Sunday, March 6, 2011

Poetry - The Solitary Art

In previous times, Ron Silliman and I have had a debate about the "public character" of poetry, about its "communal" values. Ron believes in a poetry that reflects the predominant political and social realities and issues of its time, a poetry that "engages" and reflects the struggles of disparate communities and partisanships. It is true that poetry has always been a mirror to the times in which it was written. Despite themselves, poets will inevitably express problems and interests common to their societies, and the cultural presumptions which guide the spirit of their age.

There is doubtless much truth in this notion about the germination and significance of artistic enterprise, but it's not one that's ever appealed to my imagination. The writing of poetry, or music, is mostly a private process, one in which the solitary writer or composer creates a sequence of words or notes (or brush strokes, as with painting, etc.) which reflects his/er engagement with form, the world, and meaning. But this process is not a social phenomenon. It is not conducted in public. It is not a "shared" experience or melding of more than a single mind. (It's true that jazz performance often facilitates the extemporaneous invention and inspiration through interaction and exchange, but that also may have an ephemeral existence, unless there are sufficient recording devices to "save" the result. But this is the only meaningful exception to the solitary profile of the artist engaged in the production of an artistic product. There are some who might claim that literary "collaboration" is possible, and again, there are exceptions such as poems written by two authors, or fictions which are the collaboration of two people. Ellery Queen. Auden & Isherwood. But usually in these instances, there is a division of labor which enables each party to write separate portions of a work, pieced together out of separate creations.)

One major problem I see in the expansion of media over the last 100 years, is the confusion between performance and composition. We have had [public] theater for thousands of years (since ancient Greece), and no one disputes the power and value of performance of the spoken word, and of music. Opera blends the two streams into one medium. Before the last third of the 20th Century, poetry (as we think of it, as a rhythmic construction organized around a sensibility of keen feeling and tuned thought) was rarely read in public, though much dramatic poesy is in fact poetry simple, albeit appropriated towards a specific dramatic purpose.

Dramatic writing is intended to animate human characters through an action in real time and space (performance). Fiction and narrative poetry may be read publicly, but this was not regarded as an effective manner of presentation until, as I note, the latter part of the last century. We have precious little report of poets or playwrights "reading their work" in public in previous centuries. In religious service, much of what passed for sacred service was a kind of poetry reading, but the idea of reading poetry in profane or secular circumstances is quite uncommon. It wasn't until the rapid growth of media--radio, television, movies, internet, with their attendant promotional and celebrity spheres--that the idea of writers--both prose and poetry--reading to their respective "publics" developed. There are obvious reasons for this development: Publishers' desire to advertise authors as marketable commodities; the appearance and growth of writing workshops and programs throughout the institutions of higher learning; the movement to marshall public sentiment through political rallies and gatherings underwriting partisan readings; and, recently, the encouragement of extemporaneous spoken word expression (as "rap" or "hip-hop" rapid-fire jive talk and crude rhymed lyrics).

Poetry has traditionally been thought of also as a "sullen art." The romantic picture of the "tortured" writer, locked in his garret, in torment over the dramatic effort to produce a masterpiece, is familiar to all readers of poetry. In the Modernist and Post-Modernist era, this fantasy has been augmented, even rejected, by artists and writers who openly and solemnly spit upon the muse, claiming that "serious art" is a myth and an illusion, and that humor and chance and burlesque are the best means by which to get at the underlying meaning of modern life. There are still some, of course, who demand a poetry or a music of solemnity and commitment, for whom the devotion to an art of high purpose and moment requires a seriousness and even a gravity of approach.

The figure of Dylan Thomas [1914-1953] provides a perfect example of the writer for whom the official, romantic concept of the tortured poet, driven by a powerful inspiration, and an excessive lust for living, destroys his own talent in a death dive of self-destructive indulgence, even while he is slaying audiences with the eloquence and fatal charm of his daemon. In Thomas, the fatalistic doomed artist-type, the lionized celebrity, and the literary front-man are all conjoined, making the myth of the lyrical persona acting out the role of possessed hero for swooning fans.

The modern media hero--musician, actor, director, comedian, entertainer, sports hero, sex symbol, poet/writer, with all the familiar cross-fertilizations--is a phenomenon almost unknown before, but it is a tradition that already seems deeply entrenched. Contemporary fame (or notoriety) may be fleeting, but the machines which create it and foster its continued development seem capable of consuming a steady stream of short-lived stand-ins.

