As readers of this blog know, I’ve been in dialogue with Adam Fieled of his Stoning the Devil over issues of poetics, and this post is a reply to his latest foray in that dialogue. Adam has adopted a convenient format that uses numbered items to distinguish one issue from another, which I like too—and so I’ll use it here. But before I start numbering, there’s one sentence in his opening statement that I want to draw attention to: “The towering issues of poetic openness and closure will see us through the whole gamut of poetic expression, as it has developed from the Romantic era through today.” I simply want to point out that every “school” erects its own magnetic poles (formal vs. free verse, raw vs. cooked, etc.), which it seems to me darken as much as they illuminate. We might be able to situate this or that poem on a continuum between open and closed, and might be justified in doing so, but it won’t tell us a whole lot about the poem itself as an aesthetic experience. And situating poets on such a continuum is even less useful. That said, here are my own entries in the ongoing dialogue.
1) Adam notes that I dislike the categorization of poets and poetry (as ought to be obvious from my comments above), and argues that “categorization […] is the best way that we have of understanding poetry and poetics.” He admits that the distinctions of categorization “might be, to some extent, unreal” and that categorization itself “is a form of closure” (which he, as a post-avantist, generally opposes); but he says that without categories, the history of poetry “would be an amorphous blob,” and further claims that “groups and clusters” provide context that make “understanding and hermeneutic analysis” possible. Let me add that “hermeneutic analysis,” as I understand it, would not be the analysis of a poem but the analysis of interpretations of a poem. Interpretations of poems interest me; the study of interpretation theory is something I care nothing about.
This is a solid critique. After all, who wants to side with the amorphous blob? And I have to admit that categories can make sense—but we have to be careful. All categories, being abstractions, are necessarily unreal forms of closure. Consider a horse, a dog, and a whale. They are all what we call mammals—”warm-blooded vertebrate animals […] that possess hair and suckle their young”; certainly “mammal” is a useful category for biologists, but it tells us little about the behavior of this or that particular horse, dog, or whale, and reveals absolutely nothing about the experience of being one of these creatures. In the same vein, “Romantic” may be a useful category, but it’s precious little use in understanding Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” for example, or Coleridge’s “The Frost at Midnight,” or Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
The same is true of individual poets, only more so. Any reader can see that Lorine Niedecker writes very differently from Hayden Carruth, and one or the other may appeal more to this or that reader. But for the life of me I can’t see how inserting them into different categories helps any reader appreciate or understand them better. Categories may help a Ph.D. candidate score a sheepskin, or help a polemicist rack up coup within his poetic tribe, or help an individual poet focus his fledgling energies, but those who fail to develop beyond the categories will more likely than not end up narrowing rather than expanding their talents. The same is true of readers. How many Beat-era hangers-on lost interest in reading their heroes once they themselves had outgrown the lifestyle?
Poetry is not a lifestyle (or shouldn’t be), and it’s not (or shouldn’t be) restricted by categories.
2) Evidently I misunderstood Adam’s point regarding openness in Mark Young’s poem “Back to Basics. And I pretty much agree that Young’s poem is more open (in the way he means it) compared to the typical Sharon Olds poem. I’m just unsure how much that matters.
3) In his second numbered response, Adam admits that “openness and closure are all in the eye of the beholder,” then in his third response parses the Charles Simic poem I offered up as an example of openness in a way that closes it down. (To be fair, he does the same with his original reading of Mark Young’s “Back to Basics” when he writes, “I have always taken this poem to be a metaphor for the creative process itself,” and then proceeds to read the poem based on the assumption.) Let me quote the poem again:
In an otherwise
Said: I am.
It happened on a chipped
At a table
With twelve empty chairs.
The rightful owner
Of the apple
Had gone into the kitchen
To get a knife.
She was an old woman
Who forgot things easily.
Adam calls attention to the “twelve empty chairs,” which essentially closes the poem for him. “I cannot help but read these chairs as signifying the twelve disciples of Christ. Once that is put in place, the twisted allegory becomes all too closed: the worm is Christ, the apple is the world, the old woman is God.”
