Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Little on Poet Alan Shapiro (Revised)

I first learned about Alan Shapiro’s poetry a couple of years ago, when someone suggested I read his book Song & Dance. I loved it, and then when a colleague suggested Tantalus in Love, I ate that up as well. This spring, I decided try and teach Tantalus in Love in my “Introduction to the English Major” course at Lehigh, along with a couple of essays by Shapiro (including this moving memoir-like essay, from Virginia Quarterly Review, about which I have more to say below).

Earlier in his career, Shapiro was included in the movement known as the “new formalism,” where poets started to reconsider the classical forms, and come to use more rhyme, meter, and formal structures in their poetry. Shapiro was somewhat ambivalent about being described that way (by Robert Richman, in the conservative/reactionary journal The New Criterion), and Shapiro wrote an essay for Critical Inquiry called “The New Formalism” (Critical Inquiry 14, August 1987: JSTOR link), where he discussed his ambivalence about the movement.

Yet I am anything but cheered [to be referred to as a New Formalist]. And not because I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member, though this may be a part of it; but because I suspect that what Mr. Richman hails as a development may in fact be nothing but a mechanical reaction, and that the new formalists, in rejecting the sins of their experimental fathers may end up merely repeating the sins of their New Critical grandfathers, resuscitating the stodgy, overrefined conventions of the ‘fifties poem,’ conventions which were of course sufficiently narrow and restrictive to provoke rebellion in the first place. Any reform, carried to uncritical extremes by less talents who ignore rather than try to assimilate the achievements of their predecessors, will itself require reformation. If James Wright, say, or Robert Bly, produced more than their fair share of imitators, if they even imitate themselves much of the time, they nonetheless have written poems all of us can and ought to learn from. Maybe we have had too much of the ‘raw’ in recent years. But the answer to the raw is not the overcooked.

This strikes me as right on the specifics, but also worth considering as a general way of thinking about periodization in literary studies (not to mention, literary theory). Later in the essay, Shapiro dismisses the argument that form reflects a poet's ideological inclinations (i.e., if one were to say the New Formalists, who emerged in the 1980s, were in effect practicing "Reaganomics" poetry), and he reminds us that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound pioneered modernist free verse even as they espoused authoritarian politics.

Shapiro affirmatively cites Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," to support the idea that knowing the past well is essential for serious poets, if they want to avoid merely imitating the current fashion. Notably, however, Shapiro doesn't address Eliot's comments on "depersonalization." This is an important omission, because while Shapiro has been attentive to poetic form in his own work, the subjects of his work have in fact been directly personal -- autobiographical, in fact. Song & Dance relates to the death of Shapiro's brother (see "Sleet"), and books like Vigil and The Last Happy Occasion address the death of his sister. If anything, Shapiro appears to be a highly "personal" poet, someone whose subjects follow in the footsteps of those chosen by "confessional" poets, though his style differs sharply from theirs.


In "The New Formalism," Shapiro looks closely at the relationship between sound and sense in a series of poems, some by contemporary writers working with meter (not always well), and some from the English Canon (George Herbert's masterful "Church Monuments"). He likes Timothy Dekin's "Sunday Visiting Day" and Timothy Steele's "Profils Perdus"; he criticizes (quite carefully) Dana Gioia's "Cruising with the Beach Boys," and Norman Williams' "Learning to Whistle." Shapiro also draws a distinction between "rhythm" and "meter," which I found helpful ("The metrical norm of iambic pentameter... is an abstraction, a theoretical construction-- I am, I am, I am, I am, I am-- but because no two syllables carry the same stress, that is, the same length and degree of emphasis, every line of actual pentameter verse will and ought to depart to some extent from the metrical norm").

But Shapiro isn't rejecting formalist tenets out of hand. Rather, he aims to show that sound and sense go hand in hand, and that the use of form can in fact be crucial if deployed in the right way:

If the best poetry provides a model of consciousness at its most inclusive and active, then the formal tensions, the rhythmical interplay of stress and accent, sentence and line, become the technical extension or expression of the imagination's power to unify and balance. We can think of meter as analogous to the familiar, the expected, the more than usual state of order; and the variety of rhythmical effects as corresponding to the concrete, the sense of novelty and freshness and a more than usual state of feeling. In its active engagement with a subject, meter provides a kind of dynamic restraint. In much the same way that the narrow banks of a channel can intensify a flow of water, meter can hold in check the workings of passion at the same time as it speeds them on. But to restrain in this way implies the presence of some powerful energy in need of restraining. To arouse and heighten expectation and attention through the subtle recurrences and variations of sound implies something in the subject worth expecting and attending to. Meter in and of itself is worthless.


The poems in Tantalus in Love were written long after Shapiro’s essay, and what one sees is an openness to what looks to me like “free verse,” with strong suggestions of traditional meter and form informing the work.

