Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Glass Beads

Brian Campbell's comment on one of C. Dale Young's entries led me to BC's essay "Can Poetry Matter?--15 Years After."

Brian looks at a number of essays that responded to Dana Gioia's original "Can Poetry Matter?" essay. One of the issues that always comes up is the role that Creative Writing programs play in the development of poetry in North America. One point that I always make and that I rarely come across has to do with health insurance.

Perhaps it takes an expatriate living in a country with a functioning health-insurance system to notice this, but one very good reason for poets to want to get credentialed (MFA) and tenured (Professor of Creative Writing)—or even just working for a university in some way—is to get health insurance.

In the jazz world, it is striking how often older musicians who get sick are dependent on benefit concerts from their fellow musicians in order to be able to pay their health costs (Billy Higgins, Sun Ra)—or at least are dependent on staying on the road (or going back on the road) after life-threatening heart attacks or strokes (Oscar Peterson continued touring even after his stroke partially disabled his hand: try playing piano like that!).

So it's more than understandable if creative people try to get themselves a gig at a university, which will usually involve some sort of health coverage. When Adrienne Rich left UC Santa Cruz to teach at Stanford in the mid-eighties, the story we students heard was that (even though she apparently would have preferred to stay at UCSC) she got much better treatment for her rheumatoid arthrities through Stanford than from a public school.

Of course, Brian's essay made me think of some other things, too. He quotes Jake Berry's response to Gioia:

"Should we as poets be prepared to accept, even embrace, obscurity in order to practice an art that is important to the deeper, more complex, conditions of our species? For what reason? Does reason have anything to do with it? Do we not practice this art out of some obsession that forever seems to remain just beyond our ability to describe and name? Or do we practice it to keep the poetic faculties alive regardless of who or how many may subscribe to that experience?"

The last of these questions reminds me of a book I read long ago, Das Glasperlenspiel, by Herman Hesse. Not a great novel, but a very memorable one: the main character is a monk-like figure living in a future in which civilization has collapsed, and he and his fellows in the cloister-like place where they live spend their days playing "the glass-bead game," which is a means of preserving knowledge for future generations.

I recently read Basel in the Age of Burckhardt, by Lionel Gossman, and one of the things that kept coming up was how much Burckhardt (and Bachofen, who is the other major figure in Gossman's book) saw his scholarship as a way of "shoring up fragments against our ruin" (to quote anachronistically). In a sense, Burckhardt saw scholarship as a "glass-bead game" even before Hesse wrote his novel.

There's one other moment in Brian's essay that I would like to draw attention to:

"As Simon DeDeo, one of my blog interlocutors, put it so well, does theoretical science matter to anyone? Not really, except for the practitioners, the aficionados, and the students. Similarly for poetry. As theoretical science is not in a bad way, neither is poetry."



mrjumbo said...

If I had to think about it for long, I'd probably argue that one of the faculties that distinguishes us from most animals is the imagination. The ability to think hypothetically, to plan, to invent wholecloth, is pretty exclusive to humans.

These tools let us solve all kinds of problems and create a better world. Whether it's inventing music or improving heart transplants, our imagination propels us individually and as a culture.

Most science would be nowhere without the imagination. We teach kids who aren't old enough to drive about "imaginary numbers," non-existent but imaginable, like the square roots of negative numbers, that allow us to solve otherwise perplexing problems. We try to convince casual listeners that the universe is constructed from tiny vibrating strings that contain 10, 11, 12 dimensions, all curled up tightly. Does that image matter?

Poetry can be many things, from history to love sonnet to personal reflection to discipline. Much religious text is in verse, and if you don't think that matters, you need to take a longer look at what the world pays for oil. Did anyone think it mattered when N.W.A. released "Fuck the Police," or don't we list that in the same column as poetry?

I won't argue that poetry's going to save civilization, any more than science will, but I don't think you're ever going to find humans without either. We are born into language and reason; we're stuck with 'em. We are given curiosity and imagination, and from the darkest coal mine to the highest orbit we use them.

Whether it's an insipid verse on a Hallmark card or an obscure bit of figurative language in the back pages of a medical journal, whether it's Bukowski or Pynchon, Mamet or Dylan, poetry reaches us all and nearly always calls for us to think harder, to reconsider.

I don't think anyone sensible would argue that poetry doesn't matter.

These articles you refer to talk about a small subset of poetry--recently published works in literary journals or books by people whose primary career is in letters. (Curious that they'd refer to this sliver as if it were all of poetry.) Does this poetry matter?

Well, first of all, folks think it's worth paying for. That's not an absolute measure--people think it's worth paying for fishing channels on cable TV--but it's an easy first-blush measure.

Second, as a laboratory where poetry (and all its subject matter) can be lingered over and leafed through with more attention than it gets in vivo, it serves as an important resource for an endeavor whose fruits we all share. I may not read a particular journal, and I may not need a particular cancer treatment, but the process that generates that journal and that develops that cancer treatment will benefit me in my hour of need.

