Repost-A Bleak, Modern House-Four Poems

This will be a longer one, so thanks in advance.

From the comments on this piece:

‘The most useful definition of modernist fiction I’ve encountered comes from Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction. He says modernist fiction tends to “foreground epistemological questions” such as “How can I interpret the world I’m part of? What is there to be known? Who knows it? What are the limits of that knowledge?” In contrast, postmodernist fiction tends to “foreground ontological questions” such as “What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there and how are they constituted? What happens when…boundaries between worlds are violated?’

As to the epistemological questions surrounding Modernism, below are four poems. Hopefully, each is a representative example of a move away from the Romanticism that had been prevalent up until the late 1800’s.

In addition to the move away from traditional Romantic rhyme and meter towards modern blank verse, there’s also a certain conception of the Self rendered in them; a presentation of our natures that might be worth examining in some detail.

I believe we can see clearly a move away from tradition towards the Self, the Poet isolated, the poem itself as a means of communication, and an anxiety so common within the 20th century.

I should note that a friend points out Harold Bloom does it much better (well, yes…obviously). From this blurb:

‘At the heart of Bloom’s project is the ancient quarrel between “poetry” and “philosophy.” In Bloom’s opinion, we ought not have to choose between Homer and Plato; we can have both, as long as we recognize that poetry is superior.’

Says the guy who writes about poetry…


What does one find within, as one looks without, waking from sleep and dream?

What kind of world is this, and can the poet actually help us know it?

T.S. Eliot (Preludes: Stanza 3)

3.

You tossed a blanket from the bed
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

The world will stain you, and it is a fallen, modern world, rendered profoundly and exquisitely.

As consciousness creeps in, building a bridge to the day, to the world, to the facts left as though they were the first facts, the light as though it were the first light, what one finds is distressing, both within and without.

That distress must be ‘made new,’ which is to say, the suffering (original?) in which we all sometimes find ourselves must match our experiences within the modern city and world, at least, the world created within Eliot’s lyrical verse.

Of the four poems, only the first and last have a 3rd-person subject.

Wallace Stevens‘ ‘I’ is in a more contemplative state, but it’s an ‘I’ exploring similar themes, and experiencing some distress in trying to know how the world actually is, and what might lie within.

The journey to The Self may not be a journey for the faint of heart.

The Poems Of Our Climate (stanzas II and III)

II
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

III
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Even if the verse can describe a perfected world, delivering us, perhaps, a little closer to perfection, our poet is still not free from the impulses and desires which simply never cease.

Interestingly, we end-up not with a discussion of the heart, the spirit, libido etc. as a source for those desires (for Plato, the irrational), but rather, for Stevens, just a mind.

We also find more Romantic elements of language and an almost baroque/rococo arrangement of words and ideas, dandyish even, yet combined with an intense effort to abstract, define, and clarify. From here, the poet may proceed on his task of flawed words and stubborn sounds.

***I find myself thinking of elements of modern architecture and abstract-expressionist painting. The meaning, or at least some delivery from our restless existences, can be found within the abstract itself. Or at least within a retreat to the abstract for its own sake, away from the world.

The modernist, glass-walled house on the hill will exist in its own space, offering and defying meaning. The structure’s own shapes will be stripped down to often mathematically precise forms interacting with Nature. These shall guide Man, or at least offer individual men a little refuge.

It is perhaps in Stevens’ poem we can see the questions of knowledge about the world suggesting questions about whether there is a world at all, or, at least, what kind of worlds each Self might be able to inhabit.

Here’s one of Robert Lowell’s poems, occurring a generation later, in the mid 20th-century, as part of the confessionals.

The Self is extremely isolated. In fact, Lowell went more than a little crazy. Unlike the known nervous breakdown of Eliot from which Eliot recovered, Lowell’s life was essentially one long breakdown from which he never recovered.

Here he is, looking back:

Epilogue

Those blessed structures plot and rhyme-
why are they no help to me now
i want to make
something imagined not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything i write
With the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot
lurid rapid garish grouped
heightened from life
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts.
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

The weight of having to make that meaning, for yourself, and by yourself, is a horrible weight indeed. One can glorify one’s Self and family, but that, alas, only goes so far. Rhyme and form still carry one’s living name, as far as they do.

Of course, there’s still wonderful rhythm and form here (this is excellent verse), but blanker now, with a relentless focus on the ‘I.’ The poet is perhaps talking a little more to himself, and the poem keeps self-consciously calling attention to itself.

In fact, it reminded me of the poem below, by Robert Creeley, which was published a few years afterwards.

From this page:

‘Creeley was a leader in the generational shift that veered away from history and tradition as primary poetic sources and gave new prominence to the ongoing experiences of an individual’s life. Because of this emphasis, the major events of his life loom large in his literary work.’

