Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Against Identity Poetry, For Possibility

As a black person, as a gay person, I am other to the social norm of heterosexual whiteness. Poetry, a stereotypically exalted and also, or therefore, marginalized realm, is often seen as other to the abjection, social and psychic, that blackness and gayness too frequently represent in our society, a debasement too often acted out on black and gay bodies. Poetry is also other to the utilitarian, means-end rationality of capitalist society. Poetry’s otherness enacts an escape from or a transformation of racial and sexual otherness: it embodies an otherness of inclusion rather than exclusion, of possibility rather than constraint. Poetry presents the possibility of an otherness that is liberating rather than constricting: it offers the prospect of an alienation from alienation. In his great essay "Lyric Poetry and Society," Theodor Adorno proposed that poetry presents the alienation of language from its alienation in everyday use: by turning language away from its use as a mere medium of exchange, poetry returns language to itself. Poetry’s otherness to my own multiple socially defined othernesses is a space of freedom, where lack becomes pure potential.

For this reason, I have always intensely disliked what I call identity poetics, the use of poetry as a means to assert or claim social identity. The impulse to explain poetry as a symptom of its author's biography or its social context is pervasive these days, including among authors themselves. But that has always seemed to me a form of self-imprisonment, neglecting or even negating the possibilities poetry offers not just of being someone else, anyone and/or everyone else, but of being no one at all, of existing, however contingently, outside the shackles of identity and definition. Poetry is, among other things, a way of opening up worlds and possibilities of worlds. It offers a combination of otherness and brotherhood, the opportunity to find the otherness in the familiar, to find the familiar in the other. The various (though not various enough) constructions of identity poetics shut down the multifarious possibilities poetry offers in favor of mere self-reflection, and at that, reflection of a reified, simplified self much less complex and interesting than the several selves we each are at any given moment and through the course of the various lives we live simultaneously. As the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis has urged, “Admit that there’s more than one of you, and surprise and embarrass all of yourselves.”

Ideally, one writes poetry as an act of exploration, as a venture into the unknown. (As Yeats wrote, out of what one knows, one makes rhetoric; out of what one doesn’t know, one makes poetry.) Too often today, though, writers want simply to “express” the selves they have decided that they are or have, and readers demand to see themselves (or what they imagine as themselves) reflected back to them. In Ann Lauterbach's incisive words, “The idea that the act of reading expands and extends knowledge to orders of unfamiliar experience has been replaced by acts of reading in order to substantiate and authorize claims and positions which often mirror the identity bearings of the reader.” Identity poetics is boring, giving back the already known in an endless and endlessly self-righteous confirmation of things as they are. It is also constraining, limiting the imaginative options of the very people it seeks to liberate or speak for. If one follows the assumptions of identity poetics through, saying “Here are the gay poets, here are the black poets, here are the straight white male poets, and everyone just reads the poets who match their demographic classification,” not only could a white person have nothing to say to a black person, or a straight person to a gay person, but a black person could have nothing to say to a white person, or a woman to a man. So there would be no reason for a white person to read anything written by a black person.

I have never looked to literature merely to mirror myself back to me, to confirm my identity to myself or to others. I already have a self, even if one often at odds with itself, and if anything I have felt burdened, even trapped, by that self and its demands, by the demands made upon it by the world. Many minority writers have spoken of feeling invisible: I have always felt entirely too visible, the object of scrutiny, labeling, and categorization. Literature offered a way out of being a social problem or statistic, a way not to be what everyone had decided I was, not to be subject to what that meant about me and for me. But even if one has a more sanguine relation to selfhood, Picasso’s admonition should always be kept in mind: art is called art because it is not life. Otherwise, why would art exist? Life already is, and hardly needs confirmation.

I seek from literature an image of who or what I could be, of what the world itself could be, an image of the “as if” rather than of the “as is.” The greatest literature has always engaged in the generation of new realities, not the reiteration of the same old given reality. I think most literary minded people, if asked, would agree with such a statement: and yet black writers are held (and many hold themselves) to a different, double standard. “Write what you know” becomes a trap, as if there were a fixed terrain of what one can or should know, and as if the possibility of writing what one does not know might not be the most exciting of all. As Stephen Owen writes, “We have been informed that we are radically ‘of’ our age, or culture, or gender, or class, [or race], and not of another; we can go elsewhere only as tourists, cultural voyeurs. If we believe such a story, we will accept our assigned places, submit to our limitations, and repress the hope that we can go back to where we were, or stay where we choose, or even change and become other, except as we are driven hopelessly forward by history’s inertial machine.”

