Thursday, January 19, 2006

Old poems

It's high time I said something on this blog. Here we are, well into the new year. Been working out again, trying to work off the holidays. Been looking for a job. Hah! Not much luck there, and the unemployment due to run out....

Been working on Demimonde again, though Lord knows I'd like to be done with it. Didn't do too much to it besides adding three bright and shiny poems and removing two oldies. There was nothing "wrong" with the ones I removed. One was actually a prize winning poem once (in 1992). But I'm sensitive to the possibility that it and the other may seem dated or seem to come out of a different sensibility from the [newer] others. I mean, I'm glad I'm not writing the same things or in the same ways I wrote ten, fifteen years ago. But if they were really good poems, would they have "held up"?

I'm interested in this question in a larger context as well. I've set myself a crazy task for 2006--not quite a resolution, more like an outlandish hope, like those held by runners who do ultramarathons in Death Valley: If I don't die in the process, I will arrive at the end a changed person. The task is to read through my poetry books, four shelves, from A-Z, about eight or ten linear feet. So far, I've read Atwood and most of Auden (Selected Poetry). For all the good stuff in these books, I have to say that there is much that does seem dated. I liked the Atwood more than I thought I would, but there was no doubt it was written in the 1970s: lots of bone, muscle, stone, earth words, and just a different feel. The Auden (this is a Modern Library edition, first published in 1933) is of course even more dated. There are the wonderful standards: "Musee des Beaux Arts," "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," others. There's the strange, huge, poem-essay, "Caliban to his Audience,"--with its sentences that go on for ages, that, in itself, seems impossibly dated to my attention-deficit mind. And there are poems like this one, picked randomly (I'll quote the first of four stanzas), called "Rimbaud."

The nights, the railway-arches, the bad sky
His horrible companions did not know it,
But in that child the rhetorician's lie
Burst like a pipe: the cold had made a poet.

My point is not that it's good or bad, but that its sensibility seems dated. Or that's the question I'd like to pose, anyway. Comments?

Addendum: BTW, I know it will seem odd to many of you that I don't have any Ammons or Ashbery, but I just don't....


Robert said...

The whole idea of “dated” poems is interesting. Sometimes I think 100 years from now we’ll look back on “new” poems by John Ashbery and Billy Collins and think the exact same thing about both of them: “how 2006.” If you listen to a radically avant-garde opera like Salome (1905) by Richard Strauss, and then listen to what might be called a radically nostalgic opera like Der Rosenkavalier (1911), also by Strauss, they both have an unmistakably early 20th century sound. It’s almost poignant that Der Rosenkavalier sounds like it can’t help its “cutting edge” futuristic harmonies even though it wants to sound as if it were written 100 years earlier.

Some poets are clearly more “future oriented” and others more “past-loving.” If you list contrasting styles (fluent vs. fragmented, for example), you can tell which is which pretty easily (fragmented = future, fluent = past). The avant-garde, by definition, claims first dibs on the future, but that doesn’t meant there’s any correlation between that and what anyone will actually read in the future. The “art of the future” has been characterized by fragmentation for at least 100 years, or since “The Waste Land.” On the other hand, 200 years ago poets were writing nostalgically about a long-gone golden age, and we’re still reading them.

Diane K. Martin said...

Then if I understand what you are saying, you think works of art are inevitably dated, regardless of the artist's intent, but that something good holds up nevertheless.

Do you think that a melange of old and new(er) poems in a book would or would not work?

Robert said...

It would if they're good!