Sunday, October 12, 2008

Poetry and Stupidity

I think a certain amount of stupidity is necessary to cultivate an appreciation for poetry. A certain amount, as in not too much and not too little. Too much, and one is not able to appreciate much of anything worthwhile. Too little, and one will bypass poetry's sleights of mind entirely, going on to industrial engineering or nuclear medicine or hotel management.

The susceptible stand before poetry like gullible five-year-olds before uncles who pull coins from behind their ears. Initially, it's very impressive--and being impressed in that way is a true pleasure--but if they are capable of learning, eventually they develop some savvy and learn to see the uncle as a schmuck unless he can come up with some more impressive tricks. Depending on the strength of the savvy, at some point no trick, no matter how spectacular, will make any impression, because even if one doesn't know how the trick was done, one knows it was a trick. This is why only children and idiots like magic acts. Or other magicians, who are always looking for new techniques to use on their own idiots.

One thing you don't see much of in the magic business, I'm guessing, is magicians who fall for their own tricks. That wouldn't just be stupidity; it would be psychosis. In poetry, however, it's fairly common. Draw your own conclusions.

Let's grant, however, that there are some important differences between poetry and stage magic. For one thing, poetry often comes with an entire apparatus of histories and contexts with which not only its practitioners but its readers--depending on the poetic tradition--are encouraged to become familiar. There is, as I said earlier, a limit to the amount of requisite stupidity. One must be stupid in some ways and not in others, and the ways in which one is not stupid must be carefully monitored so as not to counteract the ways in which one is stupid. Accordingly, one learns things about the lives of individual poets, the development of movements, the applications of specialized theories to given poetics, and so on; but, in any event, this learning must not be allowed to impinge on the maintenance of certain crucial blind spots. For instance, there is the blind spot that allows one to entertain the notion that placing words in a certain order, making them sound a certain way, etc., will result in some kind of transformative state of awareness or spiritual (or pseudo-spiritual) receptivity.

Visualize Emily Dickinson's famous quote about good poetry being that which takes the top of your head off. We're basically talking about a lobotomy here, or a shotgun accident. Note that she never says anything about putting the top back on.

Obviously I'm included in this equation, as I continue energetically to pursue the writing, reading, and teaching of poetry. So what's my deal, besides clearly being stupid? I could come up with all kinds of justificatory apologiae, as many of us could. In fact, that's one answer: the elaborate self-justifications poetry forces us to devise are in themselves amusing distractions at worst, and mind-sharpening exercises at best. I also think of the process by which we move, if our imaginations are at all flexible and dynamic, from poets who engage us initially and even for long stretches to those we can eventually still tolerate. My theory here is that there are some poets who are especially valuable for their ability to interest us over long stretches of time, even though we ultimately (if we are not too stupid) learn to see through their crap. Ezra Pound, for instance. I think anyone who is serious about modernist and postmodernist poetry in the Western tradition should read Pound, and tackle his various difficulties (though not, perhaps, to the extent Pound himself insisted we should tackle them, seeing how short life is and all). I even think it's useful to spend a considerable chunk of one's poetry-reading life under the Poundian spell, as long as one doesn't also adopt his hideous political and social ideology.

As an extension of this, it's useful to check out what later poets like Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky and Allen Ginsberg did with their own immersion in Pound's poetics. But it's also useful, as one becomes more and more familiar with all of this, to leave oneself open to the realization that Pound was basically an idiot. So was Olson. Learned, creative idiots, to be sure, but just plain dumb all the same, in the sense that those who will not bother to wash themselves or realize that rabbits' feet don't work are dumb. For that matter, Ginsberg and even Zukofsky had some serious stupidity issues in some areas.

I say "even" Zukofsky because for me, he is the one of those I've mentioned who continues to interest me the most as a poet, who still offers what I consider the most intriguing strategies for both the enjoyment and production of poetry. To a lesser extent, Ginsberg still does this as well, though he has largely moved into the category of poets I am glad to have at one point had available as a formative model. It's difficult (though not impossible) to imagine an occasion in the foreseeable future when I will suddenly feel like sitting down and reading him again. I feel too much like I know how he does his quarter-behind-the-ears trick.

Even as I write, however, I feel compunctions: I would hate for anyone impressionable to read this and decide, well, that's probably right, Mohammad seems like a reliable voice, I won't bother reading Ginsberg (or Pound, or Olson--well, I guess I don't care if they don't read Olson). Don't take my word for anything. Don't be stupid.


Chris said...

This is great, though you could go further with it.

Sometimes I think of Cage's idea that the purpose of art he's most interested in is to sober and quiet the mind to become susceptible to divine influences. Where, happily, he defines "divine influences" as "everything that happens". But this seems like a purposeful becoming-stupid.

