Sunday, August 10, 2014

`Help a Reader Grow Up'

“A good poet, in short, will help a reader grow up.”

Always a pleasure to hear one’s unformed thoughts articulated by another, which is one of many reasons we read widely. A bookless or narrowly bookish diet leaves our thinking undernourished. In this case, the Canadian poet Carmine Starnino is writing about Eric Ormsby in a review of Daybreak at the Straits (2004), collected in Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism: Essays and Reviews on Contemporary Poetry (Gaspereau Press, 2012). I have praised Ormsby as “a multilingual voluptuary of sound” and Starnino fetes him on similar grounds, saying Ormsby has “built a career out of an obsession with pretty words” – though that is hardly his sole gift. Like Wallace Stevens at his best and Anthony Hecht, Ormsby savors the primacy of word-music without surrendering to the sterility of pure aestheticism. 

Much of today’s poetry is gruel-thin and flavorless, without even the excuse of being dry but information-rich, just-the-facts-ma’am prose. Ormsby’s carefully calibrated flamboyance bothers people. The heart of Starnino’s review challenges the notion that “plain words can be trusted, complex words can’t.” He writes: 

“…we surrender to the cliché that our ear substitutes for the noise on the page. To prize an idiom for being inherently pretense-free sentimentalizes language. It turns the act of reading into an assertion of integrity rather than an exercise of faculties. Worse, it injures the art’s experimental resources as it reinforces existing ceilings of accessibility.” 

About “experimental” I’m skittish. The word has been shanghaied to mean incoherent and pretentious rather than testing a hypothesis. Otherwise, Starnino rightly endorses Geoffrey Hill’s assertion that “genuinely difficult art is truly democratic,” with an emphasis on the adverb. The notion that poetry must be either “accessible” or “difficult” to be good is ridiculous. Starnino continues later in the same paragraph: 

“…good poetry isn’t really about accommodation; we are coddled enough by a vapid, linguistically slack media (who have done their part to make us more intimidated, less resourceful readers than we used to be). A good poet will have the ambition – indeed it will be an obligation of his or her excellence – to slip over on readers the kind of outermost music which their self-infantilizing hunger for accessibility will have conditioned them to reject. A good poet, in short, will help a reader grow up.” 

An example: In one of Friday's posts I quoted Guy Davenport saying, “And where do we put the next Wal-Mart?” I didn’t say so, but the sentiment strikes me as a cliché, a submission to a commonplace, almost a slogan, something chanted by an Occupy twit. Speaking out against Wal-Mart is nobody’s idea of going out on a limb, and it’s not worthy of Davenport’s better self as a writer. But the line sparked a memory of lines from “Microcosm,” an Ormsby poem in Daylight at the Straits: 

“There are double stars in the eyes of cyclonic
Spuds shoveled and spaded up. The dance
Of Shiva is a cobbled-soled affair –
Hobnails and flapping slippers on the disreputable stair.
Germinate on Wal-Mart windowsills.”

An adolescent may cheer for Davenport’s easy line. A grownup will auto-correct it with Ormsby’s.

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

Interesting conjunction...

I wouldn't mind a bit if you talked about what contemporary poets you like, though I know some from your reviews. Years back, John Wilson introduced me to Charles Causley, and I was so glad--always looking for people I've overlooked.