Saturday, June 16, 2012

`To Be Watched, Tasted, Archived, Appropriated'

I’m enjoying the prose of W.S. Di Piero more than his poems. I admire writers who are versatile and know a little about many things, high and low, and remain enthusiastic, open-minded generalists. Minds like that make interesting connections, and Di Piero’s synapses are forever firing. Most journalists can’t write but a writer without a touch of the journalist in him is hardly worth reading. Three years ago, the day after John Updike's death, I visited the public library and noted that almost all of the novelist’s books were still on the shelf. Grief hadn’t boosted circulation. A former newspaper colleague in New York described the observation as journalistic. My motive was curiosity, the foremost journalistic virtue.

Di Piero, author of twelve books of poetry, has published five prose collections. To his credit, he mostly shuns “poetics” and politics, always death to poetry and most other art. He seems immune to theory and isn’t shy about mingling feeling and thought, mutually exclusive capacities in most writers. He’s never didactic and his prose gives the impression of thoughtful, inspired conversation. In the preface to City Dog: Essays (Northwestern University Press, 2009) he writes:

“My purpose in writing prose has been to communicate what it feels like to have thoughts, to look at images, to worry over words and their truths. An essay is life’s fluidity momentarily shaped into a provisional, free-standing solid. To write essays is to respond to life with life, to counter-pressure reality’s press. In a way, it’s always ad hoc or on the wing, because the inner life keeps changing, troping along with whatever reality gives it to work with.”

In his essays, Di Piero returns to Montaigne’s root sense of trying or attempting. He has little interest in appearing authoritative, and implies that he’s an authority only on what he calls “scoping random pleasures.” He’s not interested in making you agree with him. In “Love for Sale,” he describes reviewing a Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. While there, he “concentrated with a world-detached attentiveness, in which state I (irrationally, while thinking it entirely normal) expect the object to respond to me, to fix itself in memory, to enter and change me.” Doesn’t everyone look at art that way, in a state of humble anticipation? Long ago I learned that I looked at art more excitedly than most people and so try to write about it more coolly.

When high-toned writers, or writers wishing to sound high-toned, look at pop culture, they betray a slumming mentality, a covert snobbery aimed in one direction or the other. They revel in vulgarity without really enjoying it. In City Dog, Di Piero writes of opera, Keats and Millet, and of Sid Caesar, Brando and David “Fathead” Newman. He isn’t trying to look democratic or anti-elitist. His tastes really are unapologetically various. In “Semba!: A Notebook,” published in Poetry, Di Piero writes:

“Nearly everything in Lowell beginning with For the Union Dead is a process of appropriating the things of the world and breaking them down in the furnace of selfhood. Experience exists to feed the fire. Compare Reznikoff, for whom the things of the world were to be watched, tasted, archived, appropriated not so much by the raging disconsolate self as by the words that seek them out.”

Clearly, Di Piero is a Reznikoffian writer, not an acolyte of Lowell and his insatiable ego. He is curious, humanly engaged and sympathetic. In “Semba!” he writes of poor tormented Cowper:

“William Cowper cannily and amicably conceals his secret suicidal melancholia in the flowering shrubs of his letters, which craft a rather wholesome, amiable personality, but he admits to `[putting] on an air of cheerfulness and vivacity to which I am in reality a stranger.’ It was `the arduous task of being merry by force....Despair made amusements necessary, and I found poetry the most agreeable amusement.’ He lived with the unwanted companion and made himself a good one. His pain, his madness, was the raised, rough grain of his sense of failure in belief, in life as devotion. To feel unworthy of God is, in derangement, to be convinced of being unworthy of life.”

I've seldom read anything so good about Cowper, a sentimantal favorite. “The flowering shrubs of his letters” is priceless.

1 comment:

Levi Stahl said...

I've never read Di Piero's essays, but you've convinced me. City Dog will be accompanying me on a trip to California soon--always important to have a book you can count on when you settle in for a long flight.