Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Statements of Faith (Part Several Later)

There are as many ways to talk about the making of art as there are art objects themselves. By far, my favorite thing to talk about, my topic of choice, is what has been called “The Artistic Sensibility.” For me, this is nearly everything. I would even say it’s more important than the art objects themselves, because it is through the art objects that the audience is brought into communion with the artist’s sensibility.

Because of this, I’m very sensitive (some say overly so) to what sounds like prescriptions for artists, for artistic production. I try as best I can to stay away from such conversations. I’m interested in where artistic ideas come from, though, don’t get me wrong. And I’m interested in the craft of art making, as well. And of course I’m very interested in art objects. But all of these, for me, are secondary to the experience of art, the artistic sensibility.

I was raised under the banner of Art Can’t Be Taught, But Craft Can. But even people I knew who believed this strongly, and therefore tried to keep as close to craft as possible, ended up talking a lot about “mystery” and “the unknown,” those sorts of things. My response was always that this craft stuff seemed to be the hollow rituals for something no one wants to talk about, so I want to skip them and go right for that.

There is a devotional aspect to my attitude toward art that I usually try to hide, but it’s fundamental to the way I participate with art. I don’t have much of an explanation for it, suffice it to say it’s not the same as a religion. Maybe others would say it is, though. That’s fine with me. Others, more inclined in political ways, see art as a manifestation of politics. Maybe we're both right or wrong. Maybe these are metaphors for the same thing in the end. But our choices (if it's even a choice) of metaphors sets us down divergent paths sometimes.

I say this, because this undergirds my reactions to poets like Tony Hoagland, Franz Wright, and others (including the recent exchanges I and others had with Kent Johnson) when they make general statements about different types of poetry that end up in a prescription of some sort (Hoagland basically saying that people should stop writing these things he calls “skittery,” Wright saying that there is something inherently evil about MFA programs, etc). Not all of my reactions are adversarial. There have been terrible poems written in the “skittery” mode; there are—I’m sure—some MFA programs out there that are so prescriptive and anti-experiential that they damage the people in them. It’s when the complaint is universalized that I find myself having to talk back to it.

Sometimes I get close to universalizing as well, when I find myself defending a style, mode, or general tendency in poetry, I can get caught up in the oppositional nature of the essay or poet I’m reacting to. It becomes an US /THEM, or a ME / YOU situation sometimes, and, in reality, it’s anything of the sort. If there is one thing that can be said with confidence about our age, it’s that it is plural.

Some of that plurality is going to be exhibited purely as a formal difference in how the poems look on the page. This is easy. It’s easy to say OK to that, and to then say it’s a taste issue. In that case, one can usually say something like “Well, that’s not really what I like best, but I can see that it’s well done, and therefore admire it.”

This often gets conflated into a second category, one that is more difficult to talk about. In this category, the differences between what two poets do, or what the reader and the poem are doing, is not so much a formal difference (though there is often that as well), but a difference in sensibility. This is where, I think, a poet such as Tony Hoagland is coming from. He’s trying to act like he’s seeing and dealing with craft issues, but really he’s dealing with much larger differences in sensibility, in world view.

Such a moment is frustrating for all of us. It’s frustrating for Hoagland, because he is finding it difficult to make anything useful for himself out of these art objects that other poets are able to experience and to find pleasure in. So, for him, it’s not a problem with him as a reader, it’s a problem of both the poem at hand, and the audience that endorses the poem (Fence, Wave Press, etc).

Similarly, a difficulty I have with some poems, and some poets in general (Ted Kooser being an easy example), is that I can read them just fine, but I find nothing there that I didn’t already know, and worse, that I found to be fundamentally flawed in its enacting of what it means to live in the world.

These are two examples, there are many more. Why I’m mentioning this, is because we’re at a time when all these divergent poets, divergent aesthetics (much of them divergent but compatible and much of them divergent and incompatible) are being tossed together in the same room. The Table X row at AWP is one example. A friend of mine saw that as a political statement, and saw them as co-opting the figure of James Tate. That friend wanted a to counter with a different example of the lineage of James Tate. There are other examples, universities, for one: Tony Hoagland vs Claudia Rankine, which was as much an aesthetic fight (what the poem is for) as anything else.

To the outside, for people who don’t read poetry, so all the poetry they see seems pretty much the same, this all seems obscure. A lot of them are still trying to come to grips with the fact that poetry no longer has to rhyme. (“Well, then how am I to know it’s a poem?” someone, not a student, asked me a few years ago.)

All this is just to say we’re in an interesting time of pockets of interest groups, some of whom are quite content to go on their way making art, some who are trying to influence the larger conversation, and still others who say they like mad yaks. I wonder sometimes how it’s all going to shake out.

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