Jordan Davis on Confessing
Jordan Davis’s reviews of Michael Palmer and Dorothy Barresi is up at Constant Critic:
Whether you’ve read either book or are interested in them, you’ll still find something of interest in this review. The reviews I like the most are the ones that are after a larger question than “is this book good.” The best reviews are about poetry itself. What it does. What it might be doing, in the book under glass, yes, but also in the larger scope of the art itself.
As I’ve just finished the Michael Palmer, I’m interested in that part of the review for several reasons (I’m going to try to sort myself out on it and post it before I get on a plane tomorrow). On the other hand, I’ve not read the Barresi, so I’ll post Davis’s questions surrounding her book, as I can approach them without the weight of his example (Barresi).
This part struck me:
“There are some poems in the earlier books about growing up in the Midwest, in Akron in the seventies and eighties, going to clubs, doing drugs. It’s a somewhat cautionary tale for poets in a developing cul de sac: would you want, when you’re fifty, to have this be the material you look back on. That’s too harsh a statement, and this harshness is probably why I’ve been avoiding writing this review. Too harsh to say. But I think there’s a reason people pursue aestheticization or the development of an aesthetics by taking the safe route. When you risk embarrassment in your work, you will often be embarrassed, and if your sense of embarrassment at yourself breaks, that may be a marvelous thing or it may be delayed onset of a social adjustment issue.”
It is a caution. I’ve seen some things, some content things, in books by people who keep the poetic I and themselves very close to each other, who really blur the line. And these things, as autobiography, often make me wonder how well these books are going to fit when the author is putting that big Selected Poems together. Is that a reason to not blur the line? Or is that a reason not to talk about having sex in the bathroom of a club? Why do people do that anyway? (Both the club itself and the writing about it?)
I’m not called to write from that standpoint, mostly because I don't see the point. My experiences are my experiences, and I’m not sure why they should be a poem. This leads me to the second part of the above: “I think there’s a reason people pursue aestheticization or the development of an aesthetics by taking the safe route.” I’ve always thought of that in the direct opposite way that Davis does. When I was starting to write poetry seriously (in the late 80s), the type of poetry he’s talking about, the post-confessional, heavily autobiographical-seeming sort, seemed the safest, or the natural route, to take in poetry, simply because it was all around. Ashbery, then, was held up as something of a cautionary tale. Look at writers like this! They’re so full of nihilism that they refuse to participate in meaning-making! They are anti-humanist and anti-social! They’re not working for the common good!
Have things really changed? Am I transferring the ghosts of 1986 over the top of 2011? Perhaps no way is really a safe way, and every roué one takes into art is Los Angeles on fire. Can you really choose a way? Does one choose an aesthetic stance? I feel mine (whatever it is) was more thrust upon me than chosen. I need to do a survey. I’m afraid that what I will find is that if poets are shying away from disclosures of the drug and club sort, it might have more to do with their jobs (where most work at universities, yes, and that’s an obvious one, but also in other professional lines of work there might be repercussions to writing about a scandalous background that could be seen as yours). The temper and tone of the times . . .
Davis goes on:
“There’s a tradition of confessing in literature, lately somewhat degraded but going back to Augustine; Augustine’s confessions don’t look all that embarrassing now but maybe we’re just far enough away from them. Confessional poetry does not have a great reputation at the moment partly because there is a threshold you can cross with the reader where the reader doesn’t want to know anymore about you. Barresi’s nowhere near that point, but there is a reason confessionalism stopped being the main mode of what we agree to call mainstream poetry.”
This is the very thing that I often think, but without the word “mainstream.” I’m still not sure what it is we’re agreeing to call “mainstream poetry.” I would think, myself, that it would be more typified by Dorothy Barresi than Michael Palmer, though. But I go around about this a lot, in curlicues. If we’re talking about absolute numbers of poets writing poetry today, then Billy Collins and Mary Oliver (I know, I pick on them a lot, they’re my go-to examples! Where would I be without them? [Pinsky and Dove?]) can stand in as names for what I mostly see.
But is what one mostly sees, the mainstream? The example I’ve used before is the thick of Modernism. Now, looking back, the period seems dominated by WCW, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, HD, e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot . . . but looking at the journals from back then, and the books published and the awards given out and the anthologies published, it seems that they were mostly unaware they were being so dominated.
In fifty, 100 years, our period is going to look very different than it does now, that’s for certain. We’re going to be very different to them than we are to ourselves, and perhaps some of this conversation about “mainstream” is our guess at what our period is going to be remembered as, rather than what it is to our daily experience. Question mark?
“There’s something to be said for relieving yourself of the burden of the ego-ideal, of always having to put the best possible face on all your actions. To always mean well, to always try to think for everyone—‘I thought hard for us all’—it’s not healthy to think for other people. Let other people think for themselves.”
I’ve had this very conversation with people, especially after reading that poem Davis quotes from, William Stafford’s “Travelling Through the Dark.” Yes, how much “I thought hard for us all” can one person get away with before we all start getting a little creeped out? That kind of tone is one that’s been a target of much of the poetry written over the last 15 or so years. It’s what a lot of people write against. And now, perhaps, there will (or are?) poets rising up against the poetry the rose up against it. Perhaps this will someday become the Age of Stafford that some were thinking back in the 70s it was going to be. Or the Age of Olds. I’m going to have to live a long time to find out, and by the time I’m 125, I’ll most likely not be all that interested in whatever the answer turns out to be.
Davis leaves us with a catholic homework assignment:
“Barresi. She’s a real poet. If you’re going to read poetry, why not read all the real poets. Why not see when they hit it, which she does at least once here. And many of the poems are memorable. People when they find out I write about poetry (when they don’t abruptly change the subject) ask me who to read, who’s worth reading now. I usually say pick up any book of poems, chances are there’s something good in it. You may have to read a lot of it, there may be a lot of it that doesn’t look any good, you may get discouraged. You may think I don’t get why this is good, why did someone print this. That’s true about pretty much all poetry. . . . But. Also, if you just read it, and see what you respond to, and aren’t in the market for being told that you’re having an experience, but actually are in the market for your own experience, and a companionable mind, then why not read everybody. If you’re going to read everybody, why aren’t you doing that yet?”
Indeed. Yes but. Well, we don’t have time, of course. We can’t read everything. Everything is not readable. What’s the figure now? 3,000 books of poetry published a year? OK, so that includes a lot of things no one will ever see (for various reasons, not all of them Artistic Worth), but, say, the number of books where we can find a memorable poem or three . . . 200, maybe? That would be 16.7 books a month. But I can read the Palmer and the Barresi. That’s one of the values of lists of names and lists of books and reviews such as this one. Not saying to read or not to read something, but to draw one’s attention, to make one curious.
And the larger point, the point of “read widely and broadly,” yes, absolutely. That’s something I need to keep being reminded of. I remember a few years ago, picking up an old book by Sharon Olds, one I thought of as terrible (Satan Says), and opening it at random, and finding a good poem right off the bat. Most things aren’t as bad or as good as we think. And the cost of finding important (to us) poems is only to read through some poems that aren’t very good. It’s not that heavy of a price.