Friday, October 31, 2008

The Politics of Poetry

A while ago David Orr had a very sharp piece in Poetry about the politics of poetry. He was interested in why it's such a perpetually hot topic. "We don't spend much time wondering what poetry has to do with neuroscience or television writing or college basketball," wrote Orr, "yet these are important areas of American life that involve assertions about truth, form, morality, and the nature of culture—all subjects regularly claimed as poetry's turf."

Around the same time, Lucia Perillo posted to Poetry's Harriet blog about the left-wingishness of many American poets. She speculated that "it may be that poets are aligned with the left because they tend to share the concerns of the poor, or at least the not-rich, having only moderate incomes and job stability." An interesting hypothesis, I thought, but one that doesn't really look all that true: compared to the population as a whole, American poets aren't, as a rule, particularly downtrodden (of course there are exceptions).

Anyway, reading Orr and Perillo got me thinking, and I put together an essay that tries, in its bumbling way, to shed some light on these issues from a sociological perspective. Why do so many poets think of their work as political? Does it make sense for them to do so? And what's with the prevailing left-of-center view (which I share, but which must have some sociological explanation) (which doesn't mean it isn't a valid political viewpoint). The essay I came up with is called "Poetry, Politics, and Leanings-Left" and it's in the November issue of Poetry, and also available online.

I talk about some of the same things I cover in the essay in the last half of this month's Poetry Foundation podcast, "The Savage Detective Turns to Poetry" (I'm not the savage detective: that's the much-more glamorous Roberto Bolaño, whose poetry is also featured). I thought I was groggy when we recorded the interview, but apparently the jug of java I downed just beforehand had kicked in by the time I started speaking: in contrast to the calm, controlled Don Share and Chris Wiman, I fear I may sound like some kind of jittery fiend, the kind of guy who'd grab you by the elbow on the subway and give you his nine-part theory on how the Aztecs invented the internet. (Did I ever explain how the Aztecs did that? No? Okay! A topic for my next post!).

And speaking of jittery fiends, I'm about to jump back into the fiend-friendly environment that is the blogosphere to read obsessively —nay, with maniacal zeal — about the election! Why? Because it's just like the ending of Peter Pan — you know, the part of the movie where, if we all clap hard enough, Tinkerbell will live. I mean, isn't it true that every time you read an online analysis of a swing state poll, Barack Obama gets just a little closer to the White House?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Roberto Bolaño and the Extravert Muse

There's something primal and pre-rational in the fear I've always had of heights. Picture a sweaty, trembly Archambeau trying hard not to look like he's freaking out, and you've successfully pictured me in any high structure or on the edge of any precipitous precipice. At the Tour Eiffel, on the cliffs of Dun Aengus, climbing a fire lookout back in Manitoba, or even in the upper floors of the Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame, I'd always feel like my lower intestine had been seized by something I can only describe as an icy, electrified demon-fist. It's always hazardous for me when people come to visit from Europe: invariably, they want to go up in one of Chicago's skyscrapers, and I gamely take them, but have learned to stick to the Hancock Center: it has a bar on the 95th floor, and one can steady one's nerves somewhat with a bucket-sized slug of bourbon. It's funny to see, I'm told, this gripping-of-handrails and gritting of teeth, but it really takes me to some bizarre, primal emergency state. Once, while we were visiting a colleague who lived on the 19th floor of a tall, narrow building with floor-to-ceiling windows, an ornithologist pal of mine mercilessly teased me about my queasiness (used as he was to lurking around in trees and the edges of ravines in his bird-watching escapades, it was hard for him to appreciate my crisis of confidence in high places). I like the guy, and we bust each other's chops all the time, but heights mess with my chi, people, and so messed-with was I just then that I pulled a very uncharacteristic move, hauling-off and knocking the poor guy into the wall to make him stop. Not cool, I know. But that's how freaked I get when I'm more than, say, a dozen stories up. (I think he forgave me, but I notice he doesn't ride elevators with me any more).

