Thursday, January 28, 2010

Critique of Joyce Carol Oates' THE HOSTILE SUN

All quotes are from Joyce Carol Oates' The Hostile Sun: The Poetry Of D H Lawrence.

"[Poems] are meant to be spontaneous works, spontaneously experienced; they are not meant to give us the sense of grandeur or permanence which other poems attempt, the fallacious sense of immortality that is an extension of the poet's ego."(Oates)

Well! I thought Oates (from part of the quote Banks provided) said that there are hundreds of ways to write poems. I guess she meant hundreds of ways, all approved by her. Hypocrite.

This argument still has legs today, and it's a crock. Who says the effects of spontaneity the reader realizes in poetry, good or bad, are always from spontaneous means? Poetry is manipulation. Who cares how the effects are laboured over, or whether or not they are laboured over. All that matters is the illusion on the page. Many poets have many moments of spontaneity in their lives, but it doesn't matter if it can't be transposed to the poem. Besides, one of the many contradictions of Oates' argument in this booklet is that spontaneous production or spontaneous style in poetry is only one way to approach it. In itself, it's neither better nor worse than so-called ego-fed grandeur. Or is Kerouac better than Lowell? The spontaneous-dictating Milton, though, is slightly better than either, so, again, the either/or argument here is a non-starter.

"Ultimately, Lawrence forces us to stop judging each individual poem. ..... The experience of reading all the poems .... becomes a kind of mystical appropriation of Lawrence's life, or life itself, in which the essential sacredness of "high" and "low", "beauty" and "ugliness", "poetry" and "non-poetry" is celebrated in a magical transcendence of all rational dichotomies." (Oates) (italics in the original).

Now the first thing to emphasize in the above quote is that it's terrible writing. Not just in style, but more importantly, in definitional authority. Why "a kind of mystical appropriation"? When words of great import are thrown around -- mystical, transcendence -- it behooves the writer to not rumble and fumble with qualifiers. And what else is transcendence but magical? And, no, no reader can appropriate any other writer's feelings, let alone acquire mystical union from the pages. Also, why the quotes around high, low, beauty, etc ..? Lawrence himself frequently comments on these dichotomies, so the ironic pointing-out is condescending. Also, all dichotomies are rational. To distinguish and contrast is itself a rational act. The many redundancies and abuses of diction are not only jarring, a salient aversion, but embarassing.

But, not least, the argument is made in the quote opener -- again, still frequently intoned today -- that the reader shouldn't concentrate on individual poems, but on a gathering force of authority or thematic concern. But Oates either doesn't see the irony, or is disingenuous about the fact, that even were this the proper approach, judging a book in its totality is also automatic, natural, and .... well, to be tautological, just. Poems, individually, work or they don't. Individually, they thrill or they don't. Individually, they are lasting contributions or they're not. Yes, pre-Modernism, the long poem was not only common, but many great poets' 20- or 100-page edifices largely built their reputations. But even here, certain passages are frequently singled out while others are silently passed over. Even in Shakespeare, there're discursive, plot-focussed passages which can never be compared to the best soliloquies in Macbeth or Hamlet. To get back to Lawrence, however, the poems were largely short or shortish lyrics. Some sing, others pontificate. Only a reader enraptured by nebulous transportation would throw them all in the blender and declare the end product a pure smoothie. But Oates, as usual, contradicts herself. More on that, to this point, in a few later quotes.

Worst of all, though, still staying with the above quote, is the "Lawrence forces us". How so? If you're swept up by the force of the complete poems, then you certainly don't need to be forced. If you can discriminate, and Oates agrees with me here, then you can't be "forced" into accepting inferior work.

"Like most extraordinary men, Lawrence is concerned with directing the way his writing will be assessed." (Oates)

The opposite is the case. Contrast this with Lawrence's famous injunction to "trust the tale, not the artist."

"The ambitious are never content to leave the writing of their biographies to others, who may make mistakes." (Oates)

Didn't seem to have hurt Shakespeare. We know next to nothing of him. And who's to say a poet makes the best biographer of his or her own life? Lawrence wisely told us that each is a mystery to him- or herself, only a tiny patch in a forest of which can ever be known.

"One of the reasons why Lawrence has maddened so many people -- they sense his violent , self-defining magic, which totally excludes them and makes them irrelevant, unless they "become" Lawrence himself, on his own terms and not their own." (Oates)

Good grief, what nonsense. Many readers (one mustn't assume, and speak in absolutes, as does Oates, here) don't feel "irrelevant", they feel that Lawrence often can't get out of the way of his wondrous observations, and worse, can't resist rationally delineating his wordless transformations. Ironic, considering the import he grants "blood", the hatred he expresses for explanation. Also ironic if you note the quote I provided from R P Blackmur in my last post, where he (Blackmur) clearly and brilliantly details the function and action of art as it differs from, as well as fuses with, criticism. No, Lawrence must often wax ideological on repetitive, abstract antinomies. If his own ego (to go opposite Oates' silly conclusion in the first of her quotes in this post) could be silenced, or at least sidestepped temporarily, we'd have more masterpieces like "Piano" and less dreck like "The White Horse". But I'm not complaining -- Lawrence wrote a lot of incredible poetry -- just correcting Oates' contradictions. Oates actually recognizes this a few pages on:

"When Lawrence seems to us at his very worst -- he is stridently dogmatic, authoritative, speaking without ambiguity or mystery, stating not suggesting, as if attempting to usurp the position of the infinite (and unknowable)." (Oates)

Yes, it's not that he projects himself into the poems, but that he dominates them, which is Blackmur's point. Oates takes Blackmur to task for his "rational imagination", though she doesn't have even an elementary understanding of what Blackmur means by it. I'll repeat two quotes, together, one from Oates, one from Blackmur (through Montaigne).

"As if attempting to usurp the position of the infinite (and unknowable)."(Oates)

"Poetry "does not seduce our judgement; it ravishes and overwhelms it"." (Blackmur)

What really galls me about Oates' critique of Lawrence is the attitude -- which has now become a mania amongst Canadian and American contemporary poets -- that spiritual evolution, preferably to a high level, is synonymous with poetic worth. One need only to scan the roster of amazing poets the past 2,000 + years to realize that many, if not most, poets were spiritual fuck-ups where the gulf between crummy life and gracious benediction was wide as the sky. And what gives Oates the right to assume that those tragically fated poets (Oates specifically contrasts Lawrence with Berryman and Plath) didn't have that soaring vision, as well? Lawrence was fortunate enough, apparently, to have sporadically transcended the mind (though by many accounts, he frequently acted like a madman, and abused his wife). None of this has anything to do with his poetry, or with Oates' high evaluation of him. In my very first post on this blog, February 2008, I relayed how a friend of mine confused the role of the poet with that of the saint. Many people conflate the two. And they're free to enjoy whatever concept of poetic worthiness they want. But there are many spiritually worthy people who write junk verse. Many will name-check Ryokan or Rumi. And Jesus wasn't too shabby, either. But a river of pale enlightenment experiences from otherwise wise people have been set down for posterity. A poem is a curious thing -- is it not? -- breezily unconcerned with reasons and rules, as Blackmur so rightly noted.

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