≡ Menu

style

Neither a memoir nor a novel, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton UP, 2010) by Andrei Codrescu measures the speed of our psycho-poetic times. It seems we are moving faster and faster knowing less and less where. On the sheen of it, the book runs through the first day of an Intro to Poetry Writing class wherein Codrescu narrates his process of assigning “Ghost-Companion” poets to students according to the first letter of their last names. Underneath the glaze of this conceit, however, the book prods for lessons about the American Academy’s marketing of the imagination through creative writing classes.

I pissed smugly on academia, which is a way of saying that I pissed on myself, which I do, regularly, to extinguish my pretensions. While I was peeing I didn’t think I was immortal, but felt something very much like it. It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything. I could just be a damn professor like all the dinosaurs that spray these stalls, but I can’t. I’d have to give up being a poet, not that anyone knows what the hell that is, but that’s exactly the point. The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject. (98)

Codrescu, with his trademark humor and eye for the ladies, unleashes a number of schemes to shock his poetry students into making it new (here “it” also means their lives and not just their texts). Musing on our mania for the new, Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) A bit later, he expounds explicitly on the role of the poet in society: “The poets’ job was to cast a weary second glance on the world and to look fondly into eternal sentiments with a musical insistence that made them new.” (109) Upon critical reflection on Codrescu’s observations that we are addicts of the new, a question might arise: how can a poet ever be more than a hipster, a fashionista, or a mere bodysurfer of the new? Turning Walter Benjamin on his head, one might ask: what is freedom without fashion?

College students need the kinds of Humanistic insights that Codrescu offers throughout his diaristic recounting of the first session of his last class. For instance, Codrescu brings up linearity, that crutch of old-man positivism:  “I like to start at the beginning, I adore chronology even though I know only too well (and explain to my advanced classes) that chronology is arbitrary and that you can get to or at anything starting at any point, because all things touch on every other thing with at least one point of their thingness. Or maybe all things are round.” (116) I like to think that such an image (of how all things are really connected) lounging in the heads of young people might make it difficult for them to conspire to profit off of their neighbor. Eternal sentiments like the interconnectedness of all things or the sensuality of life or the transitory nature of all things are the functional purview of a Liberal education.

Though the form of Codrescu’s pedagogy seems based on a set of labyrinthine rules and draconian discipline; the content, represented through deft summary and talky quotation, suggests his abiding interest in learning what it means to be a poet from his students. Reflecting on his poetry-life, Codrescu writes:

If anything consoles me now it is that attached to these poets and their publishers and my friends and their work were stories. I had thousands of stories to tell about these people and their products because this was my life, a life spent hanging out, talking, writing poetry, alone or with others, seeing twisted shapes in the night and crisp aphorism at dawn. (103)

The book rambles through delightful scenes of perky soldier-students and feral cats that have laid siege to the LSU campus where Codrescu is teaching his last class before retiring. “Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism.” (108)

Like the Romanian-born literary critic and professor Matei Calinescu, Andrei Codrescu, synthesizes the histories of European Avant-garde and American Modernism with calm lucidity. He chucks around terms like ideology, postmodernism, and kitsch with the cock-soreness of a smithy. Really? Take his word for it. Here Codrescu describes the perennial distrust between generations: “It had always been thus, but it was worse, I think, now, when every proof for one thing or another was intellectually available, but tips and hints on how to really live are rarer than asparagus stalks in Eskimo cuisine.” (57)

So, what is the poetry lesson? The poetry lesson is that poetry is a practice. What kind of practice? Poetry is the kind of practice that afflicts you with the microbe of identity crisis. If you don’t have an identity crisis, you have been rendered spiritually destitute by the readymade suggestions of capital. Seek the guidance of spirits.

 

An aspect of poetry which tends to make me peevish is that it demands for a poet to develop a “style,” or to adhere to a particular school without deviation, simply to make their flair emblematic, or to place their stamp on it. You’ll only come across poets who traverse the landscapes of a variety of styles and schools when they attend flexible classes or workshops and are introduced to flexible teachers who provide assignments which require them not to delimit themselves or their work. One might relegate this sort of teaching philosophy to something which lacks specificity or focus, but in actuality, these experiments are necessary so as not to confine the poet to something which might prove to be limiting, inauthentic, and egregiously mimetic.

All poetry is a mimesis of sorts, according to Aristotle, but this concept should not be misconstrued as imitation of another poet’s “shtick.” Shtick can’t be imitated, especially if what a poet is imitating (or borrowing from) is the other poet’s original interpretation of nature, event, political perspective, and more especially that poet’s experience with love and romance. Aristotle meant that poetry was mimetic of all of things, independent of another poet’s unique perspective. It is not necessary that poets imitate other poets, but that they imitate life.

