2.12.2009

Professional (AWP) & Dilettante (AWOL)

While all the professional poets are AWOL at AWP, I thought I'd just respond briefly to Joseph's previous post, on the distinction between professional and amateur. Joseph writes : "That terminology is highly problematic along several axes of meaning, I think, but I'm not sure how else to characterize the obvious differences between those who have mastered certain techniques and attitudes and those for whom poetry is not a matter of mastery but of expression."

I'd like to glance at a couple of those problems.

First, I think it can be said that the techniques in the canon of poetry which professionals master are themselves expressive. And it's not so easy drawing the line between self-expression & mastery. To take an example from the visual arts : the familiar image of Picasso, whose every doodle is inimitably Picasso-esque (and no one else's - unless he's imitating Matisse, for example, in a Picassoish way). So perhaps one result of mastery can be a kind of return to self-expression, or its fulfillment.

Secondly, I've found that often enough "artless self-expression" is paradoxically more effective that artful imitation of established styles. I attended a reading a couple weeks ago, where a young poet read what was basically a grocery-list/litany of "everything that went wrong" in her day. It was an "amateur" poem in Joseph's sense : but her funny list came across - in a way that some of the "workshop" efforts by young MFA students, imitating current stylistic mannerisms, did not. (Then again, this anecdote may reinforce Joseph's point, that we enjoy one end of the spectrum or the other, depending on what we're looking for.)

Finally, there's a larger issue, which I will try to grapple with in a separate post. This question of finding a "golden mean", or a middle way, between art and experience, style and substance, seems dauntingly complex. We could look at the whole arc of literary history of the last 150 years (or more) as an oscillation between realism and symbolism, an art of "experience" and art-for-art's sake. (& behind this oscillation lies an even older one - between classicism and romanticism.) I would suggest - with great over-simplification - that the era inaugurated by Lowell's Life Studies, running til about the mid-1970s, represented a period of "realism". Since then we have seen a wave of self-conscious, modernist/postmodernist formalism, which represents the antithesis to the earlier wave. (It gets complicated, since various modes of "identity" poetics actually continued and strengthened the earlier, "experiential" mode - not to mention all the very "unreal" things - NY School & "deep image" being obvious examples - that were happening during the Life Studies era!)

What I would suggest, as something to think about, is that we could look at the various modes of formalist poetry - representing a "mastery" of autotelic and self-referential techniques - as self-absorbed and self-enclosed, in a way which is comparable to the near-solipsistic "self-expression" of the "amateur".

I'm not asserting this with the aim of starting another polemical debate. Rather I think these phenomena represent the playing out of an inherent ambiguity or oscillation, within art itself, between form and content, artifice and nature.

Eugenio Montale (in a famous essay of the 1920s), trying to avoid the Scylla and Charibdys of artlessness on the one hand, and effete aestheticism on the other, came up with the term "superior dilettantism". With this phrase perhaps we can say that Montale was aiming for the plumbline too...

[p.s. let me repeat with emphasis : I realize that this idea of a "realist period" is a big simplification. Many of the modernist techniques of the school of Pound, for example, were carried on into the 60s & 70s on behalf of that wing's own, very different, idioms of "the real". The debate over the status of representation itself has been quite contentious for the last 50 years, at least. Nevertheless, I think it's pretty hard to deny that Lowell's rejection (in the 1950s) of late-modern, New Critical formalism, was a kind of watershed, the beginning of a new era.]

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