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Art of Losing

Ezra Pound famously wrote that poetry should be as well written as prose (though he might have qualified, as well written as good prose). Elizabeth Bishop’s poems are certainly that, but they tend to be prosaic in a less positive sense. It’s better written, more clear prose than most novels can boast, and the poems, for example “In the Waiting Room,” which narrates the speaker’s discovery/creation of her own identity as a discrete individual, are frequently very interesting and engaging in their topics. However, they too often lack that essential element of song, of words for music perhaps (in Yeats’ phrase), or words as music.

This is not true, however, of one of her most famous poems, the villanelle “One Art.” This is appropriate, given the musical nature of the form, which was originally a peasant song, though not originally in the form that we now know, with its strictly patterned repetitions. (The word “villanelle,” via a French detour, derives from the Italian word villano, “peasant”). In a footnote to a piece in his Literary Essays on the English Decadent poet Lionel Johnson (a fine writer largely forgotten today), Pound wrote of the villanelle as embodying obsession, the repeated lines bearing that which haunts and torments the speaker. “The villanelle…can at its best achieve the closest intensity, I mean when…the refrains are an emotional fact which the intellect, in the various gyrations of the poem, tries in vain and in vain to escape” (369). That is one way in which the villanelle can work, though not the only way. The repeating content of the villanelle gets stuck in the speaker’s head; he or she can’t get away from it. But at the same time, the villanelle contains (in both senses of the word) the obsession that is so often its subject, subjecting feeling to form. As poet and critic J.D. McClatchy writes of “One Art,” “The villanelle—that strictest and most intractable of verse forms—can barely control the grief, yet helps the poet keep her balance.”

“One Art” deals with loss as an activity, almost an occupation, and the poem both engages in that activity (so many things are lost over the course of the poem) and explores it as an activity (what does it mean to lose all these things?), an exploration facilitated by both the repetition and the variation on the repetition in the poem. It’s not a traditional villanelle, in that the lines containing the word “disaster” are not repeated exactly, but shift their shape over the course of the poem, as the speaker’s understanding of and relation to disaster shifts. The poem can be read as an extended metaphor: “one art” is both the art of losing and the art of writing poems (critic Mutlu Blasing notes that “the [poem’s] title tells us that the art of writing and the art of losing are one”). Here that art is the art of mastering loss, but also the art of surrendering to loss. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” is, after all, ironic, since what is “mastered” is how to lose things—mastering the art of losing is, in effect, to become so good at loss that one loses everything. Life becomes equivalent to loss, though never quite equal to it. So many things seem to want to be lost that no individual loss need be a disaster. And yet it is, because there’s that word, over and over. One starts with small things, and then moves on to bigger challenges, things harder to lose (places, names, houses, cities, two rivers, a continent) but more painful for the immensity of their loss. The lost objects grow larger and larger, as if to flaunt how lightly the speaker takes even the seemingly greatest loss. And then one returns to the seemingly small, one irreplaceable thing, which is the largest, most painful loss of all: “you.” Beside this loss, all the other losses are insignificant. The speaker won’t have lied (and note the echoes of “I shan’t have died” in “I shan’t have lied”) in saying that the art of losing isn’t hard to master, for look, she’s lost the most important thing in the world, one simple pronoun, “the joking voice, a gesture/I love.” “Write it!” is both an instruction about the proper way to master loss and a command to the one who has been mastered by loss. The voice has stumbled, can’t go on, as evidenced by the stammer on “like.” “Write it!” demands that she go on, that she speak the word “disaster,” admit that this loss was indeed a disaster. At this point the poise the voice has maintained (nothing has been a disaster) breaks down; the rhetorical gesture enacts the visceral pain that the poem’s smooth surfaces heretofore have kept at bay. The voice can hardly say the word “disaster,” yet she must finally admit it, both say it (write it) and admit the immensity of the loss into her consciousness. After all these denials (denials haunted by the repetition of the word), it is disaster after all.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.