Showing posts with label Modernism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Modernism. Show all posts

Saturday, October 30, 2021


The steadfast confusion of reason and emotion, and, let's add, the Hamlet-like state of ambivalence and hesitation when attempting to decide which direction to lean in, which road to follow,  is precisely the kind of writing literature should be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Tension, anger, conflict, a war between impulses that are global in scope but local in context. The goal isn't the resolution of conflict, as that would be mere preaching and the extension of convenient dogmas; what's more exciting and likely closer to the cold shiver of recognition is in how things end. Being neither philosophy nor science of any stripe, fiction is ideally suited for writers to mix and match their tones, attitudes, and angles of attack on a narrative schema to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think needs to be accomplished. 

The attack on modernism's arrogance that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly overstated, it seems, vastly over regarded: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms precisely what that actual reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had. Individually, each writer had a different view of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before.

I agree with Fred Jamieson on the point that Post Modernism, in effect, is a restating of the modernist project., although I suspect the critic was as much interested in preserving his own relevance as a critic as he was in establishing new distinctions to a topic that has, if nothing else, perfected the practice of topic drift. His implication is that postmodernism is critical of the culture it ironically reflects; this stance would keep Jamieson, a dutifully abstruse Marxist variant, in things to write about. Or write toward, as the excellent critic's style is, to introduce things he intends to address and then to defer, endlessly it seems, until some clarity is brought, by him, to the terms and context of his impending discussion. He is, it may be said, the lecturer's image who assumes the podium without his notes organized, considering he has noted in the first place. Jamieson, in fact, is something of an ironic example of postmodernism less as a stylish choice or determined practice than as the result of trying to wear too many hats; it is more important to act as though you have a point than to actually have one, to begin with. Jamieson has his insights and critical genius, of course, but too often, it takes a good while for him to warm up to his actual set of talking points.
 Writing is an argument so far that the central impulse to write is to make a series of statements about oneself and one's experiences in the world and reach a satisfying conclusion, some "meaning" at the end of the chat.

Roland Barthes noted that the effort to achieve fixed meaning is doomed, as experience is not a static event but a fluid movement through time that a writer's perception of changes moment to moment, text to text. They attempt to resolve the contradiction, arrive at something absolute in a universe that seems to permanently withhold its Absolute Meanings during this lifetime, and to achieve, somehow, some peace, some satisfaction. But no: the argument persists, the imagination soars, the old certainties cannot contain either the unset of new perceptions or can soothe a writer's innate restlessness. In literature, the conflation continues, reason and emotion color each other, the eyes shut, hoping for vision, a clear path, but the writing continues, the sorting through of experience continues, the unease continues, the world changes radically and not at all. Postmodernism's overall mission is to notify us of the limitations of our tropes, our schemes, and our historicized absolutes seem redundant to what literature already does.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore's "Poetry" is widely anthologized and often cited, and it shouldn't be a mystery as to why this poem among the hundreds she wrote is the one that an otherwise indifferent audience remembers: it's a poem about poetry. She rather handily summarizes an array of clichés, stereotypes and received misgivings about poetry a literalistic readership might have ,feigns empathy with the complaints, and then introduces one crafty oh-by-the-way after another until the opposite is better presented than the resolution under discussion. This is not a subject I warm up to in most circumstances--poets, of their accord, have demonstrated the sort of self-infatuation that many of them, left to their means-to-an-end, would remove themselves from the human scale and assume the ranks of the divine, the oracular, the life giving, IE, develop themselves into a priesthood, the guardians of perception. Moore's poem, though, presents itself as a contracting string of epigrams that seem to quarrel, a disagreement between head and mind, body and spirit, and a larger part of her lines, as they seemingly across the page away from the statements preceding the line before it, is that no really knows what to make of poetry as a form, as a means of communication, as a way of identifying oneself in the world. It frustrates the fast answer, it squelches the obvious point, and poetry adds ambiguity that would rile many because of lines that start off making obvious sense but which leave the reader in a space that isn't so cocksure. Little of the world seems definite anymore once a poem has passed through it, and the reconfiguring of imagination , the retrenching, the retooling of perception a required of the reader to understand a bit of the verse (the alternative being merely to quit and admit defeat) is bound to give a resentment.

