Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Frosted Earth

Reading Barbara Guest's biography of H.D. It's a strange book -- she apologizes, rightly, for not being a professional biographer -- but illuminating in all kinds of ways.

It takes me back to Yale in the 1980s, which I recognize now as the center of everything I dislike about contemporary poetry in English. I took a course in "Modern Poetry" there -- by which of course they meant poetry which even then was two generations old. The only poets I much liked were T.S. Eliot and H.D. and William Carlos Williams. There was much, frankly, that I loathed, though I read it conscientiously. I didn't, and don't, understand why moral, political, economic, and sociological questions were all ruled out of court (tacitly, of course, no one ever said so. They just looked pained, as though you'd farted at the dinner table.) And the contemporary poets that were admired, at Yale -- above all, John Ashberry -- I could not read at all. I'm someone who reads difficult stuff. I read Derrida with pleasure: I still think he's nearly as smart as he thought he was. I read Hegel and the Frankfurt sociologists. I read Eliot's Quartets with great pleasure, and Blake's Zoas. I'm not an idiot. It was not Ashberry's difficulty that impeded me: it was that he said nothing that interested me. Nothing at all. I got to the end of an Ashberry poem with relief: it was never, "oh, I must read that again!" or "oh, I must memorize that!" -- it was always, "oh thank God, I'll never have to read that again as long as I live!"

And I wonder, now, what might have happened if I had been exposed to good contemporary poetry at that time, thirty years ago. I might -- who knows? -- have undertaken a career as a poet. Instead, it put the seal on my conviction that poetry was dead, that contemporary people just didn't have it in them. It was a silly thing to think. But there, after all, I was, at one of the great literary centers of the world, and they were presenting frosted earth as their version of cake. So screw it. I'd learn other languages and read their old poetry. English was a lost cause.

So I have come to contemporary poetry -- the poetry of my own American generation -- very late and haphazardly. I don't know if I have any talent for poetry, really: I seldom write poetry that seems as good to me as my offhand blog prose. But there are flashes, here and there. And I wonder if I could learn now, late as it is. This isn't swimming or opera singing or ballet, where you have to take up the discipline early. Poetry is more a collection of magpie nests. And I've been picking up shiny things for a long time. So maybe. We'll see.