Sunday, October 12, 2008

I Climbed through the Window so the Window's a Door

I climbed through the window so the window’s a door: on “the contemporary” in poetry

I’m preparing a talk on several subjects around poetry, so I thought I might start tossing some notes up on the blog to see if anyone has anything to add or argue or suggest. The notes are sketchy.

Does art “achieve”? That’s an open question for me. If it does, I would think the “achievement” would be somehow explainable. But yet, I see some things appear in art and I feel something important has just happened. I can feel it. Perhaps “achievement” is the incorrect word for how art adds to our experience of the world. One can talk of an athlete achieving something. Going faster. Higher. Just plain better. But in art this is a very different notion. Art is not like science, it does not build upon what came before and extend the reach, but yet it does. Art does build upon what went before to extend the possible to say, to do. So art does evolve, as science does, but not in the way one might term “progress.” As in the notion of one progressing toward a goal of landing someone on the moon or curing a disease. But more in the way of “progress” using the notion of “tour.” As in, I progressed across the field. Shakespeare is not Newton.

Styles change and notions change. And all books are exiles. Because words fail us we continue. Our silence in brackets. Within the possibility of reference. Because all questions rhyme.

Why do some people say poets write for other poets? What is in the writing itself that calls out for a poetry-writing readership? Poems that mention poems? They are really not that common. And even if so, might not the same thing be said of popular songs and novels “about” songs or novels? A big hit like Coldplay’s song “yellow” is about writing a song called “yellow.” So where specifically is the distrust in people, and where is it directed, when they say poetry is only read by other poets? Who is it condemning? Who is being blamed?

Doing what everyone else does. Things get in the air and become a cultural gripe. People hear others say something and decide to wear that opinion themselves. Sarah Palin, when asked what supreme court decisions she disagrees with, couldn’t name one other than Roe V. Wade, a nearly 40-year-old decision. In certain circles it’s fashionable to dislike the Supreme Court, for better or worse. It’s also fashionable, if you’re a conservative, to dislike the French. These days, it’s the only time I hear about France. Most recently with the 700 billion dollar Wall Street “bailout” package. Some who opposed it said that if we passed it, we would be like France. As if France was one thing. As if the Supreme Court was one thing. Doing what everyone else does. And everything is a history lesson. Times are neither peaceful nor turbulent for everyone.

Someone once said (where and when I haven’t a clue) that poets write for other poets, and suddenly that’s what people think we do. And the absurdity of the idea isn’t interrogated. As if Ted Kooser and Ron Silliman were one thing. Right?

The poetry that I admire is often specifically targeted with comments such as that. Call it poetry of the imagined world, maybe. So what is the goal of this poetry then? I think it’s absurd to say that poetry is written only for poets. When writing, how could/ would one imagine the needs of such an audience. I believe that if poets constitute the main audience for poetry, is says less about why or how that poetry is being produced, and more about how the culture in general talks about poetry.

What then is the goal for poetry these days? The poetry I like? I always feel conned, or that someone is trying to con me, when I encounter art that pretends it’s not art. Poetry that calls itself “conversation” or some other world. Poetry that places its subject as some real or imagined autobiography or biography that foregrounds the “communication” of the social. I can kind of stand it when the “story” is remarkable or astounding or weird, or on some fascinating subject—like a doctor writing, for instance—but when it’s just some day held up, starting with something like “my mother always…”, you know? It just seems like all my energy for reading evaporates. I just think to myself that this is going to go to really predictable places. How different the poetry on topics by poets like Rae Armantrout or Mary Jo Bang. They are aware of the myth of symmetry. Of the fragile myth of narrative and story.

I’ve read this a number of places (Michael Palmer & Reginald Shepherd both write of it) and I’ve said it for many years myself, as many of us have, that what people seem fairly ready and willing to admire in paintings—disjunction of image, dislocated perspectives, gestures rather than depictions—in poetry, leaves them irritated or angry even. Know what I mean?

David Byrne speaks of a similar thing about the dancers on his recent tour:

“. . . our audiences, who are pretty much universally loving the dance elements, would probably, most of them, never go to see a contemporary dance performance if it was in town. We agreed that somehow this context removes any sense of pretension and fear from the viewer. There is none of the intellectual questioning and pondering by the audience that often occurs at a dance or at a performance context. No one is asking, “What does this mean? Do I get it? Do I like it? Is this over my head?”

“Somehow mixed with popular music, these elements in the show bypass those critical and questioning centers and people receive them as part and parcel of the total performance. If they are enjoying it, then it must be OK. Lily suggests that dance, often marginalized but now increasingly so, needs to insert itself into other places and join with other media, as this show does in its own way. She mentioned some places dance might fit: fashion shows (which is a great idea to make those events a little more acknowledged as performance); film; fine art; and elsewhere.”

Of course we know it already, but Wallace Stevens reminds us that “it is life that one is trying to get at in poetry.” It must be a life, a way of life, that poetry gets at better than other things do, or there is no use. In much the way that painting “gets at” something. What then is this something and how can we mark its value in a culture that seems to do everything it can to avoid such things as poetry. So the culture convinces us to approach poetry as if it were an opportunity for a fill-in-the-blank test. Something we can assess. Something for No Child Left Behind. But some other way of talking about poetry, some more interesting experience of poetry that might not kill the long-term relationship with poetry that would yield real difference to people, well, that would seem to be in everyone’s best interest. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to convince people to be just as determined in the search through a poem for something as they must also be that they’ll not find it—because the search is the goal—finding something would destroy the real importance, the importance of the things along the way that keep unfolding. Poetry, art, is not a destination but a vista, granting that that, in its way, is a destination.

If we set out on a path of study that says Ashbery is difficult, then we will find a difficult Ashbery to study. But if we’re not on a path of study? What if we rename the path? What if it is a path of experiencing? What if we are to conceptualize it as a path of noticing things, along with a genial Ashbery? If we’re taught that reading poetry leads one to an answer, well, there you are.

The new doesn’t “make sense” it enacts sensibility. “Making sense” is a processing the new sits before. By the time one can see it to say it makes sense, it’s gone, and they’re looking behind themselves. We turn back to see only historical markers down the trail, encircled by birds.

Or maybe I just want to know who’s in control so I can be properly oppositional.


At 10/19/2008 9:57 PM, Blogger Michael Hessel-Mial said...

Hello, thank you for voicing a lot of my concerns about poetry. It may be that American poetry is insular and isolated, but it's reinforced by a lot of the misconceptions about poetry, art and pretension that people unfortunately have. I guess the best that poets can do is write the best they can and be as nice as they can to people who've gotten the wrong idea.

Thanks again!


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