Thursday, March 25, 2004

This seems a good moment to mention trobar clus. When I write of the novel & then cinema taking on some of the social functions of poetry, I don’t mean this abstractly. Troubadour poets, such as Arnaut Daniel, understood that the distinctions between audiences had clear formal implications some 900 years ago. Trobar leu or trobar plan, literally light or plain trobar, trobar meaning to invent or compose verse, appears to have been a populist art, immediately comprehensible to a listener with an untrained ear. Trobar clus, meaning secret or closed, represented the other extreme, writing that was principally intended for one’s fellow poets. Trobar clus is sometimes characterized as being the most difficult & obscure, but its sense of difficulty is not unlike what one finds in other fields that have an undercurrent of competition – something poetry has always had, long before slams or Yale Younger Poets contests – it’s really a mode of virtuosity, like an ice skater able to do quad-quad combination jumps in a field where everyone else is only doing triples or quad-doubles. Trobar clus was – I would argue still is – the poetics of complete engagement. It is the medium in which the poet demands the very utmost of him- or herself. And of the reader as well. It’s the mode of poetry that continually seeks to renew & expand the field of what is possible. Daniel’s invention of the sestina, for example, was a high point for the trobar clus of his time. And in its 13th century manifestation, trobar clus incorporated elements previously outside of accepted norms – for example, influences of both Arabic poetry & Arabic mysticism. Some of its obscurantism may well have been intended to keep the bonfires of the Inquisition from about one’s ankles.


Between leu & clus, there was a middle path, trobar ric, or rich trobar, which carried many of the surface features of trobar clus, but without the inner density. One can read this as intended to create a buffer literature, something for those beyond one’s immediate peers, but close enough to create a sense of something more than the plain modes for the masses. Over 300 years before Shakespeare.


The rise of the novel (and later cinema) would relieve of certain communicative duties – things that heretofore had been possible largely, if not only, in poetry – responsibilities that had in fact largely been relegated to the simpler, more narrative modes of trobar leu. One might go further – I’m sketching this out very broadly – to suggest that when cinema later emerged to relieve the novel of many of these same social requirements, the novel’s surviving social role as a form became rather like that of trobar ric. Indeed, even independent cinema carries some of the elements of self-satisfaction that attach to the ric mode.


Often enough we hear the phrase “a poet’s poet,” as if that were a sign of a certain marginality, yet if we follow the rather concentric model posed by the troubadours, we arrive at a different reading. Trobar clus – the poetry of total engagement – represents the elements of poetry that, by definition, cannot be bled off into other genres. It really is a kind of bindu point, an evolving center out which poetry itself evolves.


The novel & cinema may well have their own formal elements and histories – one can see the work of a Stan Brakhage as a filmic equivalent of trobar clus, the work of David Lynch or Antonioni something closer to trobar ric. Films like Dumb and Dumberer suggest that there is, in fact, no lower limit.


But something very much akin to trobar clus still exists in poetry & it’s the feature I almost always find most engaging in the best post-avant poetries. That is what unites a relatively unlettered author like Frank Stanford, at least prior to his attempts at self-taming his work through an MFA, with people like Lisa Jarnot or Jennifer Moxley or Graham Foust or Harryette Mullen – it’s not that they write alike. They don’t. But each pushes their poetry & poetics to its limit and then some.


Not all post-avant poetry strikes me this way – the New American poetics have been around now for over 50 years and there as many opportunities here for poets to evolve what amounts to a trobar ric – it looks like its elders, feels & sounds like its elders, & it may even be more well-crafted, poem for poem, but it’s not doing anything you haven’t seen already. It’s not so much interested in expanding the space for poetry as it is in making it shine.


At its best, I think that’s the major argument for most School of Quietude poetries as well. It’s a very different kind of goal for poetry & accordingly leads to very different kinds of results. The further out historically a mode of writing goes from its particular source, the more it transforms the underlying aesthetics. If Allen Ginsberg showed how to change poetry by bringing in many forgotten or unheeded elements in the 1950s, Antler’s goal as a poet seems to be to write the poetry Ginsberg made possible. That’s okay, but it’s a different project & ultimately a different poetics. But there is no way to be “like” Ginsberg by writing “like” him. Indeed, the more you tried, the further away you would get. The only way to approach it is by doing something entirely different altogether. Which is why somebody who’s just 25 looks bizarrely nostalgic & out of it if he or she attempts to write in a Ginsbergesque fashion today.


That nostalgia drive, the impulse to reproduce what is always already there, only with your name on it, is a powerful one. The aesthetic politics of the School of Quietude is driven by a great desire not only for order, but for the world to be made as it “always” seemed to be. There is no room there for a trobar clus, precisely because the history of literature, from the SoQ perspective, must invariably be a narrative of decline.


Which is why a Dana Gioia seems like a perfectly reasonable example of this mode – he knows he’s conservative, politically as well as poetically, as does William Logan. But I’m always amazed at people like Marilyn Hacker, who is not a conservative in the slightest. I sense desire in her poetry going so often in two absolutely opposite & contradictory directions. Indeed, that’s the drama in her poetry as well as its source of power. In some ways, it’s the absolute inverse of Ezra Pound, whose own writing exploded the very five-foot bookshelf his critical side so obsessively sought.