PIG

 

Why is contemporary poetry such a vexation?

 

Poetry, one of our favorite writers once said, should be a passion, not a study.

But why shouldn’t poetry be a study?  What’s wrong with poetry and study?

Poetry and study are oil and water.

Study’s observational rigor demands factual results, not happy ones.

Poetry, contra study, seeks happy results, not factual ones.

Modern poetry, however, has turned the truism upside down.  Seduced by the apostles of modernism, William James, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and John Dewey, among others, our poets don’t care for poems which are happy results so much as poems whose results are in the broadest sense, true—which ought to be an improvement, and in some ways, is an improvement.

On the other hand, poetry lost its public when it began to use study rather than passion as its guide.

The public demands poetry full of whimsy, passion, froth, delight.   The public will pardon the poet when he calls a chicken a pig, as long as the poet does not appear to be great and wise while doing so, or mumble into his sleeve while doing so, or pretend to be some priest of the yellow-skinned moon while doing so; the poet must not do so while counting every feather on the chicken.

The public does not like a lot of mumbo jumbo.  A line or two of folly is fine, but pretentious stretches of more than that will not be tolerated, never mind entire landscapes of bombast like “The Four Quartets” or Canto Number One. Forced to read the entire Cantos, out will come the pitchforks and torches.  Oh, and deriding the public of pitchforks and torches will only sever relations between poet and public further.  ‘Torches and pitchforks’ is a metaphor.  The public is smarter than that—or not.   It is those who blame the public rather than the poet who are most far gone.

The public will not put up with too much fooling around; the public prefers the poem of the happy, or finished, or beautiful result.

Poets fell out of public favor when they began to engage the world for the world’s sake and lost sight of poetry as a certain instrument with certain uses for happy results.

No one consciously made poetry into a study; they merely embraced Dewey’s idea of experience as the key to aesthetics.

As far as the public goes, how could experience leave poetry so bereft?   One would think experience is the one thing the public qua public understands.  The public may not know its Sacred Wood, but the wood of experience it knows.

Dewey said two crucial things re: the public, art, and experience.  He said 1) experience was crucial and 2) the public did not associate art with experience.  (Yes, like all modern poetry theorists, he blamed the public.  Bad move.)  It’s right here in the very first paragraph of Art As Experience, first published as a book in 1934:

“In common perception, [that’s the public, by the way] the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting or statue in its existence apart from human experience.”

Dewey’s whole strategy, his whole philosophy of art,  is laid out in that single sentence.

Dewey’s intelligence was such that he could discuss painting and poetry at the same time, but he rode painting’s wave; the “New York School” of poetry followed in Dewey’s wake, but ironically, poetry, like a great sea, dissolved Dewey’s ideas—his wordy formulations triumphed alongside paint and clay but crashed and burned in the theoretical sky of that wordy art, poetry.

The brainy theorists of modernism pushed poetry ahead too quickly for public taste.  The fine arts are erected in the public square; museums force public taste to follow its lead, but taste in poetry dwells more privately and cannot be shaped by cultural fiat.   A Ginsberg is no match for a Warhol, a Pound is no match for a Guggenheim, in forming public taste.

Despite all its braininess, scientists pay no attention to modern poetry, just as they pay no attention to Dewey’s “experience;” after all, our experience on earth is that the sun, not the earth, is moving; science has proved the opposite; a poem describing an experience of the sun moving across the sky would not be modern, per se.   Poets can experience a poem as they write a poem—the very writing of a poem is an experience, and the reader shares in this experience, but this is not unique to moderns, nor does it signify the poem in question will be good.

The experience of language which reader and poet share is facile.  The free-association style of Ashbery, for instance, produces an experience on many levels, a complex experience which is open-ended and arbitrary, and due to the remarkable nature of language, is an experience which is actual in every sense, even if ol’ Ashbery is half-asleep and absent-mindedly laying on linguistic paint as randomly as he can.  If we grant this experience—reading stream-of-consciousness writing in a trance—is a genuine experience—and I don’t see how it is not a genuine experience—then Dewey’s “experience” becomes less than advertised.  If the act of reading meets the experience test, any experience within the reading experience (if such a thing does exist) will not actually be able to distinguish itself from its surroundings.

If the experience of poetry is the experience of reading, if mechanically these two are the same, if the reading experience is what greets all readers of poetry and no poetry would be experienced without the reading experience, it is safe to say that poetry’s unique qualities (whatever we dare say they are) cannot possibly belong to experience, per se.  Poetry cannot distinguish itself as poetry from the experience of reading, or any experience at all without having qualities which somehow set poetry apart from the experience of reading, and thus all other experience.

