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The Real Predicament

By Ange Mlinko

Christian Bok’s post here is a sad reminder of a persistent problem with poetry reviewers and bloggers: the dismissal of “cerebral” work and the exaltation of a crude notion of the “emotional.” Bok’s reviewer is a tad less obvious — he requires a “predicament” if not outright confessions — but still, it seems to me a code for emotional blackmail.
I’m reminded, actually, of a single sentence in this review of Robert Hass. After telling us that Hass’s poems “focus on the natural world, his private experiences, and the people and places he knows best,” the reviewer complains, “Hass’ work has a demure, sometimes evasive strain: He’d been publishing for 30 years or so before readers learned about his mother’s debilitating alcoholism.” I almost keeled over. Dear Reader, do you expect to know all about my mother too? Nobody told me this when I started writing poetry at 15, after Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot. Nobody even told me at my MFA program! Is it too late to go to law school?
I know of a poem that addresses the problem of art, emotion and confession …


SAUL PINKARD ON THE FORTUNE OF MUSICIANS
Did Samuel Scheidt hit the bottle once too often?
Or did his patrons in the Dutch Baroque decide
That Tafelmusik troubled their digestion?
Since 1610 his music had been popular.
In 1625, whatever might have been the cause,
Scheidt had a fracas with the aldermen.
In 1633, the plague. Forwarned
and holding herbal bags to nervous noses,
The bigwigs in their wagons quit the city.
Humble Scheidt was not forewarned. His wife
And all his offspring perished in the plague.
All his offspring, and his wife, they died.
The boil in the armpit. Sudden agonizing fever.
An old enchanter crazed with helplessness.
And the fresh dead, the handbell, the pushcart.
Scheidt in his compositions could of course
Not tell of this. Music is discreet.
To the smiler Boccherini, to Berwald the Bore
Patrons tender envelopes. However jealous
Syndicated cynics and the gods may be,
While fishier troopers oftentimes cry havoc,
The artist hides underneath his wings
What follies of his own or busy interlopers
Have scored across his back: the stripes.
(Christopher Middleton)
Of course, some might say there is a paradox here. The poem tells outright what music cannot: the terrible story. And it’s true, poetry can tell, can narrate. However, it’s possible that it loses something by doing so. This poem moves me, but it is also pathetic and constrained by its moral. I treasure it for its final three lines, which point elsewhere: they point toward the music that results from those secret stripes. I trust secret stripes. They’re honest.

Comments (10)

  • On December 11, 2007 at 9:03 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    To say that one is aware of the comedy of life is not to deprive it of its dignity. The comic vision requires a certain distancing from the object. It enables us not to fall into the grotesquerie of self-pity or to become sentimental about our losses. The fatal temptation for any poet is to become grandiose, to write only in inflated emotional states. Holderlin said that the way to achieve nobility in art is through the commonplace. Not to over-reach, not to strain for high-flown epithets or resolutions, but simply to be as true as we can to the grain of the life.
    Stanley Kunitz, interviewed by Quadrille, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1972

  • On December 11, 2007 at 9:26 am Carmine Starnino wrote:

    I now regret having written about Bök’s book as my review (published almost five years ago!) has given him lots of stuffing for his straw men. And it’s worrisome to see Mlinko now stealing from the same pile of hay. I feel compelled to comment because the ideas at stake are much more important than the pride of some perennially insecure avant-gardist who can’t stand the fact that he got a bad review.
    Bök’s book disappointed me not because I found it emotively wanting, but because I found it technically obsessive, solipsistic, and overdetermined. The lipogrammic constraint was fascinating but seemed too programmatic to kindle a productive tension between freedom and restriction (the kind of tension that would likely produce the “secret stripes” Mlinko so admires). Individual poems in Eunoia are engaging and ingenious but the book’s progress is attritional—less and less is achieved. It’s ironic to hear Bök rail, in a previous post, against the “oppressiveness” of the sonnet because Euonia fails in much the same way an ultra-rigourous book of sonnets would. (“Form is mechanic,” Charles Olsen said, “when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material.” Sorry, my mistake. That was Coleridge.)
    Which brings up a related point. Bök has often written about the need to create new forms that can serve the present as effectively as the old forms served the past. So what does he do? He writes a book of poems whose univocalic theme was thoroughly plotted by those who charted the same Oulipian course forty years earlier. Oulipo’s purpose, as a shared laboratory, was the investigation of “potential” new forms through innovative constraints. But as far as I can see their only major discovery is that a structural formula, strictly adhered to, has the potential to produce an almost unlimited number of outcomes. It’s exactly this sense of the algorithmically interminable that is most Oulipian, and which I objected to in Bök’s book.
    Moreover, what so new about any of this? “Official verse culture” has cherished constraints for more than 600 years. Constraints of vocabulary, of syntax, of syllable, of diction, not to mention the often considerable constraints of standard versification and fixed forms. Rhyme, Dryden argued, “reins in the luxuriance of the imagination and gives it government.” (a sentence that could have been uttered by Oulipo poobah Queneau himself.) Apart from its terza rima, even The Divine Comedy is structured around a highly complex Trinitarian numerology. The only “innovation” Oulipo was able to ring on all this—also born out by Bök—was to introduce a taste for constraint that ran toward the pathologically eccentric.
    I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and that’s ok. I simply want to show that my argument against Eunoia comprised much more than the “emotional blackmail” Mlinko accuses me of. If, as Pound argued, technique is the truest measure of a poet’s sincerity, then in Eunoia Bök is profoundly, prodigiously, steroidally sincere. But it has always seemed to me that the pleasure of poetry is also the challenge of poetry: the creation of a word structure that satisfies as a truth while simultaneously signaling itself as an artifice. And this, for me, Bök did not do.

