack Finch wrote about Selah and I'll probably do the same for the Palmer piece. I don't want to compromise on my poetry (or "communicate" with it in the sense that Jordan seems to mean) but I'm perfectly happy to compromise or otherwise try to pull back the curtain on the framework around poetry, its production, and its evaluation. It's not an avant-garde move on my part—it might even be conservative in the small-c sense—but I do have an urge to demystify the processes of publication and canonization for the Common Readers in my family and beyond it—to render visible poetry-as-institution and so take away some of its power to intimidate (which has more to do with the disaffection of Common Readers, I think, than any actual poems do). I guess the conclusion I'm drawing here brings me a little closer to what I think Mike's position may be (Henry sums it up as "work harder at it"). Yes, I do think poetry's small audience (I'm not sure I agree about its homogeneity, though) means something, but I think the demand that makes on poets to expand their audience is extra-literary or at least happens beyond the borders of the actual poem: audience-building happens primarily through reading aloud (yes, I do believe poets ought to become proficient performers of their work, though I appreciate arguments to the contrary), editing, writing reviews (here I'll confess that the two reviews I've recently written aren't likely to expand poetry's audience), teaching, doing interviews, giving talks, blogging, etc. Since I'm against audiences as such, such activities take on an evangelical cast: I'm asking potential readers to accept a personal relationship with poetry—to read it is to write it and to write it is to be written upon/in/through.

That's my best self talking; my little ego likes audiences just fine. My ego took a simultaneous beating and inflating yesterday. A beating because I didn't receive an NEA grant for the third time in a row. Inflating because I've been invited to take part in the Poetry Society of America's Festival of New American Poets next March 2nd and 3rd. You can read about last year's festival poets here. My dad will be there; my late mother, a most Uncommon Reader, will not, and I feel an upswelled mingling of pride and grief. Both good and bad news will eventually pass; my ego will continue to expand and inflate, a creature of the tides. I hope poetry will go on being a vehicle to something larger than myself—some democratic capacity for the expanding recognition of personhood.

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