Friday, June 10, 2005

Building a Mystery, Part 2

Norman Finkelstein's comments on my "Pleasure, Difficulty, Mystery" deserve to be posted here, in full view, so that I can think them through, step by step.

"Eric," says he, "I'm somewhat troubled and definitely provoked by this post, which is, of course, a good thing. First, I think we have to put the remark by Mallarme in its historical context: it comes at a time when the tension between artist and bourgeois philistine was real, and so I'm not very troubled by the classism or moralizing. The idea of the artist or aesthete as part of a spiritual elite is not necessarily so bad a thing, as long as it's coupled with a real educational effort."

First of all, let's distinguish here between the remark by Mallarme and the USE of that remark by a contemporary critic, writing in a very different time, yet reluctant to let go of that oh, so comforting "tension between artist and bourgeois philistine." Aren't you struck--isn't everyone?--by the extraordinary self-flattery involved in this idea? Aren't you troubled by how it conflicts with the smarmy and petty and just plain awful ideas (let alone lives) of so many members of that "spritual elite" in the last 150 years? Auden had a crawful of this idea back in the 30s, and spurned it, with good reason. No, let's save that phrase for those who deserve it, and let's not kid ourselves about art, of any sort, produced or consumed, as a shortcut.

Norman continues: "Speaking of education, it seems to me that one thing we can offer our students is the idea that poetry can provide, if not a sense of spirituality (god I hate that term!) for those among us who are not satisfied with conventional religious experience, then at least a sense of inwardness, mystery, aura, etc."

THIS I like. A lot. In fact, I think it's incredibly important (cf. Stevens here, not Auden, I suppose), and we do indeed short-change our students by not offering this idea, and the texts to back it up, from the Romantics onward. (Aren't they the ones who kick it off, not least by equating God and the Imagination?) I think of this as the High Church approach to poetry, as opposed to the Low Church of, I don't know, Frank O'Hara and poetry slams. Educationally speaking, the only textbook I know that tries to convey it is Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, although it's not quite a textbook, and in my experience, it doesn't quite do the trick. (By the by, is the problem with "conventional religious experience" is that it's religious, or that it's conventional?)

On the other hand, remember that while some of the Romantics wrote "difficult" work (Blake, Hoderlin, Nerval), others wrote poems that wouldn't cut the mystery mustard, at least at the deli Corey advertised. To say that "today, that quality is often found in very enigmatic work," is true (Palmer, Howe, yourself not least) but it's also often found in NOT terribly enigmatic work, at least as far as many readers (and our students) are concerned (i.e., Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Richard Jones, Coleman Barks's translations of Rumi, etc.). What's upsetting, to me, is the impulse that dismisses THAT poetry as too transparent, too obvious, too normative, whatever, and that tries to shame students into preferring poems of the other sort. (I'm sure you don't do that, as a teacher, but I've seen it done.)

Finally, I do suspect a class bias (cf. Bourdieu here) in the preference for poems which don't seem to do "work" in the world, including the work of pleasing us easily, but which rather wrap themselves in "aura." Quoth Le Preacher: "working class people expect every image to explicitly perform a function, if only that of a sign, and their judgments make reference, often explicitly, to the norms of morality or agreeableness. [...] The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile--in a word, natural--enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of those who can be satisfied with the subliminated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences" (Distinction, pp. 5-7). Michael Palmer's disdain for Carolyn Forche's The Country Between Us, and his preference for, say, Celan or Vallejo as models of political poetry, comes to mind as an example.

Keep those cards and letters coming!

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