Friday, January 8, 2010

Our Ireland

Has the anger driven underground for the general population been met on the other side by an even deeper emotional implosion within poets, making them unknowable even to themselves, let alone to an external audience?

Years ago, more years ago than I care to remember, an entire world of possibility opened up to me as I sat in the back row of my first university class on poetry. We were reading Philip Larkin that day, and at that time it seemed to be a jaded, world weary kind of writing that fit in well with the anti-heroic stance so familiar to us in books like Catch 22 and Miller's Tropic of Cancer and in the grim mechanistic landscapes of movies like Midnight Cowboy. In a word I was intrigued, intrigued by what Philip Larkin saw in the world around him, by his language and his rhythms.

Which is not the same thing as saying I understood everything Larkin was trying to convey. Quite the opposite; that first day in class I was raw to the experience of poetry and mostly confused. Poetry was unlike anything I had ever encountered before: the words on the page despite being blessedly few in number compared to the prose I read were mostly a jumble. The three components of the simple declarative sentence – subject, verb, object, which I had been taught to use as my guide in understanding others and being understood myself were suddenly and terribly mixed up: the “who” of who’s speaking mostly disguised, the “action” verb which we had been taught to cultivate in our own prose clouded over by indirection and mis-direction, adjectives and adverbs gone astray.

But what I really didn’t understand is why Larkin and to an even greater extent other poets seemed deliberately determined to make my ability to understand them so difficult. My dilemma would only deepen years later when poetry became less a reading activity than an exercise in cultural divination. But that part of the conversation must wait.

Because eventually I got it. Eventually I understood that it was not only possible to tie the poet’s apparently disparate thoughts and images together in a way that made sense, but made pleasing sense. At the simplest level, poetry operated very much the way riddles or very good jokes do, with irony, surprise, sometimes with illumination. At their most complex, poems unlocked moral truths about the world and how human beings are able – or unable – to operate there, truths about our ability to know and understand our universal condition, to know our capacity for doing both good and evil and for achieving redemption when so much of the rest of society seemed driven by hate and destruction. The war poets and Yeats. The metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert. The trenchant, modern despair of Eliot and Stevens. Eventually, what they had to say made sense to me, in the broadest understanding of that word.

Then, somewhere along the way, all that got away from me. I stopped reading poetry. I’ll say straight up this was less the fault of the poems I was reading than everything else that was happening in my life at the time. For one thing, the Viet Nam war was on. For another, I was angry, angry not just at the war, but at our entire society, an anger that was not captured or released by poetry, but by songs, popular songs that tapped into the energies of an entire generation, a generation that spent its time trying to unravel - not the intricacies of the Shakespearean Sonnet - but the wrongs of society, wrongs seemingly perpetrated against its weakest members and occurring at every level of human activity, in the relations between the races, between men and women, between classes of people, between the very rich and very poor. The egregiousness of society’s actions were reflected in the ways it had contrived for us to communicate with one another, through advertising, through mindless television programming, through the lies that were told during election time and yes, through the same recording industry that produced those songs I mention above. But where poetry might have been a courageous, revivifying antidote to all this, it became instead a quaint, distant pastime that had very little to do with the world around us and it. It was something that no longer spoke to me because it could no longer be heard above the din of a world which had quite simply gone mad.

All that seems like a long time ago. Since then, the world, to use a term that continues to have currency since it was coined in the 90s, has learned to “chill”. It is not so much that people are less angry as their anger has seemingly gone underground, leaving a cool exterior in its place where heat once lived. Anger, that strident, seemingly inexhaustible, morally outraged response to the way in which all aspects of society seemed to conspire against the world's downtrodden became repressed or sublimated into other things, like a need to compete and to pursue one’s self-interest above all else. It’s an anger that when it chooses to emerge (and at its worst it chooses us, we don’t choose it) does so in our relationships with spouses and children, instead, as it once did, with our parents and the “authority figures” with whom we took such umbrage those many decades ago. But it is a manageable, unexpressed or inexpressible kind of anger, and one that our children seem to have inherited. It is an anger that may threaten rupture with the ones we love, or don’t love as the case may be, but not the broader social structure that suffered such a merciless - and dare I say it - much needed shaking up back in the 60s and early 70s.

These are the worlds, the decades-long paradigms that poetry has had somehow to survive in. Notice that I say survive, not thrive. Understand, too, that I am speaking not just about the writing of poetry, because poets will write no matter what the nature of the world around them and more often than not despite the world around them. Reading poetry is a different matter altogether. Reading poetry requires – how best to characterize it? - a dogged determination to find the bones or jewels buried deep beneath its surface? an irrational, self inflicted and sustained form of masochism? The truth is we do not read poetry so much as sample it, glancing at a page of new poetry as one poet told me not so long ago and flinging it aside the moment it fails to meet our tastes or expectations. Sustained reading, even of a single poem, seems bordering on obsessive compulsive, overly earnest and worst of all cerebral.

