Tuesday, December 04, 2007


When I last reviewed a film here (Michael Clayton), somebody identified only as Vance wrote in the comments stream,:

Are you ever struck, Ron, by the difference between your movie reviews and your writing on poetry? From my perspective, they might as well be written by different people. The movies you watch are mostly the same ones I read about in the Times, and the kinds of things you focus on (plot, stars) are not so far from that genre either. The same can't be said for the poetry reviews!

I used to be struck by this too when Michael Bérubé was still blogging. Without knowing in advance, you'd never guess the comments on music and on books came from the same mind. (Similar prose facility, I suppose, but radically different notions of what's worth talking about, what counts as evidence or a reference point, what the goal might be.)

The answer is Yes. And also No. It’s really a cogent point & one I’ve thought about a good deal since he first made it, but drafting my note on Lust, Caution brought it back front & center. So maybe I ought to venture a response.

There are really two kinds of points being made here about me – Michael Bérubé has to fend for himself, which he does perfectly well – one about my discussion of “stars,” the other about my discussion of “plot” in cinema. They’re really different points.

Cinema, like theater & much music, is a collaborative art form. It’s entirely possible to be uninterested in every other element of an event, but to be entranced by how well (or even how badly) a performer does his or her thing. Like John Latta writing about how Kit Robinson or Tom Mandel works in The Grand Piano without necessarily – at least in the same note – presiding over a presentation of the whole project. Most poetry – tho not all – is a profoundly individual endeavor. Emily Dickinson being the iconic instance thereof. Tho in fact I have written about books noting only what is written blurbwise on the jacket – that got a bunch of angry responses – or talking about the editing of an issue of a magazine, rather than the work therein.

I agree with Pierre Bayard that literature – he goes further & says culture – is a “system” before it is individual books, individual poets, individual poems. Which is what I mean when I say that there is no such thing as a poet, there are only kinds of poets. It’s not about what you write – it’s about location, location, location. What you write is what gets you into (or out of) a particular location. I know it’s not how it feels when you or I write a poem, but that is the overarching social dynamic that takes place. One of the reasons I keep putting in links about English-language poetry stories from such diverse places as Nigeria & Pakistan is because I want to understand now what the world of my poetry is going to look like just a few decades hence, when such poetries are as much a presence in the then-equivalent of Jacket as Australian verse is now.

Cinema is a system also, and occasionally I will touch on that. But it is also a formal language – more than one, in fact – and the role of narrative there is inescapable. Cinema is not separate from narrative, except under explicit and exceptional conditions. In fact, I respond totally to the work of Nathaniel Dorsky, Abigail Child, Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage, Warren Sonbert, Henry Hills & others who work under those exceptional conditions. But, like Warren Sonbert, I can bathe in the light of an Alfred Hitchcock for hours.

As I’ve argued before – and no doubt will be forced to again – poetry’s role as a carrier of narrative declined markedly with the rise of the novel. An alternative had come along that handled narrative far more efficiently. The form of the novel was explicitly designed to do so. And the history of the novel is that it too has struggled once cinema arrived because the novel's social necessity was then taken over by the flickering screen. To what degree today are novels (& especially short stories) simply plot ideas for screenplays? Quite a bit more than we might be willing to admit. This is why the “traditional” novel has declined markedly, to be replaced instead by its own School of Quietude (Bellow, Cheever, Updike, Roth) on the one hand, and a series of genre alternatives, each of which is driven by the needs of its specific genre. In addition to the usual genre alternatives, sci-fi, romance¹, porn, such fields as “experimental” and even “Oprah” (aka “book club “) fiction all thrive – it is only the “serious, traditional” novel that is in its death throes.

This is why poetry today that still tries to conceive itself as straightforward narrative looks as awkward as somebody in a football uniform performing classic ballet (on ice). The social necessity has not been there for over 150 years, meaning that it is arguing – whatever else it may be about – for a certain world, one every bit as pathological as the Little House on the Prairie lifestyle some born-again Christians emulate, ignorant of its historical parameters and limitations. It’s not the only aspect of the School of Quietude that needs to be looked at in a psychiatric framework, but it is one of the most obvious.

But what is true for poetry is not necessarily true to the same degree for fiction, even less so for cinema and television. To write about them on equivalent terms would in fact falsify their social as well as formal dynamics. The rise of reality TV, for example, needs to be viewed as a formal divergence between narrative and fictive (tho, in fact, it is far more fictive than it likes to let on). Which is why looking at Project Runway can actually tell you things about Robert Pinsky. Or Charles Bernstein. But you won’t see them if you don’t actually look at what they’re doing.

So, yes, it does make sense that I would focus on different aspects with regards to cinema and television than with poetry. But it is because I take each of them equally seriously.


¹ Read Pam Rosenthal if you want the best in romance literature. And read her “Molly Weatherfield” novels to see what a theory-savvy second-wave feminist can do with S/M porn.


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