Searching for a Heartbeat in Poetry & Music
Thought for the week.
posted by John Gallaher @ 11:02 AM
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Kevin Prufer's observation seems very apt:Poetry is not a secret code or puzzle. Poetry, at its finest, can be a way we communicate complex, often competing (sometimes downright contradictory) ideas — the way we communicate to ourselves and those not-yet-born our sense of the universe we inhabit, the troubles we face, our joys and passions and hypocrisies and frustrations and perplexing double-mindedness. A poem may be ambiguous and it may be difficult, but ambiguity and difficulty are not the ideal ends of a poem. They are effects of the complexity of a poem’s situation and context. Put another way, most great poems I know — even the most difficult, elusive poems! — communicate as directly as they can, given the emotional (or theoretical, or philosophical, or theological, or etc.) complexity of the poem’s subject and, perhaps, speaker.
Or, looked at by Moore:What this paper will focus on is one subset in the practices of aesthetic failure as a response to the Language movement, what I will characterize as the effort to achieve a “sincere,” “naïve” or “childlike” quality in poetry, resulting in what has been called in certain contexts “The New Sincerity.” In particular I’m interested in how the work of poets like Matt Hart, Tao Lin, Dorothea Lasky, and Nate Pritts, among others, is engaged with notions of risk and failure, and I want to suggest that by adopting “failure” as an aesthetic stance, they are claiming a kind of paradoxical literary authority. This kind of authority thrives on testing the grounds of sentimental or sincere modes of discourse, and serves to reveal a more widespread sense of anxiety younger innovative poets are experiencing with regard to literary tradition and aesthetic possibility. My analysis is concentrated on two particular writers, Matt Hart and Tao Lin, because they have (in different ways) provoked considerable commentary concerning issues of risk and failure, irony and sentimentality, and the idea of literary authority on the whole; by extension, Lin and Hart seem to be testing the limits of what counts as poetic practice through their testing of these categorical frameworks. I hope to show that this current crop of poems that flourish in their own “fidelity to failure” are actually engaged in finding ways to resist authority by appearing to claim it by other means; that the gestures many see as “sincere” or “childlike” are in fact efforts to assume authority by seeming to reject it — a simultaneous abandonment and seizure of authority. Put differently, the idea of being comfortable with one’s own failure is a way to assert power; it is a way of achieving success through purposefully appropriating its opposite.A lot rides on how one frames the conversation.
"Unless you become like this child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." What is true of faith is perhaps also true of poetry. The greatest saints are not afraid to look like fools, yet neither they do cultivate foolishness in a self-conscious way. Francis of Assisi could be the patron saint of sincere poets, who in expressing sincerely felt emotion risk failure in a most spectacular way. The difference between the saint and the poet is that the success of the former is judged by God, of the latter, by the Critic.
yet neither they do cultivates/byet neither do they cultivate
Excellent essays, thanks for posting.I've come away with a sharper sense of what I think sentimentality means: an oversimplification of feeling. It hits the same sore spot as any other kind of reductiveness, but seems to do so in an ickier way.I also appreciate the distinction between poems that deal convincingly with feelings (which ground the poem convincingly in something human) and ones that are ABOUT feelings (which for some reason make me want to numb myself with whatever liquor goes down least smoothly)Paul
For as long as I can remember the rejection of sentimentality has been a cover story for the evasion of feeling, which plays out either as a sarcastic defensiveness against being manipulated, or as a sort of nouveau roman flat affect refrigeration style. Which isn't to deny that sentimentality can be loathsome. I'd say more but I don't want to scoop any of my articles coming out in the next week and a half.
As I have no articles coming out on this, I can scoup myself as much as I want. Which I intend to do. Mostly my problem with all of these essays (several of which are written by friends or close friends of mine) is a lack of consensus about what we're really talking about. Sentimentality is icky, but sentiments are not. But one person's valid and moving use of emotion is another's sentimentality. Because of this conceptual divide (apologies for making it sound like a binary, it's not) we tend to talk into mirrors.
