Dean Young on Intention
Dean Young has several tendencies that I don’t follow, but he has a method with which I am in sympathy. Or maybe it’s that he’s coming from a base of Romantic identity to which I feel resistant, just as he has a relationship to the role of the imagination with which I agree. Whatever it is, it keeps me interested in his poetry and in what he says about poetry, just as I know I’m not going to agree in total.
The current issue of Poets & Writers is a great example of this. In his essay “Beyond Intention,” he has a tendency to get too woo-woo for me (to use the technical term), but he makes several stops at several important stations along the way.
First off, the title, “Beyond Intention.” How could I not adore that? It’s been my biggest problem with a lot of poetry and things said about poetry for a long time now, that I think many endorse a poetry overly steeped in intentionality. As John Cage writes sometime around 1960, about Rauschenberg, and painting (and the arts in general): “Were he saying something in particular, he would have to focus the painting; as it is he simply focuses himself, and everything, a pair of socks, is appropriate, appropriate to poetry, a poetry of infinite possibilities.” So, for me, the idea of “beyond intention” gets a big YES vote. It takes the art from the planning to the embodying, from the mind to the living.
“To approach the practice of poetry as an acquiring of skill sets may provide the stability of a curriculum, but the source of inspiration is as much instability, even recklessness. Poets are excellent students of blizzards and salt and broken statuary, but they are always elsewhere for the test. Any intention in the writing of poetry beyond the most basic aim to make a poem, of engaging the materials, should not be realized. If the poet does not have the chutzpah to jeopardize habituated assumptions and practices, what is produced will be sleep without dream, a copy of a copy of a copy.”
It’s funny to me that he worked three Zs into the end of that paragraph leading to sleep, but that aside, I like the movement of this away from the planning to the doing of art, even as I am skeptical of dream metaphors.
He goes on to attack the “professionalization of creative writing,” which is all fine. That’s his battle, not mine, so I’ll walk away. To be honest, I very rarely come up against this “professionalization” stuff. Mostly I teach general education classes. Maybe I’m just in the wrong part of the country. It is funny though, a little, that this essay is in the annual MFA issue of Poets & Writers. That's something. So, moving along.
He then tosses some shots at “art that defines itself as resistance,” saying that its vitality is dependant on the “continued health of that which it resists.” I’m in disagreement, but not enough to work myself up about. And then he goes after literary theory, and poetry based in it, saying “reader, you can sleep through this part if you want.” So I did. I had a feeling he was going to say things that showed a blind spot to the fact that theory is always present, even in an anti-theory stance, but again not enough to get worked up about. Anyway, I’m starting to sound contrary, so let’s get back to the stuff that makes me cheer:
“There is no more exquisite, lively, and welcoming body of work in poetry than what Ashbery continues to give us, none more world enlarging.”
I like that he tosses that in, as it seemed, from the Theory and Resistance bashing, that he might be starting to make a case against the very poetry that Ashbery can be said to stand for. This causes his argument to become much more nuanced. He’s not anti- the poetry of poets like Ashbery, but the types of poetry that use Resistance and Theory as some sort of Intentionality, then. OK.
The value of this essay, in the end, and perhaps the book that it’s excepted from, The Art of Recklessness, due out from Graywolf Press in August 2010, is to be a kind of conventional essay about the mystery of poetry that sounds as much as it could have been written in 1969 as 2009, but to use Breton, Ashbery, Stevens and de Kooning as touchstones (which could have been examples in 1969, yes, and probably were, but not in the sort of publication that Poets & Writers stands for). I believe this describes a major shift in the center of American Poetry. Most often in the past, if one were setting out to write this sort of essay about poetry from the center of the art, true, the writer might choose Stevens, but after that, the examples, the touchstones, would be much more from the very center of Big A Big P American Poetry, maybe Robert Lowell or Plath or James Dickey or something?
The very center of the thought of this essay is this:
“’Say you think life is trembling,’” wrote Willem de Kooning of an idea he picked un in Kierkegaard, ‘Pretty soon everything trembles.’”
It’s about the stance before the work begins. It begins with a conception of life. Which for Young gets described this way:
“The word, then, is not only fit referent but also magical embodiment of the thing; the word takes its flesh from the world. Transubstantiation. The names of the dead are not to be trifled with. Forgiveness is asked for. And power. And self. We have arrived at the primitive.”
For me, I’d like a version of this without using the words “magical,” “transubstantiation,” and “primitive,” but I’ll not quibble. Or maybe I’ll quibble a little. He goes on:
“I’m asking you here to consider poetry that is unhindered by doubt(while acknowledging that doubt can begin the inspiration toward liberation), a poetry that arises out of recklessness and is composed of convictions of first needs, first minds, of truth in language arising from the active impulse of emotion, moving through the calculations of the rational toward irrational detonation.”
Again, I’d like it better without the bit about “liberation” and the bit about “first minds” and “truth,” but I like the idea here of moving into the irrational. I would posit that the irrational is the content that surrounds us already, and it’s in the materials themselves. We can’t get away from it. It’s the basis of deconstruction. But it’s also the basis of belief. The irrational is the IS. Art that denies this, or attempts to circumvent it by a sort of reductive certainty is more a shell game of what words can do, than any real move to a sort of cooperation with reality. But that’s my own essay that I keep not writing.
Here’s Young, doing a better job with “the primitive”:
“By the primitive I mean exploration of primary human dilemmas, the assertion of the monstrous if need be, the instinctual, visceral, sexual, rogue, absurd, sometimes derangement as a form of innocence. Primary even in afterness. Not ironic.”
I hope in The Art of Recklessness, Young includes the examples of this that are as inclusive as his assertion and touchstones seems to imply they might be. It would be easy for him to take this wild exclamation and then turn to a writer like Kim Addonizzio or Kay Ryan as example. That would be fine, I suppose. But I’d be interested more in what he might do with Michael Palmer and Rae Armantrout after such an assertion.
He then goes on to say something I so completely agree with I actually did give a little cheer: “Everyone is a wonderful poet up until the third grade.” Going further with this, would cause me to spiral out into several more pages, so I’m walking away. Suffice it to say that those of us who teach at universities, who teach content areas to Education Majors, need to seriously consider how we can not just make those Ed Majors read lit and write papers or whatever, but also how we need to do more with how poetry can remain open, inclusive moments where imagination can roam, not atrophy. Less a reduction to a scantron test, and more a way to explore. Now I’ll bail out and turn back to the most important word of Young’s essay: imagination. And I’ll add my little YES to that as well.
The last word goes to Dean Young:
“Poetry must assert itself as poetry. Emotion is our greatest primary effectual mode, moving from recollections in tranquility to meditations in emergency, and to speak of emotion as a noun is misleading. It is a verb: feeling, constantly moving, negotiating between the obligation to and liberty from the world, the medium, and instinctual biological as well as philosophical need. Feeling. The preservation of being is an imaginative act.”