Sunday, February 11, 2007

Daring to Disturb the Universe

In a graduate contemporary American poetry class I took some twenty years ago, a fellow student complained that a poem we were reading was “just trying to immortalize this scene.” I found it an odd objection, since I thought that’s what poems were supposed to do. It’s an impossible ambition, but I can see no reason to write if one doesn’t strive for the unattainable. One is deluded if one believes one has achieved it, that one can actually preserve the world in words, but one is just playing games if one doesn’t try. I don’t believe in reaching only for what one can grasp, in doing only what one knows can be done, especially since what can be done is never knowable in advance, though what we decide we can do strongly conditions what we are able to do.

The world cannot be saved, in any of the several senses of the word. And to save the world would be to stop it, to fix it in place and time, to drain it of what makes it world: motion, flux, action. As Yeats wrote, “Minute by minute they change;/….The stone’s in the midst of all” (“Easter 1916”). Allen Grossman is not the first to observe that in this regard poetry is a deathly activity, removing things from the obliterating stream of meaningless event that is also the embodied vitality of the world and of time’s action in and upon the world, which creates and destroys in the same motion. The stream of time is both life and that which wears life down to nothing. “Poetry is the perpetual evidence, the sadly perpetual evidence, of the incompleteness of the motive which gives rise to it” (The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers 71).

But at the same time, elements of the world can be and have been saved. Thus the history of art. Each artwork that has endured through time is a piece of the world that has survived, and carries with it other pieces of a world, of worlds, otherwise gone. That we are able today to admire the sculpture of Praxiteles, to gaze upon a Rembrandt painting, to read of Keats’s fears that he shall cease to be, is evidence that something does remain, something can be carried over, rescued from oblivion. The artwork is evidence of its own survival. Allen Grossman writes: “My most fundamental impulses are toward recovery, the securing once again of selfhood in something that lies invulnerably beyond history, something which promises enormous, inhuman felicity” (The Sighted Singer 41). I would add that, for me, the impulse is not just for the conservation of personhood, but of worldhood. I seek to save the sensuous appearances, the particulate worldness of the world.

Perhaps to believe oneself equal to such an ambition, to claim be, at least in potential, a poet powerful enough, important enough, to nurse such an ambition, is presumptuous. As Spenser wrote, "Be bold, be bold, be bolder still. Be not too bold." One must remember one’s place, one mustn’t get above oneself. I have never been one to know my place. I would never had gotten out of the Bronx ghetto, would never have achieved anything other than a life of grinding poverty, had I not gotten above myself, had I not presumed that I could be more, that my life could be more. Unlike Eliot’s Prufrock, I do presume, and I do dare disturb the universe, or at least I try. I find nothing unseemly about ambition. Ours is a society in which everyone expects to be accepted just as he or she is, even to be lauded just for being him or herself, however false or inadequate that self is even to itself. But in life it’s a failing not to try to be more than one is. In art, it’s an unforgivable sin.

The drive to be more, to be too much, even, is the engine of art, which at its best exceeds definition, determination, domination. If one cannot make grand claims, one cannot make grand attempts. Modesty can be charming in life, though it’s often a cloying pretence; in art, modesty is almost always a failing, an admission not just of failure but of the failure to try. Most contemporary poetry, of all schools and camps, is entirely too well-behaved, too content to remain within its proper bounds, to do what’s expected of it. I have no interest in reading or in writing such poems.

I am not embarrassed to make large claims for poetry. Their impossible possibility is one of the things that first drew me to poetry, and it continues to compel me. I can see no point to writing, to being an artist, if one doesn’t want to matter to the world, if one doesn’t strive toward something grand. This grandeur need not be merely of scale, though size and importance are often confused in our world. As Eliot concludes after many equivocations, to be a major poet does not require that one write a long poem. There are major poets who have not done so, among them George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and Paul Celan. And to write a long poem does not make one a major or important poet, let alone a great one. Many minor poets have written long poems (Robert Bridges comes to mind), often with the ambition to become major poets. The aspiration is a noble one, even if the results fall short of a goal perhaps defined too narrowly or on shaky premises (“A long poem is a major poem. Thus I will be a major poet if I write a long poem”).

The major poet is one who has not only written wonderful poems (and again, the wonderful poem is much more rare than some think it to be), but also one whose work adds up to more than the sum of its parts, the accumulation of those wonderful poems. Obviously one can’t predict this about one’s own work or about the work of one’s contemporaries. But Stevens was able in his late poems “The Planet on the Table” and “As You Leave the Room” to look back on his life’s work and know that he had accomplished something that mattered: “his poems, although makings of his self,/Were no less makings of the sun.” And Pound could look back at The Cantos, his failed epic, and realize that, though he had tried to write paradise, he could not make it cohere.

