Pope's "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed" can be conceptualized as either a conservative neoclassical endorsement of elegance over originality, or a progressive protomodernist anticipation of constructivist principles of defamiliarization.
In the first case, it means there is nothing new under the sun. Style is everything. And style is signally important as a class marker, a means of raising the poet to prominence via a display of his mastery of a given socio-aesthetic code, "mastery" in this instance implying a finding of limits--a competitive setting up of boundaries that serve as a dare to all who would follow, saying "(you can't) improve on this." Or, "I beat you to it."
In the second case, it acknowledges that such apexes of expressive achievement always have a limited shelf-life. It invites a setting of inchoate, habitualized thought into sharp, possibly shocking relief. Almost but not quite stated in the formula is the idea that what oft was thought was not really thought, or at least not completely thought, until a particular striking combination of words gave life to it. According to this model, the writer has not "discovered" the ideal expression a la the precepts of classical imitation (in which the spatial model treats themes, topics, ideas, etc. as pre-existing objects, stored as it were in cabinets or antechambers in a great hall of memory), so much as she has coaxed it into sudden life and in so doing created as well a happy sense of deja vu: "Yes," it makes us say, "yes, that's how it is. I've thought that." But it's more correct to say that the expression made us think it, and made us think too that we had already thought it.
Pope would probably say, if we could prop him up and make him speak, that we had it right the first time. What else could he say? But the important thing as I see it is that both cases can be accurate without impassable contradiction. It's all a matter of perspective, and what use we want to put the formula to.
I could also say that there is a form of intelligence that consists in defining limits, and a form that consists in demonstrating the impossibility of defining such limits, but when you think about it, both of those activities consist in defining limits. Both forms of intelligence are not exactly the same, but they end up relying on the same logics.
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
Pope's "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed" can be conceptualized as either a conservative neoclassical endorsement of elegance over originality, or a progressive protomodernist anticipation of constructivist principles of defamiliarization.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
...I'm uncomfortable, even when talking about the broad range of "pop" musics, with entirely discarding the category of disposability as an evaluative "metric." Yes, sometimes evoking disposability does enforce "a certain set of class values." But is it wholly a "class value" to say that a Rolls is a better car than a Hyundai? Sure, it costs about 50 times as much, and probably 75% of that overage is accounted for by pure status symbol markup: but the Rolls will outperform the Hyundai in most any category you name--engineering, durability, handling, fit & finish, etc. (everything except, significantly, price and fuel efficiency).
Pop music is cultural production caught up in the deepest and most pernicious coils of the culture industry, where rapid production, consumption, and disposability are the absolute orders of the day.... But the impulse to make something that persists, that's precisely durable--from Horace thru Shakespeare's sonnets, from the Lascaux cave paintings thru Basquiat--is an awfully deeply-rooted one, and durability is a measure of evaluation that predates the culture industry--not to mention capitalism itself, and feudalism before it. I want to think about this more, but for the nonce I don't think I can sign on to SF/J's or Joshua's refusal to let the marks of industry-imposed sell-by dates influence their assessments of musics. For my money, it's precisely the extent to which a given pop song or album consciously or unconsciously subverts that "disposability" that makes me value it. And that's not just a subjective reaction, but something conditioned by social history and objective conditions of reception.
Mark makes some good points here, but I'm not sure I can sign on completely to a dyadic distinction between disposability and durability, at least so far as it concerns cultural productions like music, poetry, and painting, whose use value is always contingent on a bunch of other functions like class, economics, historical revisionism, subjective enjoyment, etc. Even in the case of the Rolls vs. the Hyundai, Mark himself admits that the Hyundai's advantages in price and fuel efficiency are "significant," and that the mark-up on the Rolls is due in great part to status value. If we factor in the Rolls' actual "superiority" sheerly in terms of mechanical performance, we then have to ask how much of that performance is really necessary for the average driver. Safety is important, of course, but going faster and riding smoother and more quietly and so on are essentially extensions of the car's cosmetic ostentatiousness. As for durability, there we have to figure in the cost of repairs and maintenance for the average Rolls vs. the average Hyundai, as well as the statistical likelihood that the average Rolls owner will really keep his or her Rolls for the duration of its functionality anyway. My point here is that even those considerations that might seem to transcend the category of "class" can sometimes be shown to have their toes still in it.
As for pop music, I agree that critics cannot intelligibly sustain any "refusal to let the marks of industry-imposed sell-by dates influence their assessments of musics." I don't believe, however, that either Sasha or Joshua would lay claim to such a refusal (or if they would, their actual critical work belies such a claim). I'm basing that belief on a broad construal of "influence": there's a difference between a blanket dismissal of all pop on the basis that it's a product of the corrupt corporate culture industry (on that basis we would also have to dismiss 99% of all recorded music) and a reasoned acknowledgment of the omnipresent compromising conditions that attend any intersection of art and commerce. Good critics address those conditions, just as they address other contexual facts.
