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.