Tag Archives: Reader reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on Amazon.com

Get poetry out of the ivory tower and give it back to poets

Elephant from a 15th c. bestiary (The Royal Library of Denmark)

Speculative representation of an elephant from clues in 15th century England … or … Academic interpretation of modern poetry in English, c. 2010

… ‘But, censorship aside — why does the academic infestation and degradation of poetry bother you so much?’ I haven’t yet replied to the friend who asked me that after reading the last three posts on this blog.

I could answer in two parts: first, that I suppose the fault lies partly with me. I’ve never given up a childhood glimmer of intuition in close sympathy with Mme. de Staël’s definition of poetry, c.1800, as ‘a momentary possession of all that is sought by our soul’. … Alright, I was a geeky, old-fashioned child who should have known better, having been born post-modern like you, readers – known that Modernism was about irreversible repudiation, disenchantment and disillusion, with no room for exaltation through the sublime.

For the second part, I might say: for the same reason I’d put the Kama Sutra near the top of my list of the dullest books ever printed.

What? that hallowed sex bible of the ancient Indians? is what I expect my friend to shriek. Yes, that one, which has never lived up to its billing, for me. (Or possibly the Indologist A.L. Basham, who said that ‘The Indian passion for classification […] led to the development of rather pedantic schools on […] sexual relations.’) I’ve found instructions for fiddling with the innards of personal computers a bigger turn-on than the venerable do-it-yourselves manual for the inculcation of lust that presumes mechanical contortions and not emotional and mental electrification to be the erotic gift that keeps on giving.

To see what that has to do with modern poetry, just close your eyes and imagine: your limbs are sweetly intertwined with your amour‘s, lips fine-tuned to the secret harmonies of lips. Suddenly, a voice that belongs to neither of you speaks. ‘Dopamine level’s rising nicely in both male and female subjects,’ it says. You look over your shoulder to see a large pair of tortoiseshell spectacles angled in your direction at first, then at the screen of a small computer, and then at another screen with a tangle of wires – with eek! …two of them ending in you and your partner.

‘Don’t pay any attention to me,’ a someone perched on the edge of your bed says in precise, forensic tones. ‘I’m just validating your trajectory from pre-consummation to full-on orgasmic attainment. So pleased your pheromones were gaining altitude fast enough that you didn’t notice me inserting my hormone calibrators into you!’ … If, defying all conceivable odds, you and your dear one do manage the uh, … usual culmination, … the all-knowing voice intones through heavy breathing a helpful summing-up with forward spin. ‘Excellent! Oxytocin and prolactin attaining high averages in both subjects. If you want my advice, kids, try and keep a lid on the prolactin – good for bonding initially, but you don’t want it getting too high as the rate of congress rises over the medium to long term. Can be a causative element in feelings of entrapment.’

… Perfectly ‘orrible, yes?
– except for those of you who surely depend on recipes for every meal you cook, and need food and wine critics to tell you what your own taste buds should, or could, if you would only let them. … What I’m saying is, I see reading poetry or experiencing any artistic creation as an intimate, highly personal exchange between an artist and every member of an audience. No intermediaries, thank you. Certainly not for poetry in English from roughly John Donne’s time.

I can think of nothing worse than having to digest the evisceration and explanation of a poem before I’ve had a chance to read it on my own — like many an unfortunate student of literature. Well, actually, I can. Infinitely more frightful would be the literary equivalent of a research sexologist straining to persuade me that if I would only consider this other position – I mean, interpretive possibility, I’d get over my instinctive aversion to those pinhead eyes too close together, … I mean of course, that shopping list for athlete’s foot remedies rearranged as an experimental Poem, and attain nirvana.

Literary assessments by a critic who is also a sensitive writer do not read like sexology. When Frank Kermode died a few weeks ago, the elegant NYT editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg had this to say:

In my years in academia, I had watched the study of literature go down any number of rabbit holes — chasing after theory and ideology and system. The very point of reading and talking about what we read seemed to have been lost in a kind of strangulating self-seriousness and alienation. That’s where Kermode came in.

He was drawn to the entanglements of the text and its rational mysteries rather than some scaffold of theory. In his many books and essays, he protected the reader’s freedom to be interested in whatever was interesting. That meant writing a prose that was never wholly academic and over the years became more and more open to the intersection of literature and the lives we’re actually living.

Could Kermode’s approach serve as the gold standard and guide to writing about poetry in the future? Can we ask academics to restrict their interpreting and grinding down to verse written in obscure, archaic forms of the language? Could they be persuaded to refrain from telling us what is and isn’t good poetry – or indeed a poem at all?

Asking those questions could be whistling in the wind, today. Poetry has been getting more and not less entangled with academia, as the lawyer-poet and critic David Orr has wickedly pointed out:

Partly as a result of the art form’s academic attachment, poets are increasingly knit together in complicated patterns based on mentorship, instruction or just basic university proximity. […] In “Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry,” for example, the critic Robert Archambeau smartly traces poets including Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass through their connection to Yvor Winters at Stanford. It’s a project that wouldn’t work (or at least, not quite so well) with Eliot or Frost or Williams, simply because times have changed.

That said, some of the inter­dependence in today’s poetry world isn’t a function of modernity but of insecurity, which is why you’ll occasionally find writers claiming to be “fourth-generation New York School poets,” as if latching on to your great-grandfather’s avant-garde were something to be proud of, rather than sheepish about. Presumably it feels better to be a poet carrying on the tradition of “X” than just a plain old poet talking to the void.

… But then there’s this internet, through which change – if enough people demand it – can come as unexpectedly as a sneeze. Nearly every publication of note in the old print world has been frantic to outdo the others, lauding Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom to the stratosphere and beyond. I’ve been monitoring the many very different reports on the book at Amazon.com – a few of them finely considered and beautifully written – by actual readers. Freedom’s standing with these reactors has fallen steadily over the weeks since its launch near the start of the month, bringing its average rating down by half a star to just three.

This was precisely what I wanted to see happen four years ago, after twice being misled by professional critics infecting each other with hype fever — steadily improving, credible, independent literary criticism.

So I’m optimistic about the net helping those of us who care to reclaim poetry for true poets, who want it left alone. I suspect that we’ll get the sexologists — no, I mean surely, poexologists, out of the way soon enough. ; )

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