I Win!

I don’t get Tomas Transtromer.  Perhaps it’s the language barrier.  Robert Bly, the translator, will get a small boost from Transtromer’s Nobel.  But I imagine it will be very small, and even resented.  Those stark, miserable poems!  Forced to read them, because of critical hearsay, and every line more depressing than the last!

But reputations and awards are far less interesting to us than the following:

In a new collections of essays, Poets On the Line, Gabriel Gudding has a potent essay touching on a theme Scarriet has enjoyed stirring up.  To quote Mr. Gudding:

The line is not a feature of poetry. The line is basically a disciplinary fiction, a fantasy of technique… The history of the line, as something ostensibly worth making distinctions about, is the history of poetry both as a fetishized cultural commodity and, since the modernist moment, as part of a broader system of belief that has helped lead to the disenchantment of everyday cultural life… So the line is, in one sense, a gendered and fascist reliquary containing the careers of Pound, Eliot, Olson, William Logan, LangPo, and the dismal tantrums of the neoformalists—groups and personalities defined by the genre of conviction and pronouncement.

The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as “official art” and its false rival “avant-garde art” whose purposes are both to entrench administrative culture…Basically, we live in a time in which poetry has to resist itself and its own unsustainable habits in favor of facing reality. The line is one such conceptual habit; an iterative fraud. Renounce it quickly.

…And let’s maybe instead spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.

The above has been stripped of most of its rant-like elements, and here it resonates with the commonest commonsense—similar to Plato, it could be Wordsworth.

As a defender of quantity in poetry, we agree with Gudding that the line is overrated, not for Gudding’s more rant-like reasons, but because the line, from the point of view of quantity, is the chief poetic flag of Modernist and Avant pretenders.  Rhythm, and rhythm’s manifestation in stanza is more critical to the poetry of quantity than the line.  The line allows modernist and avant poets to have their cake and eat it—to revel in poetry’s historic accomplishments, while at the same time desecrating the art in the fashionable whirl of the William Carlos Williams’ Snip Snip Shop.

It is healthy to renew an art form from time to time, to climb from the pedant’s cave and get outdoors, and take a look around, and so the following is really not so naive as it sounds: “spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.”

The Ron Sillimans of the world (shall we call them Sillimites?) speeding through airports to the next conference, in search of their avant-garde holy grail among the wine-sipping urbane, will be the first to gag at Gudding’s suggestion.  Return to nature?  And give up my wordy pretensions?  Outrageous!  The intellectual atmosphere of the Sillimite, the gyrating, avant insanity which allows Jorie Graham to be appointed to a major Chair in Letters at Harvard, is steeped in the mustiness of the pedant’s cave, where antique songs are daily beaten and tortured by the line, and its henchman, the line-break.

Quantity is an amazing thing.  “Art is measurement,” Plato said, and the Renaissance, re-discovering Plato, made first-hand experience of quantity more important than authority and hearsay; science has flourished ever since. Perspective is the crucial element in painting, and connects it to astronomy—so thought da Vinci, and that other titan of the Renaissance, Shakespeare, agreed,  writing in his Sonnets: “Perspective it is best painter’s art.” Shakespeare proved prophet in those poems, as Time is stretched by generations of his readers.

In the Science of Poetry, elucidated by Poe’s Rationale of Verse, the spondee was the first foot, and its 1:1 ratio, the first ratio—as the One divides in the Big Bang of scientific creation.  A second division—into thirds, this time, instead of halves—brings us the 2:1  ratio, the ratio of the iamb and trochee, vital rhythms in the Metric Evolution in the Book of Quantity.

Without rhythm, without quantity, there is no line worth the name.  There is only the sentence, or the phrase; but this is grammar, and not poetry.

This is not to say that grammar is not vital, (“Good grammar is poetry” I sometimes say) but it is fascinating to see how my English Composition students, who may struggle with grammar and with scholarly prose, advance significantly in terms of expressiveness, mental leaps, feeling, vigor, imagination, confidence, and syntax, upon being asked to put their thoughts in a sonnet.

It is with a feeling bordering on disgust, then, that we read the following from a Sillimite professor, John Gallaher:

I’m mildly allergic to FORM and FORMAL ISSUES in poetry, so whenever I find myself reading something about craft, the formal, mechanical-sounding elements of art-making, I get all itchy. It doesn’t bother me as much as it gives me the feeling I’m on the couch in my neighbor’s house (whom I don’t know well) watching slides of their family reunions from the 1980s. In short, I’m equal parts bored and anxious.

Will I ever get out of here? Should I feign an illness?

I don’t place much value in craft issues as they’re usually presented. Instead, I place value upon the performative aspects of the art act. What I mean is I’m more inclined to the guitar solos of Neil Young than I am the guitar solos of Eddie Van Halen, though I don’t feel the need to disparage Eddie van Halen about it. I just want out of the slide show.

As Neil Young says it:

“’At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians hit the wall. They don’t go there very often, they don’t have the tools to go through the wall, because it’s the end of notes. It’s the other side, where there’s only tone. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn’t translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can’t go back. I don’t know too many musicians who try to go through the wall.  I love to go through the wall.”

Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:

“Poetry is mostly hunches.”

Some mix of the two, perhaps, sums up my attitude toward craft. I value improvisational openness with slight returns. I’m fascinated by the detours. Yes, there’s craft in that too, but it’s not what I would call “hard craft.” Instead, I’d name it “Managed Improvisation.”

Thelonious Monk is a great example. In poetry, Lyn Hejinian’s  My Life is a good example. Yes, it’s also a formal exercise, but the form here I would call performative rather than given. Perhaps I’m hedging. I can live with that. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is another good example. Or the poetry of John Ashbery. Dean Young talks along these lines (or within the world of these lines) as well in his excellent book The Art of Recklessness.

I was trying to get to this point in my essay in Poets On the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s a wonderful, diverse collection, by the way. I didn’t quite get there, then, but that’s OK too, as there’s still plenty of time in the world for such things.

I like Neil Young, but the idea that he’s going through a wall which Chopin, for instance, cannot penetrate, is the height of pretence.  Young’s trope, cited by Gallaher, is a classic example of the game lesser lights play to make themselves feel better.  Trot out Thelonious Monk. Quote Ashbery: “Poetry is mostly hunches.”   Hunches?  This is hearsay, not quantity.

Gallaher quoted Gudding on his blog because the two have essays in the Rosko and Vander Zee collection.  I’m glad he did, because it gave us an opportunity to raise a little more hell.

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