But the chairs are empty; no disciples. They could as easily refer to the classic Russian satirical novel “The Twelve Chairs,” whose plot Mel Brooks borrowed for his film of the same name (or, more likely, he borrowed it from the 1962 Cuban film also based on the novel, Las Doce Sillas). The worm would then be Stalin; the red apple Russia; the rightful owner is the decrepit and forgetful Russian people. This would make sense, given that Simic was born in the former Yugoslavia in 1938, when it was firmly under the thumb of its Stalinist leader, Tito.
But wait. Tito split from Stalin when Simic was 10 years old, resulting in Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the international association of socialist states, which led to its involvement in the Non-Aligned Movement. So the worm is Tito, the apple is Yugoslavia, the old woman is Stalin, and the twelve chairs … oh, crap—there were 25 countries at the movement’s first convention, not 12….
That China plate, though…. Ah! Yes—the worm is Mao….
But no, no—the worm says “I am,” as the Biblical God says to Moses (Exodus 3:14). So the worm is God….
But wait, does God saying “I am that I am” invalidate the worm-as-God reading? And what about the knife? Is that Abraham and Isaac…?
Maybe the whole poem’s built on the Revelation 21:10-21, where the New Jerusalem has 12 foundations garnished with 12 precious stones, and 12 gates named for the 12 tribes of Israel and guarded by 12 angels; and it’s said the city symbolizes God’s perfect government….
But what if the twelve chairs are the twelve stations of the zodiac!
You see what happens when one finds an all too convenient key to unlock a poem. Simic’s poem, while it may be, as Adam remarks, perverse and superficially profound, a “twisted allegory,” I think that Simic keeps it open nevertheless. As I said when I offered it, I made no claims for the quality of the poem; I only meant to illustrate the presence of openness in a poem by a so-called “School of Quietude” poet.
4) Adam’s fourth point deals with Young’s poem “Deposition,” which he originally said was “deadly personal” but still “open.” I found that contradictory, and Adam tries to argue that it’s not because Young’s poem “spell[s] out the emotions without spelling out the situation.” He contrasts this approach with (again) Sharon Olds, whose poems convey emotions through “gruesome, kitchen-sink” details.
This isn’t the place to mount a defense of Olds (though I could), but it is the place to ask if a poem consisting entirely of abstractions, as “Deposition” does, can convey emotion at all. “Deposition” merely points toward the emotions, the “kitchen-sink details” of which are kept out of sight, and as a result the poem leaves me feeling about as moved the I am when the news arrives in Hamlet that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have died off-stage; that is, I’m not moved at all. (Adam says he is moved by “Deposition,” so I would warn him to keep a tissue handy for the moment when the First Ambassador delivers his foreshadowing news to Fortinbras.) To my complaint that Adam praises Young’s poem for what it leaves out, Adam answers that leaving out is a good thing, leaning on Duke Ellington; but the idea he attributes to Ellington in fact belongs to Hemingway—surely not a post-avant hero—whose Ernest Hemingway on Writing contains an entire chapter entitled “Knowing What to Leave Out.”
But let’s turn to a genuine post-avant icon, John Ashbery. In his powerful prose-poem meditation “The New Spirit,” from Three Poems, Ashbery has this to say:
I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.
The flowers were.
These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but—yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on
to divide all.
I find this to be powerful stuff, and as “The New Spirit” proceeds, Ashbery produces thousands of images, albeit images afloat, adrift, awash in the “New Spirit.” His is an honest wrestling with the angel of post-whatever (modernism, avant-garde, Camelot), and it’s among his most compelling work. Ashbery, the patron saint of the post-avant, is a wild-eyed image factory (at this early stage of his career, before he descends, after Houseboat Days, more and more into self-parody). My point is that Ashbery tried “leaving out,” and he discovered that it actually amounted to a kind of forgetfulness, which he surely realized would make for forgettable poems.
