Thursday, November 19, 2009

Poetry & Friendship--Connectedness & Originality


There's a charming anecdote about Larkin and Amis from the old days. After they'd both achieved some recognition, both as writers of verse and fiction, these two long-time friends enjoyed getting together, drinking, and making up scatological limericks. What good limericks aren't dirty, you ask? The question I'm inquiring about is the effect friendship has on creativity, and the consequences of confusing friendship with other qualities (or values), such as inspiration, or importance, or opportunity.

It takes both skill and a sense of naughty fun to make up dirty limericks on the run, and when you're good and drunk it can lead to unbridled hilarity. Collaboration may rear its ugly head, as well, as alternative lines are proposed and vanquished by even more outrageous (and ingenious) inventions. Amis and Larkin, two of Britain's best-known and most popular writers (Larkin eventually became his country's favorite poet, whilst Amis more or less abandoned poetry to pursue the writing of popular comic novels, for which he demonstrated a considerable facility; both had long careers; Amis was never more, really, than a witty light verse "practitioner"), would not have believed that their respective talents would benefit from a mutual association, either "professionally" (in academia or publishing), or creatively (in assisting in or managing each others' writing careers). They were too smart to think that. 

The history of literature is filled with examples of the effect of influence of one writer upon another, or of writers being associated with a certain style or conceit (usually invented or perfected by a single, dominant individual voice). The first generation of New York School poets were famously friends for the first decades of their careers, wrote "to" each other, and often thought of their works as a sort of extended aesthetic colloquy upon common themes--especially, in the case of those four (Ashbery, O'Hara, Koch and Schuyler)--in relation to painting and the plastic arts. Living in New York may seem, at times, like inhabiting a small country in which everything of importance is happening right in your extended neighborhood, particularly among those who may be of the same generation, or interact socially. But the phenomenon is not confined to the metropolis: Black Mountain participants have shown an equivalent brand of stubborn solidarity, over the years, protecting and preserving their franchise through thick and thin.   

The Second Generation of The New York School carried this idea of coterie to new levels, through co-habitation, active compositional collaboration--multiple writers of a single text, or writers and artists collaborating on joint projects--and shared favors (publishing each others' work, promoting their friends' careers, and generally pretending that only people they knew and enjoyed, were doing, or could do, work of importance). This chumminess was a redefinition of the value of literary friendship: The idea that simply by insisting, through a single-minded concentration on the work and reputation of your friends, you could build a constituency (or "fame") and get along in the world. Parenthetically, the mood of the times (Andy Warhol's perception of the meaning and power of media to shape "image" and "personality") seemed linked to this idea of gratuitous literary-social climbing. Fascist propaganda techniques perfected during the 1930's insisted that "truth" (as with Orwell's cautionary vision of a future of manipulated news) was indeed relative to power, the ability to prevail, to bury opposition simply by yelling louder, and longer.  

The obvious risk in seeking to place friendship--and the welfare or advancement of friends--before the value of art, is that one may either become literally deluded about the quality of one's own (or one's friends') work, or that one's own reputation (or judgment in taste) may be compromised. The creation of a circle of "us" versus the world (all other aspirants to the title of artist or writer) of "them" can lead to confusions of all kinds, as the tapestry of literary history unfolds. 

Serious criticism is about the application of principles from an objective exterior to a work conceived from inside out. If criticism is allowed to be the expression of the profile of affection, concern and familiarity, instead of objective standards, it becomes nothing more than a kind of informed gossip. It may be possible to "know too much" about the intimate life and progress of a writer, preventing one from seeing clearly what is either perfectly obvious, or inconveniently troubling about a work. Any one who sets up as critic needs to restrain the impulse to promote friends, even if attempting to do so in an objective way. This is a continual problem I see over at Silliman's blog (though he by no means is alone in this), that of believing, as he appears to, that those with whom he has been actively "associated" over the years, or whose work he knew from its inception, deserve a special position, that those people, indeed, are the very best of all. There is a certain bogus security and warmth in being faithful and deferential to old friends: Like the two old cantankerous Irish poets, drinking at the same pub for 50 years, who'd never dream of dissing each others' efforts in print. 
Silliman appears to accept the a priori idea of a corrupted marketplace of ideas, in which the insistence upon a contrarian claim--no matter how genuine or valid--constitutes a responsible function in the historical dialectic of competing interests, which may in part account for the absurdity and extremity of some of his assertions. Readers of his blog might feel more inclined to believe his high praise of Armantrout, for instance, if he hadn't overpraised the work of an imagined compatriot in the interests of a political correctness in the lit'ry wars. Each of us, no matter what our reputation, only has so much literary "capital" to spend. Better to save your praise for those who really merit it, than throw it away on secondary work simply because you think it has its heart on the correct side of the chest cavity.          

