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“The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose”
“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!