Charles Simic – Where is Poetry Going?

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/feb/07/where-poetry-going/

What on earth is he blethering about. If anyone feels any wiser from reading this bumf let me know.

I imagine ‘where is poetry going?’ was a question asked by one of the well-connected lit bods at the NYT in need of some online filler, or possibly by Simic himself. Maybe that’s an unfair assumption, but it feels about right for blog matter, particularly poetry blog matter. A wiser man might have dismissed the idea from the outset, reminding himself that one may only speculate at where one’s own poetry is ‘going’, let alone the entire bloody medium. As an aside, Simic’s every idiosyncrasy has been immaculately preserved since the seventies and there are few poets I would trust less to make a value judgement on the future of the genre. More on him later.

In the meantime let’s have a look at that ‘going’. Goes down easily, no? But it’s nonsensical. Where is poetry going? Where was it before? How can we locate physically something that exists only in the mind? Many writers have identified the folly of couching ideas in terms of bodily movement, their collusion in and legitimation of some of the worst atrocities committed by mankind in the name of ‘progress’ (hiding behind which the idea of ‘forward progress’ as necessarily superior to anything that went before, being as it must be intrinsically ‘backward’). So where is poetry going? Nowhere. Fine. But what is poetry doing and how is poetry changing? Now we’re talking. More on that later.

I’m being harsh on Simic in the name of making a point. Many of his poems are fun experiments, and occasionally, as in “My Shoes“, there is a deep and moving melancholy behind the apparent lightness of the vehicle. Even then, the lines ‘My brother and sister who died at birth / Continuing their existence in you, / Guiding my life / Toward their incomprehensible innocence’ are emotionally and aurally ungainly and obtuse, and draw away much of their potential impact. So it goes. Far too many of his poems feature this kind of casual cruelty to the reader, in which a devastating fact is dropped without appropriate care for the humans depicted. Imagine this was a film or a tv show. The characters who appear there are no different to those who appear in a poem. It is not a sign of the reader’s callousness if we don’t care about the death of a character who hasn’t been properly introduced.

(You could argue that characters in poems are more likely to be based on ‘real people’ and so our default reaction should be akin to hearing of the death of a real person, but that’s boring, and too easy an excuse for a lazy poet. If you want your reader to make some emotional effort, you’d better be ready to earn it. Frost proved pretty categorically that it was possible, if not vital. Look at CK Williams or occasionally Ciaran Carson for an example of how to work the sense of dread or horror into a collection by economical use of biography, look at Berryman’s Dream Songs (maybe not all of them) or anything by Elizabeth Bishop for how to conjure up a human voice with moving emotional parts.)

WOW LOOKIT ALL DEM LINKS. Basically I’m saying there are  better poets than Simic. Worse, too, but he irks me, nay vexes me more because of how talented he could have been had he taken the praise and plaudits with a pinch of salt and taken leave from his successes, taken some risks. Okay let’s talk about this article. I GUESS. There’s little of substance.

“[poets] think of themselves as journalists of a kind” – I think of myself as a journalist of a kind, except without the hard work, ethics, responsibility, importance to society and occasional risk to my wellbeing

“we’ll go anywhere for a story” – provided it’s indoors

“Don’t believe a word of it” – no shit

Then there are two paragraphs of him rambling about the process of writing a poem, which is too boring for words. It’s a truism worth repeating that no one really cares about the artist behind the art, save that you know him/her personally. It’s a similar principle behind not/caring about the characters in the book/show/film. Yet how many performers leap gleefully from behind the privileged veil granted them to say ‘it was me! Now love me as you loved my art’. It’s naïve, and if we look past the charming anecdotes the insight is slim. It usually sets alarm bells ringing when a sentence starts with ‘poems are’ or ‘poetry is’, and Simic is kicking every BMW in the street: ‘A poem is like a girl at a party who gets to kiss everybody. No, a poem is a secret shared by people who have never met each other’. Reader, a poem is neither of those things. The first metaphor doesn’t even bear thinking about but here goes. A girl who gets to kiss everybody. It is an honour for her to kiss every single person at the party presumably including Charles Simic. Oy vey. Secondly, in the digital age it is perfectly possible to have a fairly in-depth relationship with someone you’ve never met, which rather lets the air out of the intended mysticism. It all points to a writer with a faint grasp on the implications of what he’s doing, and it shouldn’t be humoured.

Okay. So. Charles Simic is bad and he should feel bad. But what about his question? What is poetry doing? I don’t know. (OH SNAP TWIST OF THE CENTURY) I spoke at length a month ago in a kind of proto-festo for my own work. I could very easily talk about what I omitted for another thousand words but god this is long enough. The writers I name-drop time and again are those who incorporate a broad and generous view of humanity’s misadventures and somehow funnel it all into a unity, a lyric whole. The best of any genre tends to come through a deep understanding of and care for our larger community, and an awareness of the impact of the work within it. Reading his article again, when it seems Simic denounces the sedentary and retiring nature of poetry exemplified in Homer’s blindness, we expect him to cry out for the new breed of poet who has a day job outwith the academy and an active hand in public policy. But half a page later he has argued himself round to fetching another tinnie from the fridge. Are we singing Odysseus’ praises or getting on the boat?

As if it’s a simple binary. The point is, too much poetry happens in an emotional vacuum, with test tube versions of our complicated relationships to each other and to the place our artistic output takes in shaping our view of the world. And I am painfully aware of how far my next poem is from accomplishing anything like it. But we dream so we can make reality of it.

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One thought on “Charles Simic – Where is Poetry Going?

  1. Taj Bourgeois July 24, 2011 / 8:06 am

    I dig

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