I was bored with Hawking’s statement about God before he even made it, but this zinger from Richard Lea at The Guardian is worth sharing. Reminding us that Hawking has far outsold his fellow scientists who have tried their hand at trade books precisely because of “his willingness to talk about God,” Lea observes: “You may not need God to create a universe, but a little religion goes a long way in creating a bestseller.”
Outing overrated writers is a favorite pastime of critics everywhere, and this summer particularly so.
First there was Gabriel Josipivici’s attack in The Guardian on Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. They exhibit a “petty-bourgeois uptightness,” a “terror of not being in control,” and a “schoolboy desire to boast and to shock,” Josipivici is reported to have said. Reading them, he continues, “leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner.” Clearly.
This was followed by Anis Shivani’s list of the fifteen most overrated American writers at The Huffington Post. Shivani didn’t go for broke like Josipivici or like B.R. Myers did way back in 2001 when he took down the likes of Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don Delillo and Paul Auster, though he did have the courage to name Billy Collins, John Ashbery and Amy Tan.
And not to be outdone by their fellow anglophones, Alex Good and Steven W. Beattie gave us the ten most overrated Canadian writers in The National Post–you know, people like the Erin Moure and Joseph Boyden.
Anyway, I like these lists as much as the next person and agree that, overall, literature in the West is in a sad state of decline. But to give our poor contemporary writers some respite, here are a couple of the most outrageously blunt critical statements ever made, listed in no particular order, some more justified than others:
Ayn Rand acolyte, Nick Newcomen, has driven 12,328 miles with a GPS tracking device on to spell out “Read Ayn Rand”.
According to The Guardian, “Newcomen took about 10 days to complete each word, turning on his GPS logger when he wanted to write and turning it off between letters, videoing himself at landmarks along the route for documentation.” Sounds like a “second-hander” to me.
Adam Kirsch, whose poetry I admire, has a surprisingly muddled argument on the value of great books for world leaders in a recent article for The New Republic. Responding to Charles Hill’s argument in Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order that great books tutor leaders in statecraft, Kirsch writes that literature is, in fact, “a very dubious basis for political leadership.”
Kirsch is right, of course, that such texts are hardly sufficient for forming political leaders (and I doubt that this is Hill’s point either); however, he goes on to argue that they are unhelpful in any real way because (1) classical texts like The Iliad glorify “imperialism and conquest,” teaching us, Kirsch writes with breezy simplicity, “to admire what our reason would condemn,” (2) such texts often offer impractical advice and tend to mystify leadership, and (3) literary texts, whose meaning is “always interpretable,” “can be used to support many different political beliefs and courses of action.”
With that, out go The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Henry V, and all other canonical texts of Western literature, as if these texts have nothing to say to world leaders regarding the dangers of hubris, the value of perseverance or the strength (and dangers) of trust. I especially like the touch of conflating “our reason” with reason tout court and the wonderful illogic of the statement that because such texts can be abused by world leaders they are somehow useless.
I would not want to reduce the value of literary works to their relative wisdom alone, nor would I argue that such texts are necessary for forming good political leaders, but Kirsch’s response is over-the-top. If modern politicians haven’t learned much from the classics, it seems strange, to say the least, to blame the texts themselves and not the politicians.
Last month I received the latest issue of PMLA (the Publication of the Modern Language Association) that included a lead article with the title, “Queer Ecology.” Why I’m still a member, I’m not sure.
What is queer ecology? Well, it’s the latest literary theory that begins with the “fact” that nature is partially queer—because “cells reproduce asexually” and some “plants and animals are hermaphroditic.” The author goes on to argue, using a rather standard post-structuralist trick, that because all things are interdependent, all things are equal and somehow have rights. And by all the things, he means all things, including silicon.
What is the scientific evidence of the supposed “queerness” of nature? I am sure Stephen Barr could give us a much more informed evaluation, but to me, the arguments seem to rely mostly on sleight of hand—anecdotal references to splitting cells, hermaphroditism in invertebrates, or two females caring for a single offspring, none of which have anything to do with sexual relations between two males or two females. Even Paul Vasey, who researches “homosexual behavior in free-ranging Japanese macaques,” put the problem this way in a recent New York Times piece: “Homosexuality is a tough case, because it appears to violate that central tenet, that all of sexual behavior is about reproduction.” Indeed, which is why, to get around this problem, Vasey and others define homosexuality as something else besides sex between two animals of the same gender—usually a set of behavioral characteristics that we associate with homosexuality, which is then superimposed on the animals being observed.
