Tuesday, November 09, 2010

My sense is your non-sense

Alison Croggon makes an oft-repeated yet nonetheless interesting point in her editorial for Cordite magazine's addendum "remix" issue 33.1.

Alison, the only poet of whom I am aware attended Kevin Rudd's hidebound, and for no other reason infamous, "People's Summit" of 2008, conjectures, maybe a little on the cuff, in "Creative Commons 33.1":  We all like to think that we are makers of language, but anyone poking around in the engine of poetry uneasily realises that it is just as likely to be the other way around, that just as DNA shapes our morphology, language is the shaper of our consciousness. Like I said, not the most original thought you are ever likely to encounter, perhaps more prim than piquant, but then this blog is full of them.

Alison makes the point (once again, well worth repeating) that the act of writing can take possession of us, that we become a poem, story, or novel in ways that we never expected when we first put pen to paper. I myself have been a 12th century stonecutter by the name of Lonzo "The Priest" for the past 18 months, a sensation I am struggling to work out of my system now the tale is told and all I have is your bruised ear, dear reader. I am sure anyone who has been in this game long enough knows the feeling. It is, after all, why we persist when the fat cheques keep getting lost in the mail. 

Ms Croggon then introduces the equally familiar Cartesian fugue of body/mind, all in an effort to arrive at the conclusion that poetry's great contribution to the human experience has been its ability to elucidate the otherness of so much of even the most trivial encounter. As so many Ashberrians out there have attempted to prove time and time again, even a trip to the corner shop can be an exercise in this. At the expense of a footnote,

John Ashbery (born July 28, 1927) is an American poet.[1] He has published more than twenty volumes of poetry and won nearly every major American award for poetry, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his collection “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror". Recognized as one of America's most important poets, his work still proves controversial. In an article on Elizabeth Bishop in his Selected Prose, he characterizes himself as having been described as "a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of Surrealism." Although renowned for his complex, post-modern and opaque work, Ashbery has also stated that he wishes it to be accessible to as many people as possible - not part of private dialogues.[2][3]

Thankyou, Wikipedia.......

That much of Ashberrian poetry is dull and nonsensical is neither here nor there, for such poetry invites the mash-up, and that is all our priviliged, miraculous lives really are in the Ashberrian universe. A perfect storm of nothing but physicality and sound and the predictability of another poseur writhing around on some wine-bar stool, open mic in hand.

But perhaps I am being unkind, for serve up any tosh and someone out there will be prepared to devote their lives to it. Poetry has a good deal to answer for in this regard, although I offer in its defence Alison's point that poetry's great strength is its ability to bring out the otherness in ourselves and the world around us, tearing down the veil between universes, mercurial as chance, to which our esteemed editor seems to hinge all hope of success in the issue concerned. As far as the quality of the issue Alison "remixed", I will leave that up to you to decide. The thought of putting any sort of value on it, either in the red or the black, gets me about as dizzy as an ARIA steward in a portaloo.

Which brings me a little closer to the nub of this blog.

I have a long and reasonably-documented history of vertigo. It has plagued me consistently since late 2003 and does not look like going away anytime soon. The world will keep on turning. All my public pronouncements on the subject have been in poetic form, so I was interested to come across an essay by Tony Hoagland in the September 2010 issue of Poetry Magazine out of Chicago. There has been a marked tendency with this august publication in recent years to tend toward the Ashberrian and vertiginous, and it has turned a lot of readers off, but the ambulance chaser in me has kept up my subscriptions in the hope either I or the editorial board in distant Chicago would see the light. My persistence has been rewarded by many poetic jewels, but it is essays such as Hoagland's that I tend to thumb straight for whenever another handsome little A5 issue arrives in the mail.

In his essay, "Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness", Tony Hoagland gets straight to the gist of the matter:

Here are two well-known descriptions of what a poem is, and does, one by (William) Wordsworth, one by (Wallace) Stevens:

Type A: Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility. 

Type B: The poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully.

For the moment I will leave that "almost" of Wallace Stevens to one side. The parentheses are there for the wine bar poseur mentioned above who adamantly refuses to read anything "literary" in which her name does not appear. 

Hoagland asserts rather boldly only three paragraphs into his piece that there are in fact plenty of readers alive and well who seek "a kind of clarification". I assumed at first he was referring to that "otherness" Ms Croggon made such a point of making seem so, well, other. He is speaking, however, of poetry that "helps you live" in this world, and asserts rather boldly that to "scoff at this motivation for poetry because it is "unsophisticated" or because it seems sentimental - well, you might as well scoff at oxygen." He is referring here, I assume once again, to that much maligned school of plain-speaking poetry for which Billy Collins is the poster boy. Neither harking back with any great poignancy, nor looking forward with any great hunger. America as it is. 

Against this, Hoagland sets what he calls the poetry of "dis-arrangement", the school of Ashberry et al. Not so much estranged as flummoxed by the object seen up close. It is "the world in a grain of sand", I suppose, except with strobe lights and microscopes rather than reading glasses and candles. "In our time," Hoagland goes on to say, "this bifurcation of motives among poets has become so pronounced as to be tribal." Once again, not the most original thought that will pass your desk today, but Tony has a point, even if it appears to be at first glance a very American point; the Great Society polarising before our very Spielberg-ed eyes.

As an example of Type A, Hoagland offers up George Oppen's "The Building of the Skyscraper", written in 1965 at the very apex of American triumphalism.

The steel worker on the girder
Learned not to look down, and does his work
And there are words we have learned
Not to look at,
Not to look for substance
Below them. But we are on the verge
Of vertigo.

And so and so and so......

The apotheosis of the artist divorced from the lying, vertiginous world around him. I am beginning to see where Ashberry got his audience. According to Hoagland, Oppen "performs the role of tribal father here...", although he offers no solution, merely a place to stand while the storm whirls around our heads. King Lear or the Falling Man? Well, 

You think you can begin as if it were ten years ago & you were still that person

A woman turns her head to catch a glimpse of her former lover

I offer you the key to a city without words

The guy on trial for rape wears glasses to make him look studious

And thus the world of disjoint according to Lewish Warsh in a poem called "Elective Surgery".

This being Hoagland's primary example of Type B. 

The vertiginous effects of such poetry, the stark and bitter randomness of the associations, Hoagland seems to be saying, is merely a poor substitute for tenderness, merely substituting one conceit for another and leaving the world even more polarised than before.

It is a long essay. A long, long essay.......replete with many examples, and much back-tracking, a compulsion spared we bloggers. But for all his American filibuster, Hoagland still manages to end with something even the most toothless of us can chew on for a while.

Even if we are falling, we can feel fortunate that we have some human company in the descent. Ah, poetry.

Surely, he seems to be saying, poetry's brief days as a divisive force are at an end. If not, then all real talk is at an end, for all stories have reached their conclusion and there is nothing left but sleep. For where poets go the truth will follow, even as far as Fox News, the blogosphere, or that milksop speechwriter waiting in the wings.

King Lear and the Falling Man. There in two tragic icons lie the two schools of contemporary poetry and much else beside. The former screaming toward the heavens and the latter toward earth, neither expecting much for all their howling, but a want of tenderness. 

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