Which may be one crucial argument against poets writing criticism. Randall Jarrell was notoriously "hard" on his fellow writers. Poets, even those who venerated his judgment, loathed going under the scalpel of his scrutiny, fearing the worst. But that is exactly the quality of honesty, of disinterested regard that we cherish in the greatest critics. When the critic gets too "close" to his subject (like Mencken telling us how monumental Dreiser is), there is always the danger of fake praise, of declining to offend, of withholding honest reaction in favor of mild non-commitment. But it's always a mistake. Unearned praise, like inflated currency, has little value.  

Any critic who actually believes that his friends are always better than all the others does not deserve the credential. His judgment is unreliable, slanted, biased. We read criticism to determine how to understand, to place, and to value art. We read history to find out what happened, and why, and biography to find out what happened to whom. The trouble comes when we conflate these genres, confusing the life with the work, or ambition with judgment, or friendship with value.                            



Conrad DiDiodato said...

Well said, Curtis!

There's way too much sycophancy out there, and an even more despicable trend to equate merit with whoever happens to be the "soup of the day". Lots of inbreeding there.And I might add the prevalence of "awards" as what seems to drive most writers today.

Two classes of people are feared most in the literary world: (a)the solitary literary monsters who take no hostages (Pound, Duchamp) and (b)the scrupulously objective critic (Eliot, Steiner,Valéry ) whose words cut the deepest not because they happen to be particularly cruel insensitive people: their effectiveness comes from erudition & command of language and of literary conventions. Eliot is unsurpassable in all those areas (in my opinion)

Friendship among writers ought to be silent and deep, never shared with the world hungry for "dirty laundry". I think Blaser, in particular, shouldn't have used his friendship with Spicer as the self-promotional gimmick it is.His reading of him is also very shoddy, maudlin and too self-engrossed.

Ed Baker said...


I cld 'jump write in' re: any one of your points-well-said

when you are angry a certain specificity is "boss"


durr=ng the 60's and 70's I "hung" with many (now famous) Manhattan/Kanarse?/Brooklyn poets and artists..


then I dropped out for almost 25 years..

when I re-entered every single one of them (save one...) were/are DEAD!

so much for my most enjoyable f a m e!

(heck, I forgot my if wld or cld or shld add/subtract
anything to this critical juncture of compassionate dis:course. so, what?)

oh, yeah.

I learned ALL of my dirty limericks from Fats Domino!

I knew an old lady
from Houston
who had three hens and a

The Rooster died. The old lady
cried, and the hens don't lay like they

ain't that a shame?

a poet/editor friend of mien now dead called "them"

now in order to join up you gotta do a "write of passage" at a Left Coast
University where undergrad tuition just was raised 32 %!

gawd... it sure costs a lot to get famous and be well thought of/well read by your friends... such as they are/were!

Steven Fama said...

Goofy. "Objective." Reader-as-robot.

How about write what you want, and just explain all that fuels the enthusiasm or vitriol or whatever in between happens to be?

A few weeks ago, you wrote about Patrick Schnoor. Oh my, "informed gossip." Inherently not "objective." Tsk, tsk, tsk.

The posts on Schnoor and his poems might have been your best so far. To me, they were. Love, understanding, poetry.

Ditto Silliman and Armantrout. He's known her and her writing for decades. Maybe the correspondence at Stanford (up to approximately 2000) or that presumably to come there (post-2000) would show an even closer relationship vis-a-vis the poetry (do they edit each other?). In any event, you can, as I do, just take into account that there is a relationship when you read one on the other But the insights, the love or supportive reading, that arise from the relationship, are dang interesting, and stimulating, and can't be written by anyone else.

