Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Comfortable Poetics

Early this year I went to a play by Carla Harryman at the U of Chicago. The event was like most other poetic events- lots of piercings, tweed, and odd handbags and glasses.

I went with Garin Cycholl who is a fine poet and someone who writes and risks. One of the things I love about Garin's work- and our press Cracked Slab Books is doing his newest book Rafetown Georgics-is that the work is both opaque and subject driven. It has history and is concerned about big things.

The Harryman play itself was interesting except that one of the 'actors' gave his lines to an audience member to read creating a kind of farce that destroyed the tension of the play. The lack of seriousness on the part of this 'actor' has caused me to think for a long time about seriousness and comfort and our poetry. I kept thinking "how dare this child desecrate what is happening here" yet this is part now of our poetic landscape.

There are many great poets writing today who write innovative things and do it well. Having said that the depth of their risk and the degree of their comfort makes the work less compelling. I see it here in Chicago allot. You have poets who are living the poetic lifestyle and writing good work. But something is not right and then you find out- oh they have a trust fund or some other thing removes the real risk. Their writing of poetry is a fashion and later in life they will move onto something else they are not that invested in the work.

I think that there has been a profound division in poetry between risk and comfort. I think that this began in the 1960's and 1970's as a reaction to the Beats and other poets who took politics and injustice as themes. There has been allot of talk here in Chicago recently about Language Poetry because a few Chicagoans ventured to Maine to a conference on the 1970's. I have always thought that Language Poetry while aesthetically very interesting is a poetry of comfort. I mean by this that it is a kind of inside joke that subverts via language but in the end is so opaque that college professors and cognoscenti are the only ones engaged with its nuance.

This is not to dismiss innovative modes of poetry, collage and parataxis are really important to me as a poet- but I have always wondered if Language was a reaction to the 1960's when everything was political?

Pound wanted to write history. Duncan wrote a kind of poetic theology. I always wondered what was the 'big' thing that Language and by inference the entire Post Language poetic landscape wants to write?

Is it irony? Is that the big thing?

I know many readers of this blog have sat through sheer opaqueness in a poetry reading. Once I sat through an entire poem using Marxism and Buddhism as its base using innovative modes. After a while the poem became so much of an inside baseball exercise that I did not know what to make of it? I read it and read it again. and again... nothing. Just artifice and inside jokes and little snickers- on the whole not satisfying it was kind of like he wrote the poem for his friends and the rest of us were just out of luck.

Does anyone else wonder if all this poetry is just opaque to protect the poet from having to deal with society? I am often drawn back to Akhmatova's life thinking about what a poet is supposed to be. There is an image of Akhmatova writing to Stalin to achieve the release of her husband and son. Stalin- this is Stalin- is moved and releases them for a time. The power of who Akhmatova was for that society moved him to act. I also think about Celan and his work and its quiet- turbulent challenge to the world around him. The fact that Celan of all poets of the past century tore open the carcass of the world and laid bare the entrails.

I know that it is passe to want poetry to be heroic or have a big project. But, there is still something compelling about big ideas and big artistic desires. There is a reason that when I drive to work each day and pass Frank Lloyd Wright's home that the street is a better place for having that building rather than say a Popeye's Chicken or a gas station.