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 ....

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