There are two exceptions to this sad and weird phenomenon, though: I'm in no way freaked out when I fly, and for some secret reason known only to the muses, I never get the icy demon-fist effect when I visit the offices of Poetry magazine. Since their current digs hover 18 floors up over Michigan Ave, with an open floor-plan and glass walls, this is a true surprise. And a welcome one, since I'd really rather not knock Don Share or Christian Wiman into the wall, even when they publish Jorie Graham. I'm sure Don and Christian had no sense of all this Tuesday, when the elevators whisked me up to their aerie for an interview about an article I wrote for the November issue. Insufficiently caffeinated, I think I sort of tanked at the interview, but the editor, I'm assured, is good at cleaning up one's mumblings for the podcast. Anyway, Don was kind enough to hook me up with an advance copy of next month's issue of Poetry, and I pawed through it on the train home, eagerly devouring a dozen or so pages of the great Chilean poet Roberto Bolaño in translation. I'd been reading the October issue on the way down, and something struck me about how different Bolaño was from the (very able) poets I'd been reading in the October issue. I couldn't quite put a name to it until I was almost at my stop, when the word finally leapt to my lips: "extravert!" I said, eyes wild with discovery, "Bolaño's a Jungian extravert!" The conductor's sidelong glance indicated that he either disagreed (holding deep-seated views on Bolaño and Jung at odds with my own), or that he thought it was weird to see a big beardy dude talking to himself on the Metra. Be that as it may, I really do think Jung's ideas are a good way to get at what's special about Bolaño, and at some of the limits of a lot of American poetry.

Jung is one of those guys whose work is more wide-ranging and various in actuality than it is in the popular perception. I mean, when most people think of Jung, they probably remember that he quarreled with Freud, that he said something about archetypes, and that Robert Bly more or less drowned his own chances of being taken seriously when he watered down Jungian ideas in his Iron John-era drum circles. I'm no expert, but when I was writing about the poetry of John Peck (a Jungian analyst by trade), I worked on getting my Jung chops up a bit. My favorite discovery was the essay "On the Relation of Analytic Psychology to Poetry" (which runs some 20 very readable pages in Penguin's Portable Jung, if you want to check it out).

Long story short, Jung's argument is that there are two fundamental orientations a poet can take toward his or her creativity: introverted and extaverted. Like a lot of Jung's terms, these don't quite mean what they do in common parlance. And like any binaries, of course, the introvert-extravert split is pretty limited, but it makes for a good way to start drawing distinctions between different types of poetry. Jung's introvert poet isn't what you might think (the phrase conjures up some spindly, black-sweatered guy sort of hiding out behind the Emily Dickinson books in the library, hoping not to have to talk to anyone). Rather, he's a poet who identifies with his own creative process, seeing it as something he understands, consciously directs, and is generally on top of. It's a matter of knowing, or thinking that you know, what you're doing, of going about your poem-making deliberately. The artist thinks the art comes from inside himself and is under his control — so it is in this sense that he is "introvert" in orientation. Here's Jung on the idea of introvert writing:

There are literary works that spring wholly from the author's intention to produce a particular result. He submits his material to a definite treatment with a definite aim in view; he adds to it and subtracts from it, emphasizing one effect, toning down another, laying on a touch of color here, another there, all the time carefully considering the overall result and paying strict attention to the laws of form and style. He exercises the keenest judgment and chooses his words with complete freedom. His material is entirely subordinated to his artistic purpose, he wants to express this and nothing else. He is wholly at one with the creative process, no matter whether he has deliberately made himself its spearhead, as it were, or whether it has made him its instrument so completely that his intentions and his faculties are indistinguishable from the act of creation itself.

So this is a guy who doesn't think of the act of writing as a mystery, or the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, or a visit from the capricious muse. This isn't the guy who objects, in a creative writing class, to the idea of writing a poem as an assignment. This is a guy who believes in craft, in technique, and in setting out to nail an effect with care and precision. You can imagine him looking with approval at all those heavily marked-up pages they put next to interviews with writers in The Paris Review — "Ah!" he'd think, looking at an annotated, revised page, "there's a guy who knows what he's doing, and isn't afraid to park his ass in a chair and work!" (I remember the short fiction guru Lee K. Abbott actually saying this, once, when he came up to Lake Forest for a visit).

What Jung's describing here isn't so much poetry, or even the process of composition, but the attitude a poet takes toward his or her work — an attitude of deliberate, careful, conscientious control (an attitude we profs kind of hope our students will take toward the writing of their essays, if not necessarily in their poems). Of course, this could be a kind of false consciousness on the part of the poet: as Jung puts it later in his essay, "it might well be that the poet, while apparently ... producing what he consciously intends" nevertheless gets carried away by "an 'alien will,'" or force beyond his or her conscious intellect. The first example of this that comes to mind for me is actually one from visual art: I really believe Georgia O'Keefe meant it when she said she thought there was nothing sexual about her paintings of flowers. But something sexual clearly got expressed there — it just came from a part of herself that O'Keefe didn't let come to consciousness. So she thought of herself as a controlling, introvert artist, but something else was at work, too, something alien to her intentions.

