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!


Diane K. Martin said...

Ha! Yes, I did suggest that Robert's dream might be telling him to be more hands-on, but what I mean is that he needs to massage his reputation -- his work is too much of a well-kept secret, when anyone who's read him knows how good it is!

But as for this post, though I really like Hass's taxonomy (I like almost everything that Hass writes), I'm wondering if there really is any value in the binaries you suggest, Robert. Because -- though maybe this is a problem with my work -- I have fat poems and skinny ones, am passionate about form and content, about perception and emotion. Though sometimes I lean more heavily here or there, I hate to choose.

Maybe you are saying one can choose poem by poem, so okay.

Robert said...

The value to me is that it's very liberating and energizing to recognize myself in a particular tradition. The sense of recognition I felt, for example, when connecting to the "poetry of attachment" gave a real shot of energy to my writing. It may be especially energizing when I realize I'm never going to write like some poet whose work I love and admire and that's the way it should be. But if it's not useful and feels restrictive instead of energizing, sure, I'd ignore the binaries.

Robert said...

P.S. I was also thinking of how rare it is to find a teacher like Hass who can articulate what's extraordinary even about poetry that's very different from his own. People are always making disparaging noises about one poet or another (tsk tsk it's so overwritten) and it's very destructive to someone who thinks there must be some ironclad Rules of Art rather than a variety of traditions.

greg rappleye said...


Brilliant post.

Funny, too!

And Diane is right about your reputation--too much of a well-kept secret.

All the best,

Greg Rappleye