Mar 26, 2008

Pinsky Poem Widely Discussed

I really should spend more time studying poems on this blog. Believe me, I am reading poetry constantly. But the work of criticism is laborious, working poem by poem. I do not want to be hasty in my judgments. I have posted on a few of the poems of the Winters Canon, but these are works of art that I have been contemplating for decades.

That said, let me turn, as promised, to that recent poem by Robert Pinsky that has garnered so much attention across literary culture in recent months. The attention is a remarkable occurrence for any single poem -- but more so, for me, because Pinsky was a former student of Yvor Winters near the end of his life in the 1960s. Some label Pinsky a Wintersian, but I don’t think he even comes close to qualifying as a classicist of any sort (as I argue elsewhere on this blog). Pinsky has little to do with Winters’s ideas and the style he promoted any longer, though there was a time that Pinsky made a feint or two toward the classicism that Winters stood for. With his latest collection, there is very little of anything classical left to his poetry. Reading his work has mostly become a dull chore, as has become my labors on this post.

Pinsky’s new book of poetry, Gulf Music, has been reviewed widely in literary publications, and one poem from that book, “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” has received an amazing amount of discussion. It might be the most widely discussed poem of the past two decades in American literary culture. Even writers outside poetry circles have been taking a look at it. The poem has been reprinted on many web sites, but here it is again for convenience:

Poem of Disconnected Parts

At Robben Island the political prisoners studied.
They coined the motto EACH ONE TEACH ONE.

In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
Address them always as "PROFESOR."

Many of my friends are moved by guilt, but I
Am a creature of shame, I am ashamed to say.

Culture the lock, culture the key. Imagination
That calls the boiled sheep heads in the market "Smileys."

The first year at Guantanamo, Abdul Rahim Dost
Incised his Pashto poems into styrofoam cups.


Becky is abandoned in 1902 and Rose dies giving
Birth in 1924 and Sylvia falls in 1951.

Still falling still dying still abandoned in 2006
Still nothing finished among the descendants.

I support the War, says the comic, it's just the Troops
I'm against: can't stand those Young People.

Proud of the fallen, proud of her son the bomber.
Ashamed of the government. Skeptical.

After the Klansman was found Not Guilty one juror
Said she just couldn't vote to convict a pastor.

Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather.


But later the Americans gave Dost not only paper
And pen but books. Hemingway, Dickens.

Old Aegyptius said, Whoever has called this Assembly,
For whatever reason -- that is a good in itself.

O thirsty shades who regard the offering, O stained earth.

Coloured prisoners got different meals and could wear
Long pants and underwear, Blacks got only shorts.

No he says he cannot regret the three years in prison:
Otherwise he would not have written those poems.

I have a small-town mind. Like the Greeks and Trojans.
Shame. Pride. Importance of looking bad or good.

Did he see anything like the prisoner on a leash? Yes,
In Afghanistan. In Guantanamo he was isolated.

Our enemies "disassemble" says the President.
Not that anyone at all couldn't mis-speak.

The PROFESORES created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.

Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don't also write poetry.

Guilts, metaphors, traditions. Hunger strikes.
Culture the penalty. Culture the escape.

What could your children boast about you? What
Will your father say, down among the shades?

The Sangomo told Marvin, "YOU ARE CRUSHED BY SOME

Copyright Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux

Now, how do I as a Wintersian classicist believe we should we judge this work? First, it’s not poetry. It’s prose. A slack, pretentious prose. A New York Times reviewer described this as “relentless” blank verse. Huh? Is that a joke? I try to be charitable at all times, but this comment has to be one of the most idiotic or ignorant claims I have read about poetry in my entire life. This poem is not written in blank verse by any definition of the term. It can barely be described as verse at all. I will admit that since Pinsky’s generally sloppy lines are roughly equal in length and divided into couplets, with each couplet coming to a period close, you can construe this writing as a very loose, lazy sort of verse. So loose that it amounts to prose, in my judgment. But it is at least plausible that it could be defended as verse.

Turning to its structure, the poem does have a rather disheveled sort of organization, though it is nearly haphazard. The prose couplets of roughly equal length make a series of discreet declarative statements of various kinds that touch repeatedly on a set of broad themes. Beyond this, there is no structural principle. Such an approach is a severe weakness in any poem.

Now, I am aware that Pinsky is interested in jazz. He has even said in interviews and essays that he is trying to do with poetic language what jazz has done in music. The experiment has had some interesting results. But the experiment is mostly failing badly, as it has in this poem. Pinsky’s riffs are wholly inappropriate to serious poetic discourse, which Pinsky clearly wants to engage in. He writes as though he found a few brightly colored beans in a big jar and tossed them on a table for us. We readers are left to do the poet’s real work, the real writing, the real thinking -- making sense of the beans of life that might chance to catch a poet’s roving, rummaging eye. Nothing in this poem clearly indicates the way the beans are to be taken, which means we can take them in just about any way we like, which means that the exercise is just about pointless -- which means that this work of art, if such we agree (charitably) to call it, is just a scattering of beans. As you will see when I discuss themes, each bean stands as an observation or aside on a variety of notions, tossed on the table without evident order or structural purpose other than that they touch on certain broad themes almost at random. I find this structure very weak, truly almost insipid.

