Men die every day: Poetry and value

This is a response to a negative review of Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems by August Kleinzahler, first published in Poetry April 2004, which I happened across while browsing the Poetry Foundation website.

I’ll leave Garrison Keillor for others to dissect. I’d rather talk about William Carlos Williams. Kleinzahler quotes the well known passage from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” that ends,

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Kleinzahler takes issue with the idea, writing, “A pretty sentiment, to be sure, but simply untrue, as anyone who has been to the supermarket or ballpark recently will concede. Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, … without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else.”

True—but that’s no answer to Williams. The poem does not say that not reading poetry is fatal. It says that “men die” for lack of what is found in poetry, which can just as appropriately be read as “some men” as “all men.” Not all who lack it die, though there is an argument, which I will explore in a moment, that everyone who lacks it dies to some extent. Nor is there a claim, as Kleinzahler infers, that “what is found there” can be found exclusively in poetry (and the other fine arts, to which he extends the poem’s intention).

I think a quite plausible case can be made for this much less universal claim, on at least three grounds. I’ll take the risk of glossing “what is found there” so as to make the argument. The preceding lines suggest that “what is found there” is synonymous or at least overlaps with “news / of something / that concerns you / and concerns many men.” Another gloss Williams provides is “the new,” or “the news” (he uses both phrases) which he explicitly contrasts with “what passes for the new.”

Poems, then, on Williams’ view bring us “news / of something / that concerns” us. Or, in Ezra Pound’s formulation (I assume Williams had this in mind as well), “news that stays news.” He is deliberately vague about that “something,” but let’s suppose that it’s the kind of wisdom or insight that many have claimed as one of poetry’s greatest gifts to the reader. (The phrase inevitably starts Biblical echoes; the “good news” of the gospel is news of spiritual salvation.) Wisdom or insight is always new(s); otherwise, it’s platitude and cliché. If poetry succeeds in instilling wisdom or inspiring insight it brings us something fresh, not the kind of anodyne ooze that Kleinzahler objects to in Keillor.

Now, this is exactly the argument from moral uplift combined with utilitarianism that Kleinzahler objects to, but for the moment I’m concerned only with the more limited claim that “men die every day” for lack of such insight. We can still debate whether that justifies the sort of evangelism that Keillor engages in and that Kleinzahler dislikes. So: is it true that “men die every day” for such a lack?

I think it’s indisputable, and as I said I think you can make the case on at least three grounds. One can argue that people suffer a metaphorical (“spiritual,” if you like) death from lack of insight, into themselves and others and the world. They become deadened to their own emotions, unwitting victims of their own psyches, incapable of connecting with their fellow human beings. This is a familiar theme in literature—it’s the gist of the conventional reading of Joyce’s story “The Dead,” for example—and, I would think, fairly uncontroversial. To the extent that this “death” is relative, it’s one we’re all susceptible to, and so we can read “men” as Kleinzahler does, to mean “all men.” But, to precisely the same extent, it is not literally “death” and so the claim loses some of its force.

But one can go further and argue that literal death also follows from the lack of such insight, although not for everyone. Both suicide, at least at times, and murder are among the more extreme consequences of a lack of insight, the inability to grasp the fully human in oneself and others, the human in its full connection to others, to the world. Here, but really throughout, I’m thinking of empathy as a special case of what I’ve been calling insight. I would extend the idea of murder to include murder on a grand scale, otherwise known as war, and the willful bureaucratic obtuseness it depends upon to thrive, antithetical to “what is found” in “despised poems.”

Finally, there is an argument to be made that part of “what is found there,” in “despised poems,” is the patience required to read, understand and appreciate them. This patience is, perhaps, a special form of empathy, of listening, of attention, which also figures by its absence in the deaths described above.

The argument, then, is that people do die, metaphorically and literally, “for lack of what is found” in poems, but this does not entail either that all people who lack it die, nor that it is to be found exclusively in poetry or the fine arts generally. (Some people find it in carpentry, others in cooking, baseball, church work, activism. Some few even find it in religion.)

This leaves the larger argument about whether poems have a utilitarian value. It would be easy to conclude from what I’ve said so far that they do, and furthermore that a campaign of moral uplift through poetry, to spread the “good news,” is desirable, even necessary. I don’t think that such a conclusion is warranted, but the reason I don’t has more to do with the dichotomy Kleinzahler proposes, between “useful” and “useless,” than it does with what I think about the value of poetry.

Kleinzahler, for polemical purposes, posits a radical distinction between a utilitarian view of poetry and his view. He writes, “art’s exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console.” He’s being provocative, of course, both in the insistence on the dichotomy and in the choice of the word “entertain,” with its connotations of shallowness, vapidity, impermanence and so on.

But the dichotomy can’t be sustained, as he implicitly acknowledges almost immediately: good art, he maintains, citing Melville and Bach, is “more complexly entertaining and satisfying, but only for those who can appreciate the difference, and they are the minority.” Notice the addition of “satisfying,” a truly capacious qualifier, as is “complexly.” Surely consolation, nourishment and a host of other goods are here being smuggled back in to our conception of art’s value, and the polemical force of the verb “entertain” is undercut. Part of what sets Kleinzahler’s elite minority apart from the herd is its ability to appreciate, for instance, the tragic as well as the banal happy ending, ambiguity as well as certainty, incompletion as well as closure—in short, a whole series of perspectives that argue for a richer, deeper, fuller, more complex understanding of ourselves and our lives.

Now, it may well be the case that such understanding is, in the context of appreciating the arts, nothing more than sauce to enhance the “entertainment”—the aesthetic pleasure, to use a somewhat less loaded term (or at least one loaded with different ammunition). But to pretend that these pleasures are divorced from the value of such insight elsewhere in our lives is absurd. The exact nature of the connection is not reducible to simplistic equations or bromides, but that does not mean it’s nonexistent. Kleinzahler, I’m tempted to say, makes the same mistake as those he criticizes, simply drawing the opposite conclusion from the identical faulty premise: the “nourishment” we seek in poetry is nothing more than Hallmark sentimentality—or, in more sinister versions, political propaganda—but where Keillor (according to Kleinzahler) would have us all fatten up on such spiritual junk food, Kleinzahler would have us starve in the belief that such is the only food available.

It’s tempting to quote Robert Frost here: “the work is play for mortal stakes” (“Two Tramps in Mud Time”), because he’s so clear about the unity of the opposites Kleinzahler would keep separate. But I suspect Kleinzahler might not be too impressed with Frost as an example. Maybe he’d prefer William Gass—who once remarked, if my memory isn’t playing tricks on me, “Civilization exists so that parasites like me can diddle away in corners.” No one, I think, can accuse Gass of being utilitarian in his thinking about the value of literature. Yet in “In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life,” Gass writes that “the object of every novel is its reader.” By “object” Gass means the metaphorical significance of the novel as a whole: “we see our own life in the same fashion Lowry [in Under the Volcano] has fashioned Firmin’s [the protagonist]; what we take away and keep is the novel’s figurative form” (70). He asserts that such a novel is “difficult to endure” not because it asserts some abstract truth, but because it “shows me my life in a figure: it compels me to stare at my toes. I live in a suburb of Cincinatti, yet [the novel] is so skillfully constructed that its image fits me” (71).  After a detailed and brilliant exposition of this metaphorical relation between the novel and its reader, Gass concludes with, of all things, Rilke’s admonition in “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “There is no place / That does not see you. You must change your life.” There could hardly be a starker assertion of the necessary relation between art’s aesthetic and “moral” dimensions, if we understand “moral” to mean, not adherence to an imposed set of values, but one’s essential responsibility to oneself. The surprise of Rilke’s injunction is reminiscent of the shock of discovering, at the end of Italo Calvino’s exuberantly playful novel (if that’s what you call it) Invisible Cities, the blatantly moral conclusion in response to the ever expanding hell of modern life: “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space” (165). Gass, Rilke, Calvino, and Williams all argue for the inseparability of what Kleinzahler calls “entertainment” (“complexly entertaining and satisfying” entertainment, to be sure) and the essentially moral value he would exclude.

I don’t completely disagree with Kleinzahler. Poetry, the arts generally, must be playful, free of purely instrumental concerns, or they risk degenerating into sentimentalism, propaganda, and so on. But, pace Kleinzahler, this is not an argument for “art for art’s sake,” a decadent, if you’ll pardon the term, view of art that reflexively takes up its polemical position over against the idea of “commitment” in art. Both are, in my opinion, attenuated and largely miss the point. They each accept, from opposite sides, the idea of a disconnect between the concern with the medium as such, or form, and the concern with that which the medium is presumed to mediate: the viewer’s relationship to the object, let’s say. Some poems are more explicitly referential, very obviously concerned with, for example, politics or injustice, or even the miniature victories and defeats of everyday life, while others are almost entirely self-referential, concerned with nothing but language itself. But both these polemical positions presume a fundamental distinction between the two sorts of concern, and fail to understand both how political—perhaps “ethical” or “moral” is a better term, but perhaps not—a concern with language is, and how much the most overtly political or referential work depends for its success on sustained attention to form. This is why my wife, an abstract painter, could at one of the most minimalist phases in her career, when she was painting monochromatic grids, describe her work as “didactic” (a description I am still quite tickled by, because it is at once so unexpected and so apt). Charles Hartman has a nice commentary on some of these issues in his poem “Honeydew.” They are more fully developed in his book Jazz Text: Voice and Improvisation in Poetry, Jazz, and Song (PDF). Among other things, the second-to-last chapter presents a detailed appreciation of a deeply political poem by Philip Levine which shows how the poem’s political force derives importantly from its form, not simply from its “content.” The final chapter then brilliantly fuses a discussion of the appropriation of jazz by white American culture—a concern Hartman neither accepts at face value nor dismisses—with an equally insightful appreciation of the work of Jackson Mac Low. This is an incongruous juxtaposition. Mac Low’s work, or some of it anyway, can seem as far from topicality as possible, with its focus on experimental means of generating poems without the conscious intervention of the author. Yet Hartman shows how this work, too, has deeply political significance.

I think Williams is right about what is found in poetry, and about the dangers of its lack, and I think the conclusion follows that poetry has value: Not “entertainment value,” not “moral value,” not “utilitarian value,” but all of these and more. And if my own experience as a reader is any guide, we take one or the other or all of these from it as the mood strikes us, as the occasion requires.

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One thought on “Men die every day: Poetry and value

  1. The (in)human author and the (in)human characters – Book Reading Man

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