  • On December 11, 2007 at 12:11 pm Ange wrote:

    Carmine, I regret the error if I have heedlessly lumped you with the sort of reviewer that expects intimacies instead of artifices from poets. I don’t buy Bok’s grander claims about the future of mechanically produced poetry, but in the U.S. the balance has been tipped for so long toward a flabby confessionalism that the novelty of “steroidal” poetry may be an overdue correction, and the balance I hope will show a gain for poems of the imagination which are, in your words, “the creation of a word structure” — not a theater for the ego.

  • On December 11, 2007 at 1:32 pm L.L. Barkat wrote:

    I like to think of each different work as a little window into my soul or even some aspect of life and experience. Each poem, each essay, each blog post. Some are picture windows. Some are just those little slit windows like we sometimes see in modern buildings. In any case, this means that some will be subtle and some more revealing. Each poem or work need not tell the whole emotional story.
    And I should say, Ange, you made me laugh when you asked if we want to know about your mother too. (Well, and truth be told, of course we do. ;-)

  • On December 11, 2007 at 6:16 pm john wrote:

    “Creation of a word structure” and “theater for the ego” are not mutually exclusive. Anybody who demands autobiographical revelation from poetry is an insipid reductionist, but lots of intriguing ego-thespians made dandy word structures: Berrigan, Ginsberg, even O’Hara sometimes. “The Day Lady Died” has that breathtaking last line, and what makes it breathtaking is O’Hara’s expert setting of his milieu, his keen eye for detail and sharp technique, allowing for that moment of pathos to burst through from O’Hara’s (seemingly) autobiographical emotional life. In pop music, whether the emotional life is actually autobiographical or not is irrelevant (or, it used to be, before singer-songwriter-ism, the pop equivalent of Confessionalism), but personal lyric drama has a long tradition in poetry, as in that fine Middleton poem you post. (Thanks for that, by the way.)
    Middleton makes someone else’s stripes visible, and the be-striped composer’s stoicism is what is so moving (as well as Middleton’s sharp technique). It is true that one can hardly go around trumpeting one’s stoicism. (“Oh, if you only knew how I suffer in silence!”) Stoicism can be a matter of tone as well, though, as in the Greek epigrams or the Carter Family’s singing. It doesn’t matter to me whether you share my sensibility, but I go for Puccini as well as the Carter Family. The problem with the Confessionals is that they aren’t operatic enough. Where’s the aria, where’s the melody? Ginsberg had melody, as, in their more stoic way, did Berrigan and O’Hara. (I’d say that Plath had melody too; why I like her more than her peers.)
    Not arguing against experimentalism here. Just objecting to your binary.

  • On December 11, 2007 at 6:25 pm yesandno wrote:

    But devoting a life to penning poems that are “often compared to Frank O’Hara” (speaking of “theatres for the ego”)….isn’t all poetry a theater for the ego? Whether you’re cultivating a hip urban detachment and irony (sigh), or submitting yourself to some kind of formal constraint, or whether it’s all about your mother–isn’t it all *really* about building, and memorably (searingly!) representing, on the page, and in the reader’s mind, a subjectivity whose unique choices impress us as being–well, unique–different–new– like nobody else’s? I just don’t buy, Ange, your sort of righteous categories. I think it’s a false divide. I’m probably as sick as you are of what I often (in my head) call chatty white man poems–which actually all kinds and genders of poets are writing, but especially (it seems to me) a lot of older white men who think they (themselves) are funny–and that their funny white man sadness is somehow more poignant–that’s another can. But anyway–I think it’s a mistake to disparage poems that value emotional intensity, or story, or which rely upon the “I”, or which are about a mother–to pretend that those are more self-indulgent, ego-driven, or ego-ridden than any of the rest of it–what they are, those epiphanic, anecdotal linear narratives you’re deriding–they’re lazier, in terms of imagination, and easier and more limited when it comes to imagination– but they’re no more self involved than your poems or Bok’s poems–all of which bear the stain of a subjectivity–and an ego–desperate for attention and recognition in the little theater that is poetic readership.