Getting more at the root of the question, though, I might ask another question of anyone who accuses something of not mattering: What does it take to matter? Gandhi has been quoted (with many paraphrases) as saying that just about anything you do won't make any difference, but it's very important that you do it. Does a nosebleed matter? Does a space station matter? Does an article about poetry matter? Do commas matter? (Does a blog matter?) The problem may rest with the observer, not the subject under scrutiny. Before asking whether something matters, you might ask yourself whether, as Jo Dee Messina puts it, "my give a damn's busted."

All this talk about matter makes me hungry. I think I'm going to go downstairs now and see if there's coffee yet. When I get a chance to really think about this I'll let you know, but for now what matters is food.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Andrew Shields said...

Imaginary numbers: In discussing arithmetic with Miles, I fully understood something that I had read somewhere a while back: it is not just "imaginary numbers" that are imaginary. The positive integers have a certain claim to not being "imaginary," in that they have a clear physical basis: counting. But both fractions and negative numbers are, in a sense, "imaginary numbers" invented to help solve certain questions (just as "imaginary numbers" in a narrow sense were invented to do that):

If x < y, then what is x-y? You have to invent negative numbers to solve the equation.

If x ≠ ny, then what is x/y? You have to invent fractions to solve the equation.


I think Gioia's original point was not "does poetry matter at all?" (which, I think, is the issue that you address) but "can poetry establish a presence in mainstream culture that it appears to have once had and now lost?"

It's not entirely clear that poetry ever "mattered" in mainstream culture in this way; or if it did, what was then the "main stream" of "culture" was entirely different than it is now: not mass popular culture but elite aristocratic culture. In that sense, there is no prior golden age in which poetry did "matter" to mainstream culture in any sense that has bearing on the situation today.

It's worth noting that Gioia is now the head of the National Endowment for the Arts!

Brian Campbell said...

It gratifies to see that my essay stimulated such reflection and debate on the part of you two. Mr Jumbo, your arguments may not address Gioia's thesis, but certainly they do the title of his article -- which is what snared public attention in the first place. Andrew, your point about health care is an interesting one. Here in Canada we have public health care; but a succession of "conservative" governments hasn't done anything to conserve the quality of that health care, and private health care is starting to make inroads. Waiting for doctor in an average Canadian hospital now resembles waiting for Godot, or worse, Fear & Trembling unto death.

mrjumbo said...

That first blurt was all just whatever came as kneejerk reaction. Further along it occurred to me to take a glance at the actual subject text. Sometimes it's better not to know what you're talking about.

Gioia seems to be whining that poetry has developed a degree of specialization akin to marathon running or astrophysics or civil service. Nobody knows who the great poets are anymore. Nobody knows who the Postmaster-General is; nobody knows who won the Boston Marathon; nobody could rattle off the names of the world's top five astrophysicists. The only funding for the Hubble telescope comes from governmental institutions, and the vast majority of its images are examined only by scientists: Space research doesn't matter.

I do share this complaint about the world--that we have split ourselves off into many subcamps of special interests ("stovepipes") rather than sharing the commonality we had when we lived in villages. But I also like CD players and indoor plumbing, and one reason we have CD players is that some guy went to grad school in laser technology rather than learning who Piet Mondrian was. There's a lot more to learn than there was 50 years ago, and you have to climb much further up most ladders to push any current field of interest forward.

Gioia uses one interesting yardstick for whether poetry matters: It's not getting reviewed as much as he thinks it should in the New York Times. I'm not going to spend the breath discussing that here, but it's at least an interesting way to decide whether something matters.

I got about that far, looked at the scroll bar to see how much more I had to read, and gave up. The man hadn't said anything that made sense yet, and that was a long way to read before getting to the first point I'd even remark on. Maybe Gioia should stick to poetry. Are his poems more compelling than his analyses?

Donald Brown said...

"There's a lot more to learn than there was 50 years ago, and you have to climb much further up most ladders to push any current field of interest forward.

Gioia uses one interesting yardstick for whether poetry matters: It's not getting reviewed as much as he thinks it should in the New York Times. I'm not going to spend the breath discussing that here, but it's at least an interesting way to decide whether something matters."

I think these two comments are much to the point as I see it. Poetry has never "mattered" to anyone but an elite or coterie readership. Let's talk John Donne... William Blake... Whitman during his lifetime...etc, etc. To say nothing of the sublime Emily. Keats was considered a crank. Everyone KNOWS this. But what Jumbo's comment points to is the fact that, in a world of mega-publicity on every stupid thing (American Idol! The Runaway Bride! TomKat!), there's a sense that we should publicize what is truly notable. But to decide what IS truly notable takes considerable effort, more effort than "the public" is willing to make, therefore the great work is always obscure in its origins. But the problem of what makes "the great" great can't be solved by media glitz. I never heard of Robert Musil till I was in graduate school in a very exclusive environment (but then he got mentioned in a Pynchon novel that sold well), but Musil is as great as anyone needs to be. And yet, we all know our Mann much better.

