Sunday, February 14, 2010

Of Me I Sing

Once upon a young sap rise, upon a stripling, I sat at the Smith-Corona with Red Man chewing tobacco in a cheek, beside a Peavey 400 Watt bass amplifier stack, and wrote, all night long, at poetry. The poetry that emerged, when I was fifteen through seventeen, was exceptionally anxious, as if a compensation in workmanship for the slapdashery of my surroundings and habits and habitus, and then I had a psychotic break known as college. Actually, the first year of college did not teach me much, in this respect, but it let the little maniac driving the poetry get a concussion, a skinned knee, and then, finally, a complete break. When I did not learn my lesson or win my freedom, the poetry that I wrote from ages nineteen to twenty-four was calculatedly anarchic, indebted, frustrated (sexually, physically, emotionally, and financially), and a long form code for the puzzlement of how a world that works so well in other respects could be so utterly lunatic for humans.

If you looked through the whole of this blog, you would find evidence of why "poetry" is "wrote" and why this is to the greater glory of the world. You would discover that having written it is the best thing for me and for you, alike.

(A creek in Baltimore that is much safer now that I will not pollute it with metaphors.)

However, all of those years meant I approached the curse the way that a pre-menopausal person does: as a sufferer, and therefore as a person trying to make the best of it. I always wanted other people to recognize just how bad it was (and by that, I mean how wonderful the poetry was, for poets are driven by the depths of their pain or the severity of their visions or the power of their philosophy or the height of their molehills), and I could never find anyone else who would really get it.

Well, there's nothing for it, if you're a poet, but writing a manifesto. If your poetry won't get your readers (those afflicted looking people otherwise known as friends or students), then a manifesto might do it. Of course, what you, the poet, never realize is that you're waving a white flag, that you've failed to enunciate things in your own medium (poetry, painting, appearing shaved and naked in a public fountain -- whatever your art is) and have resorted to prose and political programs, but nevertheless it's really, really attractive.

Mine was: narrative voice, war upon, hatred of, destruction to be wrought.

The social drinker trying a drunken, stoned verse form was one disguise. Another was the schizophrenic eliminating connectives. Another was the pre-verbal infant with atemporal descriptors of action. Henry Green's dangling modifiers as a method of suspension really appealed to me, even though that was theft. Finally, I thought description without action might do it. Aside from all of these things having been done by other poets, all of these things had failed in the hands of every writer of every form (except Green, and one wouldn't want his bank account). Additionally, each of these was not merely tried, but done successfully every single day by actual schizophrenics, autistics, drunks, infants, and Alzheimer's patients. My self-hatred and hatred of the lie of writers and the false "history" inherent in narrative was hardly an excuse for emulating Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man."

Fortunately, though, I got better. Poetry might not be a disease, but being a poet as a young person is certainly co-morbid, and I was cured of poetry by a great, vast, yawning horror, on the one hand, and getting my personal oil pan filled to the requisite number of quarts, on the other.

(The shelf fungus is in the tree from seedling but only grows when the tree is down)

Now the days are no more when I worry with contributing my voice to the world or my wisdom to the lifeless sea measureless to man where the drains go. (The Dear knows no one keeps, hears, or profits by wisdom, even the wisdom of "In all thy getting, get thee wisdom," (Prov. 4:7; all the fundamentalists in the blogosphere seem to get the citation wrong or not know it at all) so it flows out from life, from experience, from meditation, and goes down to the sunless sea.) However, I again have to mess with poetry, but this time from the outside, as an hygienist with a dental pick.

Recently, I was explaining "Kubla Khan" to a class of students, and I did the advanced thing. I explained that the foreword should be there, that it's part of the poem, that the poem isn't a fragment, that the poem isn't about the son of Genghis Khan at all, that the poem is about poetry and creativity, etc. Afterward, I realized two things. First, the students were going to wonder about Coleridge's Christianity, because that's the kind of place and region I am, and that, more broadly and generally, they were going to doubt that Coleridge "meant" for the audience to understand all that. If I could convince them that the poet did expect some audience to "get" it all, then they were going to have every right to ask why someone writes a poem with that much philosophy and theory in it, and that started me thinking, and the fruits of that thinking are here in this blog.

Well, not so far, but in the next bit.

"Selfishness is the greatest curse of the human race" -- Gladstone, 1890
The Romantics set out their manifesto, and they called the tune for a lot of what has happened since then. In many respects, poets today are still Romantics. The 1798 "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads does in prose what the poets had apparently failed to do in poetry: start a movement. Let's remember that that's the preface to the second edition. In other words, the book had been out, but it wasn't Romanticism until they explained it.

