Friday, July 25, 2008

Instrumental Poetry and the Environment

In contemporary poetry there is an interface between environmental activism and poetry, but I’m not sure how well known the leading figures in it are, or how many people read their publications. My guess is they haven't received much attention. I assume Green poetry falls under judgments directed against any kind of poetry attempting to be “instrumental,” that is, to change how we feel, think, and act. The battle-cry for the anti-instrumentalists is Auden’s “Poetry makes nothing happen,” a statement he amplified by asserting that history would be exactly the same if no poems had ever been written. That’s shocking from someone who admired science and the scientific method as much as he did. It’s not a statement that can be proved or disproved and therefore qualifies as fairly idle speculation. If we look at his biography, we can understand why he might make it, disillusioned as he was by the Spanish Civil War and by the bad poems with political content written by Stalinists during “the low dishonest decade.” But as is so often true with Auden, he overstated his case; he seems to have enjoyed provocative comments for their own sake. The preponderance of the evidence is that poetry has in fact made a difference in history. Relevant arguments have been made elsewhere and involve figures as notable as Dante, Milton, Blake, Whitman, Yeats, Rukeyser, Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde. Instead of rehearsing them here, I’d like to analyze the attitudes that underlie the assertion that poetry “makes nothing happen.”

Begin with Eliot’s description of poetry as “a superior entertainment.” If poetry’s value is only as entertainment, why should we care more about poetry than we do about Broadway musicals, standup comics, movie thrillers, TV's "Desperate Housewives," video games, and poker playing? Sweden doesn’t give Nobel prizes for those things, so clearly they aren’t generally regarded as important to global culture. Eliot’s loophole is, no doubt, that very Eliotic adjective “superior,” which he doesn’t bother to define. Knowing what we do about him, we can speculate that superiority involves playing on the keys of a refined knowledge of the Western tradition, the use of original, carefully chosen language, and a serious engagement with contemporary reality. If that’s what he meant, then “instrumentality” is still on the table, or at least being purveyed under the counter. Poetry is being asked to keep us in touch with crucial works in the tradition, to influence how we use language, to strengthen our grasp of what is real, and to hone our ethical faculties. Those are certainly "instrumental" uses for poetry. For some readers, the next step would be to translate a clarified sense of justice into some kind of activism, and it's only this instance of "instrumentality" that is ever criticized.

My sense is that the majority of the readership is uninterested in or actively dislikes poems with ethical, political and activist aspects. Why is that? Possibilities: activism is a kind of work, it’s only occasionally fun, and we are a fun-loving people. We like to be entertained, but we don’t like the “superior” part of entertainment. We think we’re short on time and money, so we don’t want to expend what he have on noble causes; our discretionary income should go for new Japanese cars or tickets for the Superbowl; our free time should be spent skiing or watching the latest episode of "Law and Order." Because poems about injustice (unless we are the object of it) make us feel guilty, we dismiss a poetry of engagement as inartistic and ineffective. American culture is the culture of self-affirmation. We like people and things that “make us feel good about ourselves.” We like to attack others, but we don’t enjoy taking our own inventory. The attitude of “I am totally cool” can be raised to the national level so that the United States comes to be described as “the greatest nation on earth.” Another statement that can’t be proved or disproved, it’s interesting mainly as an index to the national character. Anyone attempting to prove it, though, would have to reckon with statistics on infant mortality rates here; the inaction of Federal government where clean energy is concerned and its failure to address environmental issues like water pollution and global warming; the huge disparity between American wealth and American poverty; chronicles of greed like the implosion of Enron and the adventurism of the mortgage industry; the persistence of racial prejudice and homophobia; the disparity between salaries for men and those for women employees; and the shockingly high percentage of incarcerated people. (One in seven Americans has or has had a relative in prison.) By mentioning these things, I've just qualified myself in some quarters as an "America hater." But self-correction is actually a form of self-respect. If I didn't give a damn about my native land I wouldn't bother to point out its errors and misdeeds, I'd do something more fun.


