Monday, April 25, 2011

The Anti-Anti-Accessible versus David Orr, or, Poetry as Perversion

To me talking/writing about poetry is not about getting it, the one kernel of meaning; it’s about expanding my ideas of it, of opening the poem up, bringing in new connections. The poem doesn’t need to “resist” full interpretation because there is not complete interpretation – interpretations expand my idea of the poem. Joyelle placing Plath in her necropastoral space is very insightful, but it doesn’t close down my reading of Plath, it makes her poetry even more interesting.

The kind of poem I want to read can seem mysterious and riddling when I’m twenty, and much less mysterious and riddling when I’m forty, but retains the capacity to astonish throughout. It is an adventurous poem that reflects the unknowable adventure that is life, and is full of the knowledge that only coalesces in hindsight, with experience. I, personally, don’t think of that as code. But if anything that interferes with literalism, that invites interpretation, or god forbid research, is figured as code, well then. I’m on the other side of that line.
The first quote comes from the latest in a series of posts by Johannes Göransson over at Montevidayo on the question of poetry and accessibility; the second from Ange Mlinko at Harriet. Both are part of a larger conversation sparked by the publication of David Orr's book Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. Orr, who reviews poetry for The New York Times Book Review, has produced a book seemingly designed to irritate actual poets and lovers of poetry (the unlovely but accurate phrase "poetry's stakeholders" comes to mind). Its efficacy in attracting more general readers to poetry remains to be seen. There are as of this morning 26 Amazon reviews of the book, mostly favorable, but as one reviewer I think rightly remarks, reading the book feels like stepping "into the middle of someone else's conversation." Another writes, "I would recommend this book highly for somebody who is 'sort of' interested in poetry." This "sort of" is at the heart of the book's difficulty, as it tries to stake out a middle ground between stakeholders (the denizens of what Orr calls "The Fishbowl") and the indifferent. Does this "sort of" really exist?

The question that the quotes above are concerned is one plaintively posed by another of Orr's Amazon reviewers: "Should poetry be such demanding, strenuous exercise?" Göransson's and Mlinko's answers to that clearly fall into the "Yes" category. Johannes has been unfolding an attack on the fundamental anti-intellectualism of Orr's approach in terms of the resistance he sets up to the idea that poems are there to be interpreted; they are instead there to be uncritically "loved," a sentimental approach curiously akin to the American discourse around children and childrearing, as if poetry cannot risk having its self-esteem bruised by critical reading. The problem with this of course is that we are never completely outside interpretation, just as we are never completely outside politics: the claim that poems need not be interpreted simply sets up the existing interpretive framework as the unmarked case, a "good" universal approach next to which all other approaches are particular, "academic," and "bad."

The general thrust of Johannes' critical enterprise is toward multiplicity: "interpretations expand my idea of the poem," for the idea of the "closed" singular interpretation of any given poem (what it "really means") is the mirror image of the notion that poetry is a beautiful mystery that we murder to dissect. Both ideological moves function to place poetry outside the bounds of what we commonly call "life": poetry becomes a standing reserve, a supplement to ordinary and multiple practices of living and reading, that is at once supremely important ("beautiful") and supremely irrelevant and unnecessary ("pointless").

Ange Mlinko, meanwhile, asks what's so bad about seeing poems as encoded or as riddles to solve. I've been guilty of this move myself; just the other day, I tried to encourage a couple of creative writing students who are both talented writers but skittish when it comes to poetry by telling them not to worry about meaning. Which leaves them with what? they might reasonably have responded. Sound? Mood? That's not nothing, of course, but they're right to be dissatisfied, and it's unreasonable of poets to expect that readers aren't going to at least initially approach poems as they would any other instance of language: as bearers of information and significance. Mlinko stands up for what we might call the erotics of encoding: solving riddles is a basic human pleasure, as the legions of folks devoted to Sudoku and crossword puzzles will attest.

It's instructive to compare the general thrust of Orr's book to Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, "Against Interpretation," which ends with this demand: "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." The erotic is a mode of the aesthetic in that word's oldest sense: aiesthesis, perceiving through the senses. Sontag attacks the priority that hermeneutics gives to content, what a poem "says," in favor of a critical focus on form: "a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art." That word "loving" is crucial. As Johannes put it in his first post on this subject, the stance that Orr seems to represent holds that the poem is there to be loved: "It’s uncorrupted by interpretation." The trouble here may be less the insistence on purity than on the hollowing out and de-eroticizing of "love"; a false antimony is set up between love and criticism, if not love and interpretation. Sontag, as I read her, is not against interpretation so much as she is against the rush to interpretation; the form of an artwork is there to capture our senses, to tarry with and not be taken for granted (in this respect Sontag's "form" is indistinguishable from Shklovksy's ostranenie).

