No, THE question.
Tendered fervently and achingly for aesthetic confirmation, the question admits of no namby-pamby ambiguity. In all its countless dis guises, the question devolves to something like this: to be a great poet, must one be learned and mannerly, or instead, must one be intuitive and wild? And the poets they read and the poetry they themselves write register their ardent aesthetic claims. True enough, since the time of Emerson, American poetry has enjoyed—or suffered—a rousing dialectical conversation between opposing aesthetic camps.
One faction is said to advocate, and to practice in its writings, a sophisticated, intellectual, and often ironic response to the world. The opposing faction pursues an intuitive, sometimes purposely primitive, experimental, and emotional mode of writing. To the contrary, the Lowbrows wore their American primitivism too proudly, invoking a wildness and incivility attendant to their rebellious attitudes toward art in particular and life in general.
The redskin, though, rejects such Cartesian dualism and reacts intuitively, primarily emotively. In short, the paleface imposes order on what he experiences; the redskin perceives a preexistent order with which to align himself. Others noticed a similar disjuncture. As the latter moniker implies, these poets set themselves in various modes of opposition to the work of poets connected to university-supported creative writing programs. Another cadre of these oppositional poetries is composed of performance, slam, and spoken word poets.
Here, the hoary historical dialectic narrows to those who favor performance over text. These poets live in the realm of oral presentation, in the flux of evolving text, and in authorial dependence on audience participation. They often shun the page altogether in favor of live performance before an audience equally committed to an expressive outcome.
Some, such as Reg. Gaines, have recorded spoken word albums in an effort to reach audiences devoted to audio and disabused of the book. One could argue these contemporary spoken word poets have thus breathed fresh life into an ancient mode of delivering poetry to its audience. Such oral poetries are attracting not only widespread public audiences but also devoted academic proponents.
The National Endowment for the Arts, which Gioia until recently headed, has initiated Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry recitation competition for high school students. Oral poetry is suddenly the hot topic in university hallways known mostly for their hushed reverence for the printed page. Most of these electronic poetries place themselves in opposition to current print-based verse culture, so academic poetry now finds itself assailed not only by print-and oral-centered challengers but also by digital poets whose work has moved off the printed page and onto the computer screen.
Known by a variety of names—e-poetry, Cin E- Poetry, rich. Digital poetic modes envision image and word as not merely complementary but interchangeable artistic elements. In sum, the differences among various manifestations of these two opposed poetic groups are significant and expressive. While the phrasing used to describe this dialectic again has shown itself to be protean, the fundamental division has retained its essential character. One trendy version of the dialectic recently prompted a topical symposium in the literary journal Boulevard , which framed the question in this fashion: Is contemporary poetry dominated more by irony, artifice, and indirection or by sincerity and direct emotional statement?
We poets murder ourselves with our choices—or rather, we re-create ourselves, redeem ourselves, remake ourselves and our art. Thus, judging character, another eternal American tic, seeps into our judgments about the purpose, goals, and limits of art. Irony or emotion? A form of this question faced the American Moderns at the turn of the last century.
They saw before them a vast nineteenth-century wasteland of dripping sentimentality, moral uplift, and general good manners among the main guard of American poetry and asked what had come of it. The Fireside Poets—Holmes, Whittier, and Longfellow—had endeared themselves to a book-reading public not yet tempted by the not-so-subtle diversions awaiting twentieth-century citizens. In the absence of radio, telephone, film, television, easy travel by auto and airplane, and more recent developments of the cell phone, the camera, and the Internet, these poets commanded public attention in ways unimaginable to contemporary poets.
The public literally read their works by the dim glow of fireside and oil lamp. They amounted to a cultural linchpin, united and uniting, defining for a developing country what American poetry could and might be. And they defined for Americans what they as citizens might become. These poets were beloved as much for their avuncular, bearded images as for their homespun messages. Life is earnest! To read was to be edified. To be edified brought demure joy.
Goodbye Wright brothers, hello aerial bombardment. No wonder those Moderns tossed aside the then-current mode of direct, emotional statement and sought newer ways to speak their poems. Speaking poems, after all, was a way of speaking their world. The problem with such a notion was not that Eliot had urged irony over emotion and artifice over direct statement. The problem was that there existed no aesthetic dialogue, no give and take, no lively quarrel among poets to keep their art alive.
Deified, Eliot and his favored mob began to wear the robes of the gods. And this god indeed seemed all powerful. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years.
