Sunday, February 17, 2008

First posting

The idea for this weblog came to me in discussions with the publicity people at the University of Michigan Press, who told me it was a good way to make contact with interested readers when a new book was about to appear. The book they have scheduled for next October is Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007. It's part of their Poets' Prose series, now edited by Marilyn Hacker and Annie Finch. It's the second collection of literary essays I've published.

I'm new to the blog process and don't know what use I will make of it or what sort of response to expect. But at least I've suited up and made a beginning.


Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Alfred,

It was nice finally to meet you at our AWP panel on the poetic sequence. I hope that you had as good a time as I did, and I regret that we didn't really get the chance to talk.

Thank you for your comment on my blog regarding gay male poetry and identity. It's true that there's a sort of repressive tolerance in the literary world toward gay writers: we're allowed in the club room as long as we're not too loud or conspicuous.

And of course, welcome to the blogosphere! If you develop a readership, which I'm sure you will, you'll find it an interesting experience, immensely rewarding in some aspects, equally immensely infuriating in others. But I've found maintaining a blog to be very useful both in raising my profile (to a degree I had never imagined) and in prodding me to write much more prose than I ever would, to articulate thoughts I didn't know I had and to hone them in a public forum. I've also made contact with all kinds of intelligent and interesting people from around the world whom I otherwise ever would have known.

I will look forward to your new book of essays. As you may know, I have an essay collection just out in the Michigan series called Orpheus in the Bronx, which Marilyn Hacker and Annie Finch selected. So we will soon be label-mates, as it were.

Please note the clever insertion of self-promotion. I've been practicing. :-)

All best and take good care.


Paul said...

This is great, to see you trying this out. I'm looking forward to what you write here.

Alfred Corn said...

Glad to hear from you, Reginald, and of course I knew about the upcoming UMP book. Is it maybe time to talk about whether *Poets* should deign to write criticism? Is that an awful step down? Thoughts?

Thanks, Paul. I already knew about =The Resurrection of the Body= but was interested to hear about other work of yours. Are you a native Georgian or simply living there now? I grew up in Valdosta, though left the state in 1965, unable to bear the racism and homophobia common there at the time.


Arthur Chapin said...

I am a poet living in Charlottesville, Virginia. I would like to supplement what you say in this post with some thoughts of my own, culled from often-bitter experience.

First, I want to thank you for your incisive and erudite comments on the shortcomings of a certain strain of modernism among today’s poets.

Poets who confuse originality with novelty: we will always have them among us, as well as the poor poetry they usually write as a result. The shallow fetishism of mere modernity is a plague. By this means we foolishly—suicidally—condemn ourselves, as you point out, to the obsolescence we impute to our predecessors.

For all his grievous sins, Paul de Man could be a brilliant analyst of literary history and its strange plot twists. He characterized “modernism” as itself ur-traditional, the history of literature being no less than a series of coups against previous history, against history itself (against what Sartre called facticity). If I remember my graduate school reading, he used the term “schismatic modernism” to characterize this would-be radicalism of the new that consistently falls victim to the dramatic ironies of a literary history it believes it is repudiating. These belated claims to originality and the perpetually yet predictably novel forms of this belatedness are the very rhythm of that history, one might say.

One of the pernicious results of the dismissal of tradition is a loss of historical perspective where it is most needed in the quest for poetic originality. One paradoxical effect of a sophisticated view of history (as opposed to a crude view or no view at all) is to see untimeliness (in Nietzsche’s sense) in the very workings of the poet’s relationship to historical time. Untimeliness is both the means and the effect of transcending mere schismatic modernism, as Nietzsche himself did by putting forth a wholly unique amalgam of radical traditionalism (the return to Greek “moraline-free” culture) and radical futurism (the Superman, beyond good and evil). This amalgam, wholly baffling to the majority of his contemporaries, is now among the great culture-shaping forces of our time. A poem is, among other things, an untimely meditation on the complexities and ironies of historical time.

Perhaps all authentic cultural innovations derive their power from the synergy of past and future, of what used to be and what yet to be. It hardly matters whether one thinks of one’s innovations as leaps into the future or returns to the past. The innovation known as opera, for example was conceived by the Florentine Camerata as a return to the simplicity of Greek monody. Such a return was of course impossible, if only because of the lack of any hard evidence as to how Greek music actually sounded; but out of this failed attempt at a resuscitation came a radically new thing that profoundly reshaped the history of music and is still with us.

Like the Florentine Camerata with its opposition to the hypertrophied complexity of the polyphonic style, but without their deep-background perspective on a remote past, the self-appointed champions of the “now” in poetry usually characterize earlier styles as excessively “rhetorical.” Rhetorical accretions must be stripped away to liberate a style that is not even a style but the unmediated poetry of reality itself—reality being, of course, what immediately surrounds the myopic poet in a halo of self-exempting superiority to his outdated precursors.