In the meantime, go ahead and work on a list of "objective standards." Please be sure to correlate those standards to numeric values, so we can do bar graph comparisons of different poems, books, and poets. Oh how exciting that will be, my fellow reader-robots.

Kirby Olson said...

Awarding of prizes, or awarding of attention, to friends, is probably bad, especially if it is a back-scratching bonobo kind of deal, but it generally is.

Now we find that major newspapers and even newswomen try valiantly to swing whole elections to their side.

But if the so-called objective writers can't see what's wrong with Obama, or what's ok with Palin, for instance, how much can we expect from poets and novelists who are quite openly subjective?

It's very hard to be objective. very hard to rise above the bonobo level of events, and to be a human being. No one likes a gate keeper in an industry like poetry that is notoriously corrupt, but I thought Foetry was a great service.

Curtis Faville said...

Golly, Steven, so bitter.

Did I claim that the work of my long-dead friend was great? I certainly did not. Patrick was a very precocious kid who wrote some very impressive apprentice-work at an age when most of us have hardly learned to write an English sentence.

My point, which you certainly appear to have missed, is that praising writers is fine--even those (God forbid) whom one knows (or may have known). Randall Jarrell, for instance, was feared by his contemporary poet friends precisely because they knew he wouldn't promote along the lines of friendship. That's one reason Jarrell's a good critic--you can trust him.

Ron's praise of Armantrout raises the unpleasant issue of friendship. Why? Because Silliman praises so much undistinguished writing that is bad, simply because it falls into his definition of the correct way to write. The point (THE POINT!!) is that by praising so much else that is mediocre, his praise of Armantrout is made suspect.

Armantrout is indeed wonderful, and some day I will say what I think about her. In the meantime, I'd like Ron (and others) to be a bit more rational and objective and hard-hearted about the shit that passes for "great" or "terrific" or "cosmic".

The great thing about criticism is that you can criticize--with perfect justice--without having to do everything yourself. Edmund Wilson could denigrate Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned without being able to hold a candle to F. Scott's ability as a novelist. Does that make Wilson's criticism wrong? Does that mean no one can criticize who does not attempt a parallel--or more superior version--of a failed attempt?

There's a difference between how Ron has been praising third-rate work, and what I was doing with Schnoor. I'm sorry that wasn't evident.

But someone other than Ron has to praise his friends. I mean--I was Ron's friend, and he's praised me several times in print--but to the degree that that's somehow based on some kind of social relation(ship)--it's just dishonest, Steven.

It's very difficult to push away the natural attraction of friends in literature--but when you set yourself up as a serious critic the way Ron has, that changes everything, then you're no longer just saying nice things about someone you know, you're setting friendship up as a key aspect of judgment.

My post was meant to say I can't do that: You ask for "objective principles" with real viciousness in your voice. Well, my first principle is: You can't judge friends; you can't use friendship as a basis for literary claims. That's a good place to start.

That's my advice--don't praise your friends. And its corollary--don't spend your critical capital (your literary reputation) throwing cheap praise around; it doesn't do anybody any good.

Ed Baker said...

I had a friend.
I wanted something from her
I don't remember what.. probable sex.
so i said or did something (unfriendly and very stupid and not what I meant)
and her reply changed my life. she replied:

"What kind of a friend are you?"

that was 25 years ago.... being sorry for my
ignorance... which she was not responsible for.

all of my writing and art is an apologia mia!

J said...

Larkin-speak entertains at least, or at times, unlike 95% of the chapbook "little" poetry, ala WC Williams, beats, or Kirby Olsonbergs penning odes to Sarah Klondike and the Fox Ministry of Twoooth.

TWOOOOTH? youse can't handle the Twoooth.

Steven Fama said...

I ain't bitter, quite the opposite. Understated sarcasm, written with a big smile, clearly doesn't come through in the comment box.

I just don't see praising friends as verboten. And believe that whether a poem or poem-book is mediocre can't be objectively judged. Isn't the latter, at least, obvious from the how certain works wax or wane over the decades?

