Thursday, March 29, 2012

Aesthetics as Ethics: One and a Half Theses on the New Criticism

Great news!  You can now pre-order ReReading the New Criticism, a book edited by Miranda Hickman and John D. McIntyre, to which I contributed a chapter called "Aesthetics as Ethics: One and a Half Theses on the New Criticism."  

Other essays include:

“Eliot, The Agrarians, and the Political Subtext of New Critical Formalism” by Alastair Morrison

“Androgyny And Social Upheaval: The Gendered Pretext of John Crowe Ransom’s New Critical Approach” by Aaron Shaheen        

“The Fugitive and the Exile: Theodor W. Adorno, John Crowe Ransom, And The Kenyon Review” by James Matthew Wilson (my fellow Notre Dame alumnus)

“No Two Ways About It: William Empson’s Enabling Modernist Ambiguities” by Bradley D. Clissold

“In Pursuit Of Understanding: Louis Untermeyer, Brooks and Warren, And ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’” by Connor Byrne

“Through Fields of Cacophonous Modern Masters: James Baldwin And New Critical Modernism” by Adam Hammond

 “Disagreeable Intellectual Distance”: Theory And Politics in the Old Regionalism of The New Critics” by Alexander Macleod (fellow Canadian and Notre Dame alumnus)

“Teaching with Style: Brooks and Warren’s Literary Pedagogy” by Tara Lockhart

“A Kind Of Dual Attentiveness”: Close Reading After The New Criticism” by Cecily Devereux
“Toward a New Close Reading” by the volume’s editors, John Mcintyre And Miranda Hickman

Here are the first two paragraphs of my contribution:

If I had believed everything that I was told about the New Critics when I was in graduate school, I suppose I would have been more or less prepared to conclude that they were a nefarious crowd of reactionaries, yearning for the good old days of a slaveholding American South while tuning out the wailings of the oppressed in order to relish a particularly convoluted irony, paradox, or poetic ambiguity. Among other things, I was told that the New Critics disdained Romanticism in favor of the complex ironies of the Metaphysical poets; that they were aesthetes, concerned with form but not with ethics; and that they had nothing in common with Continental literary theory, which spoke to our current condition in a way the New Critics simply could not. Such representations were not without an element of truth to them, of course: Eliot’s downgrading of the Romantics in favor of Donne & Co. was real enough, as was the turn to text over context in W. K. Wimsatt’s The Verbal Icon, and no one would confuse the political dreams of the Fugitives with those of the Frankfurt School (or, for that matter, the prose of Robert Penn Warren with that of Theodor Adorno).

Contrary to what I was told, though, it turns out that the New Criticism is in fact part of a long tradition of ethical thinking, a tradition that, in an apparent paradox, is ethical not despite, but because of, its insistence on aestheticism. Moreover, in an irony of a different kind than that so savored by the authors of Understanding Poetry, this tradition is fundamentally Romantic in its origins and characteristic gestures of thought. So my first thesis here is that the New Criticism, contrary to received opinion, is an ethically based criticism. My second thesis, which is really only a half a thesis, deeply provisional in recognition of how much further work needs to be done before it could be fully embraced, is that New Critical thinking may prove to be an important kind of ethical thought for our time.


[*I should add that while I claim in the essay that no one would confuse the political dreams of the Fugitives and the Frankfurt School, I have in fact deliberately done exactly that elsewhere.]

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blood, Guts, and the Eternal Ideal: Notes on Yeats and Blake