Of course, the “queerness” of nature is treated as almost scientific fact in the PMLA piece, but never mind accuracy and nuance. What matters is style! To wit:
Pro-life is on the rise and has been for the past fifteen years. Since May 2009, the majority of Americans (47 percent to 45 percent) now identify themselves as pro-life. What’s striking, however, is that the percentage of Americans ages 18 to 29 who view abortion as “illegal in all circumstances” is up from 15 percent to 23 percent.
Why? Because of the “demonization of sex,” of course! Aimee R. Thorne-Thomsen, who is the former executive director of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project, argues that the increase among twenty-somethings can be attributed to the fact that they have “grown up under a political system that demonized sexuality. Their consciousness has been under abstinence-only, promotion-of-marriage initiatives, so it’s a very narrowly based idea of appropriate behavior.” So those puritanical policies of Bill Clinton and the massive increase in the production and accessibility of pornography was all part of some master plot to encourage young people not to have sex. Who’da figured?
(HT: Ben Domenech)
Joe: I second Ryan on this. I am no legal scholar, but it seems to me that, technically, he is not guilty of treason until he has been convicted in a court of law or some other judicial body.
Andy McCarthy’s response to Kevin Williamson is unconvincing in this regard as well. He cites the 2009 Military Commissions Act and 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force as providing the President with the authority to kill enemy combatants, but neither of these address the issue of assassinating Americans. And the Quirin decision, which he cites as a precedent, is not a precedent for assassination but for military tribunals that first convict Americans for treason before meting out the death penalty.
If Anwar Al-Awlaki is killed on the battlefield, that’s one thing, but targeting him for assassination is something else. Assassinations have a somewhat troubled legal history. No doubt, the fight against terrorism is a different kind of war that makes a situation like this difficult, but there must be a better solution than throwing out due process and overtly targeting American citizens for assassination.
Speaking of art and reproduction, having probably just read Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters or one of André Breton’s surrealist manifestos, eighteen-year-old German Helene Hegemann has written a book on “Berlin’s club scene” incorporating large portions of another writer’s prose. Charges of plagiarism flew, as they always do on such occasions. However, instead of responding with “the plagiarism-gotcha script of contrition and retraction,” as The New York Times puts it, Hegemann stated that she intended to “borrow” the material all along—thus supposedly making the action art, not plagiarism. “There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity,” Hegemann is reported to have said to the collective sigh of philosophy professors worldwide.
Tacitly, Ms. Hegemann’s actions can be understood as a critique (and rightly so) of the definition of art in terms of originality alone. All writers and artists borrow from each other. There is “nothing new under the sun.”
Ironically, however, subversive efforts like Ms. Hegemann’s to challenge this reductive definition of art—most notoriously, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain—have often been lauded because of their original critique of originality itself, encouraging other artists to create increasingly bizarre and shocking pieces of “anti-art” in a never-ending, but profitable, game of one-upmanship.
I wonder if Ms. Hegemann is hoping to profit from exactly this sort of game? Duchamp’s Fountain was once defended by an anonymous art critic as a work of art on the grounds that “[h]e CHOSE it.” This is exactly how Ms. Hegemann seems to be positioning herself by evoking her intentions. Because she chose to include another writer’s words, it’s not plagiarism, but art, of which she no doubt hopes to reap the benefits. And so far, she seems to be doing nicely.
Whatever Ms. Hegemann’s ultimate intentions, the fact is this subversive approach to art and literature (and perhaps what is left of the avant-garde) is now less about critiquing the notion of originality than benefiting from it. A real critique of the overblown emphasis on originality is not more concept art, but less. There may be no new ideas, but there are better and worse ways of expressing those ideas. Thus, a renewed emphasis on craft would redress the balance nicely enough.
Martin Amis and Anna Ford are “having a go of it,” as they say. It all started with Amis’s complaint in The Guardian that newspapers make him out to be more controversial than he is. Ford, a longtime friend, responds with an open letter accusing him of narcissism and an “inability to empathise,” and gives two very personal examples of exactly what she means. Amis responds here.
These things never end well, and I have no interest in taking sides. Yet, did not Alan Jacobs make Ford’s very point two years ago with so much more nuance when he noted Amis’s troublesome preoccupation in his recent political works with style over substance? Yes, I think he did.
If only Ms. Ford had been a reader of, First Things, she might have hit Amis where it really hurts.
