Monday, September 27, 2010

Quote Poet Unquote

A short trip last week to St. Paul, MN, to stay with a friend newly moved there, help him with some post-moving needs, and just visit. The first night a major thunderstorm, with golfball-sized hail at 2am, amidst heavy rain and high winds, followed over the next 15 minutes by more, smaller hail, more rain and wind. In the morning, no damage to the truck, but leaves and small twigs and ripe crabapples scattered everywhere on the sidewalk and street gutters and lawns, literally shotgunned off the trees by the hail and wind.

Arrived home with several piles of new books to devour. On the way out of St. Paul, before starting the multi-hour drive home, stopped in at a favorite used book store on the south side of town, to discover they were having a clearance sale on poetry books. Who can resist a sale in which a hardcover first edition of the recent biography of John Donne is only 1 dollar? In which Countee Cullen's complete writings are only 50 cents in a thick paperback edition? In which another 50 cent thick history of Emily Dickinson's literary friendship with Thomas Higginson is explored? Two or three more selected and collected poems, from poets you might not have been interested in before but are worth exploring at this price. A recent selected poems from a poet whose first two books you sort of liked, then abandoned and hadn't paid any attention to for some time, now intrigued by anew. Backup copies of a few favorite books of or about poetry that are handy to have on hand, as loaners, or as spare copies to put in with the camping gear for future roadtrips. And more.



So I came home with a huge pile of new books.

At this point I have to admit something. Even though I've declared my independence from the ongoing continuous bullshit of PoetryWorld, from the contentious literary-critical world, from the snark and invective, I can't get away from caring deeply about poetry, from being engaged with its making and its processes. Yet I wish only to read and write with pleasure, not have to deal with even friends' criticisms and always-judgmental negative commentary. I've been booted and banned from some corners of the online poetry world in the past year for expressing just this opinion. As though somehow wanting to be positive was a sign of mental weakness—as though only negative opinions were valid and true—and as though simple appreciation and enthusiasm were a sign of amateurism, or worse, betrayal of an ideal. So I've gone my own way, severing most ties, even the most enduring ones, to navigate for awhile either well or poorly but nonetheless by my own compass.

The arrogance of those former poet-friends who threw me out the moment I chose to go my own way was astounding, and more than a little shocking in its expressions of its own certainty of the error of my ways, as though my judgment had always been inferior to theirs. Anyone who is that sure of themselves, that sure of their opinions and judgments, has lost their way. Of course they'll deny it, and even attempt to turn the tables. But such certainty is itself delusional, a force of self-belief beyond the pale. The sin of pride, if you will.

Of course, this is nothing new. Such arrogant pride is rampant throughout the world of poetry and poetry criticism.

One of the books I picked up so cheap demonstrates this admirably. It is a collection of quotations and commentary. Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary quotations on poets and poetry, edited by Dennis O'Driscoll (Copper Canyon Press, 2008). O'Driscoll began collecting quotes in the late 1980s, eventually publishing them in an ongoing column called Poetry Pickings and Choosings in Poetry Ireland Review. The result here is a gloriously polyphonic mess, often contradictory, with plenty of opinions from many directions all placed side by side.

Ultimately, this book of quotations inspires deeply mixed feelings. On the one hand, it merely adds fuel to the critical fires, stirs the pot of contention and argument, and adds no clarity to the questions it raises. Lots of quotes here seem to be chosen not for their wisdom, which is often lacking, but for their pithy contentiousness. Yet the comparisons and contrasts between viewpoints do serve to help one clarify one's own thinking, by both positive and negative association.

This project is not undertaken without humor, which manifests in every section of the book. For example, in the place usually reserved on the back of the volume for a praiseful call-out blurb about the book in hand, we read from Joseph Parisi this gem: Among the foremost repositories of demented prose today are fashion magazines, art journals—and the back covers of poetry books. What more truth can one add to that? None.

O'Driscoll opens his Introduction with an acknowledgment that nothing is solved: A defining mark of poetry is that it defies definition. On this, if nothing else, poets and critics of all stripes, camps, and persuasions tend to agree. I don't. I've defined what poetry is, and is not, numerous times; the issue being that, like most other definitions, few will agree with me, and no one is required to. So in one way this book of quotations merely underlines the point often made before: The reason poetry criticism is so very vicious is because there's precisely nothing at stake. And viciousness and vitriol are amply represented in these pages. O'Driscoll admits in his Introduction that likes a good argument. Again, there is humor here, as a well-taken reminder to take none of this very seriously. But the humor is also often drowned by the sheer meanness of some of the remarks. One's appreciative laughter begins to fade, after several pages of this.

One is reminded of Nicolas Slonimsky's classic book in a similar vein, A Lexicon of Musical Invective, which reprinted historical bad reviews of pieces of classical music that time has proven to be masterpieces. The first reviews of Beethoven's symphonies, for example, were extreme examples of critical hatred. Quote Poet Unqoute is very much in this vein, dominated by invective and dismissive commentary—even when it's amusing in the long view how wrong critics usually are.

