Distribution Automatique

Thursday, May 5

Life and Art on the Suny/Buffalo Poetics List

Awhile ago, a discussion that, for once,
wasn’t about the list itself emerged on the
poetics list. It is about the life versus the
work of the poet. Some of the remarks
a few days ago inspired me to
scribble the following.

You can read the listserv by clicking here:

Poetics List Archives {click here}

To contribute to the discussion, follow the instructions for
subscribing. At the present time, the list is calling for
writing on poetry and poetics; we would
love to see many more reviews of books, chapbooks
and blogs by contemporary writers as well as focused commentary on
related issues.
Anyway, here’s
my brief recent offering:

on the life versus the work of a poet

Obviously, over time, poets' works and lives
are interwoven in the public imagination, and are occasionally
seen together as representative of an era and even have been
claimed by some to usher in an artistic era. In this case, the
"humanity" of the poet is looked at closely. Think of Mallarme
in this light; few ardent readers have not read about and
visualized his famous "Tuesday night" soirees, attended
by such luminaries as Debussy. Mallarme and
Baudelaire's interest in the visual arts
have been a great influence on countless subsequent poets.
A fascinating example of this tendency are the oft-cited
discussions of Walter Benjamin on Baudelaire. Baudelaire's
way of handling his poverty, and the fact that his poetry
remained largely unrecognized in his lifetime helped to
create the very concept of the "bohemian" lifestyle.
Think of how Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein are
depicted not only in the light of their works, but their lives.
The "imperfections" of an artist's life might later be seen as an
opening for liberating possibilities for the lifestyles of countless
others. My favorite book on this is Shattuck's *The Banquet Years.*
Despite the earnest and sincere efforts on the part of
many critics and theorists to separate poets' lives
from their works, readers of poetry and people
on the whole generally connect the two. Who
hasn't thought about the implications of Kafka asking, shortly
before he died, that his writing be destroyed by his best friend,
who, thankfully, disregarded this? There are so many
examples of such anecdotes that shape the
way we regard a writer's works.

For me, "biography" or published biographies do not represent
the totality of the continued cultural presence of anyone,
particularly their crucial cultural "imago," least of all that of a poet.
There was a life lived; it is experienced and remembered in
certain ways; there were words written, and things said; these are
initially experienced in a cultural context and then recorded
and remembered in certain ways. Most people who become
fascinated with a book or a movie eventually want to know
everything they can learn about the person who wrote
the book or made the movie. This is because the movie has
caused them to think about the experience we call "life."
Countless memoirs and biographies continue to appear
about Sylvia Plath, for example. Most of her readers do not
content themselves with rereading her poems.
They want to know more. A better example might be the record
made of the life of Wallace Stevens, "Parts of a World Remembered",
where nearly every living person who knew Wallace Stevens
at all was interviewed. Paul Celan's poetry is loved, treasured even,
but the reality of his cultural presence evolved not only from the publication
of the poems themselves. These reflected things thought and spoken by an actual
living person. Celan is a "character" is the ongoing cinema we call "real life."
JW's [list member's] statement, for me, somewhat discounts this aspect
of dream in so-called "real life." There are no such sharp distinctions in the life
of art, in either its creation or its reception. Check out D.A. Levy's
*Translating Tradition* concerning Paul Celan, for example.
The cultural role of Celan grows more complex and interwoven with the lives of countless people each and every day. This isn't only because of the poems.
Pavese is another great example. Poet suicides go to the heart
of the issue we are discussing here. Their final acts are just as much
a "statement" as anything that was written or said by them.
Their works and their lives constitute a total "statement." We
don't just read, we feel, we empathize, we have antipathies,
we react, we identify. Writing and reading poetry, or any literature,
or significantly experiencing any work of art, is also partly
an adventure in personal insight and transformation.
It is utterly "personal", even when contemporary life at the
moment is less and less so. Poetry and poets and all artists
struggle to enliven the personal, individual aspect of living.
I would imagine at one time people talked about poetry-
even here on the list the still do sometimes- the way now
almost everyone talks about movies, movie actors, directors, etc. *Blade
Runner* is a cultural touchstone in every detail now. Book after
book keeps appearing offering more and more information, opinion
and insight. At one time the same thing happened with Byron.
Such discussion is not just for the purpose of intellectual
understanding. It is part and parcel of cultural experience,
in the sense that culture is a work in process, wherein artistic
works and lives are interventions in the process, interventions
towards change, nor "progress" but mutative transformation.
Andy Warhol played off these blurry boundaries between art
and life more or less constantly. He carried a tape recorder
around he called his companion and published he diaries
and journals even though he was mainly a visual artist. He did
this with humor and irony; nevertheless the presence of living
people was crucial; out of this he created his films in which his
"stars" were very deliberately people in the act of living their lives,
also trying to become *stars* themselves. OK, they were underpaid
but that's another story.

The Dada poets, and in a more diluted way, the surrealists
were out to make just this point. But in a literary culture obsessed
with critique and evaluation of a poet's book's "greatness",
it is only the actual product that counts, not the person who creates it.
In art the story is different; everything counts.
Drew Gardner on Tim Hawkinson

Overlap (Drew Gardner)