Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Write About A Real Boy (The Poetry of Experience, Part Two)

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, can’t remember which, I and the other students were asked to write a short story.

I’d been writing short stories since about third grade. I can’t remember what story I actually turned in for this (let’s say) sixth grade assignment, but I began around then to write longer stores than I ever had before. At the time I was a frequent reader of Poe on my own, but had not yet read Lovecraft.

One story I wrote about the time of the assignment, but did not turn in, concerned a murderer in the hills of New England. Soon after the murder (which may have been at least partly provoked), the murderer passes out in the snow-heavy hills, wounded and losing blood, apparently on the verge of dying. When he wakes up, he finds he has been revived and captured by a strange group of people who always wear the hoods of monks over the faces, so he can’t see them.

After spending some weeks imprisoned by them, he realizes that these people aren’t human but alien, although he hasn’t seen them yet. Then he realizes, after several encounters with a strange odor that both repels and excites him, that they intend to mate him with one of their kind. Their goal: they cannot proceed in their desire for world domination until they have absorbed the human capacity for evil, which he, as an apparently unremorseful murderer, seems to represent for them.

At the end of the story, this main character, conflicted between the desire to commit suicide in order to save human beings and the overwhelming urge to mate with the alien creature, finally gives in to his sexual desires after recognizing that in fact he doesn’t really care to do good for other people and never has. Besides, he has no wish to save a species from whom someone like himself could have been created. He himself is the proof, that is, that there’s no particular reason to save the human race or to feel that doing so would be morally right. So he goes ahead and mates with the alien and unleashes destruction upon the human world.

Have all the fun examining the social and psychological underpinnings of the sixth grader writing such a story that you want, as I myself certainly have. But that’s not the point here.

The point has to do with the fact that I spent a lot of time discussing story writing with a friend in my neighborhood, a boy I’ve long since lost track of and probably can’t even name right. We had a lot of crazy ideas for stories.

After he wrote his own fantasy story, however, his parents told him that he couldn’t turn it in. Instead they took it from him and told him that he had to start over, and that this time he had to “write a story about a real boy.”

Hard to know what if anything he ever wrote after that. I’m the one who kept writing.

One of his parents was an English teacher. I’m sure they were giving him what they thought was very sophisticated literary advice. And what a great side effect that it must have corralled a little bit of his uncorralled imagination.

Sometimes, when I think about all this, I realize I was lucky to have parents who were not English teachers and did not try to give me the latest writerly wisdom for sixth graders.

But who knows? Maybe being told to “write about a real boy” didn’t drain the life from my friend’s creativity by teaching him that writing literature was just another way to do what you’re told, to figure out how to be a successful, responsible, conformist adult. Maybe he wouldn’t have been all that interested in writing anyway.

When I look at many of the critics promoting a “poetry of experience” or “literary realism” or any similar attempt to straitjacket literary imagination and inventiveness according to some weakly defined, supposedly pragmatic standard, I wonder about that bit of literary advice that I remember so vividly from my childhood. It was a bit of advice perhaps meant kindly, and with the benefit of significant reading in normative literary conventions, and with the helpful learning strategy of showing an excessive, fanciful young man that creating literature is another way of learning to deal in an organized manner with the practical facts of day-to-day life.

How much of our contemporary critical discussion, by creators of literature as well as critics of it, really is just a more developed embodiment of that same bit of perhaps well-meaning high school English discipline? A world of English teachers wrapping writers on the knuckles for their own good and telling them to get with the program?

And is part of it really perhaps not so well meaning? Isn’t part of it lazy, pedantic, and illogical, though it claims otherwise? Doesn’t it contain just a bit of the desire to gain control over the imagination of others?

And is the advice to write about a real boy or girl one you would give your own children, if you have any?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

6 x 6 Poetry Reading and Music tonight in Leucadia

Saturday, May 23
The Andrews Gallery
1002 North Coast Highway 101
Encinitas, CA 92024
(817) 235-2404

The night begins at 7 p.m. and the performances will run until 10:30 p.m.

Complete details here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Poetry of Experience

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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Post-Millenial Feminist Poetry

I read with enjoyment and interest the forum on feminist poets (curated by Danielle Pafunda) that went up in segments over at Delirious Hem last week, including work from the following writers:

Mary Biddinger
Anne Boyer
Brandi Homan
Megan Kaminski
Becca Klaver
Majena Mafe
Gina Myers
Martha Silano
Leah Souffrant
K. Lorraine Graham
Elizabeth Treadwell
Sarah Vap
Teresa Carmody
Kim Rosenfield
Vanessa Place
Christine Wertheim

While the writers featured are at different stages in their careers, there was certainly emphasis in the forum on a new generation of feminist poets, especially if one means by generation not age as such but sharing a time period in which one is beginning to publish and have one’s work become more known, a period in which some level of shared problems is inevitable. The poems and essays and poem-essays raised many interesting questions for me, of which I’m mentioning here only the most obvious:

1) The problem of theory and practice. Theory, while at its best always related to the rest of the world, also develops as its own semi-autonomous discourse and often requires (even demands) that the world catch up. Feminist theory, like other theoretical discourses, builds and changes based on contemporary responses to its own past.

