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Poetry: Pluralism or Progress?


Not too long ago in another thread, I posted this quote by Thomas Cheetam:

"We are living out the consequences of three great crises: a rupture between the individual and the Divine, a severing of the felt connection between human beings and the living earth, and a profound breakdown of long-held assumptions about the nature and function of language. In traditional terminology, we are witnessing a collapse of the structures that make sense of the relations among God, Creation, Logos and the human person. Two of the catastrophes are fairly easily categorized; they are spiritual and environmental. The third, the crisis of Logos, is more diffuse and more fundamental. It is a crisis of meaning."

I was reminded of Cheetam's words today while reading the article "Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art" by Carolyn Forché, in which she writes:

While the solitude and tranquility thought to be the condition of literary production were absent for many twentieth- and twenty-first century poets, even in the aftermath of their survival, writers have survived and written despite all that has happened, and against all odds. They have created exemplary literary art with language that has also passed through catastrophe. The body of thought that informs “the poetry of witness” suggests, moreover, that language can itself be damaged. This idea of “damaged language” appears in George Steiner’s Language and Silence, when he considers the German language “being used to run hell, getting the habits of hell into its syntax”:

"Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness . . . But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it. . . . Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. But the cancer will begin, and the deep-set destruction. The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace."

The damage need not be regarded, however, as always irreparable. In the words of Paul Celan in his speech at Bremen:

"One thing remained attainable, close and unlost amidst all the losses: language. Language was not lost, in spite of all that happened. But it had to go through its own responselessness, go through horrible silences, go through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech."


http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/241858

After modernism, postmodernism, post postmodernism, how are poets doing at addressing the rupture, severing, breakdown, i.e., the damage done not only to language but also to human beings, nature, the earth? As Cheetham writes:

If the Prophetic Tradition is not to conclude with finality in this moment of immeasurably tragic drama, then a means must be found of learning to speak again, of learning to think again, to feel again, of bringing these shattered fragments of a life into some wounded yet living whole. Perhaps it is more than we can hope that we will be able to succeed. And yet there is no question that the attempt must be made. We must try, in the face of all that is darkest in this night of the world, to learn what the Sufis call “the thought of the heart.” And we must do this by struggling to learn again the languages of the world.

Even if one does not believe in the need to restore the Prophetic tradition, one might see the need to restore "what the Sufis call 'the thought of the heart.'” Are (some) poets already are doing that? In an interview that accompanies the above essay, Forche also writes:

One cannot transcend trauma. Trauma is trapped and clings to that which happened. We live not after trauma but in its aftermath. There is a process, which some imagine as the work of “healing,” which is not perhaps accurate. This process is one of transmemberment: one is always attending to the metamorphoses: the nausea and psychic ruin of trauma moving into wisdom and strength, again and again; every day one does the work of turning trauma into what might be called grace or fortitude or wisdom.

Can poetry of witness be experienced or read as joyful? I don’t know why not. A better term might be as blessing. In many poems read as witness, there is an affirmation, a fullness of life. The poet writing in the mode of witness is never within the trauma. The poem is marked by it and bears the remains of what has been endured. In this sense, it might produce “more life,” more of what life is. It isn’t subject matter that makes a poem witness; poems are not what they are “about.” If they were, that would be paraphrase and not poetry.


http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/241906

Last edited by Katlin, May/18/2011, 9:27 pm
May/17/2011, 4:53 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
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Re: Poetry, Progress and Damaged Language


Last week I also read an article and a blog post by Robert Archambeau that I wanted to post to the board. The article is "The Great Debate: Progress vs. Pluralism" and begins:

Imagine yourself settling into a seat at the back of a crowded auditorium to attend a debate between two speakers, each known for his wit, intellect, and the striking novelty of his argumentation. They will debate the nature of poetic history. On the stage stand two lecterns, and behind them hangs a banner with the title of the evening’s events: “Poetic History: Progress or Pluralism?”

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/241856[/url]

I have had this debate about poetic progress on other boards. Those who advocate the poetic progress theory seem to conflate the dictum "make it new" with the ad/age "newer is better." If it's new, it must be progressive. Or, as Archambeau writes:

It is one thing to be an advocate for neglected types of poetry, but it is another to see the history of poetry as a kind of progress, in which old forms become obsolete when new ones come along.