I’m spending the summer in Rhode Island and recently took an excursion to a stretch of the shore south of Narragansett where, instead of beaches, land meets sea in rock outcroppings big waves crash against with breathtaking drama. It’s just one of thousands of beautiful natural sites in this vast country whose great good fortune is to have an amazing variety of geological formations, climates, plants, and animals. And yet there is a sector of the population who doesn’t seem to recognize the value of this inheritance. You can’t walk on the Narragansett Bay rocks without constantly stumbling over litter left there by visitors who don’t feel any obligation whatsoever to take their garbage with them when they leave. Worse still are the graffiti announcing profundities like “Jake Loves Brittany, May 2003.” By now Jake has gone on to Stephanie or Tiffany, but so what: his bright pink graffito is still there and will be for a century unless someone with special training, polluting chemicals and tools comes to erase it, an expense not included in state or local budgets. What’s wrong with this picture? Why are kids brought up here to think it’s cool to deface natural sites that belong to everyone? Does this sort of thing bother anyone else, or is it just me? I suppose it’s just me, the indefatigable reformer, Cassandra prophesying to an unheeding Trojan populace. Nobody likes a scold, and I apologize for being one. What’s my problem, why can’t I get with the program and just let it all slide like everybody else? I really don’t know the answer, but I do know that the impulse is instinctive, pre-rational. When I see someone brutalizing another person or an animal or a landscape, I first feel sick, and then I feel angry. I'm also preaching to myself here, since I'm aware I don't devote enough time to fighting the abuses that cause me so much chagrin. Sorry about that.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Spontaneity and aesthetics

Spontaneity’s a quality roundly appreciated—bingo!—in ordinary experience and in art. OK, but do we know what it means? First, look at its Latin origin: sponte, an adverb applied to actions “done of one’s own free will, voluntarily.” The associations the adjective “spontaneous” calls to mind are freedom, youth, improvisation, surprise, absence of forethought or calculation; and by extension, absence of guile. At the opposite end of the scale are qualities like restraint, planning, discipline, editing, plotting, and even conspiracy. Spontaneity’s usually associated with humor or at least a fresh view of things. We like it when we encounter it in people because, hey, they don’t seem worried about what impression they’re making on us; they’re relaxed and help us relax, often through laughter. (Although: if all the world's a stage it must also be true that some people are good enough actors to seem convincingly spontaneous; clowning is a skill like any other.)

In poetry, spontaneity’s embodiments include informality, avoidance of sequential argument and compositional structure, use of jokes, non-standard grammar, and a vigorous delivery, all of it couched in a “speechly” tone and diction (even slang and cusswords). Yep, spontaneity’s down with interjections, contractions, & abbreviations, etc., abrupt shifts in syntax or subject matter, emotive italicization, and emotive punctuation—the dash, the question mark (or double question mark), and the exclamation point. And, like, why the fuck not, dude?! Why indeed.

Elizabeth Bishop once said the three qualities she most liked in poetry were spontaneity, accuracy, and mystery. Those sound good to me; but I recognize that there is some tension between the first and the others.

Common negative terms applied by critics to poems include: “plodding,” “stuffy,” “stiff,” “dry,” “academic,” “old-fashioned”; all of these are failures spontaneity can alleviate, with its vitality, its freshness, its unpredictability, its subversive humor.

Granted that spontaneity is a value in art, what needs explaining is that it has become the supreme value in our poetry, the one that trumps all others. It seems that the majority of readers now expect a poem to sound like improvisation, not shaped by revision, its words tumbling out of the mind directly onto the page. Allen Ginsberg even made an aesthetic credo of this approach with his “first thought, best thought” manifesto, where he seems to have thought the unrevised life and unrevised text were in harmony with Buddhist philosophy. The aesthetic behind Creeley’s poetry (and many of his followers) seems close to this. A poem is, what, just the uncensored record of your mental/verbal activity at a particular moment. Many of Frank O’Hara’s poems read like they're exactly that, which helps explain why his star is so high these days. And after all, even sobersides Wordsworth said that poetry is, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Just possibly the phrase “recollected in tranquility” will explain why Wordsworth’s spontaneous and powerful feelings found expression in words and lines so thoughtful as those in “Tintern Abbey” and the “Intimations” Ode.

The bias for spontaneity involves an assumption about the psyche and its relationship to artistic creation, in which the unconscious mind is regarded as unsurpassable, and the thoughtful, editing part of the mind is held to be an enemy to sincerity and vitality. This bias begins in the Romantic period, is upheld by the Surrealist aesthetic (at least in the practice of “automatic writing”), and finally by the permissive atmosphere of American art that began in the 1960s. We see it consciously or unconsciously supported in aesthetic manifestoes like Ginsberg’s, which devalue revision; by experiments of avant-garde performance artists like David Antin, who used to simply stand up and speak ad lib into the mic, and by a sizable critical literature that is dead set against the use of meter, rhyme, and verseform because these involve planning, second thoughts, and revision, an approach some critics spontaneously term “fascistic.”

