Tuesday, October 14, 2003

 

A second question those of us participating in the retreat have been asked to consider is the following:

 

What underlying ethical, social, and political values inform our practices as poets and poetry teachers? How can we pursue our knowledge of such values?

How to make sense of an art form that encompasses not only the politics of Pablo Neruda & Ho Chi Minh, but Ezra Pound? That was in many respects the first medium, the first profession, to embrace the lives of gays & lesbians, from Sappho to Whitman to Stein & yet also included a professional homophobe like Eli Siegel? The current head of the NEA is a poet, a registered Republican, who just in the past week talked to Terry Gross on Fresh Air of the importance of bringing art to the masses in a way that does not condescend to them while at the same time promoting a massive tour of plays by a British writer of 400 years ago in what must be the most condescending spoon feeding of Kulchur in the 37-year history of that agency, funded by no less than the Defense Department. William Logan, the closest thing there is to a house poet & poet-critic at The New Criterion, the most programmatically reactionary cultural magazine in the language, has work in the September 22nd issue of The Nation.

 

The form of a retreat itself, an internal discussion of peers behind closed doors, a mode most closely associated in 2003 with the World Trade Organization & parallel international organizations, is itself an interesting albeit problematic form through which to contemplate such things. Poets have been known to appreciate irony & I hope we appreciate that one.

 

But what really strikes me about these questions is the degree to which the one above could have been asked in exactly this format in 1970. It is perhaps the most depressing aspect – or should I say prospect – of this retreat. There is not one thing in this list of questions that could not have been asked as easily – indeed far more easily – 30+ years ago. More than anything this tells me (1) that either there are no good answers or, worse, (2) that whatever answers poets have given to date have been shown to be inadequate. Why else keep beating your forehead against the same brick wall?

 

I think it is clear that poetic form is morally neutral – it is as available to the communist George Oppen as it is to the British spy in Persia, Basil Bunting. At the same time, I think it is clear also that form itself makes an argument, that rhyme is a figure for order, that narrative – and I mean the kind of vulgar narrative that enables Logan to refer to his parents’ “rusty prewar love” as if there were nothing more to their lives than an endless string of clichés – that narrative exists through the suppression of difference, divergence, anomaly. It is how one uses these forces that interests me far more than the forces themselves.

 

In that sense, it is impossible to imagine the trope of Logan’s mother “a brunette, hurried in her cloth coat / through postwar Sundays, which fell / as they were meant to fall, too slowly” as intending anything other than the guffaw it provokes, a Bulwer-Lyttonism of the spirit, as though film director Ed Wood had reincarnated as a poet. It’s funny precisely because it doesn’t mean to be.

 

There is an entire worldview tucked into a phrase like as they were meant to fall. Meaning is positioned, but agency is invisible. Right order is something that existed in the past. The narrative, by definition, must be one of decline.

 

What are the values in a specific act of writing? Is Logan deliberately rendering his parents pathetic in hopes that we will sympathize with poor him to have been raised by such sad, inept people? There is something lurid, even pornographic in this exhibitionism of dysfunctionality and it is worth asking how it might fit into a larger program that actively argues the necessity of critics, such as Logan himself, to inform us as to what is or is not good. Even more disturbing is its presence in The Nation, ostensibly the journal of record of the American left. Logan also appeared in that journal on June 14, 2001, in which he compared a lover to “The Globe,” complete with – I promise I’m not making this up – “intuitive seas” and “rocky spine.”

 

My point is that any attempt to correlate poetry & value, especially political value, ethics, appears headed for a complete garble. We do the polis in diff’rent voices.

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