Saturday, February 28, 2009

To Be Great...

Eliot, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, discusses in some detail the process by which new, major works of poetry transform and transmute our ideas about old(er) ones. Perhaps the task of this essay can be to transform and transmute (to whatever extent possible) our ideas regarding Eliot's essay. My motivating idea is to fill in some gaps in Eliot's construct. What if Eliot were writing today? Eliot encourages "past-consciousness," a necessary internalization of poetry's history. However, post-modernity in general encourages the exact reverse of this: the dismissal of "past-consciousness" as irrelevant, petrifying, and antithetical to the distinct brands of (often political) humor and irony that are relevant now. If Eliot were writing this essay today (at what might be, willy-nilly, the closing of the post-modern era and the opening of a new one), he would have to take account of this discrepancy between his own method and formula for greatness and the post-modern method/formula (the whole basis of which is that "greatness," as it has been handed down to us, is no longer possible.) Eliot, after all, published the essay in 1921, when he was still part of the avant-garde elite. How can "greatness" be reconciled with its own effacement? Can it be?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Poetry in a time of Depression

I think a solid argument can be made, McGann aside, that good poetry courts timelessness. We can trace in a good poem ideologies, preoccupations, and imaginative vistas endemic to specific times and situations. Yet if there is not something about the poem which transcends these contingencies, what we have is dead meat. There is a rich history available to anyone with the will and stamina to investigate it, and no Zeitgeist has yet surfaced so singular that it has effaced our collective interest in what has come before. Though all these things are true, I have spent the last few days wondering (in spare moments) what kind of poetry a time of Depression calls for. This is, I might add, a time of Depression in America. Everything is becoming more difficult; certainties that we have all taken for granted (availability of jobs, affordability of goods, reliability of funds) are no longer certain; consequently, people are becoming hesitant, discontented, and shackled by circumstance. This goes for me, as much as for anyone else I know. For those of us who take our art seriously, and for whom going on your nerve is no longer as desirable (or possible) as it used to be, it stands to reason that this new socio-economic Depression should lead us back to fundamental questions of value and identity. Why write poetry now? What qualifies you or I to apply the appellation "poet" to ourselves in a time of Depression? If we are, in fact, going to write poetry and be poets, what should we write about, and how?


As a 2017 postscript to these queries: the Depression, which took on the moniker The Great Recession as of the early Teens, never really ended. Those of us who have continued to pursue poetry seriously have been thrown back on our own resources, to find our own answers. Many younger artists, as is de rigueur, have gone under. I continue to write because a continuing Recession or Depression has its own sense of interest or enchantment; how the human race en masse chooses to cope with loss and suffering; and to what extent art (and, by now, memory) can be palliative in such a time. What I have discovered beneath the surface of human life is not necessarily comforting; yet I do have a sense of spiritual strength, both in relation to poetry and in general, which has consolidated itself through the trials and tribulations of the Teens.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ideology and Hypocrisy

Jerome McGann's book The Romantic Ideology focuses on ideology as being often semi or unconscious. What about poets for whom ideology is a sine qua non of poetic practice? What about poets who are, for want of a better term, ideologues? Of course, McGann would say that all poets are ideologues to some extent, but I am talking about poets who foreground ideology in their work. It could be feminist, queer, working class, black, bourgeois, materialist, spiritualist, any number of things. When ideology is foregrounded, what effect does it have on the work? I have always felt that ideologues generally write lousy poetry. I used to call poetry ideologues "agenda poets." There would seem to be a price to pay either way. What is the cost for adopting and maintaining ideologies at the expense of the aesthetic, and vice versa? What are the wages of ideology and verse?

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