The transformation of the Modernist media (radio, TV, print media, public events), by the internet (or World Wide Web) and hand-held communication devices, means that a new paradigm of awareness is appearing, one built out of immediacy and the real-time exchange of information. The blurring of edges between public and private, relevant and trivial, data cooked and data raw, suggests that the organization of cultural categories is shifting.

Theories about the relationship between society--the political and social institutions and arrangements--and art in the latter half of the 19th Century and the earlier part of the 20th, held that art (especially the written and spoken and performed word) occupied a crucial place in the development of historical alternatives through time. Art reflected politics, and vice versa. Shaw is a social reformer, while O'Neill is a poet. Odets is a propagandist, while Wilder is a Classicist. And so on.

Poetry, of course, cannot be conjured--or conducted--in public. And yet one senses that a poetry contemplated as a private compulsion, and appreciated as a private pleasure, seems under direct assault in our culture. Novelists, or short story writers, or poets, or music "rappers" who do not "perform" in public, risk being thought irrelevant, or selfish, or obscure (as if obscurity could be cultivated only in private), or pathetic. It seems unlikely that Edgar Allan Poe ever read his poetry in public. or that Keats did, or that Samuel Johnson did (except the brief illustrative couplet to close a point), or that Milton did. Shakespeare undoubtedly had some experience as an actor, and probably did read his own "poetry" to theater audiences, but that was clearly a theatrical expression, not the broadcast of a single voice alone.

The ability to make poetry or prose "come alive" as spoken or sung speech is a special talent, which may be native, or acquired through training. The quality of voice is largely a given inheritance. The uniting of poet and public speaker may on occasion suggest--as with Dylan Thomas's example--that an ultimate perfection of intention and fulfillment is possible in a single figure. It is an ennobling instance when it happens, which we should feel gratitude for.

But too often, we tend to think that the desire to project the role of inspired poet can be manufactured out of will power. Too often, it seems a kind of self-delusion among writers, that the power of the spoken word can simply be assumed, like putting on a special jacket. Or, following along the lines of the social reformers of the 1930's, that the necessity or calling of history demands performance, indeed that inspired performance will naturally follow from correct political sentiment(s).

I see dramatic reading, and the ability to write effective prose or poetry, as flowing from different places in the mind, and I tend to regard great aptitude for public speaking as either a gift, or a skill one learns through training. Great dramatic performances in the theater, or great readings of texts as such, can be impressive. But literature has never been about the ability to make a good speech, though poets occasionally may be convincing speakers, and even readers of their own work. It seems a kind of an aesthetic choice which flows from opportunity (talent) or professional experience. Dylan Thomas had the rare ability to make his own writing compelling and powerfully lyrical in effect.

But most poets don't possess this ability. It can certainly be learned, through training and practice. But is such performance a proof of the validity or value of what one has written? In our hyped-up media culture, the visual and aural validation of personality seems just another shorthand for the counterfeit of cheap notoriety which the media feeds off of, and consumes, even on the vastly reduced scale associated with literary audiences in our time.

Thomas's poem "In My Craft or Sullen Art" is a famous example of the expression of what I am addressing here. Its modesty, even its sullenness, seems an ultimate apology for the vanity of wishing to usurp love in the place of young hearts, acknowledging in the end that this labor is practiced in vain.

In My Craft or Sullen Art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Few people alive today, can have heard Thomas reading in person, so all that we have are the electronic recordings of his voice, made in studios or with the crude technics of the time. After Thomas was safe in his grave, the phenomenon which was his presence quickly faded from memory, and as attention focused on his writings, it was seen that they were not as substantial as his renditions of them had convinced people at that time that they were. Was Thomas as good as Shakespeare? There were some who thought at the time that he was. Who are the good readers of our time? Are they as good writers as they are public speakers? Do we care? Will posterity?


J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

Dylan Thomas' reputation has sunk. He had a bewitching manner of speech stemming from Welsh (everyone in Wales regards themselves as a poet, and a general, as does Owen Glendower in the King Henry cycle). A very amusing film -- Only Two Can Play -- shows two Welsh bards battling it out over a young woman who was very lovely as an actress -- but only made a movie or two before succumbing to mental illness.

In Eastern Europe actors do most of the public readings.

I prefer the awkwardness of the poet him or herself doing the reading.

It's partially probably the face to face. I say Ray Carver reading in Paris in 1987. He only read for two minutes because he was so ill.

