Shapes Inside a Common Fire - Part II

Let me just get this little caveat out of the way: the charges against emotionalism, the personal, the confessional, all things School of Quietude, whatever you want to call it, are many, and I agree with a lot of what’s been said from the other side of the aisle though I'm likely to be categorized as an ass forever glued to my desk at SoQ. That’s not my beef here, nor are the poetry wars really my concern right now.

What I am investigating is what feels like a problem with the trajectory of the lyric poem right now. Specifically, I’m concerned with representation, and so long as this feels productive (thanks for all the comments with the last post) I will continue thinking out loud on this blog.

I’ve noticed a distrust of clarity and sentiment creeping into the work of friends and colleagues, and, at times, into my own work. One of the clearest demonstrations of this fear and frustration with clarity and sentiment is when a writer radically veers away from their subject matter and poetic approaches, and abandons, say, a large body of clear and straightforward poems that attempt to illuminate human experience, for, say, poems that are fragmented, that take on a kind of hip logic, scattered cultural allusions, ironic distance, etc. (See Stephen Burt's essay "The New Thing" in Boston Review)

Now, this is not to say these two modes are mutually exclusive, nor that one is better than the other. And, yes, the fragment/etc. can illuminate. No question about it. And this is certainly not to argue against stylistic changes or experimentation. Anyone who knows me knows I am an advocate and champion for poetry of all varieties from all schools. But I think the case may be that folks make the move because they are frustrated by the inability of the lyric to really combat the social/cultural industry forces that seek to absorb it, that they're frustrated by the lyric "I," frustrated by the lyric’s inability to matter. I write lyric poems, but this is more or less the predicament I feel I’m in. I’m struggling to find the ways in which the lyric poem can be a force of resistance or critique or social action.

I wrote in my last related entry about my concern at how I reacted to news of a childhood friend’s arrest for making pipe-bombs and planting them around the public park near where we grew up. At first, I didn’t recognize his face in the photo that accompanied the arrest story. I glanced at it, but the man I saw there looked like any other face in a mug shot. My looking looked through him, past him. Horrible. And once I did recognize him, my reaction was something like, “Hmm…gonna have to see how this fits into a poem.” This reaction to incorporate or “use” his arrest in a poem, to use him in a poem, concerns me deeply, and my entry was an attempt to sort out that anxiety and the implications of my reaction in relation to writing. (“Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967” comes to mind.)

As I’ve been thinking about my reaction over the last week, I’ve determined that its stems from a motivation similar to what prompts the changes friends and colleagues have made in their work. It’s not a problem of what is represented. It’s a problem of how to represent, and I think we typically go about discussing this how the wrong way.

The lyric’s problem--No. Our problem with the lyric--is not one of sympathy or empathy, of pathos. The problem is one of ethos. (Can you tell I’m back to teaching rhetoric this term? Also, this is somewhat informed by the Charles Altieri I'm reading for my specialized PhD exam.) The remarkable shift into experimentation (yes, I should probably define and contextualize this) is from a desire to locate a new rhetorical credibility following the SoQ which shot straightforward lyric all to hell. And my reaction is also a desire to locate a new ethos so that I can craft what I have to say as something more rhetorically credible and useful. (The most recent project with the hymns is part of this search. I’m sure of it.)

The problem with subject matter is how to represent it. On one hand, representation can be concrete and precise and easily pliable for relating to the emotions of the writer and eliciting the emotions of the reader. Lots of SoQ poems would fall into this category, yes? The drawback, though, is the potential adverse consequence of dismissing or diminishing social forces and contexts that contribute to the very creation of the thing being represented, and so the thing is not represented accurately. On the other hand, as writers we are aware how subjectivity obliges a kind of deconstructive impulse and action from us so as to avoid generalizing and broad categories which diminish the actual thing represented. (There’s probably some Adorno to knock around here.) So, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I read Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Poetic Justice while in Kansas during the summer break. Nussbaum’s solution to the binary of the last paragraph is that the writer ought make work that creates a deeper sympathy in the reader and recognition of social and institutional forces, and she uses the character of Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s Native Son as an example of how the binary can be bridged.

At the end of the novel, Bigger waits to be executed, and comes to understand, as Nussbaum phrases it, “the deep similarity in human aims and insecurities that may exist on both sides of the racial barrier, though concealed from view by the social deformation of character and desire. At last, in a sudden epiphany, he becomes able to see this common humanity.” What the end of the novel does is confront the reader with a social tragedy, and positions the reader to act as judge over social and political inequality.

I like this, I do, but I guess my question is, “Well, yeah…and so?” If the reader acts after finishing the novel, and I mean if, does that action occur because the reader identifies with Bigger? Or because the reader feels confronted by the narrative and identifies the social reality as that which makes them uncomfortable? Either way, the choice is the same: it’s either a reductive concrete description, or a comfortable, safe generalization.

I don’t necessarily think that this is a problem that needs to be “solved” per se. I’m not sure it can be, no matter how strongly I’d like it to be solved. Perhaps our struggle to understand, our efforts and enacted desire, this seeking, is enough?

Ceci n'est pas un Everclear album cover
I’ve been reading the Bob Hicok collection Words For Empty and Words For Full as per Nancy Devine’s recommendation in the comments of the last post, and I’m putting some thoughts together on a poem there that, in my mind at least, relates to this post.

Some other poets that come to mind: Larry Levis, Mark Nowak, Muriel Rukeyser, Natasha Tretheway, C.K. Williams, Adrienne Rich. I’ll try to develop these ideas with some examples from poems soon.