Self and Otherness in Norman MacCaig’s Poetry
Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself. Importantly, only certain poetry warranted and rewarded such close reading, so the effect was to silence other modes of writing via the blunt instrument of New Critical inattention. Hence, the New Critics became the curmudgeons or saints who ruled American poetry until the late fifties uprisings of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Burroughs, and the rest of the Beats.
New Critical irony, paradox, and tension reigned supreme—that half of the aesthetic blade—so what was a poet to do? Rebel, of course, as the lot of them did in sundry ways that shared one principle. That notion is a renewed appreciation of intuition and the inner life of the self moving among a world of fellow beings and, more important, a yearning for epiphanies to be had through modes of emotion the New Critics had outlawed or roundly castigated as sophomoric. She introduced into her work as well the language of street corner and tenement after a watershed moment at the Fisk Black Writers Conference in , thereafter tapping into and giving life to the Black Arts Movement.
With similar rebelliousness, Adrienne Rich, precocious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award winner and one of the few female darlings of modern poetry, set fire to her aesthetic bed. Suddenly, the countermovement was THE movement. Coming of age in the late seventies and early eighties, I saw the argument against the New Critics as abundantly obvious. My poetic masters had overthrown the houses of their literary daddies and mommies, and they had struck out on their own.
I did not. As with most of my peers, I inherited the then-current counteraesthetic without question. I did not view it as provisional, temporary, or historical— all the very things any aesthetic plants its roots in. I did not fathom its reaction to the previous aesthetic godhead as historically inscripted, determined by forces of culture and society larger than itself. It was simply mine, inevitable and unchanging.
I did not conceive of myself as inheriting an aesthetic that was challenged before my time and would be similarly disputed years later, after we two had grown tired together. There was no dialogue, only the deafening chants of my side, the only side. The arguments of my poetic youth were always against the dead, or those soon to be. They seemed straw men and women, not flesh and blood and piss and vinegar like me. Every essay I wrote, every poem I scribbled, assumed the same aesthetic underpinnings. So many of my peers felt the same we hardly needed to argue over cheap beers at rented kitchen tables.
We never understood that to be purposefully unartful is to be purposefully artful. African American poets, one can argue, have moved from the margins to the mainstream, if not in content then in importance and ascendancy. From the fringes, cowboy poetry, slam poetry, flarf poetry, and electronic poetry have engaged capricious audiences growing with mitotic frenzy. Is it artifice or emotion? Is it irony or vulnerability?
Is it theory or feeling?
Two Poets — Pier Paolo Pasolini & John Wieners
We live in an era in which irony wields for its artistic practitioners a shield of protective hipness. It offers a means for the poet to comment on the current array of human frailties without need to venture any palliative words or any potentially embarrassing remedies. And there is a good bit of that poetry twinkling around in the magazines. Some, too, looms icy in its coolness, breathlessly ethereal in its aloofness. Sometimes surface masquerades as intellectual depth, as does an assumed theoretical superiority. Artifice without emotion? Is this good for American poetry?
Well, yes. But alone it is not. How else explain, say, the raft of new Confessional poets who are more than happy to describe their divorces, their sexual proclivities, or even the stunning resemblance of their pubic hair to a famous waterfall. Emotion without artifice? When an all-powerful monolithic aesthetic rules the day, both poets and their poetry slip into unknowing self-parody. One does what one does because one always has, everyone following the same lemming-like slow-motion trundle over the cliff of the comfortable, the acceptable, the known and well received—aka bad art.
To decry the lack of a ruling poetic Leviathan is to beg the aesthetic police to come lock one up so that Thomas Hobbesian order might be reestablished across the land. Art does not flourish in a dictatorship, whether political or aesthetic. In time, one clique may take temporary precedence over the other. Just as surely as one group took power, its opposite camp will in time reassert aesthetic preeminence as human tastes, experiences, and desires evolve over time.
Every poet knows the following paradox. Sometimes cold artifice proffers surprisingly social or emotional rewards. Frequently, it goes like this. And the reverse is as often true. One turns from the perfect crown of sonnets and breaks it willfully, shatters it audaciously, to say something outright for once, for chrissake, form be damned.
What I am saying is that the pendulum oscillates from extreme to extreme—and takes us with it—so we poets might slay and thus remake ourselves and our art.