I won’t live to know whether my work has outlived me. But one can’t predict the future in general, and this doesn’t prevent us from making decisions that influence, change, and often determine that future. The future isn’t wholly unknowable, and the future doesn’t just happen: in large part we make it. This works no differently in poetry than in any other field of endeavor. There is no guarantee that one will reach any of one’s goals in this life. But not to struggle toward those goals is to guarantee that they won’t be reached. I choose, in the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


Mark Granier said...

Dear Reginald,

I am surprised, startled actually, to find myself quoted out of context by someone so perceptive. Perhaps I jumped the gun a little; reading back, I see that what you say about major poetry is interesting and probably true.

But you seem to equate my calling you presumptuous with a lack of faith in any poet's ambition to immortalize elements of existence, to, as you put it, "save the sensuous appearances, the particulate worldness of the world." If I called this ambition presumptuous I'd be a fool. Then you go further, implying that I am recommending”etiquette for ambition", as if I were some 19th Century dandy pooh-poohing the rabble that "get above" themselves. Worse, it's as if I somehow represent those who would have deliberately prevented your having "gotten out of the Bronx ghetto" and "a life of grinding poverty".

This just isn’t the case, as you must know if you read my whole post. My use of the word presumptuous was reserved for your division of poetry into Major poets and Minor poets/poems. I may well be a 'minor' poet myself, but even if I suspected I were a burgeoning 'major' poet I don't believe I would care any more for the terminology.

Sure, probably most published poets nourish immodest ambitions, and that's fine and dandy, and utterly human. I just don't see the point of declaring such ambitions. Perhaps that's just me, though it MAY also be, as I said, an Irish (and perhaps English) thing. I have never heard any writer over here (including the major ones) talk about yearning to be major. Irish humour is somewhat anarchic and loves targeting those who take themselves too seriously. My post was meant as humourous, aiming to elicit a smile rather than a frown. Obviously, it didn't succeed.

A very reasonable desire to disturb the universe is not at all the same thing (for me) as a desire to separate poets into major and minor and hope to count oneself in the former camp. OF COURSE poetry shouldn't be modest and tidy and well behaved; no art should. I spoke of poetry as protest (in the broadest of terms). My own term for a poem was "eloquent scream". That hardly suggests modesty, does it?!

I knew that rather long, moribund post I left in the comment-stream (perhaps too mocking, too 'presumptuous') might be misinterpreted. But I NEVER suggested that poets shouldn't have ambitions and it isn't fair to imply that I did. I actually empathised and agreed with much of what you said, and I even quoted what I consider to be justly ambitious poems by Milosz and Larkin. Honestly, I think you should set the record straight here.

Best wishes,

Mark Granier

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Mark,

Thanks for your response. I did consider that perhaps I had overreacted to the use of the word "presumptuous," but it really got under my skin. Forgive me if I have misunderstood, but I read you as saying that aspiring to be a major poet was presumptuous.

I didn't intend to engage in any sort of personal attack, and certainly the thought that you would have tried to keep me from escaping poverty never entered my mind. I'm very sorry if my piece came across that way. I intended a more general statement about my response to the notions of propriety that I read into some of your comments.

The use of the word "presumptuous" with regard to ambition did and does strike me as having a strong element of enforcing a certain notion of propriety. Your first response referred not just to dividing other poets into major and minor as presumptuous. This is a fair enough charge, though I think that we all do that all the time, whether we admit it or not. We all decide that some poets are more important than others, although we may not articulate it in those terms. ("My favorite poets" is a version of this process. Who doesn't think that his or favorite poets are better than the poets he or she doesn't like?)

As I read it, your response also said that to want to be a major poet was presumptuous. To my eyes, your most recent response confirms that reading by saying that even if one nourishes ambitions to majority, one shouldn't speak of them, or at least that it's "pointless" to do so.

If I misrepresented you, I am very sorry. As I said, I responded very strongly to one portion of your comment and perhaps didn't take in the rest as fully as I should have. I apologize for that

But I also think that we have a difference in viewpoint. It is clear to me that some poets are more important than others. The world is awash with poets who have no reason to be writing, who make no difference to the world of poetry. I'm not speaking of the outright bad poets, but of the sea of depressingly competent poets of no consequence, though sometimes of undeserved reputation.

Richard Strauss supposedly said "I may not be a first-rate composer, but I'm a first-rate second-rate composer." While I both admire his clear-eyed self-evaluation and recognize the boast within it, I am not so sanguine. I want to be a poet who matters and I want to read poets who matter, and I see no problem in being frank about that ambition. I also have no problem being frank about my judgments of other writers. I have faith in my own judgments, as you undoubtedly have faith in yours. I see no reason to pretend that I don't.

Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful and perceptive comments and, again, forgive me if I have misrepresented your views.

all best,


J. Michael Martinez's said...

Mr. Shepherd,

I love this blog! I completely agree with the ambitions you articulated for a poem/poet.