The more expansive poetry’s subject matter and formal properites become, the more poetry disappears into the reading experience, for it is the reading experience which is actually expanding, not poetry.

As poetry is currently defined, reading

Pig

is a reading experience precisely the same as reading poetry.

Reading Pig is fraught with ambiguity: why pig?  What does not only the word, but the fact that someone wrote pig mean?  Pig contains an infinite number of associations—once associations begin to flow, there is no end to that meandering river, and so in this sense Pig contains as much associative knowledge as a play by Shakespeare and thus generates as much experience, for associations, potentially infinite, are the key to any reading experience.

Experience has nothing to do with the happy result of a poem.  The term, as used by Dewey and the modernists, is empty.

20 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    February 16, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    We are pleased with this little essay, even if it verges on truism.

    I recently read a poem by Larry Levis which abruptly moved from the beauty of horses to Stalin to stars. It was a good poem, and failed (for me) simply on account of its blind everywhere-ness, its wholesale confidence in its factualness.

    The issue may be simply one of the unsteadiness of the poetic gaze.

    The sestina’s recent popularity among the rhymeless is due, no doubt, to its delimiting and narrowing properties, but the mere limitation of material is a band-aid cure for the problem—one deeply rooted in aesthetic philosopy, and even philosophy itself.

    Most poets groan when they hear the word. Philosophy is the old hag which was recently vanquished. The poets are supposed to play around her dead body, in celebration of her demise. Or so say certain schools.

  2. Wfkammann said,

    February 16, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Virtue a fig
    Was he too chicken to write pig?

  3. wfkammann said,

    February 17, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    So here’s another from the New Yorker; this time it’s a woman who doesn’t want anyone to know she’s immortal and rooted. If this is a good example of modern poetry, why? Like the previous poem it is personal and colloquial and not terribly poetic. Maybe this is why the Buddha warned us to be sure we’re dead all the way to the root ;-}

    TORNADO
    by Dorothea Lasky
    FEBRUARY 15, 2010

    I remember he was bent down
    Like a whirlpool
    I was yelling at him
    He looked scared and backed away
    Another time, I squinted my eyes to see
    And he said I looked ugly
    The funny part was when
    My sister asked me where he went to
    And I just didn’t know
    He just disappeared one day into nothing
    I am rotting and rancid
    Each day, rotting, but I am water, too
    I am a watery nymph that is hot and wet
    Like a wetted beast
    I saw the man walking, hunched over
    And thought it was him
    “Father!” I yelled after the man
    Who was hunched, he was going somewhere
    He turned but the face was green
    It is a black life, but I don’t want to die
    I don’t want to die, I don’t ever want to die
    God damn you, don’t you shoot me in my sleep
    Let me rot on this earth forever
    Like a carrot I will be everything God can’t see
    Oh, what do I mean
    God can see everything
    I mean the angels, I mean the half-gods
    I mean the flowers, don’t ever let them see me live forever
    Don’t you ever let them see
    That I am all root here in the ground

  4. thomasbrady said,

    February 17, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    Bill,

    This is one of these modern poems that you read all in one breath without stopping because the message is so urgent and important and don’t you dare to ask for anything else but the message you slick romantic bastard I hate your shelley and your keats and your comfortable smirking life listen to me.

    At first I thought it was about a girl fighting a lot with her boyfriend until she yells “father” but it could be a lover or just anyone who is a victim of a bad relationship and the ‘don’t you shoot me in my sleep’ is a sign that it’s about fearing someone you are intimate with, a lover or a family member, most crimes of violence occur between domestic intimates and there’s no hate like soured love, so I guess the narrator is so rotten with soured love that all she wants to do is hide in the ground and survive that way.

    It’s a powerful piece of writing because it expresses a powerful and common experience.

    But is it a great poem, that’s another question, because all poems must be read in the context of what poetry is—in terms of all that has been accomplished by poets in the past—and this is, to me, a psychotic, victim expression which must be considered a dramatic piece of a story, but not a whole, because there’s no resolution, it’s just a painful expression of a painful situation and I think a poem has to be a whole expression of some kind, and so I don’t think it is a good poem, if I can dare put it that way.

    Tom

  5. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 18, 2010 at 5:44 am

    The fact is that when a poem works you don’t really care how it works, and are much less likely to discuss what school it belongs to, its diction, structure or provenance, but, almost immediately, what it means to you. This is a poem like that, and I’m very grateful to Dorothea Lasky for having leant it to me!

