Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Brian Fawcett (Part Eight)

"At this point, I have a question of my own: Did the distinction I made in the 1980s between poetry and verse cause me to lose touch with an essential element of a writer’s craft?

I had a lot of it right in that 1980s essay—like Edmund in Shakespeare’s King Lear, I had seen the business. And, poetry is an essential mode of human thought."--Brian Fawcett.

An essential mode of human thought? What a chloroform-inducing statement. Most have lost whatever intrinsic artery to poetic expression they might once have been visited by. But even here, we're talking of the adjective, not the noun. Many people have a poetic flair, but have no clue of how to recognize, let alone think or write, the real stuff. Poetry is a concentrative craft, not a vague stylish tic or practical progressive technique.


"Verse, on the other hand, is a temporary cultural expression of poetry, and one that has been in a state of cognitive arrest for nearly 80 years. .......It simply aggravates the general offense that verse is sometimes given an official dignity and grandeur that poets—outside of those war poets—have had no way of earning for it in 200 years." --Brian Fawcett.

Maybe it's because I'm descending after another long day of follow-up gum complications, but my faculties are still awake enough to intone ....WTF? I was going to write a lengthy rebuttal, but what's the use .... Verse, dead, for 80 years? Poetry moribund for two centuries?

Perhaps Brian can re-energize those dormant powers and come to the rescue even though we're a little late -- it's past eight years into the progressively ascending millenium.

I haven't viewed hyperbolic poetics like this since Marlon Brando (in an interview with the clueless Connie Chung) declared poetry and music dead after Shakespeare and Mozart.

"Today it is hard for even the diehard partisans of verse to deny that the affective poetry of the late 20th century lies in the products of popular culture created by commercial technologists, popular musicians, film-makers and videographers. Popular culture being what it is, they have used the tools of poetry to sell consumer commodities, and intensify emotions, not to impart any sense of beauty or deliver crucial information"--Brian Fawcett.

Though the link to commercialism is correct, this has nothing to do with poetry, and everything to do with appropriation, co-opting, and cynical deployment of subliminal syntax and "poetic" buzzwords, and propelled by laryngeal violence, graphic sleight-of-eye, and typographic shotgun residue.


"As an essential investigative tool and mode of thought poetry is in a state of disuse, misuse and disrepair that indirectly threatens the continued survival of the human species and of life itself."--Brian Fawcett.

Oh, for Krissakes, Brian, quit giving yourself frissons by watching Apocalypse Post-Blake.

Proportion is a wonderful quality to have, for poets and non-poets alike.


"Unfortunately, I don’t have any practical suggestions about how to rectify this that won’t require several years and 2000 pages of prose to articulate."--Brian Fawcett.

Ahhahahaha! Compassion, I say! We need answers. Bereft of poetry for another millenium if not for Fawcett's pivotal-spigotal intervention.


More to follow ....

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Brian Fawcett (Part Seven)

Verna just picked up the line-up for Bard On The Beach yesterday. King Lear, Titus Andronicus (yikes!), The Tempest, and Twelfth Night. The latter I've seen quite few times, and Titus is a truly awful play, the critics' consensus worst by S (though he only penned half of it or so), but it's easy to sell to an audience waiting for the unintentional parental cannibal scene. Looks like the tragic Lear gets the nod, though we may see Tempest as well. We caught Timon Of Athens last year, and the production was excellent.


"And yes, this legacy of reconciling incomprehensible violence inflicted on the sensible innocent remains the problem of poets working today, even though the world condition that made English lyric verse what it has been since the Great War have not existed for any Westerners for more than 50 years. First, the military conflicts since 1945 in which North Americans & Western Euros have been involved have not more than nominally involved our educated classes. Not even the Second World War, with its vast increases in civilian casualties over the Great War, saw anything close to the same degree of violence directed at the young and the educated. Vietnam, the war that captured and to some extent created the social imagination of my generation, was a war to which America sent mostly black kids and rednecks to do the dying."-- Brian Fawcett.

This is an interesting point since there've been one or more wars waged for a greater period of recorded historical time than the total period of accumulated "peace". But one doesn't have to be on the front lines to write effectively on war (Shakespeare), or be a criminal to write a first-person narrative of a murderer (Dostoyevsky). Also, war can be approached more indirectly: time served away from the front; as a civilian digesting the news; and by surreal or metaphoric means where a specific war is not necessary for poetic creation. I also hasten to add that direct experience of war often doesn't necessarily result in better (grittier, more authentic) poetry: though I admire American poet Louis Simpson's work, I found it a tough slog getting through his WWII land-war verse. His front line position didn't enhance the vividness of his poetry, which is all that matters.

