Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 5

To continue with the idea that "you have to learn the rules before you can break the rules."

There are points where I agree with that philosophy, and points where I think it fails miserably. It is all too often used as a bludgeon to promote conformity and Apollonian orderliness against the shock and horror of unconformity and Dionysian chaos. Craft (orthography, grammar, syntax, etc.) is, or should be, a neutral tool, one tool among many; one of the key elements of poetry, but not the single most important element. Craft is all too often used, in these anti-innovation arguments, as a bludgeon to dismiss every innovation, every time, by refusing to address the fact that many poets who do know the rules do choose to experiment, rather than stay within the tradition. Using craft as such a bludgeon is a disservice to craft, too, because it sets up a false dichotomy in which the very important need for craft in poetry gets either angelized or demonized. Still, most of the time when one hears "you've got to know the rules..." it never goes any further, nor does it more than rarely address how the rules can be positively broken, or, in a better word, internalized and transcended. The phrase itself has become a cliché, a shorthand soundbyte that stands in for, and is often intended to suppress, actual thinking about craft's proper place.

It has been argued that there can be no experimentation without a base to stand on. This presumes that one must start with the basics.

That's true enough, as far as it goes. Yes, the basics are essential. But the belief that that's all you need, and no more—a belief many formalists seem to carry—is wrongheaded. Another viewpoint is that the basics are literally just that: the basics. (Just because you've learned to boil water doesn't mean you're a chef.)

As an analogy, one might consider people who learn how to swim. The choice then becomes what do they do next. Do they stay in the pool's safer areas, the shallow ends, the prescribed swimming lanes? Do they continue to do laps, using (the received wisdom of) known strokes? Or do they perhaps try out the diving board in the deep end, stand on the edge of it, bounce a few times, then jump in? Do they learn to SCUBA dive in the pool, exploring those deeper waters where longer breaths are needed to dive down and return safely? Or do they keep swimming laps in the three-foot waters, and never explore the 12-foot waters?

Of course it's just an analogy. But I really think it's all about what you do next, after you have absorbed and internalized the basics. Of course everyone needs the basics. But they're "the basics," and called that for a reason. Staying with just the basics (form, craft, orthography, whatever the heck we want to call them/it), and never learning to dive, means in some way never going beyond the basics.

At some point, you have to wonder what role simple fear plays in all this.

There may a poetic analogy to Outsider Art here, as well.

The term has been used to describe untrained artists (i.e. non-academy-trained artists). Also: folk art; non-mainstream art; "raw" art as opposed to "cooked" art; asylum art; art made by untrained children or adults. Insane asylum art is essential to the history of outsider art, actually: Originally art by psychotic individuals who existed almost completely outside culture and society was gathered together in the exhibition the Collection de l'Art Brut, which gave the label to the Art Brut movement. Similarly, the CoBrA art movement was art inspired by asylum patients and children's or primitive art. Also, "naive" art, which is another label for art by "untrained" artists. "Untrained" in this context means they didn't go to art school, or the Academy, or study painting with a famous painter; it almost always implies that the artist is self-trained, an autodidact.

There are instances of the poet who was an outsider to official (academy or court) culture making brilliant poetry. William Blake may be a good example. In other cases, it's hard to know what the poet studied, and what they didn't; so it becomes hard to know where to draw the line of how much craft they actually had before they began their mature work. Whitman and Dickinson come to mind, in that instance, as autodidacts working more or less in isolation from the poetic mainstream of their time.

In some ways most outsider art is autodidactic: self-taught. One way to become a good writer is to write, write, write, read a lot, read more, read, read, read, write, write, make lots of mistakes, learn from them, and continue to write. A process of self-educaiton in what works and what doesn't. This is a parallel, and occasionally opposing, path to the formal, academic study-of-the-rules path.

John Keats is sometimes held up as an example of the "unprecedented genius" who had no formal schooling in English poetry or poetics; but the "naive genius" argument contains the flaw of assuming that Keats sprang forth fully formed, whereas he very much didread and write a lot of poetry, in his short life. He absorbed very quickly, he learned fast, but he did educate himself, it didn't come out of nowhere. There is evidence for this in his letters, on the occasions he talks about what he is reading that excites him mightily.

Sometimes innovations come from people on the autodidact path precisely because they learned idiosyncratically, and didn't have the existing thought-forms of rule-structure pounded into them by a formal education in poetics.

I believe that's what happened to me, with regard to poetry. Having been through music school as a composition major, I can say that they pounded so much music theory into us that it took me almost ten years before I wrote notated music again. I had to un-learn all the music-theory rules, before I could hear the voices of musical inspiration again. I was clogged and constipated by over-training. Honestly, I can still do Western music theory in my sleep; and I almost never use it anymore. I can read a book about music that contains a lot of theory and technical description, and understand it. But I don't write music using that theory training at all, and haven't for a very long time. If ever.

