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.

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CULTURAL FASCISM


“I Want To Hold Your Land…”

The world’s intellectuals have little trouble discerning the signs of political oppression: a great gulf between rich and poor, military extremism, leaders who feed—vampire-like—upon the people, buying-and-selling for short-term gain, a high degree of domestic abuse, social intolerance, poor buildings, poor roads, poor nutrition, poor health, and science crushed by superstition.

Unfortunately, these same intellectuals are often eager to applaud and cultivate cultural fascism.  They support art which is ignorant, oppressive, violent, backward, pedantic, cynical, horrific, and stupid.

Why do they support such art?

The answer is simple.

Because it is art.

The intellectuals support this art, not because they are in favor of ignorance, oppression, violence, backwardness, pedantry, cynicism, horror, and stupidity, obviously, but because they feel they would not be true intellectuals if they did not allow art to be this way if it so chooses.

On issues of politics, the intellectuals, almost to the last, oppose, with all their might, these negative qualities; they oppose them in life, and yet, the sad fact is, political states everywhere are in thrall to these negatives: ignorance, oppression, violence, backwardness, pedantry, cynicism, horror, and stupidity.

Why, then, should we be surprised, that these qualites dominate in art?

Contemporary poetry is ignored by the masses, and for the rest of us, the highly educated who read it, poetry produces knowing smirks more than anything else.

The intellectual understands this political/art issue to be absolute: no protest can be made upon this count, for art must be free.   After all, art is not life, art is not politics, and bad politics would tell art what to do.   Therefore good politics does not tell art what to do.

Socrates, the wisest philosopher, is shown the door, is led away, down the hill, to that near meadow, to stand speechless, neglected among the buzzing of the flies, lost in thought, perhaps never to speak again.  Plato’s offerings must be opposed completely—no compromise is possible in opposing Plato’s philosophy of art, even if art itself comes to resemble the very totalitarian regimes the intellectuals oppose: ignorant, oppressive, violent, backward, pedantic, cynical, horrific, and stupid.

The intellectuals never think that maybe this is a trick the oppressive and totalitarian forces have played on us, to enforce their will not only on political regimes, but upon poetry, as well, so we never think about what poetry should be; we only use it to reflect what is.   Big fish will eat the little fish; the leisure of the college creative writing instructor will eat, with its stream-of-consciousness intelligence, all other fish in the blindness of the infinite, William James/nitrous-oxide, sea.

Most of the blame lies with other arts, those more emeshed in the machinery of crass, pornographic, violent sensationalism, but all are guilty, for instance, in the way the film Bright Star was ignorantly reviewed and received in all quarters, and in countless gestures among intellectuals, poets and artists everywhere who whore out the ideal in small ways every day.

After all, there are only, finally, two things: nature and the moral; nature provides the building materials; we build.  How we build is moral and ideal.  Confusing the two—nature (reality) and the moral (the ideal)—tends to be where all the trouble  starts.

Building a house keeps the two distinct.

Making art does not; this is why Plato famously questioned the latter activity.

Nothing shall oppose the onslaught of the ignorant, the oppressive, the violent, the backward, the pedantic, the cynical, the horrific, and the stupid.

And why should anything oppose this onslaught if our art will not?

The license to describe the thoughts inside our thoughts inside our thoughts is the one ruling principle today, and we have become a slave to it.  We have surely caught the self-justifying, William James/John Ashbery disease.  The vanity of  infinitely self-reflexive thought  is the only trump in our deck.   Stream of consciousness has drowned common sense.  “Enough of this nonsense!” we want to cry, but we dare not, because we really believe that educated nonsense is our last freedom, the last thing between our intellectual legitimacy and the absolutist wolf at the door.  We don’t mean good satire. We mean nonsense, the obscurantist crap which passes for poetry these days. We’ve confused freedom with crap.

This treatise is not a cry for any kind of censorship, but rather a discussion of how opposing censorship at all costs affects aesthetic philosophy.

And so we shall have paintings that are not paintings, poems that are not poems, music that is not music, criticism that is not criticism, and prose that is self-indulgent in its trivialities to an extreme degree; we shall have the daintily lurid, the sweetly sensational, and the brazenly corrupt.  The criminals shall have their way because to poets today criminality cannot exist in theory; wrong exists only in reality where cops and robbers are even now having a gun-fight, far from modern art’s purities.

But now the lords of cultural fascism cry, “Poems that are not poems!”  You are the fascist, trying to tell us what a poem is!   But we cannot write a poem if we don’t know what a poem is first,  just as Michelangelo doesn’t just start randomly hacking away at the block of stone.  The lords of cultural fascism will always steer the discussion back to simple-minded issues of censorship, but in reality the issue here is about pedagogy.

True, poetry has made itself so obscure that its effect on society hardly exists when we exclude the thousands of Creative Writing aspirants.

Not making good art, thanks to the license in which every kind of bad art is permissable—and thus, forever, actual—hurts millions in ways we cannot imagine.

Will the obscurantists wake up?    Will the wild and wilder drums wake them?  Or thrum them into a deeper sleep?

Roll over, Black Mountain.

Tell Ashbery the news.