Sunday, July 13, 2008

Trap Doors, Part Deux

Okay. I've been away on vacation, and victim to the shadowy sloth that always awaits my return. Perhaps others experience this post-vacation malaise, too. I suppose that's what people mean when they say they need a vacation from their vacation.

My thoughts were trained upon the trap door even as we were zipping down the steamy Florida corridors and downing Greyhounds. (Not, of course, at the same time.) Just before we left the city's mossy mouth for another humid endroit, I read David Orr's essay "The Politics of Poetry" in the current issue of Poetry magazine that really set my "trap door alarm" into high alert.

Here's a picture of what that felt like:

Not bad as a photo editorial, huh?

Now, after the first three paragraphs (assuming a singular exclamatory remark counts as a paragraph), Orr presents a well-balanced and interesting discussion of poetic versus political rhetoric, and how the arenas overlap. However, I had to approach the article on FOUR separate occasions in order to get through the disastrous trap door that is the introduction.

Shortly before Ohio's Democratic primary, Tom Buffenbarger, the head of the machinists' union and a supporter of Hillary Clinton, took to the stage at a Clinton rally in Youngstown to lay the wood to Barack Obama. "Give me a break!" snarled Buffenbarger, "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine." And then the union rep delivered his coup de grace: "He's a poet, not a fighter!"


Fortunately, this insult to the sacred mysteries of Poesie didn't go unanswered—within a few days, the poet John Lundberg angrily riposted at the Huffington Post, declaring that he "would be happy to step outside" with Buffenbarger to show him that poets can indeed mix it up. (Smart money is on Lundberg, as Buffenbarger appears to have lost several dozen battles to the combined forces of Little Debbie and Sara Lee.) Yet what was most interesting about the Clinton supporter's remarks wasn't their inaccuracy or intemperance, but the way in which they neatly summarized two assumptions often made about contemporary American poetry and contemporary American politics. (Orr, "The Politics of Poetry")

The first time I read Orr's introductory remarks, I was so annoyed that I kvetched at S. for a good half-hour about hyper-masculinity, its attendant anxiety in those following "non-masculine" career paths and how counterintuitive Orr's "amusing" remarks are to his greater purpose.

Upon the next two attempts to get past these paragraphs and into the meat of the essay, I found myself confronted by an internal roadblock. No matter how sternly I trained my eye on the fourth paragraph, it took me yet another attempt before I could find the escape ladder out of the rabbit hole:
One would think poets might get a little more respect from political speakers, and that political speakers might refrain from comparing their purely verbal existence to the decidedly non-verbal world of physical violence. (Orr, "The Politics of Poetry")
Whew! Finally, we're getting somewhere.

Was it really necessary for Orr to begin his essay with such (frankly) hyper-masculine anxiety? Of course not. Was it creative? Sure. Does it demonstrate skill and virtuosity? Definitely. It's not ever day, after all, that one encounters such elegant turns of phrase when insulting another's rotundity. (See: "Buffenbarger appears to have lost several dozen battles to the combined forces of Little Debbie and Sara Lee.")

If the war of rhetorical styles is that of the passive pen against the aggressive sword, I find it hard to believe that Orr's application of schoolyard-taunt to pub-brawl principle scores a point for poetry. Hilarious in a conversation, yes. Funny in a poem, perhaps. Amusing as a preface to what I assume is meant to be taken as a serious look at poetry's rhetorical power in the political sphere, no.

Aggressive posturing is common, indeed charming, in children. When I was a kid, I had a friend who was a) a boy and b) very sensitive about playing the piano. He was quick to assert that though he played, he still could deal a black eye to any punk who dared to call him a sissy. To my adult ears, the anxiety behind this assertion was obviously a product of the conflict he faced on the complicated road to maturity. (I would say "manhood," but that opens up a whole 'nother issue, and implies that women are never perpetrators of this crime.)