[This is a draft of a section of the Yeats chapter of a book I've been working on that has the working title Power and Poetics: A Social History of Aesthetic Autonomy and Poetry.  And by draft I mean draft: I haven't even gone over it for typos yet.]
In February of 1891, when “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” appeared in the National Observer, Yeats had been involved for some two years in the three-volume edition of Blake that he and Edwin Ellis would complete in 1893.  By the time the poem was republished in The Book of the Rhymers’ Club in 1892, the club itself had expelled the anti-aesthete John Davidson and his allies and fellow Scots, becoming overwhelmingly an aesthete’s concern.  Both facts are relevant to an understanding of the poem.  The context of the battle between Davidson, with his “blood and guts” ethos, and the Oxford aesthetes matters because the poem stages a debate between the life of ordinary desires and satisfactions, on the one hand, and a kind of neoplatonic, otherworldly removal from such things, on the other.  The context of Yeats’ ongoing work on Blake matters because “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” bears such strong structural similarities to Blake’s Book of Thel that it begs to be read in the context of the earlier poem, and when read in such a context emerges as a stronger critique of the eschewal of the everyday than it would otherwise.  While Yeats sided with the aesthetes against Davidson, his poem is less sanguine about matters.
            The first three lines of the poem’s first stanza give us a man in a specifically Irish setting seeking to satisfy his yearnings for an ordinary, this-worldly love, and finding some modest satisfaction in the quest.  But a sudden supernatural encounter marks an abrupt volta in the poem, snatching away the man’s satisfaction:

He stood among a crowd at Drumahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That Time can never mar a lover's vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.

The conflict, here, is between the ordinary love of a man of flesh and blood and the vision of a remote ideal of timeless, eternal love.  That the fish are silver and sing of a “gold morning” is significant: Yeats had long been reading in the alchemical tradition, and knew that gold was associated with the masculine principle, silver with the feminine principle, and the two together were a form of perfection, analogous to the perfection of the soul in eternity.[1]  Knowledge of this realm of eternal love brings sorrow to the man, making him unable to enjoy the ordinary love he had finally found in this world.  The poem is by no means a simple allegory of Yeats’ cultural position.  Nevertheless, the fact that the man is associated with Ireland, combined with the fact that the poems’ ideal world is reminiscent of the neo-Platonic inclinations of Symbolist poetics, links the poem to Yeats’ concerns about the relative value of commitments to specific, worldly Irish affairs, on the one hand, and the world of the aesthetes, on the other.
            The second stanza is structured on the same principles as the first, with a three line description of the man’s quest for worldly satisfaction in a specifically Irish context, followed by a volta in which his vision of an ideal world makes him dissatisfied with his modest achievements:

He wandered by the sands of Lissadell;
His mind ran all on money cares and fears,
And he had known at last some prudent years
Before they heaped his grave under the hill;
But while he passed before a plashy place,
A lug-worm with its grey and muddy mouth
Sang that somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
And at that singing he was no more wise.

Here gold and silver have both literal and symbolic, alchemical properties, and the doleful effects of the encounter with the ideal world are even more severe than they were in the first stanza.  Rather than simply losing his “new ease,” the man becomes financially improvident, and we can assume that his worldly circumstances actually deteriorate after the encounter with the ideal.
            The third stanza presents a slight variation on the pattern set up by the first two stanzas:

He mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tale,
When earthy night had drunk his body in;
But one small knot-grass growing by the pool
Sang where - unnecessary cruel voice –
Old silence bids its chosen race rejoice,
Whatever ravelled waters rise and fall
Or stormy silver fret the gold of day,
And midnight there enfold them like a fleece
And lover there by lover be at peace.
The tale drove his fine angry mood away.

Here, rather than pursuing love of fortune, the man seeks something less universally regarded as positive: vengeance.  And the post-volta encounter with the ideal world (still symbolized by gold and silver) is not a matter of encountering an idealized version of the thing he’d sought in the quotidian world.  Rather, it is an ideal of the opposite of vengeance and hatred: an ideal of peace.  That this vision of eternal peace is unnecessarily cruel isn’t just a clever paradox: it shows how different the value systems of the ordinary and the neoplatonic realms are.  It is a conflict between the world of blood and guts and a world of complacency that turns its back on earthly feuds and conflicts—in short, it is a rough parallel both to the conflict between Davidson and the aesthetes, and to the conflict between Yeats the Irish political man and Yeats the aesthete.  
            The poem’s final stanza maintains elements of the pattern we’ve seen develop, but also brings us intimations of the man’s eventual union with the eternal:

He slept under the hill of Lugnagall;
And might have known at last unhaunted sleep
Under that cold and vapour-turbaned steep,
Now that the earth had taken man and all:
Did not the worms that spired about his bones
Proclaim with that unwearied, reedy cry
That God has laid His fingers on the sky,
That from those fingers glittering summer runs
Upon the dancer by the dreamless wave.
Why should those lovers that no lovers miss
Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?
The man has found no comfort in the grave.

