Saturday, August 06, 2005


One last long ramble before we head north, where if Culture Industry doesn’t take a “hiatus,” it will at least be reduced to the briefest squibs.

Lee Glidewell – a man whose hair I greatly envy – put up a very thoughtful response to yesterday’s post, something of a continuation of his own “Auden III” on “To Ask the Hard Question Is Simple.” To be clear – when I wrote “there are a lot of people out there who take Auden very seriously indeed, who rank him right up there with Dickinson and Whitman,” I wasn’t being rhetorical, or aiming at some straw person of an Auden-worshipping, elbow-patched pipe & brandy relic (in contrast to all us hipsters who know that Auden is auld newes). Nor was I suggesting that it’s necessarily an either/or proposition, that one can’t (or ought not) value both Auden and Loy, Riding and Millay, or even Frost and Pound at the same time. But I remain fascinated by the impulse that causes some of us to trot down the Kierkegaardian primrose path, rejecting any eclecticism of taste as somehow defiling.

That’s what I find in Ron S’s incessant, puritanical division of the world into post-avant (elect) and School of Quietude (reprobate), and it comes out most clearly in his Barnes & Noble post, where he writes of picking a collected Auden in the bookstore: “I picked it up and headed over to the chairs by the faux café. I tried the early work & late & in between & never was able to get beyond half a page of any poem: too prolix, too full of generalities, a sense of meter to doze for.” Well, folks, here we have a scientific sampling: Ron has trawled thru Auden for what – half an hour, 45 minutes? – and the work has been found wanting (as we all knew it would). Too “prolix”? I guess that eliminates Whitman; too “full of generalities”? watch out, late Oppen; a “sense of meter to doze for” (what one might call “lulling,” I think [thanks ems]) is hard to figure out: I think it means that WHA writes (sometimes) in regular, even traditional meters. Clearly, RS went to WHA with a pretty good idea of what he was going to find, and gosh-all-hemlock, he found it there.

I like Lee’s response, which amounts to saying that WHA tends to deflate the very large claims for poetry that RS & co. tend to make. I also like Bob Archambeau’s briefer jet-lagged take on the matter. There’s an awful lot of literary/generational politics going on here, politics that make it well-nigh impossible for RS to approach WHA without a heavy armor of suspicion.

[My own parallel story: In the first draft of the introduction to Upper Limit Music: The Writing of LZ, I was pontificating on LZ’s “peerless blah blah innovative blah blah formalism,” which went well beyond the “jejune formalism” of “W. H. Auden and his latter-day followers.” A wise friend circled the passage: “Read ‘The Shield of Achilles’ and tell me if you still think it’s jejune.’ I did, and I cut the passage. There’s plenty of puerility in Auden – and in my dotage, I’m coming to enjoy those bits more and more (go “continong”!) – but at his best there’s very little that approaches him on his own turf.]

That suspicion goes back a long time before Ron, back to when Pound & Bunting & LZ were dismissing WHA back in the early ‘30s – largely, so far as I can tell, because of the fact that he was so spectacularly successful. Auden was something to be opposed, less for anything about his poetry itself – there are moments when he and Bunting are pursuing strikingly similar paths – than for his position as “the establishment,” the darling of the critics – the “Man.” Auden takes a particular strain of modernist poetics and forges a critically successful, and often highly readable poetry out of it. And therefore he becomes King of the Hill, the person everybody else is trying to dethrone. (I suspect that if WHA hadn’t renounced Marxism and become a Christian, RS would be as nice to him as he is to Muriel Rukeyser, whose poetry he treats with far greater respect – i.e. actually reads thru the entire volume.)

But as I said, this is also a matter of “fundamentally different things one expects poetry to do and be”; Auden sees poetry as human beings talking to other human beings, communicating in ways that would have been entirely familiar to Pope, Wordsworth, or his own darling Byron. The poem is meant to be understood, because it’s the expression of human being who desires to communicate something to other human beings. It’s also a worked artifact, a formal design, etc. – but the notion of communication is always lurking there. In the heady days of youth – “Spain,” “September 1, 1939” – WHA thinks he can get the big ideas across, can move people into meaningful political action. In his later years, he comes to doubt that, and dwells either on the fallenness of human nature or on smaller (sometimes much smaller) subjects.

There is a tremendous amount of distrust among poets of what for shorthand I’ll call the post-avant persuasion – and especially among the Language poets of RS’s generation – for the poem as directly communicative utterance. At its most vulgar, it manifests itself as the blanket dismissal of Billy Collins for the crime of being immediately readable; in more sophisticated forms, it ranks poets on various continuums of “facile” and “challenging.” Always, it involves the literary politics of “inside” and “outside.” And almost always, it manifests a kind of willed amnesia to literary history, to the astonishingly varied ways that poetry has been written in the past.
Yes, Eric, I’d like to think that “tonal elusiveness” was intentional. And as for “superficial eclecticism” as “the critical theory that dare not speak its name” – how could it? We live under the sign of Søren Kierkegaard and Theodor Adorno, and they shame us with their stony moral certainties.

[All this in light of my reading of Robert Von Hallberg’s Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art, and a particularly nasty response to it in Don Byrd’s book on Maximus. But maybe a ramble thru that territory after “vacation.”]


Harry said...

Good post. Though Ron's dismissal of Auden isn't as amusing as his rejection of Yeats for not being American enough.

Lee said...

Just an odd thought: You mention Riding in contrast with Millay. Both of Auden's major commentators (Edward Mendelson and Monroe Spears) point to Riding as one of the early Auden's major influences. He was reading her and, so they claim, learned from her.

Harry--Yeah, that was pretty funny. Especially if you think of Heaney: the American version of the American version of Yeats. This is probably mean-spirited of me, but I can't help but think of Heaney as the lens through which Ron reads Yeats.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Mark, just returned from LA (including a religious experience at the Watts Towers) and so have a bit of blogging to catch up with. But blessings upon you for this post. Very sensible and lucid and god knows we need as much of that as possible.

E. M. Selinger said...

I don't think it's a matter of Kierkegaard and Adorno, Mark, that keeps us from embracing eclecticism (or small "c" catholicism) as a critical theory.

If you're eclectic in taste, like my own grad-school masters Cal Bedient & Stephen Yenser, you get no followers, found no school, find your way into fewer and fewer footnotes. You garner far less institutional power this way--make yourself less dramatic, less feisty, less deployable by others; to shift metaphors, you blur your brand identity.

You also blur and hedge and multiply your personal identity--as I like, so I am--in ways that I recall finding very confusing, even scary, in my youth. (How can you I enjoy both The Carpenters and the Sex Pistols, Sondheim and The Ramones? What the hell is wrong with me? I'm not who I want to be? What's my na-a-a-a-me? Etc.)

It's not a theory thing, in short; it's a power thing, both personal and institutional. Auden's modesty--which he adopts precisely because his rhetoric was so powerful early on, in service of the Spanish war--amounts to a shrugging off of just this will to power. (Power over others and power over himself.) No wonder it rankles!

kmarzahl said...

As a bona fide eclectic, I can't but agree. Looking forward to your ramble through Olson.