Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Inner Compass 2: Another Vista

One of the most remarkable aspects of much contemporary poetry criticism is how remarkably parochial it is. Very few contemporary critics have a real sense of history, and even less of a sense of the rest of the world's poetry. I won't even mention how few of them have a sense of the history of the rest of the world's poetry. When you are a poet, like me, who has been strongly influenced by Asian poetry, and the history of Asian poetry, constantly finding new insights and fresh depths therein, finding like-minded poets and critics in the West can be an exercise doomed to frustration.

The truth is, of course, this dislocation and misunderstanding is something I've felt my entire life. I was, after all, a child who grew up in southern India before "returning home" to the USA, a country his parents were from, but of which he has no memory. I've always looked to India, and later, to Japan, not only for artistic inspiration, but to find out who I am. My inner compass has always pointed towards Hindu-Buddhist values. There are still times when Greco-Roman myths and philosophies, and the ideologies derived from them, can seem to me, as they seemed to me when I first encountered them in history and civics classes in public school, quaint and exotic. Edward Said defined Orientalism, in his book of that same name, as often prejudiced and outsider views of the East by the West, in which the mirror can be distorted by the history of political Imperialism and colonialism. I wonder sometimes if there is an equivalent reverse-exoticism operating in those from the East, a kind of Occidentalism?

This morning, I picked up and re-read part of Octavio Paz' book In Light of India. Paz was Mexico's greatest poet and critic of the past century; but he was also an internationalist, a world thinker, who had spent many years as Ambassador to India, and whose life, like mine, had been deeply affected by long encounters with the Other, in other cultures, and through travels. One aspect of American provincialism that I find parochial is that few Americans travel very far, or very often; and this is reflected in the parochialism in criticism. Far too few American poets and critics know even more than one language. Paz, on the other hand, traveled widely, learned from his travels, learned other languages, and brought all his experience into his poetry. Even his most deliberately Mexican writings cannot help but contain reflections of the rest of the world.

In a long discussion of poetry in ancient India, Paz points out several things that are shocking to the parochial Western mind, that serve to explode assumptions about the world. For example, he contrasts classical Indian Sanskrit poetry with that of the Renaissance, pointing out that one mood that is common to Renaissance poetry does not appear in Sanskrit poetry: melancholy.

In Indian poetry, on the other hand, there is a feeling that is rare in ours: luxuriousness, that moment in which the body, without losing its composure, seems to waver, enveloped by extreme pleasure, and falls into a delicious swoon. The poem becomes a naked body adorned with jewels, lying conquered. Luxuriousness is an effluvium that glows and vanishes. It is also an agent of metamorphosis: the male body, weakened by an excess of pleasure, twists into that of a woman; in turn, the female body, goaded by desire, leaps on top like a tiger. The transposition adds ambiguity to the erotic battle: Krishna seems at times like a maiden, and the graceful Parvati, in a flash of the eyes, turns into the terrifying Durga. (p. 153)

Eroticism in Indian art—eros itself, if you will—is often depicted as languorous, rather than conquering. Sexuality is not a war between the sexes, but a blurring of their boundaries. Role-reversals are not uncommon: the woman must ride on top, and be dominant. The rigid gender and sexual roles that have become reified by custom and religious dictates in the West are not present in this poetry.

The ambiguities of the erotic games that Kalidasa, Amaru, and other poets describe are not perversions, in the Freudian sense: pregenital games. And, unlike the Greco-Roman classics, homosexuality hardly ever appears in the Indian poetic tradition. Nor is there the notion of sin or the consciousness of the transgression of norms. This is the great difference from Western eroticism, which since the end of the eighteenth century has been largely concerned with infraction and violence. Bataille emphasizes that eroticism is essentially transgression: Hindu art proves him wrong. It is not a legal code but a fan: unfolding, refolding, unfolding again, displaying the whole range of pleasures. An art and a poetry that have never known sadism. (p. 154)

