Prose Feature: “The Genius of the Medium: Identity and Alterity in Poetic Practice” by Bruce Bond

May 15, 2015

by Bruce Bond

When I was an undergraduate at Pomona College in the mid-seventies, the question of the authority of personal narrative in poetry versus a less “I-centered” approach was still a matter of some controversy. On the one hand, Sylvia Plath was hugely popular, as was Allen Ginsberg, and on the other hand, the label “confessional” began to be deployed as pejorative, as if to suggest some mode of self-indulgence that the newly sophisticated might dismiss as hackneyed and adolescent. The objectivists still had a small following, as did those of a later day modernist sentiment who longed to “escape the personality” in their work in ways advocated by T.S. Eliot. For many, Eliot became the epitome of a repressed individual with stodgy views about traditional values, and it took me years to figure out that the gist of Eliot’s argument in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was hardly controversial—it seems obvious to me now that there is a difference between emotion as mediated through art and emotion outside the realm of art. Eliot’s hyperboles are unfortunate, but surely I would agree: one has not merely a personality to express, but a medium, or, rather, the dimension of personality inseparable from the dynamic, cultural, and historical tension of one’s medium. That much, I suspect, is something that Plath and Ginsberg might readily have acknowledged. Nevertheless something of that polarized atmosphere persisted in poetry for quite a while, and though much has dissipated from that weary debate, we still find something of it embedded in, on the one hand, poetry that embraces the often politicized authority of the author’s personal identity and, on the other hand, a poetics that eschews even the lyric impulse as reifying a sense of identity that is untenable and narrow.

Back when I was in college, two major cultural shifts had begun to nuance poetic debate, and they continued to do so in years to come. One was the rise of literary theory, the other was an increasing politicization of poetry that began with Vietnam and deepened with the culture wars of the eighties, a time that helped to coin the phrase “political correctness.” The rising popularity of postmodern epistemology and its influence on literary and critical practice roughly corresponded with a larger cultural evolution in the politicization of difference. The latter brought on a shift from the liberal attitudes that sought to emphasize similarities across cultures to one more sensitive to difference as a source of both marginalization and power. Egalitarian politics and popular culture began to align themselves less with an the idea that we are fundamentally all the same and more with the assertion of difference as something to be not only tolerated but also celebrated.

Obviously such an evolution was gradual and complex, and looking back, I see now that the liberal assertion of personal and cultural difference, versus its underemphasis, was something Americans might well have anticipated. My friends and I, as awkward young progressives in the poetry world, had been perhaps unconsciously conditioned, made receptive to a change in liberal rhetoric by the subcultures of the fifties and sixties. Charles Olson’s celebration of roughness, candor, and spontaneity in verse, although objectivist in its original sentiment, resonated strongly with a generation of Beat poets who, in a resurgence of American Romanticism, articulated and affirmed with therapeutic and political openness the marginalized differences of their sexuality and lifestyle. Confessional poems too expressed less what was universal to us all, than what was the individual mark of the extraordinary as a source of authority. Transgression was power. The margin, within the wounded conscience and changing power dynamics of a poetic subculture, was to occupy the center. Subject matter and point of view came to obscure issues more obviously related to aesthetics, such that critical culture became more conversant with ideological modes of critique than it was with Eliot’s more formal approach of looking for complexities and originalities of poetic architecture and resonance.

Doubtless the disenfranchised, for whatever individual or cultural reason, looked to the language arts to “name themselves,” having been named already, so the imperative notion of poetry as a means of self-transcendence became relativized according to perceived needs with political implications. We might well turn Eliot’s words against the spirit of his argument when he says: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Once again, Eliot’s hyperbole obscures his point, for surely few poets of any ilk are without emotions. Buried in Eliot’s notion however is the sense that a construction of self or personality makes possible and attractive the concern with self-transcendence. Might we likewise look with greater compassion at those whose sense of self suffers more greatly at the hands of a dominant culture? Might we as individuals and as a culture be better served via receptivity to the self-constructing voices of those in the pursuit of some healthier balance and commerce between selfhood and its context?