And I have to say, some of the critical comments here smart and chafe precisely because they state the truth so clearly. For example, Australian poet Les Murray sums up one of the key problems plaguing PoetryWorld at this time: There is very little real poetry coming out of America at the moment because they have tried to harness Pegasus to the university and have turned it into a carthorse just plodding along. Ouch! And yet, ouch with a recognition of the truth of Murray's dead-on metaphor for the current state of affairs.

And so it goes.

On the other hand, there are points of illumination here as well. Quotes that get at something real, about poetry, about poets, that I will pore over in the near future, seeking and finding rewarding insights. Other quotes that express something about poetry in such elegant and economic language that they approach the status of poetry themselves.

For example, this is what Charles Simic muses about the prose-poem, which is the borderland I find myself most often exploring and occupying of late in my writing: The prose poem is the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist, but it does. This is the sole instance we have of squaring the circle. Simic is describing the paradoxical existence of the prose-poem, the hybrid born of two worlds. (Of course historical Japanese literature sees the haibun as the logical outgrowth of the poem, and no contradiction.) A more technical definition of the prose-poem is offered in a quote from David Lehman: Just as free verse did away with meter and rhyme, the prose poem does away with the line as the unit of composition. It uses the means of prose towards the ends of poetry. That's it exactly: the means of prose aimed towards the ends of poetry.

And how can one resist such a sublime insight as this: Unless we read poetry, we'll never have our hearts broken by language, which is an indispensable preliminary to a civilized life. —Anatole Broyard

To return to what it is that I must admit: my continuing engagement with poetry, and with thinking about poetry. I can't set it aside. Even though I no longer care to label myself A Poet, but mostly tell people that I'm an artist who occasionally commits poetry, I cannot pretend indifference. Obviously, I still care a lot about poetry. Obviously I still read a lot of poetry, and read about it a lot. The clearance sale treasure trove found in St. Paul last week, which I am still sorting through, is evidence enough of my continued obsession with the stuff. It won't go away, and neither will I.

What I find liberating at the moment, though, is that having been evicted from the poetry-critical pseudo-communities I had previously been engaged with, I'm free to write my own opinions, and damn the torpedoes. I feel freed to read whatever I want to read, and also to revise my previous opinions by looking at existing work with a fresh eye. Such freedom existed before, of course, but it was tempered by social contracts and sometimes channelled by subtly coercive peer pressure. Now I am, for example, refining my criticisms of those types of poetry I find meaningful and useful, and also of those I now find ever more hollow and unhealthy.

I am reminded of Michel de Montaigne, writing his essays in solitude in his contemplative tower, refining his opinions ever more discursively. Montaigne invented the essay form which I enjoy practicing here; his example as an eclectic reader is also a role model for one such as I, operating in solitude and obscurity far from the halls of publishing and the central corridors of the critical elite. Where I have the leisure to take my time, read a lot, and form my own opinions at their own pace. No pressures of any kind, except those internal pressures brought forward by the questing self.

I do believe that every writer ought to write the occasional review, to hone their critical faculties. But I also believe that critical snark is a contemporary fashion, not a necessity. I write an honest review, an appreciative review, a mixed review, but that's all it is: a review expressing my responses, my opinions. Unlike the prideful Critics of PoetryWorld, I don't have any agenda beyond the pure pleasure of engagement with poetry's products. (Yes, I intended that bit of wordplay.) I have no critical theory or agenda beyond honesty and love and enthusiasm for the products at hand.

Now back to my new stacks. I need to make room on the shelves, too, to sort them out. I anticipate a pleasurably busy time.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Mary Scriver said...

Art, I so appreciate you turning over this subject of the attitudes of poets towards other poets. And I MUCH appreciated your response to my own complaints, even though I'm not a poet and have no ego at stake. Somehow poetry has become like religion: a mark of refinement, my dear; a sign of a classy sensitivity; and one really must stick within the definitions -- otherwise it would be tennis without the net, right? No Karma without a Dogma.

I just like LANGUAGE and I don't even care whether I understand it as long as it has some kind of lilt and color. If it rhymes, so much the better. If it has feet, great. I'm indiscriminant. (And can't even spell it.)

So sue me. But it would ruin the rhyme.

Prairie Mary

11:19 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Mary—

My pleasure. Glad you chimed in.

As you know, it's a real big problem. Some of what you've been writing on publishing and censorship is very pertinent to this, as well.

For me, and I admit to my own bias in this since I'm a composer first and foremost, poetry is a class of music. I can only describe what I like in poetry, what works for me, in cinematic and musical terms. Musicality in poetry means a lot more to me than traditional poetic craft of rime, metric structure, etc. It's not that traditional metric rhyme is unmusical, rather that it's one kind of music among many possible musics.

12:26 AM  

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