Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Characters at Corey's

A long, thoughtful post today over at Josh Corey's blog about how readers choose the books of poetry they buy, including our old friend, the once-extinct Ivory-Billed Common Reader. I was tickled to see him mention the "pleasure of character" I mentioned some posts ago, and thrilled to see him follow that mention with this very useful paragraph:
If I choose a Language or post-Language book, I want to be spoken to as a socially conscious intellectual; if I choose a New York School-ish book, I want to feel urbane, savvy about pop culture, and emotionally open. If poetry can be popular in the sense that it can speak to a larger chunk of the subculture of readers than the usual 500 - 1,000 people who recognize its category, it will be a poetry that addresses a Beloved that people want to be. I believe the readers of Collins and Oliver and Olds are looking for the experience of Belovedness: they read these very simple and accessible poems for the aura they simulate by seeming to address you in your privacy as a person you'd like to be: wry and self-deprecating, at one with nature, or filled with operatic griefs and exaltations. Charles Bukowski is another good example: his genuine popularity comes from his readers' feeling they are intimate with the gritty authenticity of a down-and-out street rebel in touch with his politically incorrect desires. Now as a D&D fan I'd be the last one to indict these writers for the pleasures of character they offer: I think offering people contact with parts of themselves not often or easily expressed is one of the most valuable, maybe THE most valuable, services writing can offer. But I think their language is lazy and the characters they generate have become worn and two-dimensional through constant repetition: it's mass-produced authenticity. A more positive example would be someone like Robert Creeley; I suspect that he owed much of his success and popularity (For Love was a bestseller in its time) to the complex pleasures of character that derive from reading his deceptively simple langauge. In fact, I would say he's a poet whose innovations and originality largely depend upon his use of the ethical axis. The one living poet I can think of who's successful at ethical address who is also a growing and attentive artist is Anne Carson: a very considerable audience has discovered the pleasures of being intimate with her erudite, witty, yet humble and at times swooningly romantic persona. It's true she still risks commodification (I saw an episode of Showtime's The L Word in which a rather silly writer character talks about how much Carson's work means to her), but as long as she keeps moving artistically and seeks to satisfy not her audience directly but the shapes of the words in her head, she'll remain a vital and interesting poet. Anne Carson is not a bad poet "to be," so to speak.
This makes sense to me--and not just because it uses the word "swooningly." (You know I'm a sucker for swooning.) Whether "ethical" is the right word, on the other hand, I don't know. But it's time for me to pick up the kids, so I'll mull that one over as I walk them home from school.

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