  • On December 11, 2007 at 9:19 pm Ange wrote:

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing all that much here. But, yesandno (with a pseudonym like that, agreeing and disagreeing with you seems a fait accompli), where did I say that subjectivity is the enemy? I did say that I trust “secret stripes” and that they’re more honest. I trust adumbration and displacement. They, too, reveal.
    I once had an acting teacher who advised the class that a stranger meeting you for the first time already knows more about you than you know about yourself. And so, with advice like that, I trust that treating myself as a stranger in my own work is not dishonest — and most of the poets I’ve quoted in my blog posts would probably agree.
    I think what you’re really getting at is that you think I think being smart (cerebral) is a priori better (less self involved, less egoistic) than being … open-hearted, or something. (Hard to get the apposite quality right: it isnt stupidness, obviously.)
    Anyway: John, the Kenner hasn’t arrived!
    L.L. Barkat: “All About My Mother” is one of my favorite films. True fact. ;-)

  • On December 12, 2007 at 2:02 am yesandno wrote:

    Ange, it takes boobs to do what you do with this whole blog thing; putting yourself and your opinions out there, managing your own vulnerability alongside the enormous amount of…carefulness and second-guessing and mental energy it must take to effect the kind of diplomacy a forum like this aspires to. Really–it’s boggling. I want to apologize to you because I’ve been really snarky in some comments I’ve posted in response to some of your writings lately. I got really riled up by some assumptions and by what felt like really reductive, short-sighted dismissals in an essay you wrote for Poetry on the “I”. I disagreed with some things that you said, and I think it just touched on a trigger point for me because I feel sort of helpless and angry in the face of blanket dismissals–you know the stuff you hear thrown around–”those bloodless, theory-corrupted language poets”, “those self-indulgent confessional poets,” “those SoQs” etc… And part of it was personal because I’m struggling so fiercely with reconciling the experimental and narrative impulses in my own work, and trying not to buy into this whole discrediting of the personal “I” movement–there are a lot of powerful and useful effects the “I” can achieve in a poem that nothing else can, a kind of immediacy and intimacy and authority that some poems really need…and the other part was just that I find all these categories–or at least the way they’re used in a lot of public conversations about poetry– really unhelpful– they seem more often than not to be trotted out in the service of some form of derision or really reductive generalization–i.e. all narrative poets with some kind of story that seems possibly autobiographical and that seems to aim to move the reader–gets derided as “confessional” (and “confessional” itself gets shit all over, when a lot of great poets were part of that moment, and a lot of other great ones directly or indirectly contributed to it or derived from it). Being a bit of an unwitting jackdaw myself full of too many conflicting poetic impulses I guess I stubbornly keep believing (or hoping) there’s room for some of all of it in a good poem or good poetry–room for lyricism, room for emotional urgency, room for theory, room for storytelling, room for revelation, room for language experiments, games and constraints, room for the personal and political, room for performance and room for retreat. Most poets know how to do more of one thing than another, and we get comfortable and that feels safe, which can lead to boring and formulaic and (at least seemingly) self-indulgent writing, when we’re only doing that one thing over and over, operating in that one mode–but that doesn’t make the mode itself an inferior or “bad” one. I really enjoy and value displacement in poetry, and I love what you say about treating yourself as a stranger in your poetry. That, as a mode in itself, seems really honest and right. Sorry again for my misdirected hostility (I’d have preferred to have said this in some less public space but it felt worth saying), especially from my vantage of easy anonymity–and thanks for your presence here. The end.

  • On December 12, 2007 at 3:09 pm Ange wrote:

    Yesandno, no harm done. I sympathize utterly & completely with your anxieties: I have them too. I am having a devil of a time, in fact, trying to write poems that satisfy conflicting desires. It seems to me we’re operating under excruciating constraints at this moment (and when I think of how insufficient my aesthetic options seem, I realize this is how I feel about voting, about pols, about the whole quasiapocalyptic zeitgeist, so maybe this is how history is operating through us right now?). If you want to, query PF for my email & we can backchannel. And thanks for your kind words.

  • On December 12, 2007 at 11:23 pm Laura Carter wrote:

    Good post, Ange! Good comments!
    I’ve been reading Fredric Jameson and thinking about the modernist primacy of the ego (and the subjectivity and affect that go along with it) in contradistinction to the postmodern valuation of the subject—more diffuse, less attuned to gesture and more to flow and flux. I don’t think poetry is a theater for the ego, but I often tend to reread my own poetry as if it were a representation of an “ego” rather than an attempt to construct a subjectivity that is, as it were, timebound or reflective of a regret or urgency that can perhaps only be expressed (or viewed) through a historical lens…. It often seems that there is room for a spark of doubt in the certainties of cultural ramifications, that there is a place for a historical look or parlance, as it were….


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, December 10th, 2007 by Ange Mlinko.