Monday, October 13, 2008

No definitive position

Having burned my hand really badly on a pan that came out of a 475 degree oven, having managed to aloe and ice it enough to convince myself that I could avoid emergency medical care, I now feel capable of typing, which must mean I've done something right.  Spoken by the woman who didn't want to call an ambulance when she was reasonably certain she was having a heart attack (and was proved to be right) because it might scare her kids.  Well, thank goodness is was a mild one.

I know the emergency room drill, and it just seems better to stay away if you can possibly help it--unless it's Robert, of course.  At one point when he was really little, we'd get taken back to a bay at Georgetown and the big excitement would be whether we'd been in that bay before or whether it was a bay we had not yet visited.  

Anyway, I had these vague ambitions to write on David Orr's NY Times piece, "Yet Once More, a Laurel Not Bestowed."  The article raised a number of questions for me that I feel I cannot fully answer.  First of all, Orr notes that Eliot, Brodsky, and Milosz have all won the Nobel--that Brodsky and Milosz were living here, but their works focused on their respective countries of origin.  He notes that Eliot's status as an American at the time he won the Nobel prize is debatable.  Certainly, that is a valid statement.  Although it made me wonder how much impact high Modernism has really had on British poetics.  Much of what I come across in British poetry seems only lightly impacted by Modernism, while the movement has certainly had a major impact on American poetry.

Second, when I read work from poets of other nationalities, most often in the translation issues of journals, I'm always struck by what appears to me to be some kind of freedom to express intense emotional range.  I often think, wow, if I wrote that as an American, I'd be branded sentimental or worse.  I feel envious of this.  Having recently placed a poem with Literary Mama that is emotionally raw, I'm glad to have done so with an e-zine dedicated to mothers writing about motherhood--I'm not convinced I could have found a typical poetry journal that would have taken it.  As an American, when considering suffering as a subject, I most often hear the echoes of the words "distance," "compression," and so on.  

I'm sure whoever is reading this will think of a dozen examples of American work I'm not considering, but I wonder if Americans really are too skittish about emotion and suffering.  At the present moment, writing about it often becomes heavily managed.  And, on a cultural level, American poets often see writing about deeply felt or tragic events as opportunistic.  I'm thinking specifically of 9/11 here.  Events of this magnitude do not always seem off-limits to our European counterparts.  Rather, they become part of the territory.

The cultural differences between America and what constitutes the E.U. are staggering.  There are other ways of looking at this, but America's literary tradition begins with a sense of profound difference from our European counterparts--we were the big, masculine frontier, they were the decorous garden party (an attitude that comes through rather clearly in "The Waste Land" btw).  I recall the opening pages of James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, in which the two sisters who will be captured by the Indians are set clearly into that dynamic: the dark-haired one is the adventurous one, capable of surviving life on the frontier, the blond-haired one is overly cultivated and sheltered and revels in her sense of shelter.  That gender dynamic--the American male versus the effeminate European--stamps American literature heavily.  Thus, perhaps, an American reluctance toward anything that smacks of sentimentality?  Anything that sounds an emotional bell too clearly or loudly?  

Just thoughts before realizing the hand must rest now.  No definitive positions taken.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

so interesting, too, given the seemingly endless "political" debate about elitism and folksiness. I'd much rather look at the world, though through a poetic prism, so thank you for your provocative words...