Until a couple of months ago I had never taken a sedative stronger than a couple of Valium & that a very long time ago. Without intending to minimize the severity of the current epidemic of opioid abuse, I do not understand the attraction. About an hour after taking two 5 mg tablets of Percocet, I experience a fifteen minute period of mild euphoria followed by drowsiness, but if I don’t catch that wave I move through the sleepiness to a state of comfortable alertness. After that, all bets are off. Sometimes the alertness will continue for an hour or so, sometimes I will simply fall into a deep sleep for three hours or so. But over the course of days, the cumulative effect is dull drowsiness that makes it difficult to write except in short bursts. The drug also slows down the digestive tract through which it passes, lending another cluster of unpleasant symptoms. The radiation treatments I begin tomorrow are supposed to relieve much of the pain in my back, which in turn will allow me to reduce the amount of Percocet I’m taking. I hope so. I have poems to finish.
Over the last few days I’ve been watching documentaries on contemporary visual art, many from the PBS series Art:21. Over & over again, across multiple genres, approaches, political commitments & media, the artists talk in a number of different ways about working within limits. The limits artists employ are self-imposed, even when they are drawn from tradition.1
Why would so many different artists voluntarily constrain themselves with what can appear to be arbitrary limitations when, presumably, they could work without limits? Could an artist just pick up the brush-camera-pen-keyboard-saxaphone & start wailing away in genius mode? Seems doubtful, and yet over the course of my writing & teaching life I have run up against the idea that “creative” equals “no rules.” This strikes me as some sort of vulgar utopianism.
My former teacher Donald Justice, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1980, remarked at about that time that he regretted not living in an era when there was a period style to work within & against. That’s one kind of limit.
The Elizabethan theater needed a form of language that could sustain a declamatory mode of acting. The newly emerging poetic line, the iambic pentameter, was suited to this kind of drama, but of course a set verse form is a limitation. But then Shakespeare came along & used this limitation–among many other things–to produce works of genius within those limits. Shakespeare would not have been able to write Lear or The Tempest, to select the two plays I always return to.
Constraints, or limits, are highly productive. Even a hang-loose West Coast conceptual artist like John Baldessari says, in his Art 21 segment:
Not so much structure that it’s inhibiting–I mean there is not wiggle room–but not so loose that it can be anything. I guess it’s like a corral–a corral around your idea that you can move but not too much and it’s that limited movement that promotes creativity. [John Baldessari]
But even within the most rebellious forms of Modernism & post-modernism, artists impose systems–corrals, as Baldessari calls them–such as William Carlos Williams’ half-imaginary phrase-based triadic measure. Even though this prosody has turned out to be largely non-transferable (I know–I have tried it), as a limit it allowed WCW to write “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “To Daphne and Virginia” & other poems from his late period.
I’m scheduled to teach Introduction to Creative Writing in the fall. It’s a class with which I have had a love / hate relationship over the years, largely because of the issues sketched above. I’m going to design a version of the class with this notion of productive constraints at its heart.
I’ve started posting various sorts of lists in this space, inspired partly by Greil Marcus’s collection of columns, Real Life Top Ten, but without Marcus’s hipster edge or focus on popular culture. My knowledge of popular culture is not nearly so wide, nor my taste so inclusive, as Marcus’s, but I know a thing or two about Dylan, not so much as a figure (or personality), but as a poet. People don’t worry much these days about whether or not Dylan is or is not a poet—whether he meets the qualifications—but in my younger days it was a question of some importance, at least to some of us who had begun to see poetry (or all things) as a powerful mode of perception. Dylan himself had clearly thought this—after all, he had dropped in on Carl Sandberg and announced himself, however awkwardly, as a member of the tribe. Later, he seems to have dismissed the question as beside the point, though the songs of his great period are studded with references to poets & poetry.1
I seem to have buried my thesis in a footnote. I’m getting ready to teach Dylan’s songs in my Literature of American Popular Music course2 and since I don’t have more than three or four class periods to cover the territory, I have to decide what to focus on. So just pick my favorite tracks, right? If my students were just young friends in my living room, that would be fine, but even at this late stage of my academic career I feel some compunction to heed the institutional imperatives of the classroom. Well, then, choose Dylan’s “most important” work. But important on what criteria? Historical? Cultural? Musical? I could fake a discussion of the first two; the third would be more of a stretch. In fact, I’d already decided, though I had quite realized it until this morning. It’s a Literature course, as I mentioned above: one of the assumptions behind the course is that at least some songs overlap the domains of the literary. Which means that next week I will teach what I take to be Bob Dylan’s three most literary records. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that all these records are from early in Dylan’s career, but perhaps I’ll be able to fast-forward to a few tracks from Blood on the Tracks & Love and Theft.
Long associated with the Yale School of criticism, Professor Hartman examined a wide range of subjects, including Wordsworth, Judaica and trauma.
I met Dr. Hartman in 1985 when he was lecturing at Northwestern, where I had landed with an NEH Summer Seminar fellowship to study the British Romantics. He seemed like a friendly, American element in the massive fortress of Yale School criticism. That was also the summer I heard Umberto Eco lecture—a presentation that was followed by a Q & A taken over by Stanley Fish, who tried to undercut Eco’s optimistic pragmatic approach to language with his own slick nihilism, but wound up gutted like a flounder, standing there in his ice-cream suit at the back of the auditorium while the somehow rumpled & elegant Eco turned to speak with a group of undergraduates. I was there when titans grappled! That was a good day to be a fly on the wall.
It’s a truism in the poetry world that the big New York publishers don’t support poetry. The exception is W.W. Norton. I was thinking about this recently when I noticed that three books of poems stacked together on the corner of my desk were all published by Norton. (It’s oddly lovely the way objects collocate into meaningful constellations.) The books on the desk are: Alice Fulton’s Barely Composed, Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interior1, and my old grad school friend Marilyn Chin’s Hard Love Province. Another collocation: All women. I don’t tend to read books of poems straight through, so I have been leafing & loafing through these three books from Norton, with great pleasure & enthusiasm. Not only is Norton publishing poetry, it is publishing very good poetry indeed.
I only came to know Hahn’s work recently, while looking at everything I could find by contemporary writers having to do with Basho. The book is in the form of a journal, shifting from prose to poetry. Of the three books, Hahn’s presents me with the most problems, formal & emotional. It’s not easy for me to get a purchase on Hahn’s forms–she seems to bend Basho to the breaking point–nor on the emotional tenor of the work: the writer turns Basho’s subtle monochrome into high-chroma abstractions. Where Basho is personal, Hahn is confessional. (The great American “confessional” poets of the mid-twentieth century were very important to me as both reader & writer.) The voice speaking in Hahn’s Narrow Road is ruthlessly honest & difficult. But not likable. Sometimes hectoring, sometimes confessional, it is also, like Basho’s voice, caught between the extremes of home & travel–both poets ill at ease sitting still while understanding, too, that movement from place to place does not solve the problem of how to live.
Marilyn Chin’s poems are more accessible than Hahn’s, at least in terms of syntax & lexicon, both of which are more stripped down in Hard Love Province than in Chin’s earlier work. (We were both students of Donald Justice, whose insistence on precision & surface clarity influenced a generation of students with widely differing styles.) Chin, like Hahn & Fulton, happily mixes high & low diction, the intellectual & the confessional, the confrontational & a capacious & compassionate generosity. In reading through Hard Love Province (right next door to Hard Luck Province?), what I feel most acutely is a wild & sometimes violent series of mood swings–from tender to angry. The tenderness tends to be directed at particular persons, whereas the anger is more general, more “political.” Continue reading “Disrupted Diction(s)”