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Malachi Black
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Thank you for having me!
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Before I launch into my final post of the week, I’d like to reiterate my sincere thanks to Stacey and David for inviting me to guest-blog. It’s not often that I’m given the chance to externalize the sorts of thoughts I’ve catalogued over the course of this last week, and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to do so. I’d also like to thank those of you who were kind enough to accompany me as I strode into oncoming (web) traffic blathering on like a late-play Lear. I’ve enjoyed my time here immensely. Since this is my last post, I’d like to concentrate on one of the many things that makes poetry “the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe,” to quote James Dickey. In “The Figure a Poe m Makes,” one of his several short, delectable essays, Robert Frost makes an appealing declaration: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” True or not, this passage underlines what I regard as one of the chief pleasures of the poetry-reading experience: the soft exhilaration of surprise. If a poem does not surprise me in some way upon my initial reading, I’m unlikely to read it a second time, and I’m rarely glad to have encountered it in the first place. After all, even unforgivably bad poems can be redeemed to some extent by bounding into unanticipated realms of bad taste—at least one never saw that coming. Poems that do contain the seemingly unforeseeable, however, are significantly more likely to command my attention for at least a second reading (if for no other reason than to determine the means through which those moments are reached). Often, they command much more. Ironically enough, it seems to me that poems achieve surprise largely by conforming to expectation—initially. Poetry, of course, is an essentially discontinuous medium (at least when lineated), and its musical and ideational information is disclosed over time. These two features define the frame around which the canvas of our interaction and understanding are formed; we seek to identify the ways in which each poem negotiates its necessary relationships with these essential elements (discontinuity and chronology), and the discoveries we make inform and partly constitute the bases of our expectations. We invariably find that one or more systems of organization tick in the core of every poem, and our brains inevitably compute these systems as they seek out identifiable patterns. If we find that the work in front of us consists of fourteen lines, for example, we anticipate that it will behave as a sonnet (bringing, as we do, the history of our reading with us); if the poem is one that progresses by way of “free” association, we largely discard our search for overt narrativity—as much as is possible, at any rate. Even the expectation that no pattern will emerge is expectation, and “no pattern” is a pattern nevertheless. Of course, surprise can’t occur where... Continue reading
Posted Feb 27, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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In the December issue of Poetry magazine, D. H. Tracy takes a long and interesting look at “The Moral and the Aesthetic, Recently.” Although his objective is to “consider how and with what consequences [contemporary] poets are weighting the [moral and aesthetic]” in their work, Tracy in the course of his investigation touches on assertions formulated by a number of Western philosophy’s heavyweights concerning the relationship between ethics and aesthetics (among others, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard all make illuminating appearances). It may not have been useful for his purposes, but one thinker Tracy does not include in his study is Ludwig Wittgenstein, a man whose position on the interrelatedness of ethics and aesthetics has intrigued me for some time. In an easy-to-overlook passage (6.421) of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he writes: It is clear that ethics can not be put into words. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.) In context, this remark follows from the more general assertion that “[a]ll propositions are of equal value,” but there is no need to trace the arc of his argumentation here; Wittgenstein was, if anything, a painstaking writer, and I’m convinced that he intended his jarring parenthetical to have a validity and vitality apart from the context in which it appears. As one who aspires to a high level of moral rigor, I have at different times over the years returned to this remark with varying degrees of understanding and acceptance. And, finally, I’ve decided that he’s right. Importantly, I don’t take Wittgenstein’s statement as a necessary endorsement of moral or aesthetic relativism, nor do I think that it disqualifies the reasoned prioritization of one system or position over another. Rather, it seems to me that Wittgenstein is suggesting that ethics and aesthetics are “one and the same” inasmuch as they extend from the same faculty: that which perceives and derives satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) from systems of order. In the case of ethics, this faculty functions to ascertain, prioritize, and privilege certain social and behavioral configurations; in the case of aesthetics, it ascertains, prioritizes, and privileges more material configurations. In either category, deviations from a perceiver’s favored order constitute violations that are deeply if not reflexively felt, and often give rise to an almost visceral indignation. But the substance of our judgments in either case is the same: and what makes them the same, Wittgenstein seems to say, is not just that they are value judgments to an equal degree, but that they contain the same value, which is the desire for adherence to a favored code of conduct. That which departs from our code of personal conduct is bad, and it is bad inasmuch as any departure from that code is bad (although of course degree is of paramount significance here): it is morally ugly. That which departs from our code of material conduct is ugly, and it is ugly inasmuch as any departure from that code is ugly (although degree is as significant as before): it... Continue reading
Posted Feb 25, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, Adam. I'll be sure to check it out.
