Poet Alex Dimitrov: “I don’t believe in the universal.”
Are poems and stories that are universal better than poems and stories that are not?
“Yes, of course!” comes the answer 100 years ago; but today, the universal is considered an old-fashioned virtue, a mere outdated concept, in hip circles.
But should we trust the hip? If universal means more people can appreciate your poem or story, why isn’t the universal always a good thing?
Is misanthropy the source of not believing in the universal—the hip author does not want certain types of persons to appreciate their poem or story? Or, perhaps, the hip author fears their work is not broad or deep enough to appeal to a wide audience?
Or, to put it in a slightly different way, which perhaps vindicates the scribbler of hip:
To be appreciated by that audience, I would have to write a certain way—which I cannot do. Thus, I am against the universal—even as an ideal.
We also might object to the universal on a purely metaphysical basis: life is too complex to admit the absolutes of universals, etc.
But isn’t this metaphysical view finally too abstract and hair-splitting?
Why can’t we agree that the universal—or universal appeal—is a good thing? Certainly the reformist wants to reach as many lost souls as possible. And, if one is not a reformist, how can one object to any slob liking one’s work? One may not like a particular reader’s lifestyle or views, for instance—but what harm can it do if one’s poem burrows itself into some part of that reader’s soul?
The following is a contemporary example which triggered the preceding remarks. Bored (very bored), we turned to the Poetry Foundation’s Blog Harriet and found the following poet’s entry in a Los Angeles Review of Books forum, ‘Person and Persona in Poetry:’
THE REAL WHORE
A few months ago, after a reading I gave in San Francisco, someone came up to me and recounted a very personal sexual experience which he said came to mind instantly after hearing one of my poems. Then he said, “Your poems are so personal and universal.” This confession was both an entering into a shared space (where presumably we’ve had similar sexual experiences) and a reminder to me that even when it appears we have the same stories, there is no universal — everything that happens to us happens in very specifically different ways. I don’t believe in the universal. But I do believe in the personal. […]
It’s just what poets like to do these days: deny the universal.
Is this nothing more than a completely unthinking ‘I’m too cool/existential/modern to be universal’ reflex?
We think it is.
The poet admits that he and the fan have a shared personal experience in the poem, but the poet claims this “shared space” does not qualify as a universal experience.
The question becomes: how many people have to screw in a light bulb before the experience becomes universal?
If the experience shared by poet and fan is unique to them, then Dimitrov is correct, and the experience cannot be called universal—for the universal doesn’t ask what the experience was, only that a lot of people had it.
Dimitrov discretely keeps the experience to himself-–so we have no way to judge. Sexual experiences may be private, but that doesn’t stop them from being universal.
It eclipses our identity as persons to think that many people have the same experiences we do—what a horror to think that not one thing we think or do is unique. No wonder the person who has any ego at all pushes away the whole concept.
Memo to Dimitrov: The scary truth is that we aren’t as unique as we think we are: the universal not only exists, but is inescapable.
And one more memo to Dimitrov: We have to assume that we do experience the same things—the burden of proof lies with whomever claims their experiences are unique.
The original poem must be earned.
The universal is atmospheric, then; it is not something that is either good or bad; it is not something that either exists or does not exist.
How silly of Dimitrov, then, to say he doesn’t believe in it. In the extended version of his piece (linked above) he does concede that the idea of the universal exists, but only as an illusion to make us feel less lonely. Speaking in hip-speak as opposed to universal-speak, Dimitrov makes change the all-important thing—a poem changes a person; a poem has nothing to do with timeless truth.
Dimitrov, in his brave loneliness, doesn’t believe in the universal, and doesn’t want it to exist.
We think this universal gem—“What oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” is to the point.
It is impossible for thoughts and their words to escape the universal.
And yet—and yet—every soul, as Poe wrote in his great work, Eureka, believes nothing is greater than itself. There must be nuances we experience every moment which are unique to ourselves… But even this does not cancel out the idea of the universal, which only indicates a widely shared experience—whatever that happens to be.
Pope wrote “What oft’ was thought,” not “What oft’ was done.”
Is poetry waiting for its great poet-murderer?
Are there deeds waiting for poetic expression—or does poetry truly belong to thought?
Yes, poetry belongs to thought alone.
Murderous thoughts are probably pretty near universal; poetry already has enough material for—murder, if it wants to go there.
We believe—and we think we believe correctly—that poetry is the product of a unique person, not of unique deeds.
A poem is the product of words (universals).
The following poem (a bit of Wallace Stevens impressionism) by Dimitrov (which we like) relies on universals, such as “things that are anonymous and belong to no one.”
That day we were in a room with blue curtains.
Every time I wanted to speak
some hand would lift that pale, translucent fabric
and I’d see him standing on the circular balcony
which held something old and shapeless.
It was late morning.
We were already late for everything.
So I stood at one end of the room
and watched him. And between us
was a bed and a table and things
in a hotel—you know,
things that are anonymous
and belong to no one.
Like a sea or a life.
And all I remember is how expensive it was.
Not the room, but the feeling.
If Dimitrov does not believe in the universal, why does he write “Like a sea or a life.” Why doesn’t he write, “Like the sea or the life?” Had he written, “Like my life,” would this have been more, or less universal? The punchline of the poem: the feeling—needs the setup of “a sea or a life.”
Is this philosophical inquiry on the concept of the universal finally only a matter of direct and indirect articles?
In order to pinpoint not that feeling but this feeling, this one, Dimitrov needs to create a universal atmosphere populated by those “things that are anonymous and belong to no one. Like a sea or a life.”
The person, Dimitrov, does not believe in the universal.
But the poet, Dimitrov, does.
But then what does a person know?