Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Monday, October 03, 2011

"Intellectual" Poetry?

Last night I was talking with another poet about who we'd like to work with and why. We began to make generalities about schools of thinking on poetry whether we liked them or not. One distinction to which we were (inevitably?) led between "intellectual" and "anti-intellectual" poetry. I said that anti-intellectualism piqued me and expressed frustration: it often implies that my philosophical training has no bearing on writing good poems which I think to be utterly untrue. My friend immediately offered that he appreciated intellectualism -- this is a person who can recite early Frost and Rimbaud by heart -- but that of course he also thought it was important that poetry feel. Reflexively, I responded that I thought that too, and that poetry that expresses "feeling" and "intellectual" poetry need not be opposed. We said yes, yes, and moved on... but I don't think we actually agreed on the definition on "intellectual."

When I say "intellectual" poetry, I mean poetry informed by wide reading and listening. The intellectual omnivorously consumes information and theories about experience and uses them to refine her understanding of her own experience. That is, we can still learn something of how the world works (science, technology) or how it came to be (history) or what it might mean (philosophy) and nonetheless emotively express our relationship to it. You might mention a fact, allude to a myth, or address a philosopher in a poem because doing so allows you to be more clear about a state of affiars. That can happen in third person or first person; it can be confessional or not. (That distinction needs a discussion of its own, by I don't see 'intellectual' and 'confessional' poetry to be opposed: think Hopkins or The Waste Land or Carl Philips.)

What I think a person might mean when she says "intellectual" poetry is writing that addresses conceptual distinctions: philosophical or political ones. For example, this kind of intellectual poet might tell you What Language Is or How to Relate To the Other. That can also happen in first person or third person.

Now, I should think of examples of each of these. In my sense of "intellectual," I think Anne Carson and Frank Bidart write this type of work, rife with allusion and informed by historical reading... but no less able to make you cry or moan or laugh. I don't think of any poets whom I really enjoy who fit the secondary definition, though I'm sure they exist. But I don't like reading them! If you want to give a theory of language, then you really should study and write philosophy. If you want to show experience,then you could write poetry and use some terms from a theory merely because they are more precise that other words. (Or, you could write a letter to your mother or a personal essay... poetry involves lines, meters, imagery, etc., not just commentary on experience)

Well, now I should get back to writing some poetry, intellectual or otherwise.

Friday, September 23, 2011

On praising "bad poetry"

Book Forum and The Poetry Foundation are talking about why people praise "bad poetry." Plunkett argues that "most of published criticism is positive even though so much of published poetry is bad." I am wondering whether this is true and if so, whether it is a problem. The world of poetry is cold and lonely. It's incredibly difficult to get a book published, and to do so and hear that it was "bad" would be devastating. For your hard work, you get no money, little public recognition or social affirmation (yes, it's "cool" to say you're a poet but society does not give you the full pat on the back that it gives the software developer or medical professional). All you receive -- if anything -- is a tiny bit of feedback from a tight circle of other people who have made it to that enviable/inenviable place.

But art means absolutely nothing if it isn't good art so why should even that tiny circle affirm work that is so poor it only diminishes the value of the whole field? That seems to be Plunkett's polemic. But I hope he is either best friends with Dickman or never meets him, because identifying his work as exemplary "bad" poetry is not going to start a convivial relationship.

Somewhere between or beyond pointing out the "bad" and rehearsing praise of the "good" lies real criticism. One can profoundly, rigorously and minutely critique a fantastic poem -- some of Rilke's elegies just don't make sense either -- or can re-frame and draw out insight a mediocre poem -- some of my favorite lectures in grad school managed that. Critique reflects the aesthetic judgment of the viewer/reader as much as the creator. Wallpaper, as Kant tells us, can instigate the play of the faculties and prompt aesthetic judgment as much as a beautiful painting. Literary criticism, as Eliot tell us, means understanding what a poem means in relation to all the other poems that come before it. So writing good criticism is not entirely limited by the work that is its object of study. Good criticism can be an opportunity for the critical writer to express and explore ideas not yet born in the work itself. Tell us not that Dickman is "bad" but that his work falls in a particular stream of current popularity and tell us when and why that stream diverged from other aesthetic possibilities.