I won't go on about that, but I will point out that the one formal feature that the Romantics announced was a re-invigoration of the lyric. Now, a lot of this is horse flop, because the whole Warton, Percy, Gray, Thomson stuff had been doing lyric, but this was a manifesto. The lyric is in. The lyric is it. The poem of personal emotions recalled in tranquility is The Poem. In fact, most people, when they think of "poetry" can only think of verse about the author's emotions. They can't even conceive of any other thing being poetry. That's how completely we are Romantics.

Once the subject of poetry must be the poet's reaction or psyche, then there is no choice but to start looking for interesting psychological states, reactions, and persons. Let's find the emotions of uneducated people! Let's find the emotions of victims of abuse! Let's find and then express the emotions of Seers, and let's demand that poets have super-duper special emotions to express. After all, even lovers of such poetry recognize quickly that the general run of emotions that are commonly felt are commonly expressed, commonly adequately; therefore, poets either needed to be scientists about perception or philosophers of feeling or radicals of sensation.

Stupid people, and never underestimate their number, read "Kubla Khan" and started taking dope. Stupid people, and never underestimate their persistence, began putting themselves in dangerous and meddlesome positions to collect "experience." As graveyards and psych wards fill, and as poetry becomes handmaid and gateway to psychiatry, both the arbitrarily intellectual and the gluttonously sensational run out of things to fuel them. (I never had the courage for the latter or the originality for the former.) The quality of the poetry itself is irrelevant, if not impossible to determine behind so many assumptions of reception and production.

So, young poets, do you want a manifesto? I have one for you, in all seriousness. I have great love for poetry, recite it to myself nearly every day and read it without being asked, and I read contemporary poetry as often as I can, and so I make an offer -- an amicus brief.

If you want to revolutionize poetry, write social verse.
If you want to change poetry, return to satire. Try odes. Try any form of occasional or public verse. Evacuate the ego from the attempt and replace it with the common good, and see what happens. Replace the personal desire and Desire as the subjects with Classical or Abrahamic virtues and see how those work as motives for poetry.

If you are trapped by social and political language, and you absolutely are, then poetry is a political and social act, and not by any means, ever, a personal one, unless you have the good sense, as I did, to quit it. The only personal element is saying "no."


billymills said...

Disgracefully late to this; must check mail in future, but a stunning piece. This is fundamental:

"Let's remember that that's the preface to the second edition. In other words, the book had been out, but it wasn't Romanticism until they explained it."

The Geogre said...

I was too enamored of the post, when I wrote it. I didn't see its faults.

I now see where my jarring jump was. I really needed to take more time and explain the jump I was making, if not the leap, from Romanticism to the conclusion. It feels like there are missing terms.

For the many who are puzzled, the attempted structure of this was:
1. Sneaky discussion of self (intentional invocations of Joyce all over for the invocation of the "religion of art" at its height)
2. Self as aesthete
3. Dead end of aestheticism
4. Frustration of the manifesto, because of the exhaustion of a line of poetry
5. Sneaky change of subject to the critical analysis of Poetry through a "random" mention of Kubla Khan
6. False tie-together of KK and self so readers think that's the synthesis.
7. Surprise conclusion that the actual future is for a rejection of Romanticism's exclusivity of the lyric.

It probably can work as an essay, but that means drafting and taking it as a real essay, rather than a blog, because I'm always mindful of how tiring it is to read anything long online.

Anyway, yes, Romanticism isn't Romanticism until they resort to prose. In fact, it may be that that is what stokes the boilers of the Surrealists in their manifestos, and arguably they weren't themselves until Minotaur.

Without picking up the red flag and quoting Marx, it seems to me that there are hundreds of models available to us. I know that the neo-Pastoral is back in some circles, but that's ... well... I can't help but think that it comes with too high a price. The Spirit Level is fine, but if you have to take a train to ever-diminishing rural areas in order to find something to write about, then you're a tourist.

Sorry for pumping up what deserved it only in aspiration.

billymills said...

The Imagists are another case in point; they really only became anything after Pound wrote A Retrospective, if then. And most of the contents of the various Imagist Anthologies are unreadable; almost as unreadable as much of the Lyrical Ballads.

But the Romantics set the terms, so that it has become very difficult for most readers to imagine a time when a poet didn't have to suffer to create. And so, your call for a return to non-personal verse is very much to the point.

Bill Williams said it well; a poem is a machine made of words. Not of feelings, or inspiration, or insight, but words. That's what Pope understood and William the Sheep forgot. Somewhere between them, in the "poets of sensibility", I think the answer lies. Now I just need to work out the question.