Saturday, January 22, 2011

Robert Bly and the poetry of 1999

As guest editor of The Best American Poetry 1999, Robert Bly tells that the poems in the collection display many different kinds of heat. He says:

"Heat in itself has been disappearing for some years from our English. It is said that in a single day in the United States more words appear on computer screens than are secreted in all the books in the Library of Congress. But as these words stream across our screens, freed from doubt or elegance, we can see that computer verbiage has become the model of cool and empty language. I'm not making an original claim here; we all agree that the language of the chat rooms is empty. It's as if some worldwide force were trying to free us all from literary style, and is succeeding. Many contemporary writers persuade themselves it is good not to have inwardness, not to have intensity, not to engage layers of meaning, not to have pungent phrasings, not to allow the heat of that sort of language that springs from the fight between God and donkey. It's possible that the particular heat which we call style amounts to recognizing and remembering the flavor of the decade in which one became an adult. We more and more have English now no longer stung by the mood of an Oklahoma afternoon in the thirties, or the flavor of an Illinois dusk in the forties. Hardy's language we recognize to be blessedly imprisoned in the mood of Sussex in 1880. When the irreplaceable flavor of a given decade disappears, our language loses its vigor and becomes merely useful. Sven Birkerts, in his new book of essays Readings, points directly to the decline of intensity that results from the shift from the page to the screen. "We are losing our grip, collectively, on the logic of complex utterance, on syntax; we are abandoning the rhythmic, poetic undercurrents of expression." He suggests that "postmodern" merely means the destruction of all style. Postmodern novelists have fallen headfirst into this release from period style, producing novels that contain only the melancholy emptiness that follows from the longing to become universal. When language cools, it becomes a corpse.

"American poets are fighting against this cooling in several ingenious ways. Not all poets, of course. One group of poets who call themselves "Language" poets work very hard to drain all the meaning out of the words they use, and in this way resemble those eighteenth-century doctors who treated all problems by bleeding, occasionally failing to notice that the patient had died from loss of blood. All of us, poets, essayists, and fiction writers alike, are being pressured by example to remove flavor from our work, along with our idiosyncrasies. We are fighting a front-line action against the cooling of language..."

Bly's introduction was written 11 years ago, yet I suspect we have not been able to abandon the front-line position. Considering his observation that we are "...recognizing and remembering the flavor of the decade in which we became an adult," I know the reading which brought me to that decade, the sixties, stretched back to earlier times. I carry the influence of that Oklahoma afternoon in the thirties followed by eavesdropping outside the walk-up office where an idealistic detective was hired but never told the whole story. From South Pacific battles of the forties to the beats or post-apocalyptic predictions of the fifties, this is some of the language I absorbed.

I am not sure what all this means since, at the moment, I write for pleasure. There is no editor, no publisher, no one to bully me into using English in any way other than the one I know. The word "postmodern" confuses me. It didn't come up all that often in the newsroom at my first daily writing job where words were called copy and the demand for them was immediate and insistent. I hope language is regaining heat. Judging by the writers whose blogs I follow, I know there are subversive pockets, muy caliente, where it scorches.

21 comments:

Kass said...

I have to agree that most of the blogs I read alternate between layers of intensity and subtlety of meaning. They display all kinds of heat.

I've always been confused by post-modernism. Utne Reader tried to explain it to me years ago, but I don't remember a thing they said to this date, except that it was confusing and multi-defined. People who drop this description often drop the word 'paradigm' too.

Love Robert Bly and just about anything he says.

grrl + dog said...

the battle between God and donkey...

I love that.

And the draining of language to the point of only consonants in a texted word... ughh.

Erin in Morro Bay said...

We have the honour of using the language with the largest vocabulary of any on earth. What a shame that as years go by, we use fewer and fewer of those lovely words. Mr. Bly's essay is one of the greatest arguments for reading I've ever come across. Where else will we find that Sussex field of 1880, that Oklahoma afternoon or the chill of the ramparts atop a Danish castle so long ago? Literature keeps the language alive, but it must be read to do so. And now I'll step down from my librarian's soapbox.
Erin

Claire Beynon said...

'When language cools, it becomes a corpse.'

What a great line. (Robert Bly has a way of cutting to the quick, doesn't he?)

'Yes' to heat; to flaming words; 'yes' to intense, passionate language, to fervour, ferocity, flavour.

I, too, am confused by terms like 'post-modern', Marylinn (and Kass). Dare I say such terms seem irrelevant to me? Language is dynamic, a growing, living thing. It defies labeling. Resists it.

I like to think of words moving and living amongst us in such a way that they influence us and we influence them. Simple?! Well, yes and no. It amazes me how utterly available words are to us and yet how hard it can be to (to borrow your term from a previous post) 'wrap fingers around the right phrase.' Is this not true of any - every - relationship? The moment we try to categorize/hold fast to it, it wriggles out from beneath our grip and claims its autonomy and authority back?

(I think I've gone off on a tangent here. Sorry. . . Straight lines are difficult to come by these days.) L, C xo

Elisabeth said...

I agree with Robert Bly, up to a point, Marylinn, certainly I agree with the line about language which loses its heat becoming a corpse, but Marylinn, I fear he has not read as many blogs as you and I.

