Archive for August, 2005

A real chornoi russki

At last further information on Pushkin’s legendary but little-researched African great-grandfather Gannibal. A very fascinating figure by all accounts, but the very idea of such an anomalous figure popping up in Russia of all places, and being related to perhaps the most famous Russian of all to boot, has tended to obscure everything pertinent about his life. I would still quibble with crediting this man with for example the canals which were not built until the mid-20th century under Stalin for the same reason that I object to crediting Leonardo with inventing the parachute or the tank or the many other contraptions that he drew but was never able to get to work. It reminds me of the joke in which a beaver and a rabbit are sitting next to the Hoover Dam and the beaver points proudly to it and asks: “What do you think about that?” To which the rabbit replies: “Did you build that?” And the beaver responds: “No, but it’s based off of a design of mine.”

But on the whole, as I say, Gannibal is apparently a remarkable man for what he accomplished particularly in light of his origins. The obvious delight that black intellectuals take in his accomplishments, even the rather strained embrace of the 7/8 white Russian Pushkin as one of their own, rather puts the lie to the insistent claims of Frantz Fanon and his numerous maggot-like disciples that black “post-colonial” culture has to define itself in violent opposition to Western culture. That is the product of a feeling of inferiority turned to resentfulness and despair. Gannibal had no need or use for that kind of brutishness, and perhaps that is in part why Pushkin became himself such a rarity in Russia: a liberal, a humanist, a spokesman for individuals in love and suffering, the greatest poet of the modern world’s greatest national poetic tradition…

Poets: is there anything they do know?

A couple days ago, Curt deconstructed August Kleinzahler’s diatribe against Garrison Keillor and the state of poetry in America today. Amidst his various thrashings, Kleinzahler cynically opines that “[c]ultural and economic forces only suggest further devastation of any sort of vital literary culture,” to which I responded:

Is this guy fucking joking? The literary culture in this country is booming as I suspect it probably never has before. Millions of people write publicly on forums and blogs, reaching a bigger audience than ever before. And the best of those writers don’t have to wait until they die and have their work uncovered and published by their executors…

In other words, Kleinzahler, in his chosen role as intellectual/elitist/poet/prick, mistakes a degradation in his favorite form of literature for a general “devastation” of the entire literary culture. This observational bias, while intellectually dishonest, is nonetheless understandable (after all, who hasn’t seen a decline in the popularity of his favorite musical artists/styles as a sign of the impending musical apocalypse). However, this bias stems from the misunderstanding that, I claim, lies much closer the the real root of the decline of poetry.

You see, Kleinzahler, like so many people who’ve spent too much time on the academic literary scene, mistakenly thinks that poetry is really a literary pursuit. It’s not. At it’s heart, poetry is an oral artistic endeavor. The ancient epics were oral traditions long before they were ever written down. The best of the modern epics, like the Aeniad, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, recognize this fact and practically demand to be read aloud.1 The Petrarchan explosion, with its sonnets (“little song” in both Italian and Provençal), songs, eclogues, etc. was similarly tied to the oral traditions and forms of the song and the ballad (what other reason could one give for the extreme emphasis on rhyme and meter?) Since then and even up to the present day, the most popular forum for poetry has been the salon, the coffee shop and even the tavern, where intellectuals and wits compose, read and recite poetry to each other.

Admittedly, the strains had been there at least since Virgil, but somewhere along the way poetry become serious literature. A more industrious scholar than I could probably make the argument that that’s when poetry started to die. As Curt points out, modern poetry is mostly visual instead of oral. It’s either totally impossible to read aloud or sounds like “someone with emphyzema [] perpetually running out of breath in mid-phrase.”2 And one detects a hint of bitterness in Kleinzahler’s diatribe: part of the reason he hates Keillor (aside from the totally justified distaste for Keillor’s reading of terrible poems) is that Keillor is trying to once again make poetry oral, to pull it out of its hermetically sealed “literary” strongbox. Not that this makes Keillor a hero or anything; wretched taste in poetry is still inexcusable.

And in this analysis we see how to reconcile the decline in poetry that Kleinzahler, Curt, I, and pretty much everybody else acknowledge with the non-“devastation” of literary culture that should be equally obvious. After all, oral culture is in the decline and for precisely the same reason that literary culture is on the rise: the written interaction that dominates the communication of the Internet generation has supplanted a good chunk of what would otherwise have been oral interaction and the Internet/movie/television obsession with the visual has eroded much of the priority given to verbal eloquence. That the president of the most powerful country in the world is a guy who seems to have trouble speaking in complete sentences ought to be evidence enough of this trend.

