Ever wonder why even the best American poetry draws so little attention from the public at large? There are lots of reasons, of course, but today’s sermon deals with just one: the dreadful quality of writing about poetry. Compare the 11,000 words Susan M. Schultz lavishes on Charles Bernstein here with the 3,850 words James Salter devotes here to Paul Hendrickson‘s new book on the last 27 years of Ernest Hemingway‘s life.
Salter beguiles; he makes me want not only to read Hendrickson but to reread Hemingway. He doesn’t accomplish this by making unfounded claims, but by clearly and directly explaining why the work of both the biographer and his subject are significant beyond the particulars of their genres. Salter’s piece is “only” a review, but it is colorful, involving, and articulate. I won’t bother quoting from it because you can easily read it for yourself.
Schultz, on the other hand, takes nearly three times the space to show how a career as an American poet and critic can be built on rhetorical triviality and the suppurating mess that is avant-garde literary theory. She quotes Bernstein repeatedly, but what she says about the quoted material bears only glancing resemblance to the texts placed before us, which are occasionally witty—though the humor will appeal only to grad students. Here’s an example—Schultz followed by Bernstein followed by Schultz again—quoted because you’re unlikely to make it this far in Schultz’s essay:
Bernstein has other fathers than Mr. Bernstein [she means Bernstein’s biological father, “a dress manufacturer for Smartcraft Corporation”—JH], of course; there are also the (always difficult) poetic ones, including Ezra Pound, whose anti-semitism makes him especially problematic. “Surface Reflectance,” from The Sophist, moves quickly, jaggedly, and in unseamly fashion from the poet’s father to Mr. Pound:
These classics include shirtwaist
dresses and full-skirted cotton with scoopednecklines.”
And went down to the ship
very bored. What has not been
made, what has not been
seen, what has not been
spoken: always in the fold of the
projection of desire: to launch
a care, munching a pear. (165-66)
The younger Bernstein’s misprision of Pound connects the world of actual fashion to that of poetic style; were poetic traditions composed of a series of ready-mades, like the “classic” dresses his father manufactured, then literary tradition (beginning from the Iliad) would be terribly boring. That much of contemporary literature is dull is one of Bernstein’s primary problems with it. So the poet emphasizes the ready-madeness of tradition by alluding to this ready-made allusion by Pound while, through his own method, attempting to break out of the prison house of allusiveness through a process of mis-seaming, or of rapid cuts from one thought sentence to another. He offers only half an allusion, which then carries him somewhere else entirely, notably away from the literary world and into one that more resembles soap opera or advertising language. In this sense, and maybe in this sense only, he is the heir of Marianne Moore, who deflected the grandiose literary ambitions of the high modernists by using quotations from Forest Service manuals and business texts.
Now, I don’t know about you, but to me this is a stew of folderol, wordplay, name-dropping, and outright bullshit. On such ground are the foundations of poetic careers laid these days.
So what? Well, there is no “what” involved, no real substance. Both Bernstein and Schultz do little but play with metaphors. “Poetry,” Schultz quotes Bernstein, “is the ultimate small business.” Spoken like a true tenured professor. (I have run a small business for going on 20 years, and trust me, there is no poetry involved.) Like Schultz’s cotton-candy spindrift “readings” of Bernstein, Bernstein’s ideas about poetry are airy and nutrient-free.
Now, the American public may not know much, but they know vapidity when they see it. (Hence the 15 percent approval rating currently enjoyed by Congress.) The problem is that versifiers and their institutional sponsors have created a poetic Congress as do-nothing, as dysfunctional, as the political one that can’t agree to deliver disaster relief to hurricane victims. Do we need disaster relief from poetry? On the psychic level, yes. And there are poets who are delivering it; but their voices are begin overwhelmed by pseudo-intellectual PoBiz noise.* For an art that has never enjoyed broad popularity, that noise is a disaster indeed.
P.S. As a reward for anyone who made it through this post, let me append a favorite poem of mine by poet who is completely out of favor these days, Archibald MacLeish. MacLeish was a close friend of Hemingway, and his brief meditation on his friend’s death is as haunting for me now as when I first read it 40-some years ago in “The Wild Old Wicked Man” and Other Poems:
“In some some inexplicable way an accident.”
Oh, not inexplicable. Death explains,
that kind of death: rewinds remembrance
backward like a film track till the laughing man
among the lilacs, peeling the green stem,
waits for the gunshot where the play began;
rewinds those Africas and Idahos and Spains
to find the table at the Closerie des Lilas,
sticky with syrup, where the flash of joy
flamed into blackness like that flash of steel.
The gun between the teeth explains.
The shattered mouth foretells the singing boy.
* Is it any wonder that Schultz has an author page on PENNSound, the Web site for which Bernstein serves as co-Director?