Monday, October 29, 2007

What Is This Horrid Thing That You Are Writing?

There's a scene in Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak's great novel with poems, echoed by a great movie, where a commissar of the Party has a long talk with Zhivago, the doctor-poet. The doctor is sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause, but for subtle contemplative reasons, not easy ones expressible in platitudes; that can be dangerous, because his opinion could change tomorrow. When the doctor asks the commissar if he thinks his poetry is ridiculous, a petit bourgeousie waste of time, the commissar says Yes—but in his own mind the commissar admits to himself immediately that he lies. And it stabs him through to realize that Zhivago cares a great deal about his opinion. But he can't take his word back, nor can he bring himself to contradict the Party line; even though he wishes to be honest with the poet, for their safety's sake, he cannot be.

There is a parallel to this moment that has stood as an ongoing argument in poetry—an argument without end, and usually with petty rationales used to bolster arguments that reduce to little more than personal opinion made to stand as de facto law. This argument is the constant attack on "formless" poetry by the formalists, especially the neo-formalists. Virtually every time I read an essay some poet has written about free verse, it is immediately attacked.

The situation has a parallel in the criticisms of Mozart's avant-garde music during his lifetime, with "too many notes" being a common charge—yet Salieri keeps his own counsel, loathing himself, because he knows how great Mozart's music truly is, but he cannot openly admit it. In his own mind, like the commissar, he stands split in two, unable to resolve the tension within between what he knows to be great and true, and what he must, by circumstance, be never able to openly say.

You see it over and over again: the neo-formalists constantly attack free verse as decadent, superfluous, and somehow morally lax. Yes, the argument is at root a moral one, not a technical one. Moral arguments disguised as technical arguments are easy to spot: they always cloak prejudice in the guise of rationale, and attempt to bludgeon any opposition into submission.

I could accept the neo-formalists' objection to free verse if they would only be honest about their motivations. Plain, honest opinion based on nothing but air is far preferable to reams of rationale that conceal and cloak hidden agendas. If you're facing honest hatred, at least you're clear where you stand.

Lately, except for the usual haiku output, I have been writing things that are like nothing I can explain, or justify, or even explain to myself. I am told by wise grief recovery counselors that what I have been through, this past year and more, was a life-changing experience, and that I have changed—and that I must expect my creative energies to change as well. And they have. I am now doing actual video. The music I am hearing inside myself is different, not yet coming to the surface. And what I am writing, in terms of essay and poetry, is radically new, for me. I cannot escape this, and I am not trying to.

What I am writing now, if you insist on categorizing it, falls into the nebulous and dangerous (to formalists) realms of the prose-poem, the haibun, and creative-non-fiction-prose: the poetic essay, if you will. The same search for the truth that I have always pursued, as a poet, is present: that has not changed. What has changed is my inner landscape: all the old maps are useless or incomplete. I now have no reference points, no landmarks. I have become again an explorer, an adventurer, a journeyman. Any sense of mastery is lost. All this is exciting, as well as daunting. I look forward to it, even as I still don't know how to proceed.

I know, by charting my own inner landscapes, that many motivations are hidden. The core practice of attaining self-knowledge and self-awareness is to pay attention to one's inner weather, and constantly make note of one's own prejudices, fears, hidden agendas, and motivations. Over time, you begin to develop a keen nose for the movement of waters below-the-surface in your own self. And that experience trains you in sniffing out the under-surface waters moving in others, as well.

My new writing has been under constant attack. I won't say anything here about the unfairness of the attack, or how hard it can be to respond, given the rest of my situation (overwhelmed, if mostly coping, by the grieving process). I won't beat my breast and call the universe unfair. The universe mostly doesn't listen to such griping, anyway.

Yet I will say that, in every case, the attacks have contained more than a whiff of anti-experimentaion prejudice; a tang of neo-formalist rejection of poetic material in unfamiliar forms; a hint of anxious insecurity concealed benath the cloak of the rejection of chaos. I sometimes think that the reason many neo-formalists seek form and order in art, and are so quick to attack apparent chaos, is that they are very insecure in their own selves. They seek out and enforce form (as formalism) wherever they can in life, because so much of the rest of their lives is so chaotic, so disturbing, so unsettled, so formless, so very terra infirma.

