Sunday, January 22, 2012

Our Literary Moment: Kenny Goldsmith, meet Willie Yeats

Keith Tuma, debonair man of letters

Sometimes, when you're reading a couple of seemingly unrelated books simultaneously, there's a strange overlap of some kind.  I experienced just such a moment of serendipity today.

For the last few mornings I've been reading a couple of chapters from Keith Tuma's new book On Leave with my morning coffee. It's a book that combines literary anecdotes with reflections on the meaning of anecdotes, all shot through with bits of the headlines and scenes from Keith's life as he writes the book.  It's been a slightly strange experience, since Keith's life and mine have had a lot of overlap without actually colliding very often: we lived, at different times, in the same Chicago neighborhood; we've both been pulled into the orbit of former students of Yvor Winters,; and we both take an interest in British poetry, with an eye open to the experimental wing (he much more than I).  We have friends in common.  We were both plenary speakers at the Assembling Alternatives poetry conference in New Hampshire years ago, an event to which his book returns again and again.  We both go to the annual literary conference in Louisville, though except for a dinner with Geoffrey Hill in South Bend, that's been the only place we've talked.  So for me there's a kind of uncanniness to the book: in both Tuma's literary anecdotes and his autobiographical sections, I see into worlds that are sort of mine and sort of not.

But that's not what struck me today.  The bit that struck me today was something I'd read a while back, a comment of Kenneth Goldsmith's that Keith recorded: "Kenneth Goldsmith," writes Tuma, "says that what defines our moment is knowing that it has all been done in poetry, in writing, and art..."  I didn't spend much time on thinking about the passage (I'd barely touched my coffee), except to note Goldsmith's typical concern with what it means to be up to date, what it means to be engaged with things specific to our own time.

Then, this afternoon, I was plugging away re-reading Yeats' autobiographies, taking notes for a chapter about his work I hope to write for a book of criticism I've been working on.  And there, in a passage about his association with the poets of the Rhymer's Club of the 1890s, I found Yeats describing himself and his peers as "men who spoke their opinions in low voices... and timidly as though they knew that all subjects had long since been explored, all questions long since decided in books whereon the dust settled..."  Yeats and the Rhymers came to this belief after reading Walter Pater's Renaissance, particularly the chapter on Michelangelo, where similar sentiments of belatedness were expressed.  Pater's book appeared in the 1870s.

If we think of the thing that "defines our moment" as something that makes it different than other moments — as I believe most people do — then Goldsmith's notion that our certainty about belatedness being what defines us rings false.  But that's neither here nor there, really.  When something is objectively false, the thing that becomes interesting is the subjective need that allows us to believe it.  So maybe what makes our moment special isn't that we feel it's all been done (people have been feeling that way for better than a century).  Maybe one of the things makes our moment distinct is our need to think that we're distinct from a past with which we actually have a great deal in common — our compulsion to find differences and distinctness at any cost, even historical accuracy.