Monday, July 11, 2011

good poets are worthless or Elizabeth Bishop is worth a Hiroshima so to speak

I'm collating/editing/revising for book publication a selection of my prose—here's another piece from it:


Interesting article in the May 14 2007 issue of The New Yorker: "Crash Course," by Elizabeth Kolbert, concerning CERN and its efforts to build a supercollider . . .

two paragraphs from page 74:

Particle physicists come in two distinct varieties, which, rather like matter and antimatter, are very much intertwined and, at the same time, agonistic. Experimentalists build machines. Theorists sit around and think. "I am happy to eat Chinese dinners with theorists," the Nobel Prize-winning experimentalist Samuel C. C. Tang once reportedly said. "But to spend your life doing what they tell you is a waste of time."

"If I occasionally neglect to cite a theorist, it's not because I've forgotten," Leon Lederman, another Nobel-winning experimentalist, writes in his chronicle of the search for the Higgs [particle]. "It's probably because I hate him."

Is there an analagous split in poetry, "two distinct varieties"?

I think the Langpo or Post-Avant would say, if I understand them correctly, and I'm not sure I do,

that no poetic activity can occur in a theory-free state,

and that those poets who try to proceed as if it were otherwise are deluding themselves,

no matter how loudly they assert the process is essentially an empirical experience . . .

But are there poets who have tried to follow the intricate measures of Harold Bloom's six-step recipe for the Great Modern Poem, the Great Post-Wordsworthian Poem ("the High Romantic crisis-poem model of six revisionary ratios"):—

especially since Ashbery's masterpiece Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror seems to have been (coincidentally?) baked to those specifications . . .

or is Nobelist Tang right: "to spend your life doing what [the theorists] tell you is a waste of time" . . .

If Nobelist-by-rights Ashbery neglects to cite Bloom, is it probably because he hates him?

To quote from page 76 of Kolbert's article (I've slightly altered some of the preliminary text):

Asked to explain how their work, supported by public funds, contributes to the public good, particle physicists often cite [the words of Robert Wilson, in his testimony before a Congressional Committee in 1969] . . . a Senator wanted to know the rationale behind a $250 Million government expenditure for a new collider:
Did it have anything to do with promoting "the security of the country"?
Wilson: No sir, I don't believe so.
Senator: Nothing at all?
Wilson: Nothing at all.
Senator: It has no value in that respect?
Wilson: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. . . . It has to do with are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. . . . It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.

Three things strike me about his last answer there, which I've quoted verbatim as the New Yorker prints it:

First, the way Wilson takes the Senator's use of the word "respect" and shifts its meaning . . .

Second, [given this nation's] celebrations and glorifications of War, the irony of his saying that painters sculptors poets are among "all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about."

Third, his use of modifiers here: "good painters, good sculptors, great poets."

Why GOOD painters, GOOD sculptors, but not GOOD poets?

I don't think the distinction Robert Wilson offers here is wrong.

Intentionally or not, whether he knows it or not, he is being rather scientifically or at least historically correct in his assessment of relative value:

good painters and good sculptors are respected and venerated, but not good poets . . .

only great poets (like Ashbery) make our country "worth defending."

Elizabeth Bishop is worth a Hiroshima, so to speak.

The works of good painters and sculptors can increase in value posthumously: if you've ever seen the Antiques Roadshow, you know that even artists who were "regional" or ignored during their lifetimes can generate higher market prices eventually.

The work of art, the object produced by a deceased artist can still function as merchandise . . . and therefore can survive.

But the work of a good poet?

Prior to the current two-volume Norton Modern/Contemporary,

the one-volume edition (termed simply Modern) contained poems by James Stephens: he's no longer in this Now Norton,

which does "rescue" theoretically, for the moment, a few obscurantes, specialcases

whose refurbished verse has displaced Stephens and others . . . :

or for a dollar from usedbook venues you can obtain Oscar Williams' anthologies of "Modern Poetry":

they're filled with good poets whom no-one reads anymore,

whose efforts may perhaps never be resurrected by the Antique Po-Show . . .

But surely the harsh truth is that Wilson and Harold Bloom are right: only GREAT poets count. The good ones are worthless.