miércoles, 23 de junio de 2010
The Real North American Poetry
Talk delivered as part of Semana de las Letras and las Lecturas, Teatro el Circulo, Rosario, Argentina, on Wednesday, August 8, 2007
The poetry that we all practice, which is most active in us and real, is that of our received tradition in negotiation with current offerings toward change, which Ezra Pound called the new. If we are fortunate, we have available a substantial national literature and folk culture, a world that is ours, with its wealth of history and mythology, and highly original views. Lorca had The Gypsy Ballads, cante jondo, qasidas, ghazals, Galician folk culture, and a rich sense of place in Granada. Emily Dickinson had Amherst, Massachusetts, a hymn book, and her brother’s wife, Susan Gilbert, next door. They made pies together, and on 1, 775 occasions Emily wrote a poem. Lorca was shot to death in a scene from a Goya painting, illuminated by the lights of his killers’ cars; the site was a hilltop garden associated with ancient Moorish poetry. One poet worked in the public arena, the other private. Nothing in their social lives and history could have predicted the intensity of their poems. It’s a mystery how lived experience transforms to the Real, capital “R,” and we feel its rare power; how the poet, after polishing her silver, goes upstairs to write, “The Feet, mechanical, go round - / Of Ground, or Air, or Ought - / a Wooden way / Regardless grown / A Quartz contentment, like a stone - .” It seems that poems don’t become real until something unpredictable and almost foreign rustles through the language. This is why it is so difficult to know poets from their poems. It’s also why a social poetry, or poetry of manners, often falls short. The real stuff of poetry comes from another set of intuitions. Undoubtedly I am biased on this subject. With Maxine Chernoff, I recently translated the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. Now all rivers appear to “nose” at their banks, move torturously downhill.
I’m under a special obligation today because of the tricky word “actual” that came with the assigned topic. I can tell you about poetry in the United States from my particular perch on the cliff side of its culture, which is that of the “innovative.” I can dare a few observations on the postmodern imagination. (Is that a contradiction in terms?) But how can I explain to you what has happened to U. S. culture and political life in the last 7 years, its impact on our sense of a real, actual, or imagined world? To watch television news in the United States is to witness the imaginary in the making. All is false consciousness and bad faith. Today as I write this George Bush explained that his commutation of Scooter Libby’s jail sentence was done in a “fair and balanced way.” “Fair and balanced” is the catch phrase used by the notorious Fox News to describe their reporting, when in fact it’s the most ideological loaded news in contemporary journalism. Our sense of dislocation is nearly total, because all is “spin”: the health of the health care system (now 38th in the world, just ahead of Slovenia), the seriousness of global warming (over 50 percent of U.S. “cars” are gas-wasting Sports Utility Vehicles), the reason for the Iraq occupation (there were no weapons of mass destruction, but Hussein was a bad guy anyway), and the reason we can’t bring the soldiers home (3,700 brave soldiers can’t have died in vain). The psychic condition of U. S. citizens is now comparable to that of the little girl in Pan’s Labyrinth as she faces the monster in the basement. You want to run for your life, but something is so fascinating about those plenteous glistening grapes, you want just one more bite of the table’s excess.
The U. S. poet Sam Hamill was part of a previous Semana. He has done much to place poetry at the service of just cause. This is hard to do, because poetry resists the declarative mode; it leans toward indirection, drama, and uncertainty. Indeed, as we shall see, a new mode of poetry in the U.S. values opacity and a stop-start sequence of fragments. It’s difficult to persuade by such means. That man with the national flag at the ramparts, what exactly is he declaring? It sounds like, could it be, a series of empty signifiers?
We are immediately aware of the new in poetry, because it lies outside received practice. If it’s a very successful new practice, as Abstract Expressionism was in painting, it’s irritating, even infuriating, and then amusing and instructive. In the final degree of reception, this new practice is a beloved part of everyone’s practice. This was the case with Romanticism, Modernism, and now aspects of the postmodern, particularly in the area of “the word as such,” in which poetry expresses its own materiality rather than an individual cry of the heart. Major turns such as the figurative to the abstract, transcendental to material, and subjective to objective usually coincide with a major philosophical or historical shift—wars, the rise of large cities; the movement from agricultural to industrial to technological economies; Nihilism, Nietzsche, and the death of God; communism’s challenge to capitalism; and, as we have recently observed, a return to predatory capitalism and colonialism worthy of the Gilded Age. A survey shows that more U. S. children desire to be famous, just famous, than admired for a particular achievement. Our Zeus and Athena are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Here’s a short poem I wrote on the subject, because two of my poetry students asked how they could “get famous”:
Famous snow falling,
covering a mountain famous for its snow.
Famous cedars leaning in the wind.
A stone is famous at the bottom of the river.
But the river is normal enough.
It goes from here to there.
The famous dust is falling,
in nondescript corners and the famous corners, too,
where you stood or I stood
and someone will be standing
for the first time soon. Cup famous for some reason.
Bowl famous to its spoon.
Sunlight famous, most famous of all
as it climbs the garden wall.