The problem with talking about pop music in terms of disposability vs. durability are many. (When I say "pop music," for the record, I mean post-industrial, mass-produced recordings of singers with considerable media visibility--roughly, Caruso through R. Kelly.) For one thing, in the case of some pop genres, disposability is built into the definition of the form as a quality without which a song cannot be considered entirely successful. That is, if a certain kind of rockabilly or punk or disco single is too complex, too musically "ambitious," this will conflict with one of the overriding purposes of such music: to excite, overwhelm, stimulate, on a superficially sensuous level. Some of the songs I have enjoyed the most in my life I can no longer really enjoy, because they have quite simply expired from overuse. I think of most Ramones, Patsy Cline, and Beatles songs in this regard. This doesn't mean that those songs have expired in some absolute sense; for generations of listeners, they are as fresh and exciting as they once were for me. And there's no real reason they should continue to engage me. They were there when I needed them, and they worked great. I could say the same thing of certain poets: E. E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, James Tate. I think I've discussed this before, if not on this blog, then in actual conversation with humans--I consider these writers "gateway poets." They turn people on to poetry. They prepare you for the "hard stuff." One tendency is to turn one's nose up at such poets once one has "grown out" of them, and I have been guilty of this myself. But this is like saying that stuffed animals are worthless because one no longer sleeps with them, and one prefers instead to sleep with attractive humans; at one time, those stuffed animals were absolutely indispensable companions, and they may even in a small way have prepared one to be a better bed partner. (OK, now I'm realizing that that makes it sound like I had really creepy relations with my stuffed animals. But you know what I mean.)
Another problem with making durability judgments on pop music is that it simply hasn't been around long enough to test those judgments. The closest thing we have to a test case is folk music, but it's just not the same, in large part exactly because during its periods of largely oral transmission, folk was not circulated through capitalist networks of production, distribution, and consumption. If I had to imagine a historical model of pop durability, however, it would have to be built around a trans-generational measure of cyclical returns: the same songs would have to demonstrate an ability to appeal repeatedly to successive generations of listeners. They would not be expected to sustain this appeal in individual listeners over the course of their lifetimes, though they may of course do so in some cases. Some people, I imagine, never get tired of hearing the same damn Doors songs over and over even when they're ready for the nursing home.
Critics complicate the situation. By this I don't mean that critics like to make things complicated, though that may be true as well. I mean that it is curious to think of persons of relatively advanced age treating these ephemeral cultural phenomena as aesthetically significant in the same way that gallery exhibitions or symphonies have traditionally been treated. Questions arise: for whom are they writing? The music's intended audience? In some cases, yes, but not always. I'm thinking, for example, of a piece that Sasha wrote for The New Yorker a few months ago in which he reviewed the new Beyonce single. I'm willing to guess that an overwhelming percentage of Beyonce fans don't give a flying squirrel what some guy in The New Yorker thinks about her. And not because he wouldn't like her--it was a positive review. They don't care because they just want to hear the music. They might care about their peers' opinions, but only in the most direct and abbreviated form: i luv this song--dude, it suckz--fuck u hater--etc. So who was the review for? The cynically and probably partly correct answer is that it's for middle-aged squares who want to feel that they have some clue what passes for popular culture so they won't look like middle-aged squares in front of their middle-aged square friends and colleagues. Which brings us to another, increasingly emergent, class function of pop music writ large: it serves as a mechanism for status-generating social displays of cultural awareness among said squares.
I said that this answer was cynical and only partly correct. The other answer is that there is another emergent function of pop in contemporary intellectual culture, which is to provide a multi-depth field of formal analysis in which one may examine simultaneously aesthetic forms themselves (i.e., songs and performers) and the network of political/economic/cultural production and ideology that subtends those forms. This is an extremely appealing answer, as it implies the realization of a critical fantasy allowing sensuous aesthetic enjoyment at the same time as--indeed, in the service of--resistant critical action. Whether this fantasy is merely that--fantasy--depends, I suppose, on how high your expectations are, and what you consider as constitutive of critical success. Survival of pop as a form, or survival of humans as a species, or something in between?
Thursday, July 21, 2005
As you will surely know long before I say it, the concept "disposability" is disastrous indeed, if it comes prepackaged with valuative payload, aesthetically or worse, morally. That's at the core of the first EMP [Experience Music Project] paper, as I recall: that when durability is taken as a positive value in pop music, that's one of the veiled enforcements of a certain set of class values. I drive a Rolls, you drive a Hyundai, punk.
And I certainly agree, as ever, that anything where the pleasure is in knowing what happens loses appeal faster than where the pleasure is located elsewhere.
But the promise that "disposability" can't somehow be recognized and thought about seems not quite right to me. To believe such a thing requires the very move you make: the suggestion that disposability is purely related to consumer experience. Whah? If I decide to save my plastic coke bottle and use it to water my plants for three years, I totally can--but this doesn't suddenly make plastic coke bottles something else. The bottle is still "disposable," in the sense that it's produced and distributed within a system that presumes its disposability, and continues to make and distribute with that presumption, and this making and distributing continues to have manifold effects on price structures, labor structures, on how the bottle looks and how it acts, etc.
This is true of pop music too. The way it's made presumes a certain duration of "use" by the consumer, and that remains a force shaping the music. Again, it's not a value issue--to assume this set of forces makes lesser music is the Adornian error exactly. But there's a way to get past that error without acceding to a set of critical terms which measure only the anecdotal subjective accounts of individual consumers ... a strategy which leads to the absolute end of criticism.
"Who are you to say it's sexist? That's a useless metric, because I didn't feel it was sexist...."
