Saturday, August 28, 2010
“The trick naturally is what [Robert] Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us — not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem. . . . There is really no single poem.” —Jack Spicer
I don't totally disagree with what Spicer says:
—his "trick" obviously works for some poets—Frank O'Hara for example—
but not for others,
whose trick is indeed "to search for the perfect poem"—
Bishop and Mallarme, to name a couple—
Many perhaps most poets oscillate (Octavio Paz's term) between these either-or choices,
compare the "perfected" poems of Robert Lowell versus his Notebook sonnets . . .
But ultimately the poets from both these positions
—or "temptations" as Paz summarized them:
"The history of modern poetry is that of the oscillation between revolutionary temptation and religious temptation." (Children of the Mire, p. 37.)—
ultimately, don't both temptations—the religious (Bishop et al) and the revolutionary (O'Hara et al)—
no matter what "trick" they employ—
end up, finally, pared down to their most perfect poems, confined to a Selected,
even the greatest Revtemps,
among whom I would place O'Hara—
even they will get reduced to their best; most of their verse will be winnowed away—
we living can never know which O'Hara poems will continue to thrive,
just as Tennyson's contemporaries could not have foreseen what his Selecteds would include/exclude—
future academic specialists will study specific poets in their entirety, of course—
and androids/cyborgs will upload every poem ever published, in 0.3 seconds—
but most readers, human readers anyway, will stick to that Selected—
I haven't read all of the Collected O'Hara, but some of the poems I've read donkeydozens of times with renewed appreciation—
"Mary Desti's Ass" made it into the 213 (page-through printed) pages of Donald Allen's Selected O'Hara,
but will it survive in the smaller Selecteds to come—
it's not a "perfect poem" perhaps, and will probably never appear in general anthols like the Norton etc.,
but it leaves me stunned stammering with admiration after every reading—
Peculiar loves like mine for "Mary Desti's Ass" are of course marginal, and bear less import than the consensus that accumulates and creates the canon of
those singled-out poems which enter the various Selecteds that follow in the wake of a great poet like O'Hara—
Anyway, considering it over I think I disagree further with Spicer's quote above: I think he misses the point.
Because perfect poems do get written by significant poets, whether they're Revtemp or Reltemp, it doesn't matter.
Spicer's formula—"let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths"—is probably a good description of O'Hara's practice,
and his injunction—"not to search for the perfect poem"—inveighs against what Bishop and say Philip Larkin sought to do in their work—
Pick up the Larkin or the Bishop Collected in one hand and the O'Hara Collected in the other,
and feel the weight of their ways.
But my disagreement with Spicer's (or is it Duncan's) dictum, is simply this:
if O'Hara truly tried "not to search for the perfect poem," he failed.
Because he did write some perfect poems, and so did Bishop and Larkin.
(And Duncan, he failed too, if his aspiration/intent really was to eschew "the perfect poem"—two of his (at least) seem pretty perfect to me: Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar, and Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow—)
The trick is to write perfect poems using the trick that works best for you,
even the trick that tricks you into thinking your goal is "not to search for the perfect poem"
is a good trick if it helps you to write some perfect poems,
as presumably it did for O'Hara.
Revtemp, Reltemp, whatever the hell.