Sunday, March 30, 2008

Writing and Aging

Poet Paul Breslin, writing about writers obsessed with their place in history in Slate’s on line forum The Fray, made an observation about the poet confronting his old age and having to wrestle with either settling into a known, familiar style , or to push one’s boundries further still, risking a loss of readers and critical ridicule. Was one going to be Dizzy Gillespie, resting on his inventions of bebop velocity, or to be Miles Davis, looking back at his past with a scowl, aggravating the notes and the harmonies for a new sound, a new thing? Breslin said this:

“... the poet who gets obsessed with reputation and turns into a self-caricature is a disturbingly frequent spectacle in American letters--must have something to do with our culture's eagerness to commodify everything and everyone. It becomes hard for a poet to focus on images, not image.”

Yes, and the sad fact that's dawning on us is that writers really do tend to run of things to say as they get older; consolidating their marketable identities into a framed and footnoted package historians can refer to after their passing is an activity that makes me sadder the older I get. There is a mania you see amongst some poets as they plunge into furious productivity, trying to tip the scales as to how the western canon will treat them in time. Allen Ginsberg was long past his best and most brilliant work; he had 'become" the professional Ginsberg, the product Ginsberg, the sage and philosopher and the seer and the divinely inspired rebel. I do not question Ginsberg's beliefs in the slightest; I've met him on a couple of instances, and a no-nothing phony he wasn't.

He was actually engaging and subtly intelligent. He has one of the best reading voices I've ever heard. That said, one confronted his recent words on the page and became aware that they were formless, random scribings, notes to one that never became the lines of finished literature. For all the good things he wrote about and embodied about the open and tolerant society, there was an awareness of audience expectation that was obvious in the slovenliness of the verse. It was as if there was a feedback loop going on that compelled him to perform for the duration of his life those same notes over and over again, and to attempt to preserve what he regarded as a massive and lasting contribution to American Literature.

That was the fatal flaw regarding his work, as it isn't the artist's job to attempt to control the posthumous judgment of their work, or to design, arrange, and seek funding for the altar at which new and older readers alike may gather and murmur their respective renditions of shock and awe. Norman Mailer, was similarly obsessed with his place in history, and even went so far as to name one of his early books Advertisements for Myself, but the difference is that Mailer had a sense of irony about the nature of his quest to forge a revolution in the consciousness of his time. Ever the clever boy, Mailer turned his self-aggrandizing proclivities and turned it into a literary persona that allowed him to produce a series of nonfiction masterpieces, such as Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon. Yes, it was Mailer the character at war with the world, and the character protested that the inhabitants of the world weren't doing as they should, but there was always an outward push to Mailer's egocentric excess a legitimate and mostly successful attempt to engage the world around him and understand it; Mailer's particular obsession with his place in history, with his influence on the powers of his time was successfully turned into a stylistic trope that could be used as metaphorical springboard to address the unseen details of human activity in unexpected ways. A brilliant writing style helps immensely, which Mailer has always had. And here comes another point; Mailer, unlike Ginsberg, could change his style as he got older, wiser (perhaps). By the time he won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Executioner's Song, Mailer-as-character was all but gone, the sentences were short, clipped, and the complex story of Gary Gilmore and the America he lived and murdered in was made real with the artfully artless; you couldn't "see" him writing.

John Ashbery, of course, is another who hasn't diluted his art for fame and glory;it is one of the supreme ironies in contemporary that perhaps our most unrelentingly obscure "name" poet has ascended to greater media saturation by sticking to his guns. Voices from the margin usually stay there, and die there. But not Ashbery. My take is that if one thinks there is nothing to John Ashbery's poems, they are bringing nothing to their readings, Willingness is the key; something of oneself needs to be invested in reading the poems in order to find pursuable verse. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treaded. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence.
I'm not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and it's tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition