Kowit Of The County; or, To Our Too-Coy Mistress
I am sure this very lengthy article by Steve Kowit will be of absolutely no interest to most of my readers, but I feel compelled to post it here. This is the sort of article that I frankly don't know what do with, short of writing an article of my own that would be almost as long as this one. And, frankly, I have no intention of setting onto such a project at the moment. The article does make some important points that about contemporary poetry, and the direction of poetry in this day and age, that need to be considered and carefully thought-through. Just a brief example, though, in the interim. Kowit argues that the current poetical and critical privileging of the 'incomprehensible,' or the 'difficult,' is one of the primary reasons for the current disinterest in poetry. As I see it, there's a great deal of truth to this, but like a statistic and a bikini, what is concealed is often more interesting than what is immediately revealed.
One thing not revealed: that the Eliotic notion of 'difficult' poetry in the modern age seems always to return, as if it were the delta of modern poetical thought, has been pretty profoundly misunderstood, and needs to be throughly recontextualized, not just in a theoretical light, but in the light of what Eliot understood as difficult poetry; Eliot's notion of difficulty was not a call to make poetry beyond understanding, or to make meaning irrelevant it was a Carrollian call to make the poem something deliberately countersensical, to effect sensibility without reducing the poetic form to little more than a versified thesis. This is where Carroll's influence becomes increasingly important: the poem, not unlike, say, Carroll's "Jabberwocky," has to penetrate the intelligence without pandering to it in some desperate plea for acceptance and acknowledgement. Eliot did famously say, although there was always an aspect of facetious and desperate self-explanation on his part, that meaning was a piece of meat to be thrown to the dogs while the poet did his job. What Eliot never said explicitly was that meaning was irrelevant. No, in fact, quite the contrary, if one follows Eliot's metaphor appropriately. It is, indeed, central, a device without which the poet cannot commit his larceny. Remove the meat, however apparently tangential to the project at hand, and the poet walks head first into the dog's jaws. Stevens said it more plainly, though certainly more densely, that a poem must resists the intelligence almost completely-- with the key word there being "almost."
The idea of poetic difficulty, of elusiveness, is not really that of the perpetually ambiguous or "indeterminate" (how insidious that word has become thanks to contemporary critical parlance!), but rather the poetic of gamesmanship, or even anticipatory courtship: the mind is sufficiently engaged, and participant in the creationary process, to have a sense of an idea, a sense of meaning and/or purpose, but not a concrete sense or a fixed sense. In invoked the idea of "anticipatory courtship." Think of it this way: the mind has to be allowed to think that it is "pretty sure" it understands what is happening, but not be sufficiently confident in that to reduce the poem, to be able to reduce its workings and say, "well, that is that." No, poetry has to maintain a kind of mystery to it, a mystery one needs engage longer and more intimately; more importantly, it must be a kind of endless mystery, a constant process by which a new aspect is revealed, or at least glimpsed, with each new encounter. This what one might call the poetics of alien familiarity, or perhaps tangible mystery. Perhaps what Eliot and Stevens (among others) were really calling for was a poetry that was a Coy Mistress, not so much refusant, but constantly nudging readers to court it further, all the while never specifically "promising" anything.
Maybe that's the lynch-pin: "promising." Eliot and Stevens, among others including the New Critics, became increasingly frustrated with the paraphrase, and the heresy of it (as Cleanth Brooks once put it), and it was a legitimate concern: think of the frustration of poets and other creative writers confronted with audiences searching for "the point" so they could abnegate the responsibilities of the reading process, forget the work in question, and move on to some other matter. All of the latter tendencies undermine literature, and they undermine art in itself. No, the pull was toward a more meditative poetics, a more contemplative one, and (as is typical) that was blown entirely out of proportion and into the realm of the ridiculous (one suspects, in many ways, the accidental result of Joyce, among others). For all our pretensions toward contextualization, we exist in a culture that is indeed very poor at properly understanding context: just look what the Canadianists did to Northrop Frye, and what the Yale School did to Derrida, and what the New Historicists have done to Barthes and Foucault. We're a culture that takes the sublime to the ridiculous, the difficult to the impossible. No wonder so many aspects of our cultural (and political, and social, and on and on and on) thinking are so firmly wrapped inside of our asses. "Promising," above is really a crucial idea, because the idea of delivering on a poetic promise for meaning is rather like expecting a loved one to put out: it may or may not happen, but that's thinking toward a goal rather than the process, emphasizing your desired result rather than beholding within the moments of being and appreciation. It's bad enough having the experience but missing the meaning as getting meaning but missing the experience.
So, it really comes down to detail, to nuance, to understanding, among other things, that the pattern is movement, as in the figure of the ten stairs, and that sublimity is not something we look directly into else we'd not see it for what it is; these are the primary gestures and impulses of difficulty in poetry, toward keeping us from looking into the sky and saying, "Oh, yeah, that's just an eclipse," and turning our heads away in bland cognition of that fact. It's also perhaps better understood as the idea that poetry was conceived to need to move toward what I would call a process of (Henry, not William) Jamesian nearing, of observing and perhaps understanding but possibly not the subtle progression of aesthetic intimacy.
Sigh, I am now exhausted, and, frankly, I didn't expect to write as much as I have. I meant to deal with a single basic point, but before I knew it, it had exploded in front of me like a speech by Howard Dean.
There has to be a place for simplicity, or for apparent simplicity, and on this Kowit and I agree. I should also add that I agree with much else of what he writes, as well with that of his whipping-elder Mr. Bloom. But I'm too drained, and not sufficiently fueled by (ahem) spirited elements, to engage those issues here and now. I also have to find it curious that those poets most ostensibly significant to an understanding of relatively transparent or 'clear' poetry receive almost no mention in Kowit's article. Lowell warrants a brief mention, and Mark Strand appears not at all; though they're geographically out of his scope, the likes of Larkin and Heaney are left out entirely. These seem to me pretty suggestive absences.
But natch. I've gone on way too long, and if I write much more right now, I'll probably end up in a either a full-scope tome, or a full-scale coma. Such is the life of Doctor J. Always on the razor's edge, and it's so seldom Achem's.
My apologies to the 99.999% of you that I've either bored with this, or that have scanned through this looking for something accessible. Scroll down. There's lots of puerile stuff just *waiting* for you there. (Also: this blog apologizes for any sloppiness in this entry; talk about writing off the cuff, this damned thing just possessed me as if I were its Linda-Blair-bitch. Agh! This blog will now retire for the time being, exhausted from its pea-soup-expurgating activities du jour.)