The book in fact has some of the conventions of the oldest poetic form of them all, the epic poem. In Shapiro’s case, the book's poems are structured as a long narrative, but instead of figuring heroic acts, the story is of a modern marriage falling apart. He does offer a classical "invocation," and an "in medias res" opening. The poems themselves, variations on a central theme, might serve as "enumeratio."

I was intrigued to see, in the opening invocation, a variation of an elegiac couplet:

Let there be never again
a moment in which
your sudden shining isn't
sudden as it rends

the dark we walk in. Make us see
no matter where
we gaze that the bush burns

(Here, the second couplet is similar to elegiac meter, with a longer first line -- I'm reading the four lines as effectively two subdivided lines -- and a shorter second. It's really the second line that comes closest to classical elegiac, though: "we gaze that the bush burns/ unconsumed." The first line is iambic, in contrast to the first lines of elegiac couplets, which are trochaic.)

My students liked Shapiro's poetry, but were divided about his memoir-like essay, "My Tears See More Than My Eyes: My Son's Depression and the Power of Art." Several students were concerned that Shapiro exploited his son's depression in the essay, by including a number of potentially embarrassing details about his son's suicide attempt, his institutionalization, and even the fact that he's been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs: Even if all this is included in the essay with the son's permission, isn't it a bit much to use his suffering in this way? I defended the use of personal material in the essay, though in the end I did walk away wondering whether Shapiro might have been able to make the same point without including details that might be potentially harmful to others in his life.

Shapiro broader goal in the essay is to articulate a concept of art that is in fact fundamentally personal, in that it is based on suffering -- though it certainly doesn't end there.

Where there is suffering, which is to say, where there is human life, there is art. But art doesn't merely mirror the bad things that happen to us. It shapes what happens into meaning. And there is always great joy and pleasure, even happiness, in the fundamental act of shaping. It's not, as Plato believed that some part of the soul desires to weep for itself; it's rather that the soul possesses a stubborn need for pleasure; it urgently desires to convert weeping into laughter, the sorrow of subject matter into the joy of form. it is a uniquely human instinct--to bring the greatest degree of childlike exuberant playfulness to bear upon the harshest and most difficult realities, answering the tragic gravity of life with the comedic grace of imaginative transformation, shaping life into a vitally clarifying or comprehending image of itself.

The key phrase might be "the sorrow of subject matter into the joy of form." The idea that the form of art (the forming of our experiences through art), can be a way of expressing joy even in suffering, seems to bridge Shapiro's early essay on poetic form with his various poetic and essayistic representations of suffering around him. One doesn't write a sestina or a villanelle about cancer just because it's more likely to be approved by the editor of a poetry journal; one does it because it gives joy to try and find the form that expresses an intense thought or experience in poetic language. And for Shapiro at least, such poems can also directly express -- somehow -- traces of joy even in the face of great difficulty.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature"

There is a new book of general interest literary criticism by John Mullan out, called Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature. It's getting great reviews in the British papers, and I wish I could have assigned it back when I was teaching "Secrecy and Authorship." (Better yet, I wish I had written it myself!)

Here are two snippets from the Guardian review. First, some arguments on why authors concealed their names when they went to publish:

He's not interested in works of which we just happen not to know the authors, but in writers who consciously sought to conceal their names. Why did so many people do it? Mullan advances a wide range of reasons, from mischief to modesty. Alexander Pope printed An Essay on Man anonymously in order to trick his enemies into praising him. Mary Ann Evans used the pseudonym George Eliot because "a masculine pseudonym was a claim to authority", and perhaps also because her complex marital career made her feminine name more than a little uncertain. Dodgson, the Christ Church mathematics don, refused to admit that he wrote the Alice books because "My constant aim is to remain, personally, unknown to the world." (link)

There's also the question of why it is we place so much value on authorship:

Why do we need to attach authors' names to books at all? Doing so makes life easy for librarians of course: just imagine arranging all those novels ascribed to "A Lady". Having names on books also helps us recognise works which we're likely to enjoy ("the new Ian McEwan"). It also allows for the simple human pleasure of piecing together an author's interests through their oeuvre, and feeling that you know how they think.

But looked at from a wider historical perspective these are quite recent pleasures, and they don't have entirely innocent origins. When Henry VIII proclaimed in 1546 that the names of printers and authors should appear on all published books, it was not because he was burning to read the latest heretical treatise. It was so he could catch and burn their authors and printers. And when present-day publishers put an author's name on a title-page they do so because an author is now something like a brand-name. Doris Lessing experimentally sent The Diary of a Good Neighbour to publishers under the pseudonym "Jane Somers", and it was repeatedly rejected. When published it sold about one 10th as many copies as "the new Doris Lessing" would have done. (link)

In the end, our current emphasis on the identities of authors is a result of the dominance of the marketplace.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

It isn't the end of the world...

