Thursday, December 2, 2010

Taking a Stab at the Shifting Paradigm

“Every question you ask presupposes an alternative universe” –Tom Raworth

I can't shake the image, as I read David Yezzi's analysis on the decline of poet-critics, of an epaulet-shaking British general striding sword and steed out of the Afghan mountains and verily brimming with the vim and vigor of genuine belief that superior killing abilities equals moral superiority.

What to make of an essay that boldly proclaims “essays and reviews no longer figure as part of a poet's project” in the face of enough ink on “the post-ironic stare” or “the hipster in contemporary American poetry” to choke Donnelly & Co in the heyday of the Yellow Pages? Yezzi appears to long for the resurrection of some sort of dead poet-critics society of the likes of Eliot, Auden, Bogan, Winters, Jarrell and Moore, hard-nosed and discriminating on the verse of their times. However, it doesn't take a familiarity with the work of William Logan to realize how quickly such a world would get very ugly, if only for the alarming speed with which Mssrs. Eliot, Auden et. al. would be dispatched to sweep floors and clean toilets if they didn't modify the rancor of their opinions to fit the current poetry business model. The “po-biz” Ponzi scheme needs continuous infusions of new poets called to greatness from sirens wails to financially support the unremunerative older poets. The bottom line of the enterprise is not served by having any kinds of actual critical standards, lest they scare off any marks. Cutthroat competition and sensitive compassion, after all, make somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows, best not to let discouraging words be heard about other poets in public, right?

That such an obvious conclusion would be lost on Yezzi, a lifetime academic, is damaging enough. He compounds his folly by flapping a stiff-upper-we-have-a-duty-to-be-superior-lip with one sophomoric Victorian truism after another, like “the question, then, is how to shift posthumous conferral of recognition to the living, even a little,” or “to sift with a fine sieve aesthetic material and discard the chaff—is to be conscious as an artist. But, as Eliot notes, this has long been an unpopular stance.” Is there any critical intelligence in this at all? If he can't see that there is just as much purpose on God's green earth for chaff as for wheat, can't he at least see that wheat is treated exactly the same way as chaff in the contemporary poetry world? He seems obsessed with the idea that there are levels of greatness in poets, and that proper recognition is the only thing that is needed to create harmony. It's like Newtonian physics used to explain a Quantum physics universe. Beyond his apparent unfamiliarity with the 40-year work of deconstructionist critics who have shot to holes ideas about recognition, status and objectivity in judgment, has this gentleman ever heard of the internet? Has he spent any actual time comparing the work of the most acclaimed “po-biz” (or as I call it, “pizz”) poets with the work of 20-something students who write blogs? Does he even care that virtually anyone who follows such things knows that what he says is nonsense, that critical decisions to publish, recognize and evangelicize are routinely made without any regard for the standards and discernment he claims are somehow important in the propagation of poetry? I'm not trying to shoot fish in a barrel here, just pointing out that step one to constructing new strategies is admitting that the old paradigm has a problem.

A good entry point into Yezzi's deluded thinking comes when he finally offers up a decent metaphor. “Few lay people,” he writes, “engage with poetry deeply enough—say, in the way an auto mechanic engages with a Straight 6.” Assuming that he really means by the strange term “lay people” non-poet readers of poetry and not non-professional poets who read poetry, readers don't look at writing like auto mechanics look at cars, but like drivers look at cars. They drive for pleasure and a purpose, not to see what kind of bolts keep the manifold intact. If it's broke, they want it fixed, and are prepared to pay a lot of money to not have it explained to them. What's the point of a troubleshooting manual when the mechanics risk their careers to read one?

Yezzi, being a respected gentleman of the university poets club, with taxidermied pelts to show for it, talks a good critical romp, but for my money, I find these words of GK Asante, one of thousands of virtually anonymous poetry bloggers, to say more about the direction of contemporary poetry than his whole essay:

“What day will arrive
when from our selfish orbits
we make a new planet,
a landscape molten
on the backs of every hand?”

Here we find stated with astonishing starkness the new paradigm, the God in the machine mind that works at a deeper and more collective level than lit-crit or po-biz or the whole moldy cult of the individual can conceive. This way of thinking about poetry and art and life can breezily dismiss hierarchies such as Yezzi proposes, where his examples of proper critical practice (William Logan, Adam Kirsch, David Barber and Eric Ormsby) all conveniently work for the magazine he edits and are, like Yezzi himself, very bad poets (unlike, say, Auden, Eliot, Bogan, Moore and Winters, who were very good poets).

In this new paradigm, communication is beyond the level of the conscious mind, with memes that spread like lightning across vast distances of geography, language and social programming, seeming to converge as if from a galactic center. We've gone from the system of a speaker and a listener (or writer/reader) into one where everyone is a speaker, and there is a new set of ears growing from nowhere. It's our own answering spirit come to life at last, Rumi's reed flute asking and answering at the same time. It's as if we have gone back to the ancient cave of the poets, where everyone is called in service to the invisible, answering to our own powers, which are far greater than we know.

In such a world, poets do bond (what else have we got?), they do gush to each other, but it's only a kiss that heaven is listening, for there is way too much work on the path ahead, in order to get to those places that the poets of old only imagined, in order to ramp up the discernment concerning the nature of reality, the power of images, the connective alchemy of symbols. We can no longer seriously consider the poet's egoic skill in capturing something of a flat surface reality. We are freer than ever to chase down ultimate meaning, but the responsibility to get it right is also much greater, for there's a new reality on the other side that is crying to be born with our words, with our patient work at understanding, in atoms of thought.

So much prose has been poisoned by man's believing he is fallen and in that heartbreak of a lack of self-forgiveness spins the mental cages of examination and explanation, which never care that the vindications change with every season, unlike the ever-turbid feelings that keep the mind working to protect them. Poetry – in all its forms – offers a way outside of the mind trapped by self-loathing. It disrupts the patterns of meaning into stones of authenticity, which in time crystallize together in new structures, of fresh seeing, as the indirect scan of heavenly light becomes the full-on star itself.

If you don't know what I am talking about, just peruse Poet’s United, any poem at random, to see the way the whole is being recovered cell by cell. And this is just one example. We are no longer our father's keepers.

1 comment:

G.K. Asante said...


I cannot express enough words to say how right you are. So many journals and institutions have become platforms for what I consider to be "safe language." The paradigm shift, I believe, is on the horizon, though it will take some time to traverse it. I also think that the essential thinking today is that poetry should read similar to prose, bound in some way to the ground, to a less oblique, more direct yet cinematic way of perception.

As reality is so much beyond our encapsulated, rather, localized senses, to believe that limiting the surface area of ideas to this level, of pastoral, novel utilitarian imagery and theme is slightly troubling. That is not to say this type of writing is wrong or insufficient (some is rather good and interesting), but that it perpetuates a way of exploring our reality akin to using your breath to blow at sails. One would actually move, but at a pace that seems safe, if benign. These are lively oceans we tread, and we should seek out much bigger waves.

Poetry needs a renaissance, not of frilly language or platitudes or linguistic dissemination, but of a new paradigm, new heights of curiosity about the limits of all that which is beyond the self, the community, the geography. The reality. I hope that we can find our way to it soon.