There’s Nothing but the Self and the Eye seeking and making meaning, by itself within a void of emotionally compact and precise language (of course there’s still form and other things besides).

Can the poet fit inside the little abstract chapel of words he’s building for himself (let alone the world, tradition etc.)?

For all the talk about ‘space,’ there seems very little.

The Window

Position is where you
put it, where it is,
did you, for example, that

large tank there, silvered,
with the white church along-
side, lift

all that, to what
purpose? How
heavy the slow

world is with
everything put
in place. Some

man walks by, a
car beside him on
the dropped

road, a leaf of
yellow color is
going to

fall. It
all drops into
place. My

face is heavy
with the sight. I can
feel my eye breaking.

The distress is still there…but I’d argue that we are now a good distance away from the grandness of Eliot’s vision, his religiosity and virtuosity with form and meter at the dawn of Modernism. Very few people can/could do what Eliot did (addition: even if he can help us gain knowledge of our Selves or the world).

That said, it’s unclear there’s enough tradition and confidence to even undertake such a project, now, even as such talents come along. The state of things is more scattered. We’re in a very different place of selves and artists isolated, of anxiety and post-anxiety.

Aside from the very accomplished poets above, in terms of both knowledge (epistemology) and being (ontology), we often have writers feeling pressure to weigh-in on such questions without even being about to write that well; artists who can’t draw or paint that well, and frankly, quite a bit of bullshit besides.

So, where are we headed? Who’s ‘we’ exactly?

Predictions are hard, especially about the future.


As previously posted:

Why not just put a few algorithms to work in writing those artist statements?

Bathe in the bathos of a warming world:

A reader sends a link to a SF Gate review of poet Jorie Graham’s ‘Sea Change:

‘In “Sea Change,” Graham becomes Prospero, casting spells by spelling out her thoughts to merge with ours, and with the voices of the elements. The result is a mingling of perceptions rather than a broadcasting of opinions. Instead of analysis, the poems encourage emotional involvement with the drastic changes overwhelming us, overwhelm- ing the planet.’

and:

‘Strengths and weaknesses, flows and ebbs, yet every poem in “Sea Change” bears memorable lines, with almost haunting (if we truly have but 10 years to “fix” global warming) images of flora and fauna under siege. Jorie Graham has composed a swan song for Earth.’

Oh boy.

What are these poems being asked to do?


And moving away from poetry into the realm of ‘performance art,’


Tilda Swinton At MOMA-From Arma Virumque: ‘Nightmare In A Box’

Denis Dutton suggests art could head towards Darwin (and may offer new direction from the troubles of the modern art aimlessness and shallow depth) Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

Roger Scruton says keep politics out of the arts, and political judgment apart from aesthetic judgment…this includes race studies/feminist departments/gay studies etc.: Roger Scruton In The American Spectator Via A & L Daily: Farewell To Judgment

Ah, Look At All The Lonely People-‘Jeff Koons Is Back’ Via Vanity Fair

Some Updated Links On Postmodernism

Repost-High & Low Art, The Racial Divide In America & The French-Some Links

Tom Wolfe from ‘Stalking the billion-footed beast‘:

The truth was, as Arnold Hauser had gone to great pains to demonstrate in The Social History of Art, the intelligentsia have always had contempt for the realistic novel—a form that wallows so enthusiastically in the dirt of everyday life and the dirty secrets of class envy and that, still worse, is so easily understood and obviously relished by the mob, i.e., the middle class. In Victorian England, the intelligentsia regarded Dickens as “the author of the uneducated, undiscriminating public.” It required a chasm of time—eighty years, in fact—to separate his work from its vulgar milieu so that Dickens might be canonized in British literary circles. The intelligentsia have always preferred more refined forms of fiction, such as that longtime French intellectual favorite, the psychological novel.

Sacre Bleu!

Let’s not get too French: Theodore Dalrymple on prostitution during COVID19:

‘The spokeswoman for the Union of Sex Workers in France, Anaïs de Lenclos (a pseudonym, one wonders?), eloquently pointed out the difficulties that prostitutes, male and female, now face.

That sounds pretty French.

In fact, let’s go to Charles Baudelaire, live on the street:

Twilight

Behold the sweet evening, friend of the criminal;
It comes like an accomplice, stealthily; the sky
Closes slowly like an immense alcove,
And impatient man turns into a beast of prey.
O evening, kind evening, desired by him
Whose arms can say, without lying: “Today
We labored!” — It is the evening that comforts
Those minds that are consumed by a savage sorrow,
The obstinate scholar whose head bends with fatigue
And the bowed laborer who returns to his bed.

