DEAR AMBER, BE NOT “LAZY” OR “DUMB”

We loved your latest Hawaii/Benazir Bhuto dream essay, but we noticed you haven’t been participating in the conversations of other posts on Harriet.

It’s not enough to just send missives.

You need to be present.

That blog needs your help.

And you can help yourself by sharpening your intellectual teeth there.

I know there’s not much to choose from.   Harriet doesn’t have much going on.

Perhaps you feel intimidated.

Allow us to break down for you a recent Harriet post and comments.

A post by Kenneth Goldsmith quotes Christian Bok (it’s the one with the guy who looks like he’s got indigestion, holding a book in front of the mike, blue background).

Christian Bok is a Canadian professor who wrote a best-selling novel consisting of chapters which use only one vowel.   He read the dictionary five times before he wrote it.    That’s all you need to know about him, really.  Not particularly original, he’s one of those contemporary exotics doing wild experiments in the corner of some ancient fingernail.

Let’s look at the key portion of the lengthy Bok quotation in Goldsmith’s Harriet post.

We”ll look at it in two parts.

First part:

“I’m probably technically oriented and it seems to me that among the poets that I know, many are very lazy and very dumb. I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know. They became poets in part because they were demoted to that job, right? You should never tell your students to write what they know because, of course, they know nothing: they’re poets! If they knew something, they’d be in that disciple actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever it is where they could excel.”

Don’t be freaked out by this, Amber. It’s pretty simple.

This is lifted right from the Greek philosopher Plato “If they [the poets] knew something, they’d be in that discipline and actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever…”

Plato’s argument is quite sound and the only decent refutation of Plato’s point of view comes in the form of poems—by poets who happened to be very much tinged with Platonism themselves: Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, and Keats–which is all that can be expected.

Your typical inferior poet, however, becomes upset when they hear Plato’s argument.  They’re not up to Plato’s challenge.

This is the first part of Bok’s quote you need to understand.

Here’s the second part (as quoted by Kenneth Goldsmith in his Harriet post) :

“I find this very distressing that the challenge of being a poet in effect to showcase something wondrous or uncanny, if not sublime, about the use of language itself, that we tend to think that because we’re conditioned to use language every day as part of a social contract, we should all be incipient poets, when in fact people have actually dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice in order to become adept at it and I think that craft and technique are part of that. If poetry weren’t informed by models of craft then nobody would need take a creative writing course. I joke with my students again that if it was simply a matter of saying, “You know you’ve written a good poem just because; you’ll know it was a good poem when it happens.” To me, that’s tantamount to telling your students that “You should just use the force, Luke” in order to write a poem. I don’t think it’s very helpful. But to be able to say “Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit.”

Again, this doesn’t require much thought.

Here Bok is making use of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.   Aristotle didn’t ban the poets from his ideal “Republic” as Plato did.   Aristotle accepted poetry as something humans do, and focused on whether it is done well, or badly.

Aristotle would not have accepted the notion we are all poets, and Bok, when he mentions “people have dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice…” is implicitly agreeing with the philosopher.

Bok didn’t mention this, but I want to mention it to you:  Aristotle did pay heed to Plato’s objection that poetry makes us “soft” with fake emotionalism; Aristotle got around Plato’s objection by saying that poetry’s indulgence in emotionalism purges these emotions from us.  Aristotle managed to turn a drawback into a virtue.

But here is why Platonic poets tend to be the best: They take to heart Plato’s objection, rather than using Aristotle’s glib betrayal of it.

As soon as you start believing in Aristotle’s purging theory (Catharsis) you make a fatal error; you buy into the idea that poetry’s emotion is a separate thing from it, and then you essentially become a pedantic, doctrinaire kind of poet.

Anyway, the important point that Bok is making in the second part of the quote here is the Aristotelian one: there’s a proper way and form and method to making poetry.

As he did with the purging theory, Aristotle resorts to a doctrinaire pedantry in order to ‘get one past’  his master (Plato was Aristotle’s teacher).

This is important to understand, Amber.   You’ve got to go Greek, and you’ve got two choices, Plato’s truly challenging road, or Aristotle’s pedantic road.  Most people don’t go Greek at all and groan under both Plato and Aristotle.  But you can’t escape them, really.

You can see this in the reactions to Bok in the comments to Goldsmith’s post:

Carolyn, the first one to comment seriously, writes this, “I honor people’s attempts to express themselves in whatever manner suits them.”

Here is the typical modern response.   As you can see from her statement, and from what I told you above, she rejects Plato and Aristotle.  She has no Greek.  She is ignorantYou can ignore these people.  Better to be a pedant than to be someone who says ‘express yourself in whatever manner suits you.’ This point of view loses in philosophy what it gains in being nice.  It is a tempting vice, this point of view.  Avoid it at all costs.

Silem’s post #7 basically sums up the Plato and Aristotle positions and then repeats Bok’s mention of “the uncanny,” which is largely the basis of Romanticism: the “Sublime,”  produced when Platonism contradicts itself and produces poetry–a sly but positive phenomenon which I alluded to above.  As Longinus said in his famous treatise “On the Sublime” 3rd century, AD, the sublime is both “moral” and “fearful.”  The sublime is a contradictory idea–which is the secret of its religious power and appeal.

Comment #8 is by Henry Gould. We can sum up all his comments this way: Mumble.

Comment #9 is by Kent Johnson, who is poison.  Here’s a sample.  It should make you shudder:

“I strongly suspect that from the bourgeoning technical-hip formation represented by Bok and Mohammad (and both of them very brilliant, to be sure) a more elevated measure of professional status for the poetic vocation will come, via ever more sharply defined knowledge-sets and rigorously applied instrumental techniques.”

Ugh.

Gary Fitzgerald made a witty remark, but was buried by negative votes.

Conrad and ZZZZ had a brief dispute on what position the “avant garde” should take in relation to the mainstream.  Pedestrian stuff, really.  Not worth your while.

The remaining comments fizzle away into inconsequence.

Maybe Terreson will add something interesting.

(But we’d rather not encourage him.)

And there you have it,  Amber.    Harriet 101.   I hope this helps!

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