Famous moon, coming through night
notorious for its darkness,
and Earth that is famous only on Earth,
with its sweet smell of history.
In preparing for a new course, Poetry Machines, I realized the large degree to which postmodern art has been impacted by Russian Futurism, especially Khlebnikov’s poetry of the “self-sufficient word” and Malevich’s Black Square and White on White paintings, 1913. If you add Mallarmé’s ideas as outlined in “The Crisis on Poetry,” 1895, and Dada’s contribution of found art and performance poetry (1916), you have much of what we consider to be advanced practice today. I am not trying to suggest that U. S. poetry lacks force and inventiveness. There are many exemplary poets. I tug at this theme because I wonder how long Late Modernism will extend its reign; how social change, which is coming quickly, will impact our views of expression; and, perhaps this is the same question, whether poetry will continue on its course of relativism, indeterminacy, and reflexivity. Have we ceased speaking to history, or are our current modes the only way to address it?
I have used the phrase “individual cry of the heart.” Poetry does issue a cry, or call; even objectified kinds of expression do so. The call is for attention, and contains the promise of something to be attentive to—a heartrending story, humor, scenery, Shakespeare’s beautiful language. In the fine arts, a certain seriousness is anticipated. Eisenstein wrote that film drama is a “montage of attractions”; that is, of calls for attention: “the ‘chatter’ of Ostuzhev no more than the pink tights of the prima-donna, a roll on the kettledrums as much as Romeo’s soliloquy, the cricket on the hearth no more than the cannon fired over the heads of the audience” (Eisenstein 230). In cinema, the viewer experiences diegesis, the sense that what he is watching is trustworthy, real as can be, and therefore true. This happens even in dramatic films built on fiction. In poetry, sound, freshness of metaphor, and word magic (Emily Dickinson’s phrase “Zero at the Bone,” for instance) compel you to be present at this solemn, happy, or otherwise uncommon moment. Even when the words are not specifically visual, such as “green apple” or “dead man,” they open up a world. Nouns are a problem for the non-imagist. They make present this thing (clown) and that thing (tower) in a specific and personal way, offering camera angle, texture, lighting, and even dramatic context, depending on your own set of universal particulars—your oak tree, your green Platonic hill. The postmodern idea that you must leave the poem half-made (so that the reader can participate in its making) needs to be examined. The reader has always participated, no matter how the rules of reading change, from the blank verse of Paradise Lost to imagist poems. If Mallarmé leaves holes in his texts, we read them, too, as presences. Here is a page of A Tomb for Anatole, fragments written on the death of his son in 1879 but not published in France until 1961:
to see him dead
— the mother’s fears
on the funeral bed
from the moment the playing
stopped in I
— end of I
voice that cries until
that — for the mute child
The breaking of voice, staggering progress, and zig-zag lines are perfect for elegy, and they speak volumes. Vallejo’s “Pienso en tu sexo” ends with one of the neologisms for which his poetry is famous.
Oh, honeyed scandal of twilights
Oh, mute outcry
Unless you have the original Spanish text available, you won’t understand the last line. It’s the next to last line read backwards, letter by letter: “Oh estruendo mudo.” But the reading is successful emotionally even if you miss that detail. It’s dramatically clear that the speaker and lover has uttered a nonsense vocable at a crucial moment.
I mention Mallarmé and Vallejo because their work relates to aspects of U. S. poetry, especially the breaking of continuity and formal gamesmanship. But such matters would have no interest, if it weren’t for the poems’ lyric intensity, or call. As with songs and movies, we want to be in a state of attention so true that we experience stillness. The marvel of a good poem spoken out loud is not how it is acted—a dramatized poem, with professional actors, is always a bit ridiculous—but how it stills the room. The poem’s call arrives, and the listeners sit at attention. Often this purity of attention subsides before the poem is complete. It hardly matters, because what we remember of a work is what Horace called dulci (as in dulci et utile) the sweetness of the thing. The lingering of such attention may be what Ezra Pound meant by the phrase “only emotion endures.”
At present in the United States, as happens with each generation, formerly marginal practices have taken the high ground and made their assumptions appear to be the natural way to write. Two chief lines of thought weave together as the innovative dominant. The first is the New York School influence emerging primarily from the work of John Ashbery and Barbara Guest, which I call the “abstract lyric.” A late-romantic mode that seeks beauty in philosophical indeterminacy, it is an expressive and yet rigorous poetry that finds truth in never finding the truth it seeks. Leading back to the playfully brilliant poetry of Wallace Stevens, French Surrealism, Dada, Raymond Roussel, the paintings of di Chirico, Mallarmé more than Rimbaud, and the German Romantic concepts of Schelling and Novalis more than any sublime of English Romanticism, this mode romanticizes authorship even as it de-centers it. Ever more elusive, this author compares with Stevens’ Snow Man, who, “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”). My essay on the New York School, “Fables of Representation,” deals extensively with this influence.