I like seeing the poet or the writer. It's like when the Wizard comes out from behind the curtain in Wizard of Oz.

Codrescu can read well. He often goes into an amazing trance and begins a surrealistic rant. It's incredible.

Corso was a lousy reader, always drunk, and ended up screaming curses at the audience offenses such as not knowing who Adrien von Ostade was (minor Dutch painter who appears in one of his verses).

I still like Dylan Thomas' rage rage against the dying of the light. Do not go gently. But all the rest seems very sixties and seventies. But to get one poem to go into the timeless zone is pretty good. I doubt if any of the LANG PO people will manage that so wrapped up as they are with their timely concerns of rgc.

Love and family type poems will last longer, as they hit deeper bigger emotions. Poetry is actually about love-type emotions, not political hassles.

מבול said...

Dylan Thomas was at a time ( say 1950 ) of big change for the written word. Radio and cinema had gotten started just forty years before and television was about to begin. This meant that the written word was no longer mainstream, and belonged instead to specialists, outsiders, weirdomorphs, as it does today. Thomas tried to do something about this by going into radio, perhaps successfully, but it was e e cummings who captured the weirdness of the written word.

Kirby Olson said...

The Beats' attempt to make into a more socially festive vehicle via readings which also stoked political passions was nevertheless a good thing for poetry, methinks. Poets have a politics, generally speaking, or at least a viewpoint. Everyone has at least one thing they would like to say to America. Ginsberg's poems ADDRESS AMERICA quite openly. I think the relatively private passions are also interesting, but I don't think it should be outlawed for poets to address politics, although of course there have been many (Plato began this, but Marxists also like to censor poets) who dislike the move, and think poets have no brains. They have something better than brains. They have souls.

Curtis Faville said...

My point, Kirby, is that the value and use of poetry shouldn't be determined by the cult of personality, or the ability to "act" effectively in public. The writing of poetry isn't a public act. I claim it's a "sullen" art (in Thomas's words), because it's an intimate form of communication. I've always found the public reading of deeply personal poetry to be an embarrassment, sort of like bad burlesque. Writing which is intensely political ceases to some degree to be "poetry" and verges on debate or harangue. Ginsberg wrote many kinds of poems in his life, but those devoted to purely political subjects seem to me neither interesting nor effective. Robert Bly wrote The Teeth Mother Naked at Last (along with many other anti-war and anti-capitalistic poems), but even at his best, he's never a better political poet than a personal, meditative one. He got that I think from Neruda and other South American Leftist writers.

There's nothing wrong with political poetry. I just don't put it into the category of great art. Dickinson and Moore and Armantrout are great poets. And you could even make a case that Armantrout's a kind of political poet, but that's not what she's doing, really.

Kirby Olson said...

Well, I don't think political poet equals bad, and purely aesthetic poet equals good. Aesthetics is not sufficient, although it is necessary in poetry.

Morality is an aspect of aesthetics. It's not sufficient, but it's necessary. Dickinson and Moore have a moral side which contributes to their poetry. Dickinson is on the side of animals, as is Moore, for instance. I find this compelling.

Thomas is morally deficient in many ways. He thinks f-ing is about all there is, and says he only writing for people who are wrapped in one another's arms, or in another words, busy f-ing. I don't see how this is sufficient.

Poets ought to intervene in larger conversations, including political ones, but not from the rgc viewpoint (which is a profoundly imbecilic moral viewpoint which is why Armantrout stinks as a poet and as a person).

The rgc crowd thinks that their morals are sufficient. They are not sufficient, because they're stupid, arising out of a self-serving Marxism that crowned itself king (underclass as new king) and now this ridiculous viewpoint has spread in terms of gender and race, like the plague that it is.

All of humanity has to be morally equal, or else the notion of human rights is a laugh. The rgc crowds arrogates all morality to itself, and then tries to take over every institution -- NPR, colleges, every form of art, but they are just imbeciles with aesthetics arising from Zhdanov (they're too stupid to have even heard of him, much less read him, so they repeat all his mistakes).

The Lutheran morality has a deeper seriousness and is far more wide-reaching than the Marxist one, although it hasn't had much of an aesthetic practice since at least Kierkegaard (himself morally deficient in many ways)

This needs to be part of a larger discussion. You have way too simple of a dichotomy. Aesthetics good, on its own? No way, Jose. Morality good enough on its own? No.

