Quotation by Sabina Ivascu
Charles, the Therapist with a Dream Inside, got me thinking. He led me to an essay by Joan Houlihan criticizing Lyn Hejinian’s “Best American Poetry 2004”, which concerns one of my weaknesses: understanding the new, contemporary, avant garde, experimental poem. Call it what you will so you don’t get angry at me for using misnomers. There are truths in Hoolihan’s essay. Most, however, are more apparent than real. Houlihan quotes from two poems in the anthology to demonstrate that Hejinian has failed to pick the “best” poems of 2004. That, in effect, Hejinian has simply failed to define what “best” is. According to Houlihan the poems—many, many of the poems in the collection—the so-called “language poems” or “new writings” also fail to define themselves with sufficient grace to please her. Bottom line: Houlihan doesn’t know what these poems mean and she wants to. She desperately wants to know. And here Houlihan’s failure: since she is unable to know—something? what? what is it she so desperately seeks?—she turns on those that do know and ridicules them.
Perhaps there is a parallel, cult-like aura of inviolability protecting this new writing from critical inquiry: such writing, which verges on a kind of liturgy, comes with its own form of worship and its own tenets of faith. True believers do not question its methods; they accept its sacramental texts as the Word.
Now why won’t someone let Houlihan join in on the service? Houlihan’s disregard for the taste of others—hers is apparently all meat and potatoes—is disconcerting. Contrary to what she criticizes, it is she who comes across as the High Priestess of All Poetry. If the Priestess doesn’t understand it—if she hasn’t been invited to the New Language Prom—she is unable to consider the slight possibility that others have certain poetic values and taste. Is there nothing—nothing—at all of value that she can find in these poems? Not even a tiny word? A cool space? Houlihan fails the Wordsworth Test: she is unable to even consider that some poets—she is obviously not one of them—have to define the very taste by which they are to be judged. And here is where we must give Houlihan some slack: I don’t know whether the poems she questions meet the Wordsworth test. I don’t know that any do. I am not prepared to meet that task. I too struggle with some of those poems. Still I try not to let my limitations kill the taste of others, with a lot of salt, the kind you pour in open wounds.
One last thing. If so many people are writing this new, unintelligible poetry and so many reading it, and presumably liking it, shouldn’t we—the Non-Believers—at least step aside long enough to let poetic life take its course? There’s nothing really that new about this, about matters of taste, that is. Poetry comes and goes like traditional wind in sonnets. Let’s not try to bottle it and mark it neatly on a shelf. Come to think of it I’ll send Houlihan a subscription to Ron Silliman’s Blog. (He writes in tongues.)