Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Heavy Petting

Re. "admitting
the odious facts"

& Re. admission or admissions

Caught in the crook of ________
Calculating relative obscurity
Coping with a Red Wine Stain,
if you know the disfigurement
I mean

Heavy petting, I recall, was forbidden,
thus marked an impossible boundary

Heavy petting is---
no surprise---a matter
of surfaces and---surprise---
a matter of mind
superseding body:
it, the mind, is no longer freely
compositing things and relations
in hearty, meaningful ways,
that is, via trembling perceptual

Heavy petting lets the body go
its way as it wants,
and heavy petting is therefore
transient, healthy, and pernicious
exactly in proportion to how
heavy it is in a given case

To Stephen: "Admit"
To you: "Admit"

That/because the facts strike you as stones
and because you begrudge them that
and because you take pleasure in both
the strickenness and the resentment

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Below Courtesy of Randall Jarrell, Copyright 1953

The Obscurity of the Poet (2)

If my tone is mocking, the tone of someone accustomed to helplessness, this is natural: the poet is a condemned man for whom the State will not even buy breakfast--and as someone said, 'If you're going to hang me, you musn't expect to be able to intimidate me into sparing your feelings during the execution.' The poet lives in a world whose newspapers and magazines and books and motion pictures and radio stations and television stations have destroyed, in a great many people, even the capacity for understanding real poetry, real art of any kind (17).

Yet one sort of clearness shows a complete contempt for the reader, just as one sort of obscurity shows a complete respect. Which patronizes and degrades the reader, the Divine Comedy with its four levels of meaning, or the Reader's Digest with its one level so low that it seems not a level but an abyss into which the reader consents to sink? The writer's real dishonesty is to give an easy paraphrase of the hard truth (17).

Would that I were one of those happy reactionaries, born with a Greek vocabulary as other children are born with birthmarks or incomes...But I had a scientific education and a radical youth; am old-fashioned enough to believe, like Goethe, in Progress--the progress I see and the progress I wish for and do not see. So I say what I have said about the poet, the public, and their world angrily and unwillingly. If my hearers say, 'But what should we do?' what else can I answer but 'Nothing'? (20).

Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself...And all these things, by their very nature, demand to be shared; if we are satisfied to know these things ourselves, and to look with superiority or indifference at those who do not have that knowledge, we have made a refusal that corrupts us as surely as anything can. If while most of our people...listen not to simple or naive art, but to an elaborate and sophisticated substitute for art, and immediate an infallible synthetic as effective and terrifying as advertisements or the speeches of Hitler--if, knowing all this, we say: Art has always been a matter of the few, we are using a truism to hide a disaster (21).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Obscurity of the Poet

But then I realized that I was being asked to talk not about the fact that people don't read poetry, but about the fact that most of them wouldn't understand it if they did: about the difficulty, not the neglect, of contemporary poetry (3).

Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure---i.e., that he is difficult, i.e., that he is neglected---they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry (3).

When someone says to me something I am not accustomed to hearing, or do not wish to hear, I say to him: I do not understand you; and we respond in just this way to poets (7).

...how difficult and dull the inexperienced reader would find most of the great poetry of the past, if he could ever be induced to read it! Yet it is always in the name of the easy past that he condemns the difficult present (11).

Anyone who has spent much time finding out what people do when they read a poem, what poems actually mean for them, will have discovered that a surprising part of the difficulty they have comes from their almost systematic unreceptiveness, their queer unwillingness to pay attention even to the reference of pronouns, the meaning of the punctuation, which subject goes with which verb, and so on; 'after all,' they seem to feel, 'I'm not reading prose' (11).

When you begin to read a poem, you are entering a foreign country whose laws and language and life are a kind of translation of your own; but to accept it because its stews taste exactly like your old mother's hash, or to reject it because the owl-headed goddess of wisdom in its temple is fatter than the Statue of Liberty, is an equal mark of that want of imagination, that inaccessibility to experience, of which each of us who dies a natural death will die (11).