Conceptualism... blah four

Blah, blah, blah...  not sure how much longer I can yoke these contraries (Concept & Blah) without giving us all the blahs.  But I think of things, walking to work, so I'll try to note it down.

Taking a long (wide?) view, Conceptual Poetics, Uncreative Writing, etc. may be irremediably trivial : yet it's curious how the concept, in connection with poetry, necessarily leads to the nearby endeavors of Literary Criticism.  What is poetry? has been the question.  As it happens I've been wading through a magisterial tome which used to be required reading for every English major, M.H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp.  A historical study of critical theories of poetry, focused on the Romantic era, but analyzing it as one phase in a development stretching back to Plato and forward (for him) to the New Criticism of the 20th century (his own era).  And maybe beyond (I'm less than half way through).

For Abrams, the interesting thing is how the history of critical theories about poetry (in the West, anyway) reveals a procession of world-views, of philosophical eras, of chapters in the "Western mind", which determine in every way the specific aesthetic notions - about poetry and art in general - of each era.  Abrams develops a simple diagram, with "the Work" (the poem) at the center, from which arrows extend in 3 directions - "World", "Audience", "Poet" - which correspond, respectively, to 3 succeeding approaches to poetry : Mimetic, Pragmatic, Expressive.  (These in turn correspond to particular leading theorists : Plato/Aristotle for the mimetic; Horace and the neo-classical authors of the 18th century for the pragmatic; and the Romantics for the expressive.)  A fourth theoretical mode, which corresponds to the "Work" alone, Abrams calls "Objective".  I haven't gotten to those chapters yet, but I think he's referring to 20th-century Modernist and New Critical approaches, which highlight the integral, autotelic, self-contained "objectivity" of the work-in-itself.

Still awake, dear blahdom companions?

You get a sense, reading Abrams, of poetry as an ongoing, curious phenomenon, a puzzle, a conundrum, around which thinkers down the centuries have tried to attach their conceptual pincers.  With only partial success ; the thing remains a riddle, and what critics say about it often says more about assumptions and enthusiasms of their own era, than about this elusive what-not itself.  And the pattern of Abrams' argument seems to be leading toward some kind of crux, or cul-de-sac, since if you walk through his historical chart geometrically, you see a kind of swirl or spiral, of theories - absorbing the outer three in succession (imitative, pragmatic, expressive) and then turning inward to the center, to the last element, the Work itself (objective theories).  Where do we go from here?

Should we ask Helen Vendler?   Harold Bloom?  The Academy of American Poets?  A.W.P., maybe?  or the Poetry Foundation?  I asserted previously in this little series that poetry does more than represent reality - it (somehow) establishes same.  But I want to distinguish this phenomenon itself from its professional American expert establishers of literary establishments.  Poetry tends to get buried under the eager thundering of its mobs of advocates, all trained in their various ways to integrate literature into society, to promote the arts, to laud, praise and p.r. its established practitioners under compost piles of laurels and mountains of award grants.  It's a gradual smothering process out of which swarms of compost-insects rise and dance and do battle (winners & losers & bettors & publicists & kibbitzers).  Bye-bye, poetry.  Hello, symposia, festivals & funeral orations.

Much has changed in the 70 years or so since M.H. Abrams composed his subtle summa of Romantic poetics.   The critical ground has shifted, or given way completely.  Postmodernity rejects the unproblematic essentialism of all critical terms.  History and cultural identity are relativistic, contested fields of competing discourses.  The New Critical icon of the "poem itself" shattered and crumbled quite a while ago.  Ron Silliman, the Language Poet, for example, pronounced that "there is no such thing as poetry - only poetries."  So-called avant-garde programs (Flarf, the Charles Bernstein Unit, Uncreative Writing, etc.) are structurally self-corroding, designed and promoted through tongue-in-cheek technique.  Sincerity is for simpletons.  In a sense, these theory-driven or concept-based movements (arm-in-arm with most of the sub-critical poetries at which they poke fun) dramatize the hollowing-out of traditional literary criticism - dancing on its grave.

So... ?  Abrams' spiraling template ends (I'm guessing) at the summit of the "Work".  The poet's job used to be to imitate Nature in a wise & pleasing way (Mimetic).  Then it evolved into an Horatian mode of rhetorical suasion - leading readers to Goodness by way of Charm (Pragmatic).   Then the Romantics came along - resurrecting a neo-Platonic (Plotinian) spirituality, replacing the attenuated Deism of the rationalist Enlightenment with a new enthusiasm, grounded in the lamp of divine Imagination (Expressive).  Finally, once the ruinations of industrialism and war put paid to Romantic ideals, new forces of reactionary/revolutionary Modernism arose, grounded in the autotelic power of the Work itself (Objective).  Then at last came the great deconstructive fibrillations of the late 20th century.  & here we are.

Versions of all five of these approaches are still with us.  The whole Coliseum of professional American literary praxis continually justifies itself through apologetics based on some or all of these critical angles.  (Mimetic : " Poet X provides an excruciating but finally enthralling account of what it's like to live in Y."   Pragmatic : "Poet J reminds us, with moving memories of home, that we need to return to our roots."  Expressive : "Poet Q is a magician, an alchemiste du Verbe - revealing a wonderworld of fantastic visions."  Objective : "Poet Z is an uncompromising formalist, who cannot be tagged with any of the current labels. Neither traditionalist nor experimental, her austere, formidable style is literally incomparable."  Postmodern : "Poet M. unravels poetry from his shoelaces down, and builds it up again - as video.")

Yet poetry, the thing itself, slithers along like Montale's eel, some subterranean life-force, beneath the flimsy fabrications, the droning roar of the pros of the status quo.  Some of the most gifted 20th-century poets, including Stevens, Crane and Berryman, struggled against the complacent New Critical dicta regarding the autotelic "poem itself".  They were searching for some firmer sanction.  Stevens, often portrayed as the paragon of a neo-Romantic sublime (Bloom) or as a master of the self-pleasing, self-sufficient work of art (Vendler), might instead be understood as someone engaged in a relentless, rather tense intellectual struggle to find a justification for his work, for the making of poems.

Poetry and worldview : I think we can say these depend on each other.  But maybe the poet doesn't so much articulate or express a worldview, as respond, obliquely, to the existent worldview, the reigning zeitgeist.  And maybe within this response are encrypted some intimations of futurity - of a future human ambience, or common sense of things, which hasn't happened yet.  Thus when I proposed that the poetic Word not only represents, but establishes, maybe this could be understood in this kind of future tense.  Here I'm reminded once more of Emily Dickinson....

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--

No comments: