Showing posts with label Paul Celan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paul Celan. Show all posts

Sunday, April 29, 2012

With Paul Celan into the 21st Century with Pierre Joris & Nicole Peyrafitte

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Gary Sullivan ended his dissertation on humor & context the other day with what I would characterize as an imponderable: “How is Celan’s work read by those who don’t know who he was, his history?” Now Annie Finch sends an email to ratchet the issue of irony up one more notch:

Dear Ron,

the whole [Jennifer] Moxley discussion has been fascinating. if this inspires thought for your blog, I'd be interested to read your response. I think the poems I was recalling are in With Strings or if not, another recent book. I guess part of the question raised is, how much does the context of the writer's other work affect the irony that individual poems can retain?

"Charles Bernstein has written some poems that I would not be surprised to see in a book by X.J. Kennedy. Ron, can you imagine a time in which the context separating those two is lost, or is that taking the idea too far?"

Two more thoughts/questions:

Do you think poems that go too much the other way, that don't have enough irony, are just as vulnerable to being lost after their originary time is over as poems that depend too much on transitory irony?

Then there is the phenomenon of poems that are written with irony and STILL survive after the irony is long gone in most reader's minds. Examples: Frost's The Road Not Taken and Blake's Songs of Innocence. Where do these fit in?


I would suspect that one of the Bernstein poem’s Annie might be remembering is “The Boy Soprano”:

Daddy loves me this I know
Cause my granddad told me so
Though he beats me blue and black
That’s because I’m full of crap

My mommy she is ultra cool
Taught me the Bible’s golden rule
Don’t talk back, do what you’re told
Abject compliance is as good as gold

The teachers teach the grandest things
Tell how poetry’s words on wings
But wings are for Heaven, not for earth
Want my advice: hijack the hearse

Compare this with Kennedy’s “A Brat’s Reward”:

At the market Philbert Spicer
Peered into the bacon slicer –
Whiz! the wicked slicer sped
Back and forth across his head
Quickly shaving – What a shock! –
Fifty chips off Phil’s old block,
Stopping just above the eyebrows.
Phil’s not one of them thar highbrows.

Kennedy, poetry editor of the Paris Review in the 1960s betwixt Donald Hall & Tom Clark, is a long-time practitioner of light verse as well as poetry for children – the smoothness of his metrics here is an index of just how good at this he is. Considering that we’re discussing mutilation in the market place, it’s remarkable just how free “Reward” is of even the slightest hint of social comment. The only moment it shows up is at the very end – that distancing effect of slang in “them thar highbrows.”

Even if we were unaware of the Anna Bartlett Warner hymn – hard to envision in a world in which Google shows over 40,000 pages devoted to it & its variants* – on which Bernstein’s poem is based, there’s a depth of sarcasm in the writing that is impossible to erase over time. Even presuming we don’t recognize the allusion – a presumption basic to satire – this displacement of “Daddy’s” love to granddad’s word for verification & the references to family violence in the first stanza make it unmistakable. As does the use of the term “abject” in the second stanza. As does the “advice” of the final line. Even prosodically, the degree to which Bernstein pushes away from the seven-syllable line of the original twists the poem away from the harmonic closure of the 19th century lyrics toward a result whose dissonance – the degree to which it sounds “off” or “wrong” – underscores the connotative domain.

What we have are two poetries that have certain surface similarities, one of which is adamantly social & will remain so, even if many topical elements are drained away, the other of which is only incidentally (& possibly unknowingly) social. So while in theory the possibility of two poetries merging in such a way as to dissolve their original differences exists, in practice I think this is apt to happen only with much more parallel kinds of writing, the way the elliptical side of the mainstream (say, Jorie Graham’s work) shades over into aspects of post-avant writing (someone like Ann Lauterbach sits almost perfectly in the middle here, as do Forrest Gander & C. D. Wright). But not in work that is truly diverse, regardless of surface features.

Is it possible for poems to not have enough irony? My sense is no, in that I suspect that writing can incorporate an almost total spectrum of metalinguistic distancing effects, from no irony whatsoever (Denise Levertov) all the way to total irony (Joe Brainard). It is, however, possible for poems to use irony ineffectively, as Walter Conrad Arensberg does in “To Hasekawa.” That’s a different issue.

But as time passes, contexts fade. There are poems in which irony disappears only to reveal other strengths of the poem – that’s pretty much the situation with Blake. But other elements shift around as well. Just as Bernstein’s poem will continue to reveal a social structure regardless of whether we recognize Warner’s hymn, so too will the dark world envisioned by Paul Celan remain, whether or not the reader relates it to the holocaust:
the sleeplessy wandered-through breadland
casts up the life mountain.

From its crumb
you knead anew our names
which I, an eye
to yours on each finger,
probe for
a place, through which I
can wake myself toward you,
the bright
hungercandle in mouth.

Hungercandle (“Hungerkerze”) is not a term that is mistakable, any more than “mouth” can ever be softened without a pronoun. The bleakness of the situation could be Kampuchea, Babi Yar or the Balkans. What is not relieved, however, is the underlying sense of deprivation. Only in a world in which hunger & genocide were both abolished & forgotten could these lines appear to lose their sense of deprivation. Which I fear means that we are a long, long way from being able to test the ability of Celan’s work to operate without context.

Of the writers mentioned here, Jennifer Moxley is perhaps closest to Celan in her overall vision of humanity. Like him, she is on the low end of the irony spectrum. Neither has any interest in letting the reader escape the enveloping circumstance of the poem – like Celan, her poems may long for relief, but they seldom if ever offer any. That her works employ a neutral language, rather than, say, the high-torque neologisms of a Celan, is part of the analysis. Like Annie Finch, I’m fascinated by the reactions to her work. They underscore my own sense of its importance.

* Including a few that touch on its use by the Ku Klux Klan.