Thursday, December 29, 2011

In the Presence of Art

The future's always bright for someone.

When I started this blog, I thought of it as something of a vacation spot.  It’s been good this last week or so to turn the tables, and take a vacation from it.  And, as with most vacations, I arrive back neither refreshed nor with new perspective, but, like with most vacations, I’ll fake it in the name of narrative coherence. 
I suppose it’s inevitable at this time of year to think of the future: New Year’s Resolutions, and all that. This year, however, we have the added bonus of entering 2012, the apocalypse year for Hollywood and various other sales forces.  
So here I am in central Texas, in what will, apparently, soon be ocean-front property, and I’m wondering if I should make some sort of resolutions of some kind.  Not much is arriving.  But it does leave me thinking about my personal relationship to art. As with personal relationships in general, our relationship with art is at its core irrational. But just because our personal relationship with art is based in the irrational, doesn’t mean we can’t have productive conversations about art with others, we just have to remember that at some point our conversations will get absurd if we press them.  
What's not to love about the future?

It is through our need and desire that we participate with art, and as our needs are not solely aesthetic, we will fall upon various rocky shores when talking about art with others. Two of these shores, these irrational stances toward art that I come across often are easy to fall into: 
1.The new’s the only thing. This is the much talked about “Cult of the New” stance, and it’s especially easy to fall into, as every year a new group of poets comes out with their first books. Look! Ah, that new poet smell! Publishers make most of their money off books in their first year of publication, so it’s in their best interest to push the new line. AWP is another great mover of the new.  Buzz is the word. “Relevance” the obfuscation, as what’s relevant is a social construction, one that feeds on what it tells itself to feed on. Nothing is relevant by itself, and everything is potentially relevant.  
I come across this often in music criticism. Sometimes I get myself so interested in finding the newest exciting band, that I find myself in a constant state of downloading, without actually listening to most of what I accumulate. The poetry world can get like that. How many nickels would each of us have if we got one for every time we were in a conversation where people are talking about poets they haven’t read?  
That will be my first resolution then, to remember that NEW is a social act, bound in time, and that it isn’t itself a sign of artistic value. It seems like such an obvious thing, but “The Next Big Thing” is a seductive brew, and to be the first one on your block to have it is a special thrill that lasts close to fifteen minutes, until the chase begins again. But in the chasing, we’re new too.  And to be new is to be relevant and free and young.  Who wouldn’t’ want that?  
2.One of the flip sides to this, that is a devastating over-reaction, is the “Cult of the Old,” where nothing new or recent is of any value in the face of an older, pure order. This is a self-congratulatory, nostalgic stance that allows the person who holds it to dismiss anything and everything current or made after some date where everything stopped having meaning.  
The joke is that we all get to this point at some time. In music it happens usually just after high school, where we suddenly stop listening to new music, and our tastes keep getting reinforced by repetition of the old and further remove from everything else.  
This stance can take several forms. In music, as above, it takes an autobiographical form. Music was great when I was young and full of potential, but now . . . .  Sometimes in art it follows a similar path: “When I was young I read ________, and all was excellent, and now that I’m older . . . .” This stance often comes masked under the standard of “standards,” where the passing of time has dulled cultural, aesthetic, political, and etc, values. It’s a cry against change, because change means we disappear, and it’s not fun to disappear.
Both of these stances are apocalyptic, in my view, as they chase the ever-receding new or balkanize the ever-receding old. But then again, as the future is coming at each of us with a use-by date, they’re both understandable stances, and two of many, equally (in the abstract) apocalyptic stances.  Perhaps all stances are apocalyptic?
There’s stance three, for instance, that I come across more often that I would think from artists themselves.  This is the “The Only People Who Make Good Art Are My friends” stance. It’s a very limiting stance, depending on how many friends one has, both in its narrowness and in its weird aesthetic inclusions and exclusions. And then come stances four and five, the critical stances of “Everyone Who Writes Well Writes Well All of the Time” and “People Who Don’t Write Well Never Write Well” that can make book reviewers and apologists get all pretzel logic in unintentionally humorous ways.
So is there a New Year’s Resolution in any of this? To continue to value what has come before, and to also remain open to the new?  To continue to experience art in two directions? To not just read my friends?  To read honestly and critically?  Don’t we all try to do that already?
The problem for me is that I have a pretty large bookshelf (and music catalogue) and I like to hear from my friends, so most of my energy, my energy for finding things, is going to be directed at the new, and what people (my friends) tell me about.  I feel that’s probably the case for most of us? So maybe here’s my New Year’s Resolution: For every couple new books or albums I read or listen to, I will read or listen to something old. And I will continue to look again at books from poets I, in the past, haven’t cared for. I’ll start with my favorite Frank Sinatra tune that I haven’t listened to in some time, as a token of my sincerity. 
Frank Sinatra
That’s Life


At 12/29/2011 8:12 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I was actually thinking about this myself. I've decided I have certain gaps in my reading I'd like to fill, and will try to fill them at the rate of once per month. I haven't figured out the books yet, but it's mostly pre-20th century stuff with a few of the monumental Modernist texts I've yet to read (I'm thinking of the Cantos).