(Of course, I’ve also argued in the past that pop music generally and hip hop in particular is the real “new poetry” and in that medium one might see a return to poetry’s oral roots. I still think this is true, although this is a sort of “low” poetry, more on the level of a ballad or romance than on the level of Petrarch or Shakespeare. However, one could also make the argument that “high” poetry is, by its very literary pretentions, a departure from the oral heart of poetry and, as such, presages its own decline. Another argument that really requires the scholarly treatment, not mere blog-rantings)

1. I should point out that I once spent a very long but enjoyable evening drinking cheap beer and reading Paradise Lost aloud with three friends. As I recall, we kept going until we were too drunk to continue, which, for practical purposes, meant we made it through about Book VI.

2. In quoting this, it should become obvious that the entirety of my point is contained in the first paragraph of Curt’s post, but I still felt it deserved a more complete explication/dissection.

Intimations of Mortality

One final point to make about the The Lord of the Rings. The book is sometimes decried as a glorification of holy war, even a sort of romanticized version of the Crusades. This politically correct interpretation is not entirely false, but is much too crude. There is indeed a strange meeting of the epic/heroic and a more modern, in fact rather Christian, sort of value system predicated around modesty, humility and self-sacrifice. Others have noted that the Quest of the Ring is basically an attempt to destroy a “weapon of mass destruction.” The vaguely Jesus-like Gandalf is in fact a divine being incarnated in human form who dies to save others and is resurrected in time. Foreshadowings of inevitability blow like a disquieting wind with ever-growing strength through the books.

But it is not destiny but divinity that pushes through every crack of the work. It is not the case that characters of already foreordained fate merely move from place to place as they were intended–it is more that they are required to do all that they can, and some benevolent power brings things about when their grasp is not quite sufficient.

Nor are contemporary parallels lacking in the books. Tolkien weakly disavowed them by claiming that history in his time did not at all turn out like the War of the Rings, but I think that they are more wishful re-imaginings of how events should have turned out. In The Hobbit a World War I-like battle, where several basically good groups nearly come to blows because of greed, is narrowly averted by an invasion of more evil foes which brings them to their senses and unites them. In The Lord of the Rings a rivalry between two powers equally bad, like the Soviet Union and Germany in World War II (while the gods of the mighty lands of the West across the sea look on from afar, like America at the beginning of the war, refusing to intervene directly), and is only subsumed by a third force (England?) whose goal is not to wrest control over power but rather to destroy it. Above all perhaps Tolkien took from the conflict the impression that, come victory or defeat, the power and glory of the Old World, Middle-Earth, was destined to largely disappear. Perhaps any true reconciliation of the martial and the peaceful virtues such as we see here depends on a moral clarity with which we are not blessed on this earth, where the good and the evil can not readily be distinguished by their species or origin. But nonetheless we must try for one. For the message is: power must be wielded within certain boundaries to protect freedom and happiness, but as little as possible, for it corrupts, and it cannot be wielded for its own sake.

Poets, is there anything they don’t know?

A couple years ago, before I dedicated myself full-time to sophistry, I was more regularly committed to an even bigger intellectual black hole: poetry. Reading this overheated attack on Garrison Keillor reminds me why I’m not so much anymore. Partly I suppose it is a matter of rhetoric. I can’t stand this loose, informal, limp “naturalistic” style that has become utterly ubiquitous in recent decades. Not that the turgid, cliché-ridden sermonizing produced by the mediocre poets of the more declamatory past eras was necessarily any better, but I feel that total informality of expression is more fundamentally at cross-purposes with the very nature of poetry. Because after all the whole business with line breaks and pauses is still essentially of a rhetorical nature, even if poetry is mostly a visual medium nowadays. Hearing or reading casual observations and ruminations chopped up in this artificial way is about the farthest from a “natural” mode of expression imaginable–when contemporary poets read their work the impression is as often as not of someone with emphyzema and perpetually running out of breath in mid-phrase.