By the way, Pinsky mentions various people and situations without explanation. Some of these are perfect examples of a poetic weakness that Yvor Winters called pseudo-reference, which means talking about things that the writer doesn’t explain in enough detail to make sense of. For example, the people Becky, Rose, Sylvia, the comic, Dost, Marvin of the final couplet, and others are all pseudo-references. That’s fine. Sometimes scatterings of beans are mildly interesting or lightly pleasing for one reason or another. But let’s not confuse such scatterings with great or good or satisfying art.

As to style, Pinsky’s writing here and most everywhere else nowadays is quite slack and even pockmarked with clichés, which, as I will discuss below, has become his standard practice. Ignoring the clichés for the moment, I see nothing in the least distinguished about this writing. It reads like bland conversation, the lifeless prattling of someone who thinks far too much of himself. Pinsky has been writing in this limp, slovenly style for more than a decade now. I find it tedious. It certainly offers nothing eloquent or moving. Since readers of poetry usually love language, it is downright sad that there is nothing in Pinsky’s writing that might draw us in. He offers no formal coherence, no music, no eloquence. There are a couple mildly pleasing turns of phrase, I’ll admit, but so few that the poem mostly reads like the work of an average high school student.

Now, as to theme, the poem is wide open to interpretation, nearly infinitely open. That appears to be Pinsky’s intent, though we can only guess at intent. I could, anyone could, take a merry stab or two at what Pinsky is trying to say to us, but our varied guesses would amount to each of us telling himself what he thinks about these nearly haphazard remarks rather than coming to an understanding of what Robert Pinsky might be trying to tell us (presuming that he knows himself, which is questionable). For there is no clear indication in the poem of what Pinsky wants us to see or know or think about the themes.

Yet from what we can discern, the subject matter is serious. For this I applaud Pinsky. He appears, at the least, to be trying to say something important about social and political life. The misty subject matter of several of the couplets leads us to believe that Pinsky is trying to say something morally and politically serious about a handful of themes. These themes stand out because they are repeated, in Pinsky’s insufferable jazz-like manner. Unjust imprisonment is one such theme. Pinsky gives a few couplets on that subject, especially in the emphatic opening couplet that alludes to the lengthy imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. We guess (all we can do is guess) that Pinsky wants us to consider this imprisonment to be unjust and that, thus, one of the themes of this poem is governmental injustice. (The photo that accompanies this post is a shot of Mandela’s Robben Island cell.) Another implied central theme is shame. Pinsky indiscriminately plops in several couplets that seem, roughly, to concern shame, including the emphatic final couplet. But, at the end, when we try to fuse these jumbled, annoyingly jazzy observations on shame with the random comments on imprisonment, can we come up with anything thematically, conceptually solid? Just barely. Here’s my guess: Pinksy appears to be telling us that he is, and we should be, ashamed about unjust imprisonments and, presumably, other immoral methods of governmental control. For our society to get its governmental practices right, he appears to be saying, we need to tap into and act upon our feelings of shame, which can be rediscovered by trusting the wisdom of our ancestors. But the various comments on these themes do not properly cohere. We can only resort to guesswork.

You have my guess, but there are probably a thousand others just as valid. My main point is that whatever Pinsky is trying to say in this poem can only be guessed at. Indeed, he appears to have intended to make us guess, guess all we wish, make up our own meaning, rather than to make it clear what HE as author means. The reader is put in the situation of having to come up with what he or she thinks, reflecting on what “shame” or “ancestors” happens to mean to him or her in this woolly context. You do get the exceedingly vague sense that Pinsky disapproves and is ashamed of the practices of unjust imprisonment. But he offers no insight into this idea through this treatment of the notion. If a poet is going to make a statement so trite as that, he or she had better offer it in language that strongly adjusts the emotions to the proverbial statement. But, as I have argued, the writing is messy and insipid.

Pinsky appears to try to make a few aphoristic statements, as though he is interested in conceptual generalities, in moral principles. But his aphorisms have no bite because they are loose, vague, and slackly written. Consider for example the line “Culture the penalty. Culture the escape.” This seems to carry some weight. It is a generalized comment that we think might sum up an important turn in the argument. But when we reach the end, we realize that this statement about culture is so trivial that is saying almost nothing at all.

David Orr, a regular at the New York Times on poetry, has had little good to say about Yvor Winters (not that he is entirely negative), but Orr was on the mark about the common compositional mode of most poetry nowadays, which Robert Pinsky seems to be employing as a ritual:

[A certain poet’s] technique is a variation on the trendiest contemporary style, which relies heavily on disconnected phrases, abrupt syntactical shifts, attention-begging titles (“The Gem Is on Page Sixty-Four”), quirky diction (“orangery,” “aigrettes”), flickering italics, oddball openings (“The scent of pig is faint tonight”) and a tone ranging from daffy to plangent -- basically, two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein. It’s not hard to write acceptable poetry in this mode, which is one of the reasons so many people make use of it. After all, poets need jobs, and for those, they need books -- and for those, well, they need poems.

