Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sustainable attitudes / sustainable aesthetics

From an egotistical perspective, poets often think that poetry or "real" poetry or "good" poetry belongs to an elect few, an elite that is highly evolved and well educated. Sadly, often such poets will become aggressive and hostile to other forms of poetry that do not support their own particular aesthetic views. This is how many poets in the poetry world view the life of poetry, a highly competitive arena in which millions try but only a minuscule number will ultimately survive for future generations. The individual poet’s talent matters more than anything else in this schematic. The cult of genius has no shortage of followers.


From an aesthetics of sustainability perspective, poets belong to poetry, and not vice versa. This is the actual, the ego-crushing, reality. Individual poets, including the greatest ones, almost never matter very much or for very long except to other poets. And even to other poets the odds of mattering much or for long are tiny.


As Pound observed long ago, what matters is that great poetry continues to be written, and it really does not matter to poetry which individuals get to write the great work. (At the same time, however, the idea of greatness in art is necessary to inspire enough poets to be able to create the handful of greatest works for every generation.)


So what is poetry from a sustainable aesthetics point of view? It is like a large ecosystem in which there are many kinds of animals that are interdependent and which interact like different species, some as herds, some as apex predators, some as scavengers, some in symbiotic relationship to other species, some as leeches, some as highly evolved social groups, some as scum-sucking bottom feeders, some as alpine tundra foragers, some as imitative parasites, some as highly evolved groundbreakers into new environments etc. (You know who you are....)


What this translates into in human terms is that every small press and every literary magazine has its own peculiar sociology and hierarchy, or even multiple sociologies and hierarchies. So what does that mean, practically speaking? It means that the people who run the presses and the journals all write their own rules of aesthetics, and this comes largely from who they are, what they are, where they are, and when they are at work. It also comes from what they hope to be, their aspirations toward greater things. Or their aspirations toward television, mass media, and other things, which may or may not be greater things. Some merely aspire to make money and acquire fame without even trying to write great work. Some think they are trying to do great work but are lying to themselves etc. Some just want to keep their jobs, etc.


Many, many times, a press or journal or a movement is created out of a handful of friendships formed in college of at an MFA program or through a circle that forms around a particularly powerful figure like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Light bookstore gave a foundation to the City Lights Press. A lot of times, these groups form because they are unhappy with what they see around them, and they are tired of being rejected by the established presses. It’s a natural evolution for every succeeding generation.


Out of one generation, it is true that very few groups and even fewer individuals will produce work that will have enduring value for many people. What is interesting about the greatest works is that they do not happen in isolation. No great work is an island, entire of itself, etc. Even the works of William Wordsworth, called by Keats one of the most egotistical poets in all of English poetry, was deeply influenced by his sister Dorothy and his dear friend Coleridge. Their works on close reading turn out to be completely interwoven. There were lasting and profound textual interconnections that are still being excavated by scholars today. When we read a poet like Wordsworth in isolation, it’s like hearing half of a phone conversation, as one critics observed. And even the entire Wordsworth circle is just one conversation within a very powerful literary community that included many others who attained some measures of greatness. Not many remember Charles and Mary Lamb, William Hazlitt, John Thelwall, John Clare, Thomas DeQuincey et al. Many people who are not well remembered actually contributed in various ways to the works of the one who is remembered.


It’s ironic that Pound would be the guy who espoused a profound understanding of the reality of the situation of poetry, i.e. we belong to it and not the other way around. Pound was notoriously egotistical and sublimely ambitious etc. But from being so passionately involved in the poetry world, Pound realized that true inspiration is rare and precious, and the writers who can provide works that are inspiring are likewise. He supported and helped engender the works of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot quite selflessly. Some critics think Modernism as we know it would have been impossible without him. So here again one sees that there may be a lot more social support and social interaction that is integral to the greatest individual works. Before Pound was a great writer, he was a great reader. He never stopped being a great reader. If he had not been so open to Joyce and Eliot, their careers may not have happened at all. Or their careers may have been very small without his help. Pound as a literary friend may have been more important to literary history than Pound himself as a poet.


So if you want to get published and “survive” in the poetry world, it is good to try to see the big picture and not waste a lot of energy feeling jealous or like this is a competition among individuals. You could also waste a lot of time by trying to become included in a group that will never let you in. You could also waste a lot of energy by trying to promote one particular brand of aesthetics that goes nowhere.


Whether we like it or not, and whether we like each other or not, we are in this “ecosystem” or big unhappy family together. You could say that poets of any generation are sort of like a very large, extended, and unhappy family.


(Incidentally, I am sure that it was with this or something like this family metaphor in mind that Sharon Olds once told me at the end of my time at the MFA program at NYU, "Welcome to the family." It was a warm and funny moment.)


But just being aware of the common ground and the common purpose of poetry can prevent a lot of wasted energy, time and talent. We all have our parts to play, and all of them may matter in ways no one can foresee.


In the poetry world especially, a little sanity goes very far. And even a handful of literary friendships can help an aesthetic revolution to be born.


I think John Ashbery was both kidding and serious when he wrote in "Hotel Lautreamont," a pantoum, that:


Research has shown that ballads were produced by all of society
working as a team. They didn't just happen. There was no guesswork.
The people, then, knew what they wanted and they got it.
We see the results in works as diverse as "Windsor Forest" and "The Wife of Usher's Well."


Yes, he is making fun of academics who have deconstructed individual geniuses and stressed socio-cultural-political-cultural-historical contexts ad nauseum etc. But by the end of the pantoum, he seems to be quite serious when he reiterates this theme and what it means to a poetic genius:


You mop your forehead with a rose, recommending its thorns.
Research has shown that ballads were produced by all of society;
Only night knows for sure. The secret is safe with her:
the people, then, knew what they wanted and how to get it.


In the end of the sixty-four line poem, Ashbery as a great and acknowledged genius himself, seems less and less sure of his position in relation to the people. He is no longer mocking the idea that society got out of any genius what it needed, almost regardless of a genius like him. This is a great recognition, an awakening out of the nightmare of self-obsessed and ego-driven consciousness. It represents a significant ego-surrender, and a coming into the fullness of the reality of our situation in poetry. It's so much bigger than any one could be.

2 comments:

小云 said...

I like this. (I heard about your work through Arcadia University's Visiting Writer's Series) Honest, convicting, inspiring.

Eunice (Arcadia U grad student)

jeffrey ethan lee said...

Thanks for commenting. I hope you can come to the reading on the 27th. A great actress and a former student will be helping to dramatize the poetry reading, which is mostly like a play in poetry.