Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Art, Craft and Voice

"Only the artist in yourselves is more truthful than the night."

e.e. cummings

I've heard rhetoricians talk of something they call "immanent orality" (yes, sometimes it's just that). The idea, which appeals to me, goes like this. All interpretation is about finding out how to read a text out loud. Nothing you can learn about a text's meaning is inconsequential for its enunciation. All footnotes to all poems are instructions for the reader reading aloud.

Laura Carter is obviously the e.e. cummings of the blogosphere. Absolutely modern and hopelessly romantic. In a word, hip.

Do not hate and fear the artist in yourselves, my fellow citizens. Honour him and love him. Love him truly--do not try to possess him. Trust him as nobly as you trust tomorrow.

That's cummings.

I think voice matters. I don't want it taken from me. I think it has something to do with being a person, which I think is a good thing. I hope that whatever I write has an indelible mark of me on it.

That's Laura. So is this:

If it is just about making objects, then forget it.

And here's cummings:

If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom things made matter very little--somebody who is obsessed by Making.

"What a hoot!" says Laura. "Talking of voice as a device, as a thing to be manipulated," just as cummings warns us not to "confuse an act of God with something which can be turned on and off like the hot water in a faucet."

I think cummings is probably the most charming poet that ever lived; Laura Carter is certainly the most enchanting blogger. How can you not agree with them when they insist on the irreducible perfection of the individual soul that's just trying to do its own imperfect thing? How can we not encourage them when they express their hope that their works "are neither 'good' nor 'bad', neither peacelike nor warful--that (on the contrary) they are living." Life against judgment! Voice against the absolute tyranny of the workshop!

Well, when good poets, like Laura and e.e., say these sorts of things they are simply and irresistably endearing. We want to believe with them that a poem is a just (or even partly) an honest poet being herself, desperately so, in a world of "supermechanized submorons". After all: "mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness" (i.e., a kitten costume). After all: I, too, could be myself.

Every artist's strictly illimitable country is himself.

An artist who plays that country false has committed suicide; and even a good lawyer cannot kill the dead. But a human being who's true to himself--whoever himself may be--is immortal; and all the atomic bombs of all the antiartists in spacetime will never civilize immortality.

Which is all good and true if you're writing about Ezra Pound in 1945.

Before your immortality has been secured, before your honesty comes anywhere near to being interesting (or, perhaps more precisely, before your sincerity even approaches honesty) you have to use your voice for a long time, in public and among people who don't, as a point of departure, all find you very charming ("you and I are not snobs"). You have to enter an apprenticeship, you have to find a master craftsman and a workshop (though it need not be that workshop). You have to use your voice to find it, and what you are doing, finally, is not finding (trouver) but inventing (trouvèr) it: tinkering with what you were given at birth, finding out what it can usefully accomplish. The discipline that guides this usage is grammar, and mastery of grammar is craft.

Bibliographical note: All quotations not attributed to Laura Carter (here, but no doubt not for long) are taken from Chapter 4 of e.e. cummings' i.


Laura Carter said...

Thomas, I think you're right, but I still think there's something to my voice-hope. I am certainly not absolutely modern, and I am probably hopelessly romantic, and now I know that my poems will never improve, though I will write lots of them. And some of them will look funny. I'm thinking of voice not so much today (everything internet = temporal) as something to find but as something that I have, basically just a name. (I think Heaney called it a thumbprint; I'll call it a name.) So a voice is my name. I use my own name on poems. Etc. I leave the blog posts up for about a week and a half; don't want stray googlers to come up on old posts. Don't want to re-read them myself, ever. Etc. I think maybe ethos, though, like I pulled into the next post, the more meditative one, is a good substitute---name as ethos. Does that work in your book? Reminds me of Barthes's talk of responsibility, I think.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I don't think your defial of the modern/romantic distinction is debatable really.

My response to reading both you and cummings (your prose) is "I think you're right, but I still think...", which is to say, there's something about this insistence on the personal that I can't deny the validity of so easily.

I think a good poem pushes ethos to the margins. (Think of Pound's ethos in 1948 even among his supporters: it depended almost entirely on the work.) I think your poems do that. And, following that observation of Sartre's you've just posted, it would not surprise me if you recognize the results of that marginalization as the voice of the poem itself. I can't hear it.

I think your poems will improve. I'm not sure they have to. I'm sure you don't "know" that they won't. How could you?

Always wonderful to have you around, Laura.

Laura Carter said...

I can't believe I'm still awake studying.

Yes, agreed on Pound. That was sort of a miracle. Forgiven, in spite of it. Wow.

Or forgiven, because of it? (Here I'm getting into deeper issues, which I think belong to poetry.)

Real ethos is always in the margins, right? Isn't that what all this avant-gardening stuff is about? (If not, I'm out.)

I was making jokes about cummings earlier---I think his poems are great in some ways, but he didn't really develop over the course of it all. Maybe that's OK. But he wrote so many that seem similar to me---same formal interests, etc. So that was the joke. I do hope mine improve.

Laura Carter said...

Maybe not "avant-gardening"---maybe something else. I don't want to draw lines that belong elsewhere, or that ... you know. But I think in some sense all poets / artists etc are going for that gardening thing. So "avant-gardening" maybe belongs to everyone, even Billy Collins. Whether or not the a word frightens some, well, that's up to them. But I'll give it them.

A said...

my guaranteed unpopular opinion:

poetry is always better on the page, in the mind, than it is out loud, with the actual voice. there it has more possibilities, & more imagination is used.

i have always found poetry readings unsatisfying. i do not think that all poetry is written only to be read aloud, and often, it shouldn't be.

writing is manipulated language. you want to call it craft. okay. i just call it art(iface) (another loaded word, okay) because i do not accept some of the baggage that comes with the word craft, i.e. if something is well-made, it is undeniably 'good'.

i should just cool it; but i'm not. i'm always suprised by the turns these discussions take.

how's my grammar?