Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Get Over Yourself

As the second annual St. Robert Southwell Literary Workshop approaches, here’s a tip for the new class on how to avoid Baer attacks. Nothing is more likely to bring out the claws and fangs than a maudlin, self-absorbed confessional poem. The Mahwahvian Movement prefers the iamb to “I am.” (This poetic dictate has Biblical precedent, as Christ once said to an aspiring poet, “It is you who say iamb.”)

Dr. Baer is not the only so-called New Formalist with this aversion to confessional poetry. In an interview from The Formalist a few years back, Dana Gioia complained of confessional poems “that were, in some sense, sexual self-advertisements of [the authors] as sensitive, caring lovers. I always found that distasteful and dishonest. I strongly dislike any kind of self-congratulatory, moralizing poetry in which the author advertises his own moral perfection. Yet that type of poetry is still quite common. It’s a kind of new didacticism with a narcissistic bent.”

Anyone who has every taken a creative writing course will know that this anti-solipsistic perspective is rare nowadays, but there is great precedent for it. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot insists that “the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career. What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

Even in the romantic period, which our friend Helen C. White complains is to blame for excessive individualism, saw a couple of great defenses of un-confessional poetic theory. The most famous one is John Keats’s claim that his “poetical character…is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character….A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence, because he has no identity, he is continually in for—and filling—some other body.”

A similar remark comes from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1817, which takes exception to the “absurd self-elevation” of Coleridge and Wordsworth in particular. As opposed to their solipsism, most men of genius, living or dead, rarely write about themselves.

It would seem that in truly great souls all feeling of self-importance, in its narrower sense, must be incompatible with the consciousness of a mighty achievement. The idea of the mere faculty or power is absorbed as it were in the idea of the work performed. That work stands out in its glory from the mind of its Creator; and in the contemplation of it, he forgets that he himself was the cause of its existence, or feels only a dim but sublime association between himself and the object of his admiration.

For more recent and very entertaining critiques of the solipsism of modern writing, particularly poetry, check out The Reaper Essays.

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