Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Poets and Mommies

Needing to write today about something other than Robert and the increasing darkness of his medical problems, I may just write about poetry. It may be you will say that I have built a straw man and lit him on fire, but so be it.

Over the last several months, I've noticed three particular commentaries on poetry that stick with me, all of them in influential and widely-read places. They may well have little in common, but the collection area in my brain labeled, "thoughts about poetry with which I disagree," has lumped them together.

The first is from Terrance Hayes' essay in the most recent American Poet, "Notes in a Sentimental Mood." Hayes begins his essay by describing how taken aback he was to receive a hand-made card from his young daughter with sentiments so beautiful they made him weep--but it turned out that his daughter had copied them from a website, which made him feel tricked. Hayes then says about sentimentality:

When I'm feeling generous, I believe sentimentality is rooted to basic and forthright feeling. I know there is a broad category rooted to emotional laziness of the sort Oscar Wilde describes in a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas: 'The fact is that you were and are a typical sentimentalist. For a sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.'

Hayes' essay is intelligent and thought-provoking, don't misunderstand me. He is also a poet I respect. It's this grudge against sentiment, against feeling expressed in the phrase, "when I'm feeling generous," that raises my hackles. It speaks to a fear of expressing emotion, if you ask me. And why?

Hayes doesn't really explain that--he moves deftly through a lyric/impressionistic piece of lit crit, exploring the pros and cons of expressing or deflecting emotion. Much of his discussion finds a fulcrum in locating 'comfort level.' I thought, reading it, that he might make a surprising turn (what I would find surprising) toward acknowledging that feeling itself is important to poetry and literature. Instead, he ends here:

In the house of sentimentality, there is a room where the shades of Happiness (euphoria, joy, contentment, for example) blur and a room where the myriad shades of Sadness (grief, depression, melancholy, etc.) blur. There is a room for Anger, maybe for Nostalgia. I'm not proposing the house and its rooms be demolished. I am in the corridor of uncertainty between those rooms. I admit a bit of envy for anyone sure enough of how he or she feels to enter the appropriate room and be comforted. I admit a bit of suspicion toward anyone who is sure of how he or she feels about anything.

I think when I read this, I said, out loud, what a cop out. He's not proposing those rooms be demolished, but none of the cool people are going to walk in and talk to anyone in them. They're going to hang out in the corridor making comments on the people who walk into them. Note, too, how the issue of 'comfort'--that feelings, that literature might involve finding comfort--is connected by apposition and proximity to the final sentence that foregrounds 'suspicion.'

Next, was David Orr's mostly smashingly good essay on Robert Hass' poetry in last week's NYTBR. Orr's assessment of Hass' career and development (and Orr rightly questions what development means with regard to a poet and 'career') was, I thought, spot on. But, yet, at the end, Orr compares two poems from Praise (I agree with Orr, Hass' finest book), "Heroic Simile" and "Meditation from Lagunitas":

The poem ["Heroic Simile"] concludes, simply, “There are limits to imagination.” “Heroic Simile” is, then, a poem of imaginative empathy intended to show that however much we may understand the world outside ourselves, we must always return, as Hass puts it, to “separate fidelities.” It’s not a consoling thought, perhaps, but it’s a true one.

Hass’s later work, though, has been reluctant to embrace this kind of truth. Sometimes empathy bleeds over into self-regard (“What is to be done with our species?”); other times it congeals into a buttery sentimentality (“I want to end this poem singing”). Both outcomes are, of course, the result of wanting boundaries to blur, rather than recognizing them as necessary restrictions. “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which directly follows “Heroic Simile” and is Hass’s most famous poem, begins in the same dry mode as its predecessor: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” But the poem ends in an altogether damper place.

Orr then quotes the end of "Meditation at Lagunitas" and concludes: "One might say that the problem with Hass’s career is that as he’s gotten older, his poems have been more willing to say “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” than to declare, “There are limits to imagination.”

The pedantic and even dictatorial turn with aesthetic judgement is what bothers me here: poems are legitimate when empathy precludes feeling and warmth. Orr earlier defines "empathy" as involving the intimate understanding of other points of view, but without necessarily implying pity or kindness.