So what does all of this have to do with Mr. Kleinzahler’s anti-Keillor screed? Well, quite naturally because he decided to follow the time-honored tradition of attacking someone considerably more famous than anyone in the poetry profession as a way of generating publicity so as to lay out his views on the problems with poetry and how to resolve them. I’d say that his central observation is absolutely correct, and one that I myself made at the very instant that I decided to withdraw to some extent from poetry:

“Let me put it starkly: the better animals in the jungle aren’t drawn to poetry anymore, and they’re certainly not tuned in to Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Just as the new genre of the novel drew off most of the brilliant young writers of the nineteenth century, movies, television, MTV, advertising, rock ‘n’ roll, and the internet have taken the best among the recent crop of young talent. Do you suppose for a moment that a spirited youngster with a brilliant, original mind and gifted up the yin-yang is going to sit still for two years of creative writing poetry workshops presided over by a dispirited, compromised mediocrity, all the while critiquing and being critiqued by younger versions of the same?”

I would even support his other contention that “good or bad, art’s exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain” as a corrective to the orthodox pseudo-religious view of the arts and poetry in particular, even if I do find the statement exaggerated and simplistic. Nevertheless, I question the competence of anyone the musical ideal of whom is a saxophonist whose sound is described by him as being “as shocking as hearing someone scream “Fuck!” in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York” to lead the way to a more interesting, entertaining form of poetry. And that is the central problem of the whole attack. He points out a real problem with poetry, namely its lack of responsiveness to its audience (or, really, any audience), which in turn has led to a progressive marginalization that has made it unattractive even to the bright minds that might write it. And yet he also wants to play the provocateur, the respectable scoundrel who antagonizes his audience, either because that is really what he finds entertaining or because he feels exceptionally superior to his readers. First of all, that is difficult because it is nearly impossible to antagonize what is left of the small “literary” audiences these days in any of the usual ways (i.e. sex, Satan-worshiping, vulgarity–I’m sure that you could bring down the house by voicing support for Bush or the war in Iraq, but somehow I don’t think that’s what Kleinzahler has in mind). I don’t buy Klienzahler’s theory that poets have stopped antagonizing to preserve their cushy university positions; in my opinion literary circles and university types have been so indoctrinated by the view that anything offensive is “authentic” that it is precisely the scat-whippers that get hired to cushy university positions (like the inimitable Amiri Baraka), where they no doubt discover sooner or later that they have co-opted by the institutions that hired them. All that they can complain about, however, is having been too successful. Bill Hicks, probably the greatest provocateur of our time, could rile up his audiences with the most outrageous suggestions. But in contrast to the average poet a) he had to make it on his own rather than landing a government-funded sinecure b) his audience was genuinely diverse rather than being a pack of true believers and c) he managed to be amazingly funny and entertaining at the same time. Poetry audiences will uncritically applaud anything with the poetry label: yes, I would not hesitate to call the comedy-club audience more discriminating than the poetry audience.

But on a more serious note, I don’t doubt that Garrison Keillor’s schtick, in poetry as in everything else, wallows in a somnolent middle-aged nostalgia which is unlikely to produce anything of lasting value or entertainment, at least for me, but based on his peculiar stature in America I have to imagine that he is closer to the nub of what people want to hear and read than some randy old beatnik who still approvingly cites Antonin Artaud (!?), the inventor of the “theater of cruelty” who entitled his final radio broadcast “Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu” (“To have done with God’s judgment”), which is described in the following terms (keep Garrison Keillor in mind as a point of contrast):

“a heretic’s scatalogical tirade at the extreme of the linguistic lunatic fringe…the broadcast was cancelled at the last minute by the director of French Radio, Vladimir Porche[,] citing Artaud’s scatalogical, vicious and obscene anti-American and anti-Catholic pronouncements as something that the French radio audience could do without…In the actual text of “To Have Done With The Judgment Of God” America is denounced as a baby factory war-mongering machine. Bloody and apocalyptic death rituals are described. Shit is vividly exalted as evidence of life and mortality. Questions about consciousness and knowledge are pursued and answered with more unanswerable questions. It all dead-ends in a scene in which God itself turns up on an autopsy table as a dissected organ taken from the defective corpse of mankind. In the recording all this would have been interspersed with shrieks, screams, grunts, and an extensive vocabulary of nonsense words– a glossolalia of word-like sounds invented by Artaud to give utterance to the dissociation of meaning from language.”

Needless to say, I’d probably turn off my radio if Keillor came on, but if Artaud came on I’d throw it out the window. I was going to say that Kleinzahler’s prescription for contemporary poetry would only make it popular among the masochistic, but I’m pretty sure that is already its main audience.