Showing posts with label Death of Poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death of Poetry. Show all posts

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ashbery's mojo

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery overrated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own counsel regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble-rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain sight. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain sight, crowded and clouded, however, by incessant thinking, the cloud bank of memory. His poetry often makes you think that he's walking the strangely familiar yet alien streets and gardens of Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction, a terrain where Ideas are fixed and permanent and oddly anonymous; that our would be stroller has only human eyes to observe the objects of pure perfection, it would be natural to assume that they are vague at first, as though emerging from a persistent, shrouding mist, slowly coming into focus, achieving an acute sharpness briefly and then receding back into the cloud bank. That he can achieve this effect in his poems consistently He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch-romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with the popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet. 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 treads. 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.

Oddly enough, 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 the ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the 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.

Friday, July 24, 2009

a poem from Clive James: those who criticize can also do

Critic Clive James has complained that ours is an age where everyone is writing poetry yet no is able to write a poem. A formalist at heart, we can properly assume that he means that very few have the old graces of scansion, rhyme, meter. It would figure that he decided to write a poem of his own to show the rest of the untrained waifs of modernism just how it's done, as he did in The New Yorker with his ode "Monja Blanca". He shows his technique rather well and, surprisingly, this fellow has an ear.

Well, yes, this is quite lovely, and it rhymes in ways that William Espy's robot rhythms could not, which is smoothly, musically, with the poetic descriptions serving an isolated image instead of weighing it down. James is smart, as well, in that he resists what seems to be the overwhelming temptation for many rhymesters to be cute. He is instead lyrical in a manner that is the hardest essence to convey, the description of a l thing, person, that successfully suggests the author's--or narrator's--psychological engagement without casting his subject matter into an unreal and unreadable muddle. Even in what could be considered an imaginative context, James' tone respects the musicality of his form and correctly treats elegance as that state when technique, emotion and style achieve an exquisite balance. It is not one note too many nor to few, not more embellishment too light nor too little.

As a critic James is a polymath with an impressive range of things he discusses with authority, though given the regularity with which he produces essays, columns, blog entries and books, you can't escape the feeling that he has, over time, solidified a number of finely articulated positions on literature, music, the classics, politics, painting, poetry and films, among other subjects, and has been especially artful in the way he can shuffle his positions, cross reference them, draw them up and deploy them at will. This reiteration of his ideas is noticeable especially in his other wise masterful collection Cultural Anxiety. Coming across an idea you've read elsewhere by this author , though, is hardly a bother--James has a style that is at once informal and approachable and yet demonstrates no laziness in thinking. He is an engaging intellectual who I enjoy as he rummages through the subjects he has mastered, bringing his learning to the present tense, bucking conventional wisdom , discussing what of the ideas we've learned remain vital, and which ones need to be taken off life support.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The End of Verse? Again??

Newsweek has a piece about a the results of a report from The National Endowment for the Arts that was a mix of good news and bad news for those concerned with the national reading habit; people were reading more , with increases in fiction and non fiction alike, but we were, collectively , reading less poetry. The article takes the usual dooming sensationalist slant with the article's title, The End of Verse?People love to read about funerals, I guess, or the cultural echo of re-runs have truly colonized our attention spans. This is the same used car with a new coat of paint.

There is a long history of poets and critics declaring poetry is something completely other than prose, a separate art approximating a form of meta-writing that penetrates the circumscribed certainties of words and makes them work harder, in service to imagination, to reveal the ambiguity that is at the center of a literate population's perception. An elitist art, in other words, that by the sort of linguistic magic the poet generates sharpens the reader's wits; it would be interesting if someone conducted a study of the spread of manifestos , from competing schools of writing, left and right, over the last couple hundred of years and see if there is connecting insistence at the heart of the respective arguments .

What they'd find among other things, I think, is a general wish to liberate the slumbering population from the doldrums of generic narrative formulation and bring them to a higher, sharper, more crystalline understanding of the elusive quality of Truth; part of what makes poetry interesting is not just the actual verse interesting (and less interesting ) poets produce, but also their rationale as to why they concern themselves with making words do oddly rhythmic things. Each poet who is any good and each poet who is miserable as an artists remains, by nature, didactic ,chatty, and narcissistic to the degree that , as a species , they are convinced that their ability to turn a memorable ( or at least striking phrase) is a key with which others may unlock Blake's Doors of Perception.

The lecturing component is only as interesting as good as the individual writer can be--not all word slingers have equal access to solid ideas or an intriguing grasp on innovative language--but the majority of readers don't want to be edified. They prefer entertainment to enlightenment six and half days out of the week, devouring Oprah book club recommendations at an even clip; the impulse with book buyers is distraction, a diversion from the noise of he world. Poetry, even the clearest and most conventional of verse , is seen as only putting one deeper into the insoluble tangle of experience. Not that it's a bad thing, by default, to be distracted, as I love my super hero movies and shoot 'em ups rather than movies with subtitles, and I don't think it's an awful thing for poetry to have a small audience. In fact, I wouldn't mind at all if all the money spent on trying to expand the audience were spent on more modest presentations. The audience is small, so what has changed?