Friday, June 03, 2005

Taking Poetry Off Its Pedestal

Poetry is a serious affair. You can tell by the number of manifestos out there. Manifestos like the writings of Olson: Projective Verse & Letter to Elaine Feinstein and all. The arguments between what Ron Silliman calls the School of Quietude and the post-avant poets he favours rage like bush-fires over poetry. In the end, my sympathies are more with the post-avant; I like the use of collage, the parataxis and jump-cut; not the difficulty so much as the mystery of avant-garde poetics. It seems more true to life as it is today, than the little personal lyrics of the SoQ.

Nevertheless, I can't help it; I find Olson off-putting. I think that technically he was a big influence on Frank O'Hara; but temperamentally, he was put off by the preachiness of his poems. It was the big temptation that so many male American writers have to write the Great American poem/novel that somehow made a big sweeping statement about life in the 20th century. Frank O'Hara would probably have laughed at that; and, in acknowledging his debt to Olson, he did say that he found this desire for the 'significant utterance' as he called it, off-putting.

That goes for me too; I had my fill of preachers when I was an evangelical Christian and don't want to hear any more sermons, thank you. Also, it almost seems to make poetry a kind of idol that must be looked up to, or something that will somehow build a better structure than the one before. Charles Olson's poetry strikes me as still belonging to another long-running school: the school of High Seriousness. The same one, in fact, that Geoffery Hill (an otherwise totally different poet) belongs to. He has Something to Say. He attends to the things of the world, in a manner that O'Hara reflects when he says "the slightest loss of attention leads to death," but he does so with a serious expression, a furrowed brow, and at back, the wagging finger and the voice of a preacher.

O'Hara, however, could never take himself or his poetry so seriously; there's a brightness about it, a smile ("light clarity avocado salad") that, while being solidly true to avant garde traditions, steps off the pedestal. At times, his poems are positively frivolous; re-reading some early reviews, that's precisely what he was accused of. He has nothing to say, and he is saying it. It's this that turned me onto his poetry: he pays attention to the world not just in its important moments, but in its party frock, in its fleeting moments of joy. I have a melancholic streak in me, like a lot of poets; but I don't always want to be chin-strokingly serious. Sometimes I like to dance.

No comments: