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“The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose”

By Ange Mlinko

“Heavenly Blue” morning glories sufflated by this new breeze come upon us now, coincident with a ritual the French actually have a word for, “la rentrée”*—applying equally to grownups back from extended vacations and schoolchildren beginning their semester. New flower at the terminus of flower season: how like ambivalent September.
The poet seeks to purify the language of the tribe (as Eliot suggested), but by the most intimate and emptying of encounters. In this ambiguous fulfillment, at once impersonally stylized and deeply self-interested, the poet struggles to identify in words, and at the level of words to unearth the means of embodying, clear and specific ideals of personhood and integrity.
Reading another book on craft by Mary Kinzie, The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose, I’m bedeviled by the impulse to pinpoint moments of agreement and divergence in her highly scrupled prose about scruples in poetry. It’s wonderful, on the one hand, to read a corrective of, say, Sharon Olds’, Jorie Graham’s or Adrienne Rich’s worst tendencies: “We can say: This is a decadent subject; this is a corrupt treatment; this is a marriage of the sentimental with the brutal (if these happen to be the case). We are not, in other words, sentenced to silence by the autonomy of the artist.”
But the devil is in the details, and books like this contain an awful lot of generalizations. Take the very first paragraph of the first chapter, “The Rhapsodic Fallacy”:

Contemporary poetry suffers from dryness, prosaism, and imaginative commonplace, but these are hardly its worst features. Rather, the stylistic dullness is disagreeably coarsened and made the more decadent by being a brotherly symptom of, and in fact a technical support for, the assumption (which has only strengthened in the past 150 years) that the aim of poetry is apotheosis, an ecstatic and unmediated self-consumption in the moment of perception and feeling. The flat style is thought of as a kind of private charm that protects the writer against falsehood, insuring sincerity. But it has tended to take for granted the real content of the inner life, affecting the mannerisms of sincerity without the coherent values which that sincerity might express. The poetic has thus made an odd marriage with the prosaic, and it is this parasitic weakening of the subjective idea by an aimless prosaic experimentalism that we see in much new verse. Subjective experience is expressed as objectively derived, in a diction that is indifferent, reductive, even, on occasion, somewhat dull-witted. To judge from their practice, many poets have assumed that complexity would work against the freshness of perception. Hence, although emotion is the overriding topic, paradoxically it is not immediacy but diffuseness in diction, syntax, and argument that has manifested itself as the overriding style.
I must confess I felt whiplashed by this description: now blasting the prosaic, now blasting the fallaciously rhapsodic; here blasting false sincerity, there blasting experimentalism. Who is Kinzie talking about, exactly?
As it turns out, the book saves most of its ammunition for the Confessionals and their heirs, which I am in perfect sympathy with. And I think it’s perfectly appropriate to assail their dubious moral character, their trivial revelations, their insipid self-importance. Good poetry makes “feeling” inseparable from intelligence.
And Kinzie is imbued with moral intelligence—with decency. I appreciate what she’s doing here (and let me just add, I’m still in the process of reading this very dense book). I place her with a handful of women poets deeply concerned with ethics—Susan Stewart, Anne Winters, Eleanor Wilner (there are probably others)—whose poetry works quietly against the grain.
But as a prescriptive call for eloquence and discursiveness, I wonder. Even the call for “clear and specific ideals of personhood and integrity”—doesn’t all this add up to a privileging of the moral imagination over the imagination of “supreme fiction” that has given us poets from Shakespeare to Stevens to Ashbery, who improve our dreams?
Speaking of Ashbery, I came across this (via Silliman) which could serve as a linchpin for my own (imaginary) book of poetic craft:
“Lately, I’ve been listening with a lot of interest to ‘The Art of Finger Dexterity’ by [Carl] Czerny, which was written to torture piano students,” he says. “It’s mostly silly little tunes ornamented in a very complicated way to stretch the fingers to the limits of endurance. It’s kind of beautiful because of having been written from that angle, to educate the fingers.”
My imaginary book on poetic craft would plunder the language and techniques of musicians and painters to stand in for what the poet must learn. A moratorium on personal anecdote altogether wouldn’t be out of the question. I suspect Kinzie would find that a bit extreme.
*Thanks to the correspondent who turned me onto it!

