04 December, 2008

Schällen der Leidenschaft

As a student of history, of sorts, I know only too well that all ages, almost all, have seen their own as an age of cultural decline. Even Homer was longing for the good old days, even Plato, in his golden aura of genius, never to be rivalled, wistfully looked to Sparta, Egypt, the Age of Kronos. Coming to understand the universality of this sentiment cannot help but challenge one's own innate sense that fine culture has gone to the dogs. And yet, one goes to the gallery, the theatre, the bookshop or poetry recital, and one cannot shake that sense. This, I think, is truly the most poignant break in the historian's psyche.

I go to a recital. (I open a book of verse. I flick through the New Yorker. Somewhere, other than in my own Documents folder, there must be some good poems. If only by the law of averages. Repeatedly is my search frustrated. Usually on a low simmer, my loathing of modern poetry comes to full boil now and then, when I make the attempt to challenge my dismissal. It cannot be said that I do not try.) Listening to a woman in her sixties describe, in graphic detail, a bout of rough sex, listening to a man, only a little younger, describe, in graphic detail, his own masturbation, read from a page, and read, mind you, while the audience titters and looks about in embarrassment, watching a rotund fellow, maybe thirty-five, make hand-gestures as he serenades the number 58 bus-route, and a wee girl not much older than me recite, from an imaginary diary, bullet-points about an ex-boyfriend and self-esteem issues, an assortment of people using rude words as if it were still the 1960s, and raising their eyebrows to deliver the last line of their poem, as if to say, Pay attention now, this bit's clever, listening to all this, I wish I could turn off my own ears, or at least concentrate on some work. Most of all of course I wish I could meet someone, or even hear someone from afar, who actually knows how to use words, who actually likes words, or even, at a push, someone who, while not brilliant with words, has something in their brain worth letting out of their mouth, something more than feeling, descriptions, endless and endless concrete banalities, enumeration of detail itself so utterly conventional—not even clever because well-observed—as to merit swift oblivion. Why are poets so incapable of telling us what they know?

There is a look on a poet's face when she is reading, or about to read. It says all sorts of things. It says, Quiet now, this is poetry. We are here to listen to poetry. It also says, I humbly offer my audience just something I sketched out the other day. Perhaps, it isn't finished, or, I'm still working on this and would appreciate your feedback. Of course she does not want your feedback, except to say, I really liked the bit about the sky. That image, what was it, 'the sky was blue as azure', it's such a beautiful image, don't you think, really captures the blueness of a blue sky? The atmosphere at such a recital, in other words, must be simultaneously deferential to the magic of poesie, and relaxed enough to accept it all as a bit of a joke. This is a light piece, she might say. Before each poem she will say, 'This one's called—' or 'This one's about—'. Gravity never comes from the words themselves, but only from the temple of excuses and explanations erected around them. Or better, gravity never comes at all, for it is easier to make a crowd laugh with the word tits or a silly voice, and have them say, afterwards, I enjoyed that, it made me smile, as if making someone smile should be the purpose of poetry.

One comes away wanting to profess, with an air of thoughtfulness and high critical dignity, that some poems were good, others less so. One would be fair and even-handed, and admit that even if that piece is not one's cup of tea, still, one can see the merit in its earnestness or eye for detail. It feels wrong, deeply wrong, ignorant, primitive, lacking in sensitivity and sensibility, to think, this is all bad, and not only bad, but entirely bad; this is all, literally, worthless. I confess that I have never been brave enough to say this in public. There are ways not to lie, or to lie less, as you well know. Poetry isn't my thing. I'm more into novels. They smile benignly, accepting that not all mortals are built to appreciate real beauty. It is no better with the stuff printed in books by famous people. This was penned by a well-respected Etonian with a big heart:
A lot of people have been looking at me recently.
Oh, she's too disgusting. I see you've changed your
hairstyle again. Why don't you kill yourself next time?
I'm cutting down on mirror checks - 100 an hour
is about average - tv screen, microwave, people's
glasses, a knife while eating, if I can eat anything.
I wanted to cut myself into little pieces, then everything
would be all right and I would pass the audition.
I know some readers will quibble this claim, but I do not like to rant. Those who feel as I do cling to a single poet they like, as proof that they are not Neanderthals. Or they say they do not like poetry and leave it at that, as if it were simply alright not to like poetry, as if not liking poetry were the same as not liking cauliflower. I do not like to rant, and prefer to criticise. But sometimes there is too much steam and smoke for criticism, too much clamour of mock subtleties to be heard simply speaking, and one must cry out instead. A considerate man who will not let himself be angry, just a little, and even at those who mean well, damn their pens, is only half a man.