My blogger reaction to this is, WTF? My more considered reaction to this is that "Meditation at Lagunitas" is one of my favorite poems. I read Praise for the first time in 1985, only six years after it was originally published in 1979. "Meditation" is widely anthologized and widely read because people like it. It has an audience. The poem makes people feel. It invites people to feel. Why is that bad? Every time I read it, I always block out those ridiculous "dry" lines with which it begins. I think Hass should have left them off. Maybe.

In Orr's poetic universe, poetry is legitimate when there are boundaries, lines, "restrictions." Fences and walls to hold back emotion, I suppose. Pity and kindness are to be politely shunned. Not our type, my dear.

Finally, there is David Shields' review of Ander Monson's Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, also in the NYTRB. I've finished reading Shield's Reality Hunger, and Have been knocked out by its intelligent defense of, in short-hand, the mash-up, and its willingness to attack genre barriers. I think it's an incredibly cool book and feel no need to get all down and intelligensia about it to tell you exactly why.

Shields' review concludes by saying this:

Monson posits and furnishes a “post-postmodern world” that is “starting to secede away from memoir, from the illusion of representation. . . . Let’s make rules so we can follow them and then so we can break through them. By breaking through them we may start to feel alive again.” For Monson and for us, that’s the crux: he’s trying to make himself, make us, feel something, feel anything, do whatever he can to vanquish the numbness that is a result of enforcing “order, decorum,” ceremony, formula, expectation, genre-prison.
Fine. Attachment to strict rules and order, whether or not fulfilling genre expectations is always that, may indeed create a kind of cultural numbness, or an aesthetic numbness on the part of the artist. But I don't see how this connects to feeling. In fact, in the paragraph above this, Shields writes: "He wants writing to be equal to the chaos and contradiction of the cultural wiki we all contribute and subscribe to, and to be equal as well to the nothingness of nonexistence to which we all are destined."

Nothing makes me feel more numb than contemplating not being alive. That is, not existing. It strikes me that Shields' "being alive" has nothing to do with actually feeling anything, and everything to do with rebellion. Which is fine. I'm all for male posturing and male rebellion. Viva Shelley and Lord Byron!

What I'm saying, and sorry to offend men out there, but is this a guy thing? All of this, all of the above? A guy thing disguised as sober aesthetic pondering, pomp and circumstance? I mean, the majority (note I said "majority" and not "all") of men I've known would rather hit themselves repeatedly in the head with a hammer than talk about what they're "feeling," especially if it involves telling any of that to a girl.

So, if this is all just a guy thing, what's my problem? Well, for starters, I feel, in the back of my mind, always a sense of being bullied when I sit down to write poetry, especially. Can't make anything too emotional, now. Can't risk having the reader feel anything. And it's because of guys like Hayes and Orr and Shields and let's just go on and on.

I mean, this is not new stuff. Periodically in the history of literature, teams of opposing aesthetes sit down and strafe each other with accusations of girlishness. Thomas Sprat says of Abraham Cowley (1667): "But these Admirers of gentleness without sinews should know that different Arguments must have different Colours of Speech: that there is a kind of variety of Sexes in Poetry as well as in Mankind: that as the peculiar excellence of the Feminine Kind is smoothnesse and beauty, so strength is the chief praise of the Masculine." And Ben Jonson (1640): "as if that style were more strong and manly, that struck the ear with a kind of unevenness . . . Others there are, that have no composition at all; but a kind of tuning, and rhyming fall, in what they write. It runs and slides, and only makes a sound. Women's poets they are called: as you have women's tailors." Nice to have the dissertation handy.

And let me go further--sitting down to write about my son, I find myself in waters difficult to navigate--this is emotional stuff. How do I handle that? Especially when I speak in the voice of a mother? Mothers and what they are supposed to say and be like are among the most stereotyped beasts in the artistic world. Too reserved and you're cold and how could that bitch treat her kids like that? Too warm, too true to your feelings and you're an embarrassment, ridiculous, mocked. But when a guy opens up about his dad-hood feelings, people clap.

True enough. Expressing emotion in art is something like expressing emotion in public. What's appropriate? But shouldn't art take emotional risks? Shouldn't we risk being emotional "in public"? Is it wrong to invite your reader to feel?

Sometimes I think that guys like Orr and Hayes and Shields are saying, yes, yes, it is wrong to invite your reader to feel. That's the worst possible thing you could do. And I have to say that these apparent external injunctions ring in my ears precisely because of what I experience in my lived life with Robert.

