Dispatches | January 18, 2011
Le Mot Juste (by Austin Segrest)
So what if a journal misprints your precious little poem? So what if you caught it in the proofs, they said they’d change it, but failed to? It’s just a word, a letter, a bit of punctuation. What’s really lost? Even established journals are often run by a handful of unpaid hands. Learn the art of losing. Heck, back in the Renaissance spelling wasn’t even standardized. Any number of little folio “errors” are inevitable, yet you don’t hear people complaining about Shakespeare sounding broken. Make error your ally. Invite her over more. For centuries, poetry wasn’t even written down. Mistakes are communal, a kind of collaboration. Maybe the great poets don’t make, they mistake. Sloppy editorial practices are a trade-off for the widening avenues of publishing. And more opportunity for poetry is always good. Don’t get your panties in a wad over mere symbol; that’s not really your poem, which lives inside you, manifested on the breath, always changing. And is it ever even yours?
I’m imagining Dean Young, that purveyor of radical wildness in poetry, telling me this as I fume over my injury. You gotta let go, man. Embrace the recklessness. Unintentionality 101. So he tells us all in his new book, a poetry manifesto, The Art of Recklessness (which is also discussed here). I imagine him upping the ante of Bishop’s inevitable, ironic acceptance in “One Art,” and actually, actively encouraging more disaster.
After all, there are books aplenty saying poetry is hard work, an instrument that takes years of sweat to even begin to understand, not to mention master. I have to admit, it can start to sound like indoctrination. Hence, Young denigrates the conventionally virtuous image, the ideal, of pained Flaubert sweating out le mot juste on his couch. “Poetry is not a discipline” is one of Young’s refrains (he provides a list of wilder metaphors for what it is: “a hunger, a revolt…”) – also, that children, before any training whatsoever, are pure poets.
Thanks especially to the legacy of the New Critics, it can sometimes seem that the ideal poet is a fastidious, perfectionist nit-picker, worrying herself to death over a syllable. Or Snodgrass, in “Heart’s Needle,” where the landscape itself becomes eclipsed by the difficulty: “like broken lines / of verses I can’t make.”
But let’s not lose the play to the work, Young urges, in effect. Let’s not forget the rule-breakers and rebels, the insolence and abandon of the bards: Milton’s Satan, rock-stars like Rimbaud, Surrealists, John Ashbery. Let’s not forget the innovative, self-conscious distortions of the visual arts, the absurd, the French!
Young is all about opening opportunities for the imagination to play. Practicing what he preaches, his essay sprawls! Exclamations (infectiously) fly! He misquotes (as surely did the Romantics in their manifestos, if you’re going to fact-check!). For example, with apropos recklessness, Young diagnoses (with apology) the squeamishness of those painstaking mid-century big guns, by misquoting one of the more famous lines of our time from Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” He writes, “My mind is not right.” Neither is the line, as it turns out, but who cares? Maybe he does it on purpose, a little act of vandalism upon the monolith of the canon. Anyway, what’s an extra word, an extra syllable? Right, wrong, correct, incorrect—poetry isn’t a standardized test. It seems to be the point that poetry doesn’t need more fact-checkers.
On the other hand, it’s ironic that Young should misrepresent Lowell’s moment, which was itself, considering the climate, formally as well as politically, an act of recklessness. Reckless to admit to (or to adopt the persona of) being a voyeur, and recklessly rendered as bald, personal confession, coming seemingly out of nowhere. This was just the kind of frank, dressed-down voice that Lowell, as evidenced in his letters with Bishop, struggled after, trying to rid his lines of their hulking armor. It is a great moment, in my opinion, in American poetry, not unlike James Wright’s “I have wasted my life.” I think Young would get behind the unexpected nature of Lowell’s statement, which does not seem planned or overly intentional. It might well have surprised Lowell himself in the composition. But Young, perhaps, wants it a lot wilder, and asks us, in effect, not to rule out palpable revolution in terms of leaps and moves, or anarchical absurdity (though he expressly stops short of utter absurdity).
The book’s misquote does not sound, to my ear anyway, nearly as good as “My mind’s not right.” I noticed it immediately because the rhythm was off. The “is” makes it sound more wooden, forced, artificial (in one poem, Young mocks Lowell’s “aluminum snore”). My ear suffered a similar offence when an author, for his epigraph, made the only bigger blunder than using the first lines of Heaney’s far too famous and loaded “Digging”; which was that he misquoted them. So the page ran “…the squat pen rests, as snug as a gun,” instead of “…the squat pen rests, snug as a gun.” One little extra “as” and the conversational tone drops, you lose that fourth consecutive strong stress, coming so wonderfully off the medial caesura.
But listen to me betray my traditional training! I’ve fallen back to my nit-picking, critical ways!—so deeply ingrained in the study of poetry is this scratching after the value of precision. I can’t deny that poetry, like academia, at times seems over-run with don’ts and doubters, with overly critical, head-shaking deniers, with “blunders” and interdictions. By my nit-picking, am I not surreptitiously grasping for a grammar of exclusion?
Maybe the poet and blogger John Gallaher is right that Young’s book signals a movement, from the center of American poetics, toward fostering more openness and discovery. “Lately I’ve been more interested in surprise than in story; my own guidelines have changed. I’ll revise toward mystery more often,” admits Kim Addonizio in her recent book on writing poems, Ordinary Genius. As for me, I have my painstaking Flaubert stretches, but more and more I’m coming to see the good things that happen in moments when I free up somehow and go somewhere (spontaneously?) I didn’t know I was going.
Would it be possible to attain more discovery, to surprise myself more often if I operated with more deliberate recklessness? I’m tempted to try, and that’s a high recommendation for a book.
I once misread Young’s recklessness for restlessness. Now I happily embrace my mistake. Whether we proceed with intentional care or reckless abandon, we all of us suffer from restlessness, “repining restlessness,” as the country parson reminds us. This should keep us all trying any number of moves and strategies, going in fear of complacency.
Austin Segrest is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri and an intern at The Missouri Review.
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