Reginald Gibbons - Our Present American Context
Reginald Gibbons, writing in APR, on Russian Meta-Realism, takes this detour into American poetry, and titles this little trip: "Our Present American Context for "Difficult" Poetry" (I know I’m somewhat decontextualizing this by quoting, so apologies):
. . . I can’t help believing that whatever it is that poetry does, with and in and to and against language, it is one of the most vitally human activities that we have, and that our culture, far from destroying it, has instead nourished it—but it has done so in a context of media and consumerism that is forever emptying poetry out, pushing it to confess something and urging it to keep itself readily understandable or inviting it to take a very oblique angle to ordinary language and to make sure that it is easily recognizable as not understandable. Resisting both this push and pull seems to me the stance that some poetry, at least must take, which means that it has to insist on thinking in its own ways.
Because mainstream American poetry tends toward demotic speech—however sequined and spangled in some quarters, of late, or however meandering and erudite in its documenting of sources and of poetic consciousness itself—and the autobiographical lyric (in a startling variety of modes), perhaps we poets and teachers haven’t encouraged in general readers a pleasure in language that is more complicated and a serious interest in subjects and poetic stances that are less personalized. Such pleasure, and such impersonality, can make for a difficulty that is worth the reader’s trouble, among other difficulties that are not. Antonio Machado—and ardent advocate of a certain kind of poetic clarity, to be sure—said in the early twentieth century that
“To create enigmas artificially is as impossible as to attain absolute truths. Yes, one can manufacture mysterious trinkets, little dolls which have, hidden in their bellies, something which will rattle when they are shaken. But enigmas are not of human confection; reality imposes them, and it is there, where they are, that a reflective mind will seek them out in the desire to penetrate them, not to play at amusing itself with them.”
From this, I’m not sure he would have liked the poetry of Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, or Pasternak, if he knew it; but I think he would have sensed that it does seek out, in serious play, genuine mystery both in reality and in language, and does not manufacture mystery for its own sake.
Several things here are of interest to me.
Is there a pressure in American poetry, “pushing it to confess something and urging it to keep itself readily understandable or inviting it to take a very oblique angle to ordinary language and to make sure that it is easily recognizable as not understandable”?
On the one hand there is Ted Kooser, with his “Make it Understandable To the People in the Office” dictum, and yes, John Barr’s Poetry Foundation seems to be involved in Mass Clairty . . . but beyond that? Is the other pole of “easily recognizable as not understandable” really in play?
Honestly, while at AWP, I found neither to be the case. Maybe I just hang around poets who are those who are “resisting both this push and pull.” But what poet (besides Kooser, and maybe two others) wouldn’t want to resist? Don’t we all want to write poetry that “has to insist on thinking in its own ways”?
I’m not sure what distinction, if any, Gibbons is really making here in American poetry, but I think this obscures his better point, the point about enacting mystery, a true mystery, in poetry. One that “seek[s] out, in serious play, genuine mystery both in reality and in language, and does not manufacture mystery for its own sake.”
I won’t rise to the bait of naming names here, because I feel Gibbons and I would come up with very different lists of poets who enact genuine mystery, and those who manufacture mystery for its own sake. But still, this little point has me interested today. More profitable mystery! More difficulty that’s worth the reader’s time!
And this admission is one I wish people would listen to:
“. . . perhaps we poets and teachers haven’t encouraged in general readers a pleasure in language that is more complicated and a serious interest in subjects and poetic stances that are less personalized.”