And of course it should go without saying that there are endless subjects fit for poetry that don't concern themselves with contemporary wars, or that may only employ war in an ancillary or background sense.


"Yet the same larks appear above the blighted landscape in the poems of my generation as could be seen in the poems of the British war poets, except that the hell beneath the wings of today’s poets consists of incitements to purchase goods, eat mediocre pre-processed foods, and suck up other entertainments of the disarticulation of the public realm."-- Brian Fawcett.

I find much to agree with in the above quote. It's just an expansion on the meaning of "war". Madison Avenue sending volleys through the airwaves.


"It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the sense of beauty that is lyric poetry’s purest energy, but that I was suspicious of the darkness that placed it in chiaroscuro. What I perceived around me wasn’t so much dark as muddy. It held no residue of high explosives, and it did not stream with human blood and body parts. It was fouled with cigarette butts and the paper and Styrofoam debris of mass-produced hamburgers and milkshakes. My instinct was that such a world requires a catalogue less private and and idiosyncratic than Whitman’s body electric, and an emotional frame less prone to self-regard and sentimentality than Wilfred Owen’s pity"--Brian Fawcett.

More narrow definitions of what poetry "should" be.

Explosions and high rhetoric, personal shattering epiphanies and intense war drama are not the only moods and experiences of great canonical poetry.

I used to set these unaccepting strictures on poetic subject matter myself when I was in my twenties. How could Robert Frost write about couples drama and nature contemplation when Europe was in flames? I wondered, impatient. But Frost and others were writing of conflicts that could be seen as having a metaphysical structure much in tune with WWI. Journalism, reportage, direct engagement, aren't the only means of writing about seminal conflicts.

And again this equating of lyricism with beauty. Shelley wrote of oppressive governments as well as about skylarks.


Part Eight (and hopefully concluding) next time.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Brian Fawcett (Part Six)

"good writing is still valuable because it permits us to treat complex subject matters with conceptual precision and thus enhances our ability to think accurate, complex thoughts and to communicate them to others. More broadly, a society needs to be able to articulate complexities if it is to avoid social and interpersonal violence as a problem-solving device, or beyond that, to be just and healthily democratic." --Brian Fawcett.

"Subject matter" needs aesthetic delight and perspicacious ordering if it's to go beyond philosophical and worldly pretension. I should rather say that the latter attributes are brought out only if the words are presented with artistic aptness and felicity. But again, Fawcett downplays form (especially in poetry) if not misunderstanding it completely (note the tautology, which involved wayward thinking, doubling as ironical self-parody, oh doppelgangers of dour drought! Dotard shiverings of long-solemn somnolence!)

The last quoted sentence above ignores many historical precedents which contradict the inflated claim. Germany was the most educated and artistically realized country in continental Europe during the 1920s, but that didn't stop "social and interpersonal violence". The evil which is latent in every human heart is unpredictable as to its activation, having more to do with mysterious circumstance than "improvement" through metaphorical valuations. Art can civilize, but it's an individual undertaking, never graphed on a social line, much as the fact of spiritual enlightenment is always there (and here) but needs mysterious realization, only possible with an individual, and always vulnerable to social and political (and individual) mutability.


"Beneath the changes brought on by the new media, clear language—specifically metaphor and rhetoric—remains the first instruments of both public and private clarity. Properly considered in isolation of its waning aesthetic value, poetry (if not verse and the Biz) has always acted as the janitorial service for metaphor and rhetoric, both of which require high degrees of maintenance to protect their vitality and their precisions" --Brian Fawcett.

"Janitorial service", haha! Janitors, by definition, erase and throw out. Metaphoric elimination? Janitors don't replace what they "clean". ("Clean", here, has a particularly ominous meaning in light of the previous "interpersonal violence" concern.) What inapt and inept metaphors, Brian.


"All of these latter things I would have agreed with in 1970 if I’d recognized their presence. But I’ve also changed my mind about is the role the self plays in the operation of poetry, and the degree to which sublimating—or even suppressing—the self is necessary to achieve relevant accuracy in the use of poetic language. Partly, the change is a consequence of having my testosterone levels drop low enough that I can occasionally think through something without erotic and biomission intrusions fogging up my glasses, but the change is also partly the product of recognizing that there are no stable pathways from the self into the world. In 1970, I believed that the road to poetic accuracy ran right through the most rubble-littered intersections of the self. That was the fatuous Zeitgeist of the 70s: Any world cleanup must be preceded by spiritual self-cleansing. Now I understand that it is the world that creates the paths, not the self." --Brian Fawcett.

I've dealt with some head-shakers throughout this essay, but this passage is the Grouse mountain of grouses (so far), the Heimlich of Himalayas, the un-cleverness of Everests.

