Saturday, 28 August 2010

Dear Carrie

Some questions may not have an answer….

Harold Rosenberg has an excellent essay on kitsch where he says to write about it is to reproduce it; we should simply ignore it, instead. This is exactly right. I don’t watch the X-factor or Emmerdale because I know it won’t interest me. Why criticise it? Why criticise other people’s entertainment? That’s the important question, it seems to me: if you don’t like Larkin and Hughes why worry about them, at all?

The answer to this last question is a difficult one, and involves much speculation; the answer will also vary between individuals. I guess its something to do with resentment – they are successful and famous and we are not. That is, the poetry is mixed up with politics and one’s own social condition. These need to be separated out.

Poetry rules! It is completely pointless! I think we need to hold both these contradictory thoughts in tension. To create and read poetry is for the poet, or the poetry-lover, of profound significance. However, for the rest of society it is trivial. We have to accept that. If we do, there is less impetus to criticise and ridicule those with different tastes (and we should be humble – why expect a miner or a company director to like what we like; are we that important?).

If we want to change the world…. If we have a vision of an enlightened culture, within a more democratic and equal society, we should try to change our social relations, and the institutions that run things; but not through poetry, but through politics. Once again we need to hold together two different ways of looking at the world: a political one and a poetic (or mythic) one, and within these we will think and act in different ways.

There seems to be a tendency to conflate these two, and I think the quote I gave picks this up (I have a rather long post called Art and Life which tries to account for this).

The mainstream. The rich and comfortable, and the sophisticated, the “court culture” of the modern media, will always look down on the uncouth and the serious minded. Thus we have the TLS in its “august pages” on Infinite Difference. Why worry about them? Do I worry about the views of the CEO of a large corporation? Eventually the mainstream culture will shift. Eliot Weinberger in his introduction to Innovators and Outsiders picks up this rather nicely, when he writes that the unknown, those that were dead to the mainstream during their lifetimes, are now alive in the academic canon; not the poets who originally won the Pultizer prizes and the fame. It is very hard to combat conventional wisdom, and why bother? It will change, eventually… Would the TLS now ridicule O’Hara or Zukofsky?

To fight against the attitudes of the mainstream is a thankless task. Moreover, it’s the wrong approach. If I’m right and a large part of the criticism comes from resentment of one’s social condition then one needs to change the distribution of wealth and influence within society. It is not going to be achieved by poetry – only politics can do this. So just as with popular entertainment we shouldn’t get too upset with mainstream opinion, though certainly we should engage and criticise it.

The problem of small literary and political groups, and demands for purity and ideological coherence, will not go away – its part of the nature of intellectual and artistic life; or so it seems to me. And those in the middle, who straddle both camps, will always be the ones to suffer, because they will be attacked by both sides. However, there is a certain integrity to that, and can lead, in the long run, to a widening of that borderland, to a slightly bigger, more open, tolerant culture…

How to do this? it will depend on an individual’s values, as in life and as in literary politics. If you are inclusive, and are strong enough to withstand the brickbats, you will win people to your side, and your influence may spread. Doing! Rather than engaging too much in party politics or ideological debate (this is for others; and is often where their talents lie), and with ideas which you won’t change: dogmas are stronger than reinforced concrete. Instead the focus should be education and elucidation, bringing out the qualities of good poetry in a language non-specialists can understand.

I’m not sure I’ve answered the question. But in a way the only answer is the actual doing of it! Such a simple thing, but rather hard to accomplish. This is why there is so much talk and so many manifestos both in politics and in art; for it is easier to write than to act, to criticise than to create. And perspective. We need to understand and accept that we are not important. Perhaps harder today inside our virtual fortresses and palatial blogs…. More social interaction, the give and take of personal contact; a café culture to rub off some of our edges, is this the answer? A culture that it is not poets talking to other poets, but poets talking to other intellectuals, and the wider public, to widen their and their interlocutor’s views. It is also about learning, in trying to understand other disciplines, not through the narrow focus of one’s own specialism, which is often so every easy, but to engage with them on their level; to understand them in their terms. This can also help reduce our self-importance. Values again! Bertrand Russell gets the balance right:

What we shall desire for individuals is now clear: strong creative impulses, overpowering and absorbing the instinct for possession; reverence for others; respect for the fundamental creative impulse in ourselves.. [and] a certain kind of self-respect or native pride.

Compared to this our ideas, lists or categories, are unimportant. Indeed, like the extremism of fringe groups, they can be part of that possessive instinct, that we must fight against. Or simply ignore.

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