Sunday, March 22, 2009

What's it all about, Alfie?

Ah, Alfie. And of course the too-easy title. But I am thinking about that today as a few things I’ve read lately keep bugging me. The first is from a Bookslut interview with Christian Wiman:

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Even in the way she [Simone Weil] died, made me feel, “Oh well, that’s hopeful.”

Not a good model. Seamus Heaney said in an interview we ran recently that he thought a poet’s life really did matter in terms of how you view the work. I wonder. I want to agree, but there are some poets I love who as people were pretty lousy. Like Larkin. Gosh, there are so many examples like that.

It seems this romantic idea of the poet destroying himself in order to produce the art… I don’t know how I feel about that.

It’s usually shit. So many people use that to excuse lousy behavior. So many mediocre poets finding a license for their “wildness.” Especially middle-aged poets. Especially middle-aged male poets.

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And then the second is all this stuff about Matthew Dickman that’s been floating around the Internet the last week or two, culminating in an interesting moment from Johannes Göransson:

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I read this book (unlike Mr K), and I didn't find it as terrible as Schiavo does. I just thought it was an all around average book in the Tony Hoaglund average-ist school of writing, loosely influenced by American poets who depoliticized Neruda once upon a time. So it makes sense that it was published by Copper Canyon, which is that kind of press. And it makes sense that it was picked by Hoaglund for some kind of contest, because it's the kind of poetry that does well what Hoaglund does, thus totally un-threatening to him. But I've read far worse books and far better books (even as recently as yesterday).

And as far the twins getting awards and such: There are tons of awards given out and they're seldom given to poets that I find interesting. Awards tend to go to unthreatening, mildly original writers. That's what they are for.

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How to tie these together? Well, I can come out of the closet and say I’ve now read Matthew Dickman’s book, but that’s all I really want to say about it. It’s not the sort of poetry I seek out, so any reaction I would have to it would be as much a reaction to its method as to the value of specific poems. Perhaps I agree with Göransson.

But in another way I want to disagree with both of us then. I want to say that stepping away from the book, as I’m doing here, is wrong, and that there should be an active engagement with the text, that the art itself calls us to stand against some things as much as we stand for others, even if that opens us to the charge or moralizing (which Goransson tags Schiavo and Klassnik for).

One of the more lively exchanges I’ve had over the last few years is with Mark Halliday. I respect Mark Halliday and I like a good number of his poems. I think he respects me, but I know for certain that he actively dislikes nearly every poem I’ve ever written. We’ve had pleasant exchanges at AWP and through email where we’re tried to change each other’s minds, to no avail. But one exchange sticks out in my mind. About two or so years ago, Halliday wrote in an email that it wasn’t as much my poems that he was against, but the world that they represented. He just didn’t want that to be the world. He said, I think, something like “I’m morally opposed to that world.” I’m probably at least slightly misremembering, but the point still stands. There is a moral dimension to the world-disclosing aspect of art. This is how one can say that one’s poetry is political. And that what poems do is something real in the world. When Schiavo rails against Dickman I feel this. As well, in his own way, when Klassnik rails against Schiavo, I also feel it. (This is not to agree with either of their points, by the way. I just want to make that clear. I find, for example, in my own moralistic way, much of Klassnik’s attack to be an emptying out of the possibility of art to actively engage what happens in the world, which troubles me.)

When I rail against some poets, as I do now and then, I do so mainly because I think that the world in their poems is essentialized in cheapening ways. I feel when I’m reading some poems that the world there is untrue, either through the sorts of reductions that rendered stories can bring in, or the sorts of nihilism that ironic play can allow.

In that, and back to Wiman’s point, does a poet’s life matter in how one views the art? I want to run screaming from that question, and do as little prying into the real life of the artist as I can. I don’t want to consider that perhaps Milan Kundera might have turned someone in to the police back in 1950. And I don’t want to consider some personal demons of the artist when I encounter the art.