The modest hope for an “unhaunted” sleep in the grave is denied by visions of holy grandeur.  Here, though, the man isn’t simply discomforted by the vision of eternity: he is given a hope of a final dream achieved, at the end of time, when God burns fallen nature away with his love.  While gold and silver do not appear in this stanza, the fire is a continuation of the alchemical imagery—indeed, it represents the purifying force that burns away dross and fuses higher elements into perfection (see Schuler 45-46).
            A criticism of idealizing turn from ordinary satisfactions (and, implicitly, a criticism of the aesthetic tendency in the Rhymers’ Club and the Symbolist and Decadent movement more broadly conceived) is clearly a strong element in the poem: the ideal torments the man and renders him incapable of satisfactions in ordinary love, ordinary pursuit of wealth, and in victory over his foes.  This criticism of the pursuit of the ideal is re-enforced when we consider the way the poem’s structure and cast of characters echo Blake’s Book of Thel, with which Yeats was intimately familiar, especially at this point in his career.  The parallels between the poems are strong.  Both poems offer us a protagonist on a quest whose encounters with interlocutors introduce them to the nature of the relation between the time-bound and the eternal, and whose speech frustrates them profoundly.  Both poems offer repetitions, with variations, of the same kind of encounter.  Moreover, both poems show the protagonist listening to humble speakers who can only be speakers in a fantastic environment: in Blake’s poem, Thel is addressed by a cloud, a lily of the valley, a worm, and a clod of clay; while in Yeats’ poem the man is addressed in turn by fish, by a lug-worm, by a knott of grass, and by coffin worms.  There is one significant difference between the poems.  While Yeats’ man lives in a very real set of Irish places, and is informed by his interlocutors about the existence of eternity and the ideal, Thel lives in Blake’s Vale of Har, a kind of Garden of Eden (Har, in Blake’s personal mythology, is a kind of Adam).  She has heretofore been sheltered from any concept of time or change, and her interlocutors try to inform her about mortality, and about how we are all subject to time and change.  While Yeats’ man is haunted by thoughts of the timeless and the eternal, Thel is haunted by the specter of time and mortality.  But this does not mean that the poems are not both critical of those who eschew the quotidian world of time and change: Yeats’ man would have been able to revel in ordinary satisfactions were it not for the intrusion of the ideal, and we see Blake’s Thel as a failure for her refusal to embrace the message of her interlocutors.  The poems, then, take alternate routes to a similar critique of the ideal and defense of the time-bound.  In a sense, Yeats’ “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” is the masculine counterpart to the feminine figure in Blake’s Book of Thel.  This notion is re-enforced when we turn, again, to alchemical symbolism: for the alchemically-informed Yeats the melding of gold and silver represented a fusion of the masculine and the feminine leading to a perfection of beauty, wisdom, and love; and Blake’s poem begins with a motto for Thel that invokes both metals: “Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod,/Or Love in a golden bowl?”  Yeats might almost have taken it for an invitation for his own poem.
For all this, though, to say with M.L. Rosenthal that “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” evokes “the malign seductiveness of romantic dreaming” (9) is to misunderstand the nature of the poem’s ending, which mitigates the critique of idealizing tendencies considerably.  True, the poem’s protagonist has consistently suffered through his encounters with those who point to an ideal world beyond this one.  However, the purifying fire at the end of the poem (and, in theological terms, at the end of time) promises an eventual union with the eternal and divine, a gathering of the man to the neo-platonically Christian deity.  This is not a poem that simply asserts that we should take pleasures in the quotidian and shy away from any fish or knot of grass we find speaking of an ideal world beyond our own.  The poem’s criticism of the ideal is very much in evidence, and dominates everywhere but in the penultimate line.  That line does not so much negate the rest of the poem as it exists in counterpoint to it.  Yeats’ attitude to the turn from the world to the ideal, then, could best be described as “critical but ambivalent.”  A look at the other poems of this period in Yeats’ career (if not, in most cases, of his prose) career confirms that this is his attitude toward those who turn away from worldly concerns to the realm of the visionary.

