The Difficulty of Aesthetic Positions
Why are you always so serious? Why are you always acting like a fool? Ah, we're so different, you and I.
I’ve long thought aesthetic positions were beside the point of art objects. Put another way, art objects bedevil aesthetic positions. They bedevil criteria. They continually render proclamations about good, bad, and value, moot.
I’m rereading, browsing mostly, Paul Hoover’s seminal Postmodern American Poetry this week. I don’t have much money to buy books these days, so I’m using my circumstances to go back to books from my collection as I unpack them. So, Postmodern American Poetry it is.
What’s striking me this time through is how often I agree with, and find persuasive, aesthetic positions put forward by divergent, often oppositional, groups.
What I mean by “aesthetic positions” here is the intentionality of the poet, what the poet is attempting in language. Most poets say generally that they are attempting through language to get at something that is other than language. Often this “something” will be called “the unconscious” or even “the truth,” where the poem itself isn’t simply “about” this unconscious or truth but instead is a manifestation of that sur-language the poet is imagining.
With this in mind, I get similar stories from a wide variety of poets, where, asked what a poem means, they are tempted to simply read the poem again.
Seen that way, from a distance, there’s great unity in the art of poetry.
There are also raw and cooked rock climbers. The mountain, on the other hand, remains the mountain.
In a semi-related way, here are a few things I came across in Hoover’s introduction that interested me, in a reminding us of things we know way:
The critic Fredric Jameson argues that postmodernism represents a break with nineteenth-century romanticism and early twentieth-century modernism. . . . An opposing argument to Jameson’s is that postmodernism is an extension of romanticism and modernism, both of which still thrive. Thus what Jameson calls pastiche is simply a further development of modernist collage—today’s cultural pluralism can be identified in The Waste Land, The Cantos, and Picasso’s cubist appropriation of the ceremonial masks of Benin; the self-reflexiveness of postmodern art can be found in Finnegan’s Wake and as far back as Tristram Shandy; performance poetry is simply the most recent of many attempts, including those of Wordsworth and William Carlos Williams, to renew poetry through the vernacular. The poetry of John Ashbery is quintessentially postmodern, yet it is influenced by the modernist romantic Wallace Stevens and the modernist Augustan W.H. Auden. John Cage’s use of the “prepared piano” and his emphasis on indeterminacy in language represent high postmodernism, yet they can also be situated, along with the Aeolian harp, in the history of romanticism.
Despite their differences, experimentalists in the postwar period have valued writing-as-process over writing as product. They have elevated the pluralistic . . . . Method and intuition replace intention.
Quoting Charles Olson, [Robert] Creeley continues, “’That which exists through itself is what is called the meaning.’”
In general, postmodern poetry opposes the centrist values of unity, significance, linearity, expressiveness, and a heightened, even heroic, portrayal of the bourgeois self and its concerns.
In short, since 1950, the year Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” appeared, innovative poetry in the United States has flourished.
Then Paul Hoover goes into a brief discussion of the competing anthologies New Poets of England and America (1962), edited by Donald Hall and Robert Pack, and The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (1960), edited by Donald M. Allen.
To use Robert Lowell’s terminology, the poetry of the Hall/Pack anthology was more “cooked” than “uncooked.” Trusting in tradition, its contributors were not eager to reject the influence of British letters in favor of a home-grown idiom. Yeats was preferred to Williams, the mythical to the personal, the rational to the irrational, the historical to the contemporary, learnedness to spontaneity, elitism to populism. However, the early confessional poems of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were included in the Hall/Pack volume, an indication that New Criticism’s demand for objectivity and critical distance was already under question. Robert Pack’s introduction . . . shows his distaste for spontaneous poetry:
“The idea of raw, unaffected, or spontaneous poetry misleads the reader as to what is expected of him. It encourages laziness and passivity. He too can be spontaneous, just sit back and respond. A good poem, rather, is one that deepens upon familiarity. . . . It is not enough to let a poem echo through your being, to play mystical chords upon your soul. The poem must be understood and felt in its details; it asks for attention before transport.”
Pack sides here with the formalism of the New Criticism, which required consistency of structure and poetic detail.
So I’m hoping you’re already seeing the joke time is playing on us. How these issues that Hoover is practicing in his introduction have been around a long time and continue to this day. The joke is, of course, that as they continue to play on, the players and the examples of the poem that “must be understood and felt in its details” keeps changing in ways that would be abhorrent to those making the same argument in the past. All these contending NEWs.
And it continues. Hoover again:
If Robert Pack’s model poet “deepens upon familiarity,” Donald Allen’s model deepens upon strangeness, preferring the irrational and spontaneous to the decorous and well-made. In the tradition of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, the poets in Allen’s anthology also emphasized the American idiom and landscape.
For all the violence of their aesthetic differences (“RAW! COOKED! Spontaneous! Understandable!”) there is still this common gesture, this common idea that something will in fact, or may in fact, deepen. All these poets are wanting, though the act of creating art, a deepening of experience.
So the fight is, as it’s always been, manner. And, after manner, the differences of how people experience the world.
And it’s not the easy either /or that Pack vs Allen would make it seem. Take the above description of the Pack anthology, for instance:
“If Robert Pack’s model poet ‘deepens upon familiarity,’ Donald Allen’s model deepens upon strangeness, preferring the irrational and spontaneous to the decorous and well-made.”
I would posit this: How about the irrational and well-made? (Wallace Stevens springs to mind. There are all manner of mixings that occur as we all have slightly different attitudes toward what it is that language transports us to, and the best way to get there. And, of course, as it’s a personal journey for both the artist and the person in the presence of art, there is no particular way that is the one way.
So the Pack anthology unravels when it gets to the confessional poets (and the free-verse generation after them), just as the Allen anthology unravels when it gets to the language poets, where spontaneity of effect or practice is not part of the endeavor.
Two sides are always pulling the flag back and forth across a pool of mud. That’s a given. But when one looks up from the task, one finds there are an equal number of people watching the clowns, playing darts, and riding the roller-coaster in the church parking lot.