Tuesday, February 28, 2006

on (or near) the floe edge

Too many days since I weighed in. Blogging makes demands, one of which might be to get out on the floe edge of perception and see what might be there. There's always the stuff out the window. Today, very cold. And white. Snow spread across the field like a butter by the wind. I like sliding across the field on skis. Why am I not doing it? I try sliding across the page, too. That, too, feels like a disappearance into essentials. What do I mean? Maybe that beyond meaning is something better than meaning. Which, of course, is a meaning, too. The wind has no obstacle to itself today. It blows and blows. The little white pines out front shiver.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

on voice: work in progress

"The idea of the ‘works of a poet’...corresponds to a real object, a grouping of texts that have stylistic homogeneity (as well as heterogeneity). A problem arises only when criticism tries to make an ‘individual’ poet the origin or cause of this stylistic unity....Another embarrassment follows from the convention of treating the author as a single, unified individual. The assumption means that stylistic heterogeneity cannot be countenanced. It has to be made over into a unity at all costs, even if there are a number of different ‘selves’ at work in the poetry assigned to one author, even if there are perhaps as Pound suggests ‘complete masks of the self in each poem’."
Antony Easthope, Poetry As Discourse (1983)

I want to begin with a long series of quotations which I’ve been accumulating for a few years now. The angle of approach is different for each of them, but they all address some aspect of the question of voice in poetry or the assumptions most of us make about it. As I said in an essay twenty-five years ago (ABR, 6:4(1984), 10.), I’ve always felt that voice, as I understood it, was less an individual thing than something that belonged to a period. Most Elizabethan sonnet writers sound like Shakespeare, and vice versa. Most eighteenth century poets sound like Pope or Dryden, and vice versa. Voice seems more like a period style than anything quintessentially individual. Some poets stand out, particularly in the nineteenth century, where serious challenges were made to contemporary esthetics at a time when poets knew they were struggling against the supremacy of the novel. I’m thinking of Whitman, Hopkins, Swinburne, Stephen Crane, and if you include the French, Baudelaire, Mallarme and Rimbaud. My hunch, too, is that the current interest poets have in eliminating voice from their work, or muting it, is in fact creating another period style, but I will save speculations on that for a later time.

I am large; I contain multitudes.

My verse is the true image of my mind,
Ever in motion, still desiring change;
And as thus to variety inclined,
So in all humours sportively I range.
Michael Drayton in "To the Reader of These Sonnets," from his sequence, Idea

I don’t understand myself, only segments
of myself that misunderstand each other.
John Ashbery

The poem is the cry of its occasion.
Wallace Stevens

There is not a more perplexing affair in life to me, than to set about telling anyone who I am, for there is scarce anybody I cannot give a better account of than myself; and I have often wish’d I could do it in a single word and have an end to it.
Laurence Sterne

The poet, tuned to the immense variety of his or her experience, to the many forms in which such experience might be cast, can find in no one method the means to objectify, in poetry, his or her life.
Michael Heller

Have your odyssey
How many voiced it be
Louis Zukofsky

I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
of sight.
A.R. Ammons

The best ideas come with someone else’s
having previously "had" them.
Lyn Hejinian

[I] let my own contradictions find their voices.
Aaron Shurin

–That’s enough of that, Mr Bones. Some lady you make.
Honour the burnt cork, be a vaudeville man.
John Berryman