Works Cited

Rosenthal, M.L.  Running to Paradise: Yeats’ Poetic Art.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Schuler, Robert M.  “Yeats: Artist or Alchemist.”  The Review of English Studies, vol. 22 no. 85 (February 1971): 37-53.

[1] For a long, but by no means exhaustive, list of Yeats’ reading in alchemical texts, see Schuler  37n.5.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Swimming in 1937: Notes on the Metapoetic

A while ago Alfred Corn told me I was fundamentally an ekphrastic poet—a poet who wrote about works of art, including other poems.  For better or for worse, this is entirely right.  I think it has something to do with being a poet and a critic (I began as a mostly-poet poet/critic, and I've become a mostly-critic poet/critic, but that's another story).  For me, poetry has often been a carrying on of literary criticism by other means, means less conceptual than intuitive.  Maybe this orientation to poetry lay behind my attraction to the work of Göran Printz-Påhlson, the late, grand, idiosyncratic Swedish scholar, critic and poet whose English language works it fell to me to gather for publication after his death.

I met Printz-Påhlson only a few times, at Lunds Universitet where I was teaching,  at his house in Malmö, and at a meeting of a conference of European poets in the late 90s—but I immediately felt we were on the same wavelength.  We loved many of the same things in music and literature, and our circles of friends overlapped in strange, complex ways.  But it wasn't just the man's personal qualities that I admired: I admired his work.  He was tremendously polymath and open to the virtues of almost any aesthetic or set of concepts: Michael Anania called him "a careening enthusiast."  He was also able to make poems about poetry that really were poems, not just illustrations of ideas.  Indeed, one of his major modes is metapoetry, and he can even write graceful poems not just about poetry, but about metapoetry itself: meta-meta poems, if you will.  One of my favorites in this style is called "Comedians," a mid-length piece dedicated to Kenneth Koch.  It's written in a single long stanza, but I see it as consisting of five different movements of variable length.

It begins like this:

Before it had become fashionable to write poetry
about writing poetry, it was considered
so exceedingly difficult it was next
to impossible, or perhaps it was considered impossible,
How can one possibly do this, one thought,
surely one must lose one's concentration,
or the flow of rhythm, or metaphors, or something
(or, perhaps, one didn't think of it at all).

That, to my mind, is the first movement: a straightforward enough statement of the difficulty of metapoetry.  Then there's a screeching U-turn of a volta, and the poem turns to describe what seems to be something else entirely in the second movement, the longest of the five:

But consider instead a little girl in, say, 1937
who has come down to the seaside with her parents
and nanny (she is that sort of girl) and has
after some token resistance been enrolled
with the private swimming instructor, and walks
every morning with her inflatable yellow-
patterned little wings (how the thirties loved yellow)
down to the beach, with the cold washboard clay
and small brown dried starfish, and pink shells.  She
thinks: OK, I'll go along so far, but I shall never really
learn to swim, learn to float like a boat in water.
And she goes on, irritated with her elder sister
who is carrying on a flirtation with the handsome
swimming instructor in his baggy blue trunks,
and being teased by her kid brother as
she struggles on top of her wings, her body,
arched backwards, her eyes closed and mouth
puckered as for a kiss.  She dreams every
night that she is floating through cool, green
water, saying hello to the sea-horses and the fish,
and sometimes she paints in her dream an
oil-painting, something along the lines of Géricault,
where she and two friends are cowering
clutched in each other's arms on the gaudy
stripes of the inflatable mattress while
breakers of incredible size are washing the
jetty protecting the little harbor.  

It seems we've left poetry about poetry entirely behind, and are instead dealing with a little piece of realism, not without its well-made bits of sense-impression.  I particularly like the "cold washboard clay" of the beach: I've felt the like of it under my feet many times.

Does it matter that it's 1937?  Sure it does.  Given that it puts us on the eve of some of the most horrifying events in European history, it adds a certain poignancy to the picture.  A sheltered little girl is one thing: a sheltered little girl at a time when no shelter can be counted upon to hold up for long is another.

