Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Poetic Curmudgeon Takes On the Poetic Radical

I always enjoy reading poet’s essays and reviews; it’s a habit of mine, and I find it sheds light on the creative process as a whole, as well as individually. Frank O’Hara’s reviews of artists and poets of the New York School; Edwin Denby’s dance criticism read side-by-side with his form-expanding sonnets; Conrad Aiken’s voluminous reviews, which he resisted shaping into an overarching critical theory but which is full of accurate assessments nonetheless; Rilke’s letters and long essays on Rodin, Cezanne, alongside his Requiem for Paula Modersohn-Becker; Sam Hamill’s essays tracking the ghost of Basho; Wendell Berry’s cultural criticisms. Something draws me to the essay form, as written by poets, both for their use of language in prose, but also for the changed perspective, their manifestos and commentaries on their own work, and that of their circles. Sometimes you have to deal with what is called in novels an unreliable narrator, who may or may not be telling the whole truth. An essay is, literally, an attempt to get at the truth, so it’s interesting to witness both sincere truth-telling and the occasional artful dodge.

I’m reading Hayden Carruth’s long essay on Paul Goodman, from his Selected Essays & Reviews (Copper Canyon Press, 1996), and it is full of gems. The born and bred Yankee backwoodsman, the man who lived poor for the sake of words, for most of his life, takes on the New York Jewish radical intellectual, the self-described “Jeffersonian anarchist,” who moved up to northern New England, the farthest he could get from New York without really leaving it, the Yankee Jew. Both poets are worth reading in their own rights, and both are somewhat outside the mainstream of Modern and post-modern poetry. Both question authority by their very existence, as much as in their art.

I have been reading Goodman’s poetry, more than his essays and polemics, for many years. He has a double tendency, in his poetry, to embrace eros even as he lauds agape. Agape love is for his adored wife, the earth mother, and his children. Eros is for all the men and boys he had sex with on his lecture journeys, teaching travels, and just around town. He usually described himself as a bisexual, but once or twice he adopted the label of homosexual; married, with children, but still homosexual. Well, for his generation and for some generations after, not excluding the present one, it was just what you did. I know several contemporary divorced gay men with children, so one could hardly judge Goodman for that.

In his poems Goodman is often explicit and personal. Carruth, in his long essay titled Paul Goodman and the Grand Community, makes the point that the man, conflicted and contradictory as he was, is still all of a piece. His social engagement and his sexual escapades are not divorced from one another; instead, they reflect back and forth his single set of values: Beauty means more than ideology.

Carruth quotes Goodman as saying:

A poem is one inseparable irregular conglomeration, chanted. The word order is likely to be twisted. The names are particularistic and anomalous. New metaphors are invented. There is use of echoic meaning and expressive natural signs. There is strong use of tone and rhythm, sometimes even meter. The syntax is manipulated more than is common, sometimes “incorrectly,” to give it more meaning. The exposition of the sentence follows the speaker’s exploration of the subject rather than a uniform rule. All of this is for the purpose of saying a feelingful concrete situation, rather than making discursive remarks about it.

I find this a felicitous general definition of poetry. I have often described poetry as being heightened speech, ordinary language made exalted; Goodman’s definition is perhaps more accurate yet. In re-reading this quote, I find myself wondering if Goodman was more kin to my own mind than I had ever realized. I am sympathetic to Goodman’s concerns and frustrations (possibly more than I am to Carruth’s), and find some of his complexities and contradictions to be familiar. Goodman described himself as a Man-of-letters: more than an intellectual, more than political, more than a simple writer, conservative in the sense of conservationist. He was liberal in his interests and education, but concerned with eternal values and community.