Disclaimers about false consciousness aside, the attitude a poet takes toward his or her creative processs matters for Jung — not least because it will tend to have an effect on the kind of work the poet ends up creating. The introvert poet will give us "a conscious product shaped and designed to have the particular effect intended," a poem that will "nowhere overstep the limits of comprehension," and the effect of which will be "bounded by the author's intention and ... not extend beyond it." Let's set aside deconstructive notions of the inevitable failure of such intention-driven outcomes, since, in a way, they're just versions of Jung's idea of a secret alien force slipping in, O'Keefe-style, behind the controlling consciousness of the introvert artist. And let's see what a poem of this kind looks like. As my Metra North Line epiphany made clear to me the other day, a lot of the poems in Poetry magazine are of this type. Here's one from the October issue by Derek Sheffield (after all these years of blogging, I'm still not clear if quoting the whole poem is fair use — but since it's up on Poetry's web site, I'm hoping it's cool. If it's not, and you're Derek Sheffied, Don Share, Christian Wiman, or one of their phalanx of lawyers, let me know):

A Good Fish

Jerk that bitch, urges my guide,
and I give my shuddering pole
a jerk, hooking the throat
of the first steelhead of my life.
Reel 'em, he mutters and revs the motor.
I horse my pole and reel and horse.
The boat's mascot whines, her claws
clicking. Let it take some line.
My father, uncle, and cousin
are reeling. First fish! they shout,
and I shout, What a fighter!
A silver spine touches the air.
There, he points, a hen. And guess what?
She's gonna join the club,

somehow spotting in that glimpse
the smooth place along her back
where a fin had been snipped.
He leans over the gunwale, dips a net,
and scoops her into the boat.
She is thick with a wide band
of fiery scales, slap-
slapping the aluminum bottom.
Welcome to the club, he says,
and clobbers her once, and again,
and once more before she goes still.
A bleeder, he says, shaking his head
and handing her to me. I curl
a finger through a gill the way
you're supposed to, determined
not to let her slip and flop
back to the river, a blunder
I'd never live down. A good fist.
Fish, I mean. A good fish.

Okay! I mean, sure, the poem deals with an unconscious process — the way something apparently innocent, like fishing, is linked with some deeply primal stuff, like sex and violence. It even includes a rendition of a Freudian slip ("fist" for "fish"). But the way it deals with this process is clearly very deliberate, and all of the details push toward making the single point that fishing contains these primal things. I mean, if you wanted to show your students in a creative writing class how to establish a consistent pattern of gestures, you couldn't do much better than to aim them at this poem and ask them about the emotional undertones to each of the actions undertaken by the characters in this poem. Every time Sheffield has them handling a fish or fishing implement, it's either associated with violence, or with sex (or, really, more properly with masturbation — all that jerking, all those poles, and that fist at the end add up to an almost indecent image). It all looks very deliberate, and all points in the direction of a single, rather authoritative, interpretation. Even the Freudian slip, so carefully placed at the end, has the feel of deliberation and control. There's nothing in it that refuses to make sense, flirts with disaster, or seems troublingly unassimilable to an interpretive paradigm or sense of aesthetic wholeness.

The word for a poem like Sheffield's is, I think, accomplished. Or maybe skillful. Or fully-realized. All of which are legitimate terms of praise, especially when we think of how many poems aim at this sort of effect and miss by about three feet. In all this accomplishment, the poem sort of reminds me of nineteenth-century French academic painting: it shows the artist knows what he was doing. But along with this very real virtues comes a kind of limitation. Trying to describe that limitation, I fall back on a comment my dad made once, after we'd spent a day in the Louvre, among all those galleries of grand format state paintings. "What I saw," he said, looking wearily up over his espresso, "was a whole lot of technique, and not much else." That's too harsh as a statement about Sheffield's poem, but it gets at the weaknesses to which introvert art is prone. (I think it's not a coincidence, really, that Georgia O'Keefe's best work are those floral paintings where she's expressing all kinds of sexual stuff that her conscious mind denies is there — when she gets away from that, her work gets closer and closer to well-made kitsch).