But Printz-Påhlson's not just giving us a vividly depicted piece of pathos.  He's setting us up for another turn, back to metapoetry.  The bit about the girl the girl saying she'll only go so far with this swimming business, and not really learn to swim, and the bit in which she dreams a kind of Raft of the Medusa will both take on a new aspect after the third movement, which goes like this:

                                                             But one day
when the summer is close to its end and the
morning as crisp as green September hazelnuts,
she forgets everything and—hey presto—she is friends
with the water.  'Soon I can swim without my wings,'
she thinks by herself, 'soon I can fly without air,
without rhythm, without metaphors...Wait a minute,'
she says to herself, indignant (she is that kind of girl),
'I am being used as a metaphor now.  Well I never...'

When swimming without wings morphs into flying "without rhythms, without metaphors," the echo of the poem's earlier language about metapoetry is clear.  Suddenly, we see the girl's activities in the second movement as being like the moment when poetry passes over into metapoetry.  In the first movement, we were told that poets once hesitated about writing metapoetry, thinking it was too difficult, and we now see how the girl's resistance to learning to swim can be a metaphor for poetry slipping into metapoetry: the girl, like the poet, resists the act, but then suddenly, without really knowing it until after it's happened, she's done it: she's begun swimming, just as a poem (this one, say) can suddenly switch from being about its apparent topic, and become a poem about poetry.

The Géricault dream takes on a new aspect, too.  The fact that the girl goes from worrying about floating, to dreaming about perilous floating, shows a movement from being to reflecting: a movement from realism to something meta-.  But there's more than that: the girl doesn't just dream about her experience: she dreams about making an artwork about her experience.  It's a matter of dreaming about painting about the experience she's had: a kind of meta- meta- moment.  And since this is going to be a not just a poem about poetry, but a poem about poems about poetry, that's a very apt thing for Printz-Påhlson to have her do.

That would probably be poem enough to satisfy most readers right there.  But there's another abrupt volta, a quick turn leading into the fourth movement of the poem:

But there she is wrong.  The poem, if it is any good at all
is never about writing poetry, but rather about
making jokes, or love, or deceit; once again she (in
spite of her perky independence of mind) and the reader
have together been led up that proverbial old
garden path.

There's a knowing disingenuousness to this, isn't there?  A kind of false modesty by a poet who's just given us some very intricate metapoetry.  Can Printz-Påhlson really mean this?  Does he want to dismiss his own metapoetic reflections?  Of course not.  He's just setting us up for one final turn, into the poem's fifth and final movement:

But, in that case, consider a boy
on the first day of spring when the rain has just stopped,
playing with marbles up that old garden path,
water-logged by the rains…

What had seemed a simple, even banal figure of speech at the end of the fourth movement ("led up the garden path") now becomes not figurative but literal: it's a real garden path, with realistic detail about being waterlogged, a garden path on which the boy can travel.  This is fascinating! We've just been told that good poems don't bother with metapoetry, and suddenly we find a figurative language turned into non-figurative language.  What does this mean?  On the one hand, it re-enforces the point about leaving metapoetry behind, and turning to realism: it says "leave off the fancy language games that some people think make poetry poetry, and stick to the referents, the real story, like the one about this boy."  On the other hand, it draws attention to the "led up the garden path" figure of speech as a figure of speech, and in taking the old figure and making it literal, it makes the literal artifice of the poem apparent to us.  So even as the passage says "stick to stories, not language play" it also, at the very same time, says "look at how great language games are!"  It tells us that metapoetry is no good, and it also shows us that metapoetry and all its self-conscious artifice is where the real action is to be found.

The double gesture here, toward realism and toward knowingly-presented linguistic tropes, is emphasized by the way the speaker's direction to consider this boy echoes his earlier direction to consider the girl.  In one sense, the parallelism ("But" introducing an anecdote about a child) indicates that the two anecdotes may have a similar point to them.  The girl's story was about the subtle, inevitable nature of metapoetry: it just creeps up on you when you're writing, and all poems end up with some kind of metapoetic potential, even when the poet, like the girl, protests.  We don't get the boy's story, but the parallelism in structure indicates we might be ending with something that would affirm the same things that the girl's story affirms.  In another sense, though, we're encouraged to see the untold boy's story as something that might contradict the girl's story.  We're in the realm of the masculine, after all, not the feminine.  And while the girl's story was about going into the water, the boy wants to play with marbles on a water-logged path: surely he'll want to seek some dry, sandy patch, not the mud: he'll want to get away from the water.

