I get started on a thing and follow it like an angler reaching for an earthworm, only to grab onto another thing and then another, related maybe but not identical. From information literacy to educational technology to critical pedagogy, from political depression to poetry and theology, my semester has been interesting.
In terms of the number of readers, poetry is marginal to cultural concerns. But what are the central concerns of the culture? They are making money, getting a talking car, and imposing Pax Americana upon the world. (6)
Michael Palmer, interviewed by Keith Tuma. Contemporary Literature 30.1(1989): 1-12.
When he won the 2006 Wallace Stevens Prize, Palmer quoted these lines at the end of his acceptance speech?essay:
The poem is the cry of its occasion.
Part of the res itself and not about it.
—Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”
I’m reading some of Jorie Graham now, From the New World, whom I first heard of in Vogue, of all places, saying that if it weren’t for art, we’d only have shopping and Prozac. Here’s a bit about difficult modern poetry:
Graham, who is sixty-four, is the Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard. She was raised by American parents in Rome, and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, film at N.Y.U., and writing at Iowa, where she received an M.F.A. in poetry. She has won almost every major literary award, including a MacArthur and a Pulitzer. She would be on anyone’s list of the most influential American poets of the past fifty years, but many readers, even those with the best intentions, find her work “unintelligible” and “deliberately intended to frustrate the reader,” to quote the critic Adam Kirsch. Graham, however, insists on, and has defended in print, her use of “associational logic,” a muscle rarely worked by prose: its “occlusion, or difficulty,” she wrote, “healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition.”
And so we have a standoff of the kind that has cropped up again and again in poetry at least since the nineteen-twenties. The idea that calculated literary difficulty is a positive feature that writers intend seems odd, but it comes with a distinguished provenance: it is associated primarily with T. S. Eliot, whom Graham counts among her first influences…
And finally for today, my previous e-mail signature quote:
“The power of thought to seek the truth must be accepted as our guide, rather than be curbed to the service of material interests.” Michael Polanyi, 1964 preface to Personal Knowledge.