Obviously, a first-thought-best-thought aesthetic rules out verseform composition, though perhaps not blank verse. There are many poets now publishing who can instantly produce pentameter lines without stopping to count on their fingers, pentameters more complex than “the University of Michigan,” or “So who told Kevin he should punch you out?”

It also rules out other kinds of poems: extended narratives; philosophical arguments; precise descriptions of natural phenomena, people, or artworks; close, dialectical analysis of autobiographical events and feelings about these; balanced self-evaluation or balanced perceptions about other people; textual “architecture”; verbal economy and distilled expression. Because spontaneity is almost inseparable from humor, its tendency is to undermine seriousness and to clash with tragic subjects. When writing about, for example, the death of someone you loved, you don’t want to sound like you’re, um, you know, a goof or whatever.

Spontaneity is one of satire’s strongest resources, and since so much poetry now being written is nose-thumbing, ironic, and deflationary, we get a lot of spontaneity among the new poets on the block. And it’s almost always welcomed as being “fresh,” (that word used to have a secondary sense, which might be relevant here), unpretentious, and, like, sooo not what academics want you to write. The fact that it has a sell-by date and stops seeming fresh after a few years is ignored year after year and decade after decade as new practitioners appear on the scene.

I’ve suggested before that the way we write reflects the way we live our lives. And our nation is—spontaneous us!—the world capital of spontaneity, of “whatever,” of impulse-buying, of fast food, of maxing out credit cards, of tactless comments, of road rage, of spontaneous combustion in public opinion, of Columbine-style massacres, of launching military operations without forethought and planning; and of rushing into publication.

I like humor in poetry and I like the spontaneity that gives the impression that a poem is--no, seriously--being spoken rather than written. I also recognize that, when this quality is combined with precision, nuance, careful reflection, interesting word choices and sonic texture, the quality is an artistic illusion, what could be called spontaneity of the most calculated kind. Given how long it took Elizabeth Bishop to complete her poems, their apparent and charming spontaneity can only be the result of long labor and careful revision.

No one seriously questions that the first source of artworks is the unconscious, the irrational, the realm of dream. But the best artworks are those that take impulses from the dark and fishy deep and combine them with elements of a conscious art. The unconscious is universally distributed, but not all people are artists. Only those who develop the skills and reflexes needed for art can hope to produce works of lasting value. I disagree with Yeats when he says the “only singing school” is found in “monuments of unageing intellect.” But certainly that is one of the places where we learn to (let’s avoid flowery poesy and not say "sing") write.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New Jersey and Poetry

A few days ago I took a trip to New Jersey, which sounds less interesting than the trip actually proved to be. I wonder if anyone has written an article or book about poetry and the Garden State? I suppose the study could begin with Camden, the last dwelling of Whitman and the location of his grandiose tomb. For the twentieth century, the overshadowing figure is Williams, and anyone enthusiastic about American Modernism has to make the pilgrimage to Paterson and maybe Rutherford as well, as I did many years ago. The choice of Paterson as the site for Williams’s American epic is odd, even allowing for the fact that the author wanted to write about his immediate environment. But he shows that the city has an interesting geology and historic past and that it is in some ways emblematic for American history in general. You also sense a certain anxiety, an anxiety of avoidance, call it, with respect to the megalopolis whose towers you see from the eastern part of the state. Note, too, that the poem ends with a vista of the great city on the Hudson. The poem startled everyone when it appeared because it included prose documents relevant to its subject. In so doing, Williams was taking Pound of The Cantos a step further, and Pound himself can be understood as working in a tradition established by Whitman, who wrote “documentary” poems like “Song of the Exposition” and other poems that include factual information about the United States in the second half of the 19th century. I used to have a quote from Octavio Paz (now mislaid)about this aspect of the American tradition. Our willingness to include hard fact in our poems sets us apart from the Continental European tradition and its Latin American inheritors, a tradition which always strives to move poetic subjects into the realm of timeless myth, dream, or psychological interiority. This is a bit less true for British poetry, which is nurtured in a strongly empirical philosophical tradition. (Two days ago was the 210th anniversary of the composition of Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour.” We know that because he dated the poem “July 13, 1798,” surely the first time a poem was assigned a date, but not the last.)