Meanwhile in the atmosphere malefic demons
Awaken sluggishly, like businessmen,
And take flight, bumping against porch roofs and shutters.
Among the gas flames worried by the wind
Prostitution catches alight in the streets;
Like an ant-hill she lets her workers out;
Everywhere she blazes a secret path,
Like an enemy who plans a surprise attack;
She moves in the heart of the city of mire
Like a worm that steals from Man what he eats.
Here and there one hears food sizzle in the kitchens,
The theaters yell, the orchestras moan;

The gambling dens, where games of chance delight,
Fill up with whores and cardsharps, their accomplices;
The burglars, who know neither respite nor mercy,
Are soon going to begin their work, they also,
And quietly force open cash-boxes and doors
To enjoy life awhile and dress their mistresses.

Meditate, O my soul, in this solemn moment,
And close your ears to this uproar;
It is now that the pains of the sick grow sharper!
Somber Night grabs them by the throat; they reach the end
Of their destinies and go to the common pit;
The hospitals are filled with their sighs. — More than one
Will come no more to get his fragrant soup
By the fireside, in the evening, with a loved one.

However, most of them have never known
The sweetness of a home, have never lived!

— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

Shelby Steele weaves Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary‘ into his insights about the world, coming to realize the Black Panthers in North Africa..had problems:

How (B)lack should you become when reality intrudes, and reality doesn’t have much good to say?

Which are the rules all of us should follow when it comes to right and wrong?

Full piece here.

Sent in by a reader:

The purpose of today’s civil-rights establishment is not to seek justice, but to seek power for blacks in American life based on the presumption that they are still, in a thousand subtle ways, victimized by white racism. This idea of victimization is an example of what I call a “poetic truth.” Like poetic license, it bends the actual truth in order to put forward a larger and more essential truth—one that, of course, serves one’s cause. Poetic truths succeed by casting themselves as perfectly obvious: “America is a racist nation”; “the immigration debate is driven by racism”; “Zimmerman racially stereotyped Trayvon.” And we say, “Yes, of course,” lest we seem to be racist. Poetic truths work by moral intimidation, not reason.’

What was George Orwell looking for, exactly?:  Down And Out In Paris And London:

‘There were eccentric characters in the hotel. The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people—people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives that were curious beyond words.’

I have my doubts all will be made well, in human affairs, by simply including the oldest profession within the latest politico-moral doctrines.

Someone tell the French ladies of the night:  Technology has made it possible for people to sell the lowest and highest of things online.  There might be…options.  Let’s expect the same old problems, however, in new venues (a few moments of beauty, grace and kindness but mostly pimps, drug abuse, robbery, extortion etc).

There’s absolutely nothing funny about Telly Savalas playing Kojak as reported by Norm MacDonald to Jerry Seinfeld, shattering naive fictions in solving a T.V. crime-drama:

On French problems of liberte: Theodore Dalrymple on Michel Houellebecq here:

‘Houellebecq has been accused of being a nihilist and cynic, but far from that, his work is an extended protest against nihilism and cynicism. It is true that he offers no solution to the problem, but it is not the purpose of novels, but rather of tracts, to offer solutions to such problems. For him to tell his readers to take up basket-weaving or some such as the answer to existential emptiness would in fact be an instance of that very existential emptiness.’

Don’t worry, once we get the right global people and laws in place, the human problems will become manageable: Martha Nussbaum on Eliot Spitzter visiting prositutes while enforcing prostitutions laws:. (updated)

I’m not much of a feminist nor a Main Line (Philadelphia) liberal myself:

Martha Nussbaum writes:

“Spitzer’s offense was an offense against his family. It was not an offense against the public. If he broke any laws, these are laws that never should have existed and that have been repudiated by sensible nations.”

T.S. Eliot (Preludes: Stanza 3)

3.

You tossed a blanket from the bed
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

The world will stain you, and it is a fallen, modern world, rendered profoundly and exquisitely.

A Few Links Modernism, Gathered Over The Years

Click here for a Studs Terkel and Tom Wolfe audio discussion of Wolfe’s ‘From Bauhaus To Our House

Tom Wolfe on Max Weber on one conspicuous use of art in the ‘modern’ world:

‘…aesthetics is going to replace ethics, art is going to replace religion, as the means through which educated people express their spiritual worthiness…

Hmmm…..Roger Scruton on Modern Architecture at the City Journal:

We could no longer use their styles and materials sincerely, the modernists argued, since nobody believed in those old ideals. The modern age was an age without heroes, without glory, without public tribute to anything higher or more dignified than the common man.’

