Monday, January 10, 2005

joan of boston comment (revised)

[I posted this earlier and found too many weird errors and missing details to leave it alone.]

Houlihan: the anthology called The Best American Poetry continues to be the equivalent of a fruitcake for all the poets on your list: traditional, made by hand, full of unidentifiable nuggets, and largely inedible.

Fruitcakes and Anthologies certainly have at least this much in common at any given time. They are both traditional, full of nuggets, and largely inedible.


Houlihan: I chose these two poems randomly...

To mention how one chooses what one chooses within a critique is an implicit confession that there was absolutely nothing random about the choices made.


Houlihan: Basic standards relating to the craft of writing in general, such as non-clich├ęd phrases, use of momentum and pacing, lack of unintentional ambiguities and other grammatical problems, as well as evidence of an organizing intelligence, a sense of inevitability, a convincing and/or compelling style and voice and so forth are at least available to the reader in, for lack of a better word, the “mainstream” poem. Poetry, as Pound observed rightly, should be at least as well-written as prose. Further, it bears reflection that while Pound could improve Eliot's poems through application of standards of craft, no such improvement can take place for either of the poems I've excerpted, simply because there is no way to discern any purpose or aim.

What did Pound mean when he made (t)his famous claim? As it is used, Pound's claim is a cliche. The citation depends on readers' shared knowledge of a context that simply does not exist (and most likely never did.) Moreover, Houlihan misses the nuance in Pound's logic and wit. If poetry should be at least as well-written as prose, then well-written poetry should be better written than well-written prose. In other words, good poetry is better than good prose. Whatever this claim was intended to mean, it is at best a ribbing and at worst snobbery. Houlihan is much too serious to be kidding, so...

Citing the claim out of context of Pound's utterance at-the-time empties it of any useful meaning. On the other hand, if Pound did reference the state-of-affairs or welfare of poetry at-that- and at-all- times, then his claim might mean nothing more than One should be able to interpret whether or not a poem is as good as good prose for one's self. Pound knew what Pound liked about Poetry. We certainly know what Houlihan likes. But that is not what Poetry is. Poetry is not what I like about it.

Houlihan's critique claims to be a critique of purpose. We could ask: What purpose does Pound's poetry serve? Take a single Canto, maybe one of the Pisan Cantos. What does it mean? Simply, nothing. What is its aim? Nowhere. Alone, they are isolatos. His poems mean something only once we read several together--together in all its meanings. And then they begin to signify a poet teaching us how to read his poetry using his voice. This is true for any author no matter what value any single writer or group of writers, readers, and/or critics place on that author's product. Poetry does not incorporate the kind of factical meaning that, say, a tsunami does. Its mechanism is much more subtle, though not necessarily less powerful. Poetry's significance is only present in the relationship between--as in a transference--(reader and author) at the most private level and [(reader and author) and (discourse community)] at the most public level.


Houlihan cites: "Stacked circles (rain down) say green it releases nothing."
--Mark Bibbins, “from Blasted Fields of Clover Bring Harrowing and Regretful Sighs”

Houlihan claims this line lacks any discernable purpose and aim. Whatever can be said for Bibbins' work, Houlihan's critique is without a doubt purposefully misleading. Whether or not I get the complete meaning of the sentence as Bibbins intends, I can discern meaning. The choice to discern is my own. Houlihan is talking recognizable not discernable. She cannot recognize meaning in Bibbins' work. Fine. The problem is that she wants to see meaning and not listen for it. She wants a visible meaning, we might call it artifice, to already have been revealed before the appearance of the poem itself. Such an articifice would dictate the manner in which a poem is constructed and read. This makes the poetry comfortable and cozy, like a nice cup of tea. A reader can sip, recognize, and agree. Pretty fucking chill. Chill and choked of breath.