That’s fairly close to a summary of the style and substance of “Poem of Disconnected Parts.” As you see, the poem is actually anti-communicative. It is not striving to communicate anything, any vision or theory or idea about injustice or imprisonment or shame or culture. It expects YOU, the reader, to communicate to yourself, to put together a puzzle of your own making, since the edges of the pieces are so uniform that they will fit together in any of a thousand arrangements. And it appears that Pinsky is smugly proud of what his poem is, as announced in the title. He appears to want his ideas and musings to be disconnected, so that we readers are forced to connect them in any way we wish. But this is an abdication of a writer’s central responsibility and opportunity, as Yvor Winters argued frequently about experimental poetry. The title is, moreover, obviously, tastelessly ironic. Yet the irony doubles back on Pinsky. For though Pinsky is being ironic in that he pompously thinks that his clumsy, sloppy observations CAN be indeed connected, though he obviously desires us to make up some connections on our own, his bland ideas truly are disconnected. They are just beans on a table. A blooming buzzing confusion.

Thus, the poem traduces one of the central principles of classicism -- order. If I spent time trying to impose what I think these couplets signify on the poem, I would find it to have been a waste of time, which might not be bad all in all. Sometimes you just waste time in life for the sake of diversion. The problem is that I don’t usually read literature in order to waste time. At the end of reading, say, George Herbert “Church Monuments,” I want to arrive at some deeper, powerful understanding, significantly deeper, and to feel my emotions aligned properly to that understanding. Herbert’s poem, for a great example, pays on the effort it takes to fathom the poet’s understanding. But I suspect strongly that “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” as with much of Pinsky’s poetry, is just a waste of time. There will never be a payoff, other than filling some time with idle reflection.

Now, is this a bad thing? Should this poem not exist? Should it not be read? Of course not, in answer to all three questions. But this doesn’t mean that the poem is good. I don’t think this poem deserved to be published, but somebody thought otherwise. It’s puzzling, even sad, but it has happened, and the classicist must live with it.

Before closing, I want to come back to Pinsky’s style. Is there anything in his diction or syntax that could be seen as rewarding, beans of particularly attractive hue or shape? I see almost nothing in this poem worth bothering with, worth trying to enjoy deeply or contemplate with care or meditate on with earnestness. But there is worse. What, for goodness sake, has been Pinsky’s purpose in turning to the strange and icky practice of using gobs of clichés and puns? When did Pinksy wander so far from a basic knowledge of good writing that he became enamored of the cliché in the way of the poseur. Look at me, he seems to be saying, I can use a cliché because when I use it, it isn’t one. Oh, puh-leassssse! Another nauseating example of this from Pinsky’s work is a poem published recently in the New Yorker, “The Saws,” in the February 11, 2008, issue. Here Pinsky uses clichés and puns to... what?... well, to bolster the use of clichés and puns:

The saying dead as a doornail is still dead as a doornail:
Whatever a doornail might be or was, long lost in the dark,

The dark, the dark -— not always deepest before dawn, Pal.
Back then, passing a graveyard you might actually whistle:

No walk in the park, a black back street back in the day.
Zombie expressions, Buddy, as thin as a spare dime.

Generated by generations they still stagger the castle,
Wan, rife. Benighted or bedazed by the March of Time,

Time, time. The old saws hardly ever anymore called saws:
Kiss the cat and you kiss the fleas. And That’s the story of my life.

Copyright The New Yorker

This is worse than lazy writing. It’s dopey, unworthy of a high school creative writing class. Pinsky appears to think (you can’t tell, obviously) that this shows intelligence -- a bit of the ol’ wit and wisdom. It shows exactly the opposite. The man has arrived at a point at which he has next to nothing to say. It’s a sad end for a student of Yvor Winters in near vapidity.

I conclude my long remarks with a quotation from William Logan, the poetry critic who writes often for the New Criterion. Logan recently reviewed Pinsky’s Gulf Music, in which “Poem of Disconnected Parts” appears. He received a letter objecting to his review and then made these sharp comments in his reply:

My complaint [about Robert Pinsky’s poetry] is that even in the poems that are deadly serious, like the “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” it may not be enough merely to invoke Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island or the murder of the desaparecidos. Such shallow references underestimate the poet’s labor and condescend to what he means to honor. It’s as if Shakespeare had just said, “Agincourt!” and left it at that. Context is all....

Amen and Amen. As much as I like to see a poem achieve wide attention in our culture, as much as I could have been pleased that the author of that poem was a student of Yvor Winters, we must move on from this sorry episode in contemporary poetry.

Mar 19, 2008

The Usefulness of Art and a Fourth Hunger

British physician and thinker Raymond Tallis thinks that art can help us satisfy a “fourth hunger,” what he defines as an intense human need and desire to experience deeply and fully our experiences. Tallis published an essay on “spiked online” on this matter recently, last November to be exact.

Once again, as so often nowadays, someone is trying to explain to us exactly what art is for, to describe art’s “final cause,” to use the phrase Yvor Winters favored when discussing these matters late in his career. Why has art’s purpose been of such widespread concern lately? I have read of many books and articles and essays across the world addressing the topic, in general readership magazines of wide circulation, web sites, and many scholarly journals. We appear to have arrived at a crucial moment in the future of the arts. Change might be in the offing. Is a return to classicism in it, too? That’s hardly likely, I’ll admit. But all the discussion of art’s purpose and its general tone suggests that thinkers and readers are feeling a good deal of uncertainty about the arts. Beyond its commercial value, is poetry important? How about fiction? The new journalism? Painting? Music? In general, the arts culture seems a little desperate to find compelling answers to these questions that will create a sound and solid consensus.

