Difficult Loves

Difficult Loves

It wasn’t until 1996, when President Bill Clinton declared April to be National Poetry Month, that the eminent translator and poet Richard Howard truly grasped the significance of the opening wor


It wasn’t until 1996, when President Bill Clinton declared April to be National Poetry Month, that the eminent translator and poet Richard Howard truly grasped the significance of the opening words of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, “April is the cruelest month.” “At last we have succeeded in wreaking on poetry what the worst excesses of Progressive Education and the Palmer Method were helpless to effect: We have ghettoized a millennial human expression previously conceived as a pervasive part of conscious life,” Howard declared at a PEN awards ceremony that May. “If we are to save poetry,” he insisted, we must restore it “to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes only our authentic pleasures and identifies only our intimately valued actions.” Robert Pinsky, then the poet laureate of the United States, disagreed. “Poetry is part of our shared communal life, as surely as is the Internet,” Pinsky wrote in a defense of National Poetry Month published in the New York Times. Pinsky’s observation is true, although with the adjective “shared” he seemed to want to draw a veil over some pesky questions. If poetry is integral to communal life, why must we be reminded of that fact every April, with all the labored cheerleading and hectic marketing of a big church holiday? Is poetry meaningfully involved in cultural life only if it preoccupies us in the same way as the Internet? Pinsky’s genial tone of accommodation softened Howard’s abrasiveness, but not the force of Howard’s point.

Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has pitched his tent in Pinsky’s camp. In Disappearing Ink, Gioia laments that no American poet today has achieved the kind of fame and influence with a popular audience that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow enjoyed in the nineteenth century. The work of most contemporary poets is culturally marginal, and for Gioia marginality is an artistic dead end. But poets can return to public prominence and revitalize their art, Gioia claims in his book’s title essay, if they follow the lead of rappers, cowboy poets and poetry slammers. The emergence of electronic media like television and the Internet, he says, borrowing heavily from Marshall McLuhan’s theories about media, has “slightly readjust[ed] the contemporary sensibility in favor of sound and orality.” Rappers and slammers embody this readjusted sensibility because they compose for the ear and transmit their verse through performance. Roland Barthes reveled in the death of the author; Gioia rejoices in the death of the text. “American culture conditioned by electronic media and a celebrity culture based on personalities has given birth to a new kind of author,” he proclaims: “the amplified bard.”

In July the NEA released “Reading at Risk,” a report lamenting the precipitate decline of literary reading in the face of electronic media over the past two decades. Why, then, in Disappearing Ink would its chairman extol poets and audiences who forgo the book for the amp? Equally perplexing is Gioia’s claim that the popularity of poetry readings among “literary” poets who still compose for the page signals the emergence of a vibrant oral culture. There’s a more persuasive claim to be made about such literary readings: They are less an oral alternative to print culture than a commercial adjunct of it, a way for poets to promote new books in a marketplace where reviews and advertisements of poetry are rare. Nor is there a lock-and-key fit between the Internet and orality, as Gioia implies. For the past few years some poets have approached Google as a détournement machine, using the search function as a phrase generator and assembling the results into cut-up poems. (In some circles the method and poems go by the name of “flarf.”) As bewildering or irritating as spam, this work is defiantly typographic and can be downright impossible to read aloud, amplified or not.

But what do I know? I’m the kind of critic who Gioia complains is ill equipped to assess innovations in contemporary poetry because my tastes are based in part on the “antiquarian assumptions” of Modernism, which “reflect a culture without radio, talking films, television, videocassettes, computers, cell phones, satellite dishes, and the Internet.” If media harmony between a critic’s era and that of his subject is the basis of critical judgment, then Gioia’s enthusiasm in Disappearing Ink for Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Jack Spicer, all of whom made do with pens or typewriters, is peculiar indeed.