The two have to go together, and they have to be of very high seriousness, like ketchup and mustard on a vegetarian burger. Don't forget the pickle.

J said...

morals! uh oh.

Back to sunday school and Foxnews jingoism with Olson, eh Curtis.

Dylan Thomas hisself did not write for moralists--with their nightingales and psalms

Thomas has ...Merlin's blood. and Glendower's, for thatmatter. Not Pat Robertson, GLennbeck or Kirbys

J said...

Owain GlyndŵrLord of Glyndyfrdwy

Schackaspeare gives it as "Glen-dower"(and he's a rather sinister wight in the play--organizes rebellion against Henry IV) but it was said like Glenn-durrr

Kirby Olson said...

Morals very important. Thomas and his generation sought to throw those out, but I think think they threw out the world with it. The notion of aesthetics as a purely formal invention is part of that toss. Thoreau? Not really. Thoreau had morals.

They weren't good ones, but they did exist, and it's part of why he's still read. Poetry and essays should help clarify morals.

Ginsberg had morals, as did Aesop.

Shakespeare had morals (Glendower's were insufficient, and not nearly as good as Henry V's, which is why Henry V's side won, even though Falstaff didn't have any).

The 60s went Falstaffian.

Insufficient rations of morality are being offered in Wisconsin, with corduroy provisions of eggy Hamlets.

60s thought we only needed leggy gimlets. Buncha sad Sades!

J said...

Was Shakespeare blessing the royals nearly all of the time, moral? No, Kirbyski. Henry IV was an iron-fisted usurper--his son, perhaps slight improvement--but another Brit. imperialist,more or less. The caricature of Glendower as a proto-IRA like rebel also typical Ss. as well.

No problem to "the Bard" (well...perhaps a hint at times of royal excess, but...usually celebrated). That's how Lit. Inc works, for the most part, notwithstanding a few Dylan Thomases, or Fenians

J said...

Most of yr beat gurus were mo' into DeSade than, say, Kant, KO, Ginz included. Nor were they into Thoreau too much (a few eco-types excepted). And did Thoreau bless the status quo ? No. He actually sounds a bit ...anarchistic at times (ie, his morals not in line with what the govt. upheld--ie, his thoughts on abolition, etc)

And I don't think "being moral" however you define it necessary criteria for good writing. Did Burroughs?? Ich denke nicht (tho' WB not one of my fave scribes---that's..yr karma). Many a wicked man has wielded an eloquent prose style--Shakespeare included, most likely. Whoever wrote Othello was no biblethumper.

Riikka said...

It's possibly to be too moral, as in Henry VIth.

Clark Coolidge evinces no morals in his work, and I find it boring.

Ginsberg HAS a morality in his work, but none in his life.

Burroughs had very poor morals both in his life and in his work. I can't read it.

Cor has occasional moral scruples enunciated in his work, but his life was a mess.

We don't know about Shakespeare's life, aside from the possible weirdness of his last will and testament, offering his wife his second best bed.

But I think H V was about as good a guy as you can be as a leader: he showed dispatch, he rallied his troops, he loved his dad, and he married well, and truly.

Better than that, and you're into Henry VI territory: which is the same as Jimmy Carter territory. Useless. You have to be realistic, as well as moral.

Two kingdoms, baby.

מבול said...

James Jesus Angleton, Harry J. Anslinger, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard M. Nixon, William S, Burroughs.

J said...

But I think H V was about as good a guy as you can be as a leader.

From the POV of the British, perhaps--not from the POV of French. Like his daddy, Henry V ruthlessly suppressed the few religious dissidents. He also engaged in scorched earth tactics--at the famed Agincourt, the Brits more or less slaughtered the French infantry who were stuck in the mud and then executed all the prisoners as well (quite rare, even in those days). Shakespeare the king's man overlooked that didn't he--. The history plays are quite interesting, IMHE (perhaps his best writing)--but part of the interest consists in how Ss ...often twists history, and more or less writes propaganda for the Brit. crown.

Kirby Olson said...