Into this cultural moment has stepped Raymond Tallis, whom spiked describes as a British gerontologist, philosopher, poet, novelist, and cultural critic. Tallis has written lots of spirited essays on the web about all sorts of philosophical and scientific issues. I have found him learned and insightful on varied topics. His recent essay on the purpose of the arts, “Art, humanity and the ‘fourth hunger’,” is still available at:

I applaud all the theorizing about art’s final cause. But I recommend that the world’s thinkers interested in aesthetics turn back to Yvor Winters if they wish to comprehend this issue more fully and clearly -- though I would add that Wintersians should have long ago put some effort to fill in and strengthen Winters’s provisional ideas about the final cause of literature. Setting the indifference of the Wintersians aside, I want to look at some of what Raymond Tallis gets right and wrong, with the implication, as you have surely guessed, that Tallis’s work on the subject is worth attending to.

The fourth hunger Tallis defines as 1) the seeking of experiences for their own sake, which means 1a) truly experiencing our experiences. (By the way, the photo above is a shot of my son reading Homer while we were taking an evening walk through a patch of woods on the Michigan State campus a couple weeks ago. Was he satisfying a fourth hunger? Read on.) Now, both of these defining phrases are left quite vague, too vague. You can’t quite understand what Tallis is driving at because the language he employs is far too loose. Nowhere does Tallis make it clear what either of these phrases mean, except negatively. When we don’t fully experience our experiences, Tallis explains, we feel a little bit cheated. This feeling of being cheated tells us that we haven’t gotten all that we hunger for (the fourth hunger, you no doubt see), which are deep or full experiences. I know this sort of thing sounds ridiculously vague. But there is some hint of truth in this misty mist. The kind of example Tallis repeats is a vacation activity, like climbing a mountain or rafting a river or parasailing. When we feel a little less than a full and deep satisfaction by such vacation experiences, we know that we have not fed the fourth hunger, to truly experience. My example would be a backpacking trip to a national park (my brothers and I run a passenger ferry that sails to Isle Royale, Michigan’s wilderness national park on Lake Superior).

Again negatively, Tallis adds that we know that deep or truly true or full experience has eluded us because we feel “a mismatch between experience and the idea we had of it when we sought it out.” The fourth hunger, simply put, is met when experience equals expectation. Tallis admits it’s more complicated than that (certainly, it must be), but nowhere does he say exactly how it’s more complicated or in what way. (Nor, making a crucial error, does he explain how we will know what a deep or full experience is when we can’t seem ever to have one.) But his main point is that we fail so often “to experience our experiences.”

Now, before getting to art, which you have guessed by now will have the primary function of addressing the fourth hunger in some way (he actually implies that it is the sole function of art by not discussing any other function), Tallis pauses again to add that our experiences in general, on vacation and otherwise, feel disconnected. The events of our lives almost always fail to amount to wholes. Yet again, Tallis fails to define what a “whole” experience is. The best he can do is to explain that its lack is the feeling of moving from one thing to another, taste-testing from our the world and from our inner psychic states without putting them all together somehow. We almost always fail to gain an overview of ourselves, says Tallis. But his language is, again, much too loose. The words and phrases can mean just6 about anything. He says that we are stuck in what he calls “The Dominion of And” or “The Kingdom of And Then, And Then.” In these dominions, these mental states, we drift from one event to another, without ever fully experiencing any of them as a whole -- even our big experiences, such as, say, a wilderness backpacking trek or a visit to Chartres Cathedral. Tallis’s adjunct attempt at defining wholes and how we experience them is far too brief and vague. Yet he does have an earlier and longer essay on this particular aspect of our problem satisfying the fourth hunger, “The Difficulty of Arrival,” which looks worth reading and might help. (Some of this essay can be found at Google Books.)

To summarize so far, Raymond Tallis believes that many of us often (usually?) die without having been “fully there or never having fully grasped our being there.” This is because “we cannot close the gap between what we are and what we know, between our ideas and our experiences, our experiences and the life and world of which they are a part.” Once again, art presumably will somehow enable us to achieve this mental state. Let’s translate it into a thesis (which Tallis never clearly states):

Art will enable us to close the gap between what we are and what we know.

That infinitive phrase encapsulates, with yet even greater vagueness, the ethereal fourth hunger. Tallis believes that art is generated by the need to satisfy that hunger, which no vacation, apparently, can -- or at least hardly ever can. Arrival always eludes us:

... our need for art is rooted in the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of arrival in the Kingdom of Ends and there experiencing our experiences. If it is better to journey hopefully than to arrive, it is because arrival is not actually possible.