It’s when one hasn’t recognized oneself anymore that one has arrived.
Rene Char

What follows is an attempt to say something about what Richard Poirier has called "the vexed issue of voice and presence" in poetry. (See The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections, 1988, p. 204.) Voice is a particularly privileged property in contemporary esthetics–I should say, contemporary mainstream esthetics--which, the longer I have lived with, the less I have been certain what it describes. It is tied to things like individuality and originality and so concerns the nature of the self or at least that part of it that comes to speak in a poet’s poems. As such, it would seem also to involve conceptions of the real and of knowledge itself, since it is only through our selves that we can know the world. At the moment, I’m not invoking that contemporary bugaboo, the "death of the author," though I am often puzzled by the notion of who a poet is or is supposed to be in a poem. Yeats reminded us in the mid ‘30's that the poet is not the same person who comes downstairs in the morning and has breakfast. The poet is related to, but larger than, the person. For Yeats, being a poet meant assuming a mantle or cloak, producing in the poem a "phantasmagoria." The New Criticism long ago warned us not to confuse the "I" of a poem with the author for fear of committing "the autobiographical fallacy." The apparent requirement in these injunctions that the poet be other than the self is more than a little palpable. And yet, in many, if not most, writings on esthetics, we run into one version or another of Sir Philip Sydney’s famous advice, "look in thy heart and write." The heart, I gather, is the bodily vault of true feeling and hence the self. If you unlock it, the presumption is, you will speak the truth of your feelings, the depths of your self, which esthetics since the time of Wordsworth has equated with originality, the single separate personhood which that esthetics believes belongs uniquely to us all. Behind the Romantics sits Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding which tells us that all people are born unformed, as a blank slate, and come to be who they are through their particular experience which is different for everyone (and which, incidentally, is likened to writing). One does not need the help of those who believe in heredity as character’s primary determinant to wonder at the curious categorical presumption of the Lockeans. Am I my experience? Hume said we had selves because we have memory, the self being a conglomerate of its memories, which I suppose have to be based in experience. If one is memoryless, as those with Alzheimer’s come to be, is one no longer a self?
To begin with, then, we have the slippery notion of what a self is. It seems, at least for writers, perhaps for everyone, a mix of fact and fiction or what the New Historicists once called the product of "self-fashioning". Jane Hirshfield, in one of the better-known of the current books on practical esthetics, says "much is revealed about creative change when we recognize art as an ancient bazaar in which the same pieces of jewelry are continually stolen, polished up, and resold." (See Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, 1997, p. 46.) Pound implied as much in his famous adage, "Make it new," the central word of which implies that the subjects of poetry are always the same, never new. How in a field of endeavor so conceived is one to obtain or locate a voice? Perhaps a poet’s voice is a deliberate construction, as well, though the common use of the term, as in "so-and-so has found his voice," strongly implies that so-and-so has got down to the bedrock of his self and is now able to speak authentically. The further implication is that, until this moment occurs, the writer is less than authentic and hence, in some residually moral way, insincere or unreliable. {See Helen Vendler’s Coming of Age as a Poet.)
The trouble with sincerity and authenticity is that they are terms which suggest there is a "natural" way to be and therefore to speak. But, is anything natural? Nature certainly isn’t, especially in a world that has to protect and, in certain cases, create wilderness areas. Anything said to be natural is likely, to the person saying it, to be used to convince someone that what he or she is doing or saying has no program or motive, no social intention or ambition. It’s just plain, straight talk. Here is where Barthes is helpful. When he says that myth "transforms history into nature" (See his essay "Myth Today" in Mythologies, selected and translated by Annette Lavers (1975), p. 129.), he is at the same time warning that whatever is described as nature or natural occurrence is apt to conceal an interpretation of history, which he likens to myth. This is not done underhandedly but through a mental process by which a person convinces himself that what he feels is natural when in fact it hides some sort of social agenda. What could possibly be hidden in the word "authentic" as it applies to poetic speech? To begin with, the concept of originality. Nothing seems more desirable and essential to a person than believing that he or she is original and unique. It is the door through which we gain access to the world, to jobs, to money, to agency of all kinds. Authors, as authorship is routinely described and, one has to say, packaged, invest deeply in these twin concepts, originality and authenticity. However discredited Marx may be in certain circles, his theories of social formation and the ideologies behind them still have weight. The ideology of capitalism is an ideology of the middle classes and was founded on the "discovery" of the individual and its rights. Capitalism sustains itself on an aggressive, determinative definition of selfhood and individuality and does all it can to remove restriction and regulation from what it describes as the "free" individual, most of whom in the course of competitive struggle wind up as "slaves" to the capitalist system, earning increasingly lowered wages while their superiors take home gargantuan salaries and not very small raises. Few authors that I know are capitalists. Most of them, if asked, would disparage capitalism. But, authorship as we know it fits snugly into the definition of selfhood that sustains that system. As Antony Easthope says, "what makes poetry poetry is what makes poetry ideological." (22)
At the same time, the creation and defense of individual rights represented an advance over feudal arrangements when it began to be seen and understood in the 16th and 17th centuries and is something we should not let go, simply because the forces of capitalism have found ways to put it at their disposal. Both Barthes and Foucault claim that the author, like the individual, is a fairly new invention, arising, as Barthes says, with "English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation." (See "The Death of the Author," Image - Music - Text, selected and translated by Stephen Heath (1977), pp. 142-43.) So, where are we? Can we be authentic and original, or should we resist it? I think we can be, but only if we know what we’re doing. As Yeats’s observation implies, authenticity is, paradoxically, a construct. There is no "real" self of any consequence until we have, as Locke said, written for a while on our tabula rasa. And, in the manner of writing poems and stories, we have to write a great deal, throw most of it out, rewrite the rest nine times over, and then, maybe, we have something like originality (a self) as underlayment to the few writings of consequence we can squeeze out in a lifetime.
Another point. Is it the originality we go back to when we’ve read something that moves us, or is it something more basic, more important, more, as we used to say, universal? Did the poet who took the top off our heads do it by being original or by seeing something clearly? More clearly? For us, and in our language. Not his language, or hers. Our language. Perhaps, of course, seeing something clearly is, by definition, an original act.
If we approach our language the way Gertrude Stein did, are we being original? Are we sacrificing everything else to be original? Is it possible that Stein carried the notion of originality to the extremes she did to make the case that originality is a concept that leads to confusion and coercion if pursued for its own sake or to the exclusion of other things found in poetry? The answer to all these questions is, no. If we write like Stein, we’re imitators. We’ve decided that there is something more important than originality, such as continuing to do what Mallarme encouraged us to do: epater les bourgeois. The trouble is that the bourgoisie seems to have successfully absorbed or ignored the savage blows dealt it by–and here you can name your own anti-hero(es).

[more later]