Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I am not Joaquin, cont.

Laura, over at Teach Me Tonight, just posted this in a comment:
When readers reject a book as "poorly written," they often mean that the book was successfully written to achieve an effect that they personally dislike - too sexually arousing, too scary, too sentimental, too full of verbal effects, too descriptive, or too literary for them. A fan of the stripped-down Hemingway style might dislike the sensuous language of romance and declare that all romances are "poorly written." (53)
The source is Sheldrick Ross, Catherine and Mary K. Chelton. "Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material." Library Journal (February 1, 2001): 52-55.

I'm struck by how illuminating this simple idea proves when I think about my experience reading (and writing about) the Gonzales poem. Rather than calling it poorly written, I'd have been better served thinking about how it succeeded in doing something that unsettled me.

As the song says, I should have known better!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spanked! (Or, "Properly Humbled")

A couple of weeks ago, the Latino Poetry Review went live on line. In its inaugural issue, my big essay from Parnassus: "Gringo with a Baedeker, Cortez in Kevlar." Just go to the main page and click "essays"; you'll find it. After you do--or maybe before--click on "Letters to the Editor." There you'll find a long response by Javier Huerta, a poet and graduate student who was deeply offended by my dismissal (on aesthetic grounds) of the seminal Chicano poem I am Joaquin by Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales. Huerta's letter began as a post to his blog, which you can find here, followed by 20+ comments. He's since posted another meditation sparked by the piece; more blog responses to the essay-review show up at the Blog of Many Names by C. S. Perez, and I've gathered them for you (the ones so far) here.

[PS: just found this, another blog response, considerably more pissed off. "Save your empty gestures," this poet says of my apologies. Sorry, Mr. Corral--still a few of those to go.]

Now, as you'll see in the comments on each of those posts, as well as in the Letters page (soon) and over at Romancing the Blog, I've responded several times to the controversy, each time with an apology. Huerta, you see, has me dead to rights: I did a lousy job writing about the Gonzales poem, failing not only to question my own first impressions of it, but also to be the sort of "chameleon critic" that I've always tried to be. As he puts it in his most recent post on the fracas:
David Hume says this in his essay concerning the standard of taste.

"A person influenced by prejudice, complies not with this condition; but obstinately maintains his position, without placing himself in that point of view, which the performance supposes. If the work be addressed to persons of a different age or nation, he makes no allowance for their peculiar views and prejudices; but, full of the manners of his own age and country, rashly condemns what seemed admirable in the eyes of those for whom alone the discourse was calculated. If the work be executed for the public, he never sufficiently enlarges his comprehension, or forgets his interest as a friend or enemy, as a rival or commentator. By this means, his sentiments are perverted; nor have the same beauties and blemishes the same influence upon him, as if he had imposed a proper violence on his imagination, and had forgotten himself for a moment."

Ultimately, I believe Eric's criticism of Corky fails because he does not forget himself and all his preconceived ideas of what accomplished poetry is and does. The judging of Corky's poem on the standards of taste learned in the workshop or the poetry classroom suggests an investment in Arnoldian disinterestedness. This "violence on [the critic's] imagination" recommended by Hume resembles Keats's chameleon poet. We need, then, a chameleon critic who can adopt the values of the poem's audience. All I am saying is that Eric's acknowledgment of the importance of Corky's poem to Chicanos should have led to an inquiry into the reasons for this importance instead of to a quick dismissal in the form of "well, I just don't get it."
Hats off to Huerta for engaging me at such a thoughtful level when the piece clearly pissed him off. Like Mr. Darcy, I find myself properly humbled.

In his most recent post, Huerta sheds a bit more light on what angered him in my piece. It wasn't simply how I took some cheap shots at Gonzales, whom he (and others) deeply admires, as a poet and as a man. In the process, I seem to have given voice--smug, self-satisfied voice, a "workshop" voice--to a pressing generational tension in Chicano poetry. Here's part of how the new post closes:
Eric's essay publicly raised some questions that I've been privately asking and attempting to answer for a while. I think, or I think that I think, that our generation--that is, Chicano (Mexican-American) poets who have published or are going to publish first books in the 21st century; let us call ourselves "the scrubs"--respects Corky's generation--those involved in the Chicano movimiento; let us call them "the elders"--only for their political and cultural importance. I think that there is an unvoiced opinion among the scrubs that our work is "sublter and more accomplished" than the work of the elders. Workshop tells us so, and we believe it.

I intend, have always intended, to write a second blog post on Selinger's comments on Corky. The second post is to focus on the use of Corky as a foil for younger poets. In praising later poets, Selinger keeps reminding readers of the flaws of Corky's poem. He even adopts the metaphor used in Pound's "The Pact." The elders broke the wood; our time is a time of carving. My point is that this narrative of progress doesn't originate with Selinger. What exactly do we, as scrubs, think of the works of our elders? This is an inquiry that our respect for our elders does not allow us to undertake. In the end, I think that our focus on the social, cultural and political concerns of our elders keeps us from recognizing and acknowledging the intriguing and innovative ways they engaged formal (aesthetic) questions.
No doubt my piece would have gone over better had I written in a more gentleman-like manner. But no matter how I put this "narrative of progress," it probably still would have grated on Huerta's ear. For an outsider to come along and say, "Yes, younger poets, you're right that you're better than your elders" isn't just to express an aesthetic opinion; it is--at least potentially--to advance what the Jewish leaders of my youth called an "assimilationist" case, or even to divide and conquer.

But does Huerta mean that he and his contemporaries must find some way to admire their elders' aesthetics, even if they prefer their own? Must keep silent, if they disagree? That strikes me as quite a burden--but on the other hand, I'm fascinated by an ethos that would set other values and duties on an equal level with the aesthetic, or (to put it another way) that would refuse to give the aesthetic a separate sphere. What would it be like to think that way, to feel that way, about a group of poets?

To quote one of my landsmen: "Fascinating."