Friday, May 04, 2007

Innovation Versus Elegance, Part Two

Here's the original question as posed by Bernadette Mayer to Bill Berkson in a letter dated May 10, 1981, along with Berkson's reply:
Is elegance opposed to innovation?

Pretty iffy, I'd say. I don't believe it as a rule. Duncan McNaughton tried to tell me that, that my poems would be better deeper if I gave up being elegant. But I feel not elegant enough, and I also feel that if elegance exists in art it is a deep quality like character or part of the character of the work. Can we name a single innovator whose innovations are of value whose work at any point lacks elegance? Well, early Cézanne (before he innovated) and a lot of Williams has no elegance whatever. In music, a lot of raw music is more elegant (country blues or Cajun) than the refined versions of the same material. Innovation being a reaction against dull flatness or vulgarized mechanical "cheap imitation" style is always the revelation of furthered elegance. (WCW's problem was an awkward flatness but it wasn't dull.)
Interesting that, in his comment on my original post, Reginald Shepherd suggested that my model for prose mixed with verse (as a congeries of "poetic rapture and expository discourse" should rather be Williams' Spring and All (which I do love) than Dante's La Vita Nuova. But I think he'd probably concur with Berkson's claim that the dichotomy set up by Mayer's question is a false one. I particularly like that last, non-parenthetical sentence of Berkson's: "Innovation... is always the revelation of furthered elegance." At the same time I continue to wonder about the distinction to be made between the cooked and the raw in poetry—Reginald doesn't like the word "messy" but I do because it suggests an expansiveness and tolerance for the collection of contradictions that oneself is (and the world too, of course). Maybe I just like it because it's so frankly in tension with my own fastidiousness.

Still too looking for the distinction to be made between verse and prose, or poetry and prose, or most starkly, poetry and writing. Is poetry a subset of writing or something entirely other (the magazine after all is Poets _&_ Writers)? Certainly many writers who ought to know better drop poetry entirely from their discourse and assimilate "writing" into "fiction" (some of the coverage of Cynthia Ozick's riposte to Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus has noted this slip on her part). The common-sense approach is to regard fiction and poetry and that strange anti-being non-fiction as subsets of "writing." But culturally, poetry often seems to bear the peculiar burden of being considered the other of what's normally considered "writing"—that is, instead of being seen as a component of literacy, much less an aesthetic phenomenon, it's reserved for ritualistic and therapeutic purposes. Then there's "writing" as it appears under the sign of post-structuralism, as an unfinishable process subsumed under the word "text" (something woven or in the process of being woven), which stands opposed to still prevalent notions of the poem as a work, something monumental—or monoglossic, to use Bakhtin's term, which involves us from another angle in this question of genre since for Bakhtin it's not writing but "the novel" that provides the supreme possibility for heteroglossia. From this perspective "writing" may take the form of poetry but poetry is not always or even usually "writing," and "writing" which happens to assume the form of poetry retains a surprising capacity to shock, discomfit, or bore those who expect poetry to primarily serve some more or less utilitarian function (including such utilitarian functions as "self-expression" or "uplift").

So I would describe myself as someone interested in "writing" who also has a sizable investment in poetry, or who has moved from poetry toward "writing" without quite being willing to renounce those qualities that the very purest "writers" (I'm thinking particularly of Kenneth Goldsmith as he's entertainingly manifested himself over at the Poetry Foundation's group blog, Harriet) would like to challenge or leave behind. I'm interested in heteroglossic poetry, whether literally (poetry that incorporates other langugages, dialects, and modes or classes of speech) or otherwise (forms of poetic heteroglossia that intrigue me include poems that deal elegantly with the mundane and quotidian, or with the brute facts of the desiring and perishable body, or with the various modes and incarnations of history). I think it's worth approaching these questions of genre from this more existential angle: to interrogate forms and modes for their ontological and epistemological possibilities. I take Wittgenstein's claim that the limits of my language are the limits of my world extremely seriously. And yet it's also possible to imagine "limits" as necessary bounds against chaos, and to love and wish to conserve traditions of expression and form while also standing up for innovation (and elegance!) against the dull flatness and mechanical vulgarity that hems so much of us and our culture (literary and otherwise) round.

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