Sunday, June 12, 2005

Building a Mystery 4: Return of the Norman

Norman's comment is, again, so good I have to quote it "above the fold," with my responses interwoven, as before.

Eric, I knew I was on thin ice when I mentioned a spiritual elite, but I felt uncomfortable responding to the Badiou quote without having read the work it comes from—so I decided to focus on the Mallarme quote within it.
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. My tastes run more to Badu (Erika) than Badiou, and I haven't read it yet either. Guilty as charged.

Maybe you and I will have to disagree, but there was a time (pretty much the whole of the 19th century) when the tension I refer to between Romantic artist and philistine did obtain, keeping in mind that from a Marxist perspective, this dichotomy was two sides of the same dialectical coin. That means one could find “self-flattery” on both sides.
Yes, I'm with you so far--and I'm sure back then I'd have been buying the Yellow Book with the best of them, if I weren't trapped in some stinking ghetto or dancing with my boychicks in Ger.

In our time, we need to be careful here about both snobbery and anti-intellectualism.
Ouch! You got me! I have, let's say, a pilot light of AI alwasy simmering in me, which certain sorts of discourse (gassy, I guess) cause to flare up in a heartbeat.

I like Mike’s point drawn from Benjamin about art that illuminates the tension itself, which, arguably, is what a great deal of art for art’s sake does.

Oops. Missed that. "The tension itself" is between artist and philistine?

But looking again at the Badiou quote and Joshua’s explanation, it seems to me that what counts is not the potential snobbery, which is always present in discussions of taste, but the ideas of enigma, seduction, aura etc.

Well, what counts to whom? I tend to think of this from my students' perspective, and am always wary of the sorts of shaming that go on in classrooms, from junior high school on, where poetry is concerned. And remember, what I object to is the obligation-to-be-seduced (there's probably a word for that in German), as opposed to the project of enigmatic seduction itself (for which I swoon with the best of them).

Surely you don’t have a problem with the poem’s surface (whether or not it looks enigmatic or mysterious) seducing the reader! After all, much of your critical project involves poetry in relation to erotics, pleasure and seduction.
That's right--I like to be seduced, and often am: by Montale, by Howe (sometimes), by Jorie Graham (in three of her books), and (among many others), by some of your own works, you rascal, you! Again, my objection is to the idea that we "ought" to be seduced by any enigmatic surface, and that if we're not, it's because we're too cheap and easy, to distracted and lazy, to fall under the poem's spell. And, of course, I'm wary of the notion that only enigmas are seductive. Graham talks about "the whole seduction," at one point, and she includes narrative, coherent speakers, and other mainstream tricks of the trade in that category (of which she's wary, natch--but she uses them).

As for mystery, enigma, aura and so on, Mike’s points about the degree of mystery in a poem, again, are well taken. Besides, what’s wrong with “gnosis for agnostics”? I love that phrase! In some respects, it sums up why I read (and write) poetry.
I thought you'd like that phrase. Borrow at will. But let's not kid ourselves that what we're talking about here is really a gnosis, a saving knowledge. It's the feeling of gnosis, an everything-but-salvation that we get from poetry; it is "like what we imagine knowledge to be," as Elizabeth Bishop says ("At the Fishhouses"). Or, better, it is as much gnosis as you can have and still be agnostic--a gnosis that gells, but doesn't crystalize into a "faith"? Hmm... This I need to think about more, with the help of Mark's post on "The Pleasures of What's Difficult" tomorrow. My sense, though, is that what we both like isn't a "spilled religion" so much as it is a nostalgia for...not religion, really, but a childhood faith in language, in magic, in the magic of language, and so on. Remember that the 19th-century split where this begins derives, in part, from the astonishing success of science and technology, which is to say of empiricism and logic as the discourse of power (and of money). Think of all the technology that makes this exchange, here, now, on this blog, possible! Not one jot or tittle of it derives from the magic of language; not one byte was bitten off and chewed by the mystic mouth of "spirituality"; not one flicker of your screen derives from "aura." And, pace Spicer, if anyone ever actually makes contact with Martians, it won't be a poet.

We're nostalgic for the Old Speech, really, aren't we? For a world where saying makes it so. When we speak of the "spiritual," don't we really mean a set of moods (reverence, anticipation, intensity, importance, all seasoned with a dash of negative capability) that we associate with wizards and magic and fairy tales, with glamour, spell, and charm, and only secondarily (as adults) with religion--and that, generally for small reason, by the way. (Think of all those fin-de-siecle writers dreamy over a Catholicism they knew next to nothing about, except that it had "mysteries.") Panis envy, let's call it. (Thinking here of that marvelous "Penis angelicus" scene in When Henry Met Trudy.) Northrop Frye on "Riddles and Charms" is probably relevant here, but alas, I don't have it at hand, and no matter how hard I wave my wand and shout "accio Northrop!" it doesn't seem to budge...