Such contradictions pile up in Gioia’s essays because Gioia is a critic who needs antagonisms to justify his enthusiasms. His preferred approach is the American Kulturkampf of the people clashing with a treacherous elite. In Disappearing Ink, Gioia worries that because of the lingering influence of literary poetry’s elite and antiquated conventions, which favor composition for the page instead of the stage, poetry risks being crushed by more popular media like the Internet. Similarly, more than ten years ago in the title piece of Can Poetry Matter? Gioia claimed that poetry was no longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, a state of affairs he attributed to the elitism of creative writing programs. In that same book, however, he recycled the argument of Edmund Wilson’s 1934 essay “Is Verse a Dying Technique?,” in which Wilson contends that since the late eighteenth century the refinement of the lyric has led poets to forsake history and satire as suitable subjects, thereby diminishing poetry’s popular appeal. If that’s true, then those elite creative writing programs are not the cause but merely the most recent symptom of a rot that set in more than two centuries ago. In both Can Poetry Matter? and Disappearing Ink, a tendency to offer foregone conclusions instead of genuine arguments makes it easier for Gioia to reassure readers that poetry can regain its cultural prominence if it escapes the clutches of writing programs or absorbs the oral characteristics of electronic media. This style of argumentation is aided by Gioia’s polite but pushy essayistic style, one that, for all its apparent specificity, is essentially general and vague.

Such are the tricks critics contrive when they try to exaggerate poetry’s cultural prominence. In his intelligent, elegant and valuable defense of poetry, James Longenbach emphasizes what poets gain by not being subject to the pressures of a high-stakes market or mediascape. “It’s difficult to complain about poetry’s expanding audience,” Longenbach says, taking up Richard Howard’s argument without his caustic tone, “but it’s more difficult to ask what a culture that wants poetry to be popular wants poetry to be. The audience has by and large been purchased at the cost of poetry’s inwardness: its strangeness, its propensity to defeat its own expectations.” In Gioia’s eyes, a poet who avoids a mass audience is almost by definition arrogant, but for Longenbach such avoidance “could also be liberating–the creation of a space in which a poem may be pushed to extremes the culture wouldn’t know how to purchase or ignore.” After all, it is because Emily Dickinson refused to cleanse her poems of their unorthodox rhythms and rhymes, thereby preserving a “status of seclusion and secrecy,” that she and her poems are now so well-known. Poems claim our attention, Longenbach argues, inasmuch as they effectively resist it.

In nine lucid chapters written in a style often as supple as the poems discussed, Longenbach examines what he calls techniques of poetic self-resistance: the formal tool kit (line, syntax, metaphor, voice, disjunction) that poets use to question their own convictions, working by glimmers and glints instead of tidy sums. Longenbach’s approach is deceptively simple. He scrutinizes poetry’s formal qualities, but he is not a formalist in the conventional sense of being ahistorical. Discussing a wide range of work but focusing mostly on modern poems, Longenbach is careful to explain how a poem’s omission of historical content is not necessarily a repression of historical knowledge. The historical texture of a poem may be measured by its formal dynamics more than the weight of its content, as in Michael Palmer’s “Seven Poems Within a Matrix of War,” a sequence of poems concerning the first Gulf War, or Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” written during the early years of the Second World War.

Equally provocative is Longenbach’s defense of poetic language. In order to promote poetry in an indifferent culture, champions of poetry often try to define the mystical difference of poetic language from ordinary language. Longenbach does the opposite, stressing what the two languages have in common. Poems exploit rather than suppress the slippages of ordinary language, he explains, and what demands our attention is how a poet makes the ineradicable ambiguities of ordinary language uniquely adequate to the subject a poem must express. Or, to borrow a notion from Peter Gizzi’s “Ding Repair,” what demands our attention is how poetic language unfolds into meaning, ordinary and rare each time:

A hummingbird at the scarlet bell works the vine.
Even as adults we hope to witness ordinary spectacle
evolve into meaning, ordinary and rare each time
the ribbon, the wave–all bent.
For if those memos, phone calls, holidays
were to accrue then where would we be?