It's a wonderfully balanced poem: it's about metapoetry, and it both praises the stuff and denigrates it.  It tells us about the inevitability of the metapoetic dimension, and turns us back to mimesis, story, and things in the world beyond the poem.  The closest analogy I can think of is Robert Hass' "Heroic Simile," but even that excellent poem lacks the full set of dimensions we get in this unsung gem of a poem.

If you're interested in the full range of what Printz-Påhlson's prodigious imagination was capable of, you'll have to learn Swedish.  But if you want to see what he could accomplish in English poetry and critical prose, you can find a selection I admire in Letters of Blood and Other Works in English.  There are hardcover and paperback editions, and the Kindle version is only eight bucks.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Modernism, or Talking to Dead People

Wars, the persecution of heretics, the whole centuries-long history of Spain as the Islamic realm of Al-Andalus, the Chanson de Roland: this is the stuff of John Matthias’ long, late-modernist poem “A Compostella Dipytch.  The poem came about after Matthias walked the ancient pilgrimage route from southern France to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella, near the westernmost point of Spain.  Not long ago I was talking to an old friend of Matthias about how I love the poem, mostly because of how it opens up whole layers of history and turns them into a kind of music.  Matthias’ friend also admitted to admiring the historical nature of the poem, and then commented on how different Matthias’ experience of walking across Spain was from that of a younger poet he knew.  Where Matthias saw the past everywhere, the younger poet saw the present: the living world of German backpackers and American trust-fund kids, the world of hostels and internet cafes and casual romance and talk of high-tech hiking boots.  This, said Matthias’ friend, was how you could tell Matthias is truly a modernist: whereas the younger poet talks to the others on the trail, Matthias spends a lot of his time talking to dead people, thinking about what he’s read and what he sees left behind in old churches and in ancient pilgrim way-stations.

There’s something to the idea that modernist poetry converses with the dead as much, or more, than with the living.  It is, after all, at the core of that most significant of modernist essays, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where Eliot tells us
…if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged.... Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want if you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense [which] involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order….
There it is: the past as something alive around us, as much present on any pilgrim route as the backpacker up ahead yakking on his iPhone and wolfing down Protein bars.  When I explain this to students, I usually begin by telling them that every time they open their mouths to speak, it's the year 1066 again.  This is actually a pretty bad pedagogical strategy, since my students are overwhelmingly American, and have generally been taught almost nothing about English history. I usually have to remind them that 1066 was the year of the Norman conquest, when a French-speaking elite displaced the Anglo-Saxon regime in England, initiating a long, slow process whereby French and Anglo-Saxon fused to create the hybrid creature we call the English language.  So when you say "the submarine went underwater" you're doing something that couldn't happen had the Normans lost the Battle of Hastings: you're using a French-derived word ("submarine," coming from the French "sous-marin") and something closer to Anglo-Saxon ("under water," linked to the Germanic "unter wasser").  The results of a battle in 1066 matter now, and in a sense that battle lives on in virtually every English sentence.  And there are implications of this presence of the past poetry.  Eliot goes on:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead... what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.… Whoever has approved this idea of order… will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past…
Of course a lot of people, my students among them, do find it preposterous that the present can modify the past (and it is preposterous, in the root meaning of that word: "preposterous" originally meant a confusing of time periods, a placing of the pre- and the post- in the wrong positions).  But there's some sense to Eliot here.  Consider Satan.  Or, at any rate, consider Satan from Milton's Paradise Lost.  Milton means for him to be a villain, but William Blake famously observed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it," meaning that Milton was more of a rebel than he thought he was, that a poem intended as a defense of obedience to God was really more in love with individualism than anything else.  And after Romanticism — after Blake's Milton and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and a thousand other poems and plays and novels that echo and reinterpret Milton — it's difficult to see Paradise Lost as one could see it before Romanticism.  Milton's initially villainous Satan now seems to have had many of the positive qualities the Romantics found in him.