The Giro d’Italia—the second most important stage race in cycling after the Tour de France—is starting in Amsterdam this year, and a politician from the left-wing GroenLinks party has suggested that instead of having podium girls kiss victorious cyclists “podium guys” should be used. Heterosexuals, er, I mean, podium girls are “hopelessly outdated and sexist,” says Marco de Goede. Of course, de Goede is right that the use of podium girls is “sexist.” So let’s just have all the girls (and guys) stay home this year.
Clearly the homosexual agenda—both here and in Europe—is not tolerance but the celebration of homosexuality throughout society.
For all of you Walker Percy fans (and I am one of them), be on the lookout for the new Walker Percy documentary by Winston Riley. Mr. Riley’s previous documentary—on the artist Walter Anderson—won a number of awards and was broadcast on PBS.
According to Mr. Riley, the Percy film is intended for broadcast later this year, but there may be a few local screenings at film festivals. Or, if you are in New Orleans, you can catch a preview screening of the film scheduled to be shown in conjunction with the opening of the Walker Percy Center at Loyola on March 10th.
Thomas Mores of the world, unite!
(HT: Philokalia Republic)
Taking his cue from Wallace Stevens who said that poetry is the “supreme fiction,” Al Gore, as you may know, has published a climate change poem in his new book, Our Choice. The first stanza is actually not too bad, but it falls apart quicker than an arctic iceberg after that, alas.
What’s next for the indefatigable Gore? Rap?
In the November 17th issue of The Christian Century, Miroslav Volf reveals that he was one of the experts consulted by Yale University Press in The Cartoons That Shook the World fiasco and explains why he recommended that the press not reprint the Danish images. Doing so, Volf writes,
. . . would likely have provoked violence on the part of some who felt offended. That violence would have been unjustified and indefensible, of course, but that would have been of small comfort to any victims. The concern is not a matter of wanting to spare Yale a bit of trouble that a few extra police could easily prevent, as Bolton suggested. In the aftermath of the publication of the caricatures, Denmark was a comparatively safe place; Nigeria was not.
And because “the caricatures need not be reprinted in a scholarly treatise on their effects,” such an act would have been gratuitous. Though “gratuitously offending others may be our right,” Volf continues, “the exercise of that right hardly counts as a mark of a well-lived life.”
I have a lot of respect for Professor Volf and am sympathetic to his concern for non-Muslims in Muslim countries, but his reasons here are problematic.
Having just received my own review copy of A New Literary History of America from Harvard University Press, I was intrigued to read Mark Bauerlein and Priscilla Ward’s email exchange on the book over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Unsurprisingly, the book does not just focus on literature, but also on history, politics, popular culture and art in a series of discrete position papers arranged chronologically. No metanarrative here—except one, of course: what Bauerlein calls “a drama of multiculturalist emergence.”
Indeed, what struck me most in reading the exchange and in flipping through the book was that this is not a new literary history at all. It is simply a reification (to borrow that popular Marxist term) of what has long been assumed about the nature of history in general and American literary history in particular in the humanities. That Ward often encourages Bauerlein to write his own literary history on the figures and topics that have long been excluded while still claiming that the Harvard history is new and fresh is more than a little ironic.
Read the whole exchange here, in which in addition to his intelligence, Professor Bauerlein should be commended for his generous civility.
In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Xenia Markowitt, director of the Center for Women and Gender at Dartmouth College, answers the question: “Is It My Job to Teach the Revolution?” (Subscription required. The full article, however, is also available at Markowitt’s blog) Her answer, which is very telling, is both ‘”Yes” and “No.”
As the director of a women’s center, it is her job, she argues, to be an advocate for, and encourage other women to advocate for, women’s rights on campus—to “teach the revolution.” Thus, she feels compelled to support efforts to “stick it to the Man” even if she cannot help organize demonstrations, sit-ins, and so forth.
Indeed, she cannot help organize such activities because, as she frankly admits, she also “is the Man,” which, needless to say, she finds rather awkward. “Many of us,” Markowitt writes, “have positions that simultaneously require us to represent the institution as one of its officers, even as we hope to use our positions to agitate for social change.”
While this may be, it seems to me that the real source of Markowitt’s awkwardness is not so much that she must “agitate for social change” and “represent the institution” at the same time but that the revolution for which she continues to advocate has already happened—at least in a paradigm shift sort of sense.
The above tagline is from the new “Futurisms” blog over at The New Atlantis. If you haven’t had the chance to check it out, I highly recommend you do. The blog engages techies who reduce human cognition to the material processes of the brain and who hope to harness technology to transform human nature, among other Faustian dreams.
