The History of Art
Journal Entry - Saturday, Jan 12th:
At the graduation ceremonies this evening, Frank Bidart began his address with this emphatic warning: "The history of taste is not the history of art." Although he was speaking to the 25th graduating class of the Bennington Writing Seminars, who endured the loss of its founder Liam Rector last summer, his words echoed through me like one of Moses’ stone tablets.
Bidart’s admonition forces me to toss my flavor-of-the-month poets and poems into the waste bin of yesterday’s news, and more importantly, to consider what is most endurable about the art of poetry, to discern for myself how poetry fits into a veritable discourse of past artistic works (musical compositions, paintings, architecture, sculptures, arias, plays, etc) and to write poems from an informed and thorough awareness of those aspects of our capacity to make human utterance and speech, reframed and patterned, into the highest, organic, and, (key word here) inevitable incarnation of our long-standing and primal ritual of putting language into song -- figuratively, syntactically, and melodically.
Of course, Frank Bidart’s words also evidence slight traces of Eliot’s Traditionally Talented Speechifying, but I like how it puts on hold, a host of contemporary poetic projects (including my own,) like pulling up to a sudden yellow-light at an intersection of overly trafficked aesthetics.
Any piece of contemporary writing is bound to suffer influence from The Living, or whatever is idiomatic or fashionable today, however thin and insubstantial. (Of late, I’ve detected the whiff of Franz Wright and Kay Ryan in a host of young American poets. Better them than me.)
So, how does one determine if a poem written in our time enters into the “history of art”? Or is time the lone judge, formidable and authoritative, in granting such an exalted position in our literary culture and history?
If only such a purity of transcendence were true; fact is: critics mediate much of what we understand to be touchstones in American poetry. The self-evident poem (to use a phrase by Ange) that is remarkable upon first ingestion just does not exist.
Moreover, most critics of poetry are ill-equipped to assess the beauty and permanence of contemporary poetry, for many poets tap into a host of diverse cultural and literary traditions of our age and beyond, of which many critics simply do not have the intellectual and experiential wherewithal to grasp such rapid-fire, imaginative uses and manipulations of art, history, and language.
(Ever wonder why writings by writers of color rarely make the New York Times Book Review? It is because many of their critics lack the talent and intelligence to reach beyond the history of THE art and the history of WESTERN art to articulate and assess the importance of a given work, based on its own terms.)
Poet Michael Harper, according to a friend and one of his former students, aptly describes critics of poetry as shadowing-boxing in their attempts to interpret and analyze the work of poets. I’ll say it for the record: poets are smarter and faster than critics. They can outbox a William Logan anyday.
I used to believe what defined vision for a poet was a kind of virtuosic usage or extension of some element of the craft of writing poetry, or it was a stance or tone established and explored around a particular theme, one that had not been uttered before.
Now, I know, for both visionary poet and visionary critic, it is the wisdom and foresight to construct of an always diminishing world, past fragments and whole works of contemporary dance performances, jazz compositions, sonatas, visual poetries, (and many more cultural productions that signal our heart-breaking attempts at putting order to existence) that amount to one’s own “history of art” and having some notion as to how such a guiding construction will feed one’s writing but also future generations as it is felt and observed in one’s work. Whose shoulders do I lean on as a writer? I am not one of the experimental “jus grew” crowd. The vision or brilliance of the above poet and critic is to know how much of their understanding of “the history of art” is actually that of the age’s.
Furthermore, is not the desire to enter the history of art a puny attempt to cheat death? Or is it actually, as stated above, more egalitarian than that. The immortality we crave is a core response to the fact of death and decay. To enter the stream of human consciousness through one’s imaginative works of art is far more congratulatory and significant than entering the stream of genetic codings (and miscodings, as it were) which our progenies represent. It is possible to change and modify human consciousness through the imagination, to impact how the world visually sees or hears or to provide solace or words of comfort and celebration by the mere writing of a poem for years to come, for so many peoples. It is possible to inculcate a way of being in the world.
Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...