In other words, leaving out is a useful approach only in the context of leaving a lot in. Something essential. Something to carry the electric charge that poems spring from. Of course you can claim that essence is what’s left after leaving out has happened. You evidently feel that way about Young’s poems. For me, there is something essential in “Back to Basics,” and nothing essential in “Deposition.” Undoubtedly essence, like openness, is in the eye of the beholder.
5) I’m glad Adam acknowledges that the poetry he champions sometimes lacks emotional expressiveness, rhetorical force, and insights arising from unusual life experiences. (I’m quoting Adam quoting me, which seems appropriate self-reflexive.) He admits that the poetic approach he admires has produced no poet comparable to a Yeats or a Wordsworth, and he credits Wordsworth (but not Yeats; an oversight, I’m sure) with making it new “in his day.” He claims that “post-avantists […] seem to me to be the ones who are making it new” currently, but hopes they “will find ways and manners of being more emotionally expressive and rhetorically forceful.”
Adam at this point nutshells the mixed emotions all committed writers and readers feel when wrestling with the categories they’ve created or adopted. This is why I object, in a kindly way, to his casting me as a defender of “mainstreamers.” I consider myself instead a defender of openness. Not post-avant openness, which is a poetic strategy comparable to end-rhyme or chiasmus, but openness to poetic energy in whatever form we find it.
That said, I have a confession to make: I don’t find a Yeats or a Wordsworth anywhere among my contemporaries—not because they’re not there, but because I’m incapable of thinking about them that way. Later generations decide who gets to be Keats and who gets to be forgotten. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t contemporaries whose work I value and find myself going back to over and over. Here’s an on-the-fly list I made while strolling in front of my own bookshelves, which is why they’re so neatly in alphabetical order (the influence of two early years as a library clerk): Elizabeth Alexander (yeah, I know—she’s in the spotlight now, so other poets are snapping like dogs at her heels), Pamela Alexander, Rae Armantrout, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Michael Burkard, Anne Carson, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Olena Katyliak Davis, Linh Dinh, Martín Espada, Frank X. Gaspar, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Fanny Howe, Yusef Komunyakaa, Bill Knott, Dorianne Laux, Li-Young Lee, Jack Marshall, William Matthews, George McWhirter, Harryette Mullen, Jack Myers, Alice Notley, Mark Nowak, D. Nurske, Naomi Shihab Nye, Reginald Shepherd, Arthur Sze, Rebecca Seiferle, Thomas R. Smith, Tracy K. Smith, and Baron Wormser.
Of course we can all make lists, but I have to point out that I’m a writer, and writers read idiosyncratically. My favorite American poet of the past half century is A. R. Ammons. I’m a sucker for Karl Shapiro. I prefer Seferis to Cavafy, but Neruda to Vallejo, and for some odd reason I crack up every time I try to read Joseph Brodsky. Simic I find delicious, if limited, and for me reading Bill Knott is like being that kid afloat over Paris at the end of The Red Balloon. My admiration for Williams (W. C., not Oscar) is exceeded only by my love of Yeats. I turn to William Pillin whenever I forget what poetry sounds like when it’s not strutting and fretting. And do I have to dump William Stafford and Ted Kooser because they bring a flush of fury to Ron Silliman’s bearded cheeks? Or misunderstand the last lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” just because Cleanth Brooks did? And whatever happened to Floyce Alexander, whose excellent poems I still read but whose voice—so intense and so distinctive—seems to have gone silent?
In the end I think it’s a mistake to read by program, especially one handed to you by this or that cultural authority. I care as little about Harold Bloom’s program as I do about Ron Silliman’s. I read what pleases me and have no interest in reading what doesn’t. Of course, as a committed reader, I read through a lot that doesn’t please me, but I feel no obligation to finish a poem or a book that seems to be a waste of my time. Will I turn into a pillar of salt if I turn back to look at Michael Drayton’s sonnets and therefore miss the Next Great Post-Avant Poet? Do I risk damnation if I refuse to genuflect before the whiskey-soaked half-genius of Jack Spicer? Let’s not be ridiculous. Openness means you try the wine; it doesn’t mean you don’t spit it out when its corked.