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Dear Harriet

By Martin Earl

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,

Comments (15)

  • On March 20, 2009 at 3:23 pm james stotts wrote:

    the scorn so many poets have for representation in poetry is baffling, i agree, as if a component of poetry cannot be informative–which it seems to me has come along with a sense on the part of many that we now ‘know’ everything (or the sense that communication of knowledge is a cliche because of the unlimited access we have to it (if we have computers and connections, that is, which is a huge if)).
    the internet, the electron-thin culture, all of it is having a deleterious effect on our ability to appreciate poetry, is exacerbating the problems of rhyme, mnemonics, slow-reading, and cetera, and of letting the world fall through the gap, as you put it.
    when people try to talk about the global economy, or the state of poetry in europe, or the affairs of any community of more than a dozen people–i can’t help but thinking that my mind isn’t big enough to wrap around what was going on just among the kids i went to high school with, much less what’s going in my hometown (about 300,000) or the city i’m in now (about 3,000,000). alberto caeiro (!) talks about learning to be overwhelmed by our immediate surroundings (as a definition of religion), about the awe of the tree in front of us, the history of a storm. we can learn our ABC’s through poetry, rooster anatomy. and those lessons seem as legit to me as, say, daemonic irony, zaum and l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e tenets, pessoan hyper-anatomy. american poetry (i persist in wondering if there is such a thing, though that might mean being derided by some of your blog commentators from your initial posts) is way over my head.
    generalizations should be a way to overcome that disability (that is, a tool for skepticism), not a way to ignore it.
    btw, none of my favorite books are of poetry. and why should they be, if i really love poetry that much? (LES MISERABLES, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS, CAMINO REAL, BLOOD MERIDIAN, THE STAR THROWER)

  • On March 21, 2009 at 12:21 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Martin, this is a poignant post. It may also be the first time I’ve heard Europeans called less provincial than Americans, and that is not an unpleasant feeling.
    I appreciate the breadth of concerns you bring to Harriet. I am obsessed with poetry as with nothing else, yet even so it is good to be reminded how poetry connects with all the other other things in the world. It needs to, to enrich itself.
    Looking at Camille’s current post, where Hopkins and Brooks and Shakespeare all push up against each other, it is amazing how good it feels on the eyes and the internal ears to read those poems. One could also be struck by how much those poems bring the external world to the page.

  • On March 21, 2009 at 8:27 am Jason Guriel wrote:

    Martin, thanks for this post. I respect your sentiments, especially the first bit of this sentence: “No contemporary poet could ever get in the way of my love for….” This particular (and brave?) opening echoes those of friends of mine, friends I’ve mentioned in comments before: smart, passionate readers for whom poetry is but one thing (among many) to appreciate.
    I’m glad you brought up Hacker, a very good (and under-appreciated?) poet.

  • On March 22, 2009 at 12:45 pm Mairead wrote:

    “The importance of poetry is what a single poem can do to a single person in a single moment.”
    Thank you for this line, and this post.

  • On March 22, 2009 at 4:57 pm Patrick Gillespie wrote:

    //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.//
    Me too, Martin. My sentiments too.
    //I am not interested in poetry, per se.//
    I may or may not understand what you mean by this. My impression is that you’re not interested in the academic’s pursuit of poetry. If so, then that would be true of myself as well. Nothing bores me more than discussions of definition – be it of poetry, schools of poetry, classifications, semiotics, etc… Is the poem a good poem and what can I learn from it? Those are the same questions I ask myself over and over.
    //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.//
    Here too.
    //No contemporary poet could ever get in the way of my love for…//
    Martin, I cannot express *what* I would give for such a poet.
    This is going to sound breathtakingly hubristic but, well, to hell with it. My life is probably half-over. What’s to lose… Those who find me arrogant can just suck it up. I wish there were just one living poet who scared the hell out of me, who made me covet his or her every word. I want to find a poet that enrages me, makes me want to be their best friend and arch-rival. I want to floored by the beauty of his or her imagination, brilliance and conception. So far, I haven’t found such a poet. I’m lonely.
    But…. I keep looking. Everywhere.
    I knew a poet when I was much younger. His name was Eric Goodling. He scared me. But I’ve never seen any poetry by him since then. He could be dead for all I know.

  • On March 24, 2009 at 11:16 am Katy Tried wrote:

    Patrick Gillespie, you sound like one of those men who (let’s try for a metaphor here) can’t find a girlfriend because no living woman compares to the image on the poster he put up in his bedroom when he was 13. Like, get over it. Poetry isn’t religion. Find a church. Or join the rest of humanity and have a couple kids already. Life is too short to moon after experiences you can’t have after, say, age 20.