"Suppressing the self": what is this but the final crossing curb of the dead end street of T. S. Eliot's "objective correlative"? Again, we have an extremely narrow-minded reading of what is and isn't poetry. Great poems, long established in the canon, and still inspiring awe and freshness after centuries, have been written out of emotionally charged personal confusion or transcendence, and they have also been written from a more distancing "objectivity". Examples unscrolled would take up cubed fortnights just to list, and it would be pedantic to do so. But Fawcett wants to obliterate one worthy avenue of poetic mood and mode entirely, from an ironically emotional reaction to his and others' efforts in this vein as well as a ludicrous and grandiose wish to alter the direction of present and future poetic composition. (Note, again, the metaphors: "suppress", "cleanup", "intrusions".)

It may come as a shock to paradox-challenged Fawcett, but it's possible to use poetic voice as (on the surface) agitated, seemingly self-obsessed, yet, through that device, create an optative effect of cold irony, clarity, declaration. The "I" of the poem is sometimes the "I" of the poet, yet more often is only a small part, an amalgam, has little to do with the author's personality, or is even antithetical to it. In other words, each voice is unique, and the context of the entire poem has to be taken into account. It's embarassingly elementary to have to delineate this; it's obvious, but obviously not obvious to all. (Which tautology is Waldo hiding behind?)

"No stable pathways from the self into the world". Haha! This statement is now my favourite from the essay to date.

There is no other way to assimilate stability other than through one's self. The soi disant objectivity Fawcett kneels before is a sham; everything is filtered through individual discrimination. I'd rather trust a hot-reactive decision or feeling from an experienced, intelligent, adaptible person than one from a reflective, cooled-down, obtuse, association-bereft one. "The world creates the paths". Ha. What is this "world" of which you speak? The world is nothing other than individuals making (wait for the tautology) individual decisions, one after another, and by their subjective appraisals.


"Twentieth Century history intrudes here, and mightily. Lyric poetry, as we who write in English know it and practice it, is the product of the Great War of 1914-1918."--Brian Fawcett.

Yikes! He keeps topping himself. The sensibilties of present-day poets are informed by the mysterious sotto voce remembrances of poets from before Beowulf to Bach to Beckett to Babstock. Throw in bingo-callers and barroom hustlers and bank exec belchers and bubblehead bimbos and ....

I think it safe to assume that Fawcett is setting out the less-than-original literary history position which declared Romantic poetry (i.e. Fawcett's narrow and misunderstood definition of lyricism) dead upon the advent of WWI. But it takes a quick perusal through late-Romantic literature and music to see that this is a more complex issue than it may seem from those who look for easily assailable bogeymen. Far from being a cut-and-dried, simplistic wrenching away of self-regarding innocence, WWI's metaphysical confusion of horrors were predated by a queasy premonition and energy. Read Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush"; read Nietzsche; listen to Mahler. Fawcett denies the prophetic function of poetry, but these late nineteenth-century men (among other artists) predicted and understood the metaphysical upheavals in our darkest century better than most of those confused men in the trenches, and better, even, than the unretrospective ninnies who think history means colourful stories in college books while they click the power button on the boob tube.


"The Great War therefore created a compelling frame that verse in English had not, in 1970, ventured much beyond save in the attempts to widen the field that are Ezra Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams Paterson, and perhaps Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems." --Brian Fawcett.

I've omitted the off-topic descent into political rhetoric which precedes this quote. The link to lyric poetry is specious. I've talked about it above a bit, but I'll just add that crises, throughout history, have always added a sense of urgency amongst artists, engendering in them not dry themes but necessitous energy to record and express their outrage, tenderness, heightened appreciation for life. WWI wasn't the first epochal event to help usher in new forms and sensibilities of poetic composition, and it won't be the last.

And Fawcett's understanding of political history is further compromised by a like misunderstanding of literary history: Pound, Williams, and Olson (gawd! does anyone still read that Blackstained Mountain fraud?) are not the only "seminal" names in modern lyricism. Lowell, Berryman, Layton, MacNeice, Plath .... but, again, why go on? Fawcett puts the horse blinkers on after the solemnly intoned names of his heroes are trotted out, and so "history" is frozen in one jar, set and unable for cross-pollination.

I realize that Fawcett specifically stated "verse in English", but it may escape his notice that those same writers have also incorportaed the moods and rhythms of other cultures and languages into their own work. Cesar Vallejo wrote about himself quite a bit. And he expressed his profound spiritual sadness in many of his poems. (Self-obsessed? Not transcending his lyric insularity, or rather using his personal history as deft examples of a reverse objective correlative?) I'll let Brian check out when he wrote his first two books, and where he ended up.


Part Seven to follow ....