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My last two posts have dealt with change in literature over time, and whenever those two words are paired (change and time), I inevitably think of Darwin. I’ve long been a proponent of the Darwinian point of view. And while I find certain applications of evolutionary theory less tenable than others, the scope of its applicability is downright remarkable: the theory has been useful in organizing and understanding topics ranging from human psychology to economics to science itself. It’s therefore surprising to me that no one (to my knowledge, at any rate) has tried to apply it to the field of literature. After all, literary criticism is elastic enough to accommodate Marxian, Freudian, and even Eco-critical considerations—why not entertain a Darwinian view? Unlike the infamously unfriendly archaeological fossil record, literature’s “geological record” is, in comparison, remarkably intact, and its yield is particularly rich. In fact, we can trace literary heredity as far back as The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is estimated to date from as early as the third millennium BCE, relatively shortly after the invention of writing (sometime in the latter half of the fourth millennium BCE). A record of literary history such as this provides for the literary evolutionist a vast and supportive foundation upon which to build empirically based insights into the nature of literary change (on both macro- and microevolutionary levels) over the course of the written word’s fruitful five thousand year history. Although I’m unaware of any systematic effort to apply the logic of evolutionary theory to literature, Richard Dawkins’ concept of the “meme” represents an important movement in that general direction. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins describes the “meme” as a “[self-] replicator… a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” It exists in many forms, including “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, [and] ways of making pots or of building arches.” As with genes, memes succeed in self-perpetuation by virtue of self-replication as they struggle to survive in light of a Malthusian competition for resources and living space—or rather, for “radio and television time, billboard space, newspaper column-inches, and library shelf-space.” Although Dawkins’ “memes” are reliant upon their capacity for near-perfect self-replication, “literary genes,” it seems to me, thrive mainly through a significantly more imperfect process of what is known in the traditional lexicon of literary criticism as “influence” (for Dawkins, this process apparently falls under the heading of “mimesis” -- the root of the word “meme”). The literary evolutionist views literary works as writers’ cultural offspring and as vehicles for the transmission and dissemination of authors’ “literary genes.” Influence becomes a measurable presence of these “genes” – which may take the form of anything from ideas and images, formal structures, to whole phrases or sentences – as transferred from one author to another. Thus, “families” of authors are linked and can be identified by the spread, exchange, and incorporation of common literary elements and themes as they appear in artistic generations over time (versus links derived from an artist’s geo- and... Continue reading
Posted Feb 24, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Part of what got me going yesterday was some rather provocative discussion of innovation and art that has recently taken place on two blogs: Ron Silliman’s and Big Other. (I learned of the latter from the former.) I’m unfamiliar with A D Jameson, the author of the Big Other post, but I have read Silliman’s blog irregularly for the last couple of years. I sincerely appreciate the efforts of both men to get a handle on what is indeed an incredibly dynamic and complex issue. I suppose that I’m interested in renovation in part because it seems to me to represent an historically significant midpoint between the extremes of Absolute Innovation and Absolute Convention, which Jameson sensibly ties to the unfamiliar and the familiar respectively. (These surely represent the more moderate ends of a lengthy continuum between outright plagiarism and utter incomprehensibility, per Frank Kermode.) Silliman, however, dismisses the ‘renovative’ initiative that I view as so central to the course of Western literature: "That which forwards the evolution of poetry, something that occurs raggedly & in fits & starts, is really the heart of writing practice, the pump that breathes life into verse & makes it relevant to our lives. This is why Charles Olson was a major poet and Robert Lowell a wasted minor talent at best.... Hybridism wants to be new & it wants to be the well-wrought urn. For the most part, it accomplishes neither. Above all else, it is a failure of courage." Let's leave aside the issue of courage (I can't be persuaded that a text as audacious as Paradise Lost, which is an overt effort at hybridization or renovation, is anything but an act of incredible daring). I regard myself as a champion of both experimentation and innovation--certainly, per Eliot, artistic novelty is more interesting than verbatim repetition. Even so, I’m uncomfortable with the view that an innovative work is necessarily ‘better’ or more valuable than its less innovative counterparts. (Of course, Silliman doesn’t make that express claim; he merely asserts that Olson is major to Lowell’s minor.) I can’t, for example, be convinced that Christopher Smart is a greater talent than Alexander Pope, although I readily acknowledge that Jubilate Agno is the most innovative work produced by either of the two. In discussions of innovation in art, it seems to me that we often conflate the commercial value of innovation with its aesthetic value. In the context of commerce, the value of an innovation is established on a utilitarian basis; its worth is directly correlated to the degree to which it simplifies or enables a functional end or series of ends, and, in this regard, its value is empirically demonstrable. Unless one accepts the idea that value inheres in novelty even when it is divorced from utility (which would lead to a set of confused and essentially incoherent evaluative criteria in an otherwise empirically-driven system), a new mousetrap has no definite value beyond that which we may attribute to it on the basis... Continue reading