We live in a culture in which empathy itself is under attack--from politicians and talk radio types pontificating that empathy is contemptuous and dangerous to a handful of jerks commenting on the Red Sox' Facebook feed. Yes--Curt Schilling and his wife have an autistic child. She's recently written a book about it and their struggles. The Red Sox Facebook page posted a status update and link about it--while many people commended the Schillings, just as many (and remember, these are all fans of the team) criticized them for "whining." One memorable post that can be repeated here was: "Boo frigging hoo." The writer went on to announce that everyone has problems and who are the Schillings to even talk about theirs? Why should anyone care?

I find this attitude a lot when I bother to read comment streams that follow articles about disability and children. It's disturbing. When the Washington Post printed an article defending the use of the word "r*tard," people were scabrous in defense of the article, mostly demanding their freedom of speech as though MacDonald's had decided to stop handing out hamburgers to people with money to pay for them. The Special Olympics, posting about the same article, included a comment stream in which one person noted, sure, have your freedom of speech, fine, it's a right--but where is the duty toward empathy and compassion in our society? Why are people not expected to show that and be considerate?

Look. I know it's a stretch. No one pays much attention to poetry or to art in the U.S. But, still, isn't it a little freakish that a lot of influential people writing about poetry value emotional coldness and distance and speak of empathy, pity, and kindness with suspicion and disdain?


Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet said...

Thank you for this. So much to say, but I need to red through it a few more times first. But for now, this:

I love the beginning of "Meditation at Lagunitas," AND I love the end. The beginning, because (I believe) Hass/the speaker is fully aware of, and wrestles with, his own attempt to create distance with cleverness, but that only deepens both the thinking and the feeling as they intertwine and push at/influence each other.

And the end - well, blackberry. Well, the beauty of the world. The poem is willing to acknowledge its own sentiment (distinct from sentimentality), AND its own sentimentality, and its trying to work out where and how those differ. And acknowledging those all, including abstract thought, as irrevocably twined, screw the false path of the mind/body (/soul) problem (which we have, despite the fact that it's an illusion). That's the point.

OK, I'm posting via phone, so having trouble figuring out if this makes sense. But still: *this* is what I'm trying to do when I write, these days. Or why bother.

More soon.


Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet said...

OK, one more.

"Mothers and what they are supposed to say and be like are among the most stereotyped beasts in the artistic world. Too reserved and you're cold and how could that bitch treat her kids like that? Too warm, too true to your feelings and you're an embarrassment, ridiculous, mocked."

And when you try to write about something that is, after all, a fundamental and common human experience that, whatever its particulars, raises some really powerful questions about (to start) self/other, memory, language, biology, culture - something that has emotional charge and intellectual content beyond measure - you get the equivalent of an eye-roll.

Or maybe it's the fear of the eye-roll that makes me, counter-phobic that I am, want to stick the fork in the toaster. Don't write mommy poems? What's that? Here's another. Screw you.

Anyway: I'm beginning to rant. Jeneva, this was an excellent, thoughtful post, full of intelligence and empathy, straw man or no. Now where's that match?

Robert said...

Really interesting post, Jeneva! I agree with Lisa that I love both the beginning and the end of “Meditation at Lagunitas.” I have some doubts about parts in the middle, though, hehe. Interestingly, for me it’s the “dry” opening that is heartbreaking, while the “blackberry, blackberry” at the end is powerful but distancing. I remember a lecture where Tony Hoagland regretted the “sentimentality” of the “I want to end this poem singing” ending of another Hass poem, and I thought “But I love that ending!” I wonder what Orr thinks of Hass’s incredibly (to me) moving elegy for his brother—whether he would dismiss it as sentimentality. I suspect so. His loss.

Your comments on Terrance Hayes’ essay stirred up some rather off-the-wall reflections in me. I like the contrast between the rooms of emotion (in Hayes” “house of sentimentality”) and the “corridor of uncertainty.” I think for me it’s a question of commitment, the commitment involved in entering a room rather than staying in the corridor, and commitment always results in emotion because it involves risk. Writing is inevitably emotional, if unfashionable, when it commits itself to the world it creates.