(It should be noted, however, that the animosity of poets toward their predecessors is hardly a recent phenomenon. It has been “traditionally” directed with special force at the immediately preceding generation. Older generations are already “safe”—not subject to polemical animosity because no longer in direct competition with the new generation. They have become somewhat vague-featured statues in the mist. Their use of the old forms is forgiven as an historical quirk, like the wearing of jerkins, not detracting from the poetry or even adding to it the aura and patina that belongs to the fine old things of culture. More importantly, perhaps, these grand- and great-grand-ancestors serve as as clubs with which to beat the immediately preceding generation over the head.)

To return to the de Man these, the attack on the excessive “rhetoricity” of older poetry is almost an intrinsic part of the history of poetry itself. Remember Chaucer in Troilus and Cressida enjoining his readers to show indulgence toward the speech of the ancient peoples depicted in his poem, for they spoke a language “wonder straunge.” Chaucer!

Remember Verlaine: “We must take Rhetoric by the neck and strangle her!” An eloquent piece of rhetoric; perhaps it may even sound a bit fustian to our ears, but it is all the more charming for that.

And so on…

In Harold Bloom’s view, poets who dismiss tradition are merely masking their “anxiety of influence,” their “belatedness.” Or worse still, they show themselves entirely ignorant that such an artistic and psychological quandary vis à vis tradition might even exist. (A failed encounter with the Covering Cherub, Bloom might have put it in his esoteric phase.)

In fact, it can be said that the problems and paradoxes of radical modernism (again following Bloom) begin precisely with those poets who first (and most acutely, perhaps) felt their own belatedness in relation to their mighty precursor Milton. I refer, of course, to the Romantics, and especially Wordsworth, the original tortuously postured original who founded his originality on the claim that he had shed the artificiality of Augustan poetic diction and made himself “a man speaking to men.”

But Bloom himself, for all his omniscient scholarship and grasp of detail in literary-historical analysis, is perhaps guilty of lumping together the great diversity of poets and poetic sensibilities too simplistically under the thesis-driven rubrics of anxiety and agon.

In this regard I wholeheartedly agree with a related point made in your post: that blanket dismissals of previous generations of poets lump together figures as different as night and day. I refer here not so much to Bloom as to the poets and schools of poetry you take issue with in your post. The loss of resolution and detail in their coarse-grained evaluations is, on the one hand, naïve, and on the other, a cunning means of making a flimsy case with lawyer-like sophistry. Alas, the more susceptible members of the jury will fall into the trap and take such evaluations seriously. The result is potentially disastrous; it can conceivably hold an entire generation of poetic talent hostage to ideological rigidity and passive-aggressive ressentiment

As for “formalism” and its supposed drawbacks in any attempt to “make it new,” I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but I will paraphrase Wallace Stevens to the effect that the use or the rejection of form by itself neither helps nor hinders the chances of a poem’s artistic success.

What is distressing at the current historical juncture is the inability of so many poets to show the kind of even-handedness in matters of style and form that Stevens demonstrates with such magisterial disinterestedness here. Why can’t traditional forms and free-verse forms (already becoming traditional forms in themselves) coexist?

Where would the poetry of Stevens itself be without his habitual recourse to the iambic pentameter blank verse that anchors his poetry in the great Romantic tradition the better to facilitate his incursions into profound originality?

Auden writes somewhere of his gratitude to the intellectual discipline of form. I must paraphrase again (with apologies for my poor memory), but he wrote, in effect, that the seemingly trivial exigency of a rhyme that needed sharpening or an awkward meter that needed smoothing out prompted him, not just to re-think the words he used, but the thoughts he was thinking—and for the better. Traditional forms can liberate, just as free verse can impose unnecessary limitations.

Most of us are familiar with Frost’s comment on free verse, that it was tantamount to playing tennis without a net. Perhaps what gives form in poetry its enduring appeal is precisely the difficulty of a game requiring discipline and practice but offering also a ludic joy, or, less pretentiously, fun. (Frost also said that what he wanted the reader to come away with from a poem was just how much fun the poet had writing it.) It is easy to tell when you’ve gotten the poem wrong, in most cases, just as the boundaries on a tennis court make it plain when the ball is out.

(On the subject of the ludic aspect of so-called formalist poetry, it is not only in poetry but in music lyrics as well that a certain stale “Dionysian” disdain for form encourages a sophomoric self-indulgence inimical to great art. Where is the old sense of elegance that animated the great Tin Pan Alley lyrics, lyrics that prided themselves on rhymes of outlandish ingenuity that were at the same time never less than “perfect” rhymes. The torch songs and witty Byronic rhymes of Cole Porter and the Gershwin brothers went along with a sophisticated adult sensibility sorely lacking in a recent cultural scene too often dominated by the taste of sixteen-year-olds with X-Boxes. The kingdom belongs to the child, indeed, Heraclitus—but not as he meant that aphorism. No, it is the cultural marketplace that belongs to the pimply-faced arbiter elegentiae whose target-audience-oracles determine so much of what is offered to us to see, hear, and read these days.)