As I have said before, I never studied poetic craft to the extent that many other poets have. I was never an English major, or poetry major, or MFA grad student in creative writing; although of course I studied basic English in school. (Till I placed out of the college requirement.) I haven't read all the poetry manuals, the books that tell us the rules of grammar, form, meter, and how to write poetry; I've dipped into a few, but not the really technical ones. I've certainly written long hermeneutic papers, in college and grad school. One of the best grad school classes I had was bootcamp-level training in how to use a library. But I never did, and never have, "studied the poetic craft" the way many other poets have; nor have I "learned the basics" in the way that is being promoted by the formalist argument. While I don't disagree with the basic point, my own experience leads me to question the validity of the argument at its very root. Because in my own experience I have no sense that I "learned the craft first in order to break it later." I started out by breaking it. Which is sort of an Outsider Art position, perhaps.

Some poets have tried to get around this biographical fact by attempting to fold my case into the "you must have internalized all the craft already" argument; and maybe that is true. But if so, I sure don't remember when. I certainly can't give you the correct terminology for grammar, or for a lot of poetic craft. I've picked up a smattering over the years, but nothing systematized. The smattering was acquired via encounter, discussion, and browsing, rather than by systematized education.

You can call that a strength or a flaw, depending on your attitude and expectations. The truth is, though, that I write in a lot of styles, with a lot of techniques, and I carry few fixed opinions about what is "right" and what is "wrong" in poetry.

What I care about is finding the right container for the poem, finding the exact, most suitable structure for the content—whatever that happens to be. Sometimes that means I use conventional syntax and typography, and sometimes it doesn't. You can disagree with me on any or all of this, but you can't dismiss my poetry exclusively on the grounds that I sometimes do not use conventional orthography or typography. The E.E. Cummings example is perhaps relevant. (Like Cummings, I came to poetry after being heavily involved in other artforms, both visual, as he was, being a painter, and musical, as he was, as a jazz fan and occasional reviewer.)

Another attempt to explain away outsider art is to allow that some of it is good, but that most of it is not; that the exceptions prove the rule. But exceptions don't really prove the rules, they only bring them into higher relief by providing contrast. All exceptions really do is point out that the rules—and this is the Gödelian theorem, bascially—are inherently incomplete, cannot account for all circumstances, and inevitably have holes in them. No axiomatic rule-set can be entirely self-contained and not be self-contradictory at times, in certain contexts.

(As a sidebar, let me clarify a point: I feel it is acceptable to use my own career in poetry, such as it is, as an example because I am certain that I am not the only such example. I come from humility rather than hubris. In no way do I feel I'm unique or exceptional. The very opposite, in fact: my feeling is that if I am this way, then there must be many others, too. And they must not be overlooked or dismissed.)

Now, let's get back to morality and fear.

In the swimming/SCUBA analogy I used earlier, I was not talking about natural progressions, but about choice, and fear, and what you do next. Learning to dive is a natural progression for me, but I don't expect it to be a natural progression for everyone else. Forcing someone else to learn to dive is not my business, nor my intent. What I object to is someone telling me that my learning to dive is an un-natural progression, and inherently bad and wrong.

Let's get to the bottom line here, at last: the objections to experimentation in poetry are moral objections, not objections about poetry per se. They are about values. The difference that needs to be made clear at this point is between moralizing values, moralistic values, and moral values. This discussion is ultimately about what you (or I, or some unnamed Other) thinks is good poetry, bad poetry, or just plain uninteresting poetry. That initial objection to my recent poem was, in my view, a moral(izing) objection to the style of poetry in which I wrote that poem, which the attacker presumably felt was in opposition to his own favored style of writing poetry. At least that's how it came across in the initial posting.

You do have the right to hate my poetry—or hate my argument, for that matter. But you don't have the right to declare my poetry as bad and wrong, on whatever grounds (orthography, as I said before, was not really what the objection was about) without leaving yourself open to the same counter-charge. If you cannot accept that simple equivalency, in all fairness, then it's patently obvious that you're not willing to play on a level playing field. And that is neither fair nor good criticism.

Double standards are the last refuge of the self-excusing elitist.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I said a lot in my last post that I could restate – the main point being that experiments fail more often than they succeed – but I'd like to make a comment about E E Cummings. I know little about Cummings I have to admit. I've run into a couple I like (like the one in Hannah and Her Sisters) but mostly I find myself facing the same question: How does one read an E E Cummings poem? I want to know what rules he's applied to himself so that I can decode the piece.

