Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Weren’t we supposed to be the arch, I-don’t-really-mean-it, ironic, “caring is creepy,” generation? What happened?

The new issue of APR has an interesting symposium/email exchange.  It was conducted by Hannah Gamble (who has some poems coming out in the next issue of The Laurel Review).  I’m going to concentrate on some things from the poets in the symposium: Matthew Zapruder, Ange Mlinko, Timothy Donnelly. 

These three poets are at what I would consider the very center of the American Skittery Poetry World.  Personally, I don’t really think there is such a thing, but as it’s been said many times that there is, I’ve decided that if it could possibly be true, or truthy, then these poets fit as well as any as its center. 

The reason I’m bothering to make this point is that the world these poets have been seen to stand for—especially Zapruder and Donnelly—has been accused of obscurantism, willful meaninglessness, and various diseases plaguing graduate programs and the poetry-publishing industry. 

What struck me in this email symposium is just how earnest, sincere, and, well, “traditional,” these poets seem when answering Gamble’s question regarding the standards of good and bad writing.  I like that, as it speaks to the shifting weight of history on the production of art, not to a shift in the basic contract between artist and world.  Art, in other worlds, continues to do what it’s always done.  The times change, so art changes.  Sometimes at the forefront of that change, sometimes lagging behind.  But still, it changes. 

Here are some snippets.  (Some slightly reorganized.)

Timothy Donnelly: I’m not drawn to moderate art.  I don’t understand the impulse behind it, really.  I see why moderation is a useful principle, at times, in life, of course, but in art, I just don’t get it.  Art should provoke us to rethink things, destabilize us, not secure us in the sweet center of what we already want to believe.  I think art that doesn’t reach beyond its grasp or go for broke or break out of its safety zone and dismantle its cozy frame of reference is like a tiger confined to a studio apartment.  It will atrophy, or fatten.  [. . .]  In certain contemporary communities these might be the poems devoid of any sensual pleasure or original insight but thoroughly adept at announcing how their author holds all the right ethical, political, and intellectual commitments.  Worst of all might be the poems that are full of genuine feeling and only enough artistry to hold it all together, not so much that you’d ever notice.  These poems are especially unappealing to me when their feelings have to do with stays in Continental villas or the play of light in Renaissance paintings. 

[ . . . ]

I worry that our wildness gets beaten out of us, or that we temper our imaginations, conform them to the norm—and even in our poetry, where we should be least willing to compromise. 


Matthew Zapruder: It seems like maybe the implication, unfashionable as it may be, is that there is something ethical about reaching out to the reader?  I’m really not sure how I feel about this, immediately when I say that I think of all the gorgeous private mysteries of the surrealists or Tomaž Šalamun that attracted me to poetry in the first place.  Things I couldn’t quite “understand,” but I really did understand. 

[. . .]

I feel as a poet that I am constantly trying, through my work as a poet and editor and teacher, to counteract a very well-entrenched idea that poetry is “hard to understand” and not relevant to daily life. I believe, hokey as it might sound, in the necessity of poetry.  As far as complexity, I am trying very hard to say things as simply as possible: it’s just that sometimes what I’m saying is complicated, so the poem can be too. So I don’t mind when something is hard to understand because it’s hard to understand, but I really mind when something is confusing to cover up an essential vacuity.  I believe Emerson was right when he wrote all language is fossil poetry: language is the repository of ancient truths, and writers work instinctively with this material, language, to bring forth those truths again for our time.

[. . .]

If a poem does not somewhere, even in a very subtle way, feel as if it was written by a person who is aware of what I think are the basic actual things about being human, I just do not feel connected.

Ange Mlinko:  Fanny Howe said, in The Winter Sun, “Why write if not to align yourself with time and space?  Better to wash the bottoms of the ill or dying.”  Maybe we’re doing that and maybe we’re not.  Certainly when I was changing diapers, I knew what my job was and that it was necessary.  I didn’t for a minute lack access to strong, even overwhelming, feelings.  So why even bother with the “writing poems” thing?  For me, it has to do not with feeling more deeply, or the privilege of talking with people about poems and life (though I’m all for that!)—it has to do with propitiation and thanksgiving, which is bound up with rehearsing a perfection in art you can’t have in life.  This is fundamentally transcendental.  It’s also life-affirming [. . .]: the poet helps people live their lives.  But it can’t be just about feeling; people kill from too much feeling too, you know.  It has to be about ennoblement, and the reassurance that there’s another order of experience than the one we’re normally given access to. Surely the belief in that order of experience has kept many people alive who would otherwise despair.