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What happens to a poet who wishes fervently to abjure membership in either of these feuding factions, instead cherry-picking from each as she sees fit along the path to something new just over the aesthetic horizon? What befalls the poet who refuses the brand applied by all of these labels and rejects as well the implicit marketing that comes along with it? That poet, in my view, may be the real aesthetic hero—and the rarest for it, as well. How might poets such as this fare in a realm that worships these poles? This sort of balkanization of American poetry may well be inevitable in a pluralistic society.
However, it need not be destructive if these groups seek interchange more fertile than the mere silent rebuke of the turned shoulder. That interchange is the seed ground for aesthetic evolution. Poets share one common, dual obligation. Whitman claimed the poet who does not bring forth new forms is not wanted. Searching for that something new can deliver poets to fresh, innovative technique or to epiphanic revelation. It resides in questing and not in slavish devotion to theories or modes of writing one inherits unconsciously like a sort of poetic DNA.
Art, genuine art, falls silent in a monologue. For two Hoosiers this was sacred ground. No matter it was then a dumpy pizza joint, its red bricks infused with tomato sauce and warm beer. Outside the low gray sky gave forth Midwestern winter. Then the snow stopped. Of a sudden my face and the fireplace flames, reflected in window glass, floated disembodied in the gloaming. For an instant, I saw me beside me, there and yet not. Then the door slammed shut. Someone in jeans and boots walked across my face and the fire. More than any American poet of the recent past, James Wright seems at once attracted to both poles of the bifurcated American poetics detailed in our opening chapter.
On the other, a number of poems reveal intent to keep his feet on the ground and his head out of the clouds. Here, we find a poet fixated on human limitation and on the ultimately dangerous enticements of natural communion. Nothing more, nothing less. In facing the moment, Wright acknowledges the nastiness that exists and the resolute beauty that endures despite all odds. In the depths and heights of ecstatic experience, Wright seeks the nature of being human—and of being human in Nature.
Wright is attracted to ecstatic forms of reverie not simply as means to euphoric joy but also as means to enhanced understanding. Growing up in Martins Ferry along the Ohio River, Wright encounters firsthand what havoc industrialized culture could wreak upon pastoral beauty—and observes as well the damage such labor could exact in the lives of people who toiled there. I think of Brecht lamenting how he lived in an age when talking about beautiful trees meant being silent about considerable evil.
I think of Elie Wiesel fretting justifiably how art can seem selfishly frivolous in the post-Holocaust world. They stand beside themselves, as Edward Hirsch reminds us, paradoxically apart from and yet part of the unified field of being, a universal Oneness. This suggests, one might well argue, the fundamental activity of lyric poetry: deep seeing.
For Wright it is, as well, a characteristically conflicted aspect of the poetic experience. It also leaves his work susceptible not only to the pendulum swings of aesthetic taste but also to the petty disputations of literary quarrels. Pick your side. Surely Wright felt trapped by the two sleeves of the then-current literary straitjacket, and he labored fervently to free his hand. Wright desires to be a poet who perceives instead of imposes order in the world; thus, for him, to perceive is to see in the broadest sense imaginable.
In this light, Wright follows the notable American tradition that regards seeing as elemental to poetic revelation. In this fashion, it leaves Emerson, like Wright, vulnerable to being poked in the eye by petulant disbelievers. That is what humans are about. Wright himself appreciates the polar or complementary? Doing so, the speaker evinces a profound Cartesian dualism, an odd sort of body-mind dialogic. Instead of giving himself over to ecstatic reverie, the speaker issues his pointed-finger warning in iambic trimeter, cautioning the body to. Like black crepe, that mood hung in the air in the forties and fifties.
No group of poets was less likely to embark happily on a flight of fancy unmitigated by an equal dose of damnable reality. In such a view, the unknown resides only outside of the poem. Its sturdy broadcloth would hide the steel and coal dust Wright carried with him from Martins Ferry, and it would lend him legitimacy he was never privy to down home. Hence, Latin—years of Latin.
While at Kenyon, Wright drank deeply at the Neoclassical well. A bright and disciplined student, Wright was awarded his Kenyon College B. Readers, try this one:. The Epigrams? My point is that Wright was steeped in the Neoclassical tradition. Deciding to try something else surely brought him pangs of doubt as well as of guilt, literary and otherwise. William James has written of it formally in his Varieties of Religious Experience. That change is a reality. In short, the poem records the process and the instant of ecstatic revelation. The speaker—surely one is tempted to say Wright himself—contemplates his natural surroundings that appear both harmonious and capable of marvelous transformations that elude him.