By the time we get to modernism, this kind of revisiting and revising of the literature of the past has become one of the major poetic moves: Eliot scrapes together the fragments that make up his Waste Land, Pound reworks Homer in The Cantos, David Jones mines Welsh literature and legend, H.D. reworks the classics in Helen in Egypt, and so on.  (It's important to make a distinction here between modernism and the avant-garde, which often wanted to shrug off the past).

So many modernists wanted to converse with the dead poets.  But why?

A big part of the answer comes when we look at modernist poetry in relation to the larger literary culture around it.  Indeed, if we don't, we'll never fully understand why modernists wrote as they did.  And the larger literary culture around them was mass culture in its early dawn.  Andreas Huyssen has argued, in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, that the two phenomena come into being in tandem, that "the twin establishment of a sphere of high autonomous art and a sphere of mass culture" only make sense in relation to one another.  Indeed, he says, since they're beginnings "modernism and mass culture have been engaged in a compulsive pas de deux."

There are a lot of reasons for the rise of mass culture, with its cheap novels, its enormous output of crime writing, its how-to and self-improvement books, but for the moment it's just important to note the incredible rise of this sort of literature from the 1880s on into the period between the two world wars (things start to change then — D.L. LeMahieu's study A Culture for Democracy explains how).  Publishers in the 1850s and 1860s could actually expect to make a reasonable, even substantial, profit from poetry, but the growth of the mass market for works appealing to a relatively low level of literacy meant that profit margins were so much higher in other genres that, by the turn of the century, poetry became a marginal commodity.  Poets were very much aware of this, and modernist poets often sought to find a justification for their work in terms other than popularity, on the grounds of which they lost decisively to more commercial works.  Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" captured the situation perfectly:

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;

Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities 
Than the classics in paraphrase!

The "age demanded" chiefly a mould in plaster, 
Made with no loss of time, 
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the "sculpture" of rhyme.

Here we see modernism against the mass culture of its time—in fact, we see it being defined at its core as in opposition to the mass culture of its time.  Huyssen puts it this way: "modernism constituted itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture."

One way to oppose the mass culture of the present was to turn to the already-esteemed culture of the past: to acquire tradition by the sweat of one's brow, to start talking to dead people. It's tempting to see the whole phenomenon as a defensive turn.  You can't beat murder novels in sales?  So what!  Those tawdry writers may be reaching a lot of readers, but you're not insignificant, Mr. Modernist! You're changing the whole meaning and direction of the tradition!  You don't have a place in the market, but you've got a place in history!

Well, that makes the modernist ideal sound like a huge ego trip, and I suppose it can be.  But there are more sympathetic ways this plays out: I remember talking to the poet Joseph Donahue not long ago about the lack of audience for complex mystical poetry like his, and he told me that he derives satisfaction less from the connection with an audience now than from participation in a centuries-long tradition of mystics and poets, from continuing the conversation they began.  That's talking to dead people in the grand old modernist tradition, and it isn't a matter of seeking to slake the ego with a sense of personal historical significance.

Of course there's more substance to the modernist rejection of mass culture than simply a defensiveness about being displaced in the marketplace.  Yeats, for example, argued in his great essay "What is Popular Poetry" that for poems to be truly significant and beautiful, they must appeal to and resonate with tradition, they must look to old legends and myths and  "borrow their beauty from those that used them before," because then the emotions of the poem will be seen "moving before a half-faded curtain embroidered with kings and queens, their loves and battles and their days out hunting."  A poetry that talks to dead people, Yeats argues, will have an enormous resonance beyond what is possible for writing that doesn't allude to what has come before.  

