Jun 142004

Back from a blogging holiday, only to find that I’m a killjoy, a bully (check the comments to the last link: “fists raise to strike?” For the record, I haven’t hit anybody since 7th grade, and he hit me first), a “finely-tuned yay-boo machine,” and, my favorite, “ruler-wielding,” as if I were the evil nun from parochial school.

These bloggers are offended because I object to some work of art that they like. (Such quaint favorites too. I expect to catch grief for savaging Invictus, but Wordsworth, Shelley, Frank O’Hara, Yeats: who knew?) I understand, and I even sympathize, to a point. Polibloggers vastly outnumber artbloggers because people are less interested in politics, not more. Art is just too damn personal. What you like goes to the core of who you are.

Public discourse being what it is, you must expect to see your loves bruised a bit. Nothing personal. I do not, no matter what Ray Davis says, “argue against the possibility of taking pleasure in Frank O’Hara,” or W.E. Henley, or anyone else. The pleasure that people take in Frank O’Hara is real, I am sure, and they are welcome to it. But it is obvious to me that the Williams poem to which I compared O’Hara exploits the possibilities of free verse in a way that The Day Lady Died does not. I write in the forlorn hope that some of my readers might see this as well. It is piety, not destruction.

When I say that art is this, or poetry is that, I will happily entertain counter-claims and objections, even the objection that the questions are pointless. With few exceptions, like the estimable Jim Henley, who argues like a proper adult, these are not forthcoming. Instead it’s “but I like Frank O’Hara!” or “art is an affair of the heart!” or “poetry is magical and mysterious!” The Department of Defense has plans for a refinement of the neutron bomb, which will wipe out the humanities faculty while leaving the campus buildings and the science faculty intact. This is why.

Art is not a curiosity shop to nance about in. It is not a verdant meadow to which you hie your exquisite sensibility for a picnic and a sunbath. It is a discipline, with basic questions that remain unanswered. What is it? What use is it? What makes some works better than others? How do genres differ, and how do their peculiar techniques produce their peculiar results? One way to get at these matters is to disassemble the works, find out what makes them tick. This no more deprives of them of their beauty than knowledge of civil engineering prevents one from admiring the Hoover Dam. On the contrary, I would think.

Doubtless these questions are difficult. But progress in answering them for the last two and a half millenia — since, oh, Aristotle’s Poetics — has been near zero. Somehow, during this same time, human beings have managed to answer other difficult questions, like how blood circulates, what causes smallpox, what the relationship is between mass and energy, and whether arithmetic can be axiomatized. Is art really that hard to understand? Or are its devotees just not interested in understanding it?

(Update: George Wallace comments, generously. Jim Henley comments, estimably.)

  11 Responses to “Why’s Everybody Always Picking on Me?”

  1. I’ve been reading Martin Gardner’s "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener". (There’s a year’s worth of study there. He isn’t just a mathematician.)
    There’s a chapter titled "Beauty: Why I am not an Aesthetic Relativist".

    He asks "whether there are standards of judgement about beauty that transcend individual or group tastes".

    Much of the chapter deals with literature. He says that there’s a problem with trying to classify a work – it leads to the danger of judging a work by standards that apply to something else. He cites Truman Capote’s "In Cold Blood". Is it fiction or non-fiction? Should we condemn Robert Browning’s "The Ring and the Book" because it deals with a sordid murder case?

    He finds old books (around the 1900s) of anthologies of poetry, much of which today is considered staggeringly bad. He doesn’t think much of William Carlos Williams – still much anthologized today, even more so earlier in the century. And he’s not alone. Williams has supporters and detractors.

    He says that the end-points are fairly easy to see: "I submit that it is justifiable to declare, in a stentorian voice, that Dante and Shakespeare were better poets than Ella Wheeler Wilcox." (Ambrose Bierce took a few pot-shots at Wilcox in his "Devil’s Dictionary".)

    Nabokov wrote that Ezra Pound was "a total fake". Jorge Luis Borges wrote "Whitman was great. Sandburg was nothing".

    This would seem to support aesthetic relativism, but Gardner makes a good argument that much of what passes as mediocre does so not just for him, but in a more universal sense.

    PS: He thinks Yeats is great, but doesn’t understand him ("I have no doubt that [he] was a major poet, but because of some incompatibility between his mind and mine, it’s difficult for me to admire his work.")

    Finally, a larger question: Consider, for example, O’Hara’s "The Day Lady Died". (Is that "the day-lady died" or "the day that Lady [perhaps a dog or cat] died"?)

    Suppose it were printed in standard prose form – no line breaks, maybe the pccasional punctuation – what would make it different – if at all?

    Is it the content, or the presentation? If only the presentation, the form seems pretty weak.

    I could reformat some of "The Wind and the Willows" into great poetry. Or even some of the opening chapter of "Deliverance". So what’s the big deal about unrhymed, unstructured free verse?

    I’ve been reading some pretty good free verse, by Don Marquis, of Archy and Mehitabel fame.

    the first appearance of archy

  2. You’re beautiful when you’re angry.

  3. I certainly appreciate the kind words. You remind me that I meant to speak up, in a small way, for the passage of O’Hara you quoted, even though he’s a poet whose ouevre means nothing to me.

    I like the end. I like the sad pun on Big Death (Billie Holliday’s passing) and Little Death (figurative orgasm) in the passage at the end where the gay O’Hara is "leaning against the john door" and "stopped breathing." There are enough constructive ironies in that passage to come close to redeeming the Official God of the Machine Excerpt of the poem. I have to admit that if there’s much more to it, I’d likely change my mind about the payoff.