So if Hitler painted roses and did it well, would I put it over my couch? No. Once one knows the context it forever changes the art. And now, all of this surrounding the poetry of the Dickmans, is distancing me from any kind of a reading of either of their books. When I read All-American Poem this week, all I could hear were blogs.

But what if the poet places his or her life in the center of the art, as Matthew Dickman has done? (Or that others have done through the sorts of questions they ask in interviews, etc?)

Ask me in a year or two.


At 3/22/2009 1:12 PM, Blogger Louise said...

you know what I think is wonderful about you John-- that you can respect someone who as you say, dislikes your poems. And even still say that you like his. That says a lot about you.

At 3/22/2009 1:15 PM, Blogger Louise said...

also, I agree-- I love many poets who i probably wouldn't like very much as people. we need to keep the work and the biography separate, hard as that is.

At 3/22/2009 4:24 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, I have a pretty thick skin. A lot of people have disliked my poems over the years. I still hope to win him over.

Yeah, it's very hard to keep the two apart. I try to do so, but things kep happening. Lucky for me, most everyone whose poems I've liked who I've met I've also liked personally.

Except of course you. You're a simply terrible person.


At 3/23/2009 5:47 AM, Blogger ljs said...

John, great post, which I've been reading over my Monday morning coffee. I particularly like your claims - which I've seen you often put into practice - that we can disagree, continue to disagree, and learn something from it. I love the idea of you and Halliday always trying to change each other's minds. That's part of the fun: we'll all have different opinions on what's good, useful, necessary, fun writing, and the articulation of difference is crucial.

As to when the poet places the self at the center of the work: I've always felt there's a risk we overly assume that the I is the self of the poet, which isn't easily the case even if the events of the I and the events of the author are identical. Something changes when you write an event as opposed to living it - Creeley's "When I speak I speaks" gets this - and the I is always, for me, a performance. So I think I'm least entranced by a book which doesn't seem to be thinking through that; I feel that putting the I at the center of your works means you need to interrogate that I, and its instability.

But maybe others are far more secure in knowing who they are than I...

At 3/23/2009 6:16 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Good things to keep in mind.

It's been awhile since we've (the large WE) had a good cultural conversation about the I. It was really big news when I started college. Lowell was still quite popular, and all those conversations about his post-Life Studies work--and then the whole next generation of poets: Sharon Olds, etc--

The I is a performance, yes. But of course the self is as well, as we're living in a very performative time. It's such an easy conflation that beggars non-fiction the last number of years. But even so, one can comment on the world allowed by the poem, the world of the self on display, and what that might mean for this world, this larger world of our daily lives. That might get pretty close to seeming like biographical criticism, but it doesn't have to be. I think? Or maybe, I thinks. Something like that.

At 3/23/2009 1:29 PM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

I generally like Halliday's poems; does that mean I won't like yours when I get your book?

At 3/24/2009 4:36 PM, Blogger Busstogate said...

I first read Dream Songs , and then I read Berryman biographical fiction Recovery and can't really say my feelings for him changed in any way.

He's an extreme case and certainly epitomizes Wiman's "poetic license" comments in your most recent blog.

Yet, there is this other reason you and I might want to go scremaing into the night and that is that the poets can often be said to be sick people striving for the pain to end as much as they can be expressive flaneurs.

I'd honestly like to look at what I have written and be able to say that what's now down in black in white is more honest because it has dissassociate distance than life that is out there in living color.

Maybe there is greater standard of whatever "art" is supposed to be considered as, but I find it euqally as hard to make counterarguements as to why something more involved isn't as viable as something that is less sensual.

At 3/26/2009 4:37 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Natch. It's one or the other, pal. Choose your team.


At 3/26/2009 5:05 AM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

I'm reading Kit Robinson's "The Messianic Trees," which Silliman wrote about recently, and liking quite a bit of it. I think I'm getting confused about which side I am on!

At 3/26/2009 5:13 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The plan is coming together well.



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