Thursday, November 13, 2008
Why Did Art and Poetry Isolate and Self-Destruct?
A couple years ago, Camille Paglia edited an anthology of poetry called Break, Blow Burn. She recently wrote an article about how she chose certain poems over others, and explains why she feels artists and poets have isolated and self-destructed...because they are not working for the general populace. Although it is not always easy to agree with Paglia, no one can doubt her passion to art, teaching and the lost art of poetry. Here are some excerpts from her dynamo! expose on poetry in America today:
A. R. Ammons’ “Mechanism” upset me severely and still does. This poem should have been the dramatic climax of Break, Blow, Burn. In fact, it should have been one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century. Its vision of complex systems operating simultaneously in human beings and animal nature is at the very highest level of artistic inspiration. But in execution, the poem is a shambles, with weak transitions and phrasings that veer from the derivative to the pedantic. “Mechanism” is my primary exhibit for the isolation and self-destruction of American poetry over the past forty years:
Honor a going thing, goldfinch, corporation, tree,
morality: any working order,
animate or inanimate: it
has managed directed balance,
the incoming and outgoing energies are working right,
some energy left to the mechanism,
some ash, enough energy held
to maintain the order in repair,
assure further consumption of entropy,
expending energy to strengthen order:
honor the persisting reactor,
the container of change, the moderator: the yellow
bird flashes black wing-bars
in the new-leaving wild cherry bushes by the bay,
startles the hawk with beauty,
flitting to a branch where
flash vanishes into stillness,
hawk addled by the sudden loss of sight:
honor the chemistries, platelets, hemoglobin kinetics,
the light-sensitive iris, the enzymic intricacies
the gastric transformations, seed
dissolved to acrid liquors, synthesized into
chirp, vitreous humor, knowledge,
blood compulsion, instinct: honor the
molecules that reproduce themselves, divide into
sets, the nucleic grain transmitted
in slow change through ages of rising and falling form,
some cells set aside for the special work, mind
or perception rising into orders of courtship,
territorial rights, mind rising
from the physical chemistries
to guarantee that genes will be exchanged, male
and female met, the satisfactions cloaking a deeper
heat kept by a feathered skin:
the living alembic, body heat maintained (bunsen
burner under the flask)
so the chemistries can proceed, reaction rates
interdependent, self-adjusting, with optimum
efficiency—the vessel firm, the flame
staying: isolated, contained reactions! the precise and
necessary worked out of random, reproducible,
the handiwork redeemed from chance, while the
goldfinch, unconscious of the billion operations
that stay its form, flashes, chirping (not a
great songster) in the bay cherry bushes wild of leaf.
Connecting sexual “courtship” to state-guaranteed “territorial rights,” Ammons is using an anthropological lens to focus on the ancient birth of civilization itself in law and contract. And by conflating history, science, economy, and art, he would end the war between the artist and commercial society that began with the Industrial Revolution and that has resulted in the artist’s pitiful marginalization in an era dominated by mass media.
“Mechanism” approaches a view of consciousness itself as a product of evolutionary biology. The minute chemistry of enzymes and platelets is made almost psychedelically visible. The poem makes us ponder huge questions: are we merely flitting goldfinches in nature’s master plan? Is free will an illusion? Is art too a product of natural design? But the poem is fatally weakened by its abstruse diction, bombastic syntax, and factitious format. Why did Ammons choose these untidy staggered triads?
-The entire article is here.
-And if you want a wicked experience of poetry check out her anthology Break, Burn, Blow: 43 of The World's Best Poems.
-New York Times review of Break, Burn, Blow.