Saturday, February 28, 2009

Orr on Greatness: Who Is, Who Ain't, Why We Should Care

God bless the New York Times for continuing to struggle with poetry and to allow its reviewers and critics to take it on in a serious way. I love the Post for having poetry in every issue of Book World--at least until they killed the print edition of Book World--but the Poet's Choice column always seems a little like a poetry ghetto, what one might do with a dead (or dying) art: Serve up little samples, then have an expert explain why people should eat them.

The Times keeps reviewing poetry books as though they matter and as though people care. Granted, the Book Review includes poetry less frequently than I'd like, but it's there on a semi-regular basis, maybe once a month, and it's talked about seriously. And the paper also has David Orr weighing in with an ongoing commentary about poetry. He's a schnarky sonofabitch. I'm often irritated after reading his pieces. But that's OK with me. Sunday mornings can get too bland.

Last week Orr had some typically provocative things to say about the state of the art. The whole column is worth reading, but he starts off with this:

What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.

What I love about Orr is that his essays almost immediately make you start arguing in your head. I immediately thought, "What? What is he talking about? There are plenty of great poets working today! And what about those we don't even know about yet? I can think of at least three poets I know personally who might qualify -- either right now or as the years pass. And I don't know that many people."

Orr gets more interesting.
The problem is that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business. In part, that’s a reflection of the standard narrative of postmodernism, according to which all uppercase ideals — Truth, Beauty, Justice — must come in for questioning. But the difficulty with poetic greatness has to do with more than the talking points of the contemporary culture wars. Greatness is — and indeed, has always been — a tangle of occasionally incompatible concepts, most of which depend upon placing the burden of “greatness” on different parts of the artistic process. Does being “great” simply mean writing poems that are “great”? If so, how many? Or does “greatness” mean having a sufficiently “great” project? If you have such a project, can you be “great” while writing poems that are only “good” (and maybe even a little “boring”)? Is being a “great” poet the same as being a “major” poet? Are “great” poets necessarily “serious” poets? These are all good questions to which nobody has had very convincing answers.

He goes on to Donald Hall's famous essay, "Poetry and Ambition," in which Hall accused American poets of lacking the aspiration to write great poems. "Contemporary American poetry," Hall wrote, "is afflicted by modesty of ambition—a modesty, alas, genuine ... if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense." No reason, Hall argued, to spend your life writing poems unless your goal was to write great ones.

When we talk about "greatness," Orr writes, "the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping -- unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical ... Greatness implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way."

So does every single one have to be great? Does every poem have to have soaring ambition? Is a poem about a teacup inherently less great than a poem about a big "concept"? Doesn't that PoMo thing that Orr brought up call into question not only the nature of ambition, but the viability of Great Subjects?

Any ideas for contenders for the Ashbery Slot? Ideas about what, now, qualifies someone as A Great Poet? What makes a Great Poem? Some of my favorite poets (Jane Hirshfield, for example), those who I regard as having great technical skill and emotional impact, work on a "small" scale, taking on limited spheres that are often no wider than the few out a kitchen window or the way a single thought moves and grows in the mind. Does that mean the poet is not great, or that the poems aren't? Or is that smaller scale the only trustworthy realm when thinking in absolutes seems to have such terrifying effects?

P.S. I like Orr's writing. It's challenging and interesting. But sometimes it seems loaded with so much provocation and tongue-in-cheekiness that I'm not sure how much I've just been drawn in by a nicely written bit of sophistry ... I don't know, after reading the piece, whether Orr believes a word of what he wrote. The one sentence where I thought I could see the real man:

When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and on one another; we begin to think of real criticism as being "mean" rather than as evidence of poetry's health.

