Monday, January 25, 2010

Church Is Back In Service

It's been several puff pieces since the latest "one reviewer panned my book, and the other also doesn't love everything he reads, so I'm here to misrepresent their views" post from Chris Banks. And by now, the procedure has become solidified. In the absence of nuanced criticism and specific quotations, and in the absence of a poetics with bite and contrasting clarity, the reader instead gets generalized outrage from a famous stand-in directed to critics plying their opinions 40 + years ago. But what the hey, it's always fun to rip wider holes in a fabric so rent with open space views to a wide sky that clarity partners with colour and delight. To Joyce Carol Oates' words, and how they apply to those (still) unnamed critics (aside from Z Wells and myself):

The first thing to note is that the semi-extended Oates quote is in response to a particular critic on a particular poet, Blackmur to D H Lawrence. So it's pertinent to actually deal with those people, not to play the "formalist" card as if that word itself condemned the critic by conjured association. This is a favourite trick of lazy poets and critics not disposed to analyzing poems as poems, which is to say as independent pieces subject to subjective and objective evaluation based on a wide array of emotional and rational reactions.

Banks' position (as he stands behind Oates, his voice stifled) :

"But critics, especially “New Critics” and “Formalist Critics” have not understood this: that there are many kinds of art, that there may be a dozen, a hundred ways of writing, and that no single way is perfect." (Oates/Banks)

An unhelpful generalization. I enjoy many "kinds of art", as well. Perhaps there'll be some clarity further down. Also, it's quite funny in that Blackmur harshly criticized the narrowness of the "new critics", especially as their position (as happens to any school) eventually solidified. But hey, don't let facts get in the way of crazy-glue analogies and conspiracy alerts.

"Lawrence was exasperated by, but not deeply influenced by the stupidity of his critics." (Oates/Banks)

This is rich. Oates has conveniently left out the other half of the equation. Lawrence was himself a critic and, not surprisngly, no shrinking violet when it came to assessing other novelists and poets, whether they were canonical greats or contemporaries. "Stupidity", here, is conflated with negative assessment. So far, Oates/Banks are not making a muddled case, but no case at all.

The hilarious irony is that Lawrence is just the sort of critic who would have horrified Banks if they were contemporaries. Richard Foster has said of "violently creative minds" like Lawrence, Dante, Milton, Pound, Shaw, Gide, Swift, Voltaire, that "they are never specialists, always instinctively amateurs. And their prejudices are queer, pronounced, grotesque, sometimes verging on the insane.
But these men have more perfectly 'whole' sensibilities than their contemporaries, for almost nothing relating to the human condition seems to escape them."

In other words, not your typically moderated, punch-pulling, dull, reveal-nothing "assessors" prolific in all times, and for obvious professional and ambitious reasons.

Lawrence, the critic:

On Blake: "ghastly, obscene knower" (his response to Blackmur, as well as Oates'/Banks' to that critic?)

On Richardson: "his calico purity and his underclothing excitement sweeps all before him".

On Hawthorne's The Marble Faun: "one of the most bloodless books ever written".

On Dostoyevsky: "a lily-mouthed missionary rumbling with ventral howls of derision and dementia".

On Chekhov: "a second-rate writer and a willy wet-leg".

On Proust: "too much water jelly".

On Wells (not Orson or the career limiting one): "a peevish, ashy indifference to everything, except himself, himself as the centre of the universe".

On all of Galsworthy's novels: "nauseated me up to the nose".

On Huxley: "half a man" as a writer, "a precious adolescent".

On Thomas Mann: "the man is sick, body and soul".

Now, after digesting the genteel delivery, one may wish to note that Lawrence isn't exactly going after those with the same regarded worth as .... oh, say, Banks and Tom Wayman. Is Banks, then, defending Lawrence's poetry from Blackmur, through Oates, and if so, what does the Cold Pane have to say about Lawrence's other side in this oppositional report? Is criticism ever justified? Should reviewers simply be corporate cheerleaders? Are there any personal (i.e. non-objective) motivations behind the Lawrence-Blackmur story? More on Blackmur's views of Lawrence's poetry later (though it's curious, if not surprising, that Banks, through Oates, has so little to say about it).

"it may be harder for us, reading an essay like R.P Blackmur’s “Lawrence and Expressive Form” (in Language as Gesture, 1954), to restrain our impatience."(Oates/Banks)

Careful, you wouldn't want to let impatience ruin your vaunted objectivity!

"Blackmur states that Lawrence is guilty of writing “fragmentary biography” instead of “poetry.” It would have been unthinkable to imagine that the two are not separate….? need not be separate….?"(Oates/Banks)

Now this is an incredibly oversimplified conclusion. Perhaps Oates expands on this at another point in her essay, but Banks -- typically -- is more into sound-bytes than providing the contextual inclusion, if any such exists here. So I won't say it's disingenuous. But, without any follow-up, I can only state my own reaction by what exists (and what is omitted) on the screen.

Shakespeare was the last unselfconscious poet in the English language. Even with Marlowe and Donne (beloved of the New Critics), we had the beginnings of the personal concerns of the poet, which weren't always deflected by that poet taking on a "persona". The Romantics, obviously, put the poet's reactions and concerns in the foreground. But it was Modernism, Lawrence's era, that fragmented so much of the poem through the lens of the personal, subjective angle. Of course a poem need not be separate from the poet's life or thinking. That's an incorrect reading of Blackmur's damning of Lawrence. Blackmur faulted Lawrence for fragmentation in his craft. For all the differences between Lawrence and Eliot -- writing, personality -- Eliot not only agreed with Lawrence's priority of the "moral" in art, but also, despite his disingenuous "objective corelative" nonsense, centred his poems in his own personality just as much as his blood-besotted contemporary. By the way, I think that Blackmur either didn't understand what Lawrence was trying to do, as evidenced, for example, by the commentary from Amut Chaudhuri where "Lawrence identifies monoliths -- cathedrals, museums, the Colosseum -- with centrality, power, even Western domination" to oppose Blackmur's "Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton for example remain monuments (not ruins) of the imagination", or he (Blackmur) understood Lawrence's procedure and frankly opposed it. Yes, opposed it. And that segues into the next byte.

