Thursday, November 27, 2008

This Post is Not Called "R.S. Gwynn, or the Absence of Genius"

*DISCLAIMER: I woke up this morning with the urge to take this post down, because I think it may be taken the wrong way. But instead of getting rid of it, I'm just going to say this: I don't mean that Gwynn is a bad poet. In fact, as I say below, he's quite good at what he does. But I react very poorly to the kind of thing he does in poetry. It's not the rhyme and meter I have a problem with, it's something larger, something like the sensibleness of the New Formalism, or its containment, that bothers me. And I don't mean to say that I'm objectively right in disliking this, just that I'm a product of a tradition of thought and a structure of feeling that are at odds with the kind of work Gwynn does. In the end, I suppose this post is shamelessly self-indulgent: it's a long, drawn out examination of the basis of my own taste. Or perhaps I should say it's a long, drawn-out examination of my taste this week, since I've found myself defending plenty of formal, paraphrasable poems in print and in conversation. But if you can't be self-indulgent in your blog, where can you be? So I'm leaving this up. I've got a bad feeling, though, that R.S. Gwynn's going to gut-punch me someday. He's an old football player and probably knows how to knock a guy down, too!*


Sometimes, when I find myself utterly out of sympathy with a piece of writing, I wonder: is it the writing, or is it me? There are certainly instances where the answer is "It's you, Archambeau." Jane Austen, for example, is a writer whom I understand to be deeply insigntful, entirely excellent in a thousand ways, perceptive, historically significant, and full of a kind of charm to which I am utterly impervious. I think I'd rather eat a rat than read Emma again. And Emma is a great book. Maybe gender has something to do with it, although it's not that I can't get into classic British women's novels: I'm a big fan of Virginia Woolf, and I read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre at least once a year, always finding it both tremendously well-made and, you know, smokin' hot.

So, when I ran across a perfectly respectable, competent sonnet by R.S. Gwynn called "God's Secretary," while leafing through the latest issue of Poetry and found myself recoiling, I had to step back and ask myself: is it Gwynn's poem, or is it me? Deciding to give myself the benefit of the doubt (after all, if I don't, who will?) I began listing my reasons for disliking the poem. At first I found them pretty compelling, jotted down there on the back of my phone bill envelope. Soon, though, I noticed a pattern to the list of complaints — a pattern that revealed to me some of my own biases in taste. So: I'm going to list what I take to be the literary offenses of R.S. Gwynn, but bear in mind that in the end I think that the list of perceived offenses says more about my own limitations than it says about Gwynn.

Here's the beginning of Gwynn's sonnet, an octave set off as its own stanza (to emphasize, I suppose, the correctness of the author's use of the Petrarchan version of the form):

Her e-mail inbox always overflows.
Her outbox doesn't get much use at all.
She puts on hold the umpteen-billionth call
As music oozes forth to placate those
Who wait, then disconnect. Outside, wind blows,
Scything pale leaves. She sees a sparrow fall
Fluttering to a claw-catch on the wall.
Will He be in today? God only knows.

From a craft position, you really can't fault Gwynn: he knows what he's doing. If the rhymes are a bit full-on for some ears (mine, say), they are where they are supposed to be, and there's just enough enjambment to soften the effect a bit. The same goes for the scansion: it's regular iambic, with just enough thrown in by way of variation to keep it from sounding like a metronome (I'm a sucker for a spondee). You've got some variation of longer and shorter syntactical units, you've got an interrogative thrown in to mixup the declaratives a bit. And there's a fine balance in the combination of the mundane (email) and the highfalutin' (that allusion to Pope, who wrote that God "sees with equal eye, as God of all, a hero perish or a sparrow fall" — and beyond Pope, to the Bible). And "scything" is nice, with its conjuring up of mortality. So the poem is certainly succeeding on its own terms -- except maybe for the phrase, "God only knows," which seems a bit self-satisfied, this playing off of literal and idiomatic senses.

She hasn't seen His face — He's so aloof.
She's long resigned He'll never know or love her
But still can wish there were some call, some proof
That he requires a greater service of her.
Fingers of rain now drum upon the roof,
Coming from somewhere, somewhere far above her.