Here again, Tallis errs in failing to explain how we can know when we have arrived in a mental state of fourth-hunger satisfaction if we have never experienced it and without any clear definition of its indications. But putting that sticky weakness aside, Tallis states that the central purpose of art is to satisfy this need for arrival:

For the great work of art is an inselberg [German for a lone, high mountain standing in a flatland] in the plain of everyday life. From its elevated viewpoint, created when so much is brought together between a single cover, our greatly extended view gathers together what we have known, suspected, thought of, imagined, with a consequent mitigation of And; a ‘de-scattering’ of our scattered, tatty, messy, lives, calling back diffuseness to concentration.

Let’s try to get this straight, if we can. Tallis’s main idea is so thoroughly twisted in a strong of metaphors that it might have almost no meaning. We have a hunger to close the gap between experience and really, truly experiencing. Art closes the gap. By doing what? How does experiencing art close the gap of our individual experiences, make them really true and deep? Tallis explains how too briefly, as you will see in a moment. But this idea of “de-scattering” hints at something Winters understood, that art’s purpose is not only to produce emotion or to give us vicarious experiences. Art gives experience and something more, something richer and deeper: it gives us an understanding of experience. This is not exactly what Raymond Tallis opines, but he seems to have an inkling of Winters’s theory in this discussion of the fourth hunger. Winters discussed art’s final causes a number of times in his essays, but his theory comes out in concentrated form in his essay “John Crowe Ransom, or God Without Thunder” from In Defense of Reason. This is because Ransom theorized, to put it very simply, that art mimics experience (though Ransom certainly had many nuances to his aesthetic theories). In an important section of his essay on Ransom, Winters first describes to Ransom’s theory of art as imitation:

... Ransom regards... the work of art as an imitation, purely and simply, of some aspect of objective nature, an imitation made for love of the original object; and he takes elaborate pains to eliminate from the entire process all emotions on the part of the artist except love of the object.... [I]n God without Thunder he writes: “The esthetic attitude is the most objective and the most innocent attitude in which we can look upon the world, and it is possible only when we neither desire the world nor pretend to control it. Our pleasure in this attitude probably lies in a feeling of communion or rapport with environment which is fundamental in our human requirements -- but which is sternly discouraged in the mind that has the scientific habit.”

Now this is a common theory, going back to Aristotle and even before. But Winters quickly pushes this theory to its limits:

I should say the esthetic attitude [Ransom defends] is definable with fair accuracy in the simple and almost sentimental terms: the love of nature. This statement, if taken in the narrowest possible sense, would appear to limit poetry to the description of landscape; but we discover as we read farther in the three books, that this is intended as a formula for the treatment of almost any subject.

Then Winters immediately counters his interpretation of Ransom with an incisive description of his own theory of final cause:

But how applicable is [imitation] to the subject of Macbeth or of Othello? Were these plays written because of the love which Shakespeare felt, either for their actions as wholes or for any major part of their actions? Did Shakespeare love the spectacle of ambition culminating in murder, or of jealousy culminating in murder? Did he write of Iago because he loved him so sentimentally that he wished to render him in all his aspects? To ask the questions is to render the theory ridiculous.

Next comes one of the most important statements of aesthetic theory in Winters’s career, one of the seminal moments in literary thought in the past couple centuries (if wholly unrecognized as such):

Shakespeare wrote the plays in order to evaluate the actions truly; and our admiration is for the truth of the evaluations, not for the beauty of the original objects as we see them imitated. And how, one may wonder, can Shakespeare evaluate these actions truly except from the position of a moralist? To evaluate a particular sin, one must understand the nature of sin; and to fix in language the feeling, detailed and total, appropriate to the action portrayed, one must have a profound understanding not only of language, for language cannot be understood without reference to that which it represents, not only of the characters depicted, but of one's own feelings as well; and such understanding will not be cultivated very far without a real grasp of theoretic morality.

This crucial passage, which I find to be the soundest statement of artistic purpose in modern times, has been long ignored or forgotten. The Ransom essay has drawn little comment or meditation, even among Wintersians. Yet these paragraphs stand as a central defense of understanding and emotional adjustment as the final cause of literature. This idea was a chief concern of Winters’s middle years as a critic, which culminated in his wide-ranging and oft-vilified essay on literary genres “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature.”

Now, returning to Raymond Tallis, he opines that art is an idealization of experience and that this idealization satisfies the human being’s fourth hunger for truly experiencing experience:

And so we see in a work of art an ideal life in miniature. As an exemplar it addresses the wound in consciousness; it acknowledges and consoles us for our customary lack of thereness and lack of connectedness. But a great work of art is a lens as well as a jewel, and through it we may continue the process of widening our consciousness. It invites us to view our own lives with the eyes of an artist. It says: this is how the world might be experienced; now go forth and experience it thus.

This doesn’t quite attain soundness. It also seems trite. Our gaining an “ideal” of deep and true experience makes us, what? -- better able?, immediately able? -- to truly experience our experiences. Again, I’m trying to wade through the metaphors to find something conceptually substantial to make sense of Tallis’s idea. The chief problem with it is that art can leave us feeling just as cold and empty about our own experiences as we did without art. Once we have left an artwork behind, people can and do still feel that they aren’t really experiencing our experience. The lens of art often doesn’t work any better than just giving it the old college try with your own eyes. But I will say this, in the earlier passage about art providing a higher view and connectedness, Tallis at least comes close to thinking of art as a mode of understanding that will help us live better. He doesn’t quite see through the Romantic fog he blows around, but at least he’s exploring at the edges of crucial ideas. It might be worth tinkering with such a theory. It is tangled in Romanticism, of course, but it has elements that suggest and could strengthen Winters’s much stronger, sounder conceptions of art’s final cause. While Tallis’s concepts need a lot of work -- and a lot less metaphor -- what they most need is a telling example or two of how this lens of art works in a person’s life, how an artwork cleared the way for him or someone else to experience his experiences.