Part of the problem in talking this way, as Eliot might well have known, is that we cannot “self-construct” without also negotiating and exploring the cultural otherness that is in our medium of construction. No matter what the more obvious subject matter, poems must find their power relative to an original encounter with language. It was no surprise therefore that, as personal narrative gained the upper hand in American poetry, the resistance to authority based on the writer’s persona increased in reciprocal fashion. Poets such as Lowell, Sexton, and Plath who had gained enormous popularity inspired the inevitable backlash, a resistance that heated the debate concerning the self-indulgence of the confessional impulse in poems, an impulse often conflated with any consuming attraction to autobiography. In 1971 for example, Galway Kinnell wrote: “The poetry of this century is marked by extreme self-absorption so we have been a ‘school’ of self-dissection, the so-called confessional poets, who sometimes strike me as being interested in their own experience to the exclusion of everyone else’s.”

The irony to this common and understandable critique is the fact that what appears to be an exclusionary sensibility nevertheless speaks to a lot of people, some of whom might take more pleasure in self-absorption in poems (imaginative constructs) than they would in real people. To say a narcissistic culture loves a narcissistic art does not explain much, since often the last person a narcissist wants to engage is another narcissist. In addition, the idea that the canonical confessionals attracted fans simply due to a fresh and edgy transparency does not fully honor the role of imaginative mediation, how it empowers readers voyeuristically to experience a specifically aesthetic form of empathy, intimacy, and identification.

Clearly Kinnell’s own work has demonstrated throughout his career an abiding interest in first-person narratives of domestic life, so his personal example suggests that his rejection of the exclusionary and exhibitionistic does not imply a return to the perceived coldness of high modernism and Eliot’s promotion of an escape from the personality. As heated as it is, Kinnell’s critique is hardly revolutionary. One would be hard pressed to find a statement of poetics at any stage in literary history that would not indebt itself to “the other” in art—the universal, the transpersonal, the communal, the material, the historical, even the aesthetic—as if to compensate for poetry’s ready association with the self.

Remnants of complaint akin to Kinnell’s have persisted long after the period of confessionalism and its immediate influence. For instance, it is remarkable to see how similarly broad the contemporary target is in Jorie Graham’s critique in her introduction to Best American Poetry: 1990:

The poetry that fails the genius of its medium today is the poetry of mere self. It embarrasses all of us. The voice in it is not large but inflated. A voice that expands not to the size of a soul (capable of being both personal and communal, both private and historical) but to the size of an ego. What I find most consistently moving about the act of a true poem is the way it puts the self at genuine risk.

The idea of risk here is tremendously useful, for it advocates not only vulnerability and tension, but also a sense of the dynamic, exploratory process of the poem. Graham invokes Frost’s notion of poetic ingenuity as “getting into danger legitimately so that we may be genuinely rescued” and so raises a host of productive questions in reconceiving the category of “the genuine” as a matter of both epistemology and aesthetics. By association, the inauthentic self appears to be the autonomous self, or the self that labors to promote the illusion of its autonomy, its denials and defenses, its safe place, its formal closure. A poem based on this particular illusion is not a “true poem” less because it resists the real (most poems do this and the opposite) but because it does not fulfill the defining characteristic of a poem as driven by alterity and eros, their capacity to inspire wonder and magnanimity.

Poetry no doubt finds itself in a defensive position relative to a general sense of poets as impractical narcissists. As Graham further advocates the legitimate poem, she not only justifies it via epistemological categories (the true and the genuine), but also ethical categories suggestive of generosity and transpersonal utility:

To place oneself at genuine risk, that the salvation effected be genuine (i.e., of use to us), the poet must move to encounter an other, not more versions of the self. An other: God, nature, a beloved, an Idea, Abstract form, Language itself as a field, Chance, Death, Consciousness, what exists in the silence. Something not invented by the writer.

