Sunday, March 14, 2004

I wrote last post, concerning Mike Snider's comments: "I wonder about the value and purpose of such statements about the other readers of poetry. The uneducated masses who approach a poem 'naked'".

I feel moved to note that Snider did not write a directly classist or elitist post. One may be disposed to read my critique as saying as much.

Nevertheless, Silliman's game/test does have its use: it illustrates and pre-figures Mike's response. (Mike as a stand-in for what the literati does with such attempts to de-emphasize the spectacle of authority.)

That many writers feel there is an OTHER approach to reading that "normal folk" apply when coming to a poem, an other approach different from the educated or literate approach assumes much about propriety and naming. For example, a person may pick up a copy of Fence from a cafe and browse the writing within completely unaware of the debates concerning how the journal fits into the writing community and how it addresses a poetics. What of it? is my point. Those debates are not the necessary condition for the writing anthologized within to exist as such in that journal at that time. We conveniently forget this. Millions of solitary, wandering writers whose names we will never now; why are the ones published so needy for a category in which to go on being published? My personal opinion is that authors are all too willing to play the market. And in small-press-land, the market has to be a niche--name is everything or nothing.

I read Fence too aware of the debates and do my best to ignore them. I approached reading the test differently than most, I guess--I could and can care less for names. That was my initial criticism of the test. A new one: why not use poetry not affiliated with a known name?

My desire not to name gets me into trouble. I am just as likely to compare a line in a poem by Mary Robinson to a line written by Fanny Howe. History compresses moments of reading in this way; I figure I should use the fortunate instersection of a Dela Cruscan and a 21st Century author. Nevertheless, when I use what I call Mary Robinson's "poetry of fancy-at-work" as a contrast to the Wordsworthian pose of the distant poet who writes above Tintern Abbey to discuss contemporary poetics and poets, I hear from editors that I am not writing contemporary poetics.

I wonder what that makes Perloff as a critic, then, what with all her Eliot, Rimbaud and Duchamp? Do we really believe we have entered a new world and that these discussions aren't in many ways similar to the market-concerned discussions in the 17th, 18th & 19th centuries? I know what is different, though; from then to now, poetry has gone missing from the market. Capitalist publishing houses, publishing as an investment, as well as niche marketing are to blame. Poetry has become an object for a specific kind of human not for all.

In addition, journal editors have compartmentalized the poetics community to corner a specific market based typically in history, geography and/or rhetoric. This fixation on locale and nepotism works against a key characteristic of Poetry, capital P: Poetry is populist. (You're aware I hope that I am not addressing the Conservative political movement that usurped the term I hope.)

Whereas poems are local, the community is not. Paterson is Paterson, USA and Paterson by WCW no matter who reads it or where they read it from. In this manner, we learn an important reason, the primary reason I argue, that readers cannot approach a poem naked nor can they approach a naked poem.

The desire to separate readers into groups based on familiarity of language (hard-won tools of scholarly discourse) is a front (store-front) for the unconscious or conscious desire to limit access to particular communities of participation. Well-schooled readers who may or may not be writers as well may approach a test like Silliman's with a list of names and categories and, hence, expose a flaw in such a test. More engaging, though, is that an untutored reader would still want to name the writing and may still attempt to imagine a, not "the", poet. Poems, unlike much of prose writing, are considered for their craft upon first-reading by the untutored and tutored alike. Readers recognize (try to determine) craft--line, stanzas, meter, sound, words--regardless of their ability to defend their schooling in the craft. Readers don't get lost in a poem like they might a novel or story where they are encouraged to not look at what makes the novel a novel. The artifice in poetry is always examined because a poem is considered a discrete object within an indiscrete community. In this way, poems are obscene (to use the archaic sense of the word as the artifice of a poem is "out there" for everybody to see.)

Consider the typical reason untutored readers of poetry choose not to buy poetry: "I don't know how to read it." Pitiful they are encouraged to continue believing so; pity we allow it to be taught.

Poetry is a way of using language that we all use in everyday speech, the majority of its occurrences found in orality, the residue of which is never recorded or written. Novel form is not a way to use ordinary language--to provide one distinction. The tools for such manners of using language in poetry are there for use by anyone and through use we become more familiar with the manners. They aren't hard-won tools; they are "there" and there-for-the-taking.

Snider's comments, in my opinion, expose a particular position in critical approach to literary texts that limits how folks can approach a text based on their institutional affiliation. As if poetry were a trade. I am, in fact, explicitly stating that poetry is not a trade but available to all because it is an aspect of language not merely a use of language.

As I waded through my philosophy BA, I was often reminded by a particular professor that I had nothing to say about Kant because I hadn't spent enough years reading him in German. Well, I may have only been learning how to read Kant, but, (the sucker punch in the critique,) is that I didn't and don't know German. My approach to Kant is always naive because of the limitations of my training. Most folks, after being so informed, would stop reading Kant. The Big Guy, Dr So and So, points out that you have to kow German; so, why try.

I may not be able to read Kant in the German--but I am able to think about Kant's claims reasonably nonetheless. Those scholars who find it important to point out their hard-won tools on their flashy tool-belts are not to be trusted.

I was very frustrated last quarter. Second year into doctoral work and I was just introduced to Charles Olson. I knew the name, but never really read anythign other than Kingfisher...Maximus was so large; I never picked it up for my own work. Man! What an eye-opening experience for me. I needed Olson when I was 23, though, not now at 33. And all those years trying to read Stevens and Williams w/o reading Olson. All of the work I could have been doing--

I was limited by professors, writers and critics in-the-field, who decided I couldn't handle it. Attempting to read Maximus is enough to help a reader decide whether or not to read it. Why limit prosepective students if not for market considerations?

A patronizing presence exists in scholarship: like from a vantage point upon a hill, scholars like to scan the lower landscapes below and beyond the foothills and claim higher ground based on what amounts typically to little more than reading experience. Not to use a trite reference or oversimplify a complex process, but Plato had it right memorializing Socrates' arguments concerning education in Meno. And there is a reason that we often teach that dialogue in Intro to Philosophy. Philosophy is not about shoring it all up into correct points of view, it is about calling out into the public conversation incomprehensibility (as I was recently reminded by a colleague observing the upper-division ethics course I teach).

When we argue about "everyone else", we are assuming the role of Patron. After all, it is likely that all the pandering, meandering, criticizing, and categorizing poet- and lit- critics accomplish is spectacular nonsense and/or frail attempts to locate and fix a historical lineage that is always represented to be in a state of ruins because it never existed in the first place. (Benjamin insists that history persists unordered in spite of the attempts. May be we should work out why we try?)

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