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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 26, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    The Fate of the Modern

    Fiona McCann

    Three-time US poet laureate, critic and essayist Robert Pinksy is giving the keynote address at the DLR Poetry Now festival tonight. According to the programme, he’s going to talk about “how what he calls the ‘mighty tide’ of modernism sets an example of poetic commitment and engagement to meet the challenges from a cynical age.” Any takers?

    • The best looking man alive says:

      In times like these I Find it hard to think of something as irrelevant and as pretentious as this.Poetic commitment,Oh SPARE ME! has Fiona read Garrisson Keilor today, on the over abundance of mentally commited poets and on the lack of mailmen, etc?

    • John Self says:

      Well my gut reaction is something similar to the best looking man alive’s, but actually his charges of “irrelevant and pretentious” do make me bristle enough to want to defend Pinksy. I don’t think ‘times like these’ mean that art should become superfluous – there’s a case to be made that we need more of the uplift and distraction from the daily grind that art gives us ‘in times like these’, not less.

      As to modernism, however, I do have some sympathy with the view held by some that it was a dead end pursued by intellectual snobs (see John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses) – but again, my greater wish for stuff to read that is at least trying something different and is not just another rehash of the 19th century novel, makes me feel defensive toward it.

      Of possible relevance is this extract from Tobias Wolff’s brilliant novel Old School, where Wolff imagines Robert Frost as a visitor to a school, where one pupil challenges him that formal verse is of no worth in reflecting the aches and pains of ‘modern consciousness’:

      “Don’t tell me about war. I lost my nearest friend in the one they call the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in the war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters. There’ve always been wars, and they’ve always been as foul as we could make them. It is very fine and pleasant to think ourselves the most put-upon folk in history – but then everyone has thought that from the beginning. It makes a grand excuse for all manner of laziness. But about my friend. I wrote a poem for him. I still write poems for him. Would you honor your friend by putting words down anyhow, just as they come to you – with no thought for the sound they make, the meaning of their sound, the sound of their meaning? Would that give a true account of the loss?

      “I am thinking of Achilles’ grief. That famous, terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry – sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.”

    • Fiona says:

      BLMA: Yeah, don’t agree that it’s irrelevant or pretentious. And Fiona has not read Garrison Keillor today, nor in quite some time, actually. Should I seek it out?

      John Self: What a wonderful comment. Thank you so mcuh for taking the time to post. I attended the Pinksy talk last night, and it’s still resonating. In fact, much of what he said was concerned with the relevance of poetry, a key concern of Pinksy. His last collection, Gulf Music, was written out of his rage and confusion at the Bush administration. Last night, he spoke at length of remembering and forgetting, of how what we choose to remember and forget in turn shapes our identity, and of the importance of engaging with our ancestry and preparing ground for our descdendants. I’m doing him a disservice here, but he made connections from Keats (Ode to a Nightingale: “Thou wast not born for death, Immortal Bird!”) through William Carlos Williams (“No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car”) right up to his own Poem of Disconnected Parts (“What could your children boast about you? /What
      Will your father say, down among the shades?”). I know I’m leaving a comment of disconnected parts, but it’s all still percolating.

      Finally, I would quote Auden:
      “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives /
      In the valley of its making where executives /
      Would never want to tamper, flows on south /
      From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/
      Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/
      A way of happening, a mouth.”

    • clom says:

      And what’s wrong with a bit of pretentious irrelevance?

      Modernism as a flawed, hubristic project is part of its charm. Like the fairytales castles of mad German princes.

      Maybe this is the happy amateur in me but there is more joy in experimentation, accident and failure than a joyless dissection of the shortcomings of the modernist folk demons (by that i mean pretentious, bespectacled atonalists- both musical and metaphorical). Modernists influenced some fine poets who do work within form to a degree. August Kleinzahler’s work is, for me, lovely stuff and not as impenetrable as the modernist caricature might have us believe.

      As a student of Bunting he would be a boat risen on the “mighty tide” and, at least to me demonstrates a poetic committment to form and experimentation.

      In any case, there’s a little crumb of pretentious irrelevance for ye, and all in response to an address I have yet to read!

      Lovely extract John, I’ve never read that!

    • brian says:

      John Self: “I don’t think ‘times like these’ mean that art should become superfluous – there’s a case to be made that we need more of the uplift and distraction from the daily grind that art gives us ‘in times like these’, not less”

      I’d have a bit of a problem with the idea that art be used as merely a distraction (though would have more of a problem with the idea that it should be discarded at the drop of a recession) and to be fair, the quote from old school would suggest you feel the same.

      I was reading (well, skimming) the great book of interviews with Seamus Heaney recently and in it he mentions that there are times when he feels distinctly unimpressed with the whole idea of poetry/art and that, at times, thinks it not up to it’s self-appointed task. Basically, not unlike bestlookingetc.’s point of view but Heaney manages to include that aspect in his poetry.

      Even as early as “Death of a Naturalist” after a dozen (or so) poems of a vaguely metaphorical death, you’re impacted with the very real death in “Mid-term Break”. The cumulative impact is not dissimilar to Fiona’s Auden quote above where the artist is constantly considering the value of his own vocation in the context of events and in response to doubters more than happy to ask the same questions.

      Any affirmation, of course, is found in the poetry itself (if that isn’t more pretension).

    • John Self says:

      Yes the word ‘distraction’ was not quite right, carrying with it intimations of escapism, which is not at all what I look for in literature. Literature is about life, indeed is life, rather than a way of escaping life. Perhaps what Martin Amis called “a transfusion from above” is more like it. I’ll stick with the ‘uplift’ though.

    • The best looking man alive says:

      All so worthy ,and all so sadly irrelevant and patronising and middle class.I REPEAT the commitment of poetry is pretentious onanism

    • brian says:

      I suppose now that it’s been repeated it must be true. But jibe aside, I don’t know what else poetry can do for you other than be aware of your attitude and, in some cases, even agree with it (though a poet might shy away from describing poetry as onanism). In articulating this, a poet asks themselves some of the questions that people ask themselves daily/weekly/never (delete where appropriate)…. i.e what am I doing, is it enough, am I sadly irrelevant, patronising and hopelessly middle class, do I spend too much time blogging and am I a pretentious onanist.

      Now, I wouldn’t want to claim that the entire realm of modernist poetry is one long exercise in justification but when it has already taken note and even argued for your criticism, it pretty much invalidates it. Either you get a new brush to tar it with or you read something else. A bit of commitment either way would be nice.

      Ooh, that was a bit catty, let’s take it outside (i.e to the guardian in blogspeak)


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