Perhaps your brain will render you too smart to fall for Zukofsky's stupefying tricks at some point, and you will look for harder stuff. Or, perhaps, I'm wondering if, were you really so dead set against being stupid, you wouldn't stick to the magicians whose tricks you can see through; that's a context in which you are smart.

I am a bear of very little brain.

Boyd Nielson said...

The poetry-as-stage-magic would seem to be a natural, or at least, naturally informative model for poetry because it highlights the difference between appearance and reality. Certainly, it also explains both our attraction to and at times boredom with the tricks that take place on the stage. But there are more than a few problems with the assumptions behind the analogy too, and not just because poetry has a tradition that is more extensive and allusive than stage magic. One problem is named above: everyone with any sense at all knows that stage magic is a fake. Modern stage magic cannot begin until it disrupts our sense of what is possible by, say, cutting people in half (and putting them back together), or by making white tigers jump out of a hat, or whatever. The poet-magician model turns out to be, in this way, merely a sophisticated inversion of the realist novel.

While such an inversion may say a lot about the anxieties and commitments of the contemporary moment, it does not say much about poetry in general. Nor, finally, does it say much about the difference between those committed to highlighting the discrepancy between appearance and reality and those committed to highlighting the discrepancy between truth and error. The reason one does not see magicians falling for or believing in their tricks is the same reason one does not say magicians disagree with their tricks. One magician might perform a trick better than another, or one magician might put on a better show than another, but such differences don’t amount to disagreements. In fact, the point at which a magician began believing in his trick might be precisely the point at which magic shades into religion.

And that is why the poet-as-just-magician may in the end be the perfect model for poets who want to chuckle at the trick and poets who want to sue over the trick—because, that is, it is the perfect model for poetry as community, whether that community is a select few or selected at random. After all, with ideology behind us, what could bring us together (or keep us apart) if not magic?

LM Rivera said...

Please Kasey: write a small explication of your animosity, resentment, or general apathy toward the work of Olson. I simply do not understand and, being the "Shakespeare of Flarf" that you are, I would love to understand this line of thought.

Ryan said...

"I think you're thinking about it too much."

Joe Safdie said...

Kasey, as someone who has long been aware of his stupidity (in some, but not all, of the ways you qualify it), I applaud you for this post. Let me extrapolate from it with two reviews in today's New York Times Book Review:

1) Richard Hell (I once knew who he was) wrote a review of a capsule biography of Rimbaud by Edmund White, and he generally praises it, if admitting that there are better full-scale jobs. But at the end he talks about Rimbaud's "pure (unegotistic) honesty, as an adolescent seeing through the adult hypocrisy and convention veiling the sensual, unsane world; a boy to whom language was inextricable (to the seer) from reality, and who knew how to wield those words, existence itself. He didn't have to try to translate his perceptions into language; he understood that he must see in language, and he saw with the supreme, paradoxically unformed, fluid ego of an adolescent."

This is stupidity that one might cultivate.

2) Near the end of the Book Review, however, there's a review of a biography of Dick Cheney by Barton Gellman; near the end, its author, Jacob Heilbrunn, writes about one person's view of David Addington: "[he] was principled to the point of being stupid. He held fast to his hard-core views of unilateral executive power even when they led to self-defeatingly adverse political consequences for the presidence."

I generally think that more of us should cop to being stupid, but of course, I mean the word in the first sense, and not the second.

The other thing I liked about this post was your acknowledgment that there are many of us who were formed by the crucible of the Pound-Williams-Olson nexus, a truth not universally recognized in blog-land.

Nicholas Manning said...

This was fantastic Kasey. And I like Joe's comment: stupid is as stupid does (does) have its own categories.

Matt said...

Olson I simply do not understand.

RH said...

Great post! I wonder if you know this poem of Dobyns', which seems predicated upon the same understanding of poetry's ability to delight and the half-life of that pleasure when a reader becomes more sophisticated, or more importantly, when a poet ceases to grow:


Let's say a fellow has a little trick—
he can take a rock, toss it about ten feet,

then take another, toss it so it lands on top,
then take a third and toss it on top of that

so all three make a little tower. Each rock
is about the size of a child's fist. Any bigger

or any further or if he tries a fourth, then
it doesn't work. People are impressed,

but how many times can you watch a guy
do a trick like that? Shortly they wander off.

Children last a little longer. The man's wife
asks to see it once a week just to be nice.

His kids say, Give it a break, Dad. Three
rocks twirling through the air and landing

perfectly, time after time. He never misses.
The man feels proud. He'd do it all day long

if anyone cared, but even the dog nods off.
Let's say this is some vestigial blip, like that

occasional tail that nurses snip off newborns.
Once his ancestors tossed huge boulders, built

pyramids, even Stonehenge. You wanted
something really big transported? This was

the guy to do it. How many of these leftovers
do we have left? Cave painters shrunk into

tattoo artists, epic poets whose last sparks ignite
greeting card verse. Just as some day novelists

might morph into the guys who make up menus
for greasy spoons. Today a man flips a stone,

then two more. Presto. See how they join to form
a miniature defiance of the world's natural laws,

a trifling metaphor for the enigmatic? No doubt
about it, the fellow's an artist like any other.

