Sunday, March 18, 2012

I've been reading Christian Wiman's Ambition and Survival: Becoming A Poet and find myself unnerved in what is likely a breakthrough in my thinking due to how uncomfortable the book makes me. Basically he argues much contemporary poetry has no form beyond line breaks and much of it is about the self, which I suppose he feels shows a lack of awareness and intensity towards the art form. But non-the-less "form" has continually crept into everything I read of late and hear of late about writing poetry.

     "Certain tactics become deadeningly familiar: the privileging of specific subject matter
      ("Relate to me," you can almost hear some poems cry); the primacy of personal
      experience and the assumption that language can contain it; the favorite foriegn
      country that becomes a sort of grab bag for subject matter; the husk of anecdote
      cracked for is nut of knowledge, the serious intellectual and psychological issues
      that do a soft-focus fade-out into imagistic unknowingness; the case, even pride,
     with which the poet accepts such unknowingness. Much of this poetry isn't "bad,"
     exactly; you wish it were worse, in face because then you could more clearly
     explain to yourself why a large dose of it-- a batch of books to review, say, or
     an hour spent browsing magazines--leaves you feeling not simply numb but
     guilty for that numbness, as if you were the only tainted thing in a world where
     everything was perfectly clear, perfectly pleased with itself. Intensity is the only
     anicdote-- of language, or experience, of ambition. In the presence of that intensity
     all that is merely pleasant falls away." --- Wiman

On the other hand, I feel an urgent intense need, a push and pull if you will, to write about my life, the sexual abuse I experienced and the overwhelming abuse that leads one to constant self-doubt and insecurity. So, I am not really certain how I feel about much of what he says due to my own experiences which have a "need" to be fleshed out, understood and healed. And even Wiman seems to acknowledge that many of us write to heal some wound. Yet, maybe there is something banal about the self, in all its struggles, yet much of the self writing he may be referring to has no interest in language play, and language play in and of itself seems to differ from person to person (in terms of what is appealing and musical or discordant).

Writing in traditional forms proves difficult for me, particularly metrical form. And yet Wiman's insistence that great poems have form haunts me. And of course, some argue free verse has form, which I think is true, but who was it that said, "free verse is like playing tennis with the net down?"

Also, Wiman writes a great deal about the poet's ambitions, desires and disillusionment. One quote which moved me and helped me is the one below:

    A man who long ago learned to hold each act in light of the distant life
    in which he would repent it, who for years anticipated and even treasured,
   with a kind of half-conscious, terrible clarity, the self as it would emerge from
   the wreckage it created; a man grown equanimous and wise, devoid of ambition
   now but, what luck, replete with everything ambition brings-- this house,
   these admirers, regret softened by renown, and this moment in which to gather
   his brood of wounds around him with an almost paternal pride, as lovely elegiac light
   fills the room and all the intact past stands plain as a lawn. Spare me. A man can
   vanish into what he's done, give himself so utterly to his actions that he becomes not
   the wise survivor crawling from the chaos of his deeds, but the smooth and empty shell
   they cast up. Who would believe this hollow noise is the sea?

It feels good to read again, as I've had great difficulty doing so the past couple of years.

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