How Relevant Is the Author’s Biography?

CopperfieldThe Bookends article in the New York Times Book Section this week is titled, When We Read Fiction, How Relevant Is the Author’s Biography? If you’re not familiar with Bookends you can think of it as a Crossfire for Books and writing (or you could consider Crossfire as a Bookends for politics and government). I read Bookends regularly and often find the two arguments enlightening, but not always mutually exclusive. This week’s question, however, is an old concern of mine and since the article started right out referencing the New Criticism, I felt a strong need to absorb the two sides and make my own comments.

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Tequila makes her clothes fall off

I was reading the poems published in a journal I receive regularly and was disappointed that they seemed, for the most part, strained and almost silly:  I would say that the poet was trying too hard to be poetic and to write poems that are easily recognized as being poetical. There were, however, several example of non-standard poetry (very non-standard) that I enjoyed, if only for the form.

Now it should be understood that I spent most of my undergraduate and graduate education reading, analyzing, and discussing poetry (and drama later), so I am truly not adverse to the idea of a poem and secretly wish that poetry was more mainstream and available in this new century. Furthermore, I can take a volume of Keats or Donne or Ginsberg off the shelf and amaze myself that such powerful and often beautiful writing exists. But the current crop of ‘the typhoon of your kisses drips blood on my Post Toasties’ poets just aren’t doing it for me anymore. City Lights keeps my hopes up but some of the doggerel that gets published today makes me wonder.

What is going on?

Maybe poetry is spreading out and becoming more accessible outside of the literati and  prone to the same continuum of quality and intelligence as is the world of prose? Obviously there are novels written for simple entertainment:  bodice rippers, teen romances, formulaic westerns and science fiction, hard-boiled and fast-moving detectives, etc. These types of novels are appealing to read but we can expect them to have a short life and be replaced in our bookstores by newer titles that promise variety but more often are slightly stirred variations of all the titles that went before.

Is poetry evolving into this same model:  classics that have endured, contemporary examples that may show quality, and the rest which is targeted for the average reader seeking entertainment? I don’t know.

Paul Valéry defined the poet’s function and I agree (what do you think?):

A poet’s function … is not to experience the poetic state:  that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others. … The man of genius is the one who infuses genius into me.

Many people consider poetry a personal, cathartic expression:  the poet has such a level of experience and sentiment that the poet eases the pressure by creating a poem. The reader of the poem, then, is an observer of the poet’s condition. Valery doesn’t discount the poet’s condition, but he reverses the idea of a poem being cathartic, which wouldn’t even need a reader, to the idea of a poem being a way of conveying or sharing experience:  an “educational” experience. This seems consistent with my exposure to the mechanics of creating poetry:  some poets struggle with every line of the poem, every word; other poets write and rewrite the poem over and over in many different versions often with radically different variations. It’s the old inspiration vs. perspiration routine.

Writing poetry, despite the clichéd scenes in an early sixties movie, does not involve a garret, incense, or bongos, it is an artistic creation just like a symphony, an ivory statue, or a painting on the ceiling of a church; and like these other art forms, it is the artist’s way of getting the observer or reader to share in the same intense experience. It’s hard work and along the way the poet or painter may have a cathartic experience, but that is personal; the complete poem is turned over to the reader to be experienced.

Two things I notice about this view of the artist:  first, there is an element of intention and second, the goal is to have the reader essentially duplicate the experience and not to have the reader attach his own personal, extra-textual experiences onto the poem. So on one side we break with the New Critics and on the other we conform. Furthermore, with apologies to Roland Barthes, the author is once again important.

I like that:  but I’m just musing this fine afternoon and may go walk barefoot on my new carpet for a while …

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the state of poetry as it pertains to country music and overpriced greeting cards … no, I can’t do it … way too painful.

An aporia of vertiginous possibilities

To start out, I admit that I completed my training in Englanglit before Deconstruction was developed and accepted as a form of literary criticism; also, as an undergraduate M. H. Abrams was my god (although Frank Kermode was my go-to literary critic); and finally, as Deconstruction grew in popularity, Abrams was possibly its greatest detractor. In 1973 M. H. Abrams wrote a scathing essay that might have derailed the Deconstruction express if Jacques Derrida hadn’t been so cute (Abrams, M. H. “The Deconstructive Angel.” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (spring 1977): 425-38).

I don’t have a copy of that essay but I do have my well-worn copy of A Glossary of Literary Terms, edited for years by Abrams. Here is what the entry on Deconstruction says:

Deconstruction, as applied in criticism of literature, designates a theory and practice of reading which questions and claims to “subvert” or “undermine” the assumption that the system of language provides grounds that are adequate to establish boundaries, the coherence or unity, and the determinate meanings of a literary text. Typically, a reconstructive reading sets out to show that conflicting forces within the text itself serve to dissipate the seeming definiteness of its structure and meanings into an indefinite array of incompatible and undecidable possibilities.

Got that? But as Jacques Derrida developed his philosophy and theories concerning the logocentric world, it became easy for later proponents, especially Paul de Man in the United States, to co-opt the ideas, do a little tuning and reconfiguring, and develop a new form of literary criticism called Deconstruction. As I understand it, the American Deconstructionists expanding on the idea of the close reading of literature, which was one of the central concepts of New Criticism, and suggested the reading wasn’t close enough. The Glossary gives a good comparison between the two versions of a close reading:

New-critical explications of texts had undertaken to show that a great literary work, in the tight internal relations of its figurative and paradoxical meanings, constitutes a freestanding, bounded, and organic entity of multiplex yet determinate meanings. On the contrariety, a radically deconstructive close reading undertakes to show that a literary text lacks a “totalized” boundary that makes it an entity, much less an organic unity; also that the text, by play of internal counter-forces, disseminates into an indefinite range of self-conflicting significations.

Paul de Man suggested that the final outcome of a deconstructive reading is an aporia of “vertiginous possibilities.”

The idea that a text has no meaning, or rather that it has so many meanings that it is impossible to decide on a single meaning, seems to me a logical outcome of postmodernism. If you combine lack of meaning with close reading you get another ten or twenty years of quasi-original doctorate theses before it all begins to run together and the quest for a new theory of litcrit begins.

But be warned:  the evil offspring of this theory is the idea that everyone’s personal interpretation or opinion is equally valid.