Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fundamentalists

I was reading Don Share's comments regarding Ron Silliman's take on W.S. Merwin being named the new poet laureate, when it occurred to me that the poetry world is stricken with fundamentalism.

What brought me to that conclusion is the last sentence of Share's entry:

I always get a kick in the pants for espousing the eclectic, but if appreciating and nurturing the many conflicting textures of our poetry isn't consistent with the best dreams we can have for this country overall, then what is?

Kicked, that is, for suggesting that one keep an open mind. I can clearly see people taking Share to task for supporting various types of poetry (or poetries, which seems to be the going phrase today). This is the kind of behavior I witnessed growing up, when I was told on a number of occasions that having an open mind meant leaving yourself open for Satan's influence and an eternal life of damnation. That's the kind of talk that's meant to keep you in your pew and your money in the offering plate.

But eclecticism isn't solely about keeping an open mind. It means that one derives one's ideas and tastes from a broad number of sources, subscribing wholly to none in particular. It is to think for oneself, disregarding the mandates of this or that school or authority. The so-called Christian attitudes and beliefs I observed growing up were based on authority. To end any argument, all one had to do was recite the appropriate scripture. Case closed. God said it, end of story. Again, it was about keeping that butt in the pew, but it was also about maintaining the strength of the group. It doesn't take much knowledge of the poetry world (and I'm not as well-versed in the various contemporary scenes as I'd like to be) to see a parallel between this kind of "us vs. the world" mentality and the various camps, sects, and factions of Poetry.

Years ago I participated in workshops at the Frost Place and at West Chester, and thoroughly enjoyed both. In one of my first Frost Place workshops, the leader begged me not "to become one of those neo-formalists." At the time I had been reading much of what is called the "New Formalist" movement and was busy taking from their ideas what I thought fit my own personal vision and voice because, by God, I had my own, even then. I felt hurt by the workshop leader's comments, but later realized that I couldn't help her prejudices and would take from her other comments whatever I thought would help improve my work.

At West Chester, I bought a book of criticism by Anthony Hecht as a gift for a professor who had written a recommendation letter for me, and who, I knew, loved Hecht's poetry. This was the same professor who had introduced me to such writers as Charles Bernstein, Jackson Mac Low, Susan Howe, and scores of others. Making small talk with a fellow participant, I mentioned my professor's eclectic tastes, indicating that the Hecht book was for them, and was met with a dismissive look. "Well," my colleague said, "maybe that professor will learn a thing or two." All I had to do was utter the name Bernstein to magically summon a demon of disdain.

A former roommate of mine was always wont to repeat the old saw, "There's no accounting for taste." I always love to add to that, "I don't know what you have against accountants." (Insert rim shot and cricket noises here).

Old Saw is right, of course. I don't fault anyone his or her own tastes. And I realize that a lot of the animosity dates to before I was even born, and that at some point it involves tenure-track jobs and there is more at stake than the decrees of taste. Fine. But I think that's all the more reason to reach a hand across the divisions and become, as Share puts it in his beautifully written post, "hybrid readers."

Me, I mostly read work that one might call "formalist," or "traditional." My favorite poets include Hecht and most of the recurring faculty at West Chester, and of course poets like Frost and Bishop. But there are reams of that kind of poetry that I wouldn't even clean my behind with. There are hundreds (thousands? millions? billions?) of sonnets out there that, in my opinion, don't hold a candle up to Robert Hayden's "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow."

All of this to say: right on, Don. Right on.

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