    I have of course not made a case that the poem is prosodically interesting. I would hesitate to do so, though one could mutter things about "rough hexameter" and ponder the possible aptness of chronicling a morning’s grief as a single run-on sentence. (I guess O’Hara chronicled most things as a single run-on sentence, but even a stopped clock.) But I’d leave the argument to others, myself. I think that, on the matter of versification, you’re correct that Williams has something on O’Hara.

    I am thinking of making peace with Williams, by the way. Made an attempt yesterday, but Borders was out of the New Directions Selected.

  4. Aaron

    You’ll never hear me complaining about anyone that takes poetry as seriously as you do. I love this blog! I’m not sure that we relate to these works in anything like the same way (I "read for lustres", while you definitely come either to bury or praise–and I think this goes a long way toward explaining our inability to see eye-to-eye about Romanticism especially)

    On Frank O’Hara–well, he’s basically a belated romantic, and I wasn’t surprised that you dislike him. If you (or anyone else) is interested in knowing why I find him interesting (despite his failure to capitalize upon the potential of free verse!), you can check out this piece of mine, in which I claim that, in O’Hara’s work, "literature ceases to aspire to capture and bottle the present moment and instead becomes a soundtrack, magnetized, out of sync, to the filmstrip of the Sublime."


  5. You should see the mail I get every time I diss the Coppolas.

    My drift must’ve been hard to catch, since it was that no one should feel threatened by someone else’s tastes. (Obviously not all my commentators agreed!) If we feel called upon to defend our pleasures, we should do so on their merits; if we feel threatened, it should be a call to analysis rather than a call to arms.

    I doubt I’ve ever shared a taste with you, but I enjoy the articulation of an alien viewpoint, so long as it’s not wrecking any careers. And I hope you enjoy the Wordsworth parodies (two down, one in the hopper).

  6. Hey, thanks for the link, even if it was part of a dis. However, in my defense, I do think that you’ve misrepresented my post. I never claimed that poetry was "magical and mysterious" only that that sense was something conveyed by poetry as opposed to verse, the distinction that I was trying to make. Furthermore, if you reread my post, you’ll see that I was using the term mystery as a bit of shorthand to describe what happens when meaning is condensed into images, metaphors, and other such techniques commonly used in poetry. Furthermore, I think the essential musical quality of poetry fits quite nicely into the discussion you’re interested in when you ask:

    What makes some works better than others? How do genres differ, and how do their peculiar techniques produce their peculiar results? One way to get at these matters is to disassemble the works, find out what makes them tick.

    Still, perhaps my definiton was a bit too mystical for your taste, but it was nevertheless a serious attempt at defining some of the essential qualities of poetry. Maybe the rhetorical flourish at the end of the post was, in fact, a bit useless in trying to understand poetry, but it’s not reason to dismiss the entire post.

  7. Ah, complaints, and not without merit either. To proceed in reverse order: mallarme says he was making a serious argument, and so he was. Now I don’t think it’s a very good argument: he treats the term "poetry" as normative, takes for granted the existence of "prose poems" without elucidation, and proposes "music," "sound," and "mystery" as the essential elements of poetry, all of which can be readily found in prose. But it is an argument, and I characterized it somewhat unfairly, although I quoted him accurately.

    I agree with everything in Ray Davis’s comment, and he and I share, if not a taste, at least an aversion to Sofia Coppola, and for I suspect the same reasons. The oafish exchange about Evelyn Waugh in Lost in Translation limns her mind in exactly the way that Woody Allen’s list of "things that make life worth living" in Manhattan limns his. But if I take up a Frank O’Hara poem to illustrate a point about prosody it simply does not follow that I want to rain on anyone else’s parade.

    I have lashed David Fiore here severely, and I am afraid rudely, and yet he takes nothing personally and always returns in the best possible humor. He would be the ideal interlocutor if only I could understand what he was talking about more than half the time. "A soundtrack, magnetized, out of sync, to the filmstrip of the Sublime"? A little help here.

    Now that Jim Henley has forced me to reconsider the O’Hara excerpt (the whole poem is twice as long and I lifted the best part), I can see some merit in it. It’s not bad, it’s just not a poem. Which provides me, ironically, a reply to Jim’s original objection that my definition of poetry is normative. Baudelaire’s "prose poems," which mallarme cites and many of which are admirable, might also serve, had they only been written in English. We might be better off just dispensing with the word "poetry" entirely, which has become as useless as "romanticism," and sticking with "verse" and "prose."

    Martin Gardner, so far as Mike quotes him, appears to dismiss aesthetic relativism by appeal to intuition, which will not carry the day. We need more arguments, and better ones.

  8. Perhaps the term poetry has become somewhat muddled, but I don’t think abandoning it in favor of verse is the way to go. After all, even commercial jingles are verse, but I doubt you’re too interested in discussing them. Given the amount of thought and effort you’ve put into discussing poetry, it seems fair to assume that you think it’s an important topic, one that has a lot to do with the content of the works, not just the form.

  9. Or maybe as you say, it’s a discipline. And not a science. There is no ultimate answer to the questions you ask. There’s only hard work and a thousand theories. But no experiment will ever be designed to confirm the latter. And no results will ever confirm the former. Ultimately there’s only appetite and taste.

  10. If it helps anything, I was quite tempted to take up the cudgels on your behalf when pseudopodium (as I thought) dumped on you – glad to see I just hadn’t caught Ray’s drift.

  11. All you guys are way abstruse for me, but here’s something:
    Stendhal wrote in "On Love" that love is crystalization — we fixate on the love object & attach a lot of our stuff to it.
    It may well not be poetry, but I think that’s what O’Hara did in "The Day Lady Died". And it’s all I ever need to know about that day. (It probably helps, though, to be a New Yorker so it’s all visual for me.)

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