November 28, 2004

More Babylon, less Waste Land

Posted by Curt at 08:58 AM in Literature | TrackBack

This is a time for resuscitating some strange literary ghosts. Take this little paeon to e.e. cummings. Cummings doesn’t really hold any particular interest for me in his own right; his little word-games are amusing enough, maybe, but they give me about the same feeling as playing vintage original-Nintendo games. It’s barely entertainment, through a pretty heavily nostalgic filter. And yet the reviewer, maybe the author as well, I don’t know, seems to be trying to set him up as some kind of martyr for uncompromising, imperishable art. To me, the value of being uncompromising in art is not a lot higher than it is in, say, marriage. And in any case, cummings’ little doodles just don’t really even evoke the pathos even of the selfish isolated aesthetic mind like, say, the works of Ambrose Bierce. Whether comic or tragic, they were in any case written for the amusement and digestion of just a few, which these critics seem to consider all for the best, but, somewhat inconsistently, the fact that they have only been, throughout much of the last century, appreciated and admired by the select strikes them as profoundly unjust.

Where did the invocatory strain, and more importantly its appreciaton, go in poetry? The greatest period in English poetry, after the Elizabethan, is the early Romantic period. There’s nothing particularly impenetrable about most of Keats, or Shelley, or Wordsworth. There’s nothing like the ideal that Wallace Stevens expressed negatively in condemning Eliot’s poems because “they do not make the visible / a little hard to see” (if not Eliot then for God’s sake who—that’s practically the only thing with which he concerns himself). Let me put it another way—when scientists talk about the beauty of some law in physics, Newtonian gravitation, for example, or general relativity, are they praising Einstein’s ability to make the simple obscure? Of course not, quite the contrary, because while the phenomena and the concepts his work evokes are indeed confoundingly obscure, and respecting their complexity is a pre-condition for the veracity of the solution, his grand achievement, and the reason people find aesthetic as well as scientific value in it, is because it brings relative simplicity and clarity to a realm that would otherwise be a miasma. To be able to explain so much, so comprehensively, upon such a simple and solid foundation, that amazes humanity.

There seems something purer and more instinctive in that aesthetic response than in probably the majority of the poetry-reading community because scientists don’t belabor and over-refine their aesthetic criteria, in fact they probably weren’t even looking for beauty until it manifested itself. The connection is that, in its greatest periods, poetry had that effect as well. Great poetry, like all great art and again, like scientific theories, is as complex as it needs to be and no more so. The simplicity of those great poems by the Romantics is the source of their power, because rather than conducting us into an isolated hermetic realm like Eliot or cummings, they have a resonance throughout our existence. They speak one great message at many different levels, rather than many messages confusedly and contradictorily. To take another example: the cathedral of Chartres does not impress with the convoluted or complicated nature of its effect: it is rather the pure and deep simplicity of the work which is breath-taking, and even the complexity of the structure inspires admiration primarily for how it concentrates and elevates that one great goal. Among the great poets, the work is so deeply instinctual that it seems almost unconscious or auto-didactic, virtually spontaneous.

That strain didn’t last very long in English poetry. In America we had a prolongation of a similar level of enthusiasm and of high quality in Whitman, Hart Crane and maybe a few others (maybe even Stevens himself). But that vein, like its equivalent in Latin America, quickly got bogged down and tattered by politics. The only place in the West, I think, that preserved that spirit until at least quite recently is Russia. Russia’s literature for the past 200 years has been the greatest in the world, without even any close competitors. There are no doubt many reasons for that, not the most insignificant being that the great Russian Romantic, Pushkin, made a deeper impression than his counterparts in the West, and has indeed never been discarded or even forgotten or disregarded for a moment. He, and the great ones following him, from Lermontov to Blok to Arseny Tarkovsky, speak simply but never plainly, like prophets. Their invocations express more and demand more than anyone else’s. The same spirit is apparent even in prose: who else could have written at the beginning of a novella, like Tolstoy: “his life was most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” No writer anywhere in the world can match the integrity, apolitical and yet with profound political consequences, and the brilliance of Solzhenitsyn. Pasternak complained that all the Russian writers except Chekhov preached to their readers. But the issue is not whether there’s any value in Dostoyevsky’s mysticism or Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism, but rather that only they had such an exalted view of the depth of the issues and the task confronting the writer, and no one else ever had such an ability to carry it out.

