Lyric Detachment: Two New Books of Poetry
Olsen, William, Chicago Review
As artists, poets should naturally want to distance themselves from what they regard as mere fashion - which is to say that fashion influences those who would shed it almost as deeply as those who would cling to it. At present it seems fashionable to deride the personal in poetry. We have approached a juncture where contemporary American poetry is collectively congratulating itself for having escaped the malignant confines of a personal poetry, especially as practiced by the so-called confessional poets - currently, our most widely spanning and therefore most meaningless pejorative. A poetry of self-confrontation is seen to be a product, if not the cause, of the excesses of a narcissistic culture. Further, a strictly personal poetry is seen to be aesthetically incorrect: if the Marxists are right and our consumer society created an ethos of the self out of a need for ever more selfish consumers, then any poetry dealing with the personal only strengthens the stranglehold our greed has on us. Our newest truism is that a less private, more public poetry is less apt to be given to narcissism, sentimentalism, self-promotion, etc. A more public poetry will lead us away from all of these things. In the meantime the introspective had better watch their step.
No doubt genuine change in the arts occurs slowly, maybe too slowly for those of us mired in the present moment to comprehend. That so many voices are clamoring against the personal suggests, among other things, how strong a pull the personal still has on poetry.
And arguably, of the various kinds of discourse, poetry is actually blessed, not cursed, with a small (the sophists would say elite) audience; for if poetry has one custodial function in our culture right now, it may be to preserve the potential for genuine community that eludes more massive forms of communication. You can't talk back to a TV, a poet-friend once said to me. True, you can't talk back to a poem either. But when you listen to a poem or read a poem, you listen as part of a small group or you read by yourself and not as an indistinguishable member of a tyrannical majority. The individual called the poet depends on the fact that other individuals called readers are out there. However, even in our most revolutionary poetry, L = A = N = G = U = A = G = E poetry, what we have (arguably) instead of a public poetry is a poetry that could not possibly be more subjective, a poetry that chooses the most private of all aesthetic paths, absolute stylism.
What really has changed in American poetry in the last thirty years or so is not so easy to talk about. It may have less to do with poetry eschewing the subjective than with its tiring of postured ways of behaving subjectively in poems and its rejecting specious alchemical formulas for the private life. In reading new books by Jorie Graham and Chase Twichell, it becomes clear to me that the dynamics between poetry and personality have changed somewhat. Both poets use post-modernist strategies of artistic self-consciousness - like David Letterman knocking on the camera lens to see if anyone at home is really at home - but they do so only out of the hyper-earnest desire to be more honest about poetry's status as artifice. Though both poets aspire to a more public role for the poetry, by and large they are still cartographers of the interior. Their poetry is characteristic of one current branch of mainstream poetry, a poetry of lyric detachment.
These poets view human experience less as dramatic participants or as agonized soliloquists and more as detached observers. It is poetry's very capacity to distance us from experience that attracts - and frustrates - these poets and paradoxically impassions them with responsibility. There is a suprapersonal, yet pained restraint in their treatment of the qualms of the inner life and the unpredictabilities of a deterministic world. On the one hand, detachment becomes a necessary evil. On the other hand, as the essential flipside of involvement, it actually facilitates worldly engagement. …