I'm very interested in several things here, including 1) the pleasure-in-knowing-what-happens-vs.-pleasure-taken-elsewhere formula, 2) the Coke bottle analogy, and 3) the question of exactly what way to "get past" the "Adornian error" Joshua has in mind (is he being a tease or just provisionally optimistic?). Beyond these particulars, I'm curious about 4) how meaningfully these concerns can be mapped onto poetry in addition to pop. I'm not sure if these points are all necessarily related, so I'm just going to take them in order and find out.
1. There's a book or more worth of potential in discussing where the "elsewhere" is in which one can take pleasure, in distinction to the pleasure of knowing what happens. For example, do we want to frame it explicitly as the pleasure of not knowing what happens, or do we want to leave it open a little wider than that? Joshua seems wisely to have opted for openness, which problematizes the contrastive structure, but avoids an easy (and false) binary. It's the first kind of pleasure, however, that's most pertinent to the "disposability" question. And it is a real pleasure. I think of Brendan Fraser's Rip-Van-Winkle character in Blast from the Past, delightedly twitching with anticipation of his favorite part of Perry Como's "Round and Round," urging a bemused Alicia Silverstone, "Listen! This is where it really takes off." (This is related too to the question Nada raised the other day about why "our brains want to be so incantatory.") We can articulate both intratextual and intertextual dynamics with respect to such expectations: the Como case would be an example of the former, and an example of the latter would be the pleasure we take from hearing pop songs that remind us in direct ways of music we've heard before: "Beatlesesque" or whatever. Knowing what's happening can be very pleasurable, and, as Sasha asserts and Joshua grants guardedly, just because this pleasure tends to have a shorter expiration date than the pleasure one gets from music that takes longer to absorb and appreciate, that doesn't mean it's negligible. Do I have to mention orgasms? I guess I do.
2. The first thing that came to mind when I read the Coke bottle analogy was a passage from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (OK, the first thing that came to mind was how much the Coca Cola corporation sucks ass [they own Odwalla! gaah!], and then that I could go for a soda, and then Wittgenstein):
498. When I say that the orders "Bring me sugar" and "Bring me milk" make sense, but not the combination "Milk me sugar," that does not mean that the utterance of this combination of words has no effect. And if its effect is that the other person stares at me and gapes, I don't on that account call it the order to stare and gape, even if that was precisely the effect that I wanted to produce.
In both Wittgenstein's and Joshua's accounts, there is an ineradicable context that is both bound by and controlling of a grammar that prohibits the categorizing of either the order "Milk me sugar" as "the order to stare and gape" or the Coke bottle as "something else." In the first case the context is a social fact about grammar itself: that it "does not tell us how language must be constructed in order to fulfill its purpose, in order to have such-and-such an effect on human beings," and that it "only describes and in no way explains the use of things" (PI 496). This context is one of humans' ultimate isolation from their own meaning-making apparatus (grammar) insofar as it might initially seem to promise insight into the nature of meaning itself. In the second case the context is a socio-economic fact about capitalist power over product-identity: that the classification of material products is held within strict hierarchical limits by a grammar of production that trumps any grammar of use-function. I'm tempted to push further and ask whether Wittgenstein's point is not itself informed by an emergent capitalist logic of industrial proprietariness that he projects onto language. Tempted, but finally not up to the task.
3. I don't know if there's a good way to avoid the cruel rat trap that is Adorno's collapsing of the conditions of production and the aesthetic value of the product, but it does seem that one popular avant-garde strategy for doing so has been the willful subversion of grammars that refuse to recognize incoherent orders as orders to stare and gape. If enough people start thinking of such orders that way, they do become orders to stare and gape. A new grammar, a counter-grammar, emerges. If enough people used Coke bottles as plant-watering vessels, and only as plant-watering vessels, Coca Cola would go bankrupt because, let's face it, normal healthy people need a hell of a lot fewer plant-watering vessels than sugar-and-caffeine addicts need Coke. Now I don't think either of these utopian conditions are going to become realistic likelihoods any time soon, but one can at least see the rationale for a theoretical scenario in which Coke bottles do become subject to, if not a material-ontological shift, a symbolic-aesthetic reframing.
4. On to poetry, then. Here's where gears shift abruptly. There's a big difference between the scales we can meaningfully use to measure pop music and poetry. In the case of pop, we have a scale that indicates, on one end, the most disposable musical forms (ad jingles, TV news and talk-show themes, etc.). A little "higher" up the scale, we have the most cravenly commercial and "accessible" pop (Britney Spears, Garth Brooks, etc.). We might include within this middle group performers that are both immensely popular and invested with some degree of critical credibility, depending on whom you ask (U2, the Rolling Stones, etc.). We might go further yet and include within the same middle set performers who are only able to make a comparatively modest profit and/or attain a relatively marginal level of name recognition, and who do or do not enjoy a significant amount of critical acclaim (Devendra Banhart, Deerhoof, etc.). That leaves at the top end of the scale "high art" music: traditional classical (which may of course bleed over into the modestly popular), hardcore experimental stuff, and maybe some jazz. At this end, critical attention is often all that can be hoped for; the musicians had better have a day job.