And I don’t mean “experiment” in terms of what is widely understood in literary circles as “experimental poetry.” The truth is that ALL poetry is experimental. Poetry, in effect, demands a “gymnastics” of language, and the poet should always “refresh” their approach to what they want to say with each new poem. Each poem should be likened to the first poem the poet has ever written.

This is not to say that poets shouldn’t study the variety of approaches, forms, and styles that they have at their disposal. And this is not to say that poets shouldn’t take from each style and include them as ingredients, so to speak, for what they might aim to be an unprecedented “recipe” for a sort of poem that no reader can categorize, claim, or relegate to a particular type, or particular package, simply for the fashion of it. Authentic poetry arises from a sort of selectivity of tropes, forms, and approaches. Otherwise, the poet can claim these, or dispose of them. What peeves me the most is that there is presently a poetry scene which necessitates that there must be an adherence to a fashion or trend, must be a reflection of a particular aesthetic, and anything which defeats or transcends this is not meant to be understood or considered with seriousness.

I long and grieve for Neruda. He was a poet of great integrity, and his poems demonstrate a complexity which few poets attempt in the current poetry scene. While most poets in all schools of poetry laud him, few actually play with what might be an approximated conflation of what we now refer to as language poetry, romantic poetry, lyrical poetry, and a very acute rendering of speculative poetry, in addition to types of poetry which are impossible to classify. Why even classify poetry to begin with? True, poets must be taught to read and attempt to understand other poets. But why subsume their poetry into something that actually spills out around that subsuming into other classifications which even remain indefinite or discontinuous? Some poetry we cannot subsume. If you are poet, and you are following a template, or writing in a stanzaic form which does not coincide with the content of the poem, then consider an alternate approach.

The approach, as I have learned, is in observation and the application of language by way of that observation. I’m often accused of appearing dissociative. The truth is, I have often entered the world that isn’t immediate to the matter at hand, or what is often understood and recognized as the matter at hand. I’m on the moon, the snow is the tears falling from the face of an angel, my husband is a superhero, and when we make love whole cities collapse from the intensity.

When I picked up Neruda, I was impressed, but only because his sentiment seemed familiar to me. When I first began writing poetry, I wrote it blindly, having read the poetry belonging to a variety of “classifications,” but intuited all of these styles and concocted an almost subliminal recipe which somehow defined my poems. I wouldn’t classify my poetry as anything, and perhaps that is my outcry and silent war. Poetry arises and from what the soul demands of the poet, not from some contrived prescription of what poetry SHOULD be.

Poetry is translation–translation of observation into any language that suffices for the experience. It is not word layered onto template, unless you are required to follow a traditional poetic form, and even then, there is room for latitude, or for adapting to something which requires innovation within the limits of syllable, ordering, or poetic rhythm. So let’s now look at Neruda’s poem, “Phantom:”

How you rise up from yesteryear, arriving,
dazzled, pale student,
as whose voice the dilated and fixed months
still beg for consolation.

Their eyes struggled like rowers
in the dead infinity
with hope of sleep and substance
of beings emerging from the sea.

From the distance where
the smell of earth is different
and the twilight comes weeping
in the shape of dark poppies.

At the height of motionless days
the insensible diurnal youth
was falling asleep in your ray of light
as if fixed upon a sword.

Meanwhile there grows in the shadow
of the long passage through oblivion
the flower of solitude, moist, extensive,
like the earth in a long winter.

Here, Neruda managed to capture the winter as something from which something is slyly moving amongst all of this fixedness. Things are lightless, unmoving, frozen, and the “pale student” is the only entity which lends herself to the momentum of winter, under all that stillness. Infinity is “dead.” And in the end, the pale student essentially becomes “the flower of solitude,” the only hope of spring, still enduring what is cold and motionless.

His poem is romantic in a sense, and plays gymnastically with language—language as vehicle for idea and image. The sentiment of Neruda’s poem cannot be imitated, simply because of its authenticity. I am abashed, for I have at once attempted to imitate Neruda’s harnessing of image through language, not by imitation of sentiment or experience with love, but by taking language and twisting it to make music. I am not Neruda, by any means, and would never claim to be.

If you are inspired by a poem or a particular poet, take what you need, and discard the rest. Let your soul fuel the gymnastic play of language in your mind. It might wind up heavy with philosophy, like Neruda’s, or it might wind a narrative love poem, or it might wind up a lyrical ballad. But remain true to something which exists outside the limitations of category, school, or attentiveness to the aspects of the poem which might render it a template, or fill in the blank form, without considering the direction in which your poem demands that you go.

