Wednesday, April 4, 2007

On Onions, Russian Dolls and True-badours

There's a fascinating epistolary exchange at Slate between Dan Chiasson and Meghan O'Rourke (two writers I know nothing about, but they have smart things to say) about autobiography and poetry.

This is a topic of particular interest to me, and it relates to past posts on CLM, one about Erin Moure and the lyric subject, the other an elegiac poem addressed to my late grandfather (NB: I've changed the title of the poem to "Kaddish" because my mother recently told me that her father, though he never practiced the Jewish faith, was worried at the end of his life, having only daughters, about who would perform kaddish for him. This is a "true fact," to use an abysmal phrase one hears all too often, but it's because it's what's right for the poem (in part because of the allusion to Ginsberg) that I'm doing it.)

I'm particularly interested in this stuff because I write what might be classified (or dismissed, by some) as autobiographical lyrics, but I also write dramatic monologues and have a nasty habit of appropriating/adapting other writers' poems as my own (Ludicrous Parole, e.g., contains very free adaptations of Nelligan, Rilke, and Mandelstam and the other poems are all about protean subjectivity in one way or another). I don't really draw distinctions between these categories in my own work; to me, they're all simply poems, the sum of me+language+versecraft at a given spot of time. Some of the "autobiographical lyrics" are whole-cloth inventions and almost all contain significant "embroideries" of fact. On the flipside, I often use the conventions of the monologue or the voice of another poet to--paraphrasing Peter Van Toorn in an essay on translation--slip autobiographical material in the back door; to say things that I don't feel I can get away with in a less heavily mediated lyric.

There are interesting things going on in poetry right now, simultaneous backlashes against the conventions of the very worn-out genre of the prosy North American freeverse lyric and against the increasing homogeneity--perceived or real--of the original backlash against the confessional impulse from avant-garde and the absurdly named post-avant garde (a handle that positively sighs exhaustion) poets. As Dan Chiasson puts it in the Slate piece:

The feeling of mass-produced surprises doesn't apply only to autobiographical poems, by the way. You mentioned the Language School. To me (despite the attempts of excellent critics—Marjorie Perloff, Stephen Burt—to convince me otherwise), Language poets are all alike and always boring. They demonstrate the same already-granted points about linguistic indeterminacy over and over; like Rube Goldberg machines but without the wit, they set an enormous mechanism in place to move a marble several inches.

Leading figures of avant-garde poetics, it should be noted, are turning back towards the lyric to find new directions, freshness, surprise. Lisa Robertson's latest collection is, by her own description, "a lyric book" and Moure explicitly embraces the lyric in her new collection (she has also, of course, been engaged in the kind of appropriative translation I mentioned above), with Robertson drawing inspiration from Petrarch and Moure from medieval troubadours. (What's that line about that which is old...) And so many younger poets of a less "revolutionary" bent are looking to form and figure as means of backgrounding content--or at least bringing it back into balance with form--which has been worshipped this side idolatry by so many prominent North American poets (most of whom can be seen as badly misreading Lowell, Plath et al) and their disciples.

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