The NYTimes yardstick is trivial, as MrJ suggests; but it does mean that poetry might get some "buzz" -- which it seems is all that Gioia is complaining about: poets never getting the "buzz" that some novelists get. Fair enough, but that has little to do with producing poetry that "matters."

As someone who has been rather lackadaisical about publishing, I can say I share the view that it's not worth it if it won't possibly be seen by "the few." Which is to say the readers of poetry that I too admire and which seems to appear only in the bigger name places. I've changed that attitude somewhat, but any time I try to imagine impressing my writing on some pre-existent coterie publishing its little mag I'm forced to consider whether that little mag "matters" to me in anyway, vs. just using it as a means to get "in print."

I think I should've aimed to be an editor: picking poems from the heap to publish is what "matters." I've read thousands of mss. for Yale Younger Poets Series, and every year I found poems I was pleased to read, sometimes entire books. A few I even own copies of. What Gioia seems to be mourning (as most of us influenced by modernist "greats" do) is that "the cult" will never become "the culture." To do that you do have to climb higher and push longer -- nobody's been in the game that long. Almost any living career that counts right now began in my lifetime, and I'm just not that OLD!

But I like MrJ's list of all the things we don't know. If a person knows the names of and has some idea of the work of 5 poets besides Shakespeare, I think we'd have to say that's an educated person...

Andrew Shields said...

It's amusing to note that Don's comment was identified as "suspected spam" by the Uni Basel computer center.

In any case, his points, and Mr. J's, reminded me of the following, from a Durs Grünbein essay I translated, that will be appearing in Poetry in January:

"When an average intellectual today reflects on the last century's great artistic and intellectual achievements, he first thinks of such names as Freud and Picasso, Stravinsky and Heisenberg, Hitchcock and Wittgenstein. It is impossible to imagine that one of them could be a poet. Not a single poet from the ancestral gallery (whether Pessoa, Cavafy, or Rilke, whether Yeats, Mandelstam, Valéry, Frost, or Machado) will cross the mind of the historically-informed thinker, who dares to claim a monopoly on Modernism anyway. It is as if the art of poetry, of all things, were the blind spot in the cultural memory of modern man. It does not make much sense to brood over why this is the case."

I did ponder recently whether I could think of any poets of the last 100 years who have any serious intellectual cache. Milosz? Certainly in Poland, and with "The Captive Mind" also with respect to the life of intellectuals in the mid-20th century in general. In Latin America, Paz perhaps, but not beyond Latin America. I had thought of one other, but I can't remember who it was! A telling oblivion, perhaps.

Donald Brown said...

Well, what your comment (from Grunbein) highlights is that even now the modernists are not "household words," not uniformly praised for what they accomplished, nor even for being what 'the age demanded.'

What the complaints about MFAs, etc., highlights is that "the demand" is not from "the age," but from people who want to write. Which I don't find to be unhealthy at all, since language is one of our gifts as humans and should be exercised. I think the complaint that really great writing won't emerge from such avenues is pointless. The really great is always unpredictable and in its way unavoidable (if you care). But why should that stop people from writing and trying to get their writing in the hands of people who read for the fun of it?

But I've always subscribed to the idea that a smaller audience is better. When I go to hear a musical performer I'm glad if I can stand there in comfort, without crowding. No way do I want to sit in a stadium. Sure I want the writer, performer, artist to get by, and maybe even have insurance (but when we start talking state supported art I get a little uneasy), but I don't want to have to put up with the "many-too-many."

--Sir Spam-a-lot

mrjumbo said...

I didn't mean to belittle the New York Times--only to say that it's an interesting yardstick for greatness.

I don't know whether I'd agree 100% that poetry has never had a mainstream draw. Media have changed. Before wide distribution of recorded music, poetry occupied a different place. Before movable type, poetry occupied a different place again.

I'd say--and others might disagree--that some poetry has been displaced by what we can hear on the radio. It's less common today to see "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" or "The Charge of the Light Brigage" being composed about current events, but you'll see more or less the same being published as music. The "poetry" that Gioia and some others are discussing is just one part of a bigger world of poetry.

I should glance at more of Gioia's thoughts before commenting further on them, but I might ask whether it really matters if this subset of poetry gets written about in the New York Times. There are some other ways to measure worth, and he may reflect on those further down.

Regardless of what the public thinks, someone further back in the comment stream pointed out that the poetry may matter very much to the poet, which is a good point, though a separate question.

If I understand right, Gioia's not proposing that we give up on poetry altogether. He's just asking whether a particular type of poetry matters to a particular community. Most of his answer should have been pretty clearly defined just by looking at what type of poetry he's discussing and what community he's studying, but he clearly saw the opportunity to go on at greater length about it, blessed as he was with a catchy title that he figured would stir people up enough to read whatever he put under it.

I could go on, but someone needs me to go unlock a door.

Andrew Shields said...

Hey Mr. J, was it the person from Porlock?

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.