Paterson is also remarkable for its inclusion of letters from one of Williams’s woman readers, who outlines the dilemma of women in a social order that relegates them to a secondary position, merely on the basis of gender, not ability. Some of the letters accuse Williams directly, and it's hard to imagine any of Williams’s contemporaries making room in their poems for this sort of critique. We can view it as a form of masochism or else a commitment to justice. I don’t, for my part, see how it is possible to have such commitments without seeing oneself as, to a greater or lesser degree, in the wrong. It’s difficult or impossible always to do the right thing, and more characteristic of the American temperament to self-praise and blame others rather than to engage in “autocritique.” American as he was, Williams was able to take stock and find himself wanting—as did Whitman in “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” Some poems of Lowell’s and Berryman’s acknowledge wrong-doing, but these are rare examples in our poetry.

Part of my Jersey excursion involved Atlantic City, which is hard to explain except as part of a decades-long project to see every large or notable city in America. I’ve been in all fifty states and visited all their cities except Las Vegas and Milwaukee. (Invitations welcome.) Anyway, an excursion to Atlantic City is like suddenly finding yourself in the “Monopoly” board game, because the street names are the same, big hotels are everywhere (often fused with the casinos), and the overwhelming motive for both topoi is greed. So Atlantic City is a little compendium of the United States, with a good percentage of these contributing a street name. The extreme contrasts of prodigal expenditure and desperate poverty are also very American. A common idiom in our version of English is the phrase, “You bet!” and staking everything on a single roll of the dice is as American as cherry pie. Uncle Sam has set up here a paradise for venture capitalism--at least, it used to be. And if we seem these days to be losing our shirts, maybe Fortune’s wheel will turn in our favor again a few years down the pike. Or maybe it won’t, and we’ll end up like Atlantic City’s street people, shirtless, penniless, homeless, and gazing out at dawn over the sea, a blaze of visionary stupor in our eyes.

My trip also took me down the shore route on the long sand bar that begins at Ocean City and continues down to Cape May—surely one of the largest aggregates of vacation houses in America (hundreds of them now up for sale). But the wetlands along the way provide a welcome relief from repetitive beach architecture, and, just south of Strathmere, you find the natural preserve of Corson’s Inlet State Park. I read Ammons’s poem of that name for years without ever bothering to determine where it was. It’s not in the Outer Banks of North Carolina as I assumed, but in the New Jersey equivalent. I’m guessing he discovered it during the years when he was employed in his father’s glass-making business, which was located in New Jersey. Imagine a maritime confluence of sand dunes, water, wetlands, and sea, all blending into each other as the poems describes. It’s the poem of Ammons’s I like best, along with “The City Limits.” But I confess to being not much interested in the bulk of Ammons’s poetry, certainly not his epic Sphere: The Form of a Motion. Something went wrong in Ammons’s career, and I don’t know enough about his life to say what. Fame? Teaching? Bad marriage? Alcohol? Maybe it's fair to say that constructing a career in poetry is comparable to a game of Monoploy or a night at Caesar's Palace.

Princeton is not so much local as national and international, the university poets in, but not of, New Jersey. In recent decades the best poems about the state were written by Robert Pinsky, a native son, and Stephen Dunn, who lives in Port Republic. On the return trip I made a detour to Robert’s home town, Long Branch, which was a resort in the 19th century, less so when Robert grew up, but now a notable one again, with huge, luxury vacation condominiums built along the seafront. Remnants of the small town pictured in Pinsky’s poetry are still to be seen, as well as the long concrete walk above the beach he speaks of. But I don’t know if he still has relatives that live there. As for the New Jersey poems by August Kleinzahler, I don’t see much in them. This is a poet that everyone else seems to adore, so it’s apparently a blind spot of mine. Fortune’s wheel: who can make it spin slower or faster? Faites vos jeux, messieurs. “Place your bets, gentlemen.”) And then, Rien ne va plus. (“No more bets.”) Some will end up with a hotel on Boardwalk or Park Place, and some will Go Directly to Jail, without passing Go or collecting $100. Albert Einstein of the Princeton Institute said he didn't believe God threw dice, but quantum physics suggests the opposite. Life in the aleatory universe, love it or leave it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Pleasure and Wisdom

Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae.
(Poets wish either to instruct or to delight.)
—Horace, Epistles, “Ars poetica”

