Wednesday, May 16, 2007

`Greater Than Your Love of Consistency'

In his final collection, Boss Cupid, the late Thom Gunn included “To Donald Davie in Heaven,” about the English poet-critic who died in 1995. It starts anecdotally, with Davie telling Gunn he was reading Auden again, and Gunn reminding Davie that he formerly had disliked Auden’s work. For Gunn, this is evidence of Davie’s generous nature and willingness to reevaluate past judgments:

“That was what I admired about you
your ability to regroup
without cynicism, your love of poetry
than your love of consistency.”

It’s a primal urge, especially when we’re young, to overestimate consistency in ourselves and scorn inconsistency in others. Cranky rigidity is a measure of insecure judgment, a tendency with unhappy political and religious implications. The limber sense of honesty Gunn lauds in Davie gets a comparable endorsement from Marilynne Robinson in her review of American Religious Poems, edited by Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, in the May issue of Poetry:

“An afternoon with the Vedas, an evening with The Drowned Book, another look at the Oresteia or the Psalms or at Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address would be more than sufficient to recall us all to a recognition of the fact that the Pat Robertsons and the Pat Buchanans of our moment do not epitomize religion.”

The alternative to scrupulous consistency, the thinking goes, is nihilism, the rejection of all standards and criteria of excellence. I was accused of this by an anonymous writer on Tuesday, who questioned how I could possibly write about John Milton and Bob Dylan, set their words side by side, in the same post. My answer: It's easy. I never claimed Dylan was as great a writer as Milton. That’s ridiculous, but juxtapositions can be useful and interesting. My taste in books and writers is inconsistent, promiscuous and guilt-free. My only loyalty is to what pleases me, what is worthy of my admiration, and I’ve derived reliable pleasure for many years from both Milton and Dylan. Open-mindedness doesn’t always imply anything-goes idiocy, nor does unyielding consistency necessarily imply good taste or sophistication. Last month, after writing about Geoffrey Hill, a reader accused me of being an elitist – a pleasing compliment to being called a Dylan-loving populist. Later in his poem Gunn lauds Davie’s “appetite unslaked/for the fortifying and tasty/events of reading.” When a young person asks what he or she ought to read, I say “Everything.” How else will you develop a dependable sense of discrimination and learn to trust your own appetites? In his essay “The Pleasures of Reading,” Joseph Epstein writes:

“A fair amount of reading, of a belletristic kind, I have come to believe, confers on one – or at least ought to confer on one – what I think of as `the literary point of view.’ This point of view, which is taught not by any specific book or author, or even set of authors, teaches a worldly-wise skepticism, which comes through first in a distrust of general ideas.”

That’s it: Shed your pigeonholing instincts. Enjoy Dylan, or Milton, or Hill on his merits. Or don’t.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

All very wisely said.

I have a little pottery plaque in the house, that I bought at an art fair some years ago. On it is my favorite Emerson quote:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."