I don't have to do that with serial music for example. I know about tone rows. I've even written the stuff. But I don’t seem able to make the stretch with poetry. How do you know if an experiment has failed? It depends what your intent is but to my mind I see there being three main goals to poetry, to impart meaning, to illicit an emotional response or to make your reader think something more than: What they hell is this I'm reading?

I had a look once to see if I could find an essay or something by Cummings explaining why he wrote the way he did but I never came across anything. I didn’t look particularly hard because I hold the opinion that if you need to read a set of rules to tell you how to read something then that something probably isn’t worth reading. Bottom line – it's bad poetry. A poem should contain everything the reader needs to understand it. My wife and I use an expression for this kind of writing, 'decoder poems', i.e. poetry that makes perfect sense once you have that certain missing bit of information.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, a little research goes a long way. Perhaps you didn't know that Cummings gave the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1952-1953, which was later published as "six nonlectures." In it he gives about as clear a depiction of what he thinks poetry is, as he ever did. His autobiographical novel, "Ushant," also contains numerous insights.

I basically agree that a poem should stand on its own merits, without the necessity of footnotes or explanations. But I also enjoy reading what poets have to say about poetry. A lot of that turns up when a poet writes reviews; they reveal their poetics, even if they don't intend to.

One of the best poet-critics was Conrad Aiken, whose "Collected Criticism" should be required reading.

The secret to reading Cummings is to read it out loud. It makes a lot of sense that way, and often sounds far more conventional than it looks.

In terms of how you know when an experiment has failed, this is exactly where the analogy breaks down, because experimentation in the arts means exploration and essay (essay in its literal meaning originallly meant attempt: to essay), and it does not at all function the way experimentation in science does. You're probably tripping on trying to take the analogy to scientific experimentation too literally.

Even if experiments do fail more often than they succeed, even in the arts, that's no reason not to do them. The whole point is to learn something, to explore new territory. You make it sound as though no one should bother trying an experiment, because they're doomed to probably failure. I can never agree with that.

As a composer, I never felt serial music to be anything other "decoder ring" composition. (That's a great expression for the stuff, BTW, thanks.) Yeah, I tried it. It was a nice intellectual game that left no mark on me. I got a lot more out of other techniques of composition, and a great deal out of studying world music.

Your three goals to poetry are, in my opinion, why people write essays, not poetry. If poetry were only about imparting meaning it would be a newscast; if it were only about eliciting emotional responses in the reader, it would be advertising. (Well, maybe some poetry is just that.) Your third goal is more close to something real, I think, although it's a negative way of stating it. and it focuses on manipulation and coercion. You could state it more posiively, perhaps, as: poetry takes you out of yourself, and recreates in the reader an experience. As I've quoted Adrienne Rich saying here before: Rather than being ABOUT an experience, a poem can BE an experience. All artwork is an experience; the best artwork is more than intellectual, it's intellectual-plus-visceral, emotional-plus-logical, it's multi-valent and multi-dimensional.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

More about the Norton Lectures. Many poets and musicians and artists have been invited to give the lectures; many of those lectures have also been published.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I'm not saying not to experiment but, if we're going to go with your new analogy, even explorers get lost some of the time. I suppose they could argue that just because they don't know where they are they don't know if they're lost and that's fine. I'm not here to argue, just to chuck a few ideas about for the fun of it.

I have no problems reading what writers have to say about their craft. Often what they have to say is more interesting than the work they produce. The thing about Cummings is that, not being British, you have to go out of your way to find stuff about him. I remember running across a couple of poems by Charles Olson back in about 1980 and I wanted more. I phoned up some bookshop in London and they wanted £10.00 plus postage for the thing. There was no way I could afford to fork out that amount of money back then. So Olson remained pretty much a mystery to me.

I've heard that it helps to read Cummings out loud but it still bothers me that the notation is there and I don't know what the rules are. I can listen to music by the Boulez or Barber or the Beach Boys and it doesn’t matter what rules they applied to the construction of their works but if I looked at their scores I might have a few questions. And that's the thing. I enjoyed the E E Cummings poem in Hannah and Her Sisters simply because it was read to me and I didn’t have to contend with any non-standard layouts or punctuation; it was ages before I decided to find a copy but, thankfully, it's one of his more conventional pieces.

I actually thought stripping down a poem to those three elements was quite reasonable. They all form a part of any meaningful experience. Reading a poem is an experience but the end goal is not the experience. (Please don't get me started on the journey is the destination – that makes my head hurt). At the very least you come away with the memory of that experience and that affects you intellectually, spiritually (I forgot to mention that one) or emotionally.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

BTW I've just ordered the Cummings six nonlectures.

2:53 PM  

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