Steve Wasserman, former editor of the L.A. Times Book Review, has a long account of the decline of book sections in America's newspapers in the CJR. I think his main goal is to try and make a case for the importance of the book review, but his essay considers in depth the possibility that a serious literary culture will survive the removal or reduction of book review sections at many newspapers.

Even as these sections are declining, good things are happening, and I'm not just talking about blogs. Online sales, for example, give a lot of power to the consumer:

Regional theaters and opera companies blossomed even as Tower Records closed its doors. CD sales might have been slipping, but online music was soaring. Almost ten years later, Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s new general manager, understands this cultural shift better than most and launched a series of live, high-definition broadcasts of operas like Puccini’s Il Trittico and Mozart’s Magic Flute shown at movie theaters across America. His experiment was a triumph, pulling in thousands of new viewers. As Alex Ross reported in The New Yorker, Gelb’s broadcasts “have consistently counted among the twenty highest-grossing films in America, and have often bested Hollywood’s proudest blockbusters on a per-screen, per-day average. Such figures are a timely slap in the face to media companies that have written off classical music as an art with no mass appeal.” The truth is that many people everywhere are interested in almost everything.

Thanks to Amazon, geography hardly matters. It is now possible through the magic of Internet browsing and buying to obtain virtually any book ever printed and have it delivered to your doorstep no matter where you live. This achievement, combined with the vast archipelago of bricks-and-mortar emporiums operated by, say, Barnes & Noble or Borders or any of the more robust of the independent stores, has given Americans a cornucopia of riches. To be sure, there has also been the concomitant and deplorable collapse of many independent bookstores—down by half from the nearly four thousand such stores that existed in 1990. Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary American bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. You would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer.

It seems hard to escape the likelihood that conventional literary book reviews are going to continue to decline in the years to come. A few newspapers (NYT, WaPo) will continue to carry them, as "prestige" sections, much the way the major movie studios keep making a few money-losing art house films on the odd chance that one of them might win an Oscar. Most other newspapers are looking at their bottom lines, and choosing to buy their reviews from the Associated Press rather than retain full-time book reviewing staff.

But the decline is largely about money -- the financial woes of major newspapers in the internet age -- not the liveliness of the cultural mix that leads some people to write interesting novels, and other people to buy them and appreciate them. As long as there are some mediating channels that help readers find good new books, the loss of book review sections at newspapers like the Atlanta Journal-Constituion might not be so damaging after all. What exactly those mediating channels will be, and how they'll reach readers -- it's got to be more than just blogs and Amazon reader reviews, I think -- remains somewhat up in the air.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Peter Nicholson on Auden, and against the "Poetic"

The Auden centenary is coming up, and Peter Nicholson has posted his poem, "Asking Auden," from 1984 at 3 Quarks Daily (seems we're in a linking-to-3QD mood over here). He's also posted a short essay with some reflections on the function of criticism, specifically poetry criticism. The highlight for me is the following:

There is a problem specific to poetry: mistaken thinking about poetry by the general public. Misuse of the word 'poetic' is so common as to be beyond repair. Proper poetry dives into the world, takes in its multifariousness, its roughnesses and tragedies, its joy at beauty, even as the poet grabs on to the broken glass shards of the Muse's patchy visitations. 'Poetic' is not another word for nice, kind, sedate, palatable. Between top-heavy pronouncements from various spots around the publishing globe and the general public's indifference to the real poetic, falls the shadow, Cynara, of the individual writer's efforts to get him or herself understood on a proper footing.

It's true, as Robert Hughes said in Australia recently—a critic has to have a harsh side, otherwise all you get is blandout. That apart, critics will come in many guises. One will behave like Stalin, casting the unchosen to outer darkness. Another will gather in a sheaf of sensibilities with an almost creative zeal. A few imply they have read everything and therefore their commentaries come with an air of supernal wisdom. Nothing of the kind, of course. . . . Personally, I can't think of any critics with whom I am in general agreement about literature or art. When reading all these people you can get an interesting perspective, learn new things about art and artists, enjoy the erudition, if worn lightly. However, in art, it is essential not to let others do the thinking for you. Perhaps that's even more important with artists you admire and who write on art too. I often disagree with some of my favourite artists. Wagner seems misguided on all manner of subjects. 'Poetry makes nothing happen' and 'All art is quite useless' are two statements from Auden and Wilde that irritate me.(link)

(I had to look up "falls the shadow, Cynara". Did you?)

I like Nicholson's general point here. While good criticism can be helpful and insightful, it's almost never really "authoritative," partly because even benchmark critics have their own spots of extreme idiosyncrasy, and partly because every reader brings an essentially unique combination of taste, experience, and intelligence to the text at hand.

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