What has happened to make this so? Conventional wisdom says competing, more easily digested diversions are to blame: radio and TV, the Internet, the Blackberry and iPhone, the video game and equally ubiquitous DVD industries. Some might suggest it is the ready availability of the English language itself. It is, after all, all around us, in diverse forms of spoken and written, TV and ad-campaigned English, compressed into hyper-abbreviated text messages. Much of it is delivered expertly with dash and texture, though less and less of it seems to be very edifying or enduring. Have we simply become complacent? Lazy? Prevented by our inexigent, desultory natures from truly appreciating the special nuance in language that is poetry?

Or are the poets to blame after all? Have they turned too much inward, abandoned their readers. Has the anger driven underground for the general population been met on the other side by an even deeper emotional implosion within poets, making them unknowable even to themselves, let alone to an external audience? Have they substituted something else for the thinking, feeling human beings we know them to be, want them to be, something cooler, more culturally or philosophically sophisticated, or as the English might say “too clever by half”?

The great irony around the debate over “accessibility” is that we fail to ask the important questions: what are we trying to achieve by reading poems? who or what are we trying to gain access to? Fellow citizens with simple truths to tell? Singers with sublime voices? For the longest time I’ve been telling friends I read poetry because I want to see the world in a fresh way, in a way that subverts my familiarity with how things normally appear or operate. And I still believe this is a good reason for reading poems.

But surely something more is wanted. In his 1995 Nobel Lecture Seamus Heaney cited Archibald MacLeish’s comment that a poem “should be equal to/not true”. And as accurate as this was, it seemed insufficient to Heaney. “As a defiant statement of poetry’s gift for telling truth, but telling it slant,” he wrote, “this is both cogent and corrective. Yet there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want a poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself.”

In one way my generation was lucky. We lived in a world that announced its need of re-tuning. The world and the universe seemed interconnected. Where are those interconnections today? Much of the power underlying Heaney’s speech was driven by the pressure and pain that was Ireland. What is our Ireland? When we hear about the horrendous ravishment of Darfur or witness with astonishment acts of vanity and excess like the erection of the Dubai tower, where do we place ourselves? How large is our scope? Who are we really?


Anonymous said...

A lot to chew on here.

The authorities/institutions are no less deserving of shake-ups. Our people seem divided between those who want wrong-doing to stop and those who see wrong-doing as necessary seepage.

I like what this woman has to say of activist fatigue, that we retire when we're free, a mythological rest-point.

Our poetry should engage the world and its troubles. Is it feeble when fronting atrocity? Sure, when the answer is results-based, short-sighted.

Xi Chuan, the Chinese poet who was in Victoria for some months, said he couldn't write for a years following the Tiananmen massacre. Even when he could write again, he couldn't write the same.

He talked about approaching the writing desk without the word 'poem'. He said it was like approaching the shed with the word 'chair' in mind---you would never arrive at anything without four legs and a back. The 'poem'less experiment might produce terrible results, but its gains might be far greater too. Well, this is tangential.

Not sure if I have a point. Anyway I wanted to comment.

Carry on, David!


John Pass said...

