Arguing with poets
“Art will only cease being national the day that the whole universe, living in the same climate, in houses built in the same style, speaks the same language with the same accent—that is to say, never.” Guillaume Apollinaire

Even those who reject a nationality are coloured by traces of that which they reject. To be “national” is not necessarily to be nationalist. A cosmopolitan person has a knowledge of several languages and cultures, including the culture in which he was raised. 

There is the scene in “Dirty Rotten Basterds” to be considered, the one where the Englishman posing as a German gives himself and his comrades away with a single gesture. Such is one’s national character—it is there behind the disguises and the affectations.

The national identity crosses all other categories. English romanticism is not the same as German. There is a Canadian literature, a French literature, and so on. Anyone can read any of them.

“for me the medium of poetry is the column of breath rising from the diaphragm to be shaped into meaning sounds inside the mouth. That is, poetry’s medium is the individual chest and throat and mouth of whoever undertakes to say the poem—a body, and not necessarily the body of the artist.” Robert Pinsky

“Medium” is not the same as “content”. He is silent as to the latter, though I am sure he has opinions on it. Every speaker of a poem creates a new poem, shaping it with chest and throat and mouth. In Pinsky’s world, apparently, there are no silent readers.

I don’t have much use for this view of things. It creates a reader who does not read, but just recites, a body through which the poem passes like food through the alimentary track. Does one go over a poem and plan how best to read it or does Pinsky imagine a cold reading? A repeat reading? His notion of poetry as a primarily oral activity has a certain nostalgic charm to it, but it does not reflect the experience of most readers of poetry.

“The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life or of the work.” W.B. Yeats

A win and a loss are what Yeats offers. Live a great life and forget about writing the perfect poem, or dedicate yourself to poetry (or any art , or career, for that matter) and have a wretched life.

The first hypothesis is difficult, if not impossible, to prove. There are a lot of people living happy fulfilled lives. There is no way of knowing which, if any, of them could be failed or un-started poets. After all, not everyone who lives a less than perfect life becomes a poet. There probably are no mute inglorious Miltons.

On the other hand, a lot of great poets seem to have lived imperfect, even miserable lives. You can provide your own list of names here. Did being a poet create the messed up life? I like to think that the poetry came out despite the life, and that the writing eased, not worsened, their existence.

“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can be practicing it.” W.H. Auden

Poets give readings, they take part in print/radio/internet/and TV interviews, they teach poetry courses, they teach in MFA programs, and they are writers in residence. In other words, they piece gigs together to finance their writing. In one way, it reminds one of an alcoholic hustling small change to buy the next bottle. 

Yet it can be a good life if the poet does not have a big ego that requires a lot of stroking. Poets do not lose life and limb in industrial accidents. They are not exposed to dangerous pollutants, unless they smoke. They get to hang out with other bookish people and get to talk about their work to willing audiences. They are so much luckier than the non-poet who tries to engage an unwilling spouse and children about what happened at work today.

I suspect that there is some irony mixed in with Auden’s comment. After all, if there were not writing, there would be no income from talking about it.

“Oh, where’s my name/among the poets?/Official rank?/‘Retired for ill health’” Tu Fu

So his name is not “among the poets.” Tu Fu is merely a retired civil servant. Such are the rewards of poetry. Tu Fu know differently. He wrote this for the record, the long term record. Who remembers any of the official poets of his day? No one, other than scholars of the obscure. The lament, if it even was such, is now a boast.

Luck or prescience? Can a poet know that the work will survive? Shakespeare made the boast that his sonnets would. Again, luck or prescience?

Perhaps confidence is a contributing factor to the longevity of a poet’s work. Timidity about one’s abilities does not age well.

This blog post shall last as long as the human race employs electronically networked communication. There, I’ve said it in 2014.

“only in our country is poetry respected … People are killed for it.” Osip Mandelstam

Mandelstam sums up the terrible situation of the poet under a dictatorship. Opposition is not tolerated. Neither is silence. Poets are expected to say the things that prop up the dictator’s agenda, as well as his ego. The problem is that young poets are too quick to reveal themselves. If they are noticed, they are recruited. To decline to serve is to arouse suspicion or worse. The typical career of a poet in a dictatorship can be drawn on a flow chart that carries the poet to destruction, no matter whether he chooses yes or no at the logic switch. Mandelstam died in one of Stalin’s camps.


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.