Carruth says this about Goodman’s poetry:

The thing is that Goodman reached backward to go forward. He was a heretic, outcast in his era, like all his heroes of old. Better than anyone else he understood the poet’s need to exist consciously in the continuum. Granted, Eliot and Pound in their own ways had said the same thing and to a certain extent had shared similar tastes; but their views of contemporary literary society were elitist and the politics disreputable. (Not that Goodman was free from elitism, the elitism of one, which he called—and so do I—independence.) Nor was Goodman a mannerist, not in the slightest degree, which is what one cannot say of Pound or Eliot or many others in the earlier part of the century. Goodman’s archaism of diction and syntax came naturally, came from the whole sound of the great writing of the whole past, from folk tales and legend, from hymns; from everywhere; and it was combined inextricably with the jargon and street talk of his own time. Goodman in fact levied upon every linguistic force at his command, shamelessly raiding both the elegance of gentility and the argot of hipsters. He made it all his own.

Both Goodman and Carruth are Yankee philosophers: they are concerned with the philosophies and ideas indigenous to America, and to continental Europe. Goodman has a deep kinship with Kafka; Carruth has a deep feeling for the existentialists. Both are hard-headed pragmatists and simultaneously idealists. They hold ideals without becoming ideologues.

But both Goodman and Carruth are therefore philosophers in the Western tradition, and I find myself occasionally getting irritated with them, in the same way I get irritated with many Western philosophers who so often seem to miss the obvious. But then, I grew up in the East, for all my formative years. I was always more convinced by the detailed cybernetics of Buddhist psychology than ever I was by Freud, whose tendency was to reduce complexities to oversimplifications, but whose writing was so fluid and compelling that he glazed right over the gaps in his logic.

What I dislike about Sartre was that he was an ideologue: ideas came before experience for him, and so he could make political missteps that Camus, who had a strong moral center based on experience, could never have made. In this Goodman is more like Camus, but it’s not clear to me that he ever confronted Camus’ ideas as directly as he did Sartre’s.

For Goodman, experience comes before ideas, and love conquers all. Love is the ultimate driving force, eros and agape, and they infuse all of Goodman’s works. Goodman was driven by eros—he called it libido; he never moved past Freudian terminology—in its function as life-force and inspiration, not merely in its sexual connotation.

I picked up Selected Essays & Reviews to engage with Hayden Carruth, and instead, I have re-engaged with Paul Goodman, via Carruth’s assessment of man and work. (Another good reason to read poet’s essays on their peers and influences.)

I’ve been engaging more and more with Carruth, since a couple of years ago when I picked up a CD of him reading from his late, shorter poems. This is a CD released by Copper Canyon Press, almost in homage, although the reader is Hayden himself. (Another excellent CD in the series is by Olga Broumas, reading from her own and Elytis’ work: luminous, stunning performances. I’ve seen Broumas read poetry live, and she does it far better than most, acting the words as a performance should. This CD is the next-best thing; I recommend it highly.) I have listened to Carruth’s gravelly, curmudgeonly voice read as I drove along the coastal highway in southern Oregon, through small towns and rural landscapes, and by the Pacific shore in all its wet fury: and his voice was in an appropriate context, even though his locale and topic are New England.

I have previously read some of Carruth’s jazz reviews, which veer towards a critical stance, even though he always preferred to call himself a reviewer, rather than a critic. Just as I have read much of Philip Larkin’s jazz reviewing. As a jazz musician myself, a participant-observer to use the anthropological term, I am engaged with poet’s thoughts on jazz, even when I disagree with their assessments, which I often do, especially Larkin’s. The traditionalists express often strongly negative opinions on free jazz, third-stream jazz, and late Coltrane, of which assessments I almost always believe the opposite. Nonetheless, Carruth’s jazz writings are stimulating reading: literary, but the literary venture of a devoted fan. In reading Carruth, and even Larkin, one wonders sometimes if non-poets have ever written this well about music. It’s addictive reading, even when, again, I disagree with many of the conclusions.

I feel a growing affection for Carruth, now that I’m in my middle dotage. Perhaps he is, like May Sarton, one of those writers whom one simply cannot appreciate till one has a certain number of years of hard experience under one’s own belt. (Or, in my case, expanding one’s belt.) His voice is curmudgeonly, but clear and honest. He remains a plain speaker, if an intelligent, thoughtful, blunt one.

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