  • On March 24, 2009 at 1:13 pm mearl wrote:

    You are basically describing the motivation behind Humbert Humbert’s trajectory in Lolita. Besides sharing his enthusiasm for poetry and his idealism (not always easy things to do), in his commentary Patrick was mostly quoting my post. So why not take up the issue directly with me? For instance, the question of religion and its relationship to poetry is one of the most complicated issues dealt with historically by poets. Why not elaborate a bit more on what you’re thinking?
    Thanks for joining the thread.

  • On March 24, 2009 at 2:53 pm Katy Tried wrote:

    Au contraire, Martin, when you say —
    “…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.”
    — that is perfectly reasonable. Poetry is one of many sources of pleasure in your universe. Sounds adult to me. But when PG says —
    “I wish there were just one living poet who scared the hell out of me, who made me covet his or her every word. I want to find a poet that enrages me, makes me want to be their best friend and arch-rival. I want to floored by the beauty of his or her imagination, brilliance and conception. So far, I haven’t found such a poet. I’m lonely. But…. I keep looking. Everywhere.”
    — Well, that sounds like self-regarding romantic longing. Poets aren’t gods, and they are not vessels of gods. I’m certainly not interested in recapping the history of romantic poetry, wherein, yeah, poets thought of themselves as vessels of the gods. There are other traditions, though, aren’t there.
    If someone thought philosophy ended at St. Thomas or Kant, we would properly call him a historian of philosophy, not a philosopher. Likewise, if someone thinks poetry ended at Matthew Arnold, or Wallace Stevens, we should call them a historian of poetry. The present is what we’ve got to work with, so let’s.

  • On March 25, 2009 at 11:12 am james stotts wrote:

    what’s with the idea that writing/reading poetry is a distinct activity, or offers something peculiar? if we consider ‘difference’ (pardon my french!), it’s all formal, technical, maybe a matter of scale (that is, lyric poetry). all this is tending to a particular mode which belongs to poetry, which is mnemonic. poetry is handy, when it’s done right, so that it can exist off the page w/o being compromised. an essay is almost the opposite thing–discursive, or digressive. when i’ve finished a book of essays, which never takes long (it’s the only kind of writing i devour), i want to give it to a friend or to my father. the novel was invented by the book, and is anti-mnemonic, or rather, works beyond memory’s capabilities.
    when you say you’re less interested in poetry than other things–history, essay, etc.–how do you draw the lines? it seems to me curiosity dictates a lot, and poetry especially is a contingent, rather than an alternative. that is, it is synthetic. it doesn’t mean much without the weight of a culture behind it, the same way architecture is essentially earth contingent, its form a function of the materials she lends and the gravity she creates.
    what you’ve noticed i’d endorse whole-heartedly–a myopic, anemic poetry–where uncurious people have been conned into poetry (as if an MFA were any more legitimate than a degree in ultimate frisbee). poetry doesn’t attract the best and the brightest. sometimes the best and brightest STAY poets through a special determination. but mostly, it attracts the trendy, the generically rebellious, the reactionary, the inverterbrate. the stereotype of the poet is about as ridiculous as that of the cowboy–and i used to live on a horse ranch in the sierra mountains of new mexico, and i know what kind of depraved, failed, shadows of men a dirty rundown ranch attracts (and it pays about the same as poetry, btw)–and no wonder. as my mother’s told me a hundred times–we should be ashamed. and there’s a song about not letting your babies grow up to be…cowboys.

  • On March 25, 2009 at 12:49 pm james stotts wrote:

    just one more thing, because of patrick’s humbert-humbert hang-up on finding a LIVING poet to scare him (i don’t know anyone who wants a hero, would actually want to meet that hero and ruin it, but anyway), i’d like to answer frank stanford: ‘yes.’ the stables used to be a sea of flies and shit, seething, and we’d wheel it out behind the barn every morning and make mountains out of the shit for the flies to raise their infants in. it was quite a song!
    ‘Flies on Shit’ by Frank Stanford
    To the gentlemen from the south
    to the tourists from the north
    who write poems about the south
    to the dumb-ass students
    I’d like to ask one lousy question
    have you ever seen a regatta of flies
    sail around a pile of shit
    and then come back and picnic on the shit
    just once in your life have you heard
    flies on shit
    because I cut my eye teeth on flies
    floating in shit

  • On March 25, 2009 at 8:17 pm Martin Earl wrote:

    You certainly do have a point about vessels and gods.
    “The present is what we’ve got to work with, so let’s.”
    I think that’s what we’re doing here, or you wouldn’t be writing in. But maybe poetry is the one contemporary project that needs its past. Science makes previous science redundant. Of the great 19th and early 20th century theoretical scientists it is really only Darwin who hasn’t been utterly picked apart. In a recent interview Stephen Hawkins critiqued early classic work on cosmology for the general reader, A Brief History of Time, on one point alone, that the universe wasn’t contracting as he’d thought, but rather expanding. That seems to be a pretty big point. In light of this, Kant seems more stable than the universe. It’s hard to read Nietzsche without Kant, just as we need Wallace Stevens to properly understand John Ashbery. The humanities are essentially accretive. For us the work of the present is, at least partly, a work of incorporating the past.
    I think Patrick should respond to your more specific complaints.
    Again, thanks for keeping everyone on their toes.