That, to me, sounded like a man who's taken a lot of crap over his own "meanness." And as much as I wouldn't have wanted to be the subject of some of his reviews, I agree with him.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Elling Does Roethke Better Than Roethke Does Roethke

Popular song lyrics read without music are most often cringe-worthy. (For an evening's entertainment, though, you could do worse than gather a few friends and some beers and have the group perform poetic readings of the collected lyrics of AC/DC. Really. Imagine an earnest poetry-reading-voice intoning, "She was a fast machine/ She kept her motor clean ...")

Much as I love Dylan and partially agree with the argument that he's a poet at heart, when I read "Desolation Row" transcribed as a poem in David Lehman's Oxford Book of American Poetry, it set my teeth on edge. If Dylan's a poet, he's one who should only be heard; on the page, his songs read to me as irritating doggerel: an obsfucating, unfunny Ogden Nash. It's may be the end rhymes or the fact that Dylan's voice and delivery can't help but crop up in my head while I'm reading, but something is utterly lost in translation. When separated from their sonic back-up, most pop lyrics reveal themselves as pap. There are a few exceptions, of course; many of Tom Waits' songs—especially stranger pieces like "9th and Hennepin" and "What's He Building in There?"—hold up, but Waits is a writer's musician. (If Lehman's criteria for selection were pure on-the-page success of a work, Waits should've trumped Dylan for inclusion the anthology.)

There's a long tradition of changing great poems into songs, with greater but still mixed success. Loreena McKennitt has done some great work here, recording versions of Noyes' "The Highwayman" and Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot"—but due to her sound and the age of the poems, they seem like artifacts. Lovely ones, but still. A 1997 collection called Now & In Time to Be had Irish musicians setting Yeats to music. The disc is hard to come by now, but Van Morrison's take on "Before the World Was Made" and the Waterboys "Stolen Child" were well worth listening to.

Recently, though, I heard a musical version of a well-known poem that took my breath away.

Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," which with Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle" and Bishop's "One Art" fills out the trifecta of most famous villanelles, is good enough on the page. But the recordings I've heard of Roethke reading the poem have always turned me off; his portentous delivery makes the poem into something overly ominous. While an awareness of death is central to the poem, his readings of it always seem a little stern, failing to capture its essential liveliness and the sweetness in it.

The poem took on a new life and beauty for me a while ago when I saw jazz vocalist Kurt Elling perform it. As soon as he uttered the first words, I was transfixed. It's an astonishly beautiful rendition, and Elling has real power in performance—a sort that seems to come from a sheer love of what he's doing.

My recommendation: Go to iTunes, put down your 99 cents, and download track #8 on his CD Nightmoves (try not to think of Bob Seger). Pour yourself a cup of something slow-sippable, and play that sucker, loud.

Or you can listen to the YouTube version, below. Let me know what you think—and if you have any favorite poems that have been turned into songs, I'd love to hear them.

Monday, February 9, 2009

In the Can with Donald Justice

News from the BBC today of a competition in the U.K. to find poetry to be displayed in the public toilets of Shetland. The competition is to be called "Bards of the Bog."

A local librarian said, "It should brighten up folk's day, and maybe they'll be inspired to pop into the library and borrow more poetry."

Hopefully after they wash their hands ...

Toilets are perhaps the last place in the world where poetry may find a captive audience (though I wouldn't put it past people to be on their Blackberries while on the loo). Still, I wonder if any contemporary poet can top the classic stall verse that begins, "Here I sit/broken-hearted." Perhaps it could be expanded from a quatrain into a full sonnet.

Or they could just turn to Donald Justice's New and Selected for a poem that adds a painfully existential angle to a simple trip to take a leak.

Unflushed Urinals

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX lines written in an Omaha bus station

Seeing them, I recognize the contempt
Some men have for themselves.

This man, for instance, zipping quickly up, head turned,
Like a bystander innocent of his own piss.

And here comes one to repair himself at the mirror,
Patting down damp, sparse hairs, suspiciously still black,
Poor bantam cock of a man, jaunty at one a.m., perfumed,
xxxxxxundiscourageable ...

O the saintly forbearance of these mirrors!
The acceptingness of the washbowls, in which we absolve ourselves!