Arguing with poets

Back after Labour Day

“in setting the fancy free, poetry inevitably stumbles upon nature” Boris Pasternak

The freed fancy does not run to alternative universes or to deep subjectivity. It runs to the natural, the real, world. Remember that Pasternak lived the greater part of his life in the manmade hell of the Soviet Union, where government bureaucrats dictated what writers could or could not say, and where the wrong things said could send a poet to the gulag. One suspects that in such an environment Pasternak longed to be free to let his fancy stumble upon nature.

Recognition outside of the system (where nature also lies) was not allowed. The world gave him a Nobel Prize, which his government forced him to reject. He wrote about it in February.

Political poetry has its place. Promotion of a specific political point of view as a requirement for being allowed to write does not. It is unnatural.

“aesthetes are those who have no soul, just five acute senses, often fewer” Marina Tsvetayeva

And they often lack common sense. They have no soul because their love stops at beauty and does not extend to the creators of beauty or to the audience of the arts.

The question is one of “use” as it applies to art. Must art be “useful”? Or must it be “beautiful”? The questions create a doubly false dichotomy to which the best answer is “neither”. The Ancients said that art should teach and delight and this tied the useful to the beautiful. Today the usefulness of mere learning and teaching is called into question unless the result is measurable skills. Poetry does not impart such performance outcomes; therefore, it is useless.

Beauty is in disrepute among literary theoreticians. Its boundaries are arbitrary and socially determined. There is no such objectively recognizable thing as beauty.

Therefore, the arts—poetry and others—are free to carry on, liberated from the aesthete and the practicalist.

“I don’t cherish the poems that are done. I cherish the poems that are coming. I’d sacrifice all the poems of the past for whatever is coming up.” William Stafford

By what right does William Stafford “sacrifice” other people’s poems? Would he be ok with sacrificing whatever he wrote yesterday for the sake of what someone wants to write the day after tomorrow?

Without a past there is no future. The art that an artist grows up with is the floor upon which he/she builds new art.

Stafford is working from an absurd premise. There is no need for us to sacrifice the art of a previous era to create the art of the next. No gain there. This is just silly drama.

“Interviewer: ‘When you’re not on tour, when you’re at home, do you have a regular working schedule?’ Volnesensky: ‘Never’”

Do you have a favourite breakfast cereal?
What brand of shirt do you wear?
Do you smoke?
Who cuts your hair?
How many miles per gallon do you get?
Who did you vote for in the last election?
Are you, or have you ever been, a vegan?
Why don’t your poems rhyme?
Have you ever had a real job?
Do you write standing, sitting, or lying down?
Do you write in the morning, the evening, the afternoon?
Have you ever measured out your life in coffee spoons?
What smells like victory to you?
Is poetry dead or only resting?
How can you write with all these cats around?
Do you carry a gun?
Are you happy to see me?
Is a cigar ever really just a cigar?
Who put the bop in the bop shebop shebop?

“Art can’t be done by somebody else, it has got to be done by the artist” William Stafford

So what does this do to all the critical writing about influences and mentors and social factors? Does the art embody the spirit of the age, or just the expression of a single frail artist?

I can see what Stafford is getting at. There is a lot of pressure to minimize the role of the artist in contemporary theory. Language is not spoken, language speaks: the poet is mere conduit. Or, we have so much language around that we do not need more: we just need curators, whom we will call poets, to preserve it, forgetting that the phone book already “curates” our phone numbers.

Of course, we cannot have poetry without poets.

“the language they think of as democratic anti-elitist are really the scraps of the English language that have dropped from the feasting tables of the oligarchs. This sort of ordinary-language poetry isn’t democratic at all: it’s servile. Yes, servile.” Geoffrey Hill

The narrowing of poetry’s vocabulary to one and two syllable words used in casual conversation is a bad thing. Not all poetry need sound like a telephone call, no more than it need sound like “The Faerie Queene” or “Paradise Lost”. But, the fear of sounding too “educated” and the desire to sound like “regular folk” can impoverish the language of poetry.

Hill’s vigorous use of “servile,” repeated, might seem excessive. But it is servile to feel the need to select words based upon the pressure of peers with depleted vocabularies, even if they constitute the majority of the poet’s society.

“The creative process doesn’t necessarily have answers, other than it wants to be creative. That’s its job.” Lola Lemire Tostevin

Is Tostevin arguing “art for art’s sake”? I do not think so. Certainly her poetry isn’t written in that vein. Rather, she is putting forth the idea that creativity is a natural urge, a force of nature almost. Creativity does not require a practical justification, though it may have practical consequences. Its job is to not have another job—i.e. to make money, justify a political cause, proselytize for a religion. It could have the effect of contributing to those other, irrelevant jobs, but they are not its raison d’être.

One can see why so many politicians, priests, and plutocrats want to either control or banish poets. I could add Platonic philosophers to the list of alliterative villains. Valuable brainpower is being diverted from their preferred enterprises and focussed into “useless” and even “dangerous” poetry.

“When you make a building, the form must be sound—sound forever. And I think it is the same in poetry. Yes? It is like architecture.” Andrei Volnesensky

Volnesensky sounds right, but only because “form” is undefined. Does form mean something like heroic verse or the sonnet? Is he referring to intellectual development? Emotional decorum? What?

How can a poem not have form, anyway? It is written in a language that has rules of grammar and spelling. One assume the words were not chosen in a random way by drawing them out of a hat, for instance. Even if they were, somebody picked the words that went into the hat.

Most buildings fall into decay eventually. Architecture is not the same as building. Some solidly built structures are also among the ugliest.

Yeats hit it on the nail when he asked how “can we tell the dancer from the dance,” the form from the content. Volnesensky’s poems might well have sound form, but that form was built simultaneously with the content. It is their unity or lack thereof that will determine if the work remains “sound forever”.

“Take away a poet’s public life by critical edict in a time like ours and what do you leave him? Not, certainly, himself.” Archibald Macleish

Macleish was probably writing in response to the edict of New Critics that poetry was not an expression of the “self” but, as Eliot put it, an escape from the self. The poem was an object that existed separately and apart from the poet. The edict contained a false either/or premise—that the poem was either an expression of self or was not related to it. The situation is both/and. The poem does exist apart from the poet and can go on for centuries after his or her death, but it is also related to that poet’s existence, a reflection and outgrowth of it.

Consider an anonymous poem such as “The Wanderer”. We do not know who wrote it or what the details of his life were. We cannot even say with 100% certainty if the poet was a “him” or “her”. Yet we know the environment in which the poet lived, the values he espoused. They are inseparable from the poem. Poems do not exist in a Platonic purity; they are not self contained machines that run on perpetual motion. Every Greek urn was intended to hold something.