I say, write what you want,about you you want. Explain as best you can, including about friends' work, and let the readers of the critic or reviewer decide for themselves.

It ain't much differnt then talking with others about restaurants, or even better, whether a particular establishment's burrito is any good. Some people like sloppy beef-bombs, others want grilled chicken with strained black beans. Or a million other variables.

Here's Wallace Stevens, though I doubt I needed to tell you that:

"Life, then, is largely a thing
Of happens to like, not should."

On the other hand, there's one piece of all this about which I bet you and I agree. CAConrad, a poet with many grand qualities, said in an interview about a year ago:

"The best poems I’ve ever read in my life are by my friends!" (see answer to the fifth question).

That shows admirable loyalty, and love, and I credit Conrad for being up front about it. But such a blanket assertion doesn't too to much.

Silliman is far different than Conrad. He sometimes writes about friends, but he explains, in every case, why he likes what he likes in that writing. Sometimes, his knowledge of the person, or closeness to the poetry, immeasurably advances his aim of bringing the subject-poetry into sharp focus. This is exactly what worked so well in your essays on Schnoor.

J said...

(Mencken telling us how monumental Dreiser is)

I'm not a pro. lit-person, but found Mencken's praise of Dreiser sincere and genuine. Sister Carrie is fairly monumental (at least to the few hundred people who have bothered to read it). Sort of industrial-strength determinism, straight no chaser--yet with a subdued tragic edge.

Dreiser's best scenes reduce most narcissistic poetry (even the so-called greats ala TS Eliot, and most beatskis--Ti Jean's jazz however hip not immune from self-indulgence) to ...dreck, or somethin' like that.

Curtis Faville said...

Mencken is a great critic. But his philosophy and literary principles are a hodge-podge of prejudices, peculiarly off-beat likes and dislikes, stirred by an appetite for mischief. I love to read him, but I seldom take his judgments seriously. The world divided into "Boobs & Aristocrats"? I don't think so, but it's fun to hear him say it.

Dreiser was a terrible writer, but he had a compelling vision of American gone wrong. He tried to move big subjects up the hill, but inevitably rolled back down again. Mencken admired the effort, but he acknowledges Dreiser's faults.

Is Dreiser better than James, Wharton, Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Dos Passos, Farrell, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner?

J said...

(posted this earlier, but it did not appear):

Dreiser wrote a journalistic sort of prose--not so terrible. Maybe his writing was slightly "purple"--but not as purple as say Frank Norris . The narrator-voice might bother some, but hardly Dickens-ish sentimentality either. I prefer Dreiser's mature newspaper-man naturalism over Henry James Bawstun tea-room chat....Steven Crane another fave of mine..probably a better writer than Dreiser, but Dreiser doesn't F- around with the imagism, or poeticizing as Maestro Crane did at times.

Not sure of the rest. Steinbeck crafted tight stor-ays, 'tis true, but his writing seems sentimental at times (like Wraths of Grape itself). Formulaic to an extent, and not nearly as detailed or rich as Dreiser. Steinbeck's boilerplate social realism. Dreiser's writing seems speculative to some degree, or complex (tho' Dreiser has a political edge--he's read Marx (and french realists))

Now, I would grant Hem's A Farewell to Arms, FWTBT may be greater works of Ahht--few tales would match his short stories, either, say Soldier's Home, or Up in Michigan, Indian Camp, etc.......but a different sort of writing, a bit personal, if not...romantic at times.

Dreiser has a type of realistic, empirical eye that most 'Mericans don't...understands economics at least broadly. So I think Pops Dreiser does move the stone up the hill, better than most, at least in terms of showing urban chaos, capitalist miseries, and one might...say Pimpdom. And Dreiser-speak has a slight Darwinian aspect that still seems relevant....

The man who wrote that madman's rant Absalom Absalom, or that soft-porn soap opera Light in August is not our friend. Faulkner may be a great something (I believe WF tried to imitate Joyce, most of the time), but not my cup o tea. As I Lay Dieting pretty cool scary tho'. Flannery O Connor probably superior in terms of Dante in Dixie style...another great ahhtist, but some might not completely buy her religious vision. 'Merican Lit. in a Nutshell.