Saturday, July 26, 2003

I'm portraying people as "deracinated aestheticians"? Shame on me. I'm probably one too.

I acknowledge, and endorse, the idea that the aesthetic realm can be a relatively autonomous one. I would not want aesthetic judgments to be solely determined by political values, or even by aesthetic values. If I didn't believe that poetry could do something that political discourse couldn't I probably wouldn't read and write it.

So I continue to wonder who Henry is addressing when he says:

these social, political, philosophical beliefs and commitments, in the context of the art work, have no effect or meaning whatsoever, unless the art work is effective as art. How poetry works in this way is not something that can be explained by simple rules & instructions, or right-thinking ideological positions.

This last sentence seems to me not so much an attack on the avant-garde as we know it but on its evil twin, socialist realism. In fact, it seems to me that the position of the avant-garde isn't that politics should determine art, but that art should determine, and revolutionize, politics. Which is precisely what Henry's saying: it's those politicians who should be learning from us poets.

But "no effect or meaning whatsoever"? It's simply hard for me to imagine a kind of reading that would look like this. Is it possible to read a poem purely "as a work of art," without in any way being affected by the beliefs it articulates, the context from which it emerges, the situation in which it is read?

Henry's position ultimately seems to me to boil down to the idea that there is a certain kind of aesthetic jugdment that is simply "partisan-ideological branding & feathering," and another kind that isn't, and that we can easily determine which is which. I think all of us have the experience of reading a review or essay and feeling that the writer is operating more out of her or his prejudices--political, personal, aesthetic, whatever--than out of a true openness to what the work might have to offer. But I object strongly to the idea that it is the avant-garde that is primarily guilty of such prejudice, as opposed to some center that is free of it. The manifestoes and programs of the avant-garde are, in fact, responses to the prejudices that such writers see as ingrained in the allegedly pure aesthetic judgment of the center. This is hardly to say that avant-garde manifestoes are automatically an improvement or progress over such prejudices. But at least they're up front. Just as much lousy poetry has been produced under the banner of "art as art," "classicism," and "the tradition at large" as under the banner of the avant-garde.

Poetry "rooted in experience, emotion and immediacy of perception; it's the working-out (through a desperate and often instinctive commitment to song) of conflicts which are too personal for abstract philosophical formulae"--this is a position, not the lack of one. Whether it's the right one or not is the question we have to grapple with.

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