Free verse, compared to Frostian meter and rhyme, sometimes reminds me of jogging, relaxed and pleasantly wayward but also prone to solipsistic noodling in the Central Park of the imagination. There are few or no criteria for judging whether a free verse poem has succeeded as a form (and free verse is a kind of form, even if it is only of the kind that makes itself up as it goes along, i.e., with every new poem). This means that in free verse it is harder, perhaps, to tell when one has gotten it wrong.

And yet where would we be without free verse? In addition to losing the work of Eliot and Pound and Williams, we would foreclose on any number of new perspectives and new kinds of verbal melos that only these modernist experiments in the extension of the old repertoire of styles made possible. Without free verse many important things could simply not have been said. Answerable form tends to call into being the very inspiration that seeks that form.

Poetic choices in matters stylistic and formal have both an ad hoc, arbitrary aspect and an artistic inevitability. There are things that can only be said in free verse. In other cases only a villanelle, for example, gives the correctly shaped opening for what wants to be said. The form, like the sound, should be an echo of the sense.

I apologize for the lengthiness of these comments, but I would like to continue a little further and touch on another issue you raise in your post: the complicated question of postmodernism.

One of the hallmarks of postmodernism, as I understand it, and one that I personally find congenial, is stylistic eclecticism. It is, paradoxically, perhaps its only original trademark. Eclecticism means an embrace of stylistic unlikes and opposites, not as polarities arranged in a hierarchy, but as fruitful sources of tension and hence energy. There is, or should be, no “irritable grasping” after a dialectical resolution of the creative chaos of styles available to postmodern artists. On the contrary, this teeming variety is an unparalleled resource, at least for those creative enough to sound the stops and manipulate the registers of the stylistic Harmonium.

Eliot, the founder of free verse and modernism in English, was also a founder of postmodern eclecticism in this sense. (One could even venture the formulation that all true modernists are ipso facto postmodernists.) The Waste Land is, as is well known, a curiously coherent and compelling collage of free verse, blank verse, vers libre, and strategically placed quotations from earlier poets’ works. (Some might aver that Whitman precedes Eliot as a practitioner of free verse. True in a sense, but it has been pointed out that his cadences owe a great deal to Biblical parallelistic prose—which would make his work yet another and even earlier example of postmodernist eclecticism. Postmodernism would then be a radically modern sensibility aware of its roots—the etymology, as it were, of its stylistic choices—and hence by the same token radically traditional.)

More examples could be educed from other fields of artistic endeavor. In recent music one need only point to John Adams and his penchant for mixing Serialism, rock-and-roll, and lush Romantic harmonies and orchestrations, sometimes in the same work. Or the late Alfred Schnittke, who so characteristically opens up, here and there in the nihilistic chaos of his dissonant soundscapes, little windows onto old-fashioned melodies and harmonies from a more innocent time. (The founder of this sensibility in music, of course, is Gustav Mahler—one thinks of the naïve Frère Jacques tune that threads the slow movement of the First Symphony in a sardonic minor-key version of itself.)

I have gone on much too long, but allow me to close with a poem by Stevens that is especially pertinent to this discussion. This poem seems to have been written yesterday, that is, today (O timely untimeliness!), down to the challenge to young poets to grapple honestly with the strangeness and daunting power of the traditional canon: “Be thou the voice, / Not you.”

Mozart, 1935

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.

If they throw stones upon the roof
While you practice arpeggios,
It is because they carry down the stairs
A body in rags.
Be seated at the piano.

That lucid souvenir of the past,
The divertimento;
That airy dream of the future,
The unclouded concerto…
The snow is falling.
Strike the piercing chord.

Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.

Be thou that wintry sound
As of the great wind howling,
By which sorrow is released,
Dismissed, absolved
In a starry placating.

We may return to Mozart.
He was young, and we, we are old.
The snow is falling
And the streets are full of cries.
Be seated, thou.

Even the title, Mozart, 1935, both acknowledges the untimeliness of Mozart and mocks those who would dismiss him as no longer with the times. The total perspective, the landscape in which the young poet must move and find his being, is one dominated by the literary equivalent of giants like Mozart—giants whose challenge one ignores at one’s artistic peril. Stevens shows us in a miniature panorama of what is past (souvenir) and passing (the shoo-shoo-shoo of Big Band music, now for many of us a bit of a souvenir), and to come (the airy dream of the future).

One hears, in “Be thou the voice,” an injunction to negative capability (so inimical to today’s sensibility) in willingly taking into one’s voice the otherness, the “straunge” accents and idioms of older poets. (To be that voice is to bethou your voice.)

In the repeated “The snow is falling” one can see “the now is falling.” The present may be the wintriest god in the trinity of time. It falls—that is, it is incidental, it speaks only in its incidences, it is mere weather, not even a climate; it is passing, like a white shadow; and it will land on the earth and melt away like the Emperor’s ice cream. (“It was snowing and it was going to snow,” goes the line in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.) Great poems transcend and redeem this mere incidental falling. They are always past, and passing, and to come.

Arthur Chapin