Longenbach says that the resistance to poetry is the wonder of poetry, “the reinvention of humility,” a formulation that calls to mind the romantic poet John Keats’s description of negative capability as the ability of a poet to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” But Longenbach’s wonder more closely resembles Adam Zagajewski’s notion of ardor. The fourth essay collection by Zagajewski to be translated into English, A Defense of Ardor contains appreciations of and quarrels with writers, painters and philosophers. Written with his characteristic delicacy, gravity and wit, the book is notable for the acute, thoughtful way that the Polish poet frames and examines literary and intellectual issues. Zagajewski craves ardor after reading Tzvetan Todorov’s essay on Dutch still-life painting, In Praise of the Quotidian, which Zagajewski attacks for suggesting that artists must become “deft miniaturists” immune to moments of experience that are “incomprehensible and piercing, both extravagant and absolutely fundamental.” Yet Zagajewski also craves ardor after reading E.M. Cioran’s Notebooks, an “uncommonly irritating” work in which Cioran’s extreme narcissism fuels scabrous rants against quotidian life. Zagajewski finds the residue of ardor in Plato’s concept of metaxu, the state of being “incurably en route,” and he finds ardor flourishing in the climate of thought cultivated by the painter Jozef Czapski and the poets Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert, who “answered history’s menace in universal, not provincial ways. And they touched profound hopes while shunning easy consolations.”

Longenbach also thinks wonder arises from shunning easy consolations, but the roots of his notion of wonder stretch deeply into a uniquely American and pragmatic source, one running from Emily Dickinson (“In insecurity to lie/is Joy’s insuring quality”) through Wallace Stevens and George Oppen to John Ashbery. These are poets who love flux, who build elaborate metaphors while simultaneously warning of their collapse, whose poems ride on linguistic sliding, whose voices speak because they are shattered. They are playfully serious poets who work hard to foreground the infinitely repeatable work of interpretation and knowing. And their work isn’t without hazards. “If the resistance to poetry is the wonder of poetry,” Longenbach asks, “how do we prevent resistance from becoming a fetish, something with which we are merely fascinated?” By reminding ourselves constantly that “the power of a poem inheres in the realization that we cannot count on it.” No matter how graceful its language, no matter how resourcefully it mines the ambiguities of ordinary language, a poem can never obviate the pressures of the ordinary world because a poem’s consolation, knitted from figurative language, will unravel and slip away. Or not.

Early in his book Longenbach invokes the example of Callimachus, the ancient Greek poet who refused the Homeric challenge of writing an epic, preferring instead to write love poems and elegies. Callimachus was scorned by his peers for ignoring his civic duties and thereby diminishing the possibilities for poetry. Longenbach draws a different lesson from Callimachus’s choice: It was only because Callimachus was acutely suspicious about the nature of poetic ambition that he could force his best discoveries against the walls of his own ambition’s limitations. That example informs the most incisive essays of Carl Phillips’s Coin of the Realm as well, although the straw men that shamble through the book sometimes elbow Callimachus aside. Phillips has a tendency to carp about younger poets’ suspicions about exercising authority without explaining exactly what he means, and his single-mindedness about this issue cuts deeply against the poetics he elaborates in his book.

The ghost of Callimachus enters the picture when Phillips discusses the poetry of the seventeenth-century Protestant pastor George Herbert, who chose to wrestle with an epic subject, the perplexing ways of God to man (“why affliction?–why, inevitably, our suffering?”), in the narrow confines of the intricate lyric poems of The Temple. “Herbert persuades by the very thing with which his poems are so frequently ill at ease: his flawed self,” Phillips claims. “It is not so much that he admits to flaw…but that he brings flaw into view as instructive example.” Phillips is a poet with seven books to his name, and the relentless deliberation he finds in Herbert’s lyrics quickens his own work too. “Phillips is not discouraged but enthralled by this state of perpetually suspended rediscovery,” Longenbach writes in The Resistance to Poetry. “He wants the world to be difficult to see because our understanding leaps too quickly from the choice to the chosen, from what is findable to what is found.” But what’s different about Phillips’s portrait of Herbert’s deliberation is its spiritual hue. Without relentless deliberation, Phillips implies, there can be no desire and surrender; without desire and surrender there can be no faith; and without faith there can be no relentless deliberation.

The poems of Herbert’s that Phillips discusses were composed as a private confession of the desire for an incomprehensible and piercing kind of knowledge. That gesture of inwardness is about as far as one can get from the very public arena of the Internet–or, to use Gioia’s lingo, from today’s auditory avant-garde. Not unlike Herbert’s poems, Longenbach’s and Zagajewski’s defenses of poetry, along with Phillips’s best essays, are rich and rewarding proof that the will to believe passionately in the fictions of poetry is not always hostage to the salvation schemes of the overchurched and the intellectually naïve.

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