Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Whole lotta shakin’ on the difficulty front. Bob Archambeau has weighed in with a precis of George Steiner’s “On Difficulty,” a useful if problematic essay, and has followed with a rather polemical statement noting how a certain kind of “indeterminacy” has become almost a period style in contemporary poetry – has entered the “mid-stages of its decadence.” Josh Corey as well looks quizzically towards something beyond this “period style” – and let’s make no bones about it, what both Bob & Josh are talking about is Language poetry in its first, second, and third generations, or what Ron Silliman is wont to call the “post-avant.” But I think Josh is right in noting that the “scenic” style thus named by Charles Altieri back in 1984 remains in many ways a hegemonic norm in the creative writing industry. (Nice touch there Josh, by the way – I am in entire agreement about the the “formidable lucity” of Altieri’s prose style, if one wants to call it a “style.”) It will be interesting to see though what happens in the next decade or so, when the surviving pundits of the 1980s poetry industry have retired or partially converted, and the young poets publishing in Fence and Verse have vaulted into slots in creative writing programs around the country. I’m not a regular reader of Poets and Writers, the industry mag, but on my occasional scans through I’m astonished by how many poets of a definitely “non-scenic” bent are getting regular rotation on the visiting writer circuit. Lists could follow, if anyone’s interested.

Eric is as usual right on the money about how students confront “difficult” poetry, and makes a first-rate distinction between “poems that simply have more complex syntax and diction than they're used to--say, 90% of what they'll read---and poems that really ARE "elitist," in that they really WANT to address a coterie, a coven, an in-crowd, a ‘fit audience though few,’ which our students, whatever their social class, are invited, just by being there, to join.” And he’s right about the potential costs of such fit-audience joining. In some ways, the precise analogy is “classical” music: one can “get” a certain amount of it just by listening, one can take certain immediate pleasures out of a piece by Brahms or Beethoven without really “knowing” much about music. But in order truly to appreciate Webern or Gorecki, or even to entirely get what’s happening in a Beethoven symphony, one needs to know something about sonata form, one needs to have a kind of memory for melody, variation, and harmony that the average car-radio listener doesn’t have. And to get that requires a considerable investment of time and energy, and ends up placing you in a different category – call it a class, call it an elite – from those who simply like the way orchestral music "sounds," but who can't tell Stravinsky from John Williams. (Adorno, of course, believed that you couldn’t entirely understand a piece unless you were well enough versed in music to read the score – preferably without an actual, potentially distracting, performance going on – and imagine yourself composing the piece along with the composer – but then again, he’d studied with Berg, and knew music about as well as Christopher Ricks knows canonical English poetry.)

And T. S. Eliot – whew. I’ll only admit that I think I read “Prufrock” in an AP high school English class, and went to The Waste Land on my own, attracted largely by the “aura,” the mystery of a poem I couldn’t make a damn thing of. The same reason I bought Stockhausen records when my cohorts were listening to The Eagles.

on the earbuds:
Sonic Youth, Goo
Julie Miller, Broken Things (how’s that for spirituality? very few things sexier than a winsome-voiced Southerner singing love songs to Jesus…)

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