Thursday, June 20, 2019

'The Art and the Issues Will Come Out BAD'

“Those who dimly remember the poems of Yeats and Eliot, not to mention George Herbert and Robert Herrick, will recall that poetry has nothing to do with ‘broad issues.’ Latching verbal art onto them guarantees that both the art and the issues will come out BAD.”

The upper-case letters identify the author as Paul Fussell and the book as BAD or, the Dumbing of America (1991). Did Fussell ever consider that the overuse of capital letters, now virtually an epidemic, is itself bad? For him, BAD signifies something “phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating." I quibble with limiting the phenomenon to Americans. The phenomenon is worldwide. Please don’t tell me the French, as a people, are blessed with congenital good taste. BAD is cousin to poshlust as defined by Nabokov in Gogol (1944), and is not restricted to any nationality.

Fussell devotes a chapter to BAD poetry, though criticizing the BADness of most recent work in the form is almost too easy. Consider the Pulitzer Prize. By some fluke it went to Kay Ryan’s The Best of It: New and Selected Poems in 2011. Otherwise you have to go back to 1989, when it was awarded to Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems, to find a collection that’s even readable let alone the best of the year. The Pulitzer’s record of rewarding trash and routinely ignoring superior work rivals the dedication of the Nobel Committee.

“If you have minimal literary talent,” Fussell writes, “but would like to acquire some of the prestige imputed, even today, to ‘poetry,’ a way to go is to produce works with socko-erotic beginnings.” He gives six examples, all appallingly bad, including Alice Notley’s “A clitoris is a kind of brain.” Fussell also addresses the sociology of poetry and poets:

“Precious to BAD poets like these is membership in groups and schools: individually not very interesting, they lust for labels and designations and categories to impose upon themselves . . . . Others are proud to be tagged ‘passionate environmentalists,’ ‘Buddhist animal rights activists,’ or members of the ‘beyond Baroque group. An ‘urban Surrealist’ is a designation treasured by one, a ‘New York realist’ by another, and one woman is proud to have ‘strong affinities with the San Francisco erotic feminists.’ Some of these people’s feeble sense of self-respect prompts them to conglobulate in quasi-Soviet collectives (cf. Vladimir Nabokov: ‘Intellectuals do not join groups’ . . .”

A writer’s essential solitude seems anathema to many would-be writers. They want not so much to write as to have written. I’m reminded of John Berryman’s observation in his biography of Stephen Crane: “Crane was a writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right.”

Fussell coins several other useful categories of recent poetry: “Illiterate Pretentious,” “Self-Satisfied or Cute,” “Politically or Socially Aggrieved” and “Desperately Egotistical, or Nobody Loves Me.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

Fussel's book is best read in brief sessions. Trying to read it straight through just put me in mind of Chateaubriand's aphorism: "One is not superior merely because one sees the world in an odious light."