Saturday, May 19, 2007

Top Five

I happened to read Wikipedia’s entry on Robert Hass, and I noticed this: “In Hass’ opinion, the five most important poets of the last 50 years were Chilean Pablo Neruda, Peruvian Cesar Vallejo, and Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert, Nobel-winner Wislawa Szymborska, and Nobel-winner Czesław Miłosz.” There’s no citation for the quote and I’m not sure Wikipedia can be trusted that Hass really said that, but it’s interesting. Were three of the five most important poets of the last fifty years Polish? Were none English-speaking? Is there no place for Seamus Heaney or Sylvia Plath? I’m not sure who my own picks for the Top Five would be, although I’d probably save a place for Tomas Tranströmer (see his poem “Grief Gondola, #2” here) and Yehuda Amichai (see his poem “A Jewish Cemetery in Germany” here, which by the way is interesting to compare with Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It”).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Poetry — with integral bra support

I am on a lot of mailing lists: pleas for support from organizations (poetry and otherwise) that have never given a dime or a minute's worth of support to me, credit card come-ons, political organizations, and many, many catalogs. I used to get three or four catalogs a week; now I get three or four a day. Yesterday, I got one called Poetry. Is it an academic program, a summer conference, a new magazine--experimental, conventional, or slam? No, it's a clothing catalog — for women of a certain age, I infer, like yours truly. It's a UK company, and not bad stuff, some of it, with wearable clothes, mostly. But Poetry? What is up with that? Some marketing genius wake up in the middle of the night with this brainstorm? I can't decide if I'm offended, amused, or just dumbfounded. Geesh!

Meantime, in real life, things go from crisis to crisis, as things do. I am swimming, not drowning, at the moment, although it was hard to tell here for a while -- coming up for air, now that the teaching semester is ending (one more class!) and getting ready to jump into the pool for the duration. What I mean is, I've been offered a permanent full-time position (technical writing). Since July 2005, I've been contracting, and except when there's no work, too much work, mixed signals from addled supervisors, or other problems, I liked it. I'm looking out the window of my office now at the Japanese maple, the lavender, the iris, the rose bush in full bloom. I'm going to miss this! I'm going to have to work on site for this new position, and it's a nasty commute to boot. And yet, with John self-employed and no other benefits, it seems to make sense. I like the work and the people at this new job, and can honestly do with less stress. So there it is, I am -- or will be -- a worker bee once again.

Will I write, will I read, will I be able to be part of the poetry (writing, not wearing) community? I hope so. I know that the past six months I've scarcely had the available brain power to read through a poem, let alone write one. So I'm thinking this may be an improvement, or the way to go, for the moment.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Aesthetic Amniocentesis

Last night I dreamed I was at the beach rubbing suntan lotion on Ellen Bryant Voigt’s back—while discussing poetry, of course. I will try to take this as a good omen for my writing. If you’ve read Voigt’s wonderful poem “Plaza del Sol” from Shadow of Heaven (“a woman tanned already, dried fruit arranged on a towel …”), you’ll understand that whatever the dream was, it was not exactly erotic. Diane suggests it means I need to get more “hands on” with poetry, or at least with something.

Diane and I were also talking about Bemsha Swing’s recent post about “that overwritten Derek Walcott effect.” I tend to have a similar response as Jonathan’s to Walcott’s work, yet I am sensitive to the criticism because I’m sure some people would consider my own poetry overwritten. Whether one tends toward overwriting (fat, drunken language—think Dylan Thomas) or underwriting (anorexic language—think the exquisitely spare poems of William Carlos Williams) is another of those spectra along which poets define themselves.

What interests me about the spectra is that there’s a place for a judgmental attitude toward them and a place for a nonjudgmental attitude. In Twentieth Century Pleasures Robert Hass gives great examples of both. In his essay on Stanley Kunitz, he distinguishes between dramatic poetry (think Yeats) and meditative poetry (think Stevens):

[The dramatic lyric] goes into the crucible over and over again, goes into desire, not past it, and it’s anything but non-attached. Much of the original work done in the twentieth century has been in the meditative vein …. The dramatic lyric is a peculiarly Western form, I think. Yeats was its great modern practitioner, and in this he was Kunitz’s master. … I think [Kunitz] is the least non-attached poet I know of.
It’s fair to say that Hass himself is a meditative poet according to his own definition, yet there is no hint in this essay of his valuing the meditative over the dramatic or vice-versa. When I first read this, what struck me is that “the least non-attached poet” is precisely what I aspire to be!

