Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Tom Sleigh
Dear Editor,

Parnassus may be a place of many mansions catering to all different aesthetic persuasions, but behind the surface politeness, it has always been messy (see “Ambition and Greatness: An Exchange,” March 2005). The notion that great art embodies trans-historical essence, everywhere and always the same, but that that essence only comes to light in the working out of history, is a notion I'd like to believe in ... but on most days, I can't: my experience of art is so particular that I can't extrapolate beyond a certain point of abstraction. But what I know is false is to identify this trans-historical essence with any one style: Malevich wrote in 1917, “the only meaningful direction for painting is Cubo-Futurism.” “True art like true life takes a single road,” said Piet Mondrian in 1937. “The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing,” said Ad Reinhardt in 1962, firmly convinced that his paintings—black, matte, square—were what art essentially is.

Clement Greenberg was wrong when he insisted that all art is essentially abstract. Greenberg's claim that “the imperative [to make abstract art] comes from history” and that the artist is “held in a vise from which at the present moment he can escape only by surrendering his ambitions and returning to a stale past” didn't keep Philip Guston, an abstract painter who went back to figuration, from painting cartoon boots that trod all over Grand Statements like Greenberg's. And in the realm of poetry, no matter how often poets dismiss the work of other poets in the name of their politics, ideologies, or jealousies masquerading as principles, these credos and manifestoes fall prey to the same fallacy as the grand historical scheme that identifies history with a chosen people, or class, or part of the world. This nugget from Hegel, one of Greenberg's main men, is pure fool's gold: “What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, undeveloped Spirit.”

The historical migraine of feeling that there is an authentic and inauthentic mode of being, one pointing to the future, the other stuck in the past, loses its grip when you abandon the notion of some grand, historically mandated scheme. Likewise for the notion that there is a historically favored form pitted against an outworn mode. But it's a rare soul who can do without feeling that one's art isn't going to be ratified by the future: I suspect that even the most enlightened among us still hold to the myth of the future as the place where we'll be accepted and understood, if only as a useful goad for us to keep on writing—but why should we imagine that our formal preoccupations should be enshrined or elevated to the heights of a universal poetics, or that our style is the one style that will escape the history of styles? It's easy to talk pluralism, hard to live it. And besides, no matter how exclusionary our aesthetic structures are, or how fiercely we espouse our ideas about what art should be, the poems we write are something other than those structures, and they may even repudiate those structures: they exist beyond us and our intentions.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Originally Published: October 30, 2005

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This prose originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2005

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 Tom  Sleigh

Biography

Tom Sleigh is the author of more than half a dozen volumes of poetry. Space Walk (2007) won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award and earned Sleigh considerable critical acclaim. Referring to this collection, poet Philip Levine noted, “Sleigh’s reviewers use words such as ‘adept,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘classical.’ Reading his new book, I find all those terms beside the point, even though not one is inaccurate. I am struck by the human dramas . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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