Delight is the chief if not the only end of poesy: instruction can be admitted but in the second place, for poetry only instructs as it delights.
—John Dryden, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

[A poem] begins in delight and ends in wisdom.
—Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”

“Delectare” can also be translated “to please,” and the overwhelming consensus about all the arts, and not just verbal art alone, is that they must please us. “Il faut plaire,” according to Flaubert, and one section of Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction is subtitled, “It Must Give Pleasure.” But what is aesthetic pleasure, and how does a text provide it? First by appealing to one or more of the five senses. Painting appeals to the visual sense, music to the auditory, and so forth. Texts first and foremost appeal to the auditory sense, and poetry in particular is designed to do this through verbal rhythm, the harmonious or artfully cacophonous placement of consonants and vowels, the changes in voice pitch and amplitude, and the management of semantic tone. Texts can also appeal to the other senses indirectly by finding verbal equivalents to, for example, visual information, as when Marvell speaks of “the fountain’s sliding foot,” or describes oranges hanging on an orange tree as “golden lamps in a green night.” Verbal analogues for visual experience are most effective (as in the preceding examples) when they use tropes, metaphors, or figurative language. Who can say why, but a release of surprise and pleasure occurs when the mind deciphers a metaphor and reconstructs the image that first imprinted itself the poet’s mind. Something like, “Oh, I never thought of that similarity, but how apt it is!” In the same way, a poem can find verbal equivalents for all the senses, and when these do seem accurate and fresh, the reader experiences an incidental or considerable uprush of delight.

To the auditory pleasure mentioned above could be added another, something we could call “visceral pleasure,” experienced by someone who reads a poem aloud. Vocal performance involves a large number of muscles, beginning with the diaphragmatic muscle that pushes air up the throat into the mouth and around tongue, teeth and lips to produce sounds we recognize as language. This aspect of verbal pleasure is available only to those who read aloud, which may be why we get an extra increment of pleasure when we perform, say, a poem by Hopkins, whose lines call for an unusual expenditure of articulate energy. The audience for such a performance may of course vicariously construct the visceral experience of the performer, but the construction stands at one remove; so it’s fair to say we haven’t received all a poem has to offer until we have read it aloud.

Works of art have to go beyond the purely physical or sensory domain, though, and appeal to the mind—to thinking, to emotion, to the information-seeking faculty, to reason, and to the irrational or dreamy part of the psyche. And verbal texts can do this more effectively than any other art form because their medium is language, and obviously language goes beyond simple sensation; it is inseparable from thought and from the interpretation of perceived events.

Texts appeal to the mind by representing events that are unusual or interpreted in unusual ways or brought to mind by word combinations that we have not heard before. At this point the instructive part of artworks enters in. A poem provides us with fresh “information” or access to experience. It seems to be innate with human beings that we hunger for new information, a profounder grasp of what is happens to us, a more nuanced reading of circumstance than the understandings we already possess, and a sharpened sense of how words behave and create meaning. Kinds of information may be exalted, as with religious vision or philosophical insight; but they may be less imposing than that. One of the strengths of English-language poetry after the Second World War was its use of autobiographical fact to make available to the reader kinds of experience not part of the familiar mainstream of middle-class life. Where marginalized groups were concerned, the conveying of fact, and feeling about fact, was useful in the task of self-definition for members of those groups and probably contributed to social progress in the form of legislation against discrimination based on class, race, gender, or sexual orientation or, again, to a more enlightened approach to treating the mentally ill or those whose childhood experience left psychological scars.

(An aside: to those objecting that legislators and Presidents don’t read poems, I submit that some of them do—Bill Clinton, for example, with whom I exchanged a couple of letters during his Administration. Furthermore, statesmen all follow the news. Journalists all read novels. And novelists read poetry, at least, all the novelists I’m acquainted with do so. An insight first brought to light in a poem can be adapted for fiction and may then strike a journalist as something that could be turned into a news story. And so on.)

The instructive content of poems is not of course always concerned with personal or social issues. We have many valuable poems dealing with scientific, or religious, or philosophical subjects. We have poems that help us to see the natural world more clearly and presumably to care more actively about its preservation from destruction. We have poems that shed new light on historical topics or geography or cities or on other works of art or illness or animals or psychology or sexual experience. We have poems that explore the dreamworld in a way that makes it valuable to waking life as well. We have poems that examine language itself in all its variety. The conveying of various kinds of new information and insight is part of what we expect from art, so that, when we don’t find it, we are disappointed, displeased.