While these “futurists” are a fringe group, the founders of the blog (Charles T. Rubin and Ari N. Schulman), argue that they are nevertheless worth debunking because they “are not unconnected to the central aims of the modern scientific project.” While I think the phrase “central aims of the modern scientific project” is a bit too general, they are certainly connected to a reductive materialism that characterizes a number of current scientific projects, including the Daniel Dennett camp of the cognitive sciences, which is still somehow very much the fashion in certain circles.
In English, for example, there are a number of literary critics who have attempted to “reread” humanity, to borrow Futurisms’ tagline, in great works of literature by reducing every emotion expressed in literary texts to certain capacities of the brain, which, in turn, are said to have been formed by that nebulous but convenient god-like force of social evolution. Not too long ago I heard a visiting literary scholar explain things such as love and justice in terms of the evolution of empathy. The care one feels for another, it was posited, was developed in packs of Neanderthals who learned that mutual aide led to increased individual benefits. Among numerous other things, I was struck by this “selfish” definition of love, which seemed to me, and still seems to me, to be very different from the sort of love depicted in most great works of literature, which in its idealized form is almost always self-sacrificial. As is all too often the case, efforts to “reengineer” or “reread” humanity turn out to be efforts to destroy what is distinctly human about it.
Anyway, by all means check out “Futurisms.” And speaking of all things human, be sure to check out Salvo‘s interview with First Things contributor and blogger Wesley J.
Poet and translator Sarah Ruden will no longer publish with Yale University Press following its decision to remove the controversial Danish images—and all other images—of Muhammad from Klausen’s The Cartoons That Shook the World, and in a letter to the editors of The New Criterion, she calls other Yale authors to do the same. Her reason is that Yale violated a “crucial relationship of trust with an author’s mind and work,” and cannot, therefore, be trusted to deal with integrity in the future.
I think this is a fair and valid reason. Indeed, I think that conservatives (in particular, religious conservatives) need to be careful that our protests of Yale’s decision (if there are any further protests) do not have the appearance of being motivated by sour grapes—that is, that we appear to want Yale to publish the images of Muhammed, which were offensive to come conservative Muslims, simply because the American academy has disparaged both conservative thought and orthodox Judeo-Christian beliefs and values in recent years.
No doubt, Yale’s action in this case is inconsistent, but the issues of free speech and academic integrity are indeed the issues at stake here.
Over at Public Discourse, Matthew J. Milliner has written one of the best brief articles on conservatism and the arts that I have read in some time:
To familiarize oneself with contemporary conservative ideas and publications often means choosing culture wars over culture. Conservatives are practiced in lionizing the classics and lamenting the decline of Western culture, but should one wish to fully engage the culture of our time, a Leftward drift is difficult to resist. For example, the editor of a successful journal devoted to religion and the arts, Image, recently announced his need to “walk away from the conservative movement,” for he found the “imposed abstractions” of contemporary conservatism less than conducive to the sponsorship of poetry, art and fiction. While I take issue with his decision, I admit it is understandable, for the arts and contemporary conservatism don’t quite go hand in hand. There are, of course, exceptions. The New Criterion has, since 1982, been devoted to challenging the fact that “the Left defined the only possible standard of enlightenment in matters having to do with art and culture.” But, to my knowledge, The New Criterion never aimed to be the sole enterprise in this regard. As the arts rarely attain more than token coverage in conservative journals and forums, The New Criterion—passionately despised by the Left when not ignored—often seems to go it alone.
Conservatism’s less than energized attention to the arts is, to be sure, understandable. Sifting the wheat from the endless fields of present-day cultural chaff is a herculean chore, and appears a luxury considering the urgent issues that rightly occupy the conservative mind. Does one really expect a honed pro-life advocate to put down her pen mid-argument to embark on a pleasant afternoon gallery stroll? Likewise, should a disciplined poet, lost in contemplative gaze, interrupt a potentially fruitful reverie for a primer on the current state of bioethics? Perhaps not, but should conservatism wish to retain its current adherents and attract new ones, attention to the arts may not be a choice, but a mandate—for patronage of culture, rightfully pursued, recalls for conservatives just what it is they hope to defend.
Perhaps, says David E. Anderson in an interesting review essay on a number of recent books of criticism on the sacramental element in poetry.