Near his conclusion, Tallis feels compelled to explain that under his conception art is useless. But why does he insist on this, when his theory of the purpose of art makes it blatantly clear what he think the use of art is? What is the cause of the general fear among critics and artists of the words “use” and “useful” concerning art and literature? To me the whole issue has never made much sense. But let’s leave that for some future post and rather turn to Tallis’s next concern, art’s rivals for teaching us to experience experiences fully. Like so many, even like Winters, Tallis says that art is better than philosophy or religion for satisfying the fourth hunger:

[Art] is our path to experiencing, with appropriate awe, the extraordinary world which we have in part found (nature) and in part created (culture).

Maybe so. But does art accomplish this or more as no other psychic activity can? Some examples would definitely help make such a case. Nonetheless, this goes too far for me. Religion can order and bring deep meaning to our lives, too, though Tallis thinks religion socially dangerous (he trots out this hackneyed charge without make any case for it at all). He’s even weaker on what distinguishes art from philosophy. He doesn’t say what makes art special. But I don’t think art needs to be special, standing above every other human intellectual pursuit. It is enough for me to see that it is one of the central and most effective ways we can meet our psychic needs.

Finally, like Winters, Tallis discusses the need to find the “very best” artworks, the works that can best satisfy the fourth hunger. Tallis states clearly, as you will see and as Winters believed, that such works are few in number. He implies that only those few can do an adequate job of showing us ideal lives that will enable us, somehow, to experience our experiences fully. For him, these few great or supreme artworks give us the best mean to satisfy our need to truly and deeply experience:

We need to live within, live inside, a small number of definitive works of art that will give us a true image of the human world, equal to its variousness, its depth, its mystery and its grandeur. As Gide said, ‘I write not to be read but to be re-read’. There then remains the unsolved problem of picking the needle out of the haystack; of building a personal library of truly great works.

Those words express something close to Winters’s central critical project, the development of what I call, playfully, the Winters Canon. But Tallis doesn’t offer any examples of the needles he has discovered in the haystack, the great works. This is a major blunder. He ought to have told us what he thinks these few crucial works are, since he considers them so important to the satisfaction of such a difficult hunger to fulfill. Winters told us what artworks of English literature he thought lead to true and deep understanding. I roughly agree with Winters, but I am always open to new and other ideas about greatness. I recently heard from John Fraser about my own work in defining and re-examining the Winters Canon, Winters’s “best” artworks of literature. Fraser wrote that he thought people, especially young people, cannot often live with the best. But Raymond Tallis appears to be saying that this is exactly what’s needed: to know and immerse oneself in the very, very best, which will be few in number. I agree. I think Winters would have agreed. That doesn’t mean that the best is all we can or should study or take in. But I must stop on this subject. It’s a large one that I must come back to. For now, I would agree with Tallis that it’s crucial that we look at the world through the lens of the best.

It hardly seems needed to talk of art’s uselessness again, but Tallis concludes by yet again claiming that art is useless, despite giving one vague, metaphoric use for art after another. He even offers at the end of his essay yet one more use for it:

Useless and necessary, art -- like holidays -- is about experience for its own sake but -- unlike holidays -- such experience perfected. So let there be art, extending and deepening, if not rounding off, the sense of the world, celebrating the wonderful and beautiful uselessness of our half-awakened state.

Such acts are not useless. Tallis just can’t think, it seems, caught up in our culture’s general phobia about art having uses. How are all these actions not uses? Even practical uses in some significant sense? Once again, whence has arisen the general dread in our culture of those words “use” or “useful”? Some day I shall have to come back to that topic.

But before I end, I must note that Tallis still fails to make it clear how seeing art rounding off or deepening experience, perfecting it, idealizing it, enables us to truly experience our experiences, his fourth hunger. But his vague notion that it is in conceptually connecting our experiences that we complete or can fulfill experience, I think he begins to draw close to the critical theories of Yvor Winters.