To give more detached writing its due, though, writing that withholds that commitment is arguably more honest, in the sense that “I’m sitting at my desk writing a story” is always more honest than “Harry took the wand and felt a sudden warmth in his fingers.” I’m not sure the “honesty” of that approach, however, is honestly as big a part of its appeal as the chance to show off the writer’s intelligence—after all, that sort of meta-awareness is pretty much our modern definition of intelligence: it always SEEMS more intelligent to say “It’s ironic that I’m aware of myself thinking about a dark and stormy night” than to say “It was a dark and stormy night.” However, I think sometimes the most honest thing may not be to comment insightfully on Hogwarts or San Francisco but to let yourself get wet and be part of it.

Dale said...

I don't *think* it's so much a male thing (though I find my own gender mysterious and don't pretend to speak for it with authority) as literary professional thing.

For many of these people -- though most of them would deny it -- what poetry is for, primarily, is establishing one's place in the pecking order, proving one's coolness. It may have other uses, but that's its real function in their lives: to prove they're not ordinary -- even, if they are extra specially cool, to confer immortality. That's the big prize; that's what they're really in it for. (Which doesn't make them bad poets. That's what Shakespeare was in it for too, so far as I can guess from his sonnets.)

So anything that threatens the hierarchy -- as ordinary emotions, which feel the same to anybody, do -- subverts their whole project. What is so awful about being moved by copied verses? Simply this: that it means you're not different from the person who wrote them and the person that copied them. You're not special. And nothing could be worse than that.

jeneva said...

Hi all, thanks for engaging in conversation. Lisa--you are an amazing phone typist! I read "Meditation" often as poem about fear and uncertainty--about the expression of those emotions through a rather erudite (but somewhat camouflaged) internal debate about linguistic signs. It's very, well, 80s in its parsing of signs and signifiers--the fear of language disappearing, the fear of the world disappearing, an inability or unwillingness to understand that res and verba are a false dichotomy. Which is why the ending, the repetition of the word "blackberry"--italicized to set it off as word or thing?--is so moving. It is, perhaps, a will to make a word into presence.

Flip to page 36 and read "Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan"!

But "Meditation" achieves its power because it invited the reader to feel, whether the reader wishes to do so or not. It invites the reader in--through the use of aphoristic statements such as "Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances." Do I want to agree with that or not? Resist or comply? And the poem's structure is invested in dichotomy: word or thing? New or old? Particular or general? Presence or absence? 'No one thing' or correspondence? And I think this is how the emotion and sentiment of the midsection of the poem gain traction--dichotomy, if we refuse to be partisan and choose, leads to uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us want something that feels secure--thus childhood, making love--'it hardly had to do with her,' though, right? By the end, he's questioning memory. Of course. The poem forms its own reality in which we are comforted--although, simultaneously, it confounds us and undoes us.

Emotion fills the vacuum, but the more you reread the poem, the more chimerical the emotion is. Yet I keep wanting to read it into the poem. It invites me to. I feel comfortable there. It's an odd piece, in the end, although it seems to some, sentimental.

Robert--it's interesting that the language play of relationships comes up. I did invite that by invoking a male/female dichotomy--and 'commitment' comes up in what you say. Yes, commitment is about risk--I suppose, although I'm not sure I see it as such. Maybe for me, commitment is more about coming to terms with security. Not sure that makes sense.

Dale, interesting that you would bring up Shakespeare's sonnets. Having, back in my youth, studied Renaissance sonnets and read boatloads of them, I would say that Sir Philip Sidney's sonnets are far better, at the technical level, than Shakespeare's--as are Wyatt's and even Spenser's--but these poets, Sidney, Wyatt and Spenser, traffic in wit and their poems tend to deflect emotion. Shakespeare's poems have less technical brilliance, but he foregrounds emotion, and that's probably one reason he's read more today than the others.

jeneva said...

I also wanted to say that I also enjoy poetry that tends to deflect emotion--Claudia Rankine and Anne Carson are two poets who come to mind right away.

I didn't mean to suggest that only one type of poetry is legitimate. That's not the case--the world is a richer place when more than one aesthetic is validated. How often poetry politics, like national politics, tends to degenerate into a zero sum game.

Robert said...

I agree that it's not a zero-sum game, especially when it comes to Anne Carson! By commitment involving risk, I meant in the sense that the commitment involved in having a child, say, or in loving anyone, opens one to loss and grief. I think that's connected in literature to the commitment to a particular STORY (or maybe I should say a PARTICULAR story). We grieve when Anna Karenina dies because we are totally IN that world (in that room, in the mind of a particular individual).

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