On the other hand, in an essay in praise of James Wright, Hass condemns Wright’s weaker poems with almost an Old Testament (or Ginsburg-like “Moloch!”) prophetic fury:

Aestheticism is what I am talking about, decadence. It’s a cultural disease and it flourishes when the life of the spirit, especially the clear power of imagination and intelligence, retreats or is driven from public life, where it ought, naturally, to manifest itself. The artists of decadence turn away from a degraded social world and what they cling to, in their privacy, is beauty or pleasure. The pleasures are esoteric; the beauty is almost always gentle, melancholy, tinged with the erotic, tinged with self-pity.
Hass is one of the very few poets who seem capable of a non-judgmental description of the spectrum of mainstream to post-avant poetry, as in his introduction to Best American Poetry 2001:

There are roughly three traditions in American poetry at this point: a metrical tradition that can be very nervy and that is also basically classical in impulse; a strong central tradition of free verse made out of both romanticism and modernism, split between the impulses of an inward and psychological writing and an outward and realist one, at its best fusing the two; and an experimental tradition that is usually more passionate about form than content, perception than emotion, restless with the conventions of the art, skeptical about the political underpinnings of current practice, and intent on inventing a new one, or at least undermining what seems repressive in the current formed style.
I think it’s crucial for poets to ask themselves these questions with an open mind: “Am I more passionate about form or content, more passionate about perception or emotion?” Without that open mind poets will inevitably make choices that depend on superficial criteria—what’s fashionable, what’s stamped with academia’s seal of approval, what’s politically correct, etc.—rather than finding the answers within themselves. What is the poem within me that’s struggling to force its way out, whether or not it matches my latest intellectual convictions?

Your only responsibility when writing is to the poem, and if you’ve got post-avant opinions but (please God, not that) a Kooser-esque poem within you—or vice versa!—you need to be true to the poem. Anything else is like being a parent who rejects a child if they’re the “wrong” gender. I don’t think you can invent yourself as a poet. You can only discover that you’re a dramatic poet or a meditative poet or whatever. At some point you’ve just got to do the aesthetic amniocentesis and discover that “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” and celebrate!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Terrifying Angel

Reginald Shepherd has a wonderful essay, “Notes Toward Beauty,” on his blog. As he says, “It is very fashionable, indeed almost de rigueur, to condemn beauty as oppressive.” He goes on, “It was Edmund Burke who first distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime as that which submits to us versus that which overwhelms us,” and then he points out that genuine, “Rilkean” beauty is the sublime. I think Shepherd is profoundly right to make this personal—“I have felt haunted by the beauty of men that I did not possess and could not make mine”—because it is through such personal haunting that we are compelled to submit to beauty in our everyday lives.

In the myth of the judgment of Paris, Paris must choose between Athena, goddess of wisdom, Hera, goddess of marriage, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty. It seems possible that, like us, Paris would have condemned beauty as oppressive. He would have wanted to choose the wisdom of Athena or the constancy of Hera. But he was overwhelmed and made the inevitable choice, and so began what Joyce called the nightmare of history: the Trojan War and ultimately all wars.

It seems to me that this is the connection between beauty and justice, beauty and truth, that Shepherd (and Keats!) are talking about. We can’t truthfully say that life is happy or just, only that it is beautiful. In that sense beauty and tragedy are intertwined, and the wariness people have of beauty is justified to the extent that beauty can be used to rationalize a complacency towards tragedy, as if it’s the way things will always be so you may as well not try to change anything.

The image of Aphrodite anadyomene (Aphrodite rising from the waves being born) is a classic image of beauty, but what do we mean by that? Is this beauty as “sublime” or beauty as “pretty”? There’s certainly an erotic component (Venus in wet T-shirt), but that’s not all. There’s something deeply moving and beautiful when contradictory elements are united (when “the fire and the rose are one,” as Eliot and Dante said), and in this case it’s something about how the water from which Aphrodite is rising is reflected in the watery texture of the gowns—and all of this communicated through the medium of stone!

There’s something about how the sculptor is learning to convey the presence of a human body beneath the pleated fabric of a gown—again, both the flesh and the fabric (that both conceals and reveals) created out of marble, out of nothing, a solid nothing. And there’s also something about how the illusion of flesh is more real because the illusion of fabric is real. Seeing the flesh through the fabric, we forget that all we are seeing is stone, and the flesh within the fabric becomes a metaphor for the real mystery, Rilke’s terrifying angel rising within the stone. If stone can become water and flesh, then what metamorphosis is impossible?