Or at least I hope that opportunity is there for critique. All that said, I empathize with Plunkett's frustration and share a sneaking suspicion that a book only needs a certain amount of inertia to keep getting more praise.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Site Specific and Seattle Specific Art

As I get started writing about art in Seattle, I've dragged J along to a number of events, some more successful than the others, and I'm meditating on what is succeeding or not in this particular area. The best art in Seattle seems to be "happening": that is, the work involves an event, interaction, or performance. This, of course, is not unique to the Puget Sound; Roberta Smith just wrote a preview of the next New York season and notes a similar trend. That said, I like to think that performance art might have a particular appeal in this city that has a good record of getting audience out to live music. People here expect to go out in the evening, wait outside a door, and then hear and see something at a particular time. An audience prepped by music venues might be drawn to performances like SuttonBeresCuller's "To Be Determined" with its giant katamari ball recently at On the Boards or this weekend's "Swimming the List" by Susie J. Lee at Theater Off Jackson.

Of course, sometimes I just want to stand quietly between four white walls in the afternoon sun and look at some big forms. Or shift my weight while watching a nice old still life and wondering why people still paint. For that, I guess I'll have to go to the Met. One of the best site-specific sculptures I've seen recently, actually, was surprisingly at the gallery attached to U-Frame it in Ballard. "Ghost Dogs" had me gawking happily from the street for a good five minutes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Jeffery Yang's epic

I'm still trying to get a handle on Jeffery Yang's work. Vanishing-Line, new from Graywolf, took me by surprise after I finished Aquarium. The narrator's vision in Aquarium had a fairly steady focal range and a consistent format; you looked sequentially at an alphabetized list of creatures through a set of binoculars or microscope set up and handed to you by the narrator. They are all about the same distance away, and you get about the same amount of time to watch each one. Then, on to the next exhibit. Your ecological tour guide does make comments that assess and contextualize the images, but rarely strays from the format, describing each creature from "Abalone" to "Zooxanthellae." Here are the representative opening lines of "Anemone": "Anemones are warriors, colonizing / rock and reef in ranks. The history/ of the world is told thru the eye / of the colonizer, who takes pleasure in / sticking his fingers into an anemone's / mouth until it starves." You see the sea creature and then hear remarks that transfer metaphorically that image to the stage of history. (In other poems, the image transfers to the philosophy or religion or politics.)

But Vanishing-Line follows both a radically different form and works at a different scale. This is a geographic and wide-lens historical view. I think of slow pan in the opening of vistas of There Will Be Blood. The first and last words of the book are "place": the first poem is called "place" and the book closes with a quotation from Robert Duncan on place. In each place he presents, Yang positions "facts." These facts -- about his Chinese grandmother and her context or about the dark history of Native Americans on this continent's east coast-- function as artifacts in an epic reenactment.

These facts form the focus and the medium of the poet, as they so self-consciously did for the Objectivists and Imagists. The echoes and interplays between Yang's work at George Oppen's Of Being Numerous are well, numerous. (Yang mentions Oppen in this book's bibliographic note and in a poem in Aquarium, assuring me that I do not image the influence.) Although the author speaks mostly in the third-person omniscient, he occasionally allows an "I" to appear intimately integrated into the large-scale landscape. In Oppen, that landscape is New York; in Yang, it is the east coast surrounding that city.

I call these poems "epics" because of this scale, and perhaps the most fascinating moments are when an "I" does step into the poem or when the poem shifts from microscopic detail to macroscopic reflection. For example, in one line zooming from the size of a nail in a canoe to the scope of a dynastic nation: "Canoes without nails, scoops for oars // They walked // as Portugal lost its monopoly..."

Lots more to think about and a few more reads before I can articulate clearly what he's up to in this complex book that I highly recommend.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sprout and the Hyper Local Movement

I'm starting to blog here at Crosscut. This piece is about a great Seattle arts organization. J and I have been thinking a lot about the hyper local movement because of our salon (next one, November 12!).

Locality is old news in the realm of food – everyone (hip) goes to the farmers market and not just the grocery. In the last few weeks with flash mobs attack Cleveland, Atlanta and London, crowd sourcing and local movements have even take on a negative cast. But in visual art and cultural organizations, locality has at once an old history and a new one.