That said, we can’t get past the truth that instruction is in itself not enough to make a good poem. There must also be pleasure. (Or pleasures: not only those described above, but others as well that I hope to touch on in later blogs.) As I survey the citations put at the beginning of these comments, I’d like to add another: Poets must instruct and delight. A poem that doesn’t instruct will fail to please; and a poem that doesn’t please will fail to instruct.

Friday, July 4, 2008

American Diversity

It’s summer and people spend daylight hours in leisure activities, which means they’re not online that much. But I wanted to make something I said in the previous blog a bit clearer: if there really is no interest in these posts, I’m going to give myself a break and devote the time spent on them to other things. The sign of there being interest is discussion of the content.

It’s the national holiday, and my way of marking it, after noting that the majority of United States citizens are descended from Northern European immigrants, is to celebrate the minorities who are not. Beginning, obviously, with the first inhabitants of this continent, whose land those immigrants took from them. Which doesn’t mean that Indian nations are gone or that Indians haven’t made an incalculable contribution to our civilization. Our place names alone: more than a quarter of the States have mellifluous Indian names, hundreds of cities and towns do, and so do thousands of rivers, mountains, lakes, and swamplands. Many museums have collected the startlingly beautiful art made by our first nations, whose bold and subtle instinct for form and color is encapsulated in pottery, bone ivory, leatherwork, beadwork, weaving, jewelry, painting, wood and stone carving and domestic and sacred architecture (see the Mesa Verde, Taos and Acoma pueblos, and the numerous ritual mounds built at different points in Indian history). Also, we have examples of Indian poetry both in the original languages and in American English. For the latter, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Ai, and Carter Revard. (How many readers are aware, incidentally, that poets Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith have Indian ancestors?) Of the many excellent Indian fiction writers, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sherman Alexie are the most prominent. And then nearly everyone recognizes, I think, that much of the inspiration for today’s ecological or “Green” activism originated in Indian reverence for the natural world and commitment to a responsible stewardship of it.

I pass on to the staggering debt America owes to citizens descended from African ancestors. I’m going to put aside the vast material contribution made by enslaved peoples to the building of this country’s roads, plantations, canals, domestic and civic architecture (see Monticello and the University of Virginia), bridges, masonry and ironwork. I’ll also pass over the critically important work of social prophets and public servants like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, Ralph Bunche, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Angela Davis, and Shirley Chisholm. Instead, let’s consider the artistic input. American English has been inflected and enriched by the variant speech patterns of its Africanist population. With his characteristic tactlessness and snobbery, Eliot said the he left his native St. Louis and came to Harvard speaking with “a n— drawl.” He soon got rid of it, but maybe he shouldn't have or, anyway, kept enough to enliven some of the dull patches in “Ash Wednesday” or “The Four Quartets.” The range of African American poetry is huge, which includes metrically skilled poets like Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Marilyn Nelson, but also artists drawing on less strictly codified folk sources like the hymnody of the “spirituals,” or blues form, or a verse counterpart to jazz improvisation, these techniques blended with the “free verse” approach to poetry. This group includes Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks again, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hayden, Audre Lord, Yusef Komunyakaa, Thylias Moss, Elizabeth Alexander, and Natasha Trethewey. Needless to say, many of the best American novels are written by African Americans—Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Charles R. Johnson, and Ernest Gaines, to mention only the most famous. American literary culture has also been expanded and deepened by the work of original African American critics like Albert Murray, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, Darryl Pinckney, Ernest Gaines, and Hilton Als.

To take up the role that Africanist influences have had on American popular and classical music is too large a task for this blog. A few posts back, I described rock music as “America’s gift to the world,” but in fact it is really African Americans’ gift to the world, given that rock originates with Africanist syncopation, the blue-noted musical scale, and melodic ornamentation, as modulated through ragtime, blues, Dixieland, bebop, gospel, and free jazz. There are too many singers, instrumentalists, and composers drawing on these traditions to list here, but we all know who they are.

