Monday, April 14, 2014

More on Irony and Distance

This is from Peaches and Penumbras, an article on BOOKFORUM. 

The last line of the essay hurts because it is true, but it doesn't have to be. 

"The poetry of our time is dominated by a deep and sometimes rich skepticism about the self. When Ginsberg was a countercultural hero in the '60s, such skepticism was embodied by the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and W. H. Auden, among others. Its presence has grown only more pronounced during the last thirty years through the examples of John Ashbery (whose first book, Some Trees, appeared the same year as Howl and Other Poems) and Jorie Graham and a renewed appreciation of Wallace Stevens and George Oppen.

Ginsberg's strength was the evocation of vulnerability, a sensibility that could never accommodate skepticism because it grew out of his belief in the inherent innocence of the self. Frank Bidart writes in his contribution to The Poem That Changed America that, for Ginsberg, "within spirit itself there is no unresolvable dilemma, no dilemma inherent in the demands placed upon it by its own nature or the nature of being." The limitations or failings faced by the self are not native to it but planted there by an external force, whether that force is Moloch or Birdbrain or America. In turn, Ginsberg's dissatisfaction with the world often manifests itself as betrayal instead of despair. Ginsberg doesn't consider the world to be utterly indifferent to his fate; rather, the world singles him out and inhibits him from realizing his nature. Ginsberg's vulnerability is also at the root of his interest in visions: He hungers to be possessed and awed by the appearance of something miraculous in the world. The skeptic's experience of being overwhelmed by an inherent and insurmountable human inability to comprehend the world with any certainty is alien to him. And his vulnerability is what compels him to portray the body as a stage where cosmic dramas play themselves out, as with the wounded innocents in "Howl" who have "purgatoried their torsos night after night" in the hopes of experiencing metaphysical bliss.

The wounded innocents who populate Ginsberg's poems seem out of place, even alien, today, but that is no reason to declare smugly that the Age of Ginsberg is a closed chapter. "Howl" blew through an entire culture with fury and exuberance and eloquence and charm, and it was the work not of the guru but of the young poet. During the last half century, no poem, not even Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," has been able to match the prominence and resonance achieved by "Howl." These days, few artists, let alone poets, are hailed as heroic prophets, and no amount of cheerleading during National Poetry Month will change that. Instead, it's the gurus—scrubbed, smiling, and outfitted with respectable titles like "motivational speaker," "life coach," and "personal trainer"—who continue to mesmerize."

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