[Update: Avva comments. In Russian. One of his own commenters observes that I have not properly adjusted the case of 'Schällen' for my title: true, perhaps, but then, if I had altered it, Herder would have been obscured.]

28 comments:

John Cowan said...

Sturgeon's law explains it all for you. And if the past appears to have had more Good Stuff than the present, that's because the 90% from the past has been lost forever, whereas the present rubbish is as immortalized as Doctor Faustus.

Robert said...

When applied to the Turner prize Sturgeon's law needs amending!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Oh, I know about Sturgeon's Law. But that's the problem; it's not that 90% is crap, it's that 100% is crap.

Raminagrobis said...

You’re in good company: both Persius and Juvenal began their books of satires with a rant about how bad the poetry of their time was.

Like you, Persius complains about poetry recitals eliciting bland praise along the lines of I enjoyed that, it made me smile: ‘tepidum hoc optes audire “decenter!”’ – ‘[shouldn’t you be ashamed that] all you want to hear is that lukewarm “Nice!”’

He also makes pretty much exactly the same complaint as you about the eyebrow-raisers and rude word users (this is Dryden’s translation):

“They mount, a-God's name, to be seen and heard;
From their high scaffold, with a trumpet cheek,
And ogling all their audience ere they speak.
The nauseous nobles, even the chief of Rome,
With gaping mouths to these rehearsals come,
And pant with pleasure, when some lusty line
The marrow pierces, and invades the chine;
At open fulsome bawdry they rejoice,
And slimy jests applaud with broken voice.

Base prostitute! thus dost thou gain thy bread?
Thus dost thou feed their ears, and thus art fed?
At his own filthy stuff he grins and brays,
And gives the sign where he expects their praise.”

But I’m not here to point out what you already acknowledged, that every age views itself as one of decline. Anyway, I think Persius’s main complaint is not quite the same as yours:

“I cannot rule my spleen;
My scorn rebels, and tickles me within.

First, to begin at home:---our authors write
In lonely rooms, secured from public sight;
Whether in prose, or verse, 'tis all the same,
The prose is fustian, and the numbers lame:
All noise, and empty pomp, a storm of words,
Labouring with sound, that little sense affords.”

It isn’t poetry that revels in language that Persius wants, it’s poetry in the ‘language of the toga’, properly manly, Roman poetry, not the effete Greek stuff -- poetry with balls (‘vena testiculi paterni’).

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, an apposite apposition. I liked Persius's description of listening to poetry as a sort of rape:

"cum carmina lumbum
intrant et tremulo scalpuntur ubi intima versu"

Meanwhile, I would be more than happy to hear some poetry with balls; sadly it seems to be entirely castrato.

chris miller said...

Optimist that I am -- I know good poetry is there -- you only have to find it -- and when you do -- anthologize it to make the search easier for others.

Admittedly -- this is a Herculean task -- but isn't that the job of a man-of-letters ?

In my hunt for good sculpture - I am often happily surprised.

Just found a great Italian who died only 2 months ago. If only I had known about him 40 years ago.

Underground Dude said...

"A considerate man who will not let himself be angry, just a little, and even at those who mean well, damn their pens, is only half a man."

Amen.

Greg Afinogenov said...

I think maybe the ultimate consequence of Dadaism has been that that all poetry, even the stuff with actual words in it, is now just "letters arranged poetry-wise." Your cat (forgive me, Mr. Smart) or your toilet habits are excellent candidates for lengthy line-broken exploration because there's really nothing more you can achieve. Just verbiage, occasionally even good verbiage.

Michael Drake said...

I don't think it's Sturgeon we need to pay attention to, but Planck: "A new [aesthetic] truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

We "don't get it." But we're not supposed to.

pedro e. said...

