Monday, November 23, 2009

Complexity Of Interpretation Is Not Optative Authorial Depth

For me, a timely piece on Wallace Stevens by that "King of Snark", William Logan.

(The prefaces here are my own subjective interpretations on the quotes that follow, in mind of the recent discussions on intent, fundamentalism, objectivity, and the reviewer's "job". I realize, and admire, that there are also many other ways to take Logan's words.)


On Robert Hilles' assessment of Chris Banks' (at the time) just-released Bonfires: "Rarely has a first book been this impressive"; and on the Globe & Mail's take on Tom Wayman, after the recent publication of High Speed Through Shoaling Water: "a contemporary 'Homer' " (he or she wasn't referring to the Simpsons, or to Canadian nationalism):

"It’s easy to underestimate this moment in American letters, when certain boundaries and stock notions about poetry were, in geological terms, erased almost overnight. Between 1909 (Personae) and 1923 (Harmonium), there was a tectonic shift in what a poem had to do to be called a poem."(Logan)


On the limits of technical antecedents and expectations when faced with a unique voice:

"In short, [Stevens'] poems are so strange, so unlikely, sometimes they don’t seem poems at all."(Logan)


On the fact that spiritual evolution has little, if anything, to do with a poet's worth:

"This is responsive observation coiled around casual racism (the black draftees are perhaps still absurd animals to him—his benevolent feelings seem provoked more by the draft)"(Logan) [italics in the original]


On the dangers of making premature cementlike canonical declaratives, pro or anti, -- or on making descriptive "objective" authoritative conclusions -- on recent publications:

"The poems are so peculiar, critics were a while catching up."(Logan)


On making a strong case for a poet even if he or she has written abysmal poems, or poems from abysmal stances (weak philosophy, in one of Logan's negative-side views of Stevens):

And on using comparisons with other poets appropriately:

"To love Stevens, you have to love his deformities and even his monstrosities, as you do the wretched, self-conscious lines in Whitman."(Logan)


On the forgiveness of those weaknesses in the case of a great poet (or a poet a reader or reviewer thinks has a chance at lasting value):

"The poems are diminished and even ruined by such oddities, but without the arterial energies they solicit and unleash, the better poems might be nothing. The license of exaggeration and exorbitance is the guilty evidence of the pressure of imagination elsewhere."(Logan)


On the unimaginative mistakes of later poets issueing from the same approaches from great forbears:

" "When this yokel comes maundering,/ Whetting his hacker” .... (The preposterousness of such lines has licensed a lot of freakish language since.)" (Logan)


On the checking of awed mystery that attends heady reviewers even when reviewing a specific poem, the latter reviewer giving it authoritative scope and depth where a (perhaps) stronger case and plaudit could be set down from a more "pedestrian" take on it:

"[Blackmur's] argument is unsatisfying in a number of ways. The poem isn’t nearly so mysterious."(Logan)


On not confusing the importance, exactitude, and heightened separateness of meaning with guessing the author's intention(s) through an affective fallacy, or through a wrong premise (consider Logan's discussion of the "loge" in this context):

"The astonishing thing is that Blackmur, as close to a genius as American criticism ever produced (excepting only Poe), gave up on meaning so easily"(Logan)


On sound (or any other device) when effectively deployed becoming the possible meaning where diction and/or syntax makes meaning difficult:

"No man writes phrases like “fubbed the girandoles” who doesn’t want to be taken as a bit of a dandy, an aesthete in yellow kid-gloves—but, unless he’s also a kook, he has something precise in mind. I’d quarrel with Blackmur that the words Stevens used in Harmonium (“diaphanes,” “pannicles,” “carked,” “ructive,” “cantilene,” “buffo,” “princox,” “funest”) were always the most exact or exacting available, but, even if so, words have an effect beyond their meaning."(Logan)

It's also a difficult topic in poetics. Does the effort justify the end? Each reader or reviewer has to make the call, alone.


I've included the following extended passage, because taken as is, or even with the rest of the essay, there are those who'll still see it as "snark". If that's the case, then Logan would be a waffler, or the intellectual equivalent of a manic-depressive, because he loves Stevens as much as most.

"Much of Stevens is tedious, refractory, pompous, or ponderous; even his masterpieces are full of bombast and puffery. As he got older, he fell into blank-verse philosophizing no less like boilerplate than the reams of legal documents that presumably issued from his office. He’s a poet whose words you want to get behind: the language is as much an obstacle as a pleasure. But, when you parse those phrases, when you go to the Palaz of Hoon and come back again, you’re often a little disappointed. The philosophy of his poems, the grand ones as well as the pleasingly trivial, are those of a freshman class in ontology, epistemology, or aesthetics. Stevens had a high opinion of his philosophical gifts—he was prickly and childish when a late lecture was rejected by the Review of Metaphysics. Eliot, who was a trained philosopher and possessed the subtlest mind among the moderns—perhaps the subtlest mind in all American poetry, if you exclude Melville—knew enough to leave the philosophy out, or to bury it deeply."(Logan)


The following is my highlight of the piece. I love it. I'm reminded of Stevens' "gloomy grammarians", and I think his wild wordplay was often a purposeful ploy to trip up those academics who pedantically stumbled and puzzled over reconciling wit and nonsense with "deep thots". Logan, though often showing humourous discrepancies between an author's lines and reach, hasn't much of a sense of play. And Stevens may be successfully playing him, too, at times self-satirizing philosophical overreach:

"The critical response to Stevens has itself so often been abstract, so full of critic’s legalese, it has made him more a great cloud of being than a man who at times played with words."(Logan)


On not trumpeting a solidified "vision", especially for poets contemporary or from the same clique or poetic school, or within a friendly relationship.

"Like Swinburne, like Hart Crane, like Ashbery, Stevens is reduced by explanation."(Logan)


On the assertion and inevitability of individual taste:

"If I prefer poems more complicated the more their effects are exposed (consider Eliot, or Lowell, or Hill—and think of Shakespeare), that is a preference armed as a prejudice."(Logan)


On a reviewer knowingly contradicting him- or herself if the context justifies it, or even if the reviewer's own mood is temporarily changed (see above: "the poems are diminished and even ruined by such oddities...."):

"It’s a pity that you have to wade through a great bog of minor work to get at poems that sharpen the responses of the imagination."(Logan)

On "oh my! more snark":

"The magnificence of Stevens comes at a cost, the same cost we pay for Whitman: logorrhea of an uncharming and embarrassing sort, absurd notions, passages too private with their own pleasure, tone-deafness, lofty ambitions insufficiently grounded, and gouts of gimcrack philosophy. The longer the poems, the more likely they were disfigured—even defeated—by these defects."(Logan)


On the curious fact that I don't see too many Canadian poets of the anecdotal lyric even attempting to review postmodernists:

"Stevens requires the condition of taste merely to begin, because he’s not well served by his weaknesses"(Logan)


On humility, when genuine and appropriate:

"But Stevens is so capacious a poet, he has room for my obtuseness."(Logan)


On evaluative audacity:

"[Stevens] remains one of our great poets."(Logan)

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