Berfrois

Is the poem always a record of failure?

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From London Review of Books:

What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are – every single one of them – failures? The poet and critic Allen Grossman tells a story (there are many versions of the story) that goes like this: you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure. There’s an ‘undecidable conflict’ between the poet’s desire to make an alternative world and, as Grossman puts it, ‘resistance to alternative making inherent in the materials of which any world must be composed’. Writing about Hart Crane, Grossman develops his notion of a ‘virtual poem’ – what we might call poetry with a capital ‘P’, the abstract potentiality of the medium as felt by the poet when called on to write – and opposes it to the ‘actual poem’, which necessarily betrays the originary impulse. Grossman says actual poems are foredoomed by a ‘bitter logic’ that can’t be overcome by any level of virtuosity.

The fatal problem with poetry: poems. This helps explain why poets themselves celebrate poets who renounce writing. At university in the 1990s the coolest young poets I knew were reading Rimbaud and Oppen – two very great and very different writers who had in common their abandonment of the art (though Oppen’s was only temporary). Rimbaud stops at twenty or so and starts running guns; Oppen is silent for 25 years while living in Mexico to escape FBI inquiries into his labour organising. Rimbaud is the enfant terrible who burns through the sayable; Oppen is the poet of the left whose quiet is a sign of commitment. ‘Because I am not silent,’ Oppen wrote in a poem, ‘the poems are bad.’

I was reading Rimbaud, but I was also reading, savouring, the worst poets in English, in an anthology called Pegasus Descending, ‘a book of the best bad verse’, which, as James Wright put it, contained ‘nothing mediocre!’ To read abysmal poems is often hilarious, but there’s an element of idealism mixed into the hilarity: reading the worst poems is a way of feeling, albeit negatively, that echo of poetic possibility. Think of Plato’s ‘argument from imperfection’: in order to perceive a particular thing to be imperfect, we must have in mind some ideal of perfection.

“Diary”, Ben Lerner, London Review of Books

  • Simone de Beauvoir said every book is a cry for help.