Mar 12, 2008

Roundup 1

Let me be honest. I just can’t find enough time outside work and family and assorted other fun (reading, writing, photography, serious golf, more serious tennis, marital romance, etc.) to write on nearly the number of topics I have been pondering for this blog. In this first of yet another recurring series (I’ve got a couple going already), here are brief notes on extraneous discoveries and ideas:

1. We’re all tangled in pop culture nowadays:

I ran across an article in the Independent (U.K.) on a study that proposes that cultural elites do not exist as we tend to conceive of them. The web site of the British council that funded this study is:

The Independent’s article says that the researchers found that the "cultural elite," people brought up on the so-called higher arts (such as opera, symphonic performance, and theater), people who supposedly disdain “vulgar” pop songs or mainstream television shows, that such an elite does not exist. This topic has bearing on Yvor Winters’s work because of the alleged elitism of his theories and the literature he championed. Are such high-brow theories applicable to objects of so-called popular culture (assuming we can make clear distinctions between artworks of pop culture, Mid-Cult, and High-Cult [to employ Dwight McDonald’s useful terms)? I think there is no fundamental reason they couldn’t be. What the study shows is that even those who prize highfalutin literature (the kind featured regularly on this blog) still appreciate and find edification in artworks of popular culture. This reminded of the philosopher Alexander Nehemas, whose book on aesthetics from last year, Only a Promise of Happiness, revealed that he values, in some serious sense, episodes of the TV show Frazier as much as Shakespeare’s plays. Though they are few, Wintersian classicists, I would guess, drink often at the well of pop culture, too. Winters himself didn’t seem to. He didn’t watch much television that I am aware of. He didn’t go to the movies. I have been working on a study of film using Winters’s critical theories, but Winters probably did not consider film a serious art form. In any case, is it important for classicists to admit their knowledge and appreciation of art from pop culture? What pop culture do my readers prize as much or nearly as much as great literature? I think this issue needs some deeper study.

2. 10 dangerous poems:

I stumbled upon a book entitled Ten Poems to Change Your Life, by some fellow named Roger Housden. This author seems to think his ten poems are “dangerous,” which seems a nonsensical and pretentious claim to make about these ten fairly recent poems, except for the excerpt from the “Dark Night” of St. John of the Cross. None of the poetry has classical roots. Each is a free-verse prosetic musing. Most of it is hardly poetry at all. You might want to find reviews of the book through a search engine and give it a look. Let me know if you think anything in Housden’s list is truly worth attending to. I didn’t find any of his dangerous poetry particularly edifying. Also, I’d like to hear from my readers about how important the poems that Yvor Winters thought supremely great have been in people‘s lives. Has anyone’s life changed because of the poetry of the Winters Canon? Anonymous comments are welcome, too, as always. By the way, since I first jotted this note down, I have learned that Housden has several similar "inspirational" books of poems that can purportedly change your life in one way or another. I haven’t had a chance to look at all of them.

3. What’s a good use for self-help books:

There was a very funny yet disturbing animated cartoon published online at the New Yorker a couple months ago. The animation starts with a close up of a stack of books with titles like these: Affirmation Therapy, More Joy, Self-Helping, Every Day - Every Which Way. As the imaginary camera backs up for a wider view, you see that someone is standing on the stack of books. As the view becomes wider still, you see that the man standing on the book is putting a noose around his neck. It’s funny but thoroughly discouraging. For don’t we writers and readers hope that our books and our readings will help make people better and stronger? Don’t we want what we read to be on a list of “poems to change your life”? Of course most serious readers do, as Yvor Winters argued (though he was certainly not alone in measuring literature by some kind of moral standard). But this cartoon draws attention to the nagging problem that all our efforts are sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, for naught, completely for naught. Winters believed that the way poems were written, their formal properties, their diction and meter and stanza structure, were vital to their meaning and power. Has anyone’s life changed because of the formal properties of any poem or one of the great poems of the Winters Canon? Winters seemed to argue that Baudelaire’s work had had such an effect on him. But there is very little personal reflection in any of his writings, not even in his letters, which are filled with shop-talk on composing poetry, but next to nothing on what poetry did to him. You get very little sense from any of his writings of what poetry really meant in his life. His students have repeatedly testified to the intensity of his classroom poetry readings. But few have commented on what the poems he loved and judged to be our greatest works of art meant to him, how they might have changed his life. What do they mean to my readers? I am slowly working on describing what many of them have meant to me as I work my way through the Winters Canon.

4. Filling in some blanks with Blank Verse:

Robert Shaw’s strong critical work certainly deserves more than a spot in a roundup. I didn’t learn until recently of the 2006 publication of his new book on blank verse, which looks to be excellent upon a thorough skimming. Most pertinently, the book covers a number of poets who are important in the study of Yvor Winters: Wallace Stevens (who wrote, in Winters’s view, some of the greatest blank verse of all time), Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham, Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, and others -- including Yvor Winters briefly. The book has no discussion of Winters’s criticism, unfortunately, even though it seems that Shaw is aware of Winters. But Winters didn’t conduct a deep study of blank verse, strange to say. This book and the subject of blank verse are issues that I hope to get back to in greater detail. The book is certainly something to get energized about if you are one of those interested in seeing a lot more poetry written in traditional forms, not to mention rational structures (which Shaw does not discuss). Shaw gives wide, sensitive readings in a loose tradition -- perhaps a formal practice that has been much too loose. Shaw’s work offers technical precision and clear exposition. I hope to take an in-depth look at Blank Verse some time soon.

5. A glass of Gallo burgundy:

Did you see this amusing quotation from art critic Robert M. Parker in Forbes some months back in their “Thoughts on the Business of Life” column:

I know collectors with 40,000 bottles who if you poured them a glass of Gallo Hearty Burgundy wouldn’t know the difference.