Okay. The sestet is actually a little less slick than the octave: I mean, that "of her" really, really wants to be read with the stress on the word "of," (echoing the stress-pattern of the line's rhyme-mate, which has a feminine ending). And that's a bit iffy. But the larger elements are all in order: the shift from external description to an examination of the secretary's inner state of mind comes exactly where it should in a straight-up traditional Petrarchan sonnet, at the volta or turn between the octave and the sestet. And the rhyme-scheme shifts, as the form demands. Again, there's a lot of full rhyme for some ears, but when it ticks over into actual repetition of the same word, it takes on a different kind of music, and we can appreciate it the way we appreciate the returning words of a sestina. So don't let anyone knock Gwynn's chops: he does what he sets out to do, and by and large succeeds on his own terms.

There's something about those terms of success that bothers me, though. The first thing I jotted down on my envelope-back of compaints was this: "utter lack of genius!" A bit churlish of me, no? But there's at least one sense in which I'm pretty sure I was right — the Kantian sense. If you'll all kindly turn to the 46th subsection of part two of the Critique of Judgement, you'll find the following passage, under the heading "The Faculties of Mind which Constitute Genius" (bear with the old sage of Königsberg here: like everything he writes, it makes your eyeballs feel like they're going to bleed, but it pays off in the end):

Of certain products which are expected, partly at least, to stand on the footing of fine art, we say they are soulless; although we find nothing to censure in them as far as taste goes. A poem may be very pretty and elegant, but is soulless. A narrative has precision and method, but is soulless. A speech on some festive occasion may be good in substance and ornate, but still may be soulless. Conversation frequently is not entirely devoid of entertainment, but remains soulless.... Now what do we here mean by "soul"? .... Now my proposition is that this principle is nothing else than the faculty of presenting aesthetic ideas. But by an aesthetic idea I mean that representation of the imagination which induces much thought, without the possibility of any definite thought whatever. That is, without a particular concept being adequate to it, and which language, consequently, can never get quite on level terms with or render completely intelligible.

So: genius, in the Kantian sense, involves the possibility of presenting us with a work that animates a thousand ideas, but isn't reducible to any one idea. It's like a conversation that takes on a life of its own, sparking ideas and arabesques of wit, rather than plodding dutifully along. Picture yourself on a barstool, listening to Oscar Wilde jawing with Quentin Crisp on your left, and a kind elderly couple having a discussion of the "How's your whiskey sour, dear?" "Fine, dear" on the other, and you'll have a fair sense of the genius/non-genius distinction. If you want more on this, consider what Douglad Burnham has to say in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Kant argues that art can be tasteful (that is, agree with aesthetic judgment) and yet be 'soulless'... What provides soul in fine art is an aesthetic idea. An aesthetic idea is a counterpart to a rational idea: where the latter is a concept that could never adequately be exhibited sensibly, the former is a set of sensible presentations to which no concept is adequate. An aesthetic idea, then, is as successful an attempt as possible to 'exhibit' the rational idea. It is the talent of genius to generate aesthetic ideas...

The Kantian idea of genius connects, then, with such post-structuralist darlings as indeterminacy and polyvalence. But it also connects to that dusty old New Critical term of praise, unparaphrasability. Which is not to say that indeterminacy is sufficient for genius in and of itself — I've read plenty of indeterminate, sub-Ashbery, semi-Jorie Grahamified poems that didn't set ideas alive in the least. The journals are full of them.

But I digress. To return to Gwynn. If there are three things that are in short supply in Gwynn's poem, they are precisely indeterminacy, polyvalence, and unparaphrasability. I mean, I think we could paraphrase the poem thusly: "there may or may not be a God, and sometimes we yearn for one. Signs of his existence remain ambiguous, although many of us dutifully go on trying to serve him." I mean, that gets most, if not all, of the conceptual content right there, no? The poem says what it says, we get it, and we're done. Was it Yeats who talked about a poem closing shut with a satisfying click, like a small box? (Strange that he'd say that, since such a clicking-shut would only apply to his mid-period verse, not the the early Mallarme-influenced stuff, still less to the late prophetic work, but I digress. Pedantically.) Anyway, looked at in positive terms, Gwynn's poem does just that sort of clicking-shut that Yeats, if I remember correctly, would like. Looked at in negative terms, it fails to manifest much by way of genius.