J. Michael Martinez

Mark Granier said...

Dear Reginald,

Thank you for your candid and gracious response. I really didn't intend anything I said to get under your skin, not enough to cause any serious irritation anyway.

You say you "read [me] as saying that aspiring to be a major poet was presumptuous." In order to finally lay this 'major' ghost to rest let me clarify that I did not mean this, and if I did mean it I would have said it. What seems presumptuous to me is the major/MINOR thing, the setting of one against the other. Perhaps 'spurious' would have been a better word.

But you still seem determined to nudge me into an ambition=presumption equation. You write:

"To my eyes, your most recent response confirms that by saying that even if one nourishes ambitions to majority, one shouldn't speak of them, or at least that it's "pointless" to do so."

That last misquote ("pointless") doesn't let you off the hook here. As you know, I NEVER said you "shouldn't speak of them" (as if I were referring to some silly Victorian improprieties). What I said was this:

"Sure, probably most published poets nourish immodest ambitions, and that's fine and dandy, and utterly human. I just don't see the point of declaring such ambitions."

Saying "I just don't see the point..." is NOT the same as dismissing something as pointless, and to "speak of" something is NOT commensurate with the more formal and explicit act of "declaring it". Moreover, I went on to explain that it might be "just me" or some innate, Irish/English distrust of such terminology, and our tendency to make fun of it. My mistake of course, for being 'presumptuous' enough to unload my own cultural baggage.

Now, can we please please please stop blogging a dead horse.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Mark,

Thanks for another thoughtful response, and my apologies if I misunderstood you yet again. I took not seeing the point in something to thinking it pointless. Speaking of cultural baggage, that's what I would have meant by it. (I'm not sure what else seeing no point in something would mean other than thinking it pointless.) I shouldn't have put the word in quotes, though they weren't scare quotes; I honestly misremembered.

Speaking again of cultural (and personal) baggage, and speaking also completely frankly, for a number of reasons having to do with race, class, and my own personal history, to be called presumptuous makes me angry. I find it presumptuous. That anger likely blinded me to the ways in which we were actually in agreement.

Though I take your point about pigeonholing poets and people, and obviously have argued against that on many occasions, I'm not sure that a word like "major" can be used without some implicit comparison to what's not major, whether one calls that "minor" or something else. The distinction, how it is to be made and what it means, is one that troubles me. I worry about making it, and I worry about not making it. By Eliot's criteria, almost every poet who ever wrote is a minor poet. (In my heart, of course, I wonder, "Would I be among them?" and fear the answer.) As Mae West reputedly said, goodness has nothing to do with it. Or at least, for Eliot poetic excellence is at most a necessary condition for poetic majority, but hardly a sufficient one. I wouldn't want to emulate such sweeping judgments as he makes in this matter. But still, the question troubles me, perhaps only due to my own personal ambitions as a poet (not the same as my poetic ambitions as a poet).

But I agree with you that enough is enough. I was quite argumentative in my youth, but now I find arguing with people, especially on the basis of misunderstanding, tiring and depressing. So my apologies once again.

I have rephrased the paragraph in "Daring to Disturb the Universe" so as, I hope, to remove the problem.

Take care, and as always, thanks for reading and commenting so thoughtfully.



Blogaulaire said...

I read much of the poetry of Walt Whitman as being evocative, moving and memorable. At the same time I find an element of a moralising perspective that is too easily familiar for me to regard the poem find this in as unique.

On top of (or beside) these responses to Whitman, I find his striving to be classed with the major poets off-putting.

Many poems I admire and enjoy exist with no relation whatsoever to any ambition of the person writing the words . . and the text does not leap out as having made demands on the writer's motive forces vis a vis posterity or tradition.

As for the Granier / Shepherd debate, my immediate reaction is that I will now go read some of what each of you has already written. - - Ciao for now.

John Gallaher said...

Not to jump in where I'm not asked to jump in and don't really want to jump in, but, just as artistic ambition (ambition in regards to the thing one is enacting) might be considered presumptuous, might not then the art act itself, hopefully, be considered presumptuous?

As it "goes beyond what is right and proper" only to create a new definition of right and proper?

Mark Granier said...

Dear Reginald,

Again, thanks for such a gracious response. I do understand your irritation at that word 'presumptuous'; I don't really like it that much myself, and, as I said, there are better words, more apt ones. I have no excuse for an infelicitous use of language so may be taken as one more lesson; as Larkin might say, useful to get that learnt. I do have a couple more things to add (re your conflation of favourite/major poems for one thing), but I am bowing out of this particular discussion on your blog before I say something sillier in public and make a complete prat of myself. If you have the time and inclination to you can send an email contact address to me at and I'll get back to you.

Very best wishes,

Mark Granier

Ms Baroque said...

Keats was desperate to be famous and live on in posterity - he was obsessed with it. He succeeded; but not because of toning down his ambition.