At 12/29/2011 8:19 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Funny you should say that, I was thinking I'd like to have Dante as my first reading project.

Here's to big things!

At 12/29/2011 8:29 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Oh wow, we are thinking very alike, I was planning on breaking Dante into three parts, one in January, one in June-July, and one in December.

At 12/29/2011 10:58 AM, Blogger David said...

Welcome to Texas, John. Hope you enjoy our great state.

So many books, so little time. And then there's the internet, with so much new and old a click away. That's to say nothing of all the conversations in between. It's a challenge to pin down the "right" reading project(s)! In any case, Happy New Year!

At 12/31/2011 6:03 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


Happy New Year

Conflicting view, this serene
yet busy egret, tall and white
against the green, seeking
sustenance along the wooded
thick-set border of the pond.
So small against the further shore
and the noisy background
of the tractor in the trees now
tearing down his home.

Conflicting time, one to consider
the new year’s hope and promise,
the losses of the last one,
and the worlds that soon will fall
as the tractor approaches.
We’ll mark them down with
the losses of the next one.

Copyright 2008 – Softwood-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 1/01/2012 8:28 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Until the age of 30, one should read to 'fill in gaps,' but after that, one's reading should have a purpose. 'Old v. new' is not a matter of taste; history is not a matter of likes and dislikes. The old is 'what we know,' as Eliot put it; the whole issue of 'do you like the old or the new' is not a real choice; that very question is a red herring. Unless you can tell me, 'why are you reading Pound? What are you looking for in Pound?' I have no interest that you are reading Pound.

At 1/01/2012 8:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You write:

"Unless you can tell me, 'why are you reading Pound? What are you looking for in Pound?' I have no interest that you are reading Pound."

I don't agree. There is reading FOR, yes. That is good. But what of reading for the encounter itself? Not all things need to be strictly pedagogical, not all desires to read something need to be formal.

At 1/01/2012 11:28 AM, Blogger David said...


What are we looking for when we read a poet whom we don't yet know, whom we are encountering for the first time, a poet picked at random in an online journal? How can we answer that question?

I'm a score past 30 and still have many gaps to fill.


At 1/02/2012 10:30 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

It's a nice idea that we come to a new poet with a 'blank mind,' but 1) I don't think it's possible and 2) I don't think it's good, even if it were possible.

It seems to me there's a greater danger of reading frivolously than there is of 'trying to make things fit,' since the latter is a far greater challenge.

At 1/02/2012 11:06 AM, Blogger David said...


The more refined our critical apparatus, the better we are able to judge a new poet. Those of us further down the learning curve are more susceptible to surprise, but that does not necessarily make our reading frivolous.


At 1/03/2012 6:50 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


Define "frivolously" in the context of this conversation.

I think Pound is important as an individual more than as a poet. I don't feel particularly influenced by his poems or his poetics. Several poets have responded to The Cantos with their own "projects." Williams, Zukofsky, Olson, et al, and it is for this reason that I'm interested in starting there.

At 1/04/2012 2:10 PM, Blogger Philip Metres said...

John, thanks for this post; as I hit 40 last year, with two children, and suddenly massive physical pain (which has now, thankfully, subsided), my reading got very focused. I no longer was interested in reading for reading's sake--there simply wasn't enough time. I'm still "filling in gaps" (that is a lifelong journey), but, like my basketball game, I pick my spots and economize my skills and time as they see fit. I very much appreciate your words about innovation. For much of my 30s, I was in the "oh, that's COOL" phase (re: things like Flarf) and tried to do everything I was reading. Then, when dread and pain emerged and the dread 40, I found myself unimpressed by much that was new. The stakes seemed so low, in many cases. But it's hard not to feel skeptical of the latest thing, when, for example, it sounds EXACTLY LIKE something you've already heard before. I mean, you can't listen to Deertick without hearing Jeff Tweedy, or Iron & Wine without hearing Nick Drake, or Fleet Foxes without Simon and the other guy. And not in a good way. Same goes for poetry. So thanks for your blog, and your work.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home