I turn to that part of the population with Iberian ancestors, among the very first immigrant peoples to inhabit this continent. Four or five of the States have Spanish names and, again, thesame is true for hundreds of cities and towns and geographical features. Actually, we have the fourth largest hispanophone community in the world, and Spanish language has contributed a notable number of words and idioms to American English. Within this part of the population there are wide differences: New Mexican Latino culture is not the same as Cuban American culture, which is not the same as Puerto Rican or Dominican or Colombian American culture. Dozens of writers on the contemporary scene are Latino or have Latino ancestors—among novelists, Julia De Burgos, Jaime Manrique, Julia Alvarez, Oscar Hijuelos, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz; among poets, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Gary Soto, Julia Alvarez, Alberto Rios, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Martin Espada, Sonia Sanchez, Pat Mora, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Rigoberto Gonzalez. (Also, the poet Dana Gioia, whose mother was Mexican American.) And if we turn to music the Latino contribution is among the liveliest on the scene, with the Latino community serving as a conduit and reviser of popular music from Latin America, whether dance styles like the samba, tango and salsa or small band and orchestral styles imported from Mexico or Cuba.

I often wonder if America has shown sufficient gratitude to its Asian American, its Italian American, its Greek American, its Middle Eastern, and its Jewish American communities. But I’ve been warned not to write long blogs, so I will stop here, on the assumption that the point has been made. When we praise the achievements of the United States, we are praising a mosaic made of many contrasting components, all of them caught up in a process of cultural osmosis that alters each contributor. There would be something entirely fitting if the next American President, in addition to possessing qualifications independent of ethnic origin, could also in his physical person symbolize that part of our nation whose ancestry is drawn from parts of the globe other than Northern Europe. Can we make that happen?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Home again. And, as is so often the case when you go abroad and return, home comes a bit more sharply into focus. You could propose a parallel with language: when you learn another language you understand the nature of your own more clearly.

The following thoughts come as the result of reading two articles, the first, an essay by Sam Tanenhaus titled “Summer and Smoke, an American Cauldron,” which appeared in the June 29, 2008 New York Times; and the second, Reginald Shepherd’s blog for June 27 about Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and a follow-up volume that contained prose statements by poets in that anthology about the poetics and/or ideologies that stood behind the poems they wrote.

Tanenhaus establishes a connection between hot weather and political revolt and makes a survey of works of American imaginative literature in which hot weather plays a role. It’s certainly true that early English colonists were appalled by the heat of the American summer, and the date July 4 (or July 2, to follow history more accurately) is a hard fact in support of the idea that high temperatures put revolutionary tempers on the boil. The Declaration of Independence and the ensuing war, besides establishing an American polity separate from England’s, also forged the characteristic American stance, isotopic for many pursuits and endeavors beyond the military or political. The United States is the most Oedipal of world nations, founded by an act of rebellion against the Fatherland. And the posture of rebellion, of resistance to authority, can be found in all aspects of our lives. Exemplary heroes in American history and fiction are the revolutionary (Patrick Henry), the frontiersman who detests towns (Daniel Boone), the forest scout with native skill and intuition (Natty Bumpo), the righteous avenger (John Brown, Nat Turner), the nonconformist who refuses to be “sivilised” (Huckleberry Finn), the “rough” who sounds his “barbaric yawp” over the rooftops (Walt Whitman), Hemingway (the man and his fiction), the muscular and sexually overwhelming maverick (Brando in The Wild One or A Streetcar Named Desire), the rebel who expresses himself automotively (James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause), and the artistic rebel who jeers at the academy and lights out for the territory of the new and experimental.

I guess it’s not necessary to state that the stances outlined above are masculinist, which doesn’t mean that a few women haven't been allowed into the club and become honorary males once they have passed through hazing rituals and demonstrated qualities of heroism and defiance—Annie Oakley, Sojourner Truth, Emma Goldman, Martha Gellhorn, and, moving to other nationalities, La Pasionaria and Beryl Markham.

Reginald Shepherd points out in his blog essay that only a small number of women were included in Allen’s anthology. Besides that, his census of the prose statements made by Allen's anthologized poets shows that almost none of them cited a leftist political motivation for their excursion away from standard poetic practice. (Broadening the context beyond the Allen anthology and poetry alone, it’s fair to say that innovative twentieth-century artists were more often associated with right-wing politics than left—Yeats, Claudel, Pound, Eliot, the Italian Futurists, Stravinsky, Walter Hart Benton, Kerouac, and so forth.) Most of Allen’s poets espoused an apolitical attitude, ignoring the question of whether a work of art isn’t inescapably caught up in any reigning ideology that it doesn’t contest. In the Sixties a slogan we often heard or voiced ourselves was, “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”