    Indeed, you don’t care whether a poem like this is even good anymore, and may even hide it under your pillow so that you don’t have to explain to anyone else why it’s important to you.

    Esoteric, in other words, a special word for me that I’ve thought a lot about. What it has come to stand for for me personally is something so charged with meaning that it’s already hidden. That it’s hidden in its very nature, that it’s hidden simply because you could never explain it even if your life depended upon it.

    (It’s my theory that if any so-called Esoteric Teaching can be explained it has either not been understood or isn’t in fact “esoteric” at all. Indeed, I believe that all truly “esoteric teachings” can never be communicated to anyone who hasn’t already understood them. And I don’t know any of them, by the way, or believe any of them, so it’s all just a guess. But the concept does apply to poetry.)

    Bill says this about the poem: “It’s a woman who doesn’t want anyone to know she’s immortal and rooted.” That’s laconic, as it ought to be. It’s also so brilliant I don’t want to talk about it except to say I agree.

    What I do want to say is that when we read what Bill says we know right away that he doesn’t mean Dorothea Lasky, the poet, is like that, that indeed the poem has gone way beyond the poet into an entirely new world quite beyond her biographical experience. “Tornado” has climbed right out of the poet’s own personal life into something much richer, deeper, closer, more significant than anything but what this particular poem could possibly have said or imagined!

    Dorothea Lasky may never have experienced a tornado, or been buried in the earth like a carrot, or almost drowned. She also may never have been sexually abused, or even threatened by sexual abuse. She may never have had a father or a boyfriend or had anyone look down at her while she was sleeping, or whatever. Of course she may have, yes, and of course the poem may in part be about sexual abuse, but a.) it doesn’t have to be and b.) what it says is infinitely deeper than what did or didn’t actually happen.

    Rape, incest and sexual abuse are common in mythology all over the world, and not because they were always a threat in society, or had to be cautioned against, or exorcized. They’re in myths because that’s how gods operate, and these are the best words that we mortals have got to ‘explain’ certain celestial ironies. And, of course, like the gods themselves, they’re hidden as well as forbidden.

    Robinson Jeffers didn’t always understand that, by the way, and I wouldn’t use his life or his writing to argue my case, or anything else for that matter.

    I think Dorothea Lasky’s poem will do better.

    Christopher

  6. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 18, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    So Ron Silliman writes just as I am writing the above:

    But the other innovation is that which looks to the world and brings the world into one’s art, not just as a slapdash invocation (LBJ intoning “We shall overcome,” Pat Boone singing the Rolling Stones), but to actually change the structure of the work so as to make it adequate to the (always already) new context. In that sense, Blake, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Stein, Jack Spicer & Barrett Watten are all united. Such change is fundamentally disruptive.

    “To actually change the structure of the work so as to make it adequate to the (always already) new context.” That’s what I mean.

    But with all due respect (a lot!), I’m not quite sure Ron Silliman really knows how such a statement fits in as far as universal poetry is concerned, that he’s still talking about the small planet some of us are inhabiting just at the moment.

    C.

  7. wfkammann said,

    February 18, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Many years ago when I was trying to teach German Lit. to college students, I told them to read the Bible and Greek mythology at a minimum before they tried to read literature. Why? Because, I pontificated, literature is a dialogue with these myths and stories and with all other writers in the western tradition. This poem gives the lie to that despite Christopher’s linkages. Those young students, content with their own associations, have taken over poetry and literature. The education necessary to read Milton hardly exists and a poem like that is not likely to be published. Dorothea Lasky has a blog with photos of tornados. That hunchbacked man with the green face can leave us little more than waterlogged tubers and yes, some fathers can do as much. So it works; it touches something deep. We don’t need more than the weather channel and life experience to “get it.” Not Milton, certainly but maybe more like Shakespeare.

    There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
    That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
    There with fantastic garlands did she come
    Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
    That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
    But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
    There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
    Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
    When down her weedy trophies and herself
    Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
    And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
    Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
    As one incapable of her own distress,
    Or like a creature native and indued
    Unto that element: but long it could not be
    Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
    Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
    To muddy death.

    Small Latin and less Greek but great poetry?

  8. thomasbrady said,

    February 18, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Christopher,

    You wrote:

    (It’s my theory that if any so-called Esoteric Teaching can be explained it has either not been understood or isn’t in fact “esoteric” at all. Indeed, I believe that all truly “esoteric teachings” can never be communicated to anyone who hasn’t already understood them. And I don’t know any of them, by the way, or believe any of them, so it’s all just a guess. But the concept does apply to poetry.)