As posted, please check out Jeff Koons (if you thought the celebrification of politics was striking, culturally, this happened quite before with the celebrification of art):

Speaking of balloons and balloon-dogs: Within A Bank Of Modern Fog-Robert Hughes On Jeff Koons

Two quotes by Hughes that stood out:

Religion is diminished into celebrity..a kind of reverse apotheosis.

‘This alienation of the work from the common viewer is actually a form of spiritual vandalism.’

It’s tough to say that art is really about religion (though much clearly is), but rather more about an experience Hughes wants as many people as possible to have, and that such experiences can elevate and expand.

On that note, some previous links and quotes:

Donald Pittenger, at Art Contrarian, and formerly of 2 Blowhards, has been looking at modernism. From the banner of his blog:

The point-of-view is that modernism in art is an idea that has, after a century or more, been thoroughly tested and found wanting. Not to say that it should be abolished — just put in its proper, diminished place’

T.S. Eliot (Preludes: Stanza 3)

3.

You tossed a blanket from the bed
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

A friend points out Harold Bloom does it well (well, yes…obviously). From this blurb:

At the heart of Bloom’s project is the ancient quarrel between “poetry” and “philosophy.” In Bloom’s opinion, we ought not have to choose between Homer and Plato; we can have both, as long as we recognize that poetry is superior.’

The Flow Of Man & Nature In American Verse: Three Sunday Poems-Wendell Berry, T.S. Eliot & William Carlos Williams

The Porch over the River

In the dusk of the river, the wind
gone, the trees grow still–
the beautiful poise of lightness,
the heavy world pushing toward it.

Beyond, on the face of the water,
lies the reflection of another tree,
inverted, pulsing with the short strokes
of waves the wind has stopped driving.

In a time when men no longer
can imagine the lives of their sons
this is still the world–
the world of my time, the grind

of engines marking the country
like an audible map, the high dark
marked by the flight of men,
lights stranger than stars.

The phoebes cross and re-cross
the openings, alert
for what may still be earned
from the light. The whippoorwills

begin, and the frogs. And the dark
falls, again, as it must.
The look of the world withdraws
into the vein of memory.

The mirrored tree, darkening, stirs
with the water’s inward life. What has
made it so? –a quietness in it
no question can be asked in.

Wendell Berry

THE DRY SALVAGES
(No. 3 of ‘Four Quartets’)

I

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

T.S. Eliot

Paterson
(Book 1)

“Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river
animate a thousand automations. Who because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their
disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires-unroused.

William Carlos Williams

The Stiffs At NPR, Stanley Crouch, Khruangbin & A Musical Mashup Interlude-‘The Good Old Days When Musicians Looked Like Your Science Teacher’

As posted, here’s the organ intro to Boston’s ‘Foreplay-Long Time’ played at tempo, then slowed down.

I’m still a little mesmerized.

You’re never really that far away from the old hymns done up in new clothes.

Even if it’s the more adult-themed popcraft of ABBA:

We’ve got more [prizes] than [poets] these days. We’ve got way too much poetry in universities and institutions, and way too much foundation money, which is supposedly supporting good poetry, getting taken over by ideologues.

You don’t have to sink into the postmodern morass to make something meaningful.

Perhaps a lot depends on which kind of stiffs you want in charge.

Big-band and jazz, which were once popular art-forms, are now often curated like a patient etherised upon a table.

R.I.P Stanley Crouch (I’m glad they gave him a platform, but I don’t think we want to leave our music curation to the stiffs at NPR):

From the comments: ‘‘The Good Old Days When Musicians Looked Like Your Science Teacher’

There was a time when comedians wore tuxes, didn’t talk endlessly about the cosmic significance of comedy and the (S)elf, and musicians of all kinds entered in through the servant’s quarters.

Pretty stiff stuff.

This is a mashup! Were you fooled?

Were you taken in?

Originally formed within a Houston church, now bringing tight percussion, percussive, memorable bass lines, and world-music, psychadelically-influenced guitar, I can’t quite tell what to make of Khruangbin:

Taking influence from 1960’s Thai funk – their name literally translates to “Engine Fly” in Thai – Khruangbin is steeped in the bass heavy, psychedelic sound of their inspiration, Tarantino soundtracks and surf-rock cool.”

Obligatory hip-hop and black church drumming, radically chic bass and psychadelic, putumayo hippie guitar have the potential to be a self-indulgent mess.

But the groove is incredibly tight and mellow. The time-keeping is excellent. Memorable bass-lines are coming from an entry-level bass guitar. The lead is very nicely-played; textured, with emergent melodic lines sinking back into the narrative.

Most importantly, Khruangbin all seem to be going meaningfully to the same point in time. I don’t hear too much self-indulgence:

Stiff enough for you?