Still, Wright does not so much eliminate rhetoric altogether—which indeed is impossible—but rather replaces one form of rhetoric with another. This reverie is especially perilous if it distorts not discloses reality. Most important, Wright enacts two fundamental alterations to the poem that deaden its vivifying ecstatic reverie. Strange, how things of this world afford flight from it. What he sees there is an intimation of the generative power of inner spiritual life.
The speaker stands at once in the world and yet lifted by ecstasy to see beyond it. If that feeling is not embodied in the poem, then the poem is nothing. One might well ask to whom Wright is speaking in these brilliant and unguarded outbursts. To an imagined critic?
To literary history? To Bly? One feels privy to a conversation overheard as if through a thin scrim of motel wall, and yet one feels also part of the dialogue, as if spoken to directly by a passionate, trusting friend. On the same draft, Wright reveals his own awareness of risks attending poems of Romantic or mystical reverie. Pointedly, he underscores his disdain for using natural beings as mere props to evoke trumped-up gestures masquerading as poetic trance.
David browsed with wonderful quiet dignity, in my shadow. That this world resides within himself, Wright learns, if only he looks away from temporal reality. For Wright, joy was tenuous, beset always by bouts of depression and self-doubt. That self-doubt is familiar to most poets.
On one end teeter-totters joy, on the other gloom. Wright felt an obligation to be truthful about that discomfiting fact. Reeling from his mystical encounter with the horse David, Wright sits at a rough desk surrounded by poems from his soon-to-be Branch. Surely he understands something is afoot with or within him, something aesthetic and yet personal. Something that would indelibly mark his writing as well as his private life.
The only courage is joy! Whether in death or in the throes of despondent death-in-life, the speaker finds himself interred by the darkness of his own eyelids. Its shadows are not the redemptive kind that feed ecstatic life, that elsewhere animate even a horse to embody mystical union. Instead, these shadows populate the bailiwick of the dead. This poem floats a skiff of loneliness across Stygian waters. In trees, as with horses and birds discussed earlier, Wright invests qualities of mystical transformation. With their roots firmly planted in dirt and their branches arching toward sky, trees manifestly live in two realms at once.
Though earthly, trees hold the promise of the ethereal—or at least a promise of access to it. To climb a tree is to rise with it, to see beyond the horizon we grounded ones tread upon. Not surprisingly, in keeping with his temperament, Wright weighs down these ecstatic reveries with ballast of nagging doubt.
That very argument Bertrand Russell uses to discredit the validity of ecstasy as a reliable path to truth. No wonder the sacred turns its back on them both. Sometimes, however, it is Wright who turns his back on trees and refuses ecstatic communion. Perhaps the pear tree could lift and embrace the old man among its tender young blossoms, or replace his shabby clothes with its lovely petals. No such Disney-esque redemption arrives. Instead, the speaker rebukes the tree for being incapable of human moral compassion. However, this time what he sees prompts him to refuse ecstatic flight into another realm.
He sides with the faulted lot of us, grounded down here:. I love the sun, the grass, youth. The love of life has become a vice in me more tenacious than cocaine. I devour my existence with an insatiable appetite. How will all of this end? I do not know. In fact, the history of the bourgeoisie — by means of a technological civilization, which neither Marx nor Lenin could have foreseen — is about to concretely coincide with the totality of world history.
I want to emphasize that the title as it appears was his, and not of my own making. As a matter of fact, at the end of the conversation, which, as in the past found us on opposite sides of certain points, I asked him if he wanted to give me a title for the interview. He thought about it a while, said it was not important, changed topic, and then something brought us back to the subject that had emerged time and again in the answers that follow.
You have carried out a solitary struggle against so many things: institutions, trends, people and power. Let me propose one objection. One little gesture and everything that you detest disappears. What about you, then, would you not be left all alone and without any of the tools you need? But I not only attempt to achieve that magic thought process, I believe in it.
Not as a way to mediate with the world, but because I know that by constantly hitting the same nail on the head one can possibly make a whole house fall down. Contestation has always been an essential act. It cannot merely be on this or that point. Eichmann had a good lot of good sense. What was he lacking then? Or he might even have objected to the fact that some train had stopped once a day for the deported to do their business, for bread and water, when two stops might have been more practical and economic.