The new issue of Poetry Magazine is dedicated to two new “movements” in American poetry: Flarf and Conceptual Writing. I use quotation marks around the word movements because I think the word gimmick is more accurate. Unfortunately, I can’t use the word gimmick. You see, “I” don’t really exist in the strict sense of the word. Words are the software to the hardware of my brain. “I” don’t think. “I” don’t create. Ergo, “I” don’t exist. Instead, “I” am made of the words that other people, who have somehow escaped the cave—blasted technocrats!—have coined. All “I” can do is use quotation marks to let “people” know that “I” am not happy about it. If only I could be like Flarf poets, who accept their imprisonment with such childlike (but also heroic!) giddiness. They are so lucky.
And what is Flarf, you ask? Well, as far as I can tell, it is the use of already formulated, often bizarre, awkward or childish phrases found online to create a poem with as little conscious direction (and concern for aesthetics) as possible–a sort of automatic, kitsch, electronic collage, if you will. According to Kenneth Goldsmith:
Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we’re delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?
Language, of course, is not just matter. It always says something as well, and there is always an “I” who is doing the saying, no matter how fractured or limited that “I” might be. And what Flarf says, according to Goldman, is that there is no stable “I”:
Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well. Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seems to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean. Disposability, fluidity, and recycling: there’s a sense that these words aren’t meant for forever.
Language, the world, and the self are in constant flux. This is nothing new. And, as numerous critics have noted over the years, it is a self-defeating statement. The very enunciation that the world and the self are in flux implies a fixed position.
Flarf poets, however, at least according to Goldsmith, seem happy to ignore to this fact. And why is that? I am not sure. However, I wonder if it has something do with the fact that if you imagine that you are not a fixed point on a line, it is easier to maintain the fantasy that life is but a series of discrete moments of pleasure and pain. We are not responsible adults anymore who one day must answer to our maker. We are children playing on a playground, caked in snot and sand. In this sense, I think Flarf is a pretty faithful expression of the bareness of Western philosophical materialism.
Yet, there is also an element of tacit acknowledgment in some Flarf poems that modern life is paltry, superficial and painful. In these poems, there is an element of regret that there is not more to life than this. In the poem, “Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas”, Nada Gorden, for example, expresses a childlike desire to escape the violence she finds in the world around her. The escape she offers in the poem, however, is a sort of limp humor. She ends the poem: Unicorn believers don’t declare fatwas. and you know that’s groovy baby!
So worry about something more important
like getting hit in a collision between
a comet being ridden by Elvis, and Hitler
riding a Unicorn. It’s a psychedelic unicorn light show
Unicorn believers don’t declare fatwas.
and you know that’s groovy baby!
It’s as if she is saying ignorance is bliss, which, of course, it often is, even if it is also always far from noble.
One of the tenets of deconstruction is that all texts resist closure. There is always more than one meaning to a text.
There is a kernel of truth in this. Because of our finite nature, there are certain things that human language cannot express, and because our nature is further limited by the effects of sin, our use of language is often imperfect. Furthermore, in literature, novelists and poets will often make use of ambiguity to express more than one thing in the same utterance, which, in turn, represents our complex experience of the world.
The problem of course is that post-structuralist apologists have raised the absence of closure to the status of some sort of epistemological absolute. This puts them in the awkward position of claiming that the sole closure is the absence of closure. If you mention this to a member of the post-structuralist priesthood, they are likely to mumble something about aporias thinking that this gets them off the hook, which, of course, it does not.
Over at the National Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, Martin Earl offers an interesting ethical critique of this deconstructive tenet. Whimsically comparing the rise of deconstruction with the rise of digital cameras, Earl argues that one of the goals of deconstruction was to liberate the reader from the supposed tyranny of the author:
There has been some discussion here on First Thoughs on the use of the term anti-abortion instead of pro-life in the mainstream media to refer to the view that abortion is murder. Terms are important. However, while Ryan Sayre Patrico and Nicholas Frankovich disagree as to whether we should fight the term anti-abortion or not, overall, those opposed to abortion have done a good job pushing the media to use its self-defined designation to refer to its position.
I am not so sure this is the case with respect to the issue of gay rights. Here, gays and lesbians have largely defined the terms of the argument. Take the terms gay and lesbian themselves, for example. These are almost unquestioningly used today to refer to particular categories of people. They make the tacit argument that someone who engages in homosexual relations is a different kind of person from those who engage in heterosexual relations. R. V. Young rightly argues that this is a distinctly twentieth century meaning of the term. However, alternative terms have rarely been
proposed, and none have stuck. Another example is the term homophobia. While it is a mental health term that should be used to denote an irrational fear of homosexuals, it is used by gay activists, as Chris Kempling argues in his fascinating article at the Catholic Education Resource Center, to refer to “the unwillingness to approve of homosexuality.” Kempling continues: “Even toleration without approval is defined as homophobic. So if you have a moral objection to homosexuality, you are ‘mentally ill’ and require re-education.”