Marjorie Perloff, who Archambeau characterized as championing the notion of poetic progress, wrote to him in response to his article:

I wanted to thank you for your long detailed review and say that I think you’re right that there’s no ‘progress’ in poetry; if I gave that impression, I’m surely wrong. The fact is, I don't believe in a progress model but that poetry, like furniture or clothing, cannot ignore its own time. "A mythology reflects its region." Not that poetry gets better —far from it — it just gets different. My own preference as you must sense is for the Moderns, no one can beat Yeats or Eliot or Pound in my lexicon! And by the way, I start with Eliot and his citations so where did you get the idea that I ignore TSE and EP?

http://samizdatblog.blogspot.com/2011/05/laureates-poetry-aversion-therapy-and.html#comments

In his article Archambeau contrasts Perloff's approach in Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century to that of Reginald Shepard in A Martian Muse: Further Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry. Of Shepherd's book, he writes:

As miscellaneous as the collection is, though, its center of gravity coalesces around a couple of big questions: what is the nature of poetry, and how do different kinds of poetry relate to one another? The first question, says Shepherd, can never have a single answer, and we should be suspicious of those who provide one:

When we say, “This is what poetry is” or “This is what poetry does,” we almost always mean, “This is what the kind of poetry that interests me is” or “This is what the kind of poetry that I like does.” I know what I value in poems, what I want poems to do. But I also know that what I value isn’t the definition of poetry, if only because there are so many poems that do other things, that aim at other goals.


and:

For Shepherd, the history of poetry isn’t a series of erasures. Rather, it is an accretion of styles, many of which persist long after newer styles have risen. As he puts it in the essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry,” “the definitional incoherence at the core of the modern notion of poetry is a sign of its historical evolution.”

Do we tend to think of evolution as being progressive or survival-oriented, or both? Is pluralsm the new progress? "A mythology reflects its region." Perhaps honoring pluralism means we acknowledge there are many regions.

Tere might ask why I started this thread and why I have combined the various links into it. Once again, the full reasoning is unclear to me. Mostly just speculating on the relationship between poetry, progress and damaged language and hoping others will chime in.
May/17/2011, 5:48 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
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Re: Poetry, Progress and Damaged Language


I posted the following about a year ago. The talk of pluralism in poetry brought it to mind today:

In The Craft of Poetry, edited by William Packard, there is a fifteen page interview with Mac Low. What I find interesting about Mac Low is that, for all his experimentalism, he refused to take sides between the avant-garde and what has now become known as the School of Quietude. Here are some quotes that caught my attention:

“I have always been politically active, so in one way or anther, I’ve always written a lot of straight political poetry. It’s not all composed by chance; even in the chance period, I wrote a lot of direct antiwar poetry.”

“But now, when I’m not composing poems by chance systems or the like, I’m writing about a particular thing—the way it is. I try to tell it as it is. I think it is important to tell the news. That’s one reason I like Diane Wakoski’s work so much. She’s always telling the news.”

“When I’ve written sonnets or villanelles, I think I’ve done so because I thought I could best say what I wanted to in those verse forms. But, you know, chance-operation work is much more like a game. I invent certain rules and follow them to see what’ll happen. But, I usually want to say something when I use traditional verse forms.”

“Cage and, through his influence, I began composing by means of chance operations . . . in an attempt to escape the dominance of the ego—especially personal passions—in art.”

“It is just that in the course of using chance operations over many years, I came to realize that the ego is inescapably there, whether one is expressing one’s feelings and thoughts or making works by chance operations or ‘other’ impersonal methods. If you invent a method, you invent it and choose to use it—the ego makes that choice just as much as it makes the choice to express feelings about a lover or a war. . . .I feel that we’ve extended the possibilities of music and poetry through the use of systematic chance, but not that we’ve invalidated intuitive methods of making art.”