Shakespeare does reference the slaughters of the French and the killing of the women and children, as I recall. Not exactly attractive traits. H V's got the General Sherman attitude toward war: make it a hell hotter than the other side can stand, and get it over with. There was some kind of a game about two years in which Alito and Roberts charged him with war crimes as some kind of travesty of a trial -- but you have to take into account that he needs every man on the field at Agincourt, and couldn't spare any to work as guards. So he had no choice if he didn't want an uprising from behind his rear. I don't know why he killed the women and children later on. That was worse, to my mind. It was scorched earth. Effective, but crazy. Still, better than his son Henry VIth. In the real world we are often dealing with less than ideal people. It's a given. Not sure we want an idealist on the throne, as they just get us all killed. Obama wants to have wars in which no one gets hurt. He won't stand up for the Libyans. So tens of thousands of them will get killed by the guy with the twisted face. There are war crimes of commission, and war crimes of ommission. They amount to the same thing. H V, like Bush, showed dispatch. O fiddles while Libya Burns, as it was put in a headline in today's NYT.

J said...

Shakespeare may have hinted at the scorched earth but that doesn't diminish H V's greatness (indeed may augment it). Same for the flicks. Branagh's shows the mud, and ....some atrocities perhaps (been a few years since watching that klassik), but H V 's still a hero. The point is not the brutality of the British monarchy but the sacrifices made or something. The Bard was ridin' with the Oppressor (and even the old....whigs thought so IMHE. Locke was no friend of the tory-theatricals--methinks he agreed to Cromwell and his goons when they smashed in the London stages).

Kirby Olson said...

Shakespeare knew which side his bread was buttered, but didn't sugarcoat, either.

He didn't end up dead like Marlowe or Kyd.

He knew the score. Poets' heads were flying then.

It wasn't as if he was protected by the First Amendment.

But at the same time, he had to stand with England against the Spanish and other Catholic nations. Some think he may have been Catholic.

Hamlet was 100% Lutheran.

I too like Branagh.

Lots of problems in Shakespeare, but I think he also understood that to keep your head as a king meant also that you kept your citizens' heads.

This wasn't easy back then.

Not easy in most of the world today.

Try being a poet in Libya or N. Korea.

Queen E. wasn't that bad of an egg.

But S. didn't enjoy our comparative protections, and we can't judge H V without thinking of the utter terrors he faced. Had he lost at Agincourt, what would have been the consequences?

Kirby Olson said...

He didn't have any luxuries, nor was there a world court, or anything like a UNDHR.

You did what you could.

Life was Hobbesian at best.

Kirby Olson said...

Hobbes described life as nasty, brutish and short, but his own life was long and rather luxurious... so when I say Hobbesian I'm not describing his own life, but rather, the way he described life itself in his famous phrase...

J said...

Hobbes, one of Bacon's students, probably knew the aged Shakespeare, and was at least as talented (ie latin, greek, romance languages, geometry a bit of early sciences)--probably more so. And was a belle-lettrist initially--then, sort of abandoned it. Hobbes tended to favor the Stuarts/royalists politically but was not well-liked by either faction (ie, neither cats. or puritans), certainly not after Leviathan appeared--when he left the country.

Ergo I don't think he helps your conservative cause . Those who have read like the Lev. (like beyond the "State of nature" chestnuts) would know Hobbes wanted a sort of egalitarianism in principle. At other times he sounds nearly Darwinist.

Hobbes may have ...agreed to the pragmatic value of the Church (...he probably had to) but was not pious, and suspected of heresy (ie materialism). Most likely a bit of a ..courtier, perhaps...libertine (Locke did not like him). Charles II gave Hobbes a stipend at the end of his life.

Kirby Olson said...

My favorite story about Hoobes is that he liked to ride horses into his nineties and got a massage every day. Not exactly a nasty brutish or short life. He must have been talking about other people's lives. I love to read John Aubrey's Brief Lives. The pieces are short and sometimes nasty, but the prose is anything but brutish.

J said...

For humans in a "state of nature"---ie a region lacking law/contract, or "covenants' as Hobbes called them-- life was (and is) typically "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". He didn't only mean Asia or africa by that either, but the Les Miz of London and Paris of his day. The Social Contract was meant to help ...everyone (and if necessary, to take down tyrants). the Great Leviathan! Even a sort of proto-League of Nations idea.

Hobbes was sort of a liberal in other words, Kirby. Not the Eleanor Roosevelt-liberal perhaps--or quite a marxist (tho Marxy Marx def. knew the Leviathan)--but....James Madison sort (actually Mad. probably to Hobbes' right). Hobbes opposed religious zealots and theocracy (including...Christian ones), and ..exploitation in some sense. Ergo, not in principle a supporter of the Foxnews idiotocracy