Moore's poem seems to be a response to Dorothy Parker's ironic declaration "I hate writing. I love having written". The reader may hate not understanding what they've read, but love the rewards of sussing through a poem's blind alleys and distracting side streets.

Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, 
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, 
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

The agony, the contradictions, the dishonest sleights of hand that deceive you in the service of delivering a surprise, an irony, an unexpected image, all of this is worth resentments a reader suffers through. One is, after all, made better, made stronger by the exercise of the will to read and confront the poem on its own terms. Moore is a shrewd rhetorician as well as gracefully subtle poet. Clever, witty, sharp and acidic when she needs me, Moore is clever at playing the Devil's Advocate in nominally negative guise, saying she dislikes it but mounting one exception to the rule after another until we have an overwhelming tide of reasons about why we as citizens can't exist without its application.

It works as polemic, indeed, crafted as she alone knows how, and it adds yet another well-phrased set of stanzas that want to turn poets into more than mortal artists, but into a priesthood, a race of scribes attuned to secret meanings of invisible movements within human existence. It sort of stops being a poet after the first jagged stanza, not unlike all those pledge breaks on PBS that tirelessly affirm that network's quality programming while showing little of it during their pleas for viewer money. It's not that I would argue too dramatically against the notion that poets and artists in general are those who've the sensitivity and the skills to turn perception at an instinctual level into a material form through which what was formally unaddressable can now find a shared vocabulary in the world-- egalitarian though I am, there are geniuses in the world , and those who are smarter and more adept than others in various occupations and callings--but I do argue against the self-flattery that poems like Moore's promotes and propagates.

I wouldn't regard this as a polemic of any sort, nor a manifesto as to what the writer ought to do or what the reader should demand. Reading it over again and again after that makes me think that Moore was addressing her own ambivalence toward the form. After one finishes some stanzas and feels contented that they've done justice to their object of concentration, some lines appear contrived, other words are dull and dead sounding aligned with more colorful, more chiming ones,
 Poetry that however grand , beautiful and insightful the resulting poems are in a host of poetic attempts to resolve the problem the distance between the thing perceived and the thing itself, we still have only poems, words arranged to produce effects that would appeal to our senses that are aligned with this world and not the invisible republic just beyond our senses. Poetry is a frustrating and irritating process because it no matter how close one thinks they've come to a breakthrough, there is the eventual realization of far one remains from it. Poetry as Sisyphean task; one is compelled to repeat the effort, and not without the feeling that they've done this before.

The commotion of the animals, the pushing elephants, the rolling horses, the tireless yet immobile Wolf, seem like analogues to restless mind Moore at one time might have desired to have calmed by the writing of poetry. There is the prevailing myth, still fixed in a good number of people who go through various self help groups, that the writing of things down--poetry, journaling, blogging, writing plays or memoirs--is a process that, in itself , will reveal truthful things one needs to know and thereby settle the issues. Writing, though, doesn't "settle", finalize or cement anything in place, it does to set the world straight , nor does it resolve anything it was addressing once the writing is done with. It is, though, a useful process, a tool, one may use as a means to get one out of the chair, away from the keyboard, and become proactive in some positive way.
The expectations of what poetry was supposed to do--create something about the world that is permanent, everlasting, reveal a truth who's veracity does not pale with time, whether a century or hour-- are crushed and a resentment when realizes that the world they're attempting to conquer, in a manner of speaking , will not bow to one's perception, one's carefully constructed stage set where the material things of this earth are props to be arranged on a whim, and that the mind that creates the metaphors, the similes, the skilled couplets and ingenious rhyme strategies is not calmed, soothed, serene.
The world continues to move and change, language itself changes the meaning of the words it contains, the mind continues to tick away, untrammeled. Moore's animals, in the restless paradise, are themselves restless, non contemplative, instinct driven toward species behavior that is about propagation and survival, creatures distinct from the contemplative conceit of the poet who thinks he or she is able to sift through the underbrush for secret significance. I've always heard a weary tone in Moore's poem; a mind that in turn wrestles with matters where poetry doesn't reveal what's disguised but only what the poet can never get to. Her poem echoes Macbeth's famous speech rather nicely
She should have died hereafter; 
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

She seems not a little dismayed that poetry is only part of our restless species behavior and that the language we write and expound to bring coherence to the waking life are only more sounds being made in an already noisy existence.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pound or Frost?