The other pole of Jung's binary is inhabited by the extravert poet. Again, the term is misleading: I mean, doesn't it make you think of some kind of coffeehouse blowhard, cornering you by the big jar of biscotti and forcing you to hear his sub-Howl effusions while he rants, gesticulates, and tears at his Moses-length beard? But enough about my last poetry reading! That's not what Jung had in mind at all. By "extravert" Jung means the poet who thinks the source of his or her creativity lies outside of the conscious self, maybe even outside the self entirely. Instead of feeling like he's in control of the process of composition, he experiences the process as an urgency, a matter of being seized by forces beyond conscious control. This was very much the idea held about poets and rhapsodes in classical antiquity — remember Plato's "Ion," where the title character describes himself as being seized, in the poetic act, the way a piece of metal is seized by a magnet? It's like that. Spontaneous overflow, a visit by the muse or the daemon, a welling-up of We Know Not What that makes us grab the pen (or brush, or keyboard) and get something out. The poem seems to come from beyond, from something alien, from outside — hence "extravert," the other-oriented position. Jung puts it this way — with extravert creativity, positively force themselves on the author; his hand is seized, his pen writes things that his mind contemplates with amazement. The work brings with it its own form. Anything [the poet] wants to add is rejected, and what he himself would like to reject is thrust back at him. While his conscious mind stands amazed and empty before this phenomenon, he is overwhelmed by a flood of thoughts and images which he never intended to create and which his own will could never have brought into being.... Here the artist is not identical with the process of creation; he is aware that he is subordinate to his work or stands outside it...

Hollywood loves this idea of the artist (as a topic, not as a way of directing movies, for which it relies on a bunch of dependably careful introverts). I mean, think of Vincent van Gogh as played by Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, or Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock. These are depictions of artists who receive, rather than direct, the gift of creation. Or at least that's how the extravert artist sees him- or herself. He's gripped by something as primal as that icy, electrified demon fist that grips me in high places.

From Jung's point of view, what's really going on is that the artist has formed an autonomous complex within his or her psyche, an area of mind not fully unified with the rest of the personality. It wants to come out and find its expression, and does so by breaking through the filters of the conscious mind. It's a very Romantic sort of idea, and one that the champions of deliberate, introvert writing often look on with suspicion. Yvor Winters based his whole mature poetic on a rejection of this extravert sort of thing, arguing that people (Hart Crane, say) who engage in what Jung would call extravert creativity are unhinged, psychologically unintegrated, and quite possibly a danger to themselves (though one could argue Winters' own attempt to prune the wild antipodal gardens of the mind held their own dangers, to art and to psyche alike).

[Digression of interest only to people who love German Idealist philosophy: those of you who are deep, deep, deep into German philosophy will probably recognize the influence of Schiller on Jung's thinking. The categories extravert and introvert roughly correspond to Schiller's ideas of the naive and the sentimental, respectively — Jung even acknowledges the debt in his essay. I think this connection must have had something to do with my coming to think about Bolaño and Sheffield in these terms: the reason I was so groggy and impervious to caffeine during the interview for the Poetry podcast was that I'd been teaching a night class the previous evening — a seminar on Kant and Schiller for our grad students. So Schiller and Jung were percolating somewhere in the back of my head while I was reading the October and November issues of Poetry on the Metra.]

Anyway. Just as the introvert orientation to creativity had consequences for the products of creative action, so too does the extravert orientation affect the poem. With the extravert artist, says Jung, "we would expect a strangeness of form and of content, thoughts that can only be apprehended intuitively, a language pregnant with meanings, and images that are true symbols because they are ... bridges thrown out towards an unseen shore." This kind of stuff may lack the polish of careful, introvert poetry, but what is it Rimbaud says? "La musique savante manque à notre désir" ("sophisticated music falls short of our desire"). I mean, extravert poetry may be rough around the edges, but because of its sources in the repressed or unconscious areas of the psyche, it often comes out with a force, a freshness, and a surprising, even unsettling, set of insights or emotions.

One thinks of Surrealism here, of André Breton and automatic writing. (I wonder, sometimes, what Jung would have made of something like the Oulipo, or other forms of procedural writing, where the poet sets up an arbitrary series of conventions, then lets them produce a text that comes into being without his control. I imagine he'd see the creation of the rules for these procedures as very much an introvert's act, but the product as looking much like an extravert's poem). One thinks of Breton, but not necessarily of Poetry magazine. I mean, while a journal with such a long track record is bound to have published quite a few extravert works in its time, the reputation of the magazine is that of a venue for highly accomplished, but generally non-freaky, poetry.