I'm sure you're way ahead of me: in poetry, there is no significant middle to the scale. The low end is taken up by Hallmark rhymes, corporate slogans, and the like, which correspond roughly to ad jingles on the music scale; the high end is all the rest of us. If there is a middle, it's ridiculously small. It consists of Billy Collins (maybe), Jewel, a slam poet or two, and some dead people. And none of those can go a single round profit-wise with the most fly-by-night one-hit wonder in rock, rap, or country (in Jewel's case, I'm only counting the success of the poetry itself, not her music as well).
So all these intriguing questions of disposability and so forth: we never even get to ask them about poetry, because there is no poetry popular enough to create a context for them. What would true "pop" poetry look like in this era? Is the very thought so absurd that it's not worth asking? One thing seems clear: the model for imagining it is not a yet-more resourceful Billy Collins. The reason his sales are higher than most other poets is not because he has tapped into some secret current of public taste that remains inaccessible to say, Gary Soto or Rae Armantrout, but because, when you think about it, statistically there almost have to be a few poets who do commercially a little better than all the rest although they are all doing basically the same thing (within a certain definition of "thing" as rendered relevant by the market).
Maybe we're lucky things are this way with poetry, since it means that we don't have to negotiate the minefields of Adornian error quite as nervously as we do with pop music. If you want evidence of such anxiety, go to a random mp3 blog and dig all the suffering over whether the hype surrounding a given singer is proleptically going to ruin her eventual historical reputation, etc., or whether one's initial enjoyment of a given band has turned out to be an index of one's susceptibility to the same latently corporate seductions that one self-satisfiedly points to as the cause of other consumers' decadent lassitude, etc. etc. etc.
That being said, within the poetry blogosphere, and perhaps also within professional communities like the AWP, it has been interesting to see a kind of miniature imitation of this cultural system emerge. I recall a few days ago a blogger remarking that he wanted to read Aaron Kunin's new book and see if it lived up to "the hype." It's not surprising that bloggers would construct such a discourse around poetry, since many of them are music fans as well, and the terms are all circulating in the same electronic arena. Furthermore, organizations like the AWP are themselves quickly becoming saturated with persons whose tastes and self-fashionings are produced in and by the reigning aesthetic economy and economic aesthetics. Still, we are a long way from being able to point to poems that are "disposable" in the same way that a song by 50 Cent or Lady Sov can be said to be disposable. There's a kind of negative cultural class-status gesture surrounding the simultaneous embrace and disdainful identification of a disposable hit: it's a way of vicariously plugging into a huge money-fueled dynamo, feeling the sexy bass beat, admiring the shiny technology of both the apparatuses of production and circulation, and yet indulging in the heroic fantasy that one has not been assimilated, not fully at least, not to the point that one cannot stand at the base of the dynamo and shake a tiny fist--while snapping one's fingers with the other hand.
To imagine such conditions for poetry as well as music is simultaneously obscene and exhilarating (and probably ridiculous, as I said before). It's like a death wish in a way. But it's also a perfectly predictable manifestation of wishful thinking tinged with ressentiment: a post-revolutionary world in which the former underclass enjoys the fruits of its victory by aping the dying revels of the defeated ruling class.
Monday, July 18, 2005
I posted this comment in reponse to Ron's post today about what an anthology of twentieth-century American poetry ought to look like, and it ended up so long I thought I might as well re-post it here.
As the two-volume Library of America collection American Poetry: The Twentieth Century more or less shows, it is possible to put together a useful and representative anthology of US poetry from the first half of the twentieth century. The historical distance we have at this point rightly or wrongly allows us to think of certain inclusions and omissions as reasonable and "correct," within a certain margin of disagreement.
Factoring in the exponential proliferation of poets in recent generations that Ron mentions, as well as the dramatic splintering of different schools and movements into sometimes violently opposing camps, I question how 1) possible and 2) desirable it is to have an anthology of the kind Ron describes, even if it were limited to the second half of the century (I gather that Ron questions this too, judging by his overall tone, but he does seem to take the idea at least somewhat seriously). What we already have are a number of more focused anthologies that do fair to excellent jobs of representing various tendencies in postwar American poetry. Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, Ron Silliman's In the American Tree, and Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris's Poems for the Millennium are among the most successful in terms of poetry that I personally value. I can imagine a "school of quietude" collection (and it would be great if they actually called it that) that would be equally representative. It probably already exists, but I don't care enough to think about it or research it.
My point is: do we really want an anthology that includes both Bruce Andrews and Stephen Dobyns? Because in order to be truly inclusive of poets who have had certain amounts of influence, success, etc., it would have to involve incoherent combos like this. All it would inevitably end up accomplishing is convincing the teacher, student, or casual reader who owned it that she would be better off with an anthology that contained more of the one kind of work and less of the other. Can't we shortcut to that point?
Someone might object that this discounts the possibility that some readers could find that they value poets from both ends of the spectrum equally. Sure, there could be such readers. There are probably also people who identify politically with both Noam Chomsky and Ann Coulter. These people are confused. Why encourage confusion? Few people, I suspect, would argue that Jewel or Shel Silverstein or Jimmy Carter ought to be in the big book of important twentieth-century poets, but there are reasons every bit as compelling for including them as there are for including both Sharon Olds and Carla Harryman. Slippery slope, my friends.
