Saturday, January 28, 2006

"I Will Go Down with This Ship"

The editors, staff writers & critics, and frequent contributors to Poetry do seem very focused on a significant discussion: what makes poetry great, or what makes some poetry minor and some major? I find this fascinating, and, as with all good discussions, the tenor of it is not certain or closed off and allows readers a point of entry.

Too often with these articles, there is a semblance of negative definition: I know what is not great, or I can definitely spot the minor (no matter how poorly defined); that is, I can spot the absence of what I mean. On the one hand, I don't mind this tentative approach, as it represents a sensibility that is somewhat cautious; on the other hand, the writer leaves the reader without any discursive definitions or boundaries established, which, in the wrong hands, leaves an impression of critical smarminess (I know what I mean, don't you wish you did as well?).

Mary Kinzie's essay in the February '06 issue is an interesting case. Her objective is to assess the poetry critic's strengths, weaknesses, and biases. And she does a fine and nuanced job, for the most part. I get it.

But then, there are chunks of stuff that make my head spin--and I wonder, is this a case in which one looks back at what one has said and thinks, 'oh my, I didn't mean that', or is this a case in which there is a whole other dialogue going on in a parallel sphere into which I do not have entry? For example, this happens a lot in politics--certain very innocent looking words are heavily freighted with meaning, and mean something very specific to a certain audience.

So, let's take a look at this: "But style does hamper readers of poetry. It keeps the singer of odd language from drinking at the pool with the other creatures. Style has a kind of personality. Even when appealing, it can be dangerously quiet, jumpily tender, heavily elegant. It's weird; sometimes one likes the weirdness." What does this mean? That the truly great writer has no style? She equates style, rightly, with personality, which then makes me wonder why she would seem to insist that worthy art has no personality--or character? Or is she drawing some kind of distinction between personality and character (she does not mention the latter word)? I suppose a person could have an interesting personality, but no true character--yet, on the other hand, that sort of distinction treads so close to Old Society mores--interesting figure, dear, but just not our sort of person.

Ah. And there I note that Eliot, of course, deems art the realm of the impersonal. By which, I think I remember, he means that the poet conceals his personality behind a mask, because great art speaks for a people as a whole, not simply for the individual. Art is then, not an individual voice, but a collective voice. If I am wrong, forgive me, it is a beautiful day outside, and I am longing to be in it, and not really a day to sit sequestered in the dank, dark, mahogany-paneled lecture hall in which Eliot holds forth. So, the, not a day to sit down and re-read Eliot's essays.

Isn't this still, though, a central problem of contemporary art? The idea that there was a collective cultural voice broke down (especially in America) around the time that Eliot was writing his seminal essays--"The Social Function of Poetry" is dated 1945, "What is Minor Poetry?" and "What is a Classic?" both date from 1944, and "The Three Voices of Poetry" is dated 1953. And Eliot was well aware of this breakdown. It's what his poetry is all about. Eliot knows the Titanic is going down, and he's not heading for the life rafts. Yes, Dido speaks also for Eliot, when she sings, "I will go down with this ship." OK, that was a low blow. I admit it.

Is this what Kinzie is referencing in her essay? An Eliotian (gads, how does one make an adjective out of Eliot?) world view of art? Is it the subtext against which we all still struggle?

Aren't the terms a little archaic at this point? Look, the point is, we really can't defend entirely the view of Eliot, Yeats, and Woolf (all three of them tremendous social snobs, deeply invested in the aristocracy & the bigotry of the ruling class). But a cogent point is made by saying that art must tap--in some way--a collective consciousness in order to be preserved, which is what makes art last, at any rate--greatness is another distinction accorded by the tastemakers of the moment.

But it strikes me that one need not put on the mask of the impersonal to do this. There must be balance and tension between a sort of thematic devotion and an expression of personality. Style and personality are not just the froth of artistic experience: these textures are what make a work distinguishable from, say, a physics textbook. OK, over-the-top example. Style and personality are not jimmies on the ice cream cone; they are what makes a voice recognizable and human, which is to say, individual. They are components that are integral to the work. A consciousness that is entirely collective is something out of Orwell: a dehumanized distillation of whatever the majority sees fit to let rise to the top. And let's not forget, the majority in this country has recently elected George W. Bush. The collective consciousness of a people is usually not focused on harmony, peace and do-goodism. The collective consciousness of a people (a nation or ethnic group) is quite often focused on obliterating difference, killing the traitors among them, and many other petty and horrifically destructive things.

Style, personality, and technique matter because these are among the things that keep art human. And this on top of my objections to the socio-cultural politicization of the 'great' and 'major'.

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