The name Sarah Vap (noted, apparently, for the risky maneuver of religious imagery) led me to Blackbird, which led me, by chance, to this poem by Sandra Beasley:YouYou are the whole building on fire.You are the voice of sirens. You arethe dumb crowd milling, the captureof Weegee’s lens. You are flameslicking up the escape. You're the hoveringof a mother at the cliff of her window ledge.You are the choice to drop her baby.You're the chance of a beckoning crowd,six hands gripping a sooty raincoat. Youare the only option. You're a simple drop.Ten stories below they pray you're like a cloud,soft floating. You are like a cloud. Greyand you don't hold anything. You arethat moment before a falling, the falling,a whir of falling, wail of falling, the sweetthud. You are black blood flaringacross the concrete. You are a needleto the groove of a very sad song.The whole building burns with you.
> is another'sI want to agree with that, but hate to give up the whole discussion -- not that I relish the thought of working out the criteria for genuine feeling... Or for that matter, strolling in the valley of ungenuine feelings... Lunch time! is a valid feeling.
I don't want to give it up either. I'm working my way through it right now. Weepingly.
While evading a personal confession of emotion, that poem nevertheless engages my emotion in an unmistakable way.
David, I like that poem. Sentimental? Sentiment? Emotion? Irony? Distance? Cold? Hot? Again, such terms are bedeviled by examples.
Here's another example:She Falls Asleep in Strange PlacesThat one is more ... elusive. Its meaning comes to me in snatches on the second and third reading. Again, the treatment of emotion strikes me as very real, yet indirect.Sandra Beasley is also the sexiest poet in the land. Just sayin'.
Oops, I messed up the link. Here is is again:She Falls Asleep in Strange Places
"Mostly my problem with all of these essays (several of which are written by friends or close friends of mine) is a lack of consensus about what we're really talking about."I think Kevin Prufer's essay deals with the definition of sentimentality (at least of "bad" sentimentality) most convincingly. Even if he doesn't say the same thing as the other authors, what he says seems compatible.Paul
A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.- Shelley, "A Defense of Poetry"
David,Prufer seems to be saying what I've been saying on Scarriet..."Difficulty" should never be an end. When it comes to difficulty, a poet should never confuse means with ends; if they do, they're screwed. But difficulty should never be a means, either!Looking at the works of these poets of "the New Sincerity," Matt Hart, Tao Lin, Dorothea Lasky, and Nate Pritt, I don't see anything beyond a re-visiting of Frank O'Hara, with some variations. Hart is just embarrassing. Lin has a certain O'Hara charm---because you can tell Lin is talking to a real person in his life. Lasky is 'better' because she rises above the 'personal,' --I see some Marianne Moore in her work. Pritts is O'Hara, but with some Creeley in there. People are sentimental, not poems. I mostly see people in these poets, not poems. Lasky is the closest of the four to being 'a poet.' As for Sandra Beasley, she is a beauty, but I find her poems a little too over-intellectually intense, almost as if one were experiencing Kate Beckinsale in "Underworld." And I would never watch that movie.Thanks for quoting Shelley. I am under his spell completely these days.Tom
I agree (probably) that difficulty shouldn't be an end, but I do think it can be a means. Certainly more than a defect and I'd argue more than a byproduct. I'm not prepared to offer formal defense of difficulty. Somebody aught to. I bet we'd end up with as colorful a range of positions as we see on sentimentality.I'm most intrigued by the proposition of Russian Formalists that it is difficulty—or more precisely, the impediment or slowing the reader from discovering meaning—that sets literature apart from other writing. The suggestion being that satisfaction or interest comes from the reader's struggle (or play) to bridge the gaps and overcome obstacles laid by the language. A very different model from any that suggest the pay dirt resides solely in the words or in what they point to or in cultural/historical contexts.Obviously, such a proposition presents its own difficulties. Questions on how much difficulty is appropriate, or what kind, and for whom, are as open ended as any. I don't think we're currently any closer to a consensus on difficulty than we are to one on sentiment.
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