Tuesday, May 03, 2005

On Poetry and Artisanal Cheese

I've been out of action the last few days reading a manuscript about "defenses of poetry"--a good one, I'm pleased to say, and one chock full of useful quotes and passages from poets about their art. As I pack up the pages to ship them back to the publisher, I thought I'd post a couple of them up here, just to get them into circulation, and to muse on them a while.

One is from a letter that Wallace Stevens wrote to Hi Simons:
"People never read poetry well until they have accepted it" (Letters, 436).
I love that, not least because it sounds like an old-time moderate Baptist preacher speaking about reading scripture. I guess it jibes with my own experience as a teacher that the first hurdle facing most readers of poetry isn't the "difficulty" of the language, but the oddity (OK, oddness) of the projects of poetry tout court. Faced with poetry that has been framed as political rhetoric, they at least know something to do with it; they paraphrase its argument, argue about its effectiveness, and in general treat it like an editorial with linebreaks. When they can't do this, and can't figure out a way for the poem to have been "controversial" (a ready acolade), they sometimes get stuck, can't see the point, can't find the pleasure in whatever else it might be doing.

How we get our students to "accept" poetry is another topic altogether, and one I'll come back to, no doubt.

Here's a second quote, from Auden's "A Short Defense of Poetry":
The reading public has learned how to consume even the greatest fiction as if it were a can of soup. It has learned to misuse even the greatest music as background noise to study or conversation. Business executives can buy great paintings and hang them on the wall as status trophies. Tourists can 'do' the greatest architecture in an hour's guided tour. But poetry, thank God, the public still finds indigestible; it still must either be 'read,' that is to say, entered into by a personal encounter, or it must be left alone.
Why do I like this? I don't entirely agree with it, and part of me scrambles to find counter-examples of, say, Renaissance fat cats who used art as "status trophies," or jump to the defense of consumerism, which too easily gets a bad rap from the boys in the lit-oisie.

Maybe I like it because Auden himself was so blessedly level-headed about poetry's "frivolity," and about the vanity with which poets (and readers) pat themselves on the back for having done something dreadfully important in their reading and writing habits. Such vanity is pandemic now--you can catch it periodically from Ron Silliman's blog, especially when he's snubbing Billy Collins and the "School of Quietude," and even the endlessly likeable Josh Corey falls victim to it from time to time, as in his recent email exchange with Reginald Shepherd on the avant-garde. Maybe I like it because Auden would be a prime examble of "consumable" verse to so many hucksters of experiment; maybe because he manages to make poetry's "indigestibility" seem no more serious or radical a thing than the relative unpopularity of, say, stinky cheese. Yes! There we go. If you can't safely substitute "artisanal cheese" for "poetry" in your argument, you're falling prey to puffery. How's that for a credo, Bub?

And, finally, on a less literary note, this bit from George Santayana, Stevens' old teacher at Harvard:
Motives are always easy to assign, unless we wish to get at the real one. Those little hypocricies of daily life by which we elude the evils of self-analysis can blind us to our most respectable feelings. We make ourselves cheap to make ourselves intelligible.
That would be from "Philosophy on the Bleachers," 1894. Reminds me of Frederick Turner's quip that what used to be called the seven deadly sins are now widely considered the only believable motives for human behavior. Hmm... More on this anon, too.

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