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Self in Literary Proportions? S. Burt, J. Beer and L. Hejinian

Stephen Burt at the Boston Review looks at Our Poems, Ourselves: Does Autobiography Make Good Poetry? Instead of the expected angle of Is confessional outdated?, he questions if this idea of an autonomous self isn’t outdated:

So much of what seems like personal experience arises from systems far larger (the English language, the global economy) or smaller (a cluster of neurons) than persons can be; so much of what seems like artistic expression may also be traced to systems of convention.

Perhaps poets—whose art form, more than others, appears tied to the history of individualism—should find ways to deny, or avoid, the hoary pretense that my words, my emotions, arise from causes within me, uniquely mine.

This seems pretty straightforward. We are the context. If we become any more articulate from articulacy being the main life work of word, we are well-positioned to have a higher vantage point and voice stories other than our own pacing to and from from fridge of self-indulgent pining, being just transposing them onto some classical story for more oomph. Do we bite the language that feed us? Do we try to extend to the universal starting from out there instead of from self? Do we need the scale of the particular personal self?

We have this idea that we make poems. It’s as when we say we made a seed grow, we are no creator, more partial enabler at best. When we write or speak, we do so with everything else in place and the capacity for seed leaf inherent in the being. We say we create poems but that gives us sole credit when it should go wider. We aren’t impeding the ideas and sounds in our usual ways.

We have all sorts of extra taboos of what we can say. Is it libelous? Is it petty? Is it boring? Is it raw or crafted? Too much one way for the form? Are we appropriating what we truly can’t comprehend and thereby muddling matters for people whose lives we claim to speak the story of? Are we saying something that serves conscious metric of good? Are examining for spark so intently we put it out with our close breath? Are we adding to a heap of some societal belief of there are better and lesser Englishes, youths are thieves, fat is a repulsive turnoffs, women are overwhelmed and hapless, or its only worth sharing if its grief or joy or transformative or critical?

Can we step outside autobiography? It would be like stepping outside our perceptions? Even flarf is a choice that makes a negative space around self and a value judgement of what is valuable. True it doesn’t mope and sigh or badger or pine after an objectified other who is far off. There’s no heros journey of conflict and resolution nor threat and confess and shocking disclosures, probably.

We know the sensation when a poem whispers or whines but brings you into its personal confidence. Is that what makes it autobiographical?

Burt gives a close read of John Beer’s The Wasteland and Other Poems (Canarium, 2010). It is the winner of the 2011 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Canarium also published The Irrationalist.

Burt says Angela Leighton argues in On Form, “that the history of aestheticism, of focus on form for the sake of form, belongs amid the history of nihilism”. Beer is

out “to prove I’m more than the sum of my mirrors,” the “I” in these sonnets can do no such thing: “In Bangkok, I’m trying to say, / I looked in a mirror and nothing looked back.” The last sonnet opens “‘This line is tapped, so I must be brief,’” a joke against John Stuart Mill’s idea that the “lines” of poetry (i.e., personal lyric) are not heard but overheard. For Beer, poetry, being a system descended from other closed systems, has no profound secrets about individuals for us to overhear, only a possibly doomed effort toward the Beyond:
          Can you really
          breathe yourself into existence, touch the world,
          and still leave behind a path for another to see?
           Nobody told you to come here. There’s nobody here.

Beer stitches moments of mystery and bits of disgusted quotation, of satire—akin to the Flarf school, which makes poems from Googled scraps—into his shorter poems. Those poems seem designed—in the absence of one heart, one “you”—to combine, or to use up, as many components, as many systems, as they can […]

Beer’s forms are not quite new, but there is nothing quite like them: in their integration of parody with serious homage (to Eliot, Spicer, Rilke, Frank O’Hara, Karl Marx), of ambition with self-cancellation, they are the most careful and some of the best of the project-oriented, anti-lyrical work young poets now do. What saves them from monotony, from flat boredom, from repeating the same big jokes? First, the intricacy of their patterns, including acoustic and syntactic form. Second, the real emotions you can, if you go looking, find—exhaustion, disgust, bafflement, uncertainty as to whether there is anything “outside” an art compelled to chase its own tail.

The answer to Burt’s own question of autobiographies seems to be that to reject the sincere leaves us with another monotone of parody but if we talk about ourselves in the context of the systems we are in, flow about among the other times and places, we’re well set to not bore. But earnest or ironic are not the only poles. From either one could make the same reach for depth of time and space or insisting on descriptive immediate surface nor insight. Maybe the issue is the word autobiographical being conflated with self-indulgent, short-sighted, egotistical and a closed-minded stance of what I call true is not up for debate. The sense of autobiographical can be bigger just as the self can be broader, at times good-humoured or threatened, at times petty or sublime.

Take for example, Reason looks for two, then arranges it from there in My Life by Lyn Hejinian (Sun & Moon Press, 1987), now in its 8th edition from Green Integer.

It, by title, announces itself as autobiographical. It is structured so that each section is one year in the life, disjunctured, non-narrative, language poetry meets novel and yet there is still an openness to observing the world dispassionately and with emotion.

Where I woke and was awake, in the room fitting the wall, withdrawn, I had my desk and thus my corner. While waiting, waltz. The soles of our boots wear thin, but the soles of our feet grow thick. The difference between “he presented his argument” and “they had an argument.” I still respond to the academic year, the sound of the school bell, the hot Wednesday morning after Labor Day.

There’s a sense of what the narrator directly experiences as worthy of sharing, not just speaking on behalf of a cause overseas or in another class or era but the now. There’s room for personal reflection and reasoning out why the body responds and to what. There’s a mood but structurally it flits. It doesn’t stay in one place. Later in the same:

The real adversary of my determination was determinism, regulating and limiting the range and degree of difference between things of one day and things of the next. I got it from Darwin, Freud, and Marx. Not fragments but metonymy. Duration. Language makes tracks.

There’s a lyricism but not a sentimentalism. The head is involved bit it doesn’t prevailingly keep at arms length cerebral. There’s a humbleness to the words offered but not to the point of self only visible thru homage to others. There’s a balance but not the simple balance of a teeter totter of a binary.

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