Here is my poem (as you might see, it was impossible to imitate his quatrains, since the poem demanded both four line and five line stanzas, and I was required to speak for the poem without a strictness of structure. I caught my own experience, and probably wound up not sounding like Neruda in the slightest. Yet, the concept still sort of wound up echoing his, if you might be discerning enough to notice this. So mimesis, at times, is subliminal and subconscious, and we often do it unintentionally. The trick is to imitate things completely without intention. We recognize these things afterward–after the seizure of the poem is over):

Shadow of Nightingale

Caught in the delicate epilepsy of love’s casual glance,
the body captivated by imagined tremolos
sings through us, fleshy as humans, cherubic
as products of some God’s insurgency of blackbirds
in a sudden departure from the roof of a church.

Say this and claim the night, let no nightingale haunt you
or steal the bread from the work of your hands,
make me a fleeting thing of peripheral excess,
or leave you cold in its enlarged shadow,
enslaved in itself by a pooling of moonlight.

There was new snow this morning,
undisturbed by footprint or mysterious trail,
silenced by the ministry of sleep’s desertions
from the bustle and exchange of yesterday.

Make me something so holy as girl unhandled,
pulsing the bright blood of desire,
and then ravish me, ravish me, release each of my spirits
from the machinery of my bones, the drudgery
of the mind’s labored language.

Render me woman, inhabitant of the body’s swelling fire,
the womb echoing like a drum,
calling forth an unknowing
of a beginning that never stops beginning.

So there’s always this double duty, neither to make the best the enemy of the good, nor to make the good the enemy of the best. Scylla and Charybdis. The reason I admire Johnson and Eliot and Empson so much – the thing that holds them together – is that they all think that doing the right thing is steering between two equally dangerous opposite bad things.

Do you remember that Eliot was billed as giving a talk on ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ and he’d realized that they’d simply misunderstood. That is, when he was asked what he was going to talk about, he’d said that these things were always a matter of Scylla and Charybdis and so forth, and this became the title of the talk so that we got a talk on this subject because they’d slightly misunderstood what he was saying. But it’s true to him.

And Samuel Johnson is profound on this. He asked why are we more lenient towards foolhardiness than towards cowardice. If you think of them as being equidistant from the right thing, two opposing faults. Why are we more lenient to the one? And the answer is because it is self-correcting. If you’re foolhardy, you bruise your shins. You find out, you learn from it. If you’re spendthrift, you learn as the miser never does. The spendthrift runs out of money, the miser never runs out of anxiety about money. Equidistant from the true course but one may prove preferable.

We need people to remind us that the good is the enemy of the best and we need people to remind us that the best is the enemy of the good. We need to protect ourselves from the dangers from both flanks.

—Christopher Ricks, interview from The Literateur Magazine

Something in a title suggests everything you could possibly want to say about a certain topic. As in the example of T.S. Eliot’s lecture entitled “Scylla and Charybdis,” mentioned by Ricks above. The title “The Problem of Style” suggested to me everything I wanted to blog about today concerning the evolution of a poet’s style, something I’ve been thinking about while reading through Robert Hass and Henri Cole to prepare book reviews about their new selected works.

Critics and academics—much maligned creatures to whom we should at least be grateful for having something to endlessly argue about—tend to regard style as a fixed thing, an external lacquer or recipe that poets consciously choose, modify, and have to then be evaluated for a/ which style they picked, b/ how well they handled it, and c/ at what expense Style X precluded Y or Z. Two conversations from memory substantiate the attitude I’m talking about, both by formidable minds. Archie Burnett teaching his class at Boston University was talking about John Milton and upon fielding some questions about the make-up of what we identify and label as “The Miltonic Style,” he went on to say “Ah, well, with a great poet like Milton he could have written in whatever style he wanted.” And recently, breaking bread with Daniel Mendelsohn, we entered into a large, hearty and even heated debate on whether or not a writer “sets out to know what he wants to write,”—his point being that whereas an amateur writer may just be throwing darts in the dark, merely provoking “questions,” suggesting possibilities he doesn’t have a finished thought about, the serious and accomplished writer knows exactly what he’s setting out to do, then tackles it with dispatch. I disagree with both of these statements—the first wholeheartedly, the second because of a zillion counter-examples. Milton, supreme artist that he was, wasn’t immobile or unaware of what he was up to, but to think he could have avoided the baroque line, his heightened Latinate phraseology, the robustly complicated syntax, is fanciful. For all his craft and intelligence and arch learnedness, Milton’s rhythmic DNA was predetermined (in a way). People, like poems, are after all a mixture of the given and the made. The made is not what I aim to dispute; but the given needs to be redefined, a little bit.