I'm not a fan of either poet, but of Pound intrigues especially me . His fabled difficulty seems more willful than inspired , more determined than originating from a flash of an idea that would spark a firestorm in how poetry is read. His theories, his proclamations as to the duty of the writer to lead the race to a higher standard of perception, were the writings that galvanized and polarized a generation or so of writers who followed or argued with his lead; his poems, though, were stuck in an abstruse inertia. This is distinct from abstract, a quality where there is an actual idea being deployed and which, in turn, can be parsed by a reader with due diligence. There is no argument with how important Pound is to the reformation of literature and advancing the Modernist aesthetic, but some one who was so obsessed, in theory, with reconfiguring language arts so that a new generation of readers can have fresh perceptions of reality and discover means with which to change it, Pound seemed seduced by the legend he was making for himself and delved headlong into his admixture of projects without a sense of how his materials and sources would come to make a generalized sense of themselves.

It seems obvious to me that he reveled in the difficulty of his work. His innovations as poet, for me, are worth studying in line with his critical pieces, but beyond their importance in establishing a time line, the language , the style, the attitude has not traveled well through the decades. He seemed like the brilliant critic and tireless promoter of new talent who put himself in competition with his fellows, IE Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, et al. Pound believed art was the process through which a substitute priesthood of painters and poets can perceive the world, and it was the artist who could correctly provide the inspiration and spiritual means to change the way reality was constructed and lived in. He was attracted to strong leaders with pronounced visions of a Better Future, was attracted to the notion of violently blowing up the artifacts of the past in order to forge a new order from the ground up, and it was apparent to everyone that he aligned himself with such leaders. He desired to be considered among the scarce select who would show the way to the new dawn, whether they wanted to or not. Pound was fascinated by chaos, turbulence, severe intrusions of alien forms usurping dictions and definitions of older ideological husks and having them be transformed to some strange array of notions that are a vision of a Future not all of us will be able to live in. Frost , although over- estimated, is an acceptable minor poet and a canny careerist, neither of which are offensive to anyone who understands the need to make a living. He was content to be a passive witness to the state of things built by hand running down, subsuming a cynicism in a lyric version of sparely detailed plain-talk that could, at times,produce a stunning insight into the feeling of how the body aches as it ages.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Jackson MacLow

In the late seventies, Jackson Mac Low came to read and lecture at the University of California, San Diego. At the same time, I was an undergraduate there, a benefit of having a Literature Department whose poetry doyens in presenting experimental artists. The reading was in a basement room of a large University facility that doubled as an undergraduate art gallery, with Mac Low, in a dark coat and a fine head of long hair, standing before a screen as slides of odd numeric and word sequences and arrangements flitted by when he clicked on a control. The word combinations came in spurts, punctuated, quite literally, with silences, stammers, elongated repetitions, until it became clear (to the few in the room who might have been truly curious) that MacLow had his allegiance with the earlier Modernist poets, especially William Carlos Williams. The reading, we can say, was not the sort of thing that would-be Ed Dorns or erstwhile Ginsbergs had been prepared for. Although latent with meaning and associations that cannot be wholly deferred, words still have tonal properties that can be organized in ways other than literal meaning.
MacLow's "chance system" theories of composing verse satisfied few readers/listeners, but there is a rigor in the method he used in a lifetime of work and a genuine curiosity of what one can do with poetry than reaffirm the old themes. At the time, I was more or less baffled, taking it in as future banter and bullshit for a student party, and the others of my station seemed to be smiling a little too hard, too earnestly as they jotted various notes in the crowd, making smart talk with their attending faculty. MacLow, as I remember, seemed perfectly amiable, although he seemed not to feel compelled to explain his ideas in more straightforward language. Good for him. Stating that poems are "unreadable" is slippery here since it's an accusation tossed about by too many readers describing difficult poets. As an experimentalist, MacLow hardly forgot about aesthetic pleasure; in fact, it's safe to say that he was bored with the standards that were in front of him, had no use as to what the general concept of beauty was, and went about seeking the company and energies of others who shared an interest in seeing how new art can be created. Granted, there is nothing less appealing than yesterday's Avant garde, but there are several artists, Cage and MacLow among them, who merit serious attention after their passing.