I don't know anything about Clark Coolidge's "spirituality," but old Jack Kerouac, from whom he learned that improvisitory "bop prosody," was an ex-altar boy who knew quite well that he was dealing with matters of spiritual possession, the Spirit / Void blowing through him, and the like; matters he couldn't or wouldn't find at Church anymore, for a variety of reasons. Whatever the part of the brain that still craves oracles loves this sort of poetry, no? Except, perhaps, when we come to someone disjunctive-but-playful, like Charles Bernstein, who is anything but oracular. (Hmm... Let's get back to that.)

It’s a difficult distinction to make, but I would argue that we need to look at enigmatic or obscure work and try to decide if it’s mystery—or mystification. I won’t name names, but some of the “second generation” or post-language poets seem to have fallen into this trap, and the great lines from Oppen that Mike quotes about mistaking a gesture for a style definitely come into play.

Not just the "second generation," Norman. Sturgeon's Law applies: 94% of everything is bullshit. But my students hate, I think--heck, I hate--the feeling that I'm not allowed to decide which is which; that I'm obliged to pull the wool over my own eyes, for social reasons or otherwise.

Two more points, since I don’t want to appear longwinded. Like Michael P.,
I’m no fan of Forche, but it’s less a question of subtlety or mystery or the
play of the signfier than of a kind of tourism or voyeurism in some of her work.
I’m not convinced by the rhetoric or the ostensible urgency. The
self-consciousness or questioning that one finds in Celan, in Oppen, and in some
of Palmer’s own work (like Sun) strikes me as a lot smarter and more moving.

I hear this a lot, but it's often from people who haven't re-read the Forche in a while. The Country Between Us is a remarkably self-conscious, self-critical, even self-excoriating book; it includes several speakers (other than Forche) who take the reporter-poet to task in cogent, bitter, complicated ways. I don't think the final poem in the collection holds up as it might, but up through then, I think it's a better book than Palmer makes out--and to be honest, I catch a whiff of sour grapes in his remarks.

As for the other poets you mention (Kooser, Oliver et al), it’s not that I
dismiss the direct approach and opt all the time for enigma. I love Reznikoff,
Harvey Shapiro, William Bronk. It’s simply a question of how one handles the

Isn't it always, when it comes to seduction? (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Finally, back to spiritual elites—and this leads us to your other blog. The best defense I have ever seen for this concept is that wonderful book you’ve told us about, From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven. Look at how Elon distinguishes
between mediating and creative elites among the rabbis. He clearly aligns the
latter with artistic production. I’m not sure the analogy could hold up
historically, but his presentation is very suggestive in regard to many of the
issues we’re confronting here.

This I'll have to take up another day--but as I leave, this parting shot: there's a world of difference between "creative elites" (what Mark, at Culture Industry, calls "word elites," or something like that) and "spiritual elites." The latter, to my mind, suggests some actual goodness in this world; the former can be as amoral as you please (and as the rabbis of Pumbadita often were, to Elon, lo?).

Hmm! All this gives a new meaning to Ogden Nash's immortal couplet: "Purity / is obscurity." On which note, I'm off--more soon, in response to St. Mark--E

1 comment:

Norman Finkelstein said...

OK, before this gets too dispiriting (couldn’t resist), I’m going to add just few more comments. As usual, I find Mike’s last post perfectly lucid and very helpful. And I also think that your point, Eric, about our nostalgia for the Old Speech, language magic, spells (much of the material that Duncan et al uses so brilliantly) is just right. One word that hasn’t entered our discourse, btw, is sublime, with its roots in romanticism, and a poetry of the sublime tends often to the obscure and the enigmatic (“Pinnacled dim in the intense inane” as Shelley would have it). But back at ya: where does a “feeling” of gnosis, or even a “feeling” of salvation (or maybe revelation) end, and the experience itself begin? Harold Bloom, Elaine Pagels and others have a good deal to say about gnosis; the point is that it doesn’t gell into a faith—it’s anti-authoritarian—which is why it’s an important term in my critical vocabulary. At the same time (since this is a blog about poetry and teaching) such poetry has the potential to teach us how to live, even if the poet makes no such claims. Hence the ineluctable connection between poetry and prophecy.

As for seduction, of course no one should feel obligated to swoon in the presence of difficult poetry. Intrigued puzzlement is just as good when it comes to hooking a reader. And a poem in the plain style has as much potential for that as an obscure one. Mark, as you will recall, was going on about students who resist any kind of verbal difficulties in literature, and I sympathize. I suppose as teachers, it’s our role to model the act of loving poetry, which means both enthusiasm and informed analysis. As a poet, well, I just do what the voices tell me.