Style is foremost a tension of contradictions between a writer’s impulses and perception, not an absence of them. In a classical style, a writer’s personality is totally disguised behind the established proportions and prevailing measures of a tradition, or The Tradition, whatever that once meant. In the romantic style, a writer’s style emerges as an indulgence of their impulses and mannerisms that they recognized in past authors and themselves, developing towards “originality.” But originality as we know is at the root of idiocy, of speaking or sounding like someone outside the acquainted norms of the city—the polis. And this is what Samuel Johnson was getitng at when he said in response to a young poet’s manuscript: It is both good and original; the parts that are good are not original, the parts that are original are not good. Johnson, the epitome of the Augustan, classical mindset, looked on idiosyncrasy as a disease, one that had to be tolerated in the presence of a great writer like Swift, great that is for his other qualities, but extirpated in an overrated poet like Thomas Gray, whose diction was remote and eccentric. (I for one love Swift and Gray.)

And yet as Richard Howard has brilliantly written in his essay on Emily Dickinson, it is precisely a writer’s peversities that can make him so good, not in lieu of them, but directly because they were listened to, indulged, cultivated. He argues, shrewdly, that Dickinson’s dashes, capitalizations, peculiar rhythms, coy slant-rhymes are her genius as a poet, not provincial blemises that happen to sit on a great linguistic talent. The opposite point of view can be heard in Eliot’s essay on Blake, where the attitude is: Yes, this man was a great poet, but alas also a home-spun weirdo, who had these troublesome peculiarities that prevented him from being as important as good ol’ Dante. Harold Bloom, dissenting from Eliot (shocker!) has fired back, emphasizing in ‘The Western Canon’ (perhaps tipping the see-saw too much in the opposite direction) that Dante’s centrality to Western literature relies on his extraordinary brazenness, as when he ciphons Beatrice into eternal salvation history (an argument that is found also in Emerson).

But I am digressing between the Classical and Romantic trap, when what I want to talk about is what is akin to both of these modes, intrinsic to writing any poem, regardless of what the tradition it plugs into is.

When we think of style as a pathology—we do artists an injustice, to their deliberation and foresight, as well as to the range of a poet proven over time. Stevens writes in his characterstic mode for his entire life, but between ‘Harmonium’ and ‘The Rock’ the conscious artisan in Stevens decided to become more pared down, less jumpy in his adjective use, and honors the strain throughout his life to speak in the simple sentence.

When we think of style as a choice—we are forgetting that sensibilities are vast and complex and have so many unconscious ingredients, dispositions and biases at work, it’s impossible to say simply why W.C.W. favors the short, clipped line, and Frost keeps to iambic pentameter. One man’s nerves cannot stand noise, another bathes in distortion and static.

One of the problems of style then is when a writer acknowledges a past tendency as a mechanism no longer adequate, or pleasing, or just. True, for the precocious or immensely talented, perhaps this gap is indiscernable, or much shorter—as in a Merrill, who began writing as refined and polished as his very last works. Another exception is the occasional, and rare, writer who assimilates so easily other people’s styles, he can seemingly switch between them—but then isn’t that method their style? Joyce, Eliot, Ashbery: they don’t so much have different styles as styles with immense difference built into them. In Joyce, you see these as discrete effects as you follow his career towards a sea of chaos—but the Joycean tone, flippant, somewhat verbose?, and resigned, that’s there throughout. Eliot willfully goes against his inner discord, his turmoil and polyphony of voices that he discovered in ‘The Waste Land,’ then labors towards a ‘style’ in the ‘Four Quartets’ that is seamlessly regulated, and unified. Ashbery took the opposite route, and after he mastered in his third and fourth books the possibility for disjunctiveness in vocabulary, narrative and form—he has kept going, on and on and on, to this day.

It appears to me that everything that I am saying is grossly redundant, and obvious. So that’s a good place to stop.

The problem of style exists, larger than the unconscious and conscious distinctions I’ve circled around. One way of seeing poems must be not as answers to questions, solutions for the puzzle, or resolutions to the problem—but as a way to discover what the questions are, what puzzles need working out, what problems each writer has in store. If we’re lucky enough, though the problems, like our pathologies, never go away—we do get to master them, instead of them mastering us. That is, one hopes.