I don't like the Hayden Carruth anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us as much as Ron does (I think it's baggily eclectic in a way that ultimately just frustrates the reader), but I'm willing to grant that it was able to maintain a certain integrity in its range of choices--an integrity that, I will maintain, is no longer possible in the face of the current market-spawned crop of aggressive professionals who have made the biggest marks on the industry (and who conceive of it as just that). An anthology that is truly representative of the last couple of decades of poets is one that might as well be preceded by forty pages of perfume and sneaker ads. I'm guessing that this is part of the real reason for the nausea Ron says he feels at the prospect of trying to assemble such a mess.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
[Portions of this post have been removed for further study.]
Jonathan Mayhew reflected a few days ago on the "idea that poetry is a distinctive kind of thinking, that cannot be replaced by paraphrase ... an idea so basic and foundational to modern poetics, that it can serve almost as a litmus test. Someone who thinks of poetry as fancy language for dressing up other kinds of 'propositional content' is on the other side of a great divide."
I initially posted a comment in Jonathan's comment box to the effect that I thought one would be hard pressed to find anyone who would own up to being on that other side of the divide, especially among poets themselves: that even those poets, for example, whom we consider to be bogged down in an enervated practice of using verse as a convenient and supposedly attractive medium for the expression of familiar sentiments would claim, if asked, that they too believe poetry cannot be reduced to paraphrase.
One possibility here is that these poets are simply deluded about their own beliefs (whatever that might mean), that they do one thing and say another. After thinking about it some more, however, I'm not so convinced that we can separate this kind of "delusion" from our own ideas about what kind of "thinking" poetry performs, or consists in.
* * *
In the course of responding to Jonathan's comments, Nick Piombino makes reference to Wittgenstein's Zettel (see his earlier posts about Zettel on Fait Accompli over the past few weeks). Nick's thoughtful and probing remarks prompted me to check out Zettel from the library, and it's given me occasion to think in greater depth about some of these broader areas of disagreement among readers of poetry.
* * *
I--horrors!--don't own a copy of Coolidge's Solution Passage, and I don't recall the original poem, but it is obvious nonetheless that Jordan's paraphrase of page 31 (undertaken upon a prompt from Jonathan) initiates an exciting new form whose possibilities should continue to be explored: prose paraphrases which themselves constitute poems. Could Jordan's text help a student "understand" Coolidge's? Maybe. But really what it does is submit a new poem to the understanding, to be understood.
* * *
I mentioned Ashbery earlier as a contemporary poet with respect to whom paraphrase might still be a useful strategy. This, however, needs careful qualification. A reader of "The Skaters," for example, might benefit from at least a limited use of paraphrase in order to learn a basic lesson: that the "depth" and "complexity" of Ashbery's gorgeously attenuated periods, when the poem is reduced to more manageable bite-sized chunks of referential language, disappears along with the poem. This would be a case where that old cliche turned out to be true: too much analysis does destroy the poem. But only the kind of analysis that is founded on the belief that "poetic meaning" can be distilled and apprehended through grammatical means. Ashbery's work, to be sure, seems at times designed to work best when the reader is drunk.
In the case of Jordan's Coolidge paraphrase, something quite different is going on. As I said before, it's not that the paraphrase "explains" the poem; it uses the outward disguise of paraphrase as an excuse for more poetry. I know of intelligent readers who will not be able to see the poetry in such deliberately flat, pseudo-expository writing. But they are intelligent despite this inability, not because of it.
* * *
As I was going to sleep last night, I was thinking about a topic to blog about today: the process by which poems become familiar, and thus acquire an air of "classic necessity." This came to me as, for a different reason, I started hearing these lines from Wordsworth's "The world is too much with us" in my head: "Great God! I'd rather be / A pagan suckled in a creed outworn...." I was thinking about how "meaning" or "propositional content" is intertwined with soundplay in those words, and how the "emotive function," in Jakobson's terminology, with its "set toward the addresser," is at least as essential to what makes the poem "poetic" as the "poetic function," with its "set toward the message." But then my mind wandered (I was partly unconscious at this point) to the songs on my iTunes browser, and how the various "smart playlists," like all GUI icons and the like, serve as metaphors for a certain set of abstract operations. Then I thought about polar bears wearing neckties, which has nothing to do with this discussion. Then I thought about the iTunes playlists again, and how the songs make it into the "most played" list--especially new songs, ones that I download from the mp3 blogs and keep around long enough to see whether they grow on me or not. And one thing, it occurred to me, is that they start to sound like what they are: songs I have heard before.
By this I don't mean that they remind me of other songs I've heard before, though this sometimes happens too; I mean they remind me of themselves. At some point the song passes from being a fresh imprinting of unfamiliar sounds onto a blank space of listening, to being an anticipated series of chord progressions, tempo changes, vocal inflections, etc. Depending on the song, this will take longer in some cases than others. Some songs start to produce this effect the first time through, if they're simple and repetitive enough (e.g., The Carolina Tar Heels' "Peg and Awl" or Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone"). Others may be in one way or another too subtle or complex or low-key to register upon one listening: in a sense, you don't really hear the song until you hear it for the second time, or maybe even the third or fourth or seventh time (for example, one song that took several listenings to imprint itself on my familiarity cells is Van Elk's "Salome").