+

See what I mean?  These positions, these things they say here could have been said a hundred years ago—were being said a hundred years ago.  This is not a criticism of what they're saying.  We’re all just part of the river.  We float and talk about our floating.  The river continues to be the river. 

There are things these poets say about the art of poetry that I wouldn’t say, but that’s due mostly to my temperament; I make art and I go to art mostly just because I’m amazed that there is such a thing.  What a good thing it is that we don’t have to be without art, or, to be more precise: what a good thing it is that we don’t have to be flat, or that we don’t have to have only simply entertaining art.  What a good thing. 

9 Comments:

At 3/13/2012 1:48 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Nice piece, John.

But doesn't Donnelly differ from the other two when he says poetry should "destabilize?"

Zapruder quotes Emerson's 'language is fossil poetry' and Emerson is quoted for that quite a bit: actually Shelley beat him to it with that 'fossil' idea in "Defense of Poetry."

 
At 3/13/2012 2:17 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

He does, a bit, yes. I should clarify my point a bit.

What I was thinking is not that these poets are in direct agreement with each other on all things, or that they're in direct agreement with everything others have said about poetry in the past. What I meant was that they're trying to do in their poetry broadly what poets have generally always tried to do with their poetry.

The bit about Emerson's / Shelley's "fossil" supports that. Zapruder also quotes Stevens, which is what Mlinko is alluding to at the end of what I've quoted from her.

It's a continuum, a lineage, and these poets are aware of it. In the conversation, I thought some of what Donnelly was saying could easily have been Robert Bly talking in 1965, for instance. Not that Donnelly's poetry looks anything like Bly's (it doesn't).

The river looks different as it travels through different landscapes, but it's still the river. We just ride on it.

 
At 3/14/2012 7:22 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Frankly, I'm offended by your definition of a river. It doesn't look the same from my boat.

 
At 3/14/2012 9:44 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hah! Indeed, that is where it all breaks down. Maybe, to extend the metaphor, or to play with it, we’re all in the (ouch) same boat, and we agree on a river, but we’re looking out at different facets of the passing landscape. Or some extended-metaphor iffy bit like that.

 
At 3/14/2012 10:35 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Now you're saying I share a boat with those people? We need to find a way to shove them overboard.

In all seriousness, this article is a non-surprise. What's new may be unrecognizable (at first, anyway), but that doesn't make it ignorant of tradition.

Once I find the words, I'll elaborate.

 
At 3/14/2012 12:17 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Oh, I agree it's not new. But what interests me is how they are aware of and mirror the conversations of past generations. That awareness is something that, I think, they (broad brush, apologies) are accused of ignoring or not knowing or understanding.

Or something like that. T.C. Boyle is on campus today. He seems approachable. He just was talking about poets in workshop (in the 70s) as writing "incomprehensible gibberish". I thought that was fun.

 
At 3/14/2012 12:50 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 3/14/2012 5:47 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Nice post, nice passages from the guest poets. I'm a bit perplexed by Donnely's comment, though, about not being drawn to modern art, when what follows could pass for a manifesto in favor of modern art.

PaulEm

 
At 3/15/2012 6:29 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Is "incomprehensible gibberish" redundant? Or is gibberish just incoherent verbiage that may make some sense? Gibbered but not necessarily ununderstandable words?

Here's a poem from the early 70s. It's by an old friend who got published in a thousand little magazines back then. What think you of it? Portentous pseudo-reference? Obscurantism? Gorgeous private mystery? Clear as a tear? Whatever floats your witch?

THE SO-CALLED PLEASE

Emily holds a crystal
a fly's eye
a million filaments.

What she knows
wanders from room to room
with her or not.

Her hands unhinge
startled by blooms of light
through near drawn blinds.

Father thy will be done
her thighs quiver hard
then dissolve.

Her mother's clock stalls
silent into its third year
a filigreed bird dead on the wall.

What she owns
never moves nor asks anything
of her.

And so on.

 

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