There's a great deal of truth to this: I think, again, of the poetry of John Matthias, which often gives us arcane bits of old text, or antiquated pieces of our language.  The critic Vincent Sherry once said of the poetry of John Matthias, that, “on the one hand, the pedagogue offers from his word-hoard and reference trove the splendid alterity of unfamiliar speech; on the other, this is our familial tongue, our own language in its deeper memory and reference.”  We get to see our own language, and our own ways of experiencing the world, connected to their roots, to the words and ideas and ways of living from which we come.  This makes us more at home in the world, and more knowledgeable about ourselves: we see something of where we came from, and thus become more empowered in understanding why we are as we are.  We even become more capable of change, since we see that the things we think of as permanent have a history, and can thus be changed.  There is, at least potentially, a very liberationist politics at work in any kind of writing that leads us to understand our history.

There's also a preservationist politics to modernism of this kind, of course.  In the modern era of Schumpeter's capitalist "creative destruction," when (as Marx wrote) "all that is solid melts into air," the insistence on retaining a tradition is a kind of statement of dissent, though it's often a reactionary dissent.  That's certainly what it is in Pound, in Eliot, and in Yeats, where the present often appears as a horrible distortion and despoiling of a better, finer past, to which the poets wish we could return.

There's another issue involved, too, which we might think of as political.  When a poet talks to dead people, you're not going to understand the conversation if you, too, haven't tuned in to the past and done the (pleasurable, luxurious) work of acquiring a sense of the appropriate traditions.  Many people find this off-putting right at the start.  Many, too, find it elitist: it sets up a certain barrier to instant understanding for the reader, and, if you take it as a principle not just of reading but of writing, it sets up a very high cost of entry for anyone seeking to set up as a poet. 

When I hear the charge that modernist poetry is elitist and therefore excludes readers, I generally think of three things by way of response.  Firstly, I think of the poet Michael Anania, who pointed out that all of his allusions and historical references are simply things that one can look up, a difficulty far from insurmountable in the age of Google and Wikipedia.  Secondly, I think of the effort many people expend trying to get to the final level of a video game: they don't call those games elitist, even though they require a great deal more effort to get through than, say, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and the glosses on its allusions (and anyway, one could argue that the effort in both cases is, in fact, the main source of pleasure).  Finally, I think of something the dear, late poet Reginald Shepherd said:

It’s often said that “difficult” poems exclude potential readers. This can certainly be true, but I feel excluded by poems that give me nothing to do as a reader, that offer me no new experience and nothing I didn’t already know. It’s wearying to read such poems, and it makes me want to watch music videos instead, where at least one sometimes gets glimpses of shirtless guys with six-pack abs. Any good poem gives the reader something, what Allen Grossman calls the interest of the world: feelings, sensations, experiences. 

Reginald may have looked for different things in music videos than I do, but we have turned to poems for the same reasons.

With regard to the charge that the approach to becoming a poet that Eliot outlined in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" is elitist and restrictive — one can only respond that it's true.  If you want to be the kind of poet who talks to dead people (and that's not the only kind of poet), you're going to have to spend a lot of time in conversation with old books.  There's certainly an elitism to this, in that it requires a great deal of time and effort, and there's a material and financial reality behind the opportunity to take that time and make that effort. Of course the old modernist path to becoming a poet does not propose as great a material and financial burden as the new, 21st century way of becoming a poet we have in America: the completion of an MFA program.  It's what our age demands, and in a way, the existence of these programs has shown the inexorable progress of the very forces of modernity — standardization, credentialing, commercialization, and commodification — that led so many modernists to turn against modernity itself and immerse themselves in the splendid alterity of the past.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Chicago Poetry Scene

This just in from ace reporter Conner Stratman, who surveys the Chicago poetry scene over at THEthe Poetry:
Lake Forest College is also a hotbed of innovative writing; Joshua Corey, Robert Archambeau and Davis Schneiderman still maintain the northern part of the state as a literary stronghold, with the college hosting a fantastic literary festival, as well as running the excellent &Now Press.
It's true about the maintenance of a stronghold, but between the sub-literate marauders from Wisconsin and the book-burning Vikings arriving via Lake Michigan, it's a constant struggle. Josh and Davis are boiling up a cauldron of oil right now, while I taunt the attackers mercilessly from the castle walls.  Send help immediately in the form of more cows and poultry to fling down on the foul-smelling invaders!