The neighbor's addlepated five-year-old slaps
his head in wonder. At least the first time.

— Stephen Dobyns

Mant thanks!

Richard Hoffman

Kirby Olson said...

I like words like idiot, moron, stupid, clodhopper, dolt, drooling petunia-head, and all the rest, and think it's stupid that now we have to say, "mentally challenged."

Nevertheless, "Poets are mentally challenged," is what you should have written, Kasey.

Ryan said...

I should contextualize my previous's my least favorite student quote. Not that I hate its utterer, but it's such a weird thing for a college student to say that usually, each time someone mumbles this in class, I'm thrown off. I think it has to do with stupidity: theirs and/or mine.

Rauan Klassnik said...

No one seems to like Olson (me included)---

from some of the photos i've seen of him he looks like a real magician...

Maximus! (yawn)

Andrew said...

you had to mention hotel management...

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

This is stupid.

Jordan said...

Unfair to Olson (in light of his biography) to call him a dope, or if by the end he is one, then it's more of a tragicomic process than a clear-from-the-get-go fact. Pound seems a lot dopier, but again, he started out pretty bright. In both cases the hubris of the autodidact (and paranoia of the depressive/schizo) that appears to send them off the rails.

When they were alive those qualities looked enough like genius to enough people to foster small critical industries.

In finance they call this selection bias -- it looks like the market always goes upward because the data only include the companies that survive.

Kirby Olson said...

I like Olson, but he's not just a plain idiot.

He's an idiot savante.

I could be talking about myself.

Kirby Olson said...

The problem with the isolato in general and the autodidact in particular with Pound and Olson -- you have to check your thought against others, check your hat with the hat girl, and let her see if you have a head to hang it on.

It's kind of important, but good poets often don't swim in schools, and therefore have no hat checker, or fact checker, so when they are playing checkers, they end up, we end up, too often, out in some other area, it's better to be vetted, but one can only arrive at poetry by oneself, it can't be written by a committee.

So it's stupid, like Christianity.

That is, it's not like science, it's a game of following one's own nose, into the particular, into the individual, which means only you can do it, and thus it doesn't have the committee quality of science, which makes useful gadgets for all, or ideas.

There are some poets among the mathematicians like Godel and they end up evry bit as half-assed as the poets do -- dumb and brilliant and out on a ledge.

Is there a remedy for this that isn't worth than the malady itself?

Chris said...

it's a game of following one's own nose, into the particular, into the individual, which means only you can do it

That sounds more like science than poetry!

michaelf said...

genius is another word for stupid. stupid can be another word for genius. esp' in songs.

William Keckler said...

Poetry isn't rocket science, yah.

It isn't even ego or egolessness science, yah.

Branding does occur, however, if the poet (or the poet and his movement) has "swimmers."


Ezra Pound, Ginsberg and Charles Olson in tight black turtelnecks lip-synch to Steven Tyler's "...and I'm the one who jaded you."

It was all Rohypnol, really.

I just wanted a drink.

I didn't know he was capable of something like that.

Cheap tricks.

Maybe writers don't really write only for other writers.

But that would be a horrifying concept.

Almost heresy.

Because who writes for all those idiots?

Or children?

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I think so.

Except, no.

Matt said...

"It's not EVEN science." --that dude from Dawson's Creek

Henry Gould said...

Thing on the radio this morning about driving the car, multitasking, using cell phones in car, etc. Compared piano playing to driving - the brain learns to do complex simultaneous things. Let's not over-psychoanalyze/pigeonhole "autodidacts, loners" etc. This sounds too much like scapegoating to me. Pound & Olson were driving their poetry cars - got very complex inside their own idiotic idioms & mental constellations. Some find it subtle. Some find it a pleasant escape from the boredom of listening to people in everyday life constantly reciting ponderous cliches.

Jordan said...

That's the problem -- I've been thinking poetry was an escape from autodidacts and loners.

Doodle said...

Substitute the word "politics" for "poetry" and see what happens.

dimiter said...

This is quite interesting, though hardly new as a concept. Auden used to say that poetry originated in magic and that was exactly his problem with the Romantics - he saw them as magicians who believed in their own tricks, unacknowledged legislators, people who weren't self-conscious enough, etc.(though I would also say that Auden had a very reductive view of the Romantic period). In any case, Auden thought that good poetry should "disenchant and disintoxicate," that is, it should be self-conscious about its own secret mechanisms and ideologies. The true poet, for Auden, was a magician who got up in front of his audience and started explaining how the trick is done. But, I guess, that would also make for a boring magic show.