Monday, April 03, 2006

Pop Quiz

Which of the following three paragraphs might be published in the New York Times Book Review?

1) You are living in a world created by Andy Warhol. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces — Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray — but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Warhol (1928-87). That he worked in one of our country's least popular fields, easel painting, doesn't matter. That he was the child of Slovakian immigrants doesn't matter. That he was gay doesn't matter. That he was addicted to various drugs, besotted with celebrity, and deeply eccentric — none of this matters. What matters is that he left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of art generally, "a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever."

2) You are living in a world created by John Coltrane. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces — Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray — but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Coltrane (1926-67). That he worked in one of our country's least popular fields, jazz, doesn't matter. That he was an African American doesn't matter. That his playing charted new reaches of abrasiveness doesn't matter. That he struggled with drugs and found solace in various mysticisms — none of this matters. What matters is that he left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of music generally, "a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever."

3) You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces — Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray — but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911-79). That she worked in one of our country's least popular fields, poetry, doesn't matter. That she was a woman doesn't matter. That she was gay doesn't matter. That she was an alcoholic, an expatriate and essentially an orphan — none of this matters. What matters is that she left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of literature generally, "a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever."
Okay, you already know that #3 is the opening paragraph of David Orr's review of Bishop's Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, and that it's attracted all sorts of vitriol in the alt-poetry corner of the blogosphere (my favorite moment being Jonathan Mayhew's near-apopleptic fit). But the point of the pop quiz is not to demonstrate Times imbecility (for my money, Coltrane is clearly the "greatest" figure of these three, & if anyone's "created" the world we live in, that dubious honor goes most closely to Warhol), but to remark in what a very odd vocabulary they choose to couch their highest praise.

It's one thing – tho still flatulent hyperbole, & an astonishing dumbing-down of waves of subtle new historicist theorizing – for Harold Bloom to claim that Shakespeare "created" Western subjectivity. Goethe, Keats, and a number of other serious types would more or less agree. But by what excess of closeted subjectivity can one claim that Bishop – a fine and subtle poet at her best, but overshadowed in her own half-century by a range of American talents* that bears comparison to the most densely-crowded literary period you'd care to name – has "created" anything more than the template for 20 years' worth of unambitious magazine verse: the Fireside Poets of the second half of the century?

*Off the top of one's head, one notes that Bishop shared her American half-century with Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Jackson Mac Low, Kenneth Rexroth, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Ronald Johnson, Michael Palmer, Jay Wright, John Peck, Fanny Howe, etc. Generate your own list at your leisure; Jim Behrle needs to adapt the old Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover of the world as seen from Manhattan, so that it reflects the New Yorker's vision of poetry.

1 comment:

Ben F said...

There's a Heinlein novel, The Door Into Summer, in which an engineer travels into the future and discovers a strange familiarity in the world of tomorrow. It is, in a literal way, a world that he created: his name is even on the patents.

A very nineteenth-century notion of individual, heroic genius; hardly a notion congenial to the late twentieth century—which is one reason, I think, why H. Bruce Franklin called his book on Heinlein America as Science Fiction.

If I were nasty, I would say that David Orr's Elizabeth Bishop was the "greatest" artist of her time precisely because she created a nineteenth-century world that he and others could continue to live in long after the end of the World War II.

But who wants to be nasty? She was a very very good poet and he really really likes her. Nothing wrong with that.