The second line of thought, language poetry, emerged in two competitive camps, New York and San Francisco, in the late 1970s. Its modernist forebears are Ezra Pound, primarily for The Cantos; Gertrude Stein, for Tender Buttons and her concept of the “continuous present”; the William Carlos Williams (there were more than one) who wrote “The Botticellian Trees”; the long-overlooked Objectivists, particularly George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky, whose most-loved figure has become Lorine Niedecker, the accessible Wisconsin who married a one-armed fisherman; and the Projectivist or “Black Mountain” poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, who took Pound’s assertion “technique is the test of man’s sincerity” to heart. It’s easy to recognize, as well, the influence of Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath, 1963. The language poets have been so successful at establishing their program that leading figures Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein hold endowed chairs at Berkeley and Penn, respectively. Stylistically, language poetry is similar to the Mallarmé fragment quoted earlier, but without its emotional commitment. It is a poetry for the mind and, to some degree, the smoke without the fire.
I consider the above poetics to be the “real” North American poetry, because they offer the most successful reading from Modernism to the present. More young poets have drawn from these sources than any other, and such poetry is now produced in graduate writing programs.
The generation to follow language poetry, roughly 35-45, is referred to as “post-language,” a term that is accurate in suggesting a “mainstreaming” of the avant-garde. A softer, more forgiving set of complexities emerge. In the post-language era, the constructivist and materialist claims of language poetry, which had been sharpened in the early post-Vietnam War period, have far less immediacy. The “word as such,” with its challenge to beauty, bourgeois subjectivity, and authorship, loses its moral force and becomes another tool of the poet’s trade. Expression returns, but tempered by the culture of oblique and distanced expression that preceded it. Literary criticism begins to speak of the “postmodern lyric,” which describes much of the work we publish in our literary magazine, New American Writing. But how does the postmodern lyric differ from the traditional?
Here are two examples from my own work. In 2005, I published Poems in Spanish (2005), none of which appear in Spanish but adopt the manner of Lorca, Sabines, Neruda, Vallejo, and the Portuguese language poets Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Fernando Pessoa. Their poetry has a candor, humor, depth, cadence, and emotional weight that I have always admired. Writing through such a stylistic mask granted me license to be truly lyrical for the first time. I recently completed another manuscript, “Sonnet 56,” that consists of 56 formal variations on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56, some of which are genuinely lyrical on the poet’s theme of love—for instance, “Villanelle,” “Epigram,” and “Homosyntactic Translation”—and some of which are humorous, such “Course Description” and “Answering Machine.” Yet all express Shakespeare’s theme of love’s need of renewal. Lyricism was an especially unexpected result of the form “Homosyntactic Translation,” which calls for replacing the original’s major parts of speech—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on—with other words of the same kind. As with Poems in Spanish, the eccentricity of the concept and some of its forms finds balance with the traditional , potentially sentimental nature of love poems. Some of you will recognize the influence of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (Gallimard, 1947).
In its extreme of sophistication and diminishment of its bohemian wing, the new American poetry risks becoming unobtainable even to the highly literate reader. This is where performance poetry and the new phenomenon of Flarf come to bear. To “flarf” is to use software mechanisms such as the Google search engine to find incongruous and sometimes thematic language for the poem. Incessantly ironic, it is popular with poets under the age of 40. In their exuberance and sheer silliness, practices like Flarf and poetry slams return a sense of carnival to a poetry culture increasingly determined by academic professionalization.
Young poets today often obtain the M.F.A. degree and a Ph.D. in English before attempting to “enter the marketplace,” as we say. In 1955, the year Ginsberg wrote “Howl” and “A Supermarket in California” in Berkeley, there were perhaps two university creative writing programs in the country, at University of Iowa and University of Washington Seattle. Bohemianism was thriving, and the romance of the road was real, down two-lane highways through small towns that had not a single Walmart store. In Mill Valley, California, down the hill from where I now live, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg rented a house from one of the herdsmen on a dairy farm. This house and band of fellows provided the setting for Japhy Ryder and other characters in Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums. You may have attended Columbia University or Harvard, as many of the postwar avant-garde did. But the rest of life was lived “by the seat of your pants,” as the idiom goes. You wrote poems and showed them to friends. When you were ready, you drove to Rutherford, New Jersey, to meet the keen-eyed doctor, William Carlos Williams. This was a test of value at the highest level. Such initiations now take place at more than 350 college and university writing programs.
Perhaps I seem nostalgic for things as they were. I do wish for a return to innocence, intelligence, and civility in our public discourse. Because of its ceremony, sobriety, and grasp of ultimate things, poetry can lead us in that direction. Of the arts, it especially is a soul-making activity. I am alarmed by the brutality of life in the United States as it is now constituted, and I’m wary of poetry that has no response to this fact.
-Friday, July 13, 2007
Eisenstein, Sergei M. The Film Sense. Translated and edited by Jay Leyda. New York:
Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947.
Mallarmé, Stéphane. A Tomb for Anatole. Translated and with an Introduction by Paul Auster.
San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983.
Tapscott, Stephen. Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Austin:
The University of Texas Press, 1996.
EM & PH.