Monday, May 07, 2007

Limestone Landscape

A couple of interesting asides from Poetry's latest weird foray into reviewing: "Pure Products," in which two reviewers are set against each other like mud wrestlers. Two different aesthetics, two reviewers going at each other about why the other picked the book s/he did to review.

1. Ange Mlinko writes of David Yezzi's apparent narrow-mindedness: "By not asking 'How should I read this poem?' he reveals his position. That is to say, he doesn't believe the question 'How to read?' has more than one answer." They get into some spirited mud-slinging about "position" and aesthetics, but the key question here is that there are many ways to "read," and they're not all political or anchored in aesthetics.

One reads a poem from a different period much differently than one reads a poem written today, for example, the earlier period informed by notes and the changing definitions of words. One reads in the contemporary period looking for different organizing principles in the poem: imagery, or association, or linked words and phrases, or metaphor, or symbol. Some poems act on narrative. Some create a symbolic structure. Some work on the premises of juxtaposition. Others use the principle of repetition in ways new and ways familiar. I think that one of the problems with teaching poetry and reading it is a tendency to read in a New Critical style: looking for unity of image, symbol, metaphor--looking at that metalevel only, not tracing the words, the sounds, the tone, the voice--thinking in terms of displacement, that is, especially displacement of context and setting--that is, the poem is really about something else, not about the clash of ideas or identities or images or meanings.

2. David Yezzi writes of Ange Mlinko's postmodernist hang-ups: "Tradition is not the monolith Mlinko supposes; rather, it's akin to the limestone landscape she admires in Auden, formed by the many poems flowing over it, shaping it, imprinting it with human hands." He's right about this, regardless of political position or tradition we follow: our poems are echoes of what we've read before, of the tradition we've absorbed. Our own poems do flow over "tradition," wearing it down and bending, carving, and re-shaping whatever the base rock of our tradition is.

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