Sunday, March 26, 2006

Fear of the Sticky Web

I’ve been absent from the blog for a while. Blame it on a backache and a foot-ache. I’ve been reading Tony Hoagland’s essay in the March issue of Poetry, “Fear of Narrative and Our Skittery Poem of the Moment.”

I don’t think of myself as a narrative poet, but Hoagland talks about narrative as just one example of the “poetries of continuity.” More strikingly, he talks about poems that keep narrative “at arm’s length, without being caught in its sticky web,” and about “a claustrophobic fear of submersion or enclosure” and “the sweaty enclosures of subject matter.”

This seems exactly right to me, and it’s what I’ve tried to talk about in some earlier posts, where I’ve talked about poems that have a sense of an “entered” world, and their connection to mortality. This all comes together for me in Lynn Emanuel’s stunning poem “The Burial.” Even if you think what I’m saying is ridiculous, read this poem. It may be the only poem I can think of that combines the two kinds of poetry, beginning in distance and manic association (“it burns like fire on amphetamines,” in its own words) and ending in confrontation with the ultimate claustrophobia: the poet burying her father in “the cold, dark, closed places,” shoveling dirt on his casket.

Hoagland talks about poems that have a “passive-aggressive relation to meaning,” and quotes Czeslaw Milosz: “a poet discovers a secret, namely that he can be faithful to real things only by arranging them hierarchically.” That is a very curious thing to say! I think most poets, for that matter most people with any political awareness, are deeply suspicious of hierarchical arrangements of anything.

Hoagland talks about poets’ “ambivalent relation to knowledge,” and I would add an ambivalent relation to power. Most of us are deeply ambivalent about power, the possession of power, the exercise of power, and poets are particularly ambivalent about the power of language. Is using language in a “powerful” way inherently oppressive?

The issue of power divides our whole society. Is gun control a solution to violence, or is the solution that good guys need more guns to fight bad guys? Any thinking person is suspicious of solutions that depend on the exercise of power by one group over another.

But when it comes to language, and the power that writers exercise over readers, I don’t see any other way. The civil rights movement wouldn’t have gotten very far if Martin Luther King had said, “A have dream I” and congratulated himself for breaking the back of oppressive syntax. Abandoning the use of powerful language as politically incorrect doesn’t “liberate” the reader—it just bores the reader. I think this is what Milosz means when he says that a poet “can be faithful to real things only by arranging them hierarchically.” Poems need to weave a sticky web to catch the reader, not leave the reader free. Readers want to be stuck in the poem’s web.


carrie hunter said...

I might not be the right audience for your blog but why do you like poems that are narrative? To me they could and should just be short stories. Poetry should be for that which cannot be easily expressed. Grief, and even complex grief, can be expressed pretty easily in this story-form. But I feel unaffected by it when it is so blunt, I want things alluded to, so that I come to them, and not by them being shoved down my throat.

Robert said...

I may have been unclear, Delia. I do NOT prefer poems that are narrative. That's one reason these ideas interest me. In general I'd much rather read a haiku than, say, The Iliad. I'd much rather read poems that, like you say, are allusive rather than blunt. But I want them to allude to something. It's the feeling of enclosure that interests me. Even in the most allusive haiku, there's a sense that the poem is deeply within its world--let's say at the edge of a pond--within it so deeply that it experiences the leap of a frog with great intensity. That's not narrative, but it's very different from a poem that seems to be in ten places at once, not sticking with any of them.

carrie hunter said...

thanks for answering. Do you dislike surrealism then? What is a poem that does not allude to anything? I would think everything alludes to something, even if it is unclear what that is...

Robert said...

I love surrealism. In Hoagland's essay he quotes a great surreal poem by Louis Aragon. I think he makes a valid distinction between experimental poetry that "keeps its distance" and surrealism: "Avant-gardes of the past have surely rejected linearity and conventions of coherence, but some of them did so with the motive of asserting worlds of feeling—amazement or distress—which could not be expressed within conventions of order."