Normally, I’m given to giving more thought to what I post here and developing that thought at greater length and depth, but, sometimes, maybe, a blog is a place to allow oneself to think out loud, to essay some positions, without the explication and footnoting a more rigorously writ out thesis would demand. To wit:
Reading a random piece of praise from Charles Bernstein for Ron Silliman’s latest addition to what amounts to his lifelong long poem, Revelator, I can’t help but think that the paratactic poetic of Silliman’s New Sentence is in a way the afterlife of Pound’s Ideogram, so trenchantly studied in what should be widely-known as the classic study by Laszlo Gefin. This insight, however true, helps articulate a growing discomfort and dissatisfaction with what passes for the contemporary avant garde in English-language poetry, which seems increasingly, to me, at any rate, as a dead end of that literary High Modernism that flourished in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century as that ghost of Romanticism that haunted the end of the Nineteenth Century was a faint echo of the Spirit of the first and second generations of British Romanticism about a century before it. However much our practice must be (never mind can’t help but be) “absolutely modern” (a modernity whose horizon, arguably, includes what is academically termed Romanticism, Modernism, and Postmodernism), said modernity is also always relative to its precursors, demanding, at times, a gesture for the sake of sheer differentiation, precisely what inspired Pound’s return to meter and rhyme in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1915!). That is to say, however pertinent parataxis might be said to be to our moment, as a poetic practice it has become, if not merely reflexive, at least de rigueur, which is to say as dogmatic as any compositional value in any school of poetry, another hollow idol for the hammer to sound.
ACAD Liberal Studies Instructor Derek Beaulieu is planning to teach his students how to type.
Starting in January, every student in Beaulieu's Creative Writing course will be required to create all of their notes, their assignments and their final projects on portable manual typewriters.
Students will be required to write in class, in coffee houses and on public transit in order to make traditional poetry and prose, but also to use the typewriters to create portraits and music — all in order to explore the artistic possibilities of these sadly neglected machines.
The teapot in the tearoom of the North American poetry milieu is all aripple again and cups aclatter in their saucers. Boston Review publishes a conversation with poet, critic, and scholar Stephen Burt and (via the Véhicule Press blog via Evan Jones) one can read Adam Plunkett in the The New Republic take Burt to task—on the matter of taste. Taste? In 2013?!
I quote a supposedly well-known poet-critic: ”Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.”
This serious artist has more important things to attend before Time’s wingéd chariot kindly stops for him. Or, to quote again that well-known poet-critic:
I would much rather lie on what is left of Catullus’ parlour floor and speculate the azure beneath it and the hills off Salo and Riva with their forgotten gods moving unhindered amongst them, than discuss any…theories of [taste] whatsoever….I shall not argue.
One splash Alice Munro’s winning this year’s Nobel Prize for literature made stirred a teapot tempest in the Twitterverse, proving again, if any further evidence were called for, just how anathema Twitter is to thought. To wit, Brett Easton Ellis tweeted ”Alice Munro is so completely overrated,” then expanded on his judgement an hour later: ”Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages….” The cacophonous reaction was as swift, overwhelming, and damning as it was puerile.
First, I unreservedly applaud Munro’s winning the prize and the well-deserved attention the award will bring to her oeuvre. What interests me is why Ellis, given the kind of prose he writes, might be moved to remark what he does about the regard given Munro’s writing and the character of the Nobel Prize.
Even a passing familiarity with these writers’ works prompts an initial answer: Ellis is a satirist of modern, urban life, whose writing is intimately bound up with the present, sociocultural moment, so much so his novels have been adapted to the screen and subject to virulent denunciations. Munro, on the other hand, is characteristically described by The New Yorker magazine fiction editor Deborah Treisman: ”Her work is very provincial in that it’s based in small towns and rural parts of Canada for the most part. At the same time, what she does with the characters in those places is show us their universality, their humanity.” The same CBC article goes on to sum it up quite nicely:
Munro… has been called Canada’s Chekhov. Similar to the work of the Russian short-story master, plot is usually secondary.
Munro’s stories focus on striking portraits of women living in small-town Ontario. They revolve around small epiphanies encountered by her characters, often when current events illuminate something that happened in the past.
Clearly, the ends and means of Ellis’ and Munro’s writing couldn’t be more different. However much resentment might be blamed for Ellis’s tweet, the terms of praise for Munro’s work are revealing and illuminate the second part of Ellis’s second tweet concerning the Nobel Prize’s being “a joke.”
Munro’s stories are praised for focussing on character more than plot, on her characters’ “universality, their humanity.” The universal humanity of these characters is revealed in their experiencing “epiphanies” that illuminate their and by virtue of their universality our little slices of shared life. The critical idiom here is hardly as spontaneously universal as Munro’s characters’ epiphanies. Rather, it’s the discourse of a conservative, humanist, classicist aesthetic, the same operative, for example, in Yeats’ and Eliot’s being awarded the prize (despite their respective dalliances with fascism and antisemitism) but not Joyce. The drama and prose of the late Thomas Bernhard remain second to none in their stylistic bravura and social and existential profundity, but they would never have been considered for the prize precisely because of their obsessive style, pitiless intelligence, and relentless truthtelling. Examples could be multiplied.
The most telling judgement is Munro’s being called “Canada’s Chekhov.” But the Chekhov invoked here is the tamed, canonized caricature of the writer
who amazed his audiences in the early 1880s. He was particularly interested in the absurd, and repatterned the anecdote and vignette forms of the popular press into innovative forms of writing: pieces in the guise of National Census questions, a test set by a mad mathematician, a proposal to the board of a medical school, the twisted “questions and answers” of popular women’s magazines….
The smug propriety of the praise showered on Munro is arguably as shallow as Ellis’ dismissal and the subsequent brainlessness of the backlash to his tweet. The bitter grain of truth in Ellis’ second tweet is that prizes, however much they materially further even a deserving writer’s career, are perhaps more revealing of literary values than of a writer’s worth.