Monday, January 18, 2010

"The Poet's Work" Edited by Reginald Gibbons

Poets writing prose about poetry. Some fundamental contradiction here, and these writings betray their awareness of that fact. They are reluctant, overly insistent, convoluted, self-conscious or polemical. But here and there a sentence or an image arrests the imagination, and they speak like the poets they in fact are. So far I have read Fernando Pessoa, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale, Delmore Schwartz and Karl Shapiro, and the ones that still vibrate in me are Lorca (the Duende in art, in one's blood, the bullfight), Pasternak (poetry a sponge, not a fountain; the voice of life, the real), Montale (music) and Shapiro (the independence and unity of poetry). They speak eloquently of my present obsessions.

Pasternak in "Some Statements":

No genuine book has a first page. Like the rustling of a forest, it is begotten God knows where, and it grows and it rolls, arousing the dense wilds of the forest until suddenly, in the very darkest, most stunned and panicked moment, it rolls to its end and begins to speak with all the treetops at once.

The deep insight is "most stunned and panicked moment." Montale in "Intentions (An Imaginary Interview)":

I obeyed a need for musical expression. I wanted my words to stick closer than those of the poets I'd read. Closer to what? It seemed to me I was living under a bell jar, and yet I seemed to be hearing something essential. A subtle veil, almost a thread, separated me from the definitive quid. Absolute expression would have meant breaking that veil, that thread: an explosion, the end of the illusion of the world as representation. But this was an unreachable goal. And my desire to stay close remained musical, instinctive, unprogrammatic. I wanted to wring the neck of the elegance of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a countereloquence.

"Musical, instinctive, unprogrammatic," adjectives that describe a true poet, to my mind. "I obeyed a need for musical expression" is as good a way as any of explaining why I write.

Karl Shapiro in "What Is Not Poetry?":

It took me years of teaching and editing and poring over modern criticism to see the light. It was not poetry the big pontifical magazines wanted: it was Culture. Poetry was only a handy tool of culture. I firmly believe that whatever good poetry I have written was written because of my ignorance of criticism; I just was firmly believe that every poet of our age who has been too close to criticism has either given up poetry completely or has ruined his work because of it. . . . The greatest freedom poets can hope for in the twentieth century is freedom from critical theorizing and a return to the laissez faire amateur criticism of the audience. . . .

Ha! A supporter of reader-blogging. Elsewhere:

The meaning of poetry, as far as language is concerned, is the meaning of hey-nonny-nonny. . . .
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The poet is always "one" with his experience; to that extent he does inhabit the realm of the supernatural. All artists search for a unification of the elements of a particular experience, the photographer cropping a negative no less than the painter choosing his landscape or model, or the poet looking for the poetry of the thing that engages him at the moment. The artist is different from other people in that he is in a constant state of "oneness" with his experience. When he is not, he is out of Paradise; he has fallen into the world of rationality where all dualisms run riot. . . .
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Poetry is eternally out of favor with all forms of authority, not because it is antagonistic to authority (only inferior poetry battles against society) but because it does not recognize the reality of authority as it is practiced in society. . . .
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All good poetry has an immediate impact upon its audience. This is proved simply by the existence of the greatest poetry in the form of drama and narrative. Nearly all Modern poetry fails in impact, immediately or otherwise. . . . If there is only one law of art, it is that the work must be capable of apprehension as a whole and at once. This is the nature of art, that it is wholly and immediately apprehended, like a tree or a woman.

Or a man, dammit, I would add. "As a whole and at once" not because the poem is simplistic or flattering, but because every element in it has been perfectly united to achieve one profound impression. The way to test out a poem is to read it aloud to an audience.

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