"And what does “poetry,” that elusive term, somehow punitive term, mean to Blackmur? If we read farther we see that his definition of ‘poetry’ is simply his expectation of what poetry must be, based on the poets he has evidently read, and judged worthy of the title of “poet.” One needs the “structures of art,” which are put there by something Blackmur calls a “rational imagination.” All this suggests that the critic is in control of what is rational, and if one investigates far enough he learns that this critic is unhappy because Lawrence the “craftsman” did not often enough silence Lawrence the demon of “personal outburst.”(Oates/Banks)

Remember, Lawrence called the marginally effective Blake "an obscene knower". That's Blake the poet, not Blake the Swedenborgian annotator. Reason is good. So is emotion. Why put knives in the feeble hands of opposing strawpersonhoods and ask them to slash it out? Emotion has to be informed by reason in poetry, otherwise it's bathos, and insufferable; reason has to be informed by imaginative impulse, even imaginative and emotional direction, otherwise the poetry's pallid and ... well, prosy. Also, remember that Lawrence's idee fixe ( ironically, he liked to use the term as a pejorative for people fucked up by being too much in their heads) was that blood trumped mind, and that the two were fundamentally split, deeply antagonistic to each's power. One can love Lawrence's poetry and ideas, as I do, and still reject this notion, as have many reasonable people the past 80 years. Robert Bly, a critic I have grave reservations about on quite a few points, nevertheless made a wise call when he said that many poets compromised their chance for a lasting readership by being weak in one of those two central areas. He further pointed out that some, through tough self-criticism, overcame that imbalance. Neruda learned to include complexities of thought into his poetry (though we still have the Communist poetic agitprop), and Frost learned to unfreeze his heart. I don't see anything wrong with Blackmur criticizing Lawrence's (at times) simplistic polar obsessions.

Emotion has to be convincing on a transcendental, or at least worthy, level to the reader to not only be taken seriously, but to point to areas of thought and emotion beyond its personal hermetic themes and moods. I happen to love the much more personal poetry of later Lowell, as well as much of the now largely discredited Anne Sexton and the always polarizing Sylvia Plath. How does Banks' "argument" respond to those blunt facts? If emotion, if personal involvement and fractured biography in themselves made for good poetry, surely there are millions of unpublished diarists of the troubled and sensitive tear-stained locked-floral-folder-in-a-moonlit-escritoire that should be read and lauded. But it's easy for Banks, through unknowing proxies, to speak in incorrect vagaries. Where's his developed poetics?

There's another point, an important one, to be made here. I earlier stated that Blackmur -- one of two possibilities -- perhaps knew what Lawrence was up to and dismissed it. Opposed it. And there's nothing wrong with that. Does Banks enjoy postmodernist poetry? I still haven't read any blurbs on his blog to support that assumption. The lyric seems to be his stock in trade. And there's nothing wrong with that. I happen to laud the lyric ahead of any and all other modes, as well. But unless he starts applauding, honestly, the work of such diverse poets as McCaffery and Bukowski, he's being disingenuous. Because what, after all, is Banks' point, other than we should read all poets in respectful realization of their own "intentions", whatever the hell that means? What then? Is everyone then equal? Or does a reader have the right, the natural predilection, to not only prefer one poet over another, for clearly articulated reasons or even for a sure sense of emotional aversion or pleasure, but to honour that poet ahead of another? Does Banks take all reviewers and readers of poetry for fools for making aesthetic arguments and personal preferences?

Here's an opposing view to Blackmur's from Diana Trilling. I can hold both views in my mind as being worthy. But then I'm not the doctrinaire one in this "debate".

"The value for Lawrence of a created work lay not in its lastingness or in its conformity to esthetic standard but in its rightness at the moment and for its creator, in its usefulness as a form of personal communication" (D Trilling).

Blackmur is not always my cup of tea. I agree with Alfred Kazin who noted that Blackmur possessed a serious intellectual engagement with what he read, but who nevertheless couldn't or wouldn't see the human being behind the words. But I also disagree with how that view is often used as a way to discredit the reviewer wholesale. One doesn't need to love a poet to be able to laud her or him; conversely, one doesn't need to despise a poet to trash his or her work. And of course, in most cases a reviewer has no affiliation either way with the poet whose work is under consideration. Blackmur the person? I probably wouldn't have enjoyed a beer or three with him. Blackmur the critic? Only an oversensitive fool would discredit his finely-tuned involvement with what he closely read. Would that all reviewers, even reviewers of poet-friends, read books under review with such attention.

Just as Blackmur is not the be-all, the end note in so-called "formalist" criticism (and as previously mentioned, one should read his later work to see how these easy and inaccurate labels are used as a lazy crutch rather than as anything substantively damning), no critic or reviewer holds all the answers. There will always be a fresh angle to explore in any worthy poet because each reviewer approaches his or her reading with innate biases and preferences, and because excellent poetry is an inexhaustible treasure. There's nothing to be ashamed about in that realization. In fact it should be celebrated. Vive le (la?) difference! It's part of the human condition.

"What do you do with such people?"(Oates/Banks)

Laurel them with odes?

Oh, and P.S., though I haven't read any of her novels, I quite enjoy Oates' poetry.

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