But he never stopped the machine. You know very well that your observations and your language are like the sun shining through the dust. PPP : I thank you for the sun image, but expect much less than that. All I want is that you look around and take notice of the tragedy. What is the tragedy? How come they crashed like that? Either the engineer has lost his mind, or he is a criminal.
And I know that when they show Paris is burning on TV everyone sits there with tears in their eyes, wishing only that history would repeat itself, but cleanly and beautifully. The effect of time is that it washes thing clean, like the walls of a house in the rain. Another one, or others, the groups, come toward you aggressively with their ideological blackmail, their admonitions, their sermons, and their anathemas that are also threats.
FC: Well, what is power in your opinion? Where is it? How does one cause it to reveal itself? PPP : Power is an educational system that divides us into subjects and subjected. Nevertheless, it is an educational system that forms us all, from the so-called ruling class all the way down to the poorest of us. Otherwise I use a crowbar. Why do I want it? I am merely exercising my virtue-rights. I am a murderer but I am a good person.
FC : You have been accused of not being able to make political or ideological distinctions. It is said that you have lost the ability of differentiating the sign of the deep difference that there is between Fascists and non-Fascists, among the new generations for example. Have you ever seen those marionettes that make children laugh so much because their body faces one direction while their heads face another? Things happen here, and their heads are turned in the opposite direction.
This is a different landscape. There is a desire to kill here.
And this desire ties us together as sinister brothers of the sinister failure of an entire social system. I too would like it if it were easy to isolate the black sheep. I too see the black sheep. I see quite a lot of them. I see all of them. FC: And what is the truth? First tragedy: a common education, obligatory and wrong, that pushes us all into the same arena of having to have everything at all costs. In this arena we are pushed along like some strange and dark army in which some carry cannons and others carry crowbars.
And everyone is guilty, because everyone is ready to play the murderous game of possession. We have learned to have, possess and destroy. FC : Let me go back to the first question then. You magically abolish everything. But you live from books, and you need intelligent people who read… educated consumers of an intellectual product. PPP: Everything. I am what is left, being alive, being in the world, a place to see, work and understand. There are hundreds of ways to tell the stories, to listen to the languages, to reproduce dialects, to make puppetry.
The others are left with much more. They can keep pace with me, cultured like me or ignorant like me. The world becomes bigger, everything is ours and there is no need to use the Stock Market, the administrative council or the crowbar to plunder. FC : Are you saying that you miss that world?
PPP : No! My nostalgia is for those poor and real people who struggled to defeat the landlord without becoming that landlord. Since they were excluded from everything, they remained uncolonized. I am afraid of these Black revolutionaries who are the same as their landlords, equally criminal, who want everything at any cost. Whoever might be taken to an Emergency Ward close to death is probably more interested in what the doctors have to tell him about his chances of living than what the police might have to say about the mechanism of the crime.
An impossible blend, the violent visual oxymoron, "black-red", has a harsher effect in English than the original "purple". But red and black are certainly colours associated with Trakl. The reference to night's "smashed features" gains thrust from the monosyllabic adjective "smashed" — which as well as meaning "violently broken" can, in colloquial English usage, be a synonym for "drunk".
It's simply a hint that hovers and perhaps recalls the mad organ-playing. The motherly, goddess-like figure of night, half-shattered but silver-armed, seems vast and potent.
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Her image rises above the reader, seen from the perspective of the fallen men, the "ghost casualties" dead or dying under the trees. Qualified only by "November's", Greening's "ash" evokes both the tree and cremation, and finds a distant, hushing rhyme with "smashed". By turning the symbol of femininity, the moon, into the hunter of women, Trakl tips the Romantic tradition on its face.
The realism of "blood-spattered doorsteps" only compounds the horror. As in a nightmare, the women are "petrified" — turned to stone and unable to run. In the small compass of this last quatrain, Greening's "no-man's-land" brings the war pressingly close to the town. The tautology of "wild wolves" is avoided: "grey" links them to ghostliness, ash, shadows — those elements in the poem which take us beyond the vibrant colours of war to ultimate faceless, voiceless grey.
But first there will be more destruction: the wolves "have forced the gates". Trakl is only indirectly present in his poem. The three stanzas depict three iconic stages of battle: the fury of combat, the heaving aftermath of the wounded and dying, and finally the devastation leaching outwards to the civilians. These images are not frozen in , and the translator's word-choices help extend the implicit universality.