I used to think I loved Russia because nowhere else did it seem like poetry and the intellect were so honored. But France, for example, is just as obsessed with literature, but with a profoundly different effect. There’s something more ordered, more self-satisfied and ultimately more limited about the spirit here. The great poet and musician Vladimir Vissotski complained that, as much as he admired France, he and his audience in France could never understand each other. For the French, a song is simply a song: after-dinner entertainment, or a poem, whereas he could never understand how it could only be that.

My point is not that we should all be less materialistic and focus on poetry more. That’s what American poets spend their careers doing as a self-justication, and you don’t have to even observe the current state of Russia to guess at the negative consequences of that. Rather, it seems to me that poetry can only really be important, and beautiful, when it’s a part of life, when it’s breathed and spoken, not when it becomes a matter of little word-puzzles for professors or an impenetrable edifice with which to chastise the unlettered masses and provide careers for innumerable academics in deciphering it and hunting down allusions and influences. Poetry seems to be one of the few genres that has escaped the politicization of literary criticism in America, but, since political interpretation seems to be the highest form of honor that American academia bestows, that doesn’t say much for the vitality of poetry there.

p.s. I’m inclined to be open to the view of hip-hop as a form of popular native poetry, but that raises far too many issues to be addressed at the moment. Suffice it to say that, whatever one’s view of its aesthetic value, I think in that realm most of the same patterns are evident as in literary poetry, which I have just delineated.


And in any case, cummings' little doodles just don't really even evoke the pathos even of the selfish isolated aesthetic mind like, say, the works of Ambrose Bierce.

Much as it pains me to take issue with a post that speaks so highly of Solzhenitsyn, I have to say that although some of Cummings' stuff is pretty silly, "i sing of Olaf glad and big" and especially "anyone lived in a pretty how town" evoke a fair amount of pathos.

p.s. I'm inclined to be open to the view of hip-hop as a form of popular native poetry, but that raises far too many issues to be addressed at the moment.

I definitely think hip-hop is (or at least can be) real poetry, though I'm inclined more to view it in the line of the romances of medieval times than as "literary" poetry.

Posted by: shonk at November 29, 2004 12:25 AM

Well, sure, there are exceptions to any characterization, but in my opinion the poems you mention pretty much confirm my point, in that they are in fact more in what almost might be called the "conciliatory" vein stylistically, even if "olaf..." at least has the appearance of being politically defiant thematically. In these poems there is a real attempt to win the pity and the sympathy of the reader, rather than simply presenting willful abstruseness, as is my experience with much of cummings' poetry (compare those with, for example, the poem cited in the article I linked to). Suffice it to say, that I think if cummings had written in that vein more often, he would hardly be one of our greatest poets ("anyone lived in a pretty how town" bears an uncomfortable resemblance to one of those fake Anglo-Irish folk lyrics in "The Lord of the Rings," with the social perspective of Sinclair Lewis), but his appeal would be less limited (his political views, by the view, far from being heretical or even martyr-inducing, as the author seems to imply, are pretty much pure orthodoxy in poetry circles today).

Posted by: Curt at November 29, 2004 05:23 AM

Steven's indictment seems apposite only to Eliot's early aesthetic, which he and the other paleo-modernists appear to have later abandoned (even Pound concedes its failure in his infamous "words no good" interview).

Posted by: mock at November 29, 2004 10:14 AM

I tend to have the same view of their work: "Four Quartets" finally achieves a certain lyric elegance which I think may have arisen to a certain degree from abandoning the scaffolding of the laboured greater-culture project which is so oppressive in almost everything after "Prufrock" (well, unfortunately, the incomprehensible megalomania revives to a certain degree with his stupid efforts to revive Passion plays, but i assume we can ignore those like most of the rest of the literature-reading public). However, I still can't imagine what Stevens was thinking when he wrote that, since Eliot's and Pound's "early aesthetic," as you put it, is almost entirely obfuscatory.

Posted by: Curt at November 30, 2004 05:34 AM