Mary Ruefle: She bravely asked the right question.
Poetry (in its pure sense) might be defined as when you squeeze in a story until it doesn’t look like a story anymore; it unfolds in beauty rather than narration.
Since prose and poetry went their separate ways, poetry is the heart-broken one, trying, trying, since the 20th century, every way to become prose itself.
In a recent John Gallaher blog post (what a vulture we are these days!) we have Mary Ruefle worrying that she is
wasting my life making idle comparisons between things that could not and need not be compared
a quotation we find really sweet. How honest, in a day when poets, living with an art in the sunset of its death, choose to pontificate abstractly and optimistically, as if this will make it all better. Ruelfe instead embraces tragedy and gloom in what feels like a breath of fresh air—because only doubt makes us really think.
Gallaher then quotes contemporary poet Tim Donnelly in response to Ruefle’s quote:
Now I worry that when I sit down I’m thinking whether what I’m writing is going to tap into the zeitgeist. I’m fearful that I’ll start censoring myself if something doesn’t participate in that kind of a conversation. I don’t want to sit down and write poems that have a secular piety to them, trying to solve the next big crisis — it seems very artificial to me. So I’m trying to disable that. I want the next poems I write to be ridiculous, over the top, appalling — poems that don’t overannounce their moral sensitivity. When you see poetry contenting itself with small things, that can be frustrating too. A lot of poetry today seems to me to be just dicking around with voice — being charming or superficially Ashberyesque.
Now, unfortunately, we are back to pontification: Donnelly sounds like another contemporary po-biz brick-in-the-wall, lacking the soul-searching rigor that poetry used to get from dudes like Keats and Coleridge, and now, perhaps Mary Ruefle; Donnelly, it seems to us, in the quote above, gives us a bunch of clever lingo without real understanding. We dread having to read poems by a poet who “wants the next poems he writes” to be ”ridiculous, over the top, appalling.” For, what does this mean? Donnelly is promising something extreme, in a totally vague manner, which is charmingly adolescent at best, but we fear is just inane. We get some criticism—”overannounce moral sensitivity,” “contenting itself with small things,” “dicking around with voice,” “superficially Ashberyesque,” but we should understand something here: this earns no critical points if you don’t give examples. “Small things” might be marvelous, or crappy, but how do we know? But Gallaher is content to quote this Donnelly passage as something insightful. It’s not. It’s just “dicking around.”
What does it mean to “compare things?” Ruefle’s quote needs to be pondered. Donnelly’s quote just gets us away from it. Aristotle said metaphor was the heart of poetry. The Renaissance through Romanticism (Shakespeare, Pope, Poe, etc) disagreed. Here is food for thought, but we need to be patient and dine on it, slowly.
John Gallaher himself then adds to Ruefle and Donnelly with this duality:
The pitfalls of reductive earnestness on the one hand and futile superficiality on the other.
“Futile superficiality,” we presume, is code for all that “dicking around” Ashbery crap (one Ashbery is great, a thousand is a nightmare) and Ruefle’s doubt regarding trivial comparisons, while “reductive earnestness” is the other extreme: poems that express obvious, Hallmark, love-sentiments, etc.
Gallaher, as is his nature, reminds us that this is not the only duality and other options remain, etc, but as interesting as Gallaher is, he is never rigorous, because he always wants to escape through some other door, a typical contemporary-poet- escape-artist.
Here’s the danger as we see it: Robert Burns is “reductive” and John Ashbery is “superficial,” and thus good poetry for everyone is impossible, and all we can do is sit around waiting for Donnelly’s promised “over the top,” which will surely be the most superficial slop, yet.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, and Americans hunker down for their Sunday Super Bowl, Scarriet will pursue, recklessly, “reductive earnestness,” because this should be the initial goal, not superficiality, we think.
If no absolutes exist, we should at least do this. Choose an accessible subject: love, for instance, and then let all the poets apply their philosophies and styles to it—rather than the poets following individual paths to obscurity and infinity, while promising “over the top” (over what top?) along the way.