Orr's version of this argument is immeasurably weakened by an absence of a sense of the erotic. In his account the pleasure provided by poems, even in his most moving example (of his dying father's fondness for a line of Edward Lear's), is fundamentally infantile. More seriously, neither he nor Sontag seem to allow for the possibility of an erotics of interpretation itself. It's not Johannes' ripest language, but when he writes that "interpretations expand my idea of the poem" I imagine a certain tumescence; when Mlinko writes that "the kind of poem I want to read has a snaking logic of underground caves and aquifers," here too I see an embryo expression of the erotic pleasure to be found in interpretation. That is, the polymorphously perverse pleasure of more, of the multiple, of the ever-ramifying codes and contexts that interpretation gives birth to over time. Ange suggests that poems become less "riddling and mysterious" with age and experience, but the reverse can be as true.

Put, finally, another way, I think as I do so often of Keats' definition of negative capability: "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." I want to revise that slightly so that the "without" becomes a "before," and so that the "irritable" takes on a meaning closer to that of an itch that must be scratched, whose prolongation through Mysteries is itself a kind of pleasure, jouissance. And it's this erotic tension that the blandest theories of poetic engagement, like Orr's, sacrifice on the altar of accessibility.

"If they don't need poetry then bully for them. I like the movies too": so saith Frank O'Hara. Let's remember that for O'Hara "the movies" are not simply a Hollywood commodity (though they are, gloriously, that) but a sexual cruising ground (c.f. "Ave Maria"); by implication and association then poetry too is eroticized as something more than a matter of taste: it is a need, in the deep blues sense of, "I need you baby." It is a site productive of desire, perverse, leading nowhere but (pleasurably) astray. Whatever else it is, it certainly isn't "good for you." And it may only be in embracing its perverseness that poetry has any chance of obtaining the kind of purchase on its readership that I or David Orr might wish for it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Radio Poetry

Friends, readers, countrymen: lend me your terrestrial rabbit ears! For I am going to be interviewed live sometime between 9:15 and 10 AM CDT tomorrow morning (that's Monday, April 18) about my new book Severance Songs by host Alison Cuddy on WBEZ's daily newsmagazine show, Eight Forty-Eight. More than a little excited; more than a little nervous. Tune in! Those of you not in the Chicago area will be able to listen to a recording via a link that I'll provide later.

Happy Pesach! What will I say?

UPDATE: Find out what I said by clicking here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

fallow writing writing

It's late in the semester and reserves are low. When I read for replenishment, instead I am stunned into what seems, by comparison with what I'm reading, the impoverishment of my own imagination. Lately it's Proust and Alice Notley.

Proust stuns me with his impossibly long and elegant sentences (in the C.K. Scott Moncrief translation), which unlike the recursive sentences of Henry James are laden to the brim with sensuous images. Proust's narrator is incapable of recalling any detail about his childhood in Combray without tumbling into unending digression about what, precisely, a given place or relationship felt like. There's a curious kind of paganism to this, visible in his long description of the church in Combray, which creates reverence in the narrator not because it offers any sort of channel to God, but because it grounds and orients, like Heidegger's Greek temple, the whole village and countryside, from which scarcely any vantage point can be found where the church steeple is not visible (and if you're too close to see it, you feel its presence). The procedure of the novel is of course located in the famous image of the madeleine, a humble sensuous object from which almost literally the whole seven-volume opus pours at the end of the first chapter or "Overture":
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
It's a search for lost time, to be regained or recaptured only after many hundreds of pages have been written; but it's also a novel about its own novelness, about the desire to write one and to become a writer. This is all familiar enough, I suppose, but up to this point I hadn't had the patience for Proust, hadn't seen what all the fuss was about; the prose seemed lugubrious and the book plotless; in narratological terms it's all catalyst, no kernel. (A kernel is an event which produces a turning point, in which an alternative to what has gone before arises; a catalyst amplifies or delays the action.) But now it seems the drama of writing, of sentences foraging for the precise texture of experience, is enough to hold my interest. The book has many other pleasures to offer in terms of realism: sharply drawn characters and character types, gentle to savage satire of French provincial mores and the fascinations of aristocracy, etcetera. But the pathos of going back, trying to give life to what's been lost (chiefly, I sense, the loss of the mother, whose life-giving goodnight kiss is the inaugurating event or non-event of the narrative), for this reader cannot be decoupled from the pathos of wanting to write. Proust, in short, is good if intimidating company for the would-be novelist; the very endlessness of In Search of Lost Time reassures me in the perpetual middle of my own manuscript that the search of and in language can be the point, can almost be enough.