Some big (for me) clichès people around me like to quote:

''Recuerde el alma dormida
...
cómo, a nuestro parecer,
cualquiera tiempo pasado
fue mejor.''

"¡Que difícil es /
cuando todo baja /
no bajar también!"

Conrad H. Roth said...

Chris: "isn't that the job of a man-of-letters?"

I apologise if I am failing in my job, and can only be the messenger of bad news!

Greg: "the ultimate consequence of Dadaism"

Yes, I am inclined to agree; modernism as a whole is still functioning as a dead end to us.

Michael: "a new generation grows up that is familiar with it"

If that would were true, I would presumably be in that generation. I am truly familiar with this world, and like it none the more.

Michael Drake said...

Presumably Tolstoy took himself to be familiar enough with his generation to declare that it had so "perverted" art that "not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost." A claim that, to put it mildly, was preposterous.

Unless we take ourselves to be better judges of our own culture than Tolstoy was of his, one wagers we're making the same error when we imagine our era is any worse. (I say "we" because I often can't help but feel the same way you do.) Though if the Tolstoy case is any indication, we'll need about a hundred years of distance to get a clear view on just how ridiculous we've been.

At all events, from the standpoint of our own aesthetic enjoyment, what could it matter were we correct? There's more beauty bound up in the inherited works than anyone could uncover in a hundred lifetimes.

Amanda J. Sisk said...

Silence enables. Sometimes it's born of the fear that others may find one not-so-nice. Next time, would you say:

The part about the blue sky? I really didn't like it, because...

That is, if you continue to torture yourself by attending these monstrosities. All this hand-holding of young artistes is problematic. It is possible to be constructively truthful - but too few are willing to accept truth as a gift (it is usually painful), as a precious catalyst for growth. And, it might be added, too few are willing to impart it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Unless we take ourselves to be better judges of our own culture than Tolstoy was of his, one wagers we're making the same error when we imagine our era is any worse."

Yes, and that's the very point I make in my first paragraph. What history teaches us is very difficult to reconcile with what we see about us. My favourite from Tolstoy's era, incidentally, being Max Nordau, who, in systematically attacking The New Culture, helped to invent it. Such is always the way.

"At all events, from the standpoint of our own aesthetic enjoyment, what could it matter were we correct? There's more beauty bound up in the inherited works than anyone could uncover in a hundred lifetimes."

This, in fact, was the argument offered by Thomas Love Peacock in his Four Ages of Poetry (1820), a work with which I have much sympathy:

"There are more good poems already existing than are sufficient to employ that portion of life which any mere reader and recipient of poetical impressions should devote to them, and these having been produced in poetical times, are far superior in all the characteristics of poetry to the artificial reconstructions of a few morbid ascetics in unpoetical times. To read the promiscuous rubbish of the present time to the exclusion of the select treasures of the past, is to substitute the worse for the better variety of the same mode of enjoyment."

Amanda: All too true.

Lily Roth said...

My dear Mr. Roth (and gentle readers),
My own solution, crudely effective, if unsophisticated, is to avoid both modern poetry and most especially modern poets. I was recently dragged to a poetry reading by Mr. Roth, but nothing shall prevail upon me to waste hours of my life in such unexquisite agony again.
Mrs. Lily Roth

Lily Roth said...

Don't listen to (or read) the bad poets. It only encourages them.

Lily Roth

Joseph D. Philip said...

There is a look on a slut's face when she is fucking, or about to fuck. It says all sorts of things. It says, Quiet now, this is pornography. We are here to watch pornography. It also says, I humbly offer my audience just something I got paid for the other day. Perhaps, she hasn't been paid yet, or, I'm still working for this and would appreciate your cum. Of course she does not want your cum, except to think, I really liked the bit about the blow job. That image, what was it, 'the blow job was messy as fuck', it's such a beautiful image, don't you think, really captures the messiness of a blow job? The atmosphere at such a performance, in other words, must be simultaneously deferential to the magic of erotica, and relaxed enough to accept it all as a bit of a joke. This is a quick fuck, she might think. Before each scene she will think, 'This one's only—' or 'This one's worth—'. Sex never comes from the thoughts themselves, but only from the temple of cash and fantasies erected around them. Or better, sex never comes at all, for it is easier to make a crowd come with the word tits or a silly camera angle, and have them say, afterwards, I enjoyed that, it made me cum, as if making someone cum should be the purpose of pornography.