    Here’s where we differ philosophically, because I am suspicious of esoteric “knowledge” which cannot be articulated; for how then is it anything that deserves speaking of at all? If it meets your truly esoteric standard, Christopher, shouldn’t it remain private? Either you grant that it cannot be understood, or you grant that it can. Otherwise, how can we trust such knowledge? How could a society or a government be trusted to operate on such? Wouldn’t this philosophy breed tyrants? “Take my word for it; this may be confusing to you, but, I, as your king understand it.” Or, “My ministers, who know better, who are schooled in the esoteric arts, and who have studied the problem at length, have made their decision, and though it may make no sense to you…” And, further, if the reply comes, ‘poetry does not belong to society,’ well, then, there’s another conundrum, for to say poetry does not belong to society makes it vulnerable to tyrants in whatever realm apart from society it does dwell in, though I do think, secretly, that poetry does dwell in the front of the parade with all the kings and their wise ministers.

    Thomas

  9. thomasbrady said,

    February 18, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    Bill,

    That bit of Shakespeare was uttered by the new regime (queen, wife of Hamlet’s uncle) and the fantastic poetry covers up the girl’s murder. Shakespeare wishes the audience to ‘see through’ the unlikeliness of the story of poor Ophelia’s demise, but most of us, alas, are tricked by the loveliness of the words. A good actor, though, will show us the queen’s true thoughts. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be played, not read.

    So do you think that poem in the New Yorker is merely a clever recounting of a tornado experience? How banal. That makes it even worse for me, then.

    As far as Bible and Greek Mythology…of course students should read that. Poets today still make use of those stories. Old poets certainly made use of those stories. Stupid not to be familiar with those stories, even if the goal is to kill them and be rid of them forever. Is anyone bothering to debunk the Mars legends?

    Thomas

  10. thomasbrady said,

    February 18, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Christopher,

    You are hinting at some pretty fascinating stuff. Do you think readers who share forbidden life experiences, crimes, even; so forbidden, that they dare not speak them, share an appreciation of poems which hint at the same forbidden experience, and thus there are actual “schools” of poetry reflecting certain crimes?

    I’m not talking about vicarious thrills here, but actual experiences, and secret codes for those experiences, and perhaps codes so bold as to not even be secret, since other naive “literary” readers would simply assume the crime is feigned, and not real.

    Thomas

  11. thomasbrady said,

    February 18, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    As for Silliman and his earnest stock in “poetry evolution,” how can one evolve if one is stuck in that miserable cliché of the “raw and the cooked?”

    I agree with Silliman that Robert Lowell is overrated, but Silliman diminishes Lowell while lifting up that ungainly hulk of folly, Charles Olson.

    Pat Boone doing the Rolling Stones, unfortunately for Silliman, does fit Silliman’s stated criteria: “To actually change the structure of the work so as to make it adequate to the (always already) new context.”

    ”Adequate,” in this case, for Pat Boone, and this doesn’t make it any less legitimate just because you don’t happen to like Pat Boone’s music.

    If Pat Boone is not “changing the structure of the work to make it adequate to the new context,” then what is he doing?

  12. wfkammann said,

    February 19, 2010 at 2:55 am

    Tom,
    As the carpenter says, “Measure twice; cut once.” You take off like a gatling gun. I’m rarely accused of subtlety but you consistently miss my point. Is there anything similar in Lasky’s poem and Shakespeare’s speech? Does Shakespeare too give the lie to the idea of educated dialogue as the underpinning of Western literature? If not that, how about the water parallels or the lurking self destruction? Anything but a self satisfied lecture. By the way, Boone took Negro music and dressed it up (down) for the white middle class.

  13. thomasbrady said,

    February 19, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    You don’t say! I thought Boone was a Negro!

    Bill, I suspect you are losing patience with me. I made no direct reply. Do you want me to say the Lasky and the Shakespeare are similar because they both speak of water? I will. OK, I’ve said it, then.

    I won’t be a water sprite.

    I’ll tread the land.

    I’ll be a crawling thing and lend my legs to minute shiftings.

    It’s easy to get caught in one’s own web. I said “Mars legends” speaking of the planet Mars and fell into god talk, anyway.

    I’ll write a poem and call it

    Pig.

    I guess my point is: Shakespeare made a context to put his poetry in. I don’t think poetry can be spun from thin air; one’s experience is not enough to justify the poem.