Are the (neo-)formalists so insecure that they can brook no contradiction to their own values? Apparently so. If so, then are they so self-blind that they cannot see how the dynamics of their arguments exactly mirror those of religious fundamentalists attacking the demons that they themselves have projected out onto the world? Apparently not.

I feel blessed to have learned, via the stringent requirements of caregiving for my ailing and aging parents, that indeed, chaos never dies, there is no certainty or security, and that the only certain thing in this universe is change. I have been changed by the experience. One of the changes has been that I have actually arrived at a place close to my own long-standing spiritual goal of learning to live in the present moment. When you care for a parent with Alzheimer's, you learn that there is only the present moment: no past, no future, only today, this moment, this instant. If you cannot comprehend this, I urge you to go spend a day at a residential care facility for Alzheimer's patients; you will either learn to take things as they are, from moment to moment, or you will crumble into a bloody heap, a victim of your own expectations for continuity and social cohesion. Such things do not exist, in such places. When you care for another parent with cancer, who might live, and who probably won't, and for whom any morning could be their last, you learn to appreciate the present moment, and stop caring about what might happen, or what might not. The words might happen are the first things you learn to let go of: because nothing is predictable, nothing is certain, and no knowlesge can protect you from the uncertainty. Chemotherapy usually doesn't work: most patients die anyway. You cannot count on anything working. All you can do is appreciate today, just today, only today.

So, I am writing a series of longish pieces—if one dared call them poems, they certainly don't look like any poems I've written before—mostly not about my experiences of the recent past. Yet experience colors art, as it must. You change, so must your art change. That's inevitable. Clinging to an idea of what your art is supposed to be like is delusion. The only thing you can do with your own past artwork is look at it dispassionately, noting what you did before, and not expecting it to be that way ever again. Don't expect the past to have anything to do with the future: both are illusory, and neither are real.

I realize, and I have said it to myself several times recently, that I am now writing a series of poems/pieces; a series that is new and undefined. Most of them have titles from technical terms in Greek which are used in theology, or otherwise have a connection to spiritual studies. I find the Greek words to be much richer than their English equivalents, containing both historical resonances and nuances of translation that have depth and ambiguity.

Deliberate obscurity in poetry usually conceals a lack of depth, using smoke and mirrors and parlor tricks to deflect awareness from the essential incompetence of poet, or the fact that they have really nothing to say; but genuine poetic ambiguity adds depth, by adding layers of meaning, and multiple interpretations, all of which can contain truth.

Not one of my poems/pieces in this new series has evaded attack from some self-appointed formalist keeper of the sanctity of poetry, language, orthography, and/or poetic craft vis a vis grammar, syntax, etc. To which the best reply is silence, and a shrug. If I really cared what the neo-conservative neo-formalists in poetic criticism thought of this new work, I might be moved to reply.

Not one of these new poems has been uncontroversial. Most of these new poems have also received a certain kind of baffled, offhand praise: I like this, I think, but I sure don't know what the heck it is.

Thus, I can only surmise that I must be doing something right. And that's enough, for me, for now.

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Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

The interesting thing about the Mozart/Amadeus movie--I don't know how much of Salieri's "envy" was real as for the real man goes but that film does pose interesting and "true" points about the arts, where you have one artist who recognizes that another is significantly better than all the others as well as himself. But that's only because Salieri at least had the ability to recognize it. Most can't even RECOGNIZE it because they like cliches. I keep thinking how lucky one would be to find a Salieri out there who can at least recognize it, and perhaps is keeping it all inside, but I think many (literary agents, publishers) are clueless.

I had a run in with a publisher yesterday--a major NY one. It's too long to detail here, but it showed the utter arrogance and condescension that publishers have towards the Internet.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The problem is, I think some of those literary agents and publishers DO recognize writing quality that's better than anything they can do, but their petty egos make them want to reject it, rather than support it.

But then there are also those whose overt philosophical stance is for the mediocre rather than the adventurous, the safe and predictable rather than the "experimental."

10:06 AM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

Your first point, I've wondered myself, like they are stingy in handing out compliments and their first reaction is to reject it out of envy? Maybe that's why they go for things that are 'cutesy' and not intimidating in any way. Maybe that's the case some of the time, but for those who don't know the difference between loath and loathe--they are beyond help.

11:14 AM  

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