That's why it was such a great thing to find the big spread of Roberto Bolaño's poetry in the November issue. I mean, Bolaño's work has all the hallmarks of the extravert poet: rapid juxtapositions, images that call out to us as significant without being reducible to a particular significance, a sense of urgency and of rapid, inspired composition, and all the rest of it. The connection to Breton isn't all that far-fetched, either: I remember that Benjamin Kunkel once described Bolaño in the London Review of Books as the co-founder of a "punk-Surrealist poetry movement called infrarrealismo." Consider, for example, "Soni," the NC-17-ish poem that opens the Bolaño section in Poetry:


I'm in a bar and someone's name is Soni
The floor is covered in ash       Like a bird
like a single bird two old men arrive
Archilochus and Anacreon and Simonides       Miserable
Mediterranean refugees       Don't ask me what I'm doing
here, just forget that I've been with a girl
who's pale and rich       Either way, I only remember blush
the word shame after the word hollow
Soni! Soni!       I laid back and rubbed
my penis over her waist       The dog barked in the street
below there was a theater and after coming
I thought "two theaters" and the void Archilochus and Anacreon
and Simonides sheathing their willow branches       Man
doesn't search for life, I said, I laid her back and
shoved the whole thing in       Something crunched between
the dog's ears       Crack!       We're lost
All that's left is for you to get sick, I said       And Soni
stepped away from the group       The light through dirty glass
rendered her like a God and the author
closed his eyes

Zowie. It's harder to say something about this poem than Derek Sheffield's, isn't it? We could start with the nonstandard punctuation (although after a passionate, eros-driven number like this, I feel like the King of the Nerds leading with punctuation). But it's significant! For one thing, it leaves those Greek names marooned, their status and significance not fully defined. Are they the two old men? But there's three of them. Are they the Mediterranean refugees? The geography works (Bolaño's writing this in Mexico City, thinking of Greece), but the syntax and punctuation leave it all a bit ambiguous. Some of images decode pretty well (two theaters? Sure: the real one outside, and the imaginary one where Bolaño — I take the speaker as him — and Soni just performed for one another). But others don't: like those two old men who arrive as a single bird. I'd bet Jung would consider this one of those images "pregnant with meaning," but not an image that had actually given birth to a defined meaning. Compared to Derek Sheffield's "A Good Fish," which masters the experience it describes, this poem's a tangle of undigested emotions. It's hard to sort out what Bolaño feels about his encounter with Soni, and what his feelings had to do with her wealth and paleness, sociological facts that seem to matter to Bolaño in ways too deeply buried to be comprehended (but not too deeply buried to be expressed). Do the sociological facts have something to do with the presence of Simonides and Archilochus, both of whom were social satirists? Maybe. But I'm still not sure why Anacreon's hanging around in this poem. Maybe it has to do with how he writes about intoxicating love — but who among those Greeks didn't? It's a tense little ball of the deeply felt and urgently expressed, too strange and opaque to pin down.

Jung saw work of this kind as important, because it was through extravert creativity that the least-understood elements of our experiences came to light. Truths arise from this kind of art that can't find articulation in any other form, and through contemplating these things we're eventually able to articulate them and integrate them into our self-understanding. It's not the sort of thing an introvert artist can do, really: his task is more a matter of reiterating, or working variations on, things we already know (saying "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed," as Alexander Pope put it — and what's Pope's neoclassicism but the distillation of introvert creativity?). It's also not the kind of thing that's easy to teach in an MFA seminar, which may be why we see comparatively little extravert poetry in our most prominent journals: after all, the most careerist, professionalized, outwardly-ambitious types of poets, the types who'd sweat to get into a brand-name journal, tend to come out of such programs. It's a shame, really, that there's an extravert-introvert imbalance in the big journals. But the generous Bolaño section in November's Poetry gives me hope that this can change.

(Valerie Archambeau offers her opinion of Roberto Bolaño)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Supposedly Fun Thing He'll Never Do Again: Rereading David Foster Wallace

It's been long enough for the news of David Foster Wallace's death to sink in. He died right around the time Reginald Shepherd died, and I never really let myself feel the loss, since Shepherd had meant so much to me. Since then I've spent some time rereading DFW, and I'm finding the writing full of sentiments I never noticed before. Of course when a writer commits suicide, any mention of depression or suicidal thoughts will stand out when one goes back to the writer's work. But the surprising thing for me is how often I now see even DFW's comic writing as overwhelmingly sad. Here, for example, is a paragraph from the long title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, a piece where DFW satirizes the cruise-line industry:

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir — especially at night, when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaity-noise ceased — I felt despair. The word's overused and banalified now, despair, but it's a serious word and I'm using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture — a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It's maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it's not these things, quite. It's more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I'm small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It's wanting to jump overboard.

When I first read this, back in '97, I took it as biting satire. But now I see in it the meditations of someone who'd become, of necessity, a kind of connoisseur of his own implacable sorrow.