    Thomas

  14. Wfkammann said,

    February 19, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    Tom,
    Experience is hardly thin air and there is always the weight of language.
    Christopher speaks of the esoteric: an unspeakable reality. A mystery in danger of elimination by Occam’s Razor and yet strangly present if only as an afterglow of our own ignorance. You said write a poem moving between two philosophical extremes; Christopher has an irresistible pubis dangling. Lasky has a hovering maelstrom; Shakespeare a watery madness with minstrel lays. Perhaps we could agree that by intent, allusion or the fact of language itself there’s always more there. And Tom, I haven’t lost patience with you. I was thinking you might.

  15. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 19, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Thank you for picking up on my word “esoteric,” Bill, which I really do think is useful in this context.

    ~

    I never said what is “esoteric” could be spoken of, Tom, nor did I say it couldn’t be spoken of. There are levels, I was suggesting, and our age and experience determine what we can and cannot understand.

    For example, many years ago my Thai wife was part of a project in her village to publicize the condom for birth control, and she did her best to demonstrate how it should be used by placing it on her thumb so nobody would be confused. Six months later the health committee returned to determine how things stood, and were met by disappointed husbands whose wives were still producing. “We did it just as you showed us, placed it on our thumbs just like this, and it didn’t work.”

    My wife was 22 at the time, and it was not until some years later that she realized where it should have been placed.

    So even sex is esoteric to those who have not yet been initiated.

    I’m 70. Age is esoteric too — and so is birth, love, forgiveness and compassion.

    C.

  16. thomasbrady said,

    February 19, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Bill, Maybe what I’m getting at is this: Experience can be an enemy as much as a friend; experience can knock out our brains even as we get to know the brick: “write what you know,” the workshop mantra, might actually be poison. Experience can crush writing as much as feed it. Experience is not only value-neutral, but as soon a cloud as an insight, finally, and never what anyone thinks it is, and certainly not the great one and only that Dewey found it to be. Of course one cannot deny experience, but that’s one of the reasons why it’s so tricky…experience is the great leveler, isn’t it, making Lasky and Shakespeare the same, or, Lasky, better, for most people, really, since Lasky’s “experience” is closer to our own…?

  17. thomasbrady said,

    February 19, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Christopher,

    Great story re: birth control. But shouldn’t we call the esoteric by its right name? Ignorance? Even if the ignorance might be a happy one?

    Absolutely ‘the esoteric’ has a great pull on us, just as football and ale does, and its coloration lends weight to most writing, I’d guess. But…

    Thomas

  18. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 21, 2010 at 5:29 am

    Call it “ignorance” if you must, but get back to me when you realize that the unexamined life is not worth living.

    Because the consequence of just remaining “ignorant” is to remain in the dark even when you’re in the arms of the god of love!

    On the other hand, the consequence of looking at your lover in the light is dire indeed, but there’s no emergence from ignorance without it.

    That’s the paradox that makes life such a torment but at the same time truly worth living.

    ~

    That’s what Keats tried to address, but because he was writing about something that can’t be expressed so literally, “Ode to Psyche” is a failure. It will always be ravishingly beautiful, but it’s embarrassing when you take it seriously. I mean, look what it says!

    This is a poem that should never have been written, in fact. It’s the great poem of Keats that is undoubtedly least read, and for very good reason.

    I’ve been trying to rewrite it for years, and in some ways I think I’ve gotten closer to what he meant than Keats. “Legs in the Air” and “Old Foreplay for New Women Including Men” are small parts of that project.

    Christopher

  19. thomasbrady said,

    February 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    I didn’t mean “ignorant” as an insult. There will always be misunderstandings, and sometimes they can be happy…

    But doesn’t ‘the examined life’ mean not calling ‘ignorance’ by fancy names like ‘the esoteric?’ In matters of the senses, we do like the vague and the teasing and the indefinite…absolutely…but when it comes to Truth…we should shun those same qualities…

    I can’t agree with you on “Psyche…” I have always been ravished by Keats’ poetry and I feel at this moment “Psyche” may be his best, even better than the more anthologized urn and nightingale..

    You said earlier the story of Cupid & Psyche is cruel and dark…it’s actually one of the happiest of the myths…

    as far as looking at your lover in the light…if some couples want to make love in the dark…let them…why should we turn the bright light on? That makes me think of the crassest sort of porn…Hustler magazine…

    There are times ‘to be ignorant’ and times ‘not to be ignorant…’ I guess we could both agree on that…sorry if I misunderstood what you are saying….

  20. thomasbrady said,

    February 22, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    So, to pick up this thread again and bring it back to the topic of ‘experience…’

    Is ‘experience’ the most important source of a poem?

    Have any of you read Dewey recently?