Sunday, March 22, 2009

The poet as prophet

As usual, I'm dealing with the unraveling of my own consciousness. Where does poetry fit into my life? What about academia? Activism? Religion? These questions led me to look back at Naked Heart, William Everson's book of interviews and essays edited by my father, Lee Bartlett. I am just going to quote a few passages. The first of which is an excerpt from Nathanial Tarn in an interview with Bartlett and Everson. This was conducted at Kingfisher Flat in 1986 (the year that I was 16).

Tarn: Of course, Erza Pound had this same kind of regard for the poet, and it seems to me that one of the primary reasons he was so tragically disappointed in life was that his vision really was beginning to encounter the wall of silence he had not wanted to perceive before. So, my question here would be rather brutal. Do you think that the coming generations are going to have all that elevated notion of the poet? My sense of what younger poets are doing today does not imply that prophetic idea of the poet at all.

Bartlett: I'd agree with that. Certainly I think Michael Palmer would deny a prophetic vocation, as would a poet coming out of Iowa's MFA Program.

Everson: Poetry goes through changes from primitivism to decadence: we happen to be in a decadent period right now. However, mythic possibilities will always be there.

I would like to invite poets to revisit this discussion. I realize that calling the poet (i.e. oneself) is problematic. It stinks of idealism. Still, I think it's an important question. I read somewhere a few days ago about poets being 'forced' to take jobs outside of academia, but when did poets become so tied into academia to begin with?

I would define the poet as prophet in, perhaps, more benign terms: one who writes out of pure desperation. Twenty years later after Tarn and Bartlett made this assessment, I have to say that I believe there is hope in the pure poet. If I had to name names, I might name Andrea Baker, Reb Livingston, Kate Greenstreet, Jill Essbaum, Lisa Jarnot, and Maryrose Larkin. Poets who have virtually nothing to gain (or lose by writing). I would also think back to Nathaniel himself, who, all these years later is purely dedicated to the venture. Also, Fanny Howe, who I think most closely approaches the tradition of our dear monk, Bill.

Turning at an academic for a moment, I'd like to quote Marjorie Perloff from Belladonna's new Elder series book 'Emma Bee Bernstein.'

In an interview with Emma and Nona Willis Aronowitz, Perloff questions,

'There are too many artists, too many poets. Sometimes, I think if I hear about another poet, I'll shoot myself, even though I'm the one who writes on poetry. What does this glut of so-called poets and artists do for society? I'd be much happier if the women in question became social workers or teachers or medical workers...... Seriously, whatever happened to improving society? If someone really has a vocation, she will make her art no matter what......At best, they're going to end up teaching at art schools, and the process just perpetuates itself. And there are a lot of things this society needs. We need good elementary school teachers....Nobody wants to do that now - it's considered declasse' - but that's what we need."

However harsh Perloff's words, I know she knows the issue is not without complexities. Some poets have been our country's best advocates: Ginsberg, Rukeyser, Levertov. The two vocations, advocacy and poetry are not at all mutually exclusive. And yet, is the poet hiding behind her academic job in order to build the fortress for her other vocation?

Everson states, 'Find the archetype of what you are, and then if you are a poet, you'd better not compromise what you can't be.'

I think academia and poetry have become so tied in the culture that these are questions every young - and not so young - poet has to face.


Henry Gould said...

This post appeals to me. I think about it in a couple different ways.

First, regarding academia : I started writing before there were MFA programs. So it's interesting to me to see young poets who simply take it all for granted. M. Perloff's comments struck a chord. I often think the glut of so-called professional poets has to do with the fact that while post-grads are making careers in the MFA industry, children in elementary schools are not learning the basics of reading & writing - which is what helped me become a writer - on my own - in the first place. I think at some point a writer - especially a poet, maybe - has to leave the nest of support systems, and begin to write solely for writing's sake, and solely for the (non-academic) audience. Otherwise they will remain basically functionaries of an establishment, rather than original writers.

On the other hand, I don't want to reduce the complexities of the situation. I benefited from "creative writing" classes as an undergrad in college (though I didn't major in it, in the end). I understand the value of scholarship & the access to the wider world which the academy affords to peots, both in terms of the networks & the knowledge made available. But in the end I do believe poetry as a "career" is not all the fulfilling, if thought of as an academic pursuit. As Perloff suggests, there ought to be a social aspect which goes beyond the making of pleasing aesthetic objects & the training of more young would-be academics to do the same.

My second thought has to do with the notion of "prophecy" itself. In my own experience, I have felt that writing is in some way an encounter with mystery. The poet brings to "utterance" a certain element of psychological fear & wonder. Maybe this is primitive - or maybe it is just the artist's way of acknowledging & responding to the presence of the beauitufl in speech. Because of this aura or magic circle of mystery, I think the poet hesitates to "produce" poetry solely "at will" or for mercenary reasons. The art-making process involves some kind of surrender of the will.

Art Durkee said...

I tend to agree with Perloff, too, about the making of pleasing aesthetic objects being disconnected from social aspects of poetry, that used to be there, and probably ought to be there. That's the real dead-end of the post-avant: irrelevance. Not that I advocate some kind of reactionary reversal: that's the dead-end of the neo-formalists, whose attitudes are mostly neo-conservative. I think both of those attitudes are empty.

The poet as prophet is a very old aspect of poetry, and to me one of its most important. The ancient skaldic and bardic traditions of Celtic Europe; the vatic poetries of South Asia; the shamanic poetries (anthologized in the post-modern era most prominently by Jerome Rothenberg); visionary poetry of various world mystical traditions from Sufism to Rilke; etc.

But the one thing poetry-as-prophecy has that some of the post-avant really dislikes is meaning. A social aspect of poetry. A social engagement, if you will. I think Tarn's question is a very relevant one; and Everson's answer is the skaldic/visionary response, which as he says is always there. Even if it's currently unfashionable.

As for professional poetry, the whole poet-academic trope is very new. So it's remarkable how threatened some seem to feel when faced with the loss of that entitlement. Poets have always survived outside of academia; as you and Perloff both say. The avocation goes on; if you need to write, you will write, no matter what, if it's as important to you as breathing. (I am one of those, although I don't claim to be A Poet. I'm not that ambitious.) "Desperation" is not the appropriate word; but perhaps "compulsion" is. There are probably many poets we've never heard of who write compulsively, and perhaps write well; we haven't heard of them because they're not playing the fame/publication/awards game. Some of them probably could with success; there can be many reasons why they might not to be in the game.

You gave the last word to Everson, and I agree with that. I think he's correct.