One of the reasons that opponents of abortion have developed terms to refer to their own position is that it is a battle over innocent lives, and can be understood as following the divine command to protect the poor and the helpless. This is not the case in opposing those who engage in homosexual activity. Yet, as Kempling goes on to point out, gay activists are increasingly focusing on “re-educating children in public schools.” And Carson Holloway argues in today’s “On the Square” piece that the success of the same-sex
marriage movement would constitute a “complete repudiation not only of the traditional definition of marriage, but of the social authority of tradition as such.”
While still showing respect to all people as beings created in the image of God, to what extent should those who view homosexual relations as wrong and harmful, develop alternative terms to refer to those who engage in such relations and to the issues surrounding so-called gay rights? For example, to what extent should we use the phrase “men who engage in homosexual relations,” or some much more concise phrase, instead of the term gay or homosexual? What other terms or arguments should be redefined?
Perhaps this is overkill on the poetry, but I think that Stephen Burt’s recent article in the Boston Review is interesting given the recent discussion of poetry here at First Thoughts. For Burt, the days of “slippery, digressive, polyvocalic, creators of overlapping, colorful fragments” are numbered. The “new thing” in poetry, he writes, will not so much be in narrative but in a renewed preoccupation with objects: “The new poetry, the new thing, seeks, as Williams did, well-made, attentive, unornamented things. It is equally at home (as he was) in portraits and still lifes, in epigram and quoted speech; and it is at home (as he was not) in articulating sometimes harsh judgments, and in casting backward looks. The new poets pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism—fidelity to a material and social world.”
I’m not so sure about this. I think the poet Henry Gould is right when he says with respect to Burt that “the framework seems to be, again, a focus on the pendulum of style.” And while I am not sure that Gould is right to associate this preoccupation with style with the puritan poet Edward Taylor and the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, he goes on to write: “The thing I keep coming back to is the historical aspect of Christianity . . . the absolute local “thingness” of the Incarnation . . . & how the Eastern Orthodox concept of “divinization” somehow echoes, yet corrects & resolves the Faustian egoism of Western Renaissance-Romantic consciousness (precisely because that divinization is dependent on the unique history—the abject-glorious historical actuality—of Incarnation).”
This made me think of the recent poetry of Scott Cairns whose contemplation of the material world in his poems is a form of meditating on the expression of God’s character in creation, however muted by sin.
Joe asks if the popularity of Billy Collins’ audio recordings is good for poetry. I am no poet-in-residence at First Things, but I would like to answer a revised version of Joe’s question: Is Billy Collins’ popularity itself good for poetry? My answer: “Yes.”
Leaving the issue of talent aside for the moment, one of the reasons Billy Collins is so popular is that he writes for a general rather than specialized audience. Like Wordsworth, Collins understands the poet to be “a man speaking to men” rather than a poet speaking to (aspiring or accomplished) poets. Wordsworth’s definition of a poet as “a man speaking to men” is, I think, an apt description of the modus operandi of some of the best poets in English, past and present. This does not mean that these poets write for a general audience alone. To state the obvious, there are a number of levels of significance and a good deal of formal innovation in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example, or in Frost’s lyrics. Specialized knowledge, however, is not required to enjoy these poems.
While Collins’ poems sometime lack multiple levels of significance or formal play, which for me at least, can make him a bit boring on occasion, this is preferable to poets who seem to be interested in nothing but formal play or multiple levels of signification. In such cases, the result is often a poem that is as predictable as Collins’ (albeit in its own “innovative” way) without the initial surface interest. Such poems, it seems to me, are often written for poets alone (and perhaps with the purpose of securing a teaching post alone), and while they are sometimes treated as being of greater literary value than Collins’ poems because of their supposed technical innovation, I think the best poems are both accessible and innovative, both written for the general reader and the aficionado, at the same time.
Collins is good for poetry to the extent that he reminds us—in a roundabout sort of way—that poetry should serve a certain public good (whether that good is to provide pleasure or to challenge accepted beliefs), and that this good does not have to come at the expense of formal innovation (even if it perhaps sometimes does in Collins’ case).