So while I continue to pick at my novel there's no poetry to speak of, and in this silence poetry becomes more important and more impossible. I picked up Alice Notley's latest, Culture of One, and am almost nauseated by the sheer wild verve of the thing—"a novel in poems," it says on the back cover—it's almost too rich to digest. Notley's writing is unclassifiable, it's neither lyric nor narrative; the individual lines seem casual, even sloppy, and yet poem by poem I am overwhelmed by the sheer imaginative power she brings to bear on what seems at root a simple story about a lone woman, Marie, creating a "culture of one" (cleverly opposed to monoculture) somewhere in the desert Southwest, building and rebuilding a hut (Heidegger's temple again, or a parody of it) that some kid burns down as repeatedly, while a grocer and compulsive liar named Leroy, a dead woman named Ruby (wonderful noir name), and a pop star (Marie's daughter? Ruby's daughter), named Eve Love exist in some kind of triangle with her (I'm only a quarter way into the book so others might emerge). But what can you make of, what do you do with, writing like this?

The Book of Lies

Do you believe this stuff or is it a story?
I believe every fucking word, but it is a story.
Don't swear so much. Aren't we decorous? What
is a culture?
It's an enormous detailed lie lived in, wrought beliefs,
a loving fabrication. What's good about it? Nothing.
It keeps you going, but it institutionalizes inequality, killing,
and forced worship of questionable deities, it always presumes

an absolute: if no other an absolute of intelligence and insight.
The lore of certain people—men—what you're referred to.

This is Marie, thinking, though she wouldn't use this language;
this is also Eve Love thinking, though she's young enough
to bang her head against the wall thinking it: Marie would rather
reinvent the world for herself. This is Leroy thinking, who knows
more about lies than anyone. This isn't Mercy, or Ruby, or
the Satanist girl, or the girls, or their fathers thinking.
The Satanist girl almost thinks this; but she can't love
skepticism. It would make her cry. I, I don't think.
Except as a device. I think thought is a device. To get there.

Ruminative, essayistic, unliterary, clumsy: then it swerves, then it swerves again. Because these are poems they permit perhaps more easily than prose a kind of prismatic relation between the speaker and the characters, who occupy and then get kicked out of the "I" position, so that all and none of them speak. It's the purest sort of poetic heteroglossia (a contradiction in terms, some would say) that I've encountered. The imaginative freedom on display here is breathtaking, and hard-earned. It's not imagination in the sense of invention, but in the sense of being willing and able, line by line and poem by poem, to seemingly do anything, go on your nerve, say "fuck it," break rules I'm usually scarcely conscious of when reading "innovative" poetry (you won't find here many of the postmodern tropes and devices catalogued to devastating effect in Elisa Gabbert's essay, "The Moves: Common Maneuvers in Contemporary Poetry," found in The Monkey and the Wrench; you can read about these "moves" here). It's highly rhetorical, it's more about the sentence than the line, as befits a novel. It accumulates moods; reading it is like watching the pattern of light and shade all day in the desert, on a mesa, as clouds move overhead, and then someone drops something from a height and it's messy: a watermelon, a human head. I can't feel this freedom for myself, the freedom of what Notley calls disobedience, but I need it. Even if I am a man.

Monday, April 04, 2011

So I Think I Have Nerves of Steel?

Sad you missed Charlie Sheen while he was in town? Well, have I got another trainwreck for ya:

The next installment of THE2NDHAND’s Chicago Nerves of Steel reading series, taking reading to new levels, skyrockets April 5 after 8 p.m. at Hungry Brain on Belmont.


**A Public service announcement by Bitches Gotta Eat blogger Samantha Irby
**Poet Joshua Corey
**Stand-up by Carter Edwards of the Upright Citizens Brigade
***& Novelist/Fiction Madman Davis Schneiderman

With music by Katie Knaub (expect more Harold Ray duets here) and Save The Clocktower, the latter a Chicago-based trio that merges electronics, live instrumentation, vocal harmonies, and catchy songwriting to create a pop/electronica blend. Check out their sophomore album Carousel or find them on Facebook.

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