Another thing that bothered me about the poem made it onto my envelope as "cute when dealing with the uncute." That is, it's cute with a subject it shouldn't get cute with. I mean, we're talking about divinity here. Brahman. The Abgrund of Being. The First Mover. All that. And we do it by picturing the doings of the divine as a matter of answering the emails sent by the pleading souls of this mortal coil (the whole concept of God having a secretary is a bit cutesy). I mean, that's cool if what you're aiming at is comedy (the same trope is used in the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty), but that's not Gwynn's trip, here. The gesture toward the infinite in the final couplet indicates that we're aiming for profundity. So what's called for is a brand of beauty at a pretty far remove from the cute — something more like the sublime, maybe. Beauty with a sense of awe at the impossibility of our mind grasping the infinite particulars of the totality before us, or of awe at the magnitude of a force we would be helpless to resist, but which leaves us undestroyed. This is more of Kant, by the way — rough and ready versions of his mathematical and dynamic sublimes, respectively. I'd quote another big chunk of his work, but fear I've exhausted the patience of all moderately sane readers already.

I suppose the fact that I'm bothered by the use of cuteness where sublimity is called for means that I'm outraged by a breach of decorum. Which makes me feel like I should look like Colonel Mustard, standing at the door to the conservatory, appalled that someone's left a revolver and a coil of rope among the candlesticks. It's got to be one of the most unhip things imaginable, being outraged at a breach of decorum. But there are breaches of decorum and breaches of decorum, and I can get down with a lot of them. The good kind, I think, is the kind outlined by Schiller in his truly great essay "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry." Here, he tells us that one of the ways our nature asserts itself is by welling up as a strong feeling that must come forth, no matter how socially inappropriate it may be. When I think of this idea, I always think of the great scene in the movie Mrs. Brown, in which Judi Dench's Queen Victoria is moping around in an interminable funk after the death of Prince Albert. Her groom, played by Billy Connolly, sees that the Queen is going to let herself die, and that none of her fawning hangers-on has the guts to step up and tell her to snap out of it. Finally, despite his lowly status as a servant, he can't stand it anymore, and his feelings burst out of him in a thick, Scottish burr: "Honest tae God woman, I never thought I'd see you in such a state." All are appalled, decorum lies in ruins. And the outraged Queen is suddenly in love. That's a breach of decorum in which a trivial set of rules is violated by a powerful and deep emotion. In Gwynn's poem, the breach runs the other way: a powerful and deep topic — the divine — is treated in a trivial mode, the cute. If disliking that makes me into some kind of fusty Colonel Mustard, meet me in the conservatory.

Finally, my list of complaints ended with this: "God = Dude? Again?" I mean, if there's any image calling out for some kind of Victor Schlovsky style defamiliarization treatment, it's the notion of the divine as a personality, specifically a male, patriarchal personality. Gwynn gives us that old image, and the goes further, picturing divinity as an administrative personality, a kind of celestial bureaucrat. We've seen a lot of this, and probably should have stopped with the implied celestial bureaucracy of It's a Wonderful Life.

So those were my criticisms. In a way, they aren't really criticisms of Gwynn's poem, so much as they're criticisms of the whole movement he's a part of, the New Formalism. And they're criticisms made from a very particular standpoint. Consider the ideas I've been knocking around: Kant's notions of genius and sublimity, (the parts of his thought most loved by the Romantics, especially Coleridge), Schiller on breaching decorum, and the nineteenth-century-lovin' Victor Schlovsky's idea of defamiliarization. Somewhere along the line I seem to have ended up interpolated into Romanticism. And Romanticism's exactly the sort of thing from which the New Formalists turned away in reaction. Asking Gwynn to appeal to a Romantic sensibility is like asking a vegan to sit down and eat Thanksgiving turkey with the rest of us. And asking someone immersed in Romanticism to like Gwynn is asking for trouble — it'd be like asking him to put down Brontë in favor of Austen.