Thursday, February 5, 2009

berry v silliman - form over substance

"In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one's own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and of living within the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life, and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.

"The names poetry and marriage are given only to certain things, ... Poetry is made of words; it is expected to keep a certain fidelity to everyday speech and a certain fidelity to music... Poetry of the traditional formed sort, for instance, does not propose that its difficulties should be solved by skipping or forcing a rhyme or by mutilating syntax or by writing prose. Marriage does not invite one to solve one's quarrel with one's wife by marrying a more compliant woman. Certain limits, in short, are prescribed—imposed before the beginning.
Wendell Berry, "Poetry and Marriage" in Standing by Words. North Point, 1983. 201.

Berry and Silliman are different writers -- and I am no writer of any proximity yet it seems counter intuitive to approach something called "poetry" -- any writing reallly -- with the rigidity WB suggests. Never could I could pass as a writer should I have to adhere to Berry's rules. Not that I'm especially good at following rules but still, this is writing. Perhaps the very purpose of poetry -- or some -- is to be unmusical and lacking in fidelity to everyday speech and all other traditional conventions, the better to make a point. And who cares if the point so made is lost on you, the reader, if it meets the need of the writer? Why does anyone write? Perhaps WB, making his living as a writer, is constrained to follow a prescribed format? I have enjoyed much of WB's writing -- essays, poetry, fiction and non ... and while my writing is of no real interest to anyone else, the fact is I don't write for money. I don't write for you. I write for me. True, a comment or acknowledgement is welcome, and I, with millions others, like to think I might get good enough to be published and read and enjoyed, I know I'm more likley to win the lotto ... without buying a ticket. I might put out here in this largely anonymous space something I write but you are not required to read it. One man declaring certain rules must be follow? Poem Nazi... rather disappointing, really.

I have no illusionins: I am not a poet or writer of any sort. I write what I want to write the way I want to write it for much the same reason you might get up in the morning and pour a bowl of cereal. It's really no one's business if you have cereal or pizza, curry or ice cream for breakfast - you eat because you're hungry or maybe just becasue you think you're supposed to eat when you get up in the morning. I don't eat breakfast, but does that really make me any different than you? Who can say that what another writes is written properly or that it qualifies to be called poem or prose, memoir or fiction? There are rules for haiku and for sonnets but if I write a sonnet that doesn't comply does that mean it's not a poem?

I think Silliman has the right idea:

"5. Language is, first of all, a political question."
I am generally not political so this is stike one against me as a writer.

"20. Perhaps poetry is an activity and not a form at all. Would this definition satisfy Duncan?"
I wouldn't even start to begin to know --just not smart enough. Strike two. But I think it's both and neither

"37. Poetry is a specific form of behavior."
I've always had trouble behaving as expected so perhaps this another reason I'm not even a pretend poet. Strike three.

"57. He's content just to have other writers think of him as a poet."
I guess it depends on why you write in the first place ... if you sit down at 9 am to write poetry and stop at 5, and claim that space as a home office for tax purposes, perhaps you qualify as a poet but what is the quality of the writing? I am not, have never been thought of, as a poet. If you too don't think of me as a poet that is one thing we can agree on.

"61. Poetry, a state of emotion or intellect."
Statement or query? I agree. What brings one to occupy such places from where comes the instinct to write? Do you know where it is, how to find it? Maybe hte 9 to 5 poet can Google it ... What prompts one to look for such a place or do you, like me, just find yourself there? Also now I see how my intellect lacks. I'm out.

"73. A social definition of a successful poet might be anyone who has a substantial proportion of his or her work generally available, so that an interested reader can, without knowing the writer, grasp, in broad terms at least, the scope of the whole."
Nothing to concern myself with-- this definition clearly marks me as not.

Ron Silliman, "The China Notebook," in The Age of Huts, University of California Press 2007

1 comment:

brtom said...

You may be imposing a narrower sense of WB's "form" than he intends. At any rate, I need to take a broader view. But even this probably wouldn't rescue my stuff from his compost heap.

Form for him is a structure given by nature or (same thing?) long-standing cultural practice. That we're talking about Language Activity creates problems, since we'd have to recognize some differences among a naturally eroded creekbed, a bird's nest, a human dwelling place, and an act of human language.

Is Poetry a "certain thing" with "certain limits"? Yes, I think so. But while we might imagine that WB would draw those limits quite tightly around a particular language-territory, you, I, or Mr. Silliman would possibly claim a larger horizon (but not the Everything and Anything that bothers WB) just because WE CAN ... and want to ... and feel invited by Language itself to do so. We CAN do this with language in ways we can't with biology or geology or ... because Language itself (the actual form of language) allows and even encourages us to do so ...

i think

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