The eternal humanness of this Sanskrit poetry—it's durability, but also its location in the soma, the body, the sensual—brings into high relief, for me, why so many contemporary Western poetics seem like ephemeral fashions. Both the egoistic self-absorption of confessional lyric poetry, and the intellectual puzzle-boxes of language poetry, seem like bubbles on the surface of a long tradition—neither style destined to endure, neither topic or tone likely to be embraced forever by future poets. There are merits to both of these poetries, and things to learn from them; but neither of them will be the nature and root of poetry in the long run. In their distinct ways, they are both psychological and mental, with no strong connection to sensuality and corporeality and embodiment (I'm not ignoring that there are individual poems within both styles that are powerfully sensual) as part and parcel of the human experience.

The ancient Sanskrit poetry brings us back to the body. It also embraces by implication and interpretation the tantric awareness of the duality of personal energies, Shiva and Shakti, yin and yang, animus and anima, and in this aspect is deeply psychological as well as sensual and erotic. These are poetries of eros, while so much of Western poetry has become fascinated with and dominated by poetries of logos. Most Western poetics views Sanskrit poetry as exotic, and from another time, while poetries from contemporary poets that explore these domains of the flesh are usually labeled aberrant, transgressive, even pornographic. I do find it intriguing that most of the erotic poetry from contemporary Western poets that touches on the same topics and luxuriousness of Sanskrit poetry comes, now, from homoerotic poets. There is little overt homoeroticism in the Sanskrit poetry, but the poetry that comes closest to its tone and temperament nowadays in gay and lesbian erotic poetry. (One laments the loss to published literature of the magazine Yellow Silk, edited by Lily Pond, which was the beautiful and sensual exception.) There are several possible reasons why that might have come to be; foremost is the possibility that authors whose sexual differences from the normative values of the mainstream culture have made them targets of oppression rebel in every way possible, both to assert their own aliveness, but also as a form of tweaking the noses of those who insist upon more mainstream values.

I find the fashionability of contemporary poetic trends to be ephemeral rather than enduring precisely because they present themselves are perpetually avant-garde. They may have begun as resistance and rebellion, but now they have become established. It's very difficult to present one's group as continuing to be perpetually avant-garde when they have become the mainstream, or a dominant current at least. We cannot know what will endure, but we can make guesses when we see a style of poetry lose interest to the generations following that of its major creators. (In which instance, Romanticism has long outlasted Language Poetry, and well continue to do so.)

The necessity of following one's inner compass instead of the winds of fashion is not so that one's poems will endure for centuries, although that's not bad in itself; the necessity is because one cannot depend on fashion because fashion is ephemeral and fickle.

And the confidence in—the hope of—the appearance of a future reader, that twin soul who will save us from the injustices of the present, is a sentiment that runs through all poets and writers, both Eastern and Western:

Armed with their rules and precepts,
many condemn my verses.
I don't write for them,
but for that soul, twin to mine,
who will be born tomorrow.
Time is long and the world wide.
(p. 160)

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Blogger Dave King said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Dave King said...

A really fascinating post which I shall need to read again, possibly more than once. But for now, to take your opening remark, it is remarkable how little of current poetry criticism is actually criticism at all. We get comments on subject matter, and the critic's subjective response to the verse, but very little discussion of a substantive nature. My thanks to you for the post.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Dave—

Thanks for the comments.

I think you say it rightly: very little criticism is actually criticism at all. The subjectivity is a real problem, because it leads to taste judgments rather that substantive assessment.

I'm not always sure there's a solution to the problem of subjectivity, other than to continue to strive towards as objective and engaged a critical viewpoint as one can achieve.

10:30 PM  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

hi art. thank you for the kind words! how ironic (and interesting) that they should be in a post on this subject. it's very related to what i'm into these days.

lily pond

8:24 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My pleasure!

Thanks for dropping by.

12:12 AM  

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