BEAUTIFUL AND USELESS

 

“But to the critic to whom art is important, sacred, and, ultimately, coextensive with life itself, to produce bad art and to condone it—and thereby give rise to further bad art and finally drive out the good—are the two most heinously dangerous sins imaginable.”
—John Simon

A number of top critics were invited to Iowa City back in the early 80s, including John Simon and Hilton Kramer, when Iowa, already atop the academic world with its poetry and fiction workshops, was looking at the idea of a critic’s workshop.  It never took.

Creative writing has wide appeal: the ego of the writer and the writer’s life as subject are easy to come by.  Training scholars to write critical essays is more difficult.

John Crowe Ransom’s 1938 essay, “Criticism, Inc,” the blueprint for what would become the future of Letters: poetry critics trained in the university,  the professor as poetry critic, was quickly expanded, post-1940, into poets trained in the university, the professor as poet.  

A detailed history of how this all happened has yet to be written, but we generally know what occured: traditionally, the subject of literature in college used language and history to teach rhetorical skill; literary criticism was a default part of this process.

Then, the pyramid was flipped: literary criticism became the mode which drove everything else; the study of languages and history faded away in the light of creative writing—new writing produced now for a new age by students and professors.

Colleges studied the past less and the present more, and studying the present meant writing it: writing the present replaced studying the past.  It also meant instant riches, instant acclaim, even instant canonization, for those living.

No wonder the whole creative writing enterprise took off, every professor from Boston to Berkeley crying, “Make it new!”

In the humanities, disinterested science was replaced by interested art.

Writing makes people happy, the way taking and preserving family photos makes people happy.  With the invention of the snapshot camera, trillions of snapshots came into existence, and with the invention of the Iowa writers workshop, millions of poems on snapshots came into existence.  The snapshot camera made taking photos easy.  The writers workshop made writing poems and stories easy.  The flood of mediocrity began.  The bad chased out the good.

The theorists in the universities also embraced the new, but instead of embracing mediocre stories and poems, they kept the tradition of difficult study alive in the humanities and literature; but unfortunately, these theorists attacked Plato’s science with Nietzsche’s art, and so generally the philosophical wing of the humanities essentially abetted the assault on science over in the history wing: all was fodder for the contemporary super man, the revolutionary writer of revolutionary new works on revolutionary new topics.

The theorists said science was oppressive and art was freeing.

The mediocre writers produced by colleges agreed.

The politicians agreed, too, all those who were actors and entertainers—not statesmen.

If only the revolution had stopped with critics trained in the university.  But it didn’t.  The creative writing rabble of expressive egos was necessary to create the blind soldiers of the new order.

Science, the beautiful and useful, became enslaved by art, the beautiful and useless.

Science is the foundation of all great art, not the other way around.   But now everything conspires to flatter art—and condemn science.

Art, we feel, is free, and harmless.  Science, by comparison, is perceived as expensive and dangerous.

How have we let ourselves be led down this superstitious path?  How have we let ourselves be dragged into this present nightmare?

Simple.  Our artsy-fartsy, slobby selves have been flattered by money-grubbing con-artists.

Smile for the camera…

Snap!

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3 Comments

  1. Marcus Bales said,

    December 14, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    On Some Contemporary American Poets

    Their writing employs all the virtues of prose
    With no meter, no music, no clef;
    Though they pose in black clothes with a rose, all that shows
    Is they’re mutes mouthing off to the deaf.

    But the deaf cannot hear what the mute cannot call,
    Though attempts are so earnestly made:
    They sprawl in their scrawl, and yet all they enthrall
    Is each other, without being paid.

    The deaf cannot hear what the mute cannot speak
    Though their voices be wild as the Sidhe —
    Though they freak out and shriek for a weekend in Greek
    Asserting they’re free, free, free, free,

    The mute cannot speak what the deaf cannot hear
    Though they’ve cried out since free verse began:
    They’re sincere, they revere each career, and it’s clear
    That they’re doing the best that they can.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm

      http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/retrospect.htm

      There has been so much scribbling about a new fashion in poetry, that I may perhaps be pardoned this brief recapitulation and retrospect.

      In the spring or early summer of 1912, ‘H.D.’, Richard Aldington and myself decided that we were agreed upon the three principles following:

      1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
      2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
      3.As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

      ***

      It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.

      ***

      Don’t imagine that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.

      –A Retrospect, Ezra Pound

  2. Updike support said,

    May 21, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Twinkletape

    Woods, as we know,
    can scarcely be seen:
    a gray fog of twigs.
    The same with cities and stars.
    What glints and twinkles,
    though, all the more visible
    along the highways now
    that it is obsolete,
    replaced by CDs, is
    recording tape, spilled
    by the bale, by the mile
    from trash trucks and
    shattered tape decks,
    snagged in the median strip,
    festooned in roadside weeds.

    How it catches the sun,
    released from making music!
    Magnetic tapeworms
    metallic black in color
    have become scintillant
    dragons, invisible
    save where sunbeams
    crack their old code.
    Dazzled and teased,
    we drive along wondering
    when this species of waste
    will sink into earth
    like the bullets of a battle,
    like the fireflies
    of boyhood summers.

    John Updike


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