Friday, November 04, 2005

writing little but reading a lot

I'm embarrassed to say that I just finished reading Wordsworth's "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" for the first time in my life, and all of a sudden, feminist experimental poetry makes all the more sense to me. For starters, I tried my damndest not to be offended every single time he spoke of how poetry = man, the soul of man, manhood, mankind, etc. But it got to be too much after a while, and it became clear that he really was talking not about "man" the species but "man" the gender. Lines like this really got me: "But various causes might be pointed out why, when the style is manly, and the subject of some importance, words metrically arranged will long continue to impart such a pleasure to mankind as he who proves the extent of that pleasure will be desirous to impart." I forgive him, of course-- he lived in a different era. At the same time, it's not like there weren't women writing poetry when he was writing- there was Charlotte Smith, Anne Finch, even his own sister, Dorothy, was a writer and poet. I find it more ironic than anything- that this piece of writing is aimed at making poetry more accessible through its language structure, aiming "to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men." But no, really I'm over it. . .I think. . .

Anyway, I'm embarassed because this really is a pivotal piece of writing from which a majority of contemporary poetry gains its authenticity and power-- I should have read it by now. (I've also yet to read Moby Dick- don't tell anyone. They're lible to hold my PhD hostage!) Not to say that we would still be writing in verse if it were not for Wordsworth, but things would surely look different. As far as my focus on the lyric poem as a form, this piece is also crucial in the movement from a stress on meter to a stress on emotion, which carries a lot of contemporary still today and seems to be a component in poetry that is "cherished." This often tends to be the type of poetry that bores me to tears- poetry whose sole purpose is to make the reader "feel" something specific and profound without really even thinking about it. You want an example, you say? I stumbled across this Mary Oliver poem on poetry daily- aside from containing the most blatant and forceful pathetic fallacy I've seen in years, its just plain sappy and melodramatic.
See for yourself:

Song for Autumn

In the deep fall
don't you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don't you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way

Yuck. It's plain-spoken, alright. But to a fault if you ask me. That's my 10 cents, not that anyone asked.

I also had a meeting with my advisor on Tuesday and we talked about how I need to work on focusing my prose writing and following my train of thought all the way through to some sort of conclusion that ties things together. From the paragraphs above, it's obvious that she is right on the money with this critique. I think this blog will be a good place to practice this skill, as I don't want my exams to be a random smattering of ideas with no connective tissue or some strange wandering path through the thick brush. Though if this was something that was considered a skill, I would be in luck cause I do have some mad skilz.


Scott Glassman said...

Wow, that's the third Oliver-bashing post in a week I've read. The other was on her "dead cat" poem over at Lime tree and lamoureux's blog. You raise good points, and Oliver's got some weak stuff I agree, but as much as I'd like to, I can't get on her too badly (as much as I agree that an sappy un-thinking way pervades some work-- maybe a lot of it, I don't know). Just when I was in the hospital for depression a few years back, it was her "House of Light" book that helped me through. Her natural focus seemed so unstained and pure to me, to someone whose mind was in a huge amount of disarray, that it was plainly uplifting. And seemed non-sentimental. I should go back and read it and see how it catches me now, but even if it does at this moment in time come across flabby and seem too easy, I'll still give it a pass, just because of the time it came to me as a liferaft. It's interesting how work's emotional echo at a time shapes our values of it, and in a lasting way.

Justin Evans said...

I have not read enough of Oliver to comment, but I do have a bit to say about Wordsworth and Coleridge. I have always thought that there is a contradiction in their philosophy, being the difference between an attempt at simple language, and their standards for poets.

Wordsworth may have wanted simpler language, but he did not want a simple poet to exporess it. take for example this:

“For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.”

I see snobbery here. So while I agree thee is a push for simple expressions, there was a very real defense of the poet and who can be considered a poet. I honestly believe W & C were not of the opinion that just anyone could truly enjoy well written poetry.


As for your so-called lack of reading, I would not worry in the least. I have not read Moby Dick, nor have I read a fraction of what is 'expected' for a well rounded education. Even well read people would, I believe, admit they have not read as much as they should.