  • On March 26, 2009 at 10:17 am Matt wrote:

    Uhh, excuse me? “we need Wallace Stevens to properly understand John Ashbery”??
    No, no, no, no.
    I think that if you asked Ashbery, he’d say you don’t need anyone to understand him, and that there’s no “properly” about it.
    I mean, really, “properly”? Ugh.

  • On March 26, 2009 at 2:46 pm mearl wrote:

    Matt, sorry that you don’t like the word “properly”. I didn’t mean it as a value judgement, more in the British sense of “thoroughly”….since there is a lot of Stevens in Ashbery, just as there is a lot of Williams, Robert Graves, James Tate, Laura Riding etc. Just some of his favorite poets. To properly understand Beethoven we need to know our Mozart. The paradigm is very similar in my opinion.
    As far as asking Ashbery. Well, I have, actually. We’ve talked extensively about Stevens, where he was when he first read Stevens, what an eye opener it was for him, how it led him to the French, how Stevens influenced the way he related to the disposition of subject in a poem, how linguistic musicality can stand in for linear argument….etc.
    I don’t think we should read our poets in a vacuum, and an anti-intellectual stance doesn’t help much either.
    What do you think?

  • On March 26, 2009 at 6:32 pm mearl wrote:

    I find your notion that “the sense that communication of knowledge is a cliché because of the unlimited access we have to it” to be rather frightening. It signals a paradigm shift in which knowledge (now too often called “information”) is no longer something we have, but rather a commodity we can access, use and dispose of just as quickly. Saint Augustine was famous not only for the autobiography and his City of God, but for his development of the art of mnemonics; in this he was way ahead of his time. In Aristotelian fashion, he categorized memory and proposed a kind of system of compartmentalization as a way to gain control over its use. He separated imagistic memories from emotional ones, public from private, future from past, and developed methods to access these compartments, which were all established internally. Eerily enough, he treated the mind in the same way we would segment a hard disk today. My sense is that when you speak of the Internet as being “electron thin” and as having a “deleterious effect on our ability to appreciate poetry” you are speaking of the fact that we have invented technologies to replace our own innate capacities. Poetry, and what it becomes, is probably one of the areas of human production which will be most effected by the externalization and commodification of knowledge. There are many poets and thinkers who support this shift, and perhaps it’s inevitable. Annie Finch’s recent post on the Kollectiv presents another option that might, if we’re lucky, prove that the traditional technologies can cohabitate with the new models.
    I’m still thinking about your second comment. I’ll get back to you on that. But in the meantime thanks so much for the Frank Stanford poem, certainly a wake up call for all of us. And I think he’s a fabulous poet to keep on the front burner at the moment.
    ps: to other readers: click on James Stotts name at the bottom of his comments to read “Notes from the Back of the Bar”, the penultimate post on his blog.

  • On March 29, 2009 at 9:19 pm james stotts wrote:

    the problem is as old as information technologies–i’m thinking of plato’s ‘pharmaceutic’ conundrum. the written word, and its consequences–the diffusion of authority, the independence from memory, the rise of ‘experts’–signal a severe diversion from socratic humility. but, it makes the progression of the sciences (then, that could probably be read as ‘the humanities) possible. the pharmakon is simultaneously poison and panacea, a sort of january conjunction of mutual-exclusives.
    i harbor a secret wish, or maybe an anxiety, that the digital age is ultimately unsustainable, because it requires constant sustaining, constant updating maintenance vigilance audience input. a few solar winds could knock us back fifty years.
    but when we grow up learning on a computer, with the internet, our brains are being wired differently in significant and profound ways, i’m convinced of that. and that means culture will be severely affected. cultures are disjunctive, anyway, cobbled together by causal/narrative fallacies after the fact, so living is always frightening, but…
    can i recommend tony judt’s REAPPRAISALS? a book of historical essays tackling the crisis of memory, and remembering to us ‘the forgotten 20th century.’ not a perfect book, but a great one.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, March 20th, 2009 by Martin Earl.