Perhaps in adolescent chat rooms, where the aim is to get a simple message across as fast as possible, maybe even sometimes in our comments on other people's posts where we aim to communicate quickly and effectively, there may be some neutering of language here but not in blogs posts such as yours.

You, like me, and many many others it seems to me throughout the blogosphere try hard to keep the heat, the ambiance, the experience of our lives and times in our words and in our writing.

Bly's thoughts here made me think too of a quote from Julian Barnes's novel Flaubert's Parrot. I think of this book and of Flaubert often when I hear talk of form and of style. Style relates to Bly's sense of heat. And style is evident in your writing all the time.

Barnes's version of Flaubert's ideas follow:
'Flaubert...believed in style; more than anyone. He worked doggedly for beauty, sonority, exactness; perfection - but never the monogrammed perfection of a writer like Wilde. Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought. The correct word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence are always ‘out there’ somewhere; the writer’s task is to locate them by whatever means he can...'

Marylinn Kelly said...

Kass - Either the past 11 years have brought back language that Bly found missing or we are very fortunate in the blogs we've read. At least with "paradigm," I have some notion of what they mean...post-modernism, not a clue. Glad you enjoy R.B.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Denise - I've always felt Mr. Bly had much to offer. And I don't think anyone should count chat rooms as places where writing occurs.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Erin - Stay as long as you like on your librarian's soapbox. You are most definitely among the front-line defenders. And thank you for noticing and saying what a strong, pro-reading essay this is. Of course. Your passion for keeping us smart and word-wise comes through with much heat.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Claire - Labeling always narrows, never expands. It reduces options and, as you say, takes what is animated and vibrant and makes it lifeless. Doesn't seem like a tangent to me, it seems completely relevant, illustrative. Straight lines? Please.

Vespersparrow said...

I'm afraid the 'democritization' of art in America, like every seven year old's being awarded a prize in soccer so that they need never feel failure, has harmed English a great deal. I think of it now as a two-or three-layered cake. The language of ads, chat rooms, texting is flat, tasteless--all the goodness has been leached out of it. Then there is a more heightened language of modest novels and the derivative poetry one can't help falling over, as it is everywhere and sounds remarkably similar.
Then there are those writers who struggle to find the exact word, the right phrase, and will sit by the hour until it's found (you know who you are!) and the right words, one's sense of style, includes multiplicities of meaning, richness of sound; in some way each word acts as a capsule to hold our deepest feelings. If one is going to write doggerel, one may catch the attention of the Reader of the Moment but like so much bubble wrap and excelsior that only holds a work of art from breakage and means nothing by itself, it will blow away. Those of us who love language and are in love with it, and ask serious questions and want deep, resonant answers, we will keep searching for the best words in the best order. Remember what Mark Twain said? "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. {I really must stop grinding my teeth!:)}

Marylinn Kelly said...

***Saturday night and I have run out of thoughts and words. Will respond in the morning. Thank you for your comments. To be continued...***

Laoch of Chicago said...

This was interesting. Thank you posting it.

Artist and Geek said...

This may just be a personal preference, but I still enjoy the language of earlier centuries more than contemporary literature. The vocabulary was more extensive and before the speed of media (TV and internet) people had more time to read. Not that there aren't eloquent blogs ;) or books today, but they read at a faster speed.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Elisabeth - Thank you. I am not what I would call good with the quick comment and need time, occasionally, to put my thoughts together. I like your excerpt, with style arising from subject. The more I think of it, the more mercurial this business of writing seems; if the wind is not favorable, will we locate those true words or suffer with the runners-up?

Marylinn Kelly said...

Melissa - The difference between lightning and a lightning bug...the almost-right word can haunt us, wake us up, reaching for something on which to scribble its preferable replacement. What Bly refers to as heat speaks the word "dance" to me, I imagine both refer to what is alive and in motion as opposed to inert. The best words in the best order...we know it is not an impossible dream for we see it happen. And giving up is not an option.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Laoch - You are welcome. And I will check in at your blog to be sure the weather has not treated you harshly. Quite a winter you are having.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Artist and Geek - I think you will find like minds here, both as to the language of literature and the joy of reading for pleasure, from a book, made of paper. Slow is a very acceptable speed.

Angella Lister said...

Thanks for sharing this fascinating, muscular piece of writing. I do think he's not entirely right about what's happening on computer screens these days. Some of the most exciting writing I encounter is happening on blogs, yours included. So perhaps we are post post modern now. The story has changed again.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Angella - Thank you. Post post-modern, at least we will be off in our own territory without unfathomable models to emulate. I, too, think the 11 years between Bly's essay and now have either allowed or encouraged writing on the internet to develop his missing heat. Being a bit of a word nerd becomes more fun every day.

T. Clear said...

As in so much poetry being published these days, there's an overwhelming detachment with the world at hand. Perhaps this is a survival mechanism in an increasingly confounding universe.

Marylinn Kelly said...

T - That makes sense, not simply a cooling of the language but a reflection of what is. Is heat an antidote for what baffles us, a way to strengthen our connection to each other in the midst of a world from which we feel cut off?