Mickey Munday said...

I go to a sex club. (I go to a table, and I take a seat. I have come because somewhere, other than in my own Photos folder, there must be some good fucking. If only by the law of averages. Repeatedly is my search frustrated. Usually on a low simmer, my loathing of others fucking comes to full boil now and then, when I make the attempt to challenge my dismissal. It cannot be said that I do not try.) Watching a woman in her sixties have rough sex, watching a man, only a little younger, masturbate and cum--cum, mind you, while the audience titters and looks about in embarrassment, watching a rotund fellow, maybe thirty-five, make ugly expressions as he frigs a woman in her 50s, and a wee girl not much older than me drink from the cock of an overbuilt black man, as her ex-boyfriend watches and tugs at his member, an assortment of people using rude words as if it were still the 1960s, and raising their haunches to deliver the last thrust, as if to say, Pay attention now, this bit's naughty, watching all this, I wish I could tear out my eyes, or at least concentrate on some work. Most of all of course I wish I could meet someone, or even hear someone from afar, who actually knows how to fuck, who actually likes bodies, or even, at a push, someone who, while not brilliant with her cunt, has something in her loins worth letting out, something more than feeling, errant thrusts, endless and endless cliched exclamations, reliance on positions themselves so utterly conventional—not even sexy because well-observed—as to merit swift oblivion. Why are people so incapable of giving me a good show?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, that was unexpected. Should I be flattered at such careful parody / pastiche? (I think just one would have been more effective, mind you.)

Andrew W. said...

Having never been to a poetry reading, I could only imagine what you were talking about until those comments appeared, when a moment from my own past appeared.

1998, Mount Allison University. I attended a senior English composition recital with a friend, mainly because he was interested in one of the girls presenting.

Two of the presenters, who were a couple, used their presentations to describe, in reasonably graphic detail, their sexual encounters.

I suspect they, like everyone who does this, somehow thought they were breaking new ground. I just recall seeing one older woman roll her eyes at all of it, which was unexpected to me, but in fact exactly the right response.

So thank you Conrad, and your anonymous cobbler, for resuscitating a lost memory of mine...

Carm said...

Carm: I have been to some bad poetry readings and I have been to some good ones. It all depends on the poet & the poetry. The problem is many people who are attracted to poetry and who claim to be poets are woefully ignorant of the art & discipline poetry requires. Poetry tends to attract immature writers who are not poetry readers, and if they do read poetry they often project their own half-baked version of reality and feelings on the poem. There is a wealth of good poetry out there :well-written and well read at a reading. But, unlike some other art forms poetry does not work by the rules of the market place and so we get the the good, the bad, & sometimes the ugly-usually in some absurd piece of personal nonsense-and hope we see it as sincere and wise.

Maggie said...

Have you never heard good hip hop music? I admit, it too is full of intentionally provocative Adventures of the Unbridled Id, but while poets expect their honesty, cleverness, or acute perception to justify their presentation, rappers treat their themes with ingenuity and wit, as well as inventiveness in meter and rhyme. The products are so superior in large part because the field as a whole is healthier than that of "traditional" poetry. Listeners are expected to offer blunt criticism. Artists earn respect through competition.

Forget the reading and find the freestyle battle. It is the art that redeems today's poetry, leaving something on which future generations may reflect in envious nostalgia.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Maggie, in answer to your question, yes I have. And I think you're probably right.

Underground Dude said...

"Good hip hop music" is thrice an oxymoron.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Surely at most only twice an oxymoron, unless you deny the existence of good music.

Underground Dude said...

The disposition of parts plus the entire sentence.

Michael Drake said...

The problem is not that our times are "unpoetical"; it's that they are Borgesian. Now more than ever, we can be sure that every possible permutation of the raw materials will not only be be sequenced, but published and preserved. Thus, while there are more great works now being produced than ever before, it will be nearly impossible to find them.

Michael Drake said...

Cf. the "Malthusian information famine."