Comments (8)

  • On September 5, 2007 at 1:14 pm Ben Friedlander wrote:

    “My imaginary book on poetic craft would plunder the language and techniques of musicians and painters to stand in for what the poet must learn.”
    This is Edith Sitwell’s A Poet’s Notebook!

  • On September 5, 2007 at 8:34 pm Ange wrote:

    Thanks, Ben. The library system has it and I have put a hold on it. Can’t wait to read it. I’ll report back on it soon.
    Sitwell keeps coming up in interviews with Robert Duncan. I’m curious about her.

  • On September 7, 2007 at 12:56 pm Rich Knockington wrote:

    A fine post, but wonder, reading through Kinzie’s book, if you find the near lack of non-white poets a problem? I ask only because you locate Kinzie in the realm of those poets “deeply concerned with ethics,” and you don’t see a problem with her taking it to Confessional poets, to “assail their dubious moral character.”

  • On September 7, 2007 at 3:12 pm Ange wrote:

    Rich, my first thought was: are you wondering about Kinzie’s exclusion of non-white poets as positive or negative examples? Because on the one hand, she steers clear of criticizing identity poets who obviously share the same political and aesthetic assumptions as Confessionals. And on the other hand, she doesn’t discuss any poets of color who fall within the fairly narrow aesthetic range she does favor. But who other than Derek Walcott would comfortably fit within a list that includes Heaney, Pinsky, Bishop, Jarrell (in 1993) … ?
    And I emphasize “fairly narrow aesthetic range.” I agree with the blogger, Laura Carter, who said she didn’t particularly care for most of the poets Kinzie organizes her chapters around. I’m not a fan of the didactic strain of American poetry either. But Kinzie does offer philosophical grounds for a) her taste and b) her belief that appeal to an artist’s autonomy isn’t good enough. What do you say?

  • On September 7, 2007 at 3:17 pm Ange wrote:

    I have to qualify “I’m not a fan of the didactic strain ….” because there are a few poets within that strain whom I do value a great deal.

  • On September 9, 2007 at 1:32 pm elle wrote:

    I find the idea of Kinzie’s book depressing. Why, for some, does it have to be one way
    or the other? Why are styles pitted against each other? For my way of thinking, a poem
    should be judged on its ability to move the reader. Not nearly so much on the style the
    poet chose to achieve that objective. I’m always amazed at how narrow some artists (of all people) can be.

  • On September 9, 2007 at 9:46 pm Ange wrote:

    Maybe I can say more about it later this week; I don’t think a book operating at such a high level of thought could ever be depressing, so I don’t want to mischaracterize (simplify) it.
    But wonder what artists you could possibly be thinking of who wouldn’t fight to the death for their style. Catullus: Odio et amo. Dickinson: “The soul selects her own society/Then shuts the door … I’ve known her from an ample nation/Choose one;/Then close the valves of her attention/Like stone.” She would find the idea that “a poem should be judged on its ability to move the reader” a rather dismal one, considering that she couldn’t “move” anybody during her lifetime….

  • On September 12, 2007 at 1:01 pm elle wrote:

    Poets fighting to the death for their style sounds overly dramatic. But fight to the death, if they must.
    My question is why does the fight have to include the plundering of other styles (poets)? As if poetry is a battlefield and all poets need to be armed and extremely contentious. Why isn’t it enough for poets to write the best verse they can and to support other poets who share their sense of the art?
    The Dickinson’s quotes suggest she gave no thought or attention to other types of poets. That’s fine, limiting, but fine.
    But the poets I’m referring to are no stylistic hermits. As you say, they are ready to fight and plunder other poets and styles. And I find that depressing.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, September 5th, 2007 by Ange Mlinko.