Tuesday, November 30, 2010

`To Follow an Ancient Trace'

Many critics, including a few of the best, see their job as almost strictly punitive. There’s plenty of literary rubbish to defenestrate, of course, probably more than ever, especially when it comes to poetry. Correcting bad or mediocre taste is always an admirable goal, and critics as different as Yvor Winters, Randall Jarrell and William Logan deserve medals for defending the commonweal. I’m not that sort of critic and probably no critic at all except in the trivial sense that anyone who chooses to read some books and balks at reading others is implicitly performing a critical act. In “The Rest is Criticism,” David Yezzi defines the narrow critical niche I comfortably inhabit:

“…it can be an act of generosity, a mitzvah, an opportunity to draw attention to a poet or a work that might otherwise be passed over or ignored—criticism as recuperation.”

Don’t confuse my predilection for praise with happy talk. It’s not that I don’t recognize crap; I just prefer not to spend a lot of time identifying it. I assume every serious reader can tell Tony Hoagland and Ron Silliman are bad poets and Charles Olson was no poet at all. If you disagree, fine. Reading Olson is its own punishment, and one reads for pleasure not martyrdom. I’ll leave it to more patient, analytical minds to muster evidence proving these self-evident truths. In this passage from C.H. Sisson’s free translation of Horace’s Epistle II.3, “Ars Poetica,” the poet describes the acts of a “friend.” Substitute “critic”:

“The man who can actually tell when a verse is lifeless
Will know when it doesn’t sound right; he will point to stragglers,
And equally put his pen through elaboration;
He will even force you to give up your favourite obscurities,
Tell you what isn’t clear and what has got to be changed,
Like Dr. Johnson himself. There will be no nonsense
About it not being worth causing trouble for trifles.
Trifles like that amount in the end to disaster,
Derisory writing and meaning misunderstood.”

Among contemporary poets, nothing is more pleasing than the recognition and relative popularity enjoyed by Kay Ryan. Her work is brainy, funny, musical, ethically freighted and wondrously constructed. We’re honored by her company, as we are, among the living, by Geoffrey Hill and Les Murray. But how to account for the almost subterranean reputation of Helen Pinkerton? Sharing her work with readers is the sweetest mitzvah I can perform. Near the end of her great dramatic monologue “Crossing the Pedigral” (Taken in Faith, 2002) Pinkerton has Mary Custis Lee, in the final days of the Civil War, address her husband, Robert E. Lee. She might be articulating her own poetic strategy:

“To follow an ancient trace when there seems none
And no light given; to push on through the dark,
Knowing the right direction against the wind;
Simply to keep on at the given task,
Its time and place set by God’s providence..."

2 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

You’re not a critic at all – you don’t evaluate, argue for, correct or analyze writing art – you are more like a literary travel writer. You bring us your experience – the arches and soil of it. If you feel that Ibiza is far superior to Mallorca, there is no point in proving it – you must go there to understand. One knows in advance that your tour will be rather chaste – visits to cathedrals and gravesites rather than bistros and nude beaches – but one knows you reliably will lead to that out of the way spot – that special footnote from that obscure 16th century poet – not as a pompous know-it-all preening with erudition, but because it’s real, to you, at that moment, an artfully-framed window on a larger vista you have the good sense not to try to capture in words.

Do we want to visit these places? Some time in our lives, yes, but that takes commitment. Accounts serve a different purpose – they make the exotic part of our daily lives.

Mark Richardson said...

"I assume every serious reader can tell Tony Hoagland and Ron Silliman are bad poets and Charles Olson was no poet at all. If you disagree, fine. Reading Olson is its own punishment, and one reads for pleasure not martyrdom."

Amen.

Best,
Mark