Monday, October 31, 2005

"Maintream" Poetry?

On Friday, I sent Josh Corey the following email in response to his post on new books by Brandon Downing and Dan Chiasson. He has now posted a lengthy and interesting response to my email.


I enjoy reading your blog (the obligatory complement as introduction) but I always laugh when you use the term "mainstream" in regards to poetry. I noticed you often place it in quotes, which suggests to me there is a touch of irony when you use it, since poetry, even ole Billy Collins, is no where near the real mainstream of American culture. Poetry in this culture is more a rivulet in a dessert. But I think I understand your use of "mainstream" in the context poetry's micro-environment.

But as someone who works for a mainstream publisher, I was even more amused when you called Chiasson's new poetry book a "mainstream 'event' book". As you probably realized, as evidenced by the quotation marks around event, Chiasson's 2000-5000 copy print run and $10 marketing budget, which was probably used up by photocopying fact sheets and author questionnaires, hardly qualifies as event publishing – a new John Grisham or Dan Brown it ain't. And those publishing events pale in comparison to the movies. Sadly, when you look at the sales of even major bestselling authors, they are not even reaching 1% of the U.S. population, and for more literary writers the numbers are even more depressing.

So as someone who loves poetry but is on the "outside" of the micro-environment, I’m not really troubled by “mainstream” poetry or really concerned with the whole post avant/quietude dichotomy, though I find the aesthetic theories that provide the back story interesting. As a reader, I’m not looking for poetry that belongs to a particular school or that is “marketed,” but poetry I like. I admit that is very vague and more appropriate for a high school year book. But I like James Wright and Charles Wright (well Country Music-era Wright, his later “notebook” style while interesting at first has become rather boring) and also really like Fanny Howe and Rae Armantrout. I find Pinksy boring (I actually prefer his mentor Yvor Winters). I haven’t bought a copy of Poetry in years, regularly read Fence, Verse, and Canary, but like Wilbur. One could say I have eclectic taste (and to some extent I think we have entered an era of eclectic aesthetics) but what interest me more is why I like these particular poets and not others. What is the common thread, if any, that runs through Ikkyu, Tu Fu, Sydney, Dickinson, Hopkins, Pound, Elliot, Stevens, Williams, Mandelstam, Trakl, Neruda, Paz, Celan, James Wright, Creeley, Oppen, Fanny Howe, Jean Valentine, Inger Christensen right up to such poets as Foust, Ales Debeljak, and Cole Swensen?

If I had time for more theoretical reading, which unfortunately I don’t, I might be able to better express the similarities I find in these poets. But I have a vague sense that it relates to a lyrical impulse and a sparse, intense use of language that revels in the language as language but also has a deep connection to the “human.” To use the distinctions David Lehman’s uses in the introduction to The Last Avant-Garde poems that are both “linguistic engines” and “repositories of felt experience” – automatons with flesh – now there’s an idea, android poetics. Not exactly what I was going for, but interesting.

The best example of what I’m driving at may not come from poetry but jazz. I think Coltrane may be the best embodiment of the aesthetic I envision – an intense experimentation with technique that is not driven by a nihilistic desire to destroy but a humanistic desire to find a truer means of expression. For the last couple of years of his life, Coltrane had been exploring every aspect of free jazz producing muscular pan-rhythmic 25-minute performances crammed with squeaks, squawks, and new ideas every second. However, toward the end of his life, when he was dying of cancer, Coltrane made a few final recordings (released posthumously as Stellar Regions) that where much tighter and re-harmonized the free jazz cacophony with melody to produce intensely beautiful music. I think that’s what the best poetry today is doing, reharmonizing the last 100 years of experimentation. Maybe that is what post avant is all about or maybe it could be called post quietude. Or why bother to label it all? As Camus wrote,

“But just as there is no nihilism that does not end by supposing a value, and no materialism that, being self-conceived, does not end by contradicting itself, so formal art and realist art are absurd concepts. No art can completely reject reality. The Gorgon is doubtless, a purely imaginary creature; its face and the serpents that crown it are part of nature. Formalism can succeed in purging itself more and more of real content, but there is always a limit. Even pure geometry, where abstract painting sometimes ends, still derives its color and its conformity to perspective from the exterior world. The only real formalism is silence. Moreover, realism cannot dispense with a minimum of interpretation and arbitrariness. Even the very best photographs do not represent reality; they result from an act of selection and impose a limit on something that has none. The realist artist and the formal artist try to find unity where it doesn’t exist, in reality in its crudest state, or in imaginative creation which wants to abolish reality. On the contrary, unity in art appears at the limit of the transformation that the artist imposes on reality.”

Maybe, in a very general sense, what these poets shares is a desire for finding that limit and then understanding it in order to re-harmonize it with (or rediscover even) human “dignity” (to borrow from Camus again). I’m nor sure that is quite it and that sounds too grandiose and vague. Maybe I just like their compact use of language. Some where in there there might be a semblance of an answer, but I don’t see labels doing much to help me find it.

Well, this was just going to be a short comment on the use of the word “mainstream” and I didn’t mean for it to become a rambling discourse, but I’ve been thinking a lot about these ideas and have had trouble assembling them into a generic blog post. It’s interesting how writing in the context of an email/letter to a specific audience/person seems to have helped.


David Leftwich


At 4:49 PM, Blogger amba said...

I like Jean Valentine! Also Wislawa Szymborska, though admittedly in translation, not sure that counts.

At 5:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David...Are you or have you ever been an english teacher?


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