I’m not actually surprised, thinking about it, that the Allen mavericks weren’t much interested in politics because, after all, political concerns are part of a general nexus of responsibility. And it is precisely responsibility to any authority that the American rebel has consistently refused. And this has become doubly true in the artistic sector. If we try to go below the surface and discover what psychological forces determine this attitude, we certainly find the Oedipal national character as a reinforcement for the habit of valorizing self-assertion over responsibility. But I think it is also an isotope with other American cultural and social forces. The famous American “permissive upbringing,” for example, which so astonishes Europeans. And along with it, Dr. Spock’s recommendations as to non-regulated feeding schedules and toilet training for infants. More than with any other culture, American culture is the culture for and about the child—the freedom and spontaneity of the child who doesn’t have to interrupt play with quiet time or with boring tasks. “Toys R Us,” the popular toy franchise tells us, and American childhood stretches indefinitely into periods other cultures would assign to adulthood.

The loathing for restrictions acquired in infancy of course operates in adult life. The typical high school hero in America is the one who sasses “teach,” cuts classes, and does as he damn well pleases; and the archetype remains active after school ends. His grammar is populist, he can’t spell, and hates reading. His ideal is a kind of helter-skelter play that acts to reinforce the sense of self. He smokes if he wants to, drinks a lot, drives his car or bike as fast as he can, eats what he wants to eat (he says broccoli is spinach and the hell with it), beds down whoever he wants to bed down, and leaves behind the girls he’s tired of going to bed with. So powerful and magnetic is this archetype for Americans, the embodier of it never finds himself without women willing to go along for the ride behind him on his Harley hog, whether or not they are aware of the risks involved.

Innovative or maverick artists may amount to milder instances of this archetype, yet they will even so display its characteristic defiance, self-assertion, and refusal of responsibility to outside authority. Art is play for this temperament, and anyone attempting to imbue it with the implication of responsibility will be hated as much as the teacher who gives homework assignments and bad grades. Responsibility is the unwelcome parent who barges into your private room and tells you to be tidy; or insists that you eat your broccoli; tells you you can’t entertain your girlfriends overnight; or warns you that you’re going to have to work hard and support yourself by legitimate means. Art-as-play cannot tolerate any restrictions; and when it has discoverable content, much of that content is likely to be a repudiation, sometimes savagely restrictive, of restriction. (Anyone doubting that artistic embodiers of this archetype still exist—or that there is a public to support them—should look at the career and extraordinary success of August Kleinzahler.)

Let’s concede that there is something appealing about the notion of art as pure play burdened with no responsibilities. The idea takes us back to elementary school where our art instructor praised our finger paintings and the music lady was happy to see us bang on a tin can with a spoon in some jerky rhythm of our own invention. When we were little, art was sheer fun, it didn’t have to prove anything. Mom would always put our crayon drawing of a house with smoking chimney and whiskery cat next the footpath on the fridge door and make us feel like geniuses. Actually, I see no objection to writing a poetry of pure play, in accordance with the writer’s predilections and uncensored mental activity. Anyone who wants to make art of any kind for himself or herself alone certainly has the right to do so. Private pursuits are private pursuits; since they doesn’t encroach on anyone else’s freedom, they should not be subject to regulation or even precise expectations.

It’s only when we decide we must publish that the notion of responsibility comes into it, as with all phenomena involving the res publica. When I publish something, I have to demonstrate that, one, I’m doing no harm and, two, that I am worth the public’s time and resources. To publish is to engage the social contract. Art brought to the public must somehow justify the expenditure of effort and material resources bestowed on it. I’m tolerant enough myself to think that there is even a value in a work of art that celebrates pure play and self-assertion alone, irrespective of any “redeeming social value.” That’s to say, such a work was well worth doing as the history of art unfolded--and perhaps more than once. But by now it has been done hundreds and thousands of times. The point has been made; so how can we continue to be interested in more recent works that keep sawing away with this idea? Refusal of responsibility isn’t news. Back in the day, the only Emperor may have been the Emperor of ice-cream, but what if we’re tired of all Emperors now, including the ice-cream clown?

“Aut prodesse, aut delectare volunt poetae,” said Horace. “Poets wish to instruct or else to please.” I want to look at this proposition, and talk about what values poetry can exemplify. But, since blog entries shouldn’t be long, so let's postpone this. Anyway, with the mercury at 85 F., it’s no good to be slaving over a heated computer. To be continued—that is, if anyone finds any value in this topic. If not, I won’t trespass further on your time.