Saturday, September 10, 2005

Pleasure, McGrath & Young (what does it all mean?)

Interesting how there is a politics of writing, or multiple politics of writing--Language (too lazy to type the = ), formalists, postmodernists, etc., etc.--and there is also a politics of reading, promulgated by English teachers and critics, which may or may not have relationships exactly contiguous with the politics of writing.

For example, our tenth grade English teachers (and I've been a tenth grade English teacher) encourage us to read to assemble meaning, and usually drive us toward one particular meaning with variations. We see the poem as something that is linear and works toward a conclusion, gathering strands of meaning as it goes, moving toward an integrated conclusion. Some poems do, indeed, do that. And some don't. Yet we are encouraged to believe (as readers, rather than writers) that a poem is successful when it has delivered a meaning much as a woman might deliver a child. That its success rests upon its communication of emtion and its level of profundity--profundity being symptomatic of an emerging meaning.

But dulce et utile--sweet and useful. That the text should create pleasure other than that achieved through vicarious emotional experience is something not taught much anymore. These pleasures might include the energy and movement of the language, the tonal shadings of language, the twists of syntax, humor, etc. That's the difference between Sidney's sonnets and Shakespeare's, I think. Sidney's are more about the pleasure of the text, rather than extractable meaning. Shakespeare's have more authority due to their aphoristic character (the nature of the closing couplet in a Shakepearian sonnet is to establish authority and complete closure), therefore they seem more profound and, thus, appear to be more important because they mean more. But Sidney's are brilliant--'I am not I, pity the tale of me' in their linguistic twists and turns--and they are more frequently Petrarchan, which is more apt to resist complete closure.

Is it a sign of the lingering puritanism in our artistic culture that art must be serious in some capacity in order to have status? That is, it should weigh more heavily on the utile than on the dulce. This seems to be at issue in this month's issue of Poetry. Danielle Chapman pans Campbell McGrath's Pax Atomica because it is too light-hearted: "[the book] is a nostalgic, pop-culture-fueled orgy, indiscriminately celebrating every TV show, movie, rock anthem, or icon that the poet has ever encountered . . . ." Not only is the book too light-hearted (see the review), but it fails to discriminate--that is, fails to rank its subjects in order of importance. This, to me, is part of McGrath's genius--high and low brow are combined, often with a jester voice that speaks to the truth of things. In fact, in Shakespearian histories and tragedies, there is frequently some sort of comic moment that amplifies and clarifies some issues of the drama. That's why Henry the IV, part one is such a great play.

When I read Pax Atomica, I thought I remembered it touching upon aspects of our cultural frivolity set against the nuclear sword of Damocles of the Cold War--but I'd have to read it again. I guess you can't get much more serious than nuclear war . . . . And another thing I like about McGrath is the way in which meaning is not extractalbe in an absolute form, but is more like a net, or multiple pathways through the text. Isn't it Conrad in Heart of Darkness who has a character talk about 2 types of meaning--one that can be extracted like a nutmeat, and one that is more like a nimbus--and the tale told will be more like a nimbus?

What is interesting about the "Eight Takes" review in Poetry is that a review of McGrath's book is followed by one of Dean Young's elegy on toy piano. [full disclosure: Dean is my advisor at Warren Wilson this semester] Chapman notes that "in addition to being real poetry, it's so entertaining." By real poetry, she seems to mean that Young's poetry is serious under the surface: "these poems are far from being merely funny though." That is, pleasure is fine, as long as it's an apparent mask for something darker.

I don't mean to take away from Dean's positive review--I love both of these books--it just seems odd to pit the two poets against each other, and force them into some odd hierarchy based on a politics of reading.

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