Practice, on the other hand, can move only in relation to the world’s pace. While some things about the social condition of women (which?) have changed since earlier generations of feminist discourse, other things have changed more slowly if it all (which?). I was intrigued by the different ways these writers highlighted tensions between theory and practice and how those affect both attempts to move forward as well as respond to the present.

2) The arriving at (feminist) consciousness narrative. A fact of being human: nobody’s born knowing anything. So learning to be a feminist requires those moments of experience and recognition when one discovers why it matters, and every writer who becomes invested in feminism has to have such moments.

And yet, of course, the fact that everyone has to have them means that there’s now quite a history of narratives regarding the arrival at feminist consciousness. Intriguing to see these writers consider their own individual stories and what those stories do or don’t add to the history of such stories. My story is never just mine, of course, since it’s always about an encounter between me and the world I’m living in at that time, and the world I’m living in at that time is always different (but also similar) to other worlds at other places and times.

3) The role of articulating a poetics as such. Feminism is of course fundamentally a cultural practice. It’s possible to be a feminist without being a poet or an artist at all, obviously. So is there a specific relation between feminism and the actual practice of writing lines of poetry (or other kinds of writing) in this or that way? If feminism can be not simply a cultural theory but also a poetics, how does that poetics look as an actual practice of how to write? And how are the questions of how to write and what to write about connected?

4) Feminism as interconnectivity, as a focal point for multiple commitments, convictions, and explorations. Artistic ones: poetry, fiction, visual art, dance, music. Social and activist ones: environmental concerns and animal rights; lesbian, gay, and transgender politics; local activism and global perspectives. Even, as Gina Myers asserts, humanism: not the outdated white guy universalist rationalist humanism that helped get us into this mess but an attempt to re-imagine and re-work our involvements with others of all sorts.

Finally, though, and with no criticism of the forum intended (one can only do so much at once, obviously), what the discussion made me think also of was all the women writers informed by feminism whose work I’ve come to know in recent years and who might have been part of a larger gathering. Although generational lines are always worth blurring, I’m thinking mainly here of writers who were first significantly publishing poetry in this current decade and who are adding new elements to the history of feminism. Some of these writers have published several books in recent years, or just one, or should have published one by now but haven’t, for whatever reason. Some of them haven’t been publishing long at all. Some are more aesthetically challenging than others—obviously, since my bias runs in those directions, those are the writers I’m more likely to know about.

The list, of course, is also marked by the limits of my own experience and knowledge. Some of these writers you might know well, and some you might not know at all. And obviously you can mention some that I don’t know about (and ones that I did but am just forgetting to mention, an inevitable problem of list-making), so please help me add to the list.

Andrea Actis
Jen Benka
Lindsey Boldt
Leslie Bumstead
Allison Cobb
Jen Coleman
Katie Degentesh
Michelle Detorie
Latasha Nevada Diggs
Jennifer K. Dick
Sandra Doller
Jean Donnelly
Laura Elrick
Jeanine Hall Gailey
Elisa Gabbert
Susana Gardner
Lara Glenum
Judith Goldman
Arielle Greenberg
Kate Greenstreet
Sue Landers
Maryrose Larkin
Reb Livingston
Joyelle McSweeney
Chelsey Minnis
Carol Mirakove
Hoa Nguyen
Mel Nichols
Michelle Noteboom
Sina Queryas
Ariana Reines
Barbara Jane Reyes
Kathleen Rooney
Stephanie Rioux
Linda Russo
Carly Sachs
Kaia Sand
Sandra Simonds
Erika Staiti
Laura Sims
Jessica Smith
Maureen Thorson
Catherine Wagner
Rebecca Wolff
Stephanie Young
Rachel Zolf

Does a list like this really have much value? Who knows. Nonetheless, it has been fascinating for me to think again about how alive and well feminist poetry still is as it brings new concerns into relationship with many of its ongoing ones. A conference featuring many of these writers, or an anthology that published pieces by them, might very well give a large-scale picture of how feminist poetry has been changing in the first decade of this century, what problems it has been taking up and what new directions it has been exploring.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Poetry Pundits Speak: The State of Poetry Book Reviews

What’s the value of poetry book reviews, to readers or writers or reviewers? And what’s the current condition of poetry book reviews? Good? Bad? Helpful? A joke? Same as it ever was? Worse than ever before? Who cares?

The first issue of Mayday Magazine has a roundtable on the issue of the poetry review, organized and headlined by the inimitable Kent Johnson and featuring a cast of poetry pundits and talking heads, myself included. No plans for our own Sunday morning television show just yet though.

Leaving aside the transparent ironies and decidedly small-c chuckles to be found in the idea of reviewing the reviewers (although “critiquing the reviewers” is perhaps more accurate), with luck the discussion will highlight concerns about the current state of discussion about poetry that are worth considering.

For the moment I’ve said what I have to on the subject in my response to the open letter with which Kent begins the discussion, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue. Why do you read poetry reviews, if you do, and what do you want out of them? And do you like what you're currently getting out of them?