the undigested kernels in our steaming piles of bildung
July 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
The truistic nature of some of the things that I have said shows how the free-will of the poet is limited. They demonstrate that the poetry of the future can never be anything purely eccentric and dissociated. The poetry of the present cannot be purely eccentric and dissociated. Eccentric and dissociated poetry is poetry that tries to exist or is intended to exist separately from the poem, that is to say in a style that is not identical with the poem. It never achieves anything more than a shallow mannerism, like something seen in a glass. Now, a time of disbelief is precisely a time in which the frequency of detached styles is greatest. I am not quite happy about the word detached. By detached, I mean the unsuccessful, the ineffective, the arbitrary, the literary, the non-umbilical, that which in its highest degree would still be words. For the style of the poem and the poem itself to be one there must be a mating and a marriage, not an arid love-song.
— Wallace Stevens
I was thinking about this quote recently, and I was struck by how appropriate are Stevens’ metaphors “a mating and a marriage.” If I were the one to write the final line, however, I’m pretty sure I would’ve gone with “a fucking and a fighting.” In any event, I like where he’s going here: namely, that to deal with, and thus to write poetry, in an age of disbelief, the trick is not merely somehow to find belief. Rather, it is to invent new ways to disbelieve better.
In my recent work, fictional and philosophical, I’m trying to talk about style in concrete enough terms to specify what I mean, but never so much as to bind it to my specifications. One’s words should never slip and fall from the page, but rarely should they stay lazily recumbent. If they’re not built to fly, at least give them space to roam. I’ve been told that my emphasis of style over substance is related to and/or pursuing affective response. Maybe, provided we’re not thinking strictly of emotional or psychological affect — the undigested kernels in our steaming piles of bildung. In my eyes, if affect is to have any style at all, it must invite an engagement — that is, a mating and a marriage, a fucking and a fighting — it cannot merely tell you where to look and certainly not what to see (think, as an example, the intended upwardly turned eyes in Gothic architecture). This is why I am drawn to a kind of prose that I like to think of as “precise abstraction”. By this I mean to say I am not interested in the removal of reference from language. On the contrary, I want its referents to live and breathe with even more vitality than words themselves. The style of a work, I’m saying, is not an effect of the language; language, rather, is but the ornament to what I might suggestively call style’s intensity.
Thus we have the ground of our engagement: the immeasurable (and yet somehow precise) appropriateness of any creation to its style. As I’ve said elsewhere, I wish most to step closer to creation in order that I might see it more generally. What constitutes true style, then, is inhabiting your created forms such that you either (a) completely stifle the unruly element that attends to its creation (that which is more, though I suppose also conceivably less, than the encoded reference or, heaven forbid, meaning), or (b) most ideally, artfully disguise it in such a way as coquettishly to invite it.
Isn’t the latter what keeps us returning to certain “classical” works? — not the recurring identification or even experience of something deeply embedded within an individual created work — a Beauty or Truth, whatever, so awesome that generations want to experience it? I would argue that the listener of Bach, for instance, has been sneakily invited to experience the piece as Bach did when he created it, not as a completed object replete with goodness and grandeur. To actually experience the connective tissue between the chords, for instance, rather than their emotional or psychological reference. These may have an intended meaning, and may guide a listener to a desired end — but . . . the moment of their creation, for both the creator himself and the listener-creator, these are more form than they are reference. The referential “meaning” of a work is an attempt to make civilized, by way of description and evaluation, the unruliness of a work’s stylistic genesis — and if we as creators find doing so inevitable we should perhaps not feel so bad, as not even God could avoid it (“and He saw that it was good,” etc.)
But I ask you, how’s that worked out for God or His creation?