Amuse-bouche: Saturday 7 November 2020

Things have been quiet here for a number of reasons, but the most important one has been that I just haven’t had in me (for a number of reasons…) what I feel is needed to put into a worthwhile piece of writing. Some of that hesitancy is likely attributable to that vice of perfectionism, which keeps so many from doing anything, so, I’ve come to understand that one way to post here more regularly is to loosen up and just jump into the flow of the moment, however turgid or whitewater, and share here, more or less regularly (weekly?), tidbits that have caught my eye, caught in my craw, or otherwise.

Some of my detractors (well, one) have accused my writing (and not just my poetry) of being obscure, academic, or, at times, pedantic. Despite some of their more uncharitable assumptions, I never set out to bedazzle, confuse or belittle. It turns out my approach is shared by that monumental polymath Buckminster Fuller, who articulated his stylistic credo as follows: “I made up my mind as a Rule of Communication that I wouldn’t care if I was not understood — so long as I was not misunderstood.” I would add to Fuller’s unapologetically sincere stylistic credo Marx’s Hegelian pronouncement: “There is no royal road to science (Wissenschaft), and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep path have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”

And speaking of arduous climbs, more taxing than working at poetry is publishing poetry as a small publisher. Sadly, Beth Follet’s Pedlar Press will be shutting down operations in 2021. Pedlar’s aesthetic echoes the sentiments expressed by Fuller and Marx:  “Making no compromise with public taste.” It will come as no small surprise that such an uncompromising stance comes at a price, especially in a society where nothing escapes the dictatorship of the commodity form.

Follet shares a pithy reflection on what happens to small press publishing under the current regime in her Thoughts on Pedlar recently posted at periodicities.

I had the very good fortune to spend an evening in 1996 talking with American poet Adrienne Rich about my vision for Pedlar Press. She said one thing I shall never forget: “Don’t fall in love with the boys’ machinery.“ And what would I say is the boys’ machinery? Media space given over to awards talk and Best Of lists instead of reviews. Five-hundred-word reviews instead of complex critical analyses. The politics behind dumbing down. Technology’s reliance on algorithms which dictate taste, habits, purchases, ads, etc. Dictate lives. Ignorance about how readers of literature read or live in the world, and resultant misdirected and wasteful promotional campaigns.

300px-Vitruvian_Man_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci

I’m unsure I agree with some of the assumptions underwriting what Follett refers to as “the politics of dumbing down,” but a not unrelated phenomenon, no less pernicious than persistent, has imposed itself on my sensorium a number of times this season.

In her Foreword to this years Best Canadian Poetry, Anita Lahey writes about the poems included in this year’s edition as follows:

These were poems: real, handmade (and handheld) forms built to hold, and simultaneously express, universal truths about the human experience.

Lahey is in “good”, as it were, company in valuing  the way poetry, at least, expresses “universal truths about the human experience.” Lavinia Greenlaw, the chair of judges for this year’s T. S. Eliot Prize, recently said of the adjudicating process:

We had to be convinced by them as relevant in a profoundly changed world, which meant that we had to be able to connect with them at the level of essential human experience, which is where I believe poetry is really produced, and poetry is really received.

And the cognoscenti will surely remember that Louise Glück, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was cited “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Those who share my education, will remember such evocations of these “universals of human experience” from their high school, if not undergrad, English class, along with the Three Themes of literature, Man against Nature, Man against Man, and Man against Himself (sic, sic, sic, sic, and sic). That such an aesthetic can still hold sway in 2020 among people one would hope continued to live a life of the mind after completing their formal education is demoralizing. Lahey’s observation is especially ironic, given how Marilyn Dumont, this year’s editor, remarks how she proceeded with a keen sense of how “writers of colour, Indigenous writers, women, LGBQT2S, writers with physical challenges, have all been underrepresented in the publishing world”, namely, writers whose difference from that presumably universal norm has led to their being overlooked.

[And it occurred to me upon reflection not long after writing and publishing this post the sharp irony of Lahey’s,  Greenlaw’s and Glück’s all being women, that one class of human being that has had and must continue to fight to have its experience recognized as belonging among those universals poetry and art supposedly address…]

I’ll pass over in silence here the admitted dialectic at work that would both undermine my critique and harmonize Lahey & Co.’s retrograde aesthetic sentiments with Dumont’s more progressive ones, a dialectic, being a lively one, that would also overturn itself again, in turn, merely to note that the thesis that poetry is concerned with “expressing universals of human experience” was, in the anglophone world, at least, most forcefully articulated by Matthew Arnold. He, along with the architects of English as an academic study, weaponized English literature into a means of persuading those disenfranchised at home (Arnold writes Culture and Anarchy in the wake of the Chartism, that working class movement that agitated to expand the vote to include working class men), not to mention those in the colonies, that, despite appearances, the upper and lower classes, and the rulers and ruled, were really, deep down, just the same….

Against the zombie aesthetic sentiments skewered above, I’ll finish off here, today, with a quotation and, of all things, a meme.

Theodor Adorno makes in his “On the Crisis of Literary Criticism” (1952)” a characteristically demanding but no less morally scrupulous (and so much more pithy) claim:  “Criticism has power only to the extent to which every successful or unsuccessful sentence has something to do with the fate of humankind.”

And, finally, words to live by, some wisdomorty of Rick:

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