Thursday, January 10, 2008

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 4

Another aspect of "experimental" poetry that seems to get the formalists' blood boiling is non-linearity: non-linear narrative, non-linear presentation, non-linear progression.

I am interested in Albert Einstein's comment that: The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once. In fact, everything is always happening at once, and we sort it, cognitively and neurologically, into stories. We make stories up from the world. (The world is made of stories, not atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser) We turn our lives into narrative, and call it creation myth, call it memoir, call it autobiography, call it factual. But it's still invented, made up from whole cloth, a literary creation. All traditions were once invented traditions.

The argument is often presented that "one must learn the rules in order to break them." In poetry, what this often means is that you are expected to become a master at form and meter, before you undertake any other, more experimental styles of writing. I'll set aside for the moment the recurrent problem in education that the more structure you impose on the student's mindset, the harder it is for them to see outside the box, later on. There is often a process of unlearning, after an intense formal education, in order for an artist to get back to where their own voices had originally led them, to where they can hear their own intuitions and inner guidance again. Many never make it back to inspiration, after being immersed in form. School is very good at teaching technique, and lousy at supporting vision.

Here is the danger of the "learn the rules first" attitude: if in fact you do learn by heart all the rules, you risk never again being able to think outside the conceptual frame encompassed by those rules.

And if you never go on from there, or always stay there, and believe you should always stay there? Believe that poetry belongs there, and should never stray from there? What do we call that?

We can call it (neo-)formalism. We can call it limit. We can call it the box.

We can call it boring. We can also call it masterful execution of traditional methods. There are indeed poets who spend their entire careers in one place; mining the same vein, perfecting their art within the small scope of their interests and abilities.

Of course it's perfectly valid to stay there, do that. Not everyone is suited for thinking outside the box.

I'm going to get into the "you've got to learn the rules to break the rules" cliché more, later on.

There is an anti-[anti-innovation] argument that can be made on purely psychospiritual artistic grounds: that innovation is necessary if only because it resists the downward pull of the tide of entropy.

If you want to stay in the same place in an entropic universe, you still have to move forward; merely treading water and staying in the same place is actually a downward regression. (One thinks of ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls, who haven't made a real contribution in decades, and their poetic equivalents.)

This isn't an argument promoting innovation for its own sake. It's physics: If you even want to stay in the same place, or appear to, you still have to make something new from what you are doing, even if you don't want to actively accelerate forward. Stasis is stagnation, and stagnation is death. Holding position is ultimately retrograde. The Universe will expand onwards, with or without you. If you don't move forward, the world will leave you behind, one way or another.

So, one counter to the argument against orthographic innovation (that it gets in way of clarity of reading) is the argument that staying in the same place, artistically, is tantamount to creative stagnation (that always doing the same thing is deadening and boring). Even avowedly conservative poets are still writing new poetry, not old poetry (unless they're simply rehashing the past, which is arguably not the same thing as writing poetry at all). Even avowedly conservative thinkers, focused as they are on the past, must be aware on some level that they are living in the present, not the past. (Unless of course they are genuinely driven by pure ideology. The ivy tower is divorced from reality no matter what political stance it might take, if it refuses to see what's actually going on, but prefers to only look at ideas.) Even a poet who rejects all forms of innovation must at some point realize that if they're not moving forward even slowly enough to hold position, they're actually moving backwards. Of course, maybe they want to do that.

The arguments against innovation and experiment, and the arguments for them, will no doubt continue forever, and no doubt remain unresolved. I think that is probably a good thing.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

On the issue of unlearning, I have no doubt that Picasso never unlearned how to paint a straight portrait any more than Schoenberg had to unlearn how to write a piece of music in C major. If anything it was probably necessary for each of them to work through 'traditional' forms of expression so that they came to appreciate the need to move beyond them. That said I've always wondered what would happen if you sat someone down in front of a piano, someone who had never heard music before, just what they'd come up with. The thing is, even if Picasso had never painted himself and Schoenberg had never composed, both had been exposed to the rich tapestry that is the history of art and music.

A box is an interesting thing. You can climb into it, out of it, you can wear it, poke holes in it, turn it into a castle or a boat … you're only limited by your imagination. I used a piece of paper to get a similar point over to my daughter: you can scribble on it, write on it, draw on it, tear it up or make an Origami water bomb out of it but at the end of the day it's just a bit of paper; don't make more of it that it is. The box and the piece of paper are points of reference for us to relate to or move beyond. Let's face it, many of the radical poets of the past have simply taken that box, cut it up, reshaped it and made another kind of box out of it. And that's good too.

Rules rub most people up the wrong way and that's a good start for artistic development. Some artists/writers/ composers will kowtow and abide by them but then these probably were never going to be the greats anyway; just an opinion, I have nothing to back that up.

On the subject of experimentation itself I have only one point to make, in science a great many experiments fail, more than actually succeed. Writing experimental works is a gamble. Take a piece like Beckett's How It Is. How do we know if it worked? Do we need everyone who picks the book up to be able to understand it? Obviously the answer is no. It's an interesting question though. There is often an aloofness that comes along with experimental work, a snobbishness that puts people on the defence. Too many artists are willing to proclaim their experiments as successes just because they reach completion and, to my mind, that's proof of nothing more than the creator's doggedness.

I've always been happy to expose myself to new art. I spent a couple of hours only this week flicking though some visual poetry sites and not getting it. I freely admit I don't always get it and, being who I am, expect that the fault is mine, partly for being a bit of a traditionalist but mostly because I don't know enough to pass judgement. What worries me is that we might have a case of the emperor's new clothes and no one feels confident/knowledgeable enough to speak up and say, "Hey, I think your experiment's gone off. That's crap, son."

8:02 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

You may have a point about Schoenberg. He never really got out of the box, though. His atonal serial music is in some ways the final end-result of harmony and tonality in music, and not at all a break from it. In fact, he insisted that his students learn all about harmony. He was the classic case of "you must know the rules before you can break them"

Then he had a student named John Cage, who had no feeling for harmony. Schoenberg basically told Cage he would be a failure as composer, because he was breating his head against a wall if he couldn't understand harmony. Cage replied that he would continue to beat his head against that wall until it went down.

Cage went on to become one of the most innovative and exploratory composers of this or any other era. He really open our ears in ways Schoenberg never imagined, or believed in.

But when it comes to artists who are able to get outside the box, unlearn everything they've learned or been taught, and completely start all over again, with fresh eyes, Picasso was the poster boy. He did that several times. Look at each phase or period of his art, and they're all completely unique. Yes, they build upon what has gone before in some ways—he couldn't unlearn how to draw, and didn't want to—but unelarning isn't about technique, it's about approach. Look at Picasso's early period works, which are conventionally realistic, use perspective, natural forms of hte human figure; compare that to any of the following periods, and note the difference. More than one observer noted that Picasso loved to be around children, who taught him new ways to look at art without preconceptions. They inspired him.

2:46 PM  

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