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I want to apologize for being out of touch lately. Blogs should press forward under even the worst of circumstances. But those of you who have been following my posts, all seven of them, have no doubt noticed that I’ve not yet learned how to compose a blog.
I’m learning. And I’ve learned an incredible amount about contemporary American poetry and the forces that drive it, and the discussion that follows it, just by collaborating with the Foundation, my colleagues and everyone that has written in.
Most of the people who respond to my posts have a better idea about the doings of contemporary poetry in North America than I do. And the intricacy of thought, the generosity with knowledge and the specific gravity of the banter, all go to show that poetry is alive and well there. In fact, the scene here in Europe is a great deal more provincial – and I use that word carefully, because it means different things to Americans than it does to Europeans. My impression is that American poets, however self-involved and self-contained they are, are more open to, and knowledgeable about the European scene than vice versa. Europe, despite the attempt at political union, despite the great waves of migration, despite the adoption of a common coin, is still driven by nationalist sentiment.
Of course provincialism is at the base of nationalism, and is the opposite of cosmopolitanism. After having lived in Portugal for more than twenty years I can certainly say that I have become more provincial, much to my regret. I suppose the baseline here is that I am most at home when I’m at home. The rest of the world interests me of course, but provincials tend to give more weight to what is local, while what is not local becomes increasingly abstract.
Since I love abstraction, this is not too much of a problem, except, perhaps, for the fact that America and American poetry are abstractions for me, as they are not for my readers and colleagues at Harriet. You will have noticed that I am, at heart, a generalist. Does the generalizing tendency in any way redeem abstraction? I think not. Rather it aggravates it. That is why Provincials love to generalize and make value judgments about what is, in the older sense of the expression, beyond the pale. The tendency is to inflate the value of the local to the detriment of the world abroad. Because of this, I am not always able to make sense of the discussion generated in response to what I am saying in my posts. Poetry like politics is always local. The great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh takes up the subject in a sonnet entitled “Epic”. I’ll copy it out for you:
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
‘Here is the march along these iron stones’
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
In fact, my commentators often don’t seem to be very interested in what I have to say. I guess they are busy making “their own importance”. It is rare that specific issues that I bring up are discussed with any specificity. If I am beginning to see in the “thread” a kind of anarchy, which is vaguely more compelling than the politesse of letters to the editor, and traditional op-ed, my problem remains: the challenges leveled in my direction lack the decorum that I am used to, and their indirection confounds me. As a provincial, it is one of my basic creeds that form excites conviction, and conviction disciplines discourse. One of the difficulties I have with this format is its immediacy. Critical thinking in these circumstances tends to rely on stock response, which is then fortified by a shield of loosely harvested information. This form of thinking is not felt. It is produced. And no blogger, I dare say, can genuinely keep up with the disembodied information that is hurled back in their direction.
Another perhaps deeper component of my chagrin, is the fixation on poetry. This of course might seem a strange thing to admit. After all, I have been hired to write about poetry. But everyone seems to have more interest in poetry than I do. And the truth is, I don’t find poetry (except my own, but that is a private matter) as interesting, generally, as I generally find history, philosophy, the newspaper or fiction, not to mention music, painting and photography. No contemporary poet could ever get in the way of my love for the essay, the letter, or the garrulous and often harebrained prose of Coleridge, or the first one hundred pages of The Baron of Corvo’s (Frederick William Rolfe) The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, or the manically descriptive ramblings of In Youth is Pleasure, by Denton Welch. Though I do hold fifteen or so contemporary poets in very high esteem, I am not interested in poetry, per se. The obsession with contemporary poetry as witnessed on the web today, and the annual stock of contest winners, and all the variations of the poetry of isms, and the issues of fair-minded representation, and the pretence of democratic reform of the discourse, all figure very low on my agenda.
I would be the first to admit that this particular flavor of alienation could have something to do with the life I have fallen into. Why should I be interested in the contemporary poetry scene in the United States. I’ve not lived in the country for a quarter of a century. But I think it runs deeper than that, and includes a distaste for the precocity and the presumption of poetry itself, ever since it gave up on the attempt at being aesthetically ambitious, or beautifully useful. I am not an Arnoldian, and I would not wish to be taken for one. But poetry has lost its documentary rigor; even the sense of documentary rigor in the way John Ashbery conceives of it, as a flux of detail that is intensely particular but oddly impersonal, fundamentally aleatory. Marilyn Hacker achieves this same rigor. In her case the observing self is foregrounded, but held mercifully in check by traditional craft. In the cases of both poets, the aesthetic carriage is unimpeachable. Most of contemporary poetry’s interests, especially among the younger poets, range from disposable meta-poetic performance on one end of the spectrum to the anemic representation of the feeling self on the other. The world – as a subject – seems to have fallen through the gap in the middle.
My interest in writing for Harriet, when I was quite generously offered the space to do so, was twofold. Firstly I thought it a wonderful opportunity to get involved directly in the to and fro of American poetry, especially in its new, increasingly internet-based life. Secondly, the money (as little as it is) attracted me. The nature of freelancing is to cobble together paychecks from different sources, until they add up. If you can control where they come from, all the better. After roughly two months, I have come to see the project in a slightly different light. For one thing, at Harriet, we are a team; we are a mixed bag, but the mixture (and we must include the commentators) is fortifying. Poets from different places, with different backgrounds and a range of different interests are somehow creating a collective impact. If anyone, the ideal reader of blogs, had the time to keep up with all the posts and all the threads, and could then find the wherewithal to characterize what was there, we might then possibly be able to judge the effect.
But we live in a provisional world in which neither we, nor the world can afford to stop long enough to understand this effect. Luckily, reading poems, even if you just have one great poet that you read, like Emily Dickinson, or Fernando Pessoa (in his case you get four or five for your money), can at least slow things down a bit. The importance of poetry is what a single poem can do to a single person in a single moment. It could be any poem or any person, or any moment. Nothing else really matters. Since, once things click, that moment expands in time, becomes time, which is the one subject with which we need all the help we can get.
Um abraço a todos,