Often the songs that take the longest to make it onto the radar screen are also the ones that stay there the longest afterward as well, though there are exceptions. We all know songs that we loved the first twelve times, but that we can never hear again without screaming for as long as we live. So you see where I'm going with this--it's the same with poems, often. You don't really know the poem until you've returned to it, maybe repeatedly, and over a considerable period of time. (It's not enough to read it multiple times in one sitting; you need the perspective of temporal distance.)
Lo and behold, one of the first blogposts I read today after getting up was Nada's meditation on incantatoriness:
Who else has an inner-aural experience of one's own poems, or favorite poems by others, as a well-worn groove of often-repeated, unwilled, heard lines? Or even just a simple collocation that comes back and back and back?
This was exactly what had been happening to me with the Wordsworth lines, which had led me to wonder about the role of mechanical recurrence, arbitrary or otherwise, in a poem's accrual of a particular variety of "meaning." The passage I cited from Zettel a couple of days ago dealt with this, which may be why I started thinking about all this in the first place:
195. Let us imagine a kind of puzzle picture: there is not one particular object to find; at first glance it appears to us as a jumble of meaningless lines, and only after some effort do we see it as, say, a picture of a landscape.--What makes the difference between the look of the picture before and after the solution? It is clear that we see it differently the two times. But what does it amount to to say that after the solution the picture means something to us, whereas it meant nothing before?
Like a song, there is a sense in which a poem takes on a different ontological status depending on the stage of its having-already-been-experiencedness. There are definitely poems I experience as "classic" in a sense even if I don't personally care for them, simply because I have run into them so often and their words have come to seem "necessary," as I put it earlier, or "inevitable." I would put lots of poems by what Ron Silliman would call "School of Quietude" poets in this category--poems like Mark Strand's "Eating Poetry," for instance (this is also a good example of poems, like pop songs, that seem great at first, maybe when you're young and impressionable, but soon become horribly cloying). Not a month goes by that I don't involuntarily think, to my dismay, "I romp with joy in the bookish dark." It's like a Hall-and-Oates earworm. "Leave me alone, I'm a faaamily man...."
But the same process applies with poems that I really do value highly. The Wordsworth poem, again, is a case in point. It's tricky to break poems up into isolated sound bites, lines, phrases, etc., but there's something about "Great God! I'd rather be / A pagan suckled in a creed outworn" that is, to my ear, inescapably superior to "I romp with joy in the bookish dark." To begin with--everybody say it with me--"propositional content." In part, at least. Wordsworth's phrase fits more information, in a more sophisticated manner, into a small space than Strand's does. But sophisticated how? Here we can go in an abstract-formal direction (meter and rhyme), or a concrete-formal direction (the particular collocation of assonant and consonant units in a particular rhythmic arrangement) or a combination of both, but in any case there does appear to be a sense in which elements that do not have to do with "propositional content" do influence that aspect of the poem we would like to call its "meaning."
* * *
When and how does an expression of emotion, or some other intangible affective state, translate into a semantic event by which it can be said that something is "meant" (as opposed to merely exhibited)? My sense is that Wittgenstein would say that this is a false distinction--that "exhibited" is all we end up with. When, however, the emotive gesture is combined with the poetic gesture (motivated phonetic arrangement, etc.), and all the various cultural codes and conventions that attend the act of reading poetry are brought into play, it becomes more difficult to dismiss the proposition that there is a special kind of poetic "meaning." If there is such a thing, and if it can be analyzed in any coherent way, it is radically unstable and inconstant: the act of identifying it, like the act of observation in the Schrodinger's Cat paradox, may turn it into something different from what it was before we identified it.
* * *
What Does Poetry Mean?
Poetry means to be able to see & hear the sensuality of soft consonants aligned with a pair of vowels.
Poetry means the political rationale for shattering conventions.
Poetry means epic stakes. There's something that will not be contained in the form.
Poetry means more stressed syllables relative to the total number of syllables.
Poetry means something, and it is a fact that poets who are used to broadcasting can read into the microphone.
Poetry means you have to use antique language. I'm not a poet.
Poetry means and is about. Poems must not exceed 30 lines.
Poetry means better poetry. We don’t necessarily care about coherence.
Poetry means retranscribing with abruptness the sputtering of the modern. You define yourself as an irrelevant blowhard.
Poetry means Duck and Chicken. I also concur with Moose.
Poetry means nothing less than simultaneously and inseparably creating events and their language. But it's fuckin' poetry, man, and good.
Poetry means a lot more to other cultures.
Poetry means something. It's nice that you want to share it with other people.
Poetry means 25 blocks of Manhattan 40 years ago.
Poetry means from their particular vantage point.
Poetry means reading it now.
Poetry means there is little room for error. Beyond that everything is up.
Poetry means repeating the same experiment on more poems and scribes in order to achieve more.
Poetry means that he must never again be "delighted and awed."
Poetry means paying close attention to the words people use when they talk about policy.
Poetry means the continuation of the sense of a phrase.
Poetry means to show us things fall apart. We all know that Hamlet offers to kill the man that lets me.
Poetry means that you must become hungry.
Poetry means to learn it by heart. We must listen to great poetry without analysis.
Poetry means a lot to me. Thank you for writing it and your time tonight.
Poetry means something special to the artist and the viewers. The description of your dad is incredible. I especially like the "meatballs."
