Monday, August 08, 2005

Chris Stroffolino on Whitman's Reviews of Whitman 

Oh YES, I know those reviews, and LOVE them. A few years ago, while I was teaching in an MFA Program, I tracked down 3 or 4 of those pieces, and copied them for the students You could call them "reviews" I suppose, but they're also "essays" and "manifestos." They’re brilliant and very well-written and address many questions about what the role of the poet is, can, or should be, that are still very relevant (and largely unheeded) today. Reading them made my opinion of Whitman go up, as I consider them among some of his best writing, and believe they should be taught alongside his canonical work such as "Song of Myself," if one wants to get the full sense of Whitman's "project" and "vision." I not only agree with Conrad that they are not unethical and also provocative and "incredibly funny" (well, once you’re in on the joke), but would even go so far as to claim that something like this is far more ethical than the "business as usual" attitude one finds in many poetry circles and is precisely what is needed in (the social institution of) poetry today.

It’s funny how Whitman is so invoked in poetry "circles" (as well as in the “larger” culture---Clinton bought Monica Leaves of Grass; Laura Bush was going to have a discussion on such allegedly “benign” poets as Whitman before she cancelled the event out of fear some people would want to "politicize" it), yet if many of the same people who invoked Whitman really looked at what he said and did in his writing and life, they would find it challenges at the core many of their seemingly habitual activities. At one point in one of these "reviews," he talks about how you’ll never find Walt Whitman at the polite poetry readings of his day, but rather mingling with longshoremen, etc. Yet, in American poetry today, poets who do not devote a lot of time going to readings, keeping up with the large amount of books being published, etc. are often looked at suspiciously, ostracized, not taken "seriously," or ignored for doing exactly what Whitman sang of himself. The question I would ask is How ethical is THAT? If one wants to truly support one’s fellow poets, is it really more ethical to partake in a culture that basically says "go to 50 readings a year, and maybe 50 people will go to yours; read 50 books a year, and maybe 50 people will read yours;" than it is to take a step back from this social involvement and look at a blade of grass or get some sense of connection with the rest of humanity who doesn’t call themselves poets?

I don’t know whether Whitman writing these reviews actually had any effect on sales for his book, but the mere fact that he made the attempt (utilizing his skill at journalist-speak as well as his connections in that "4th estate") is itself something I value and envy, similar in a way to the slaves taking on Christianity, the religion of their oppressors, to be able to express themselves in a way that might have gone unheeded, and yes, punished, otherwise. Today, words like "narcissism" and "shameless self-promotion" are often tossed around negatively, yet perhaps it's actually more HONEST and RESPONSIBLE for a poet, of for any artist for that matter, to write about themselves than to adopt the allegedly more ethical role of "critic" or "scholar." Sure, Emerson (who also helped promote Whitman) was right when he talks about how when we read any great piece of literature what we really are reading are the aspects of ourselves we perhaps couldn't admit consciously, and writing reviews of others certainly can serve that function---but have you ever tried to do a "close reading" of one of your own poems? I have, and found it to be an amazing experience, and NO MORE "NARCISSISTIC" than writing about somebody else's poems. Not only do I learn a lot by doing that, but I’d argue that the pieces of writing that resulted were at least as interesting as most pieces of writing that get published as "reviews" and maybe even as the poems themselves, especially if one lets go of the notion that a piece of prose can "explain" a poem in any definitive way more than a poem could "explain" the prose (this is also why I'm a huge admirer of Laura Riding's "close reading" of her own poem in her Survey of Modern Poetry). I certainly don't want to be guilty of the opposite claim and say IT'S ONE'S ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITY TO WRITE "CLOSE READINGS" OF ONE'S OWN POEMS, but I do think it should the form should be permitted, and the way I see it, Whitman gives that permission in a way the standard ethics of the social institution of poetry does not today.

In the poetry world today, the APPEARANCE OF nepotism is frowned on. In fact, it's frowned on much more than nepotism itself. If the recent flap over the FOETRY website proved anything, it proved that it’s still considered more "ethical" to clandestinely help someone get published and reviewed (as you yourself had benefited from such) than to publish and review yourself. There may be nothing wrong with that, but if there's truly nothing wrong with that, than why be clandestine about it? This system has created a climate in the poetry world as toxic as the STEROID scandal, maybe even worse because it doesn’t even enhance the performance of the poets in the vast majority of the cases. And for what stakes? Perpetuating a fiefdom of dullness, or sameness? If at least this nepotistic network in the "anonymous" contests, and the hierarchical nature of poetry "communities" were exposed to elements of air and light more, there could be an openness to those who won't or can't play by the prevailing aesthetic or social rules, such as Whitman in his time. Granted, one difference between Whitman and Mr. Foetry was that Mr. Foetry had a more limited vision; he stopped at being a mere "whistle blower," too obsessively scouring the "poetry world" for signs of injustice---a temptation that, granted, is very hard to avoid, especially if one is told it's his or her duty to read a lot (too much) contemporary poetry, go to readings, etc---while Whitman, though acutely aware of such injustices, was able to focus on other things, one could say "larger" or "wider" things (such as his "self" in others, nature and his writing) and thereby frame such injustices as rather petty, like Dylan looking out from Desolation Row or Eden and laughing at (and even pitying) the paupers who "change possessions, each one wishing for what the other has got," beneath the thin veil of "community." This question itself has gotten me a little too intimate with Mr. Foetry’s stance, so I will end soon (so I try can focus on other things), but one thing the example of Whitman provides (and I will even admit that I am not even a big ga-ga Whitman head) is a kind of validation for me to try to go out and proactively create an alternative in my writing and life---and realize that I do not necessarily need validation from those who most loudly try to "speak for poetry" (as an institution or aesthetic object)—not that I am "better" or "worse" than them, but only that if I want to reach people in the here and now (which, granted, not all poets want to do---and that’s okay), because I truly believe in a vision that could somehow help others, I may have to do it "by any means necessary" and even if what gets defined as "poetry" today more often subordinates "vision" to "craft," and even if I won’t be able to pull up such a journalistic-"crafty" stunt as Whitman myself, I certainly admire him for that, and feel/think it's totally consistent with the other kinds of "thinking outside the box" one finds in Whitman's poetry.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?