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.


North Fifth Street said...

Back just in time for our celebration of our America... lovely fiberglass dogs mounted on scary steel poles.

Things being various said...

I read your blogs. And I'm very interested in your thoughts on the values poetry can exemplify.

I read Reginald Shepherd's blog. I am disturbed - moved - horrified - by his calm, almost-accepting, assertion that after his recent desperate illness he is finding his hospital bills hard to meet.
Never mind 4 July. Today is 5 JULY and we in England are celebrating the 60th birthday of THE NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE. If I had to name one thing in the whole of the history of this country which its citizens should be most proud of, it's the NHS.

Off the point - sorry. Maybe start a thread on the connection with health and poetry. I mourn Keats and Jane Austen for what they didn't write. Mind you, look at Wordsworth - nothing productive about his old age.


Alfred Corn said...

Thanks, Janet. I couldn't agree with you more. And when there is federal support for health costs (available to those at retirement age) the support is incomplete, a nightmare of inabsorbable bureaucratic information involving secondary insurance at the retiree's cost. National Health, complete and simple, should be an early priority of the next Administration. But I gather that, since Bush has squandered so much public money and allowed the rich not to pay taxes, there's no money for this left. Happy 5th of July!

Anonymous said...

Yet a national health system does not often breed excellence in medical treatment.