Some people appreciate such poetry. But to say that Bibbins' and others' verse lacks aim and purpose is strange. Let us consider syntax alone. I don't want to get into the linguistics more than is necessary to make my point. Bibbins' line has an identifiable syntax, a meaningful syntax, with aim and purpose. At worst--by this I mean, the most convenient complaint--the line appears to be a fused sentence, but more about that in a moment. In the line above, the nouns are nouns; the verbs are verbs; and the modifiers modify. When read without resisting its strange appearance, a pace and momentum develops. And I hear a grammatical sentence. I hear meaningful sounds. Meaning, at this point, begins to develop in different manner than during ordinary utilitarian speech.

If syntax describes the way in which words are used to form a grammatical sentence, then good job. In fact, good or excellent or proper syntax is tradition bound and that tradition is tied to many oft-unexamined ideological apparatuses. If a poet were to insist on challenging the way I read a line, then violating my sense of proper syntax is an effective and efficient method to get my attention. I must work to recreate meaning as I come to understand the revised syntax in the line in order to create meaning for myself in the presence of the poet, or in conjunction with the poet and other readers.

In addition, if the sentence is fused, then we can creatively read it in at least two ways: [stacked circles (rain down)] + [say green] + [it releases nothing]; [stacked circles (rain down) say green] + [it releases nothing]. It doesn't take much more thought to see a few more transformations.

The line itself is meaningful. In fact, it has an abundance of meaning in spite of its reliance on traditional syntax. Whether I like the looks of it or not, the line means more than I have to offer it. And I must recover something of myself and it to move forward with it rather than for it or against it. Though meaning is not immediately apparent, the line has purpose because it says something and is quite self-conscious about its own saying. For example, the parenthetical fragment "rain down" is a self-conscious gesture.

The line's aim may become more apparent as we consider syntax; morevover, the poet offers an overt attempt to say something at the level of "its" saying: the line's, or what is revealed to Bibbins and readers in saying it. And furthermore, in that it appears in conjunction with other lines that we can compare it to or contrast it from. The conjunction may be like a jump-cut in a film, disrupting the logic of time and narrative rather than cultivating or preserving it, but as the jump-cut does for the director, such a line helps a writer unsettle the reader for any number of reasons that need not be explicitly stated in the fabric of the poem.

Houlihan may not like the effect. But, then, she probably has a favorite brand of tea, too. She read the introduction to the anthology and sipped tea. Imagine she prefers Lady Grey. We certainly haven't read her latest column berating Kroger for its generic rendition of Lady Grey; or of Celestial Seasonings for its powder-in-a-bag sold as tea. But that is the kind of material one can point to and say, "That is not what it claims to be." Poetry resists this type of pointing-to and calling-out. Poetry is a projection. It is not manufactured to taste. It is not a taste of but the taste itself. Many critics just don't get it. We don't determine what good poetry is simply by reading it and recognizing it; we must endure the poet.

Unfortunately, we must endure the houlihan. So, we might ask, "What purpose does Houlihan's criticism serve?" Yes, it is discernable: "I don't like it." And it is certainly getting repetitive. I don't understand why Web-del-Sol continues to print her series. We get crappy one-liners and a monolithic perspective on Poetics.

I suppose the silver lining is her continued support of the dialogue--though she appears only capable of pot-shots in response--and that many of us get our asses in gear and respond.


1 comment:

Laura Carter said...

My regret about Houlihan's site is that she usually doesn't post sustainable comments there, such as yours or others that tackle her argument at length.

Her site is divided into three sections of comments, and she posts snippets. Stuff like "you're a bitch" or "she just can't get it, & won't." I'd like to take on a few pieces of her extended series, but feel like she'll probably not give it much attention. I don't know.

When we discussed her last few installments in my workshop, the response quickly generated into emotional attacks, mostly by people who had never picked up a copy of Fence. It was pretty scary. It set the semester off on the wrong track for me. It's telling that there are perhaps folks who look forward to this kind of thing, it's some sort of reassurance. It makes me wonder, also, about "the other side" & how invective operates there as well.