I sometimes feel something similar about Winters’s evaluations and the Winters Canon. If I were given an unknown poem, could I discern it’s excellence? For example, would I have thought, say, J.V. Cunningham’s “The Phoenix” is one of great artworks of the language or have discovered myself as such without Winters’s assistance? If not, how can I presume to evaluate the poetry of the Winters Canon, which I have said is something that must be done and which I have begun doing? Who is qualified, who possesses the needed skills, who can set the criteria, to judge such matters? Such considerations and questions hold almost all of us all back from speaking boldly about what’s great and what is less than great. But such qualms didn’t deter Winters, no sir. That’s why he often seems arrogant, almost ridiculously so. Whence came his supreme confidence in his powers and skills? Should any of us trust him? Or anyone else? Even ourselves? It seems, even among quasi-Wintersians, that few do. He has often been treated in the way David Levin, the Stanford University historian, once wrote of his specific evaluations: that they weren’t the main point in learning from him. Yet Winters thought the work of precise evaluation stood at the center of his critical enterprise. The discerning between the glass of Gallo and the so-called finest wines was crucial to all he thought and wrote and felt about literature.

Mar 4, 2008

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Conclusions on Thomas Wyatt’s Poetry

We have finished considering each of the six poems by Thomas Wyatt that Yvor Winters chose for Quest for Reality (which reprints the poems in chronological order). Before moving on to the next poem in the “Winters Canon,” it’s a good time to ask whether we can reach any conclusions about Wyatt’s work? More broadly, can we reach any early conclusions about this study of the Winters Canon?

First, it is striking how little very little poetry or criticism the artworks of Thomas Wyatt appears to have inspired among those with interests in Yvor Winters. None of the poetry from the past few decades that I know works with or out from the methods Wyatt employed. Not even Winters seems to have built out from Wyatt’s favored techniques. As I mentioned in my last post in this series, only J.V. Cunningham in the modern age has tried to use a plainly and overtly logical manner in modern poetry, though Cunningham’s methods betray little influence from Wyatt. It might be time for renewed efforts to study, learn from, and re-employ the techniques of Thomas Wyatt.

Second, Wintersian critics, if there truly are any, have not concerned themselves with Wyatt at all since Yvor Winters championed his work during his career. I wonder why this is. There is much to discuss, as I believe I showed in some of my personal reflections on the six Wyatt poems that Winters chose for the his canon. And there is much more in Wyatt’s classical body of work worth careful study. It appears, however, that Wyatt has not “endured” even among those tempted to agree with Winters that he wrote great poetry. Wyatt has been left to scholars. He doesn’t seem to have any influence or significance any longer. Indeed, his work doesn’t seem to have had influence for a long, long time. This is far from true of some other lyric poets from his era, generally speaking. Shakespeare is one obvious example, Donne the other. There is no reason why Thomas Wyatt’s poetry could not have drawn the same level of attention and generate the same personal interest that Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence draws. My guess is that Wyatt simply hasn’t inspired enough poets, critics, general readers, or even scholars in such a way as to generate some kind of momentum that would bring him a wider readership. Why is that so? That’s a matter for reflection and discussion.

The logical method, of course, is very, very little used in our times. Yet if you are drawn to and see the great value in poetry that is written in an overtly logical manner, J.V. Cunningham’s essay “Logic and Lyric” can help you study some of the possibilities of that kind of poetry. The essay can be found in Cunningham’s truly great critical collection Tradition and Poetic Structure: Essays in Literary History and Criticism. After briefly and generally laying out Romantic ideas about literary structure, which routed logical poetry from the field as much as 200 years ago, Cunningham studies a fine poem that exhibits such a structure:

But may the chain of propositions and reasonings [in a poem] be not merely plausible and specious but even sufficiently just and exact? May the poem be not merely subject to logical analysis but logical in form? May, to return to our point, the subject and structure of a poem be conceived and expressed syllogistically? Anyone at all acquainted with modern criticism and the poems that are currently in fashion will think in this connection of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” The apparent structure of that poem is an argumentative syllogism, explicitly stated. "Had we but world enough and time," the poet says, “This coyness, lady, were no crime....”

Later, at the conclusion of the essay, Cunningham suggests that the logical method might be much more valuable than recognized in our times. Consider these comments on Thomas Nashe’s “Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss” from Summer’s Last Will and Testament:

The experience of [Nashe’s] poem is the experience of syllogistic thinking with its consequences for feeling, attitude, and action. It is a mode of experience that the Renaissance practiced and cherished, and expressed with power, dignity, and precision. It is a poetical experience and a logical one, and it is both at once.

Though Cunningham doesn’t quite say so in this essay, he implies quite strongly, quite obviously, that the time was ripe (30 years ago) for some poets to adopt overtly logical methods once again, even to the point of poetic syllogisms.

On the broader question, I have received only one comment about any of Wyatt’s poems, and that was only a comment saying that someone would comment elsewhere on one Wyatt’s poems. I do not know how many people are reading this blog. It is probably not many. I know very little about how anyone perceives this blog. I do not have any answer why Wyatt has generated no comment, other than that less than a handful of people are reading these posts.

And so we move on in the Winters Canon from Thomas Wyatt to one poem by Thomas Lord Vaux, Winters’s next selection in Quest. I will get to that soon.