I very hesitantly offer the hypothesis that visual art and architecture has a stayed rooted in locality while other art forms – music, literature – have more easily been disassociated (for better or worse) from their physical origins (though there are now reactive movements turning back towards the local). Literature can and has been passed around more quickly from place to place. You can read Lolita in Tehran or Henry James in Idaho or Bannana Yoshimoto in Brussels. But it’s hard to move Bilbao or Falling water, but it’s also harder (though not impossible!) to move a Richard Serra or Tara Donavan piece to New Dehli. These works I select for their modernist, scale-based physicality in particular. That kind of installation/sculpture/etc. appears to be particularly resistant to displacement. That kind of art also dominates our cultural vision of what contemporary art is like. So perhaps it should come as less of a surprise that visual art has quickly taken to the local movement.

I’d like to keep thinking about this movement in “fine” art above and beyond the DIY culture. Yes, I know, craft and art need not be and cannot be entirely distinguished, but it does seem worthwhile to consider whether there is something special happening in that aspect of culture.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Funhouses and Madhouses

J and I recently enjoyed these two shows in Seattle: Funhouse, a show at Western Bridge Gallery, and MadHouses (exhibit now closed) in a row of former Capitol Hill residences sponsored by MadArt and 4Culture. Together, these two exhibits point to the strengths and limits of “public” art and gallery-constrained art.

Funhouse wants to be a party in your backyard. The winking drapes of Martin Creed’s “Work No. 990” flash open and close across the wide entrance windows, hinting that something playful and large hides indoors. In the main room, under the shadow of Creed’s wall drawing, you climb into the show’s center piece, Julian Hoeber’s “Demon Hill,” an optico-kinesthetic illusion: that is, a box with a titled floor. Two or three steps inside the brightly lit, ten by eight foot wooden crate-like structure, you immediately feel sea-sick, despite the plumb line hanging from the ceiling. The simplicity of this architectural gesture points to a strong modernist ethos that undergirds this piece and the show. Essentially, each piece asks the visitor to reassess her commitment to perspectival space, emphasizing constant physical relations just the way a Donald Judd or a Walter De Maria might. The show purports to be about “fun” and “funhouses” which might lead to post-modern pieces that tugged at cultural expectations, but in fact, the work focuses on light and space, the great mainstays of modernist architecture.

In the back room, perhaps the most exciting piece hides: Mungo Thompson’s Skyspace Bouncehouse, a Claus Oldenburg-like version of a James Turrell. On a wood pew in Turrell’s original, you look up to see a square of light from the sky you’ve been in the habit of ignoring rather than worshipping. Inside Thompson’s piece, you bounce over the inflated cushions of a county fair moon-walk beneath a similar hole in the ceiling.

Visitors’ reactions to Skyspace could be shouts of “The sky! The sky!” while hopping like children. But Funhouse is ultimately a gallery show. The hush and dark of the gallery space invites a quiet, “Ah” instead. The roof blocks out the sky that appears in the actual Turell and the white walls and air-condition muffled backroom of the gallery mute the art from an “event” to a set of purchasable pieces.

Madhouses succeeds in offering a more fun place to be than Funhouse, although the actual sculpture does not reach the subtly of those tucked away at Western Bridge. SuttonBeresCuller, creators of numerous architectural-scale works at, for example, Bumbershoot and the Lawrimore Project, installed the initially and outwardly striking, “Ties that Bind,” red bands winding through two houses. Laura Ward’s “Skin” transforms the exterior of a house into a fragile latex cast that underscores the structure’s vulnerability. By padding the interior with used clothing, Luke Haynes points toward the history of inhabitation by past residents and visitors and caretakers that patinas the houses.

The opening of Madhouses included artists and friends but also members of the Capitol Hill community of all ages who happened to walk by the show. Likewise, on a sunny Sunday, a wide swath of the Seattle community – much more diverse than the handful of visitors who make it to Western Bridge – wandered through the structures. The effect of the informal open door policy created the atmosphere of an estate open-house, but one where no one was buying, a trope emphasized by the barcoded price tag in Troy Gua’s “Crysalis.”