Monday, October 13, 2008

I Looked Out the Door So the Door’s a Window

I Looked Out the Door So the Door’s a Window

The form of knowing. The forms knowing takes. All forms of knowing bring forth a knowing available to that form. Science brings forth scientific knowing—you can not ask science to answer the question of what is a moral stance. That is a knowing in philosophical or religious formations. Likewise art has a form of knowing which is different form non-art forms of knowing. Football is also a form of knowing. The decision we make is how to value these various forms of knowing. I will not try to come up with a hierarchy, one can do that for oneself. But what I will stress is that what is known through art is of some importance, and finding something in art, or specifically, poetry, is worth your time. Go buy a book. Own it and live with it. Somewhere in all the ways you know the world.

In art, the forms of knowing are always getting stale, becoming stock forms within genres, and must be continually questioned, not just as they appear in the genres, themselves, but as they appear in all language acts. Remember, it’s the telling of stories that gave us the fundamental plots that we now place experience into—it’s dangerous to think of our own experiences as “stories” then, as “stories” are an idea that is placed over experience. In much that same way, be must continually be aware of the way we are represented in language, as language does as much to conceal as to reveal. This idea of representation, of how we are to be shown to each other is at the least as much a mask as it is a revelation of community.

The art I like seems to me aware, on the subject level, of these issues. And I read it (in poetry) as a way to push back against the easy formulas of representation. I feel it is our duty to continually push back against representation, as representation is, of course, a myth. Words can be tinted away from simply “referring to” and toward “enacting.” Yes words refer. Yes words represent. That is part of the nature of words. But words also allow tonal and cognitive shadings that possibly let one out from under the essentializing traps that representation brings with it.

But how does one push back against representation? What might this look like? On the one hand, for example, a poet like Mary Jo Bang pushes back against the voice-over of the elegy in Elegy. Lyn Hejinian pushes back dramatically against autobiography in My Life. John Ashbery pushes back against lyric meditation, to name a few of my favorites. But this doesn’t have to be a move only for “experimental” poets. As “experimental” is just another voiced-over title that allows one easy entry into dismissal or acceptance of a poet. Allen Ginsberg (once considered experimental in his own right) pushed back. Adrienne Rich pushed back. One can claim all manner of voices, but one must also find the negative side. The adversary that is often very close at hand. And how long does one’s pushing back hold? How long can Michael Palmer (one of my favorite poets) push back against the crisis of representation, for instance, until it’s no longer a crisis? That’s how the age shifts into the next age, isn’t it? Or, in other words, don’t let your antique show. Or, the poet starts off against some thinking, by saying, add this to the possible to say. And then it’s added. So what does the poet do now? It’s almost like losing one’s job and needing to be retrained. It was controversial for Robert Bly and James Wright to come out with Silence of the Snowy Fields and The Branch Will Not Break . . . but now, forty or so years later, reading them, it’s not nearly so controversial.

So how about desiring, when writing, when reading, rather than an experience of representation, an experience of presentation? There are shades of difference here, and the differences sound subtle, but the products, the poems, written out of these differing philosophies (representation vs. presentation) are tremendous. Unless we actively push back against representation, against the easy posturing of accepted/acceptable ways of saying and of things to say, representation will delude us into a false “acceptance” of a laid-over, a voice-over narrative of the way things are. It becomes an agreement with the political overlay. In some ways it can be as bald as accepting the terms of the conversation regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, perhaps, or, less politically, the terms of how one should regard a poem. Of how one should read a poem. And what one should hope for when reading a poem.

It’s long been a tactic of debate to own the power of naming, for when one owns the terms of the debate, one is that much closer to getting what one wants from the debate. One can see it operating in politics all the time, for instance, in watching how PRO-choice vies with PRO-life in the naming of who is the most PRO… but the same thing happens slowly in the way things are taught, as an acceptance of the methods of the discourse around a subject privileges some way of saying, which in turn privileges the path to a point, and finally the type of point one comes to. And example of this might be the way we teach poetry in schools. We teach (in the upper grades—and this is an important point that I will return to), most usually, a form of close reading, where the student is to come back at a poem with a prose rendering of the poem’s argument and point, with care given to the denotative and connotative possibilities of the poem’s language. It’s a way to a poem through the logos. It shows that we’re clever readers and that we have a point to what we’re doing. But but but, I want to say, if this is all we’re doing when reading a poem, it’s no wonder people aren’t interested in reading poetry. This doesn’t sound like something I’d like to spend a great deal of my time on. And remember, how one is brought to something, poetry say, is always going to influence one’s further relationship with that thing.

And I want you to know that I’m not railing against close reading. Close reading is a wonderful skill, as long as we remember that a poem is an art object and not an argument. What is the meaning of architecture? What is the meaning of a painting? We have no problem enjoying a painting for its presentation. What is the meaning of popular music? What is the meaning of jazz? What is the meaning of Classical music? How it is. How our experience of it is. So why all the hard work to read a poem? Why use words like “Difficult Poems” as descriptions of a type of poetry? Really? How many people does that excite to get involved with reading poetry?

SUDOKU can be easy, intermediate, or difficult. Football, if you choose to make it so, can be difficult. Likewise poetry. Yes, I just said as in football, likewise poetry. And I’m not kidding.

At the periphery: space and figures. Space and question.

Real space: To stand bewildered before the work of art as “the real” is shifted to the notion of a field.

Popular music has done to poetry what photography has done to paintings. We sing along with the weirdest combinations of words and ideas, and then we complain that our poets aren’t accessible? Seriously, one should query this idea of “difficulty.” What is Bob Dylan talking about (most of the time)? It’s what movies have done to stories (sure, the movie doesn’t make any sense, but it’s fun, right? Memento. Really?). What technology always does to what was the technology before. The art produced by the new technology has a freedom that we don’t extend to the old, for some odd reason. The possible to do always forms the possible to say. But I’m overstating it. Apologies. And really now, with ebooks, what will be the future of textbooks? Is it depressing? I don’t know. It will be a bad end for some things, and a rebirth for others. The way the Internet has occasioned a rebirth for poetry. Poems themselves, if not books. And what is the impact of blogs?

Think of meaning in poetry as magnetic. As an attractive force. So that it is less “bound” to a set of interpretations than it is invisibly waiting for anything with a certain other make-up to wander into its field. So the poem doesn’t reveal in the exact way to all, but depends to some degree upon what passes by. Meaning is magnetic. I like that conceptualization. Rather than “welded” to one thing. I feel I live much of my life in that world, how correspondences we find in everyday life have to mostly be guessed at. In this way one can say the play of poetry is an important way to exercise one’s ability to forge correspondences, to find patterns in life. So maybe we’re back to a Scrabble or Sudoku understanding of poetry. Well, maybe, but for the fact that poetry is unwinnable, while also bringing us back, hopefully, into a primary relationship with the real. Which is more a HOW poetry means rather than a WHAT poetry means. I’ve never been very good on what poetry means, outside of a participation in a primary relationship with the real. Or something equally scary and abstract sounding: the house about the house.


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