“. . . but I’ve never completely avoided composing music and poetry by intuitive methods. Even when I composed most of my work by systematic chance or similar ‘objective’ methods, I was always also writing ‘subjective’ works—mostly love poems and political poems. And now I’m writing a great deal of poetry directly about my life as I live it, I still also compose by chance methods or the like.”

"But I think practically any kind of poetry is valid. (I say 'practically' because if I thought hard enough, I’d probably think of some kinds that I didn’t think were valid!) I do think there is better and worse poetry, somehow, but it isn’t something you can decide ahead of time. You can’t legislate for poets. Critics can’t legislate for poets; that’s what I learned from Aristotle (and from the Chicago Aristotelians and Paul Goodman.)"

"(I think the term 'confessional' is a stupid one, but that’s the one that’s being used now for poems in which the poet talks directly about his or her own intimate life, so I use it under protest.)"

In his essay "Theory X Theory," Donald Hall writes:

"Thus: William Carlos Williams, defending plain talk and the American idiom, wrote verses dense with assonance like the Keats he grew up on; more importantly, his famous slogan of ‘no ideas but in things’ –sewn on a sampler by ten thousand living American poets—may stand as the apex and type of THEORY X THEORY, for it purely contradicts itself. Thus: Jackson Mac Low pursues aleatory methods of construction, affirms a Buddhist disavow of individuality, makes poems out of random computer-generated word-lists, and writes poem after poem which sounds like no one in the world but Jackson Mac Low.”

At the conclusion of the essay,” Hall quotes from Mac Low’s "Unmanifest" in Bloomsday:

“What the maker of a manifesto does not comprehend or acknowledge is the basic unmanifestness from which and within which each manifestation takes place. It is this neglect or ignorance that calls forth repugnance when a manifesto is proclaimed or published, especially one regarding art. As if what comes to being in and as the work of art could ever be steadfastly in the unmanifest! A work of art is a manifesto only insofar as it is its own anti-manifesto.”

May/18/2011, 2:58 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
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Re: Poetry: Pluralism or Progress?


Whoa Nelly! A whole lot of concepts and intellecting to chew on here. Have read, while also rereading many sentences several times over, your posts. Have sat here thinking and, in some cases rethinking, through the various thoughts. Finally, I've made a few quick searches to remind myself of what some labels and phrases are supposed to mean. With the possible, partial exception of Carolyn Forche I find I can't make much sense of it all. Lastly, I find that I either completely disagree, in some cases, are only partially agree, in others, with any of the stabs at what makes for poetry. Assuming that is what all the above is about. About the only thing that makes sense to me is what Forche has to say about language. Or maybe it is less what she says than that she knows enough, instinctively I'll wager, to get that language is a living thing in its own right and morphologically bound in the same way culture is morphologically bound, subject to rules of birth, maturation, decay, death, and, at least for awhile, rebirth.

About Silliman. My confession is that I find I distrust him, mostly his intellectualism, every time I read something he says. By now the distrust sets in even before the act of reading begins, which is not a good thing to have to say about myself. What I distrust is this incessant need of his to subject poetry to his various sorting systems. Take the pejorative School of Quietude label. I still don't know what he means by it. He says he got it from E.A. Poe. While not a Poe scholar I know I know the Poe lore, life, and lit better than many Poe scholars. For him the term had a specific meaning. He was vehemently against American writing and writers kowtowing to British literary standards and tastes. In this he was the first and his stance was, for his generation, radical. So much so that when he died many, I do mean many American literatuers who he had pilloried in his magazines for the habit drank a toast at the news. They wanted him goner than gone. I understand Poe's use of the term. I get his motive and intention. He wanted an American literary scene distinctly American. It could be argued that in the likes of Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, and Dickinson, all his juniors, he got his wish. But I do not get Silliman's motive. Unless it be this:

A blog entry of his devoted to the Schl of Quietude notion points to another term to the same effect. The "neophobe" in poetry. So I think that is what he means by the phrase. The Schl of Quiet- poet is any poet afraid of the new. I am no intellectual but I am thinker enough to get a blip on the internal radar. I mean if I follow a lead that strikes me as fertile and taken from Villon, which I have, from Eliot, which I have, from Baudelaire, which I have, and the list is endless, does this make me afraid of the new? I think not. Goethe borrowed in poetic form from the ancient Persian poet, Hafiz. In doing so he introduced into the European scene of the late 18th C a new sensibility. Eliot borrowed from Donne. Sexton from Rimbuad. And I am convinced the last great poet of the sonnet was a very Modern Edna St Vincent Millay. But this becomes another endless list.

