Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Despite the world-weary tone of his poetry, it turns out that Rufo Quintavalle is in fact relatively young man (at least compared to me). Reading his poetry led me to look up Wallace Stevens, and to the ramblings below. This poem is from Quintavalle's pamphlet: (not sure when it was written, but if before the financial crash, it's prophetic):


The city is cold but somewhere figs
swell in an October sun

Today the huge idea of money stopped
but the force which makes money gather and burst,
which used to move through God
and some say will again,
will outlive money itself.

Because things are
they have a preference for life,
and we call good whatever lets them grow.

The final sentence of this poem is an assertion, to which we could respond with, "I agree" or "I disagree". But what have such statements to do with poetry? They belong to philosophy or science, don't they? Or newspapers. Taken on their own, statements like the final one in the poem above are in danger of being platitudes or homilies. But for me, the last sentence above works as poetry. I think this has something to do with it being part of a mini-world constructed by the language of the poem. In the first sentence we're presented with an image, or rather two contrasting images - the cold (therefore barren) city, and the warm, sunny elsewhere where figs are growing. Our reading of the next stanza is conditioned by that image, and modifies it, as it talks of a "force" and uses the word God, with all its associations. Coming after the first two, the meaning of final stanza is altered from what it would be if it were on its own; we agree with it, because it's true in the context of the poem's world.

Wallace Stevens is clearly an influence on Quintavalle; one of the poems in the pamphlet is a response to Stevens' poem 'The Planet on the Table'. It sent me back to re-read some of Stevens' late works. Stevens poetry is full of aphorisms and assertions: 'Poetry is the supreme fiction', 'It is an illusion that we were ever alive' etc. In his long philosophical poems, Stevens, rather than propounding any original philosophy, parodies and luxuriates in philosophical language - entertains us with it - so that when he presents us with an aphorism, like:

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.

we accept it, and we don't accept it at the same time. It seems 'right' in the context of the poem, but we're conscious that it is a poem, that we've entered that poem's constructed reality, and can't help at some level questioning whether that's really a statement about reality or not. The circularity of the logic in Stevens' long poems, the non-sequitirs, the impossibility, at times, of following the thread of argument; all that has directly influenced a poet like Ashbery, who seems to be continuing Stevens' project. Stevens also seems a major presence in post-modern poetry and langpo; given that he can be self-referential and playful and that he can put lines like these into a 'serious' philosophical poem:

At night an Arabian in my room
With his damned hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how,
Inscribes a primitive astronomy

Across the unscrawled fores the future casts
And throws his stars around the floor.

The half-dozen Oystercatcher press pamhplets I bought a while ago represent an amazing variety of poetry, all of which, with the possible excepton of Alistair Noon and Rufo Quintavalle, are well outside the mainstream. Which means what? I don't know what 'mainstream' means any more, but for sure, non-mainstream cannot be categorized and doesn't conform to any narrow definition.


Sam said...

If you're at all tempted to see what "mainstream" verse currently looks like, I suggest taking a peak at the winners of the Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition. (I'm sorry to say none of the pieces grabbed my attention).

John B-R said...

Nice post. Plenty to chew on. Two thoughts:

First: given the "linguistic turn" during c20, I think it's impossible to separate poetry/poetics/philosophy anymore. I mean, is there really a generic difference between Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Derrida and Stevens and Bob Perelman and Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian etc etc? I think, if one drops the "lyric necessities" of romanticism, and returns to the more capacious "definition" of poetry employed by, say, Lucretius, and, say Pope, the generic distinctions break down. Not to pick on the romantics: Coleridge was philosopher and poet, at the same time, as was, say Novalis ... (I'm reading v.3 of Poems for the Millennium, which proves for me at least that romanticism wasn't quite as "lyric I" as they taught us in school and in the New Criticism - Blake was less alone in his visionary weirdness than we knew ...)

Second, re you "I don't know what 'mainstream' means any more, but for sure, non-mainstream cannot be categorized and doesn't conform to any narrow definition.": Last nite I was reading Craig Dworkin's introductory essay in the vol. he edited, The Consequences of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics. He asserts that it is no longer possible for ANYONE to be able to talk about poetry with any kind of certain knowledge anymore. He notes that if one read 2-3 poetry books /day one might not be able to keep up with what SPD alone distributes, which is but a small fraction of all that is issued under the name of poetry (whether that names still signifies is another story). So rest easy: if you can't tell what's going on any more, neither can anyone else.

Alan Baker said...

Yes, the winner is a completely mediocre-but-harmless piece that could have been culled from any number of local poetry society magazines.

re: 'it is no longer possible for ANYONE to be able to talk about poetry with any kind of certain knowledge anymore' - wouldn't it be nice to think that meant the end of hierarches and orthodoxies. But (see above) we're still being told what poetry is (and therefore what it's not).

Sam said...

What got me is that none of the poems picked (neither the winners nor the commendations) seemed to bear any relation to non-mainstream writing. It being a competition organised by the Poetry Society, I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised, however...

Alan Baker said...

You're right. All the winning poems are of the same ilk. I've got no objection to people writing poetry like that, or reading it, in fact sometimes it's well-crafted and worthwhile stuff. But it's only a small part of contemporary work. Getting a major award from The Poetry Society (partly from public funds), it becomes 'mainstream'; it's what your average non-poetry-scene reader will be presented with as the best of today's poetry (maybe that's one definition of 'mainstream').

John B-R said...

"But (see above) we're still being told what poetry is (and therefore what it's not)."

Right. But now we KNOW those trying to spin us are OF NECESSITY (not just ideologically, tho of course still ideologically) full of shit.

Oh, and FCF 57 is dedicated to you. It's an attempt at poösophy (extinction of genres).