Friday, November 11, 2011

I thought I was going to continue talking today about Helen Vendler's review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry, but your comments about yesterday's post seemed to suggest that we were all veering off into other concerns. Perhaps I could sum them up as "what is the definition of an educated poet?" and "is there any value in a poet's detachment from her subject matter?" and "why do so many poems seem so unnecessary?"

Really, it would absurd for me to invent generalized answers to these questions. All of our explanations would be different and would probably escalate into bad-tempered confrontation or self-excoriation. But I think it is occasionally important to consider the private import of such questions. That may sound narcissistic, but for the most part artistic creation emanates from the individual outward into the world. Artistic influence, on the other hand, is drawn from the world into the individual. So these questions matter to each of us, though our answers will all be different.

After reading yesterday's post, a friend remarked to me, "I just read The Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon. At first, really responding to the early stuff, I thought, 'I'll bet Dawn likes her.' Then, as the collection leveled out or tailed off, I began to grow irritated. Yes she's all rural and rustic but not in your 'I have to go and feed the cows now' way. Rather, she comes across as a walker through a pastoral landscape counting on it to poetically stimulate her. When not writing poetry, her real job, mentioned exactly once, would seem to be that of a teacher. But there's no confronting the problems and emotions teaching raises."

His comment moved me for several reasons. First, as I know well, it is difficult to decide whether growing indifference to a book is the reader's fault or the writer's. As my friend said later in his note to me, the poems felt "un-needed," and that is a something no writer wants to imagine hearing about her work. Second, there's the issue of detachment--in this case, the sense that an artist is "walking through" a place but somehow not participating in it herself. This is something that photographers do constantly, so why is it more difficult to bear in a poet? Or is it? After all, Kenyon's primary theme is not the countryside but her own melancholia; and the poems do accrue into a sort of poetic Prozacian amble that, in fact, does quite accurately mirror how depressed acquaintances describe the action of medication. Finally, though, there's the question of "what does this poet do?" How does she actually engage with the world? Does she teach kindergartners? Does she train circus dogs? Does she rob banks? What life does she vigorously live? Where, in other words, does the impetus to write come from?

This is the self-education question, from the other side. What must one know if one is to be, in Vendler's words, "exquisitely well educated"? Is Shakespeare enough? Or do we also need to know how to clean a chicken?

As I said, I am not going to begin to offer any snappy answers to these questions. But I'm thinking about them.


Carlene Gadapee said...

I would like to pursue two of your questions: "what must a poet do," and the far more subjective one regarding what it means to be well-educated.

Do? What must we all do? We must act and react to the world around us, given our specific set of circumstances. A poet has, through some sort of divine impetus, the vocation of capturing and commenting on the dailiness of living, finding the common core of experience that both the poet and the audience can find a connection with. In short, the poet is called upon to "blurt" the truths that the rest of us only feel. And we should be grateful, even if we don't feel the same truths. A poet is sort of a working-man's prophet; quite often, what becomes known as a successful poem is found to be such because it, at the start, made us uncomfortable. Comfortable poems don't jar us into thinking or acting.

Well-educated. Hm. Subjective thought leads me to believe that to be educated is a process, not a goal. And one's education is specific to one's circumstances. No matter how much one may know about, say, nuclear physics, it won't help when confronted with the problem of preparing a holiday meal for 12. A firm foundation in what makes us human, the core values of right, truth, justice, and compassion would be a good start to being educated. How one achieves those almost intangible goals is the process, and those goals can be reached (or, more accurately, striven for) through many sets of life circumstances. Book learning, life experiences, conversation with others...all of these things add up to a well-educated person. But again, one's education must be a/ useful, and b/ pleasing. And also ongoing. No cereal box reading or walk in the woods is wasted. Not all knowledge is immediately useful. But one must know what tools to use depending on the circumstances.

In fine, Bacon's essay "Of Studies" comes to mind, as does Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"...they share some common ideas regarding the usefulness of education, and the dignity of common experience.

OK, I've rambled on...

Maureen said...

"Where does the impetus to write come from?"

Samuel Adoquei has attempted to answer a similar question of artists and other creative people in his series of essays "Origins of Inspiration". He looks for an answer in how creative people seek to articulate meaningful purpose as it relates to pursuit of passion. He says the "gift of passion is too good a reward to waste." He also acknowledges that accomplishment comes about not just because of passion; it requires such other qualities as talent, skill, inspiration, and vision. He notes as well that any artist who wants to have a "voice in the arts or to create timeless art" has to understand his craft; the parallel for the writer, he says, is having "a universal way of using a particular language" so that "[w]hen used, any person educated in that language will understand the message of the writer and likely accept it."

Perhaps you could pen a response to Vendler's review and send it to NY Review. I think you could add much to the discussion that Vendler's piece is likely to start.