Poetry means white consolidated industry IUQs.
Poetry means that I want to be the world peaceful. I hope the peaceful day will come someday.
Poetry means peace of the world. The pigeon is the symbol of the peace, I think. I hope most of people become happy.
Poetry means little more than prose. Both evoke a superior reality.
Poetry means absolutely less than nothing. However, although.
Poetry means that there isn't much chance for someone like me to get snapped up.
Poetry means my poetry, sometimes other people's poetry too.
Poetry means that the plot and the character are wonderfully expressed, and emotionally far more powerful than William.
Poetry means the rediscover of the golden age, the recover of the illo tempore through the magic of the verb.
Poetry means stating a distinct historical order, that is a new way.
Poetry means to say something lucid. This is an old Emersonian moment of mine. That is, Emerson has a crack.
Poetry means choosing a privileged point of view for understanding the history of Italian.
Poetry means that the text has a richness that you might not expect. Instead, expect a hand-clapping extravaganza.
Poetry means "power," "governing authority," "state power." Here it is limping sway.
Poetry means to become acquainted with the poet. "I don't know many poets."
Poetry means that women formulate strategies to avoid gender-association. Ania spends half of every month in London.
Poetry means a lot to her, which figures.
Poetry means "to make," so it has to do with making stuff.
Poetry means that at one point or another one had to declare an allegiance or an interest in how humans love things.
Poetry means nothing, whose conception of love is far from idealized.
Poetry means merely attending poetry readings. A person cannot be forced to write a poem.
Poetry means not only performing virtuoso linguistic exercises in an epistemological void but having a grand-scale effect on nature. I like rhyming poetry, myself.
Poetry means that which crams more and penetrates deeper. It's a metaphor for life, I want to say to you.
Poetry means everything to me, and I write it for myself now. And only at such moments I am a poet.
Poetry means stuff like "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Glad we went, though.
Poetry means poetry! I’ll give you chapter and verse! What do you want? Aristotle? Do you want Aristotle?
Poetry means very good poetry, and that by Viking-related men and women.
Poetry means--is both a cause and an effect of the fact--that the iambic is more flexible and various. The best approach I have found is simply average.
Poetry means one is willing and ready to be sacrificed. Invest in a dictionary and a thesaurus. Know the rules of grammar.
Poetry means poetry available in Hong Kong. French food is French food available in Hong Kong.
Poetry means remaining a private poet.
Poetry means natural language and lingo. Robert Frost was manipulating my emotions.
Poetry means many texts can be examined easily.
Poetry means the emergency of our values.
Poetry means that we have so many pictures to paint with vernaculars.
Poetry means that the material includes lines 12 to 16 of the poem. The name of the poem is not in the reference.
Poetry means something now.
Poetry means that there are at least two English Canadian poets who can afford to pay rent each year.
Poetry means the things or fortune of this life.
Poetry means a plunderer, a robber. He is a powerful wizard.
Poetry means being the speaking subject. Lower your expectations.
Poetry means not being able to hear ourself talk, which means we don't wanna talk.
Poetry means the weaker sister has to go.
Poetry means more than your sister's life will ever be, I think it's about to be cut short.
Poetry means so much. I highly recommend it because it blends Eastern philosophy.
Poetry means a lot to me and I kind of like it. Somebody sent me an email and said they liked my poem and said it was like creative. Which one?
Poetry, even very bad baby pagan post-sixties California ex-flower-child beach bum poetry, means very little to the cruisers on the Boulevard.
Poetry means something to people. That is surely important to any artist.
Poetry means you're gonna kill yourself. Weird.
Poetry means I don't have to cite any sources and can defile it.
Poetry means if it does not pay, it brings him fame, respectfulness in times of reverse.
Poetry means a lot to how I express myself. I would like to share this poem with everyone, and it follows after my postscript.
Poetry means four things. This is one reason it is great.
Poetry means the decay of American ideals--if there is any decay.
Poetry means that thinking listens attentively to language. Poet is the defender of being's home, only in the homeland of language.
Poetry means to open up the vivid field of poetry written by poets.
Poetry means double the pleasure for the reader.
Poetry means to link the wisdom the author acquired playing congas and listening to giants.
Poetry means rather than a universal truth, in the more complex case one would have a kind of truth that functions only in the context of local pockets. I'd rather have a piece of toast.
Poetry means literally poets and readers reflecting the diversity in unison. Here comes the other part.
Poetry means life, the sense of being yourself in a world were lovers belong only to the moon and the sea it's their only refuge.
Poetry means a complete poem of less than 250 words or more than two pages.
Poetry means rhyming the last words in couplets without any consideration of meter. Just drive me nuts.
Poetry means I'm married to everyone. Thank you.
Poetry means that drug references creep in almost by default.
Poetry means reducing what happens in too many neighborhoods to Bing Bam Boom.
Poetry means different things to different people. And you can quote me on that one.
Poetry means a lot, and I seem to fail to express how poetry chaged my life.
Poetry means too many words. I was taught that way in high school, they used to make us write.
Poetry means that poetic language and devices are used.
Poetry means something to someone else. I guess that's what hurts me most.
Poetry means to expose the insidious operation of linguistic habits already in place. In most ways, of course.
