Sep 28, 2010


Late last year. Calvin Tompkins in the New Yorker. Sub-heading to an article about an artist:

"Urs Fischer's Inspired Sloppiness"

That could almost be a classicist's definition of the modern arts, from fiction to painting to sculpture to a lot of High-Cult music and, of course, obviously, to poetry -- even much of the so-called New Formalist poetry. The difference is that the classicist, and the Wintersian, sees the sloppiness as simply no more than that, sloppy, plain and simple -- that is, UNinspired sloppiness. (The photo is a shot of one of Urs Fischer's paintings at a recent gallery show somewhere.)

Yvor Winters had a good deal to say on what we could call sloppiness in his essay "John Crowe Ransom, or Thunder Without God" in In Defense of Reason. One interesting discussion that relates to the modern insistence on sloppiness comes in Part IX of that essay, "Meter and the Theory of Irrelevance." At one point in the discussion of a quotation from Ransom about "roughening" meter, which is, so Ransom said, pretty much pointless anyway, Winters enjoys himself poking at Ransom's ideas:

There is no relationship, then [in Ransom's theory], between meter and meaning; the meter, like the meaning, goes its own way, gathering irrelevancies to itself; but the two cooperate to this extent, that in interfering with each other they increase the irrelevancies of the total poem. Ransom at no point explains why we take pleasure in the irrelevancies of meter; he merely states it as axiomatic that we do so. He nowhere suggests the romantic theory that meter is a form of music, arousing the feelings by pure sound: indeed, his theory precludes the possibility of such an idea, for if meter can do this it is expressive of something. Ransom apparently assumes that we take pleasure in metrical irregularities for their own sake, as we might take pleasure (if we were so constituted) in the bumps and holes in a concrete sidewalk. Since the meter has no relationship to any other aspect of the poem, it is easy to see that the writing of regular meter will be merely a mechanical task and beneath the dignity of a true poet, who will take pains to introduce roughness for the mere sake of roughness:

"It is not merely easy for a technician to write in smooth meters: it is perhaps easier than to write in rough ones, after he has once started; but when he has written smoothly, and contemplates his work, he is capable, actually, if he is a modern poet, of going over it laboriously and roughening it." (quoted from Ransom's book The World's Body, p. 12.)
Things seem to have changed little since Winters's wrote in the 1940s. Sloppy irrelevance remains the goal, it appears. Most of the contemporary poetry I read nowadays (I follow Poetry and the New Yorker, and "Poetry Daily" and "Verse Daily" on the web) is so obstinately casual, so averse to formality, that "sloppy" hardly characterizes its lack of structure. I just read a bunch of Seamus Heaney's new book of poetry Human Chain, which William Logan rather generously reviewed in the New York Times last week. Like much of his "mature" work, this latest stuff from Heaney is just plain sloppy from end to end, though a nicely turned phrase does emerge from time to time amid the slops. Not many, alas, but a few.

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