Posted Feb 23, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Just a few weeks ago, I found in my inbox an e-mail from Apple announcing the upcoming release of its iPad. Intrigued by Apple’s description of the product as a “magical and revolutionary device” (I defy anyone to resist those adjectives in combination), I clicked on the embedded link and found myself in the midst of a relatively tasteful and incredibly well-produced promotional video. Engrossing as the video was, I couldn’t keep myself from responding to a prediction made by one of the several executives featured in the video: “[The iPad]’s going to change the way we do the things we do every day.” In our very forward-looking age, it’s easy to forget that, for the greater part of its written history, poetry has been a backward-looking medium. While it’s impossible to know exactly what the literary architectures of his forbears were, it’s interesting to note that even Homer, the Western canon’s Adam, focuses squarely on already four hundred year-old events. (This is no less true of Hesiod, whose Theogony reads rather like the Greek equivalent of Genesis, but his is a less palpable influence on later writers.) The Tragedians were awash in Homeric storylines, and their originality generally stems not from outright invention but from sly revisions and magnifications of the dramas contained in received, i.e., Homeric myths. The Greek lyric tradition was less overtly Homeric (and is admittedly more concerned with individual subjectivity), but it is consistently responsive to its literary-mythological inheritance, at least until the Roman Period (ca. 30 BCE). The Romans themselves, of course, imitated their Greek predecessors: Virgil/Homer, Horace/Pindar, Catullus/Sappho, and Ovid, who seems to have been unwilling to choose just one. Despite notable compositions in the ‘vulgar’ tongue, the Medieval poets were predominately Latinists (Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, e.g.), while the Troubadours were adapting (often perhaps unwittingly) the Arabic tradition that was being sung up the continent from Spain. When we finally arrive at the English tradition, Chaucer is almost equal parts translator and originator. (Translation is by definition a retrospective enterprise, as it deals exclusively with preexisting literature.) Piers Plowman, The Pearl, and Gawain, moreover, all derive stylistically from the alliterative Anglo-Saxon tradition; the two former are clearly modeled on allegorical precedents (Boethius, e.g.), whereas the author of Gawain has his hand very obviously in the pocket of the Arthurian romances (and authors like Chretien De Troyes). Spenser follows “all the antique Poets historicall”; Surrey and Wyatt are translating Petrarch; Shakespeare almost always writes from an identifiable source; Jonson is a Classicist; Milton, a Latinist; Donne and Herbert are born of Petrarch and the Bible; Dryden and Pope are explicitly engaged with antiquity. When we reach the Romantics, who undoubtedly constitute something of a pivot toward both modernity and individual invention (and from whom so much of our orientation toward originality derives), we find that even they are often looking over their shoulders: Blake and Wordsworth (of The Prelude at least) at Milton; Shelley at Hellas; Byron at Dryden and Pope; and Keats at... Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you both for your kind words!
I’d like to begin by extending my sincere thanks both to Stacey and to David for inviting me to serve as a BAP guest blogger. I hardly need to remark on the rarity of forums of this sort, and I’m truly delighted to have the opportunity to engage with the wide and devoted community of readers and writers that this site represents. For those of you who happen to know me, it won’t come as a great surprise to learn that this is my first attempt at blogging, and I beg your pardon in advance for any missteps as I endeavor to get my hands on the medium. I intend to use my time here simply to consider a few things that I've been batting around lately, and, while my musings are unlikely to coalesce into any sustained arguments, I’m hopeful that they will at least add up to a worthwhile week. In collecting my thoughts for this series, I rather inevitably found myself contemplating the status and condition of American poetry today. Is the patient healthy? As I regarded its charts and vital signs, puzzling over possible diagnoses, I came upon this aptly-titled item in Richard Kenney’s One-Strand River: POETRY Nobody at any rate reads it much. Your lay citizenry have other forms of fun. Still, who would wish to live in a culture of which future anthropologists would say Oddly, they had none? Much has been made of the increasingly marginal position of poetry in contemporary American society. And not without reason: according to the NEA’s most recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts report, the consumption of poetry is indeed on the decline. Readership dropped from roughly 12% of the adult population in 2002 to a little more than 8% in 2008. (It would be interesting to know what percentage of children read or are read poetry regularly; I suspect not only that the figure would be significantly higher, but that parents who read poetry to their children are not represented by the NEA’s findings.) In the plainest of terms, a little fewer than 19 million American adults read poetry with any regularity. For perspective’s sake, that amounts to a little less than one in five viewers of the 2010 Super Bowl (which was the most-watched television program in history) – still more than the USA’s LGBT(~5%) and vegetarian(~3%) communities combined. While the NEA’s findings certainly constitute bad news for poetry, we should take heart in knowing that readers of poetry still outnumber the resident populations of all but three states (California (~37 mil), Texas (~25 mil), and New York (~20 mil)). About as many people read poetry as live in Florida, which is roughly four times the size of Ireland. I’ve surely belabored the point, but I mean only to demonstrate that despite its longstanding decline in popularity—Pound was already lamenting the public’s indifference to the medium in 1913—there is still a considerable audience for poetry. It may well be that readers of poetry are... Continue reading
Posted Feb 21, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 19, 2010