There is something circular in the argument that in order for a poem to be useful to us it must encounter an alterity, such as an us, and yet the statement itself proves useful in laying bare the impoverishment of the poem that lacks not only a certain humility but, somewhat paradoxically, a certain ambition. In contrast, the so-called “modest” poem, careful not to overreach its scope of authority and previous experience, eschews the risk and vulnerability implicit in exposure to enormity, however embodied in the small. The constricted modest poem in this sense appears content merely to express meaning (as something that precedes the poem) rather than expand and thereby create it. Certainly the latter is a more ambitious enterprise, but in its ambition lies its generosity. Thus humility as ambitious and ambition as self-transcending summon the imagination to risk, to process, to vulnerability and exposure via some unforeseen act of transformation.

Many of the alterities mentioned by Graham resonate as bearing the grandeur of the absolute or some totality that is, if not God, God’s surrogate, some vast and fundamental mystery, akin to a metaphysical ground. Even groundlessness (Chaos or Death) as an imaginative category can occupy the space of that ground, that deeper reality, reference point, or principle that solicits faith in lieu of knowledge. Even the focus of the intimate love poem or elegy gathers resonance in its relation, not simply to the lover or the lost one, but to imaginary readers, yet another metaphysical “other” that haunts the medium as a nexus of the public and the private. Thus the intimate poem resonates by honoring the powers of imagination, conceptualization, and form indigenous to the medium. In all cases, poetry intensifies the tension and connectivity between the local and something larger, such that the so-called “poem of mere particularity,” like that of “mere self,” ceases to be a poem.

An anti-metaphysical, “language” poetics of obdurate surfaces, what Charles Bernstein calls the poetics of non-absorption, may resist the tedium of literality and semiotic closure; it may reflect the rigor of refusing to affirm what it cannot know; it may position itself against of poetry of mere transparency; but it is not a poetry invested in the element of faith and metaphysical hunger that drives a language to remake itself in response to some unrepresented reality. It is a “poem,” to borrow a phrase from Jorie Graham, that “fails the genius of its medium.” That genius implies the immense desire for the fullness of being as beyond the grasp of the medium. When Graham refers to “Language as a field,” she invokes a sense of the vast, the inter-textuality of all texts. This is often perceived as an alternative to a metaphysical model, the sense of endless surfaces, but endlessness is itself something we cannot experience. For one to suggest that there is no end to the play of interpretation is to raise the question, “How do you know?”

The work of Wallace Stevens expresses a keen appreciation for the paradoxical nature of the imagination as driven by a real it can never accommodate. It is for this reason that Stevens writes in “Of Modern Poetry:”

                The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
                                                It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

The poet, as metaphysician in the dark, makes a sound, however imperfect, that goes where neither she nor her instrument can. The music is not captured. It “passes through,” and thus the paradoxical satisfaction that a poem breeds in the local. The man skating, the woman combing—these things grow radiant via some great and unresolved metaphysical process. That process is nothing less than mindfulness, attention to one’s time, one’s moment, and to the hunger that binds attention to what it sees. “The act of finding,” states the opening of the poem, which already is paradoxical, since finding is not an act, but the end of an act. Likewise satisfaction, as we find it in the poem, bears the lingering signature of desire.

The pleasure of poetry therefore is always that of the arriving departure. It speaks to our desire to make intimate the great dialogue between the self and the other, the immanent and the transcendent, the real and the imagined. Its search must, consciously or not, negotiate the world in honor of both the individual and the cultural. In the process, poetry makes of the dissonance between them a music. It makes of hunger a satisfaction. It makes of form an act. And of the self, it makes a glass island, a thing that is both there and not there, a thing that is only there at the peril and grace of all that it can never be.

Bruce Bond is the author of fifteen books including six forthcoming: Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand (University of Michigan Press), For the Lost Cathedral (LSU Press), Black Anthem (Tampa Review Prize, University of Tampa Press), Gold Bee (Crab Orchard Open Competition Award, Southern Illinois Press), Sacrum (Four Way Books), and The Other Sky (Etruscan Press). He is Regents Professor at University of North Texas.

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