Poetry and Anger
The angry protest of the 60’s had its most forceful expression in music certainly but it’s worth remembering there was articulate anger in the poetry too. Bly’s Teeth Mother Naked At Last is seared in my memory. But anger is rarely poetry’s strong card. Even the most famous example from the last century, Ginsberg’s Howl, depends more for its greatness upon tenderness and pity than upon rage.
The only lasting emotion, the one that stays true for all time for everyone, is grief, and tragedy remains art’s bedrock. Larkin is great not for his despondency and despair but for the tragic chords he rings from them. In Sad Steps, for example, the moon ( “Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!”) seen “Groping back to bed after a piss”, “Is a reminder of the strength and pain/ Of being young; that it can’t come again,/ But is for others undiminished somewhere.” We are compelled to stand in sympathy with Larkin and as one of the “others”. The knowledge is as broad as is humanly possible, inclusive. We live at both ends of the equation.
Anger alone, in its linear, fervently directional focus, is incapable of this breadth. And in our time there are two principal reasons for its virtual extinction in poetry. Firstly, emotion itself has become suspect in art. As a member of a discussion panel at a writing festival recently I was asked what the essential elements in poetry were. I rambled a bit but settled upon feeling as a touchstone of mine, my litmus test for a poem’s value was its honest grounding in emotion. Not that a poem need principally be emotional expression, but that in its making I should working from an emotional core, something I could trust to keep it true. There was vehement (ironically) disagreement. Poetry was no slave to sentiment. It was language, play and possibility that gave it its energy and interest. I didn’t disagree with that, but serious work with the wonderful complexities of language is insufficient to the fullness of what poetry attempts or accomplishes. Post-modernism cannot so easily trump the long game.
Secondly the practice of poetry, like any art, moves the practitioner quickly past the easy moral certainties that anger asserts. And anger is not communicative, is destructive of relationship, of metaphor. Even the desperate ad hoc therapies of the late 60’s and 70’s quickly recognized the futility of anger. Its psycho-dramatic post-Freudian utility as a passage out of depression proved to be temporary, indulgence rather than cure. The luxuries of attention and reflection enjoyed by first world artists and the resultant qualities in our art of intellectual complexity and emotional depth have long been our culture’s measure of aesthetic value. Passionate contemplation is antithetical to the windier emotions. Anger blows by in a hurry. One becomes responsible to and humbled by the definite, the limitations of physicality, of one’s own senses and necessarily localized sense of the world. I sympathize with Heaney’s call for a “re-tuning” of the world, that immensity, through poetry, but really anything more than the re-tuning of the imagination that each good poem exemplifies, that David enjoys reading and that MacLeish and Larkin and Heaney and every modernist worth the moniker acknowledges, is illusory, was effectively dismissed long ago by Auden’s quip that poetry makes nothing happen. (Don McKay has an interesting turn on the Auden, that “nothing” is enlivened by poetry, emptiness is given vitality . . . an illustration of language’s endlessly shifting possibilities and potentialities). Beyond such playful, wistful digression there is the adamantine work there always has been, the paradoxical joy in its making and reading, in celebration and contemplation of the infinite pathways to knowledge, to the grief of being human.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, John. You comments sharpen the issue considerably. Anger’s breadth and its capacity as a transformative emotion are certainly limited. My difficulty is not that too few poets avail themselves of anger, but that too often their poems wallow in a kind of low grade depression or move too quickly to a state of acceptance or resignation (a la Kubler-Ross); they lack the pressure from beneath that might make them great poems. Anger, if only in the very early stages of a poet or poem's development, can provide that pressure.

As you suggest, this raises the larger perennial question about what role emotion should play at all in the writing of poems. You give us enormous food for thought and I’d like to think about this a little more before responding more fully. Others undoubtedly will be persuaded as I am by your comments, and may have thoughts of their own.


Zachariah Wells said...

If Auden killed the idea of poetry as politically useful, then Wilde put the kibosh on feeling as poetry's sine qua non: "All bad art is sincere." Not everything that is sincere is bad art, of course and I have little interest in bloodless word-games, but I have as little interest in the unstructured self-indulgent gushes of "expression" that are often passed off as poetry. It's not a horse-cart relationship. Virtuosity and feeling are two steeds in the same traces. It's nonsense to talk of one being more important than the other.

John Pass said...

No-one would argue with Zachariah’s assertion that virtuosity and emotion are in the same traces. Poets will each have their personal touchstones, with varying emphases technical and emotional, to keep them on track in the course of creation. I’m thinking, for example, of Plath’s wry observation that if one has to go to the thesaurus the poem is dying. What are your touchstones Zach? Is there one more fundamental than the rest? Bottom line: what’s your litmus bullshit test for a poem of your own under hand? I’m guessing it has more to do with feeling (or call it intuition in this instance maybe) than craft. Your feelings about poetry seem pretty strong. Does the emotional content of your poems have a corresponding intensity or is it muted? And what might be your response to David’s initial concern re the lack of anger in contemporary verse?

Zachariah Wells said...

My chief touchstone comes from Jarrell. To paraphrase: "Writing poetry is like playing pin the tail on the donkey, only there's no tail and no donkey." If this seems evasive, well, so's poetry.

As for David's post, I'd say the problem's not so much the absence of anger as the beige ubiquity of blandness.

Zachariah Wells said...

Found the actual Jarrell quotation, the context of which is apposite:

" Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the "worthless" books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people's hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with "This is a poem" scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write - a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize. If there were only some mechanism (like Seurat's proposed system of painting, or the projected Universal Algebra that Gödel believes Leibnitz to have perfected and mislaid) for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are! When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems - people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensibility, and moral discrimination than most of the poets - it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, "Well, never mind. You're still the only one that can write poetry.""

Harold Rhenisch said...

Zach, I meet your

"As for David's post, I'd say the problem's not so much the absence of anger as the beige ubiquity of blandness,"

and raise you a "Wyndham Lewis chose blindness rather than having his mind stop."

The blandness is the culture, and the poetry that meets that culture. We are not, I think, playing that game.

We're using real plastic chips here, right?




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