Here is a term for you. In politics I call the politics of the Tea Party people the politics of resentment. I now declare, by the authority invested in me by the Oak King, the poetics of Silliman and his ilk the poetics of resentment. And for much the same reason.

Here is something else I might know. 'The act of naming cheats us into thinking we know the thing. The act of poetry gets us behind the name, inside the thing.' I figure Silliman and his like betray the instinct of poetry.

But I am not really of the caliber of these people. Damn simple I am. For me poetry is not a production of the head, but of the body. A secretion, sometimes morbid, which makes for an entirely different kind of discussion.

Tere
May/21/2011, 4:07 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: Poetry: Pluralism or Progress?


"Finally, I've made a few quick searches to remind myself of what some labels and phrases are supposed to mean. With the possible, partial exception of Carolyn Forche I find I can't make much sense of it all. Lastly, I find that I either completely disagree, in some cases, are only partially agree, in others, with any of the stabs at what makes for poetry. Assuming that is what all the above is about."

Hi Tere,

I was thinking about the ways language fails us, the way it can be manipulated and degraded, and wondering about what progress in poetry means in such a context. Although I can't get behind the idea of restoring the Prophetic tradions, I do see the need to restore "what the Sufis call 'the thought of the heart.'” How one might do that through poetry is an interesting question to me. I keep coming back to the Mac Lowe quotes because I find much wisdom in what he says, especially regarding the ego and the desire to be fluent in various approaches to poetry, depending on what one is trying to express and to whom. I also like what Shepherd says about not having one definition of poetry and about the history of poetry being "an accretion of styles" rather than "a series of erasures."

"A blog entry of his devoted to the Schl of Quietude notion points to another term to the same effect. The "neophobe" in poetry. So I think that is what he means by the phrase. The Schl of Quiet- poet is any poet afraid of the new."

Yes, I posted about the way Silliman came to use the terms School of Quietude and neophobe in another thread a while back that has since been deleted. I was wondering back then what the opposite of neophobe might be: neophile?

Sorry if my posts in this thread were confusing. Judging from your post, I think you got the gist of what I was going after and made more sense of the collage of quotes than you think you did.
May/24/2011, 8:24 am Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
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Re: Poetry: Pluralism or Progress?


Kat, my initial exclamation was less an expression of bewilderment, more a way of saying: Girlie, there be meat on the bones in your thinking. And, no, it wasn't your "collage of quotes" that confused me. You presented the stuff right and logical like.

But you lead me to making a general confession. Frankly, I find all these people working in poetics and in the theories of poetry, I guess from Silliman forward, confusing to the extreme. Trying to follow their reasoning(s) and ratiocinations and conceptualizations, I feel like I am in Byzantium's Constantinople in its most decadent years, sometime before the Ottoman Turks besieged the city in, I think it was, 1454. Intrigue at court filtered down into the fabric of everyday life. The eunuchs, bureaucrats, parties loyal to one queen mother or another, the competing generals, pretenders to the throne, the Orthodox Church vested in its property wealth, all the way down to the level of the common shop owner - language not used to get at anything meaningful and reflecting what is real, language used to obfuscate intention, which was always the speaker's will to power.

Or maybe I am put in mind of the last, most decadent days, of Scholastic philosophy. Days in which anything averred as being truthful, reflecting reality, was never subjected to the evidence involving empirical findings, but was proved or disproved in debate involving inductive reasoning. (If this is true over here, that, involving similar appearances, must be true over there.)

I've been thinking about these current poetry people for awhile now, in some measure because of the topics you raise. I have never thought poetry has anything to do with other-worldly products of the imagination. But I get in my gut poetry has to do with the ontological question, what involves the meaning of being. I've just not thought this generation anything but tangential to the problem.

Tere
May/24/2011, 7:38 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 


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