Mac Low is hard to read--a better term-- essentially, he was given to experimenting with new compositional techniques, "chance systems," as he called it. The result was meant to challenge the reader/listener to approach the work differently. I happen to think that quite a bit of his writing is perfectly readable if closed on its own terms. But MacLow's work, like Cage's, wasn't about delivering pleasure wrapped in a consumer-friendly package, but rather about the unexpected things, the noises, the random words, the accidental pairings, the overlaying of contrary sounds, that lay in the spaces between the words and the notes on a page. One either opens up to the possibilities, or one does not, but even here, one's reservations and resistances are important to explore.

Cage and MacLow both read about and around, if not through, and look at. Cage was among those, like MacLow and earlier modernists like WC Williams and Stevens who thought that a poem "...should not mean but be..." (Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"). Cage, of course, was less materialistic than his earlier American poets and was attracted to the chance formations that Zen study gave him the stamina to imagine containing in particular compositional systems wherein the natural sound and tonal value of each element in a limited terrain find a new aesthetic arrangement, the aesthetic of what the eye sees, and the ear beholds for that fleeting moment and then vanishes. In any event, MacLow's work as a poet, composer, and collaborator was a lifetime endeavor. He sought beauty and new perception in his own fashion for his work.

My favorite thing about that McLeish quote that gets trotted out all the time is how its mania for defining poetry defines itself right out of the category. That is precisely the meaning of the quote: poets have to write their pieces "out of the category" of conventional verse and create new ways of writing and reading poems instead. It's about ways of seeing the world and recording the experience in a manner that would revolutionize perception. Bob Perelman addressed this whole notion of experimental geniuses who sought to revolutionize the way readers came to experience the world in his book The Trouble With Genius; sussing through the writing and aims of Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and others, Perelman caught the usually undiscussed detail that these experimentalists,
preparing the literate world to reshape their thinking about writing sequence, had in fact isolated themselves with their own genius from the public they wanted to influence. The bold originality of their work had made them geniuses, but of a different sort than one regards DaVinci, Einstein, or even a Henry Ford. Perelman's modernists were writers and aesthetes and were geniuses of poetic form, not practical application. It might be said that there was advancement in the sort of difficulty poetry and prose could encompass. Still, these were problems of interest to already marginalized audiences, other aesthetes, poets, and academics. The modernist project was a failure for reconfiguring the world through a radical expansion of the senses. But as literature, this generation produced their masterpieces, problematic though they were for a wider audience. This is the great conceit of the experimental artist, a project doomed to failure so far as the universal revolution is concerned, but what remains in the resistance to old categories are, nonetheless, new ideas of what poets ought to be doing for their own time.

Modernism's experiments with Imagism and Vorticism and a host of other revolutionary projects might not have reconfigured our audio and visual senses. However, they have given us some newer ideas about image, theory, rhythm, scope, and subject. Much of what we take for granted as the given of modern, conventional verse wouldn't be possible sans these seemingly indecipherable experiments, which isn't to say that poetry not have changed with the times. Without our savant grades and experimentalists, though, it would be substantially different. Well, let's look at the poem itself. The spirit is the same for Mac Leish as Cage and MacLow. That poetic language needs to find new ways to address the world we experience. Mac Leish wants words to have a particular "thingness" that can get the substance of the objects it strives to be about; that the thing -in and of itself is its own adequate symbol. MacLow and Cage were more interested in the lost arrangements of the hidden world, the sounds and objects one finds in those odd moments where the mind fixes on seemingly ephemeral details of daily endurance. In either case, there is a search for a more accurate way of getting perception across to a reader. What separate them are strategies, not sympathies.