Poetry means to form soil plains over Marlene's mammoth. "Here lies people via spurning."
Poetry means scrolling comforts along with willing auktion zigaretten pendulum. And when that happens it naturally follows that the nation is approaching its end.
Poetry means in other words and so violate it.
Poetry means--at least to us--that we are the avant-garde.
Poetry means I'll be churning these bitches out like crazy.
Poetry means a lot. Could you stop by again? That'd be cool.
Poetry means more than all the Barry Manilow albums in the world.
Poetry means Nada to me.
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Mike Snider posted Paul Goodman's "On the Resignation of Justice Black" a couple of days ago, and I posted the following comment in his comment box:
This is what I would consider an elegant example of a successful twentieth-century sonnet in "traditional" meter. I would even go so far as to say that offhand I can think of no more successful example (speaking in purely prosodic terms, though I think the poem is effective in other respects as well). The verses strike exactly the right balance between iambic regularity and rough-hewn improvisation, between dressed-up formal address and off-the-cuff commentary from an educated citizen. The irregularities and enjambments are neither careless nor overly calculated. They capture with easy grace the unquantifiable rhythms of "everyday speech"--not the speech we actually hear everyday, but a beautifully realized ideal version of it.
Both Mike and Jonathan Mayhew replied (in agreement, for perhaps the first time in blog history?) to express their confusion over what I could possibly mean by using "elegant" to describe Goodman's poem. The problem, I think, is that the word elegant (like graceful) often means different, even contradictory things depending on who's using it and when.
One kind is that found in, say, Pope: language in which every bump and corner is arranged, polished, dressed up--and very proud of itself for being so. This is the kind of elegance that Wilbur, at his best, taps into. That I don't generally care for Wilbur's elegance is, I will concede, based not so much on dissatisfaction with his prosodic skill, which is nearly impeccable, as on a feeling that his gracefulness does not stand in the same position of relevance to his own era as Pope's did. Pope's poetic language, whether or not you like it, must be admitted to capture the overall literary/linguistic spirit of the age and to re-present it in exquisitely heightened form (which may be part of why someone would not like it, though I confess I find pleasure in it). Wilbur often sounds like a disgruntled time-traveler, resentful that his own historical moment is not in tune with his formalities. I should qualify this by saying that I nevertheless consider him to be worth more than a hundred Timothy Steeles or Dana Gioias (for example), because he understands subtleties of verbal music that they never will.
The other kind of elegance is of the sort found in Thomas Wyatt (nearly always) or John Donne (often) or Ben Jonson (sometimes). Its gracefulness is not the smooth gracefulness of learned flourishes and precise measures, but the rumpled gracefulness of confident unevenness and what-the-hell "lapses." The poet of recent memory who exhibits this quality most amply is Frank O'Hara. Since O'Hara is not a metrical poet, the analogy with Wilbur is not entirely fair, but this points to the larger discontent I feel with late modern metricalism in general. If I were to pick a metrical poet out who does more than most to make a case for the practice, it would be someone like Goodman.
The "rough" grace I'm describing is bound to suggest the Renaissance notion of sprezzatura, but I would want to go on to make a distinction here. Sprezzatura is explicitly founded on deceptive values: it is the art of doing something difficult in such a way as not only to make it look easy, but to create the impression that the doer is not showing off by doing it--which he/she surely is, to a greater extent even than if he/she were to make sure that we knew the difficulty involved in what he/she were doing. Sprezzatura is always, in a sense, "false" sprezzatura. The "ease" involved in it (Thomas Hoby translated the word as "easy grace") is always fake ease: it's not supposed to fool us, really, but to focus our attention even more acutely on the difficulty, which we must now also, like the doer, pretend is not really difficulty. Madness! Philip Sidney may be the best example of this kind of poet: his sonnets are ridiculous in their continual insistence on their own ridiculousness. They "fail" repeatedly to demonstrate that their "failure" is organic rather than contrived. This, of course, makes him immensely entertaining. The dizzying ironies never stop. Charles Bernstein has some of this ludic hyperactivity.
The other, and closer, parallel from early modern poetics is the "plain style" of Jonson, and several decades of Elizabethan moral versifiers before him (C. S. Lewis referred to them as "drab" poets, not entirely disparagingly). The reigning aesthetic here is one of anti-aesthetics: deliberate (at least in Jonson's case) avoidance of excessive ornamentation or gratutitous displays of learning, in favor of a sober, simple mode of address aimed at pious and/or stoic sensibilities. Goodman's style, I think, falls somewhere in between this plain-style pole and the more moderate wing of courtly "sprezzaturists." (Hmm, can something fall between a pole and a wing? Oh well.)
To return once more to O'Hara, the big difference between him and the sprezzaturists is that one senses he really doesn't care whether the reader thinks what he does is difficult or not, and in fact, it probably wasn't--he did just jot a lot of it down on cocktail napkins without much thought. This is the kind of poetic ability, if any, that truly cannot be taught as a workshop skill: the cross-product of intense verbal intelligence and unadulterated "nerve." Goodman is not in the same league as O'Hara, but he did have his own happy disregard for "correct" procedure, even as he worked somewhat within that procedure. His Justice Black poem is elegant not so much because of its metrical surface, nor yet despite it, but by virtue of its "attitude" toward it.