Mark points out that everybody has an ideology, by which he means a consistent set of assumptions and ideas that add up to a "limited point of view": nobody can get beyond their own point of view, exit the hermeneutic circle, occupy Rawls' original position, etc. And Mark is correct—although I suspect that we differ about the value of experience, of implicit as against explicit principles, of inductive, as it were, reasoning (rather than the deductive reasoning that comes from applied manifestos) as a producer of what we see in what we read. (See, here, Christopher Ricks's "Literary Principles as Against Theory," and then see almost anything by William Carlos Williams written between 1920 and 1950-- on this point, and on few others, Williams and Ricks seem to me to be on the same side.)
...Poetry that used to go hand in hand with life, poetry that interpreted our deepest promptings, poetry that inspired, that led us forward to new discoveries, new depths of tolerance, new heights of exaltation. You moderns! it is the death of poetry that you are accomplishing. No, I cannot understand this work. You have not yet suffered a cruel blow from life. When you have suffered you will write differently?’”
Perhaps this noble apostrophe means something terrible for me, I am not certain, but for the moment I interpret it to say, “You have robbed me. God, I am naked. What shall I do”— By it they mean that when I have suffered (provided I have not done so as yet) I too shall run for cover; that I too shall seek refuge in fantasy. And mind you, I do not say that I will not. To decorate my age.
But today it is different.
William Carlos Williams, Spring and All
A poet has nothing but experience to go on. To live and to experience living are essentially the same. Even our speculations, as obscure or hopeful as they may be, are connected to our experiences, however different from those experiences they are. When our speculations are profoundly different from our experiences, that shows how profoundly they are connected.
When somebody writes that they disagree with me about the value of experience in poetry, I wonder what it is that they imagine that I think about experience or how they know so easily how experience shapes anybody’s poetry.
Williams, in Spring and All from 1923, imagines himself being lectured by an anti-Modernist writer in the passage above, a moment of imagination clearly connected to many actual reactions to Modernist experimentation. And it’s a lack of experience—specifically the experience of suffering, the central crucible of experience in the Christian tradition—that the anti-Modernist accuses him of having. According to the anti-Modernist, it’s Williams lack of experience that causes him to write his anti-life anti-poetry.
As it turns out, accusing experimental approaches of lacking a grounding in experience dates back at least to the beginnings of modernism.
Many years later, that’s still a common criticism made by those who distrust any poetry that seems to them too experimental. That it plays with words (or any other materials) more than it values experiences. Once writers come to value experience properly, they will be more cautious in the games they play.
Therefore, a writer who really understood what it was like to live in the world—had suffered as others have suffered—would not write in this newfangled way.
What that argument suggests is that experience is not being addressed properly if it is addressed in certain ways.
Admittedly, and thankfully, since there would be nothing for writing to do otherwise, there are different ways of addressing experiences. Conventional representation—images mean to give us a direct picture of a thing in the world—are one way, often a powerful way, of doing that. And sometimes when events are particularly unspeakable, having conventional representational images of them might help many other people understand those events.
One danger though is that such images only seem to give understanding to readers; they can never actually do it. Readers may gain understanding from a poem, but the poem cannot do that work. Readers have to. Further, a poem might itself appear to embody understanding in a way that suggests that there’s nothing further to understand, when in fact any given poem is almost certainly no more than one possible way of approaching understanding.
It’s not clear that any kind of writing automatically leads a reader to be more likely to understand anything. It’s not clear that any kind of writing automatically embodies experience. To claim so is to misunderstand experience while claiming to understand it. Much more than people who realize that they don’t understand, it’s important to distrust people who feel they understand experience when their claims in fact show that they don’t.
I distrust someone who claims that the problem with experimental or extreme approaches writing is that too much of it is done by writers who don’t understand the significance of experience. And I say this from experience.
SB suggests, above, that valuing experience in a poem may be considered an act of inductive reasoning: one writes in a certain way about a certain experience because the experience itself leads to a conclusion about how best to write about it.
But inductive reasoning never offers certainty, only probability. The conclusions of induction can never be more than the most likely conclusion. Writing on the basis of inductions about experience can in fact never lead to the conclusion that there is one best way to write about an experience. At best it can lead us to the conclusion that given some particular experience, some particular way of writing about it is likely to feel most compelling.
In fact, the idea that writers who write about experience should make their decisions on how to write based on inductive conclusions from their experiences actually comes from deductive reasoning. It assumes a conclusion based on a prior principle: that experiences inevitably lead to certain ways of writing. And therefore it’s not simply deductive reasoning. It’s flawed deductive reasoning:
1) All good writing writes from and about experience.
2) Experiences require (or are likely to most commonly suggest) a specific way of writing about them.
3) This particular experience, since I have experienced it and want to express my relationship to it, will lead me to write in a particular way.
4) I have experienced this experience and therefore I will write in this way.
Almost every deduction in the above chain is flawed in some or many ways, of which these are only the most obvious:
1) There is nothing other than experience for writing to come from or be about, so this claim has no actual content.
2) It’s not proved that, in general, experiences require a specific way of writing or are even most likely to suggest one.
3) Although this claims has moved from the general to the specific, it contains the same unproved assumption as #2.
4) The writer is rendered passive in relationship to the situation. Writing becomes not an active process but one in which experiences, if understood properly, will lead to a loss of choice: how to write about them becomes inevitable or at least close to it.
I suspect therefore that I do not disagree with SB about the value of experience, as SB suggests I do. Instead I’m at odds with his implication about what experience leads to in poetry.
All that said, I don’t disagree that it’s possible to write poetry too controlled by its own guiding theoretical principles. It’s just that the idea that experience offers some more practical solution to that problem is itself an overly controlling and faulty principle. In fact a lot of conventional poetry that describes experiences in the world is constrained by an overly controlling perception about how poems should be written.
Of course, much of this problem ties back into my earlier blog post about ideologues. Implicit in SB’s claim is that I am (and perhaps, anyone with excessive experimental leanings?) likely to believe that what I should write about has been dictated entirely to me by principles that I have decided upon in advance. In this view, apparently I’m not willing to test my literary beliefs relative to actual experience. Instead, in my writing I shove my principles forward without understanding what’s happening around me, oblivious to all nuance.
Which strikes me as not a very inductive conclusion.
One last thing that interests me about this issue: We are living in an era—and it’s not the first and won’t be the last—when people often claim to have absorbed a tradition of experimental art or writing, found it wanting and moved beyond it.
Then they show, through their response to it, that far from moving beyond it they haven’t yet absorbed what it has to tell them.