In adults, this posturing has no allure for me--especially in adults who are appealing to readers as intellectuals. That is sort of a question of personal taste, however. Objectively I have no trouble seeing how Orr's ass-kicking remarks might thrill many readers, girding their poetic loins with visions of warrior-bards busting lips in a show of epic power. It's Orr's use of one of our society's baser myths that creates a trap door.

By framing his essay with such remarks, Orr speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Out of one side, he says, "Surely you recognize that my tongue is in my cheek." Out of the other side, he says, "But I will be the first to feel better when one of my poetic brethren punches the ticket of anyone who dares say poetry is weak." Why else mention John Lundberg's response to Buffenbarger?

Now, let's pause for a moment to consider catharsis. During my two-week break, I’ve been turning over my trap-door anxiety (yes, there I said it) to see if it’s really MY problem. After all, who doesn’t enoy a humorous riposte every now and again? Who doesn’t crave that dinner-time comment that turns conversation away from the tiresome and toward the light-hearted? Don’t we ALL sometimes laugh when a politician stumbles on his words, thus rendering his point, for all intents and purposes, null and void? Sure we do. Aristotle covered this all ages ago when he argued against Plato’s misguided proposal that poetry led humans into the clutches of chaotic and uncontrolled passions.
Aside: there is scholarly evidence that the term “catharsis” derives from kathairein, “to purify, purge," and which was normally used as a medical term until Aristotle trotted it out as a metaphor. According to one source on Wikipedia (LOVE you, Wiki), “usually referring to the evacuation of the "katamenia", the menstrual fluid or other reproductive material.” JESUS.
So, as a poet, I would be a bit of a silly-pants if I didn’t stand on the “for” side of the cathartic divide. Of course catharsis is good! This is part of the reason people (the same people who argue with you at your cocktail parties about why poetry no longer functions) turn to poetry at weddings, births, graduations and funerals. The act of breathing in measure and using symbolic/metaphoric/contemplative language brings not only relief to those pesky inner passions, but solace to the suffering. If one were so disposed, one might agree with Aristotle that it keeps us from murdering each other quite so frequently. (When I first typed “frequently,” it came out “freakquently.” Pure coincidence….I think not.)

On a less-exalted tip, humor can provide us with a break from our lofty pensées. I would accept the argument that Orr is doing precisely that—introducing a humorous bit before plunging into a topic that just may be to many readers (surely not readers of Poetry magazine, however) a tad dull or difficult.

But, like any trap door worth its well-engineered salt, it will hit us on the ass the minute we enter if we’re not careful. Humor provides catharsis that, in my humble trap-door-fearing view, can actually release us from the responsibility of pondering the important issues raised by the very practice of release. Instead of sharing outrage of Buffenbarger's, er, less-than-astute Obama-slurs, we end up participating in the very sentiments guiding B's warbling.

But to assume NO ONE spends any time noodling over this textual puzzle would be like assuming that none of us thinks about what gave us an orgasm once we achieve one, right? (We can talk about my hierarchical lingo here in reference to sex later. "Achieve." I should be ashamed.) As such, I assume that I’m not the only one to find herself jammed up by Orr’s comments even as I laughed at them.

Like the foie-gras PBJ, it’s not that Orr’s humor doesn’t work. It’s that the underpinnings of his comments give those he argues against a reason not to listen to the thoughtful remarks that follow. They provide instead a trap door down which some readers may fall without finding their way out. And while I am tempted to claim this is the reader's fault, there is something to politically- and ethically-charged speech that can entrap even the most tenacious of us.

Caveat lector, indeed.

It would be unfair not to mention that Orr can be excused (sort of) for his anxious banterings by virtue of the venue in which the essay appears. If readers are ever to be expected to be aware of how such a text functions, it’s probably in a publication devoted to the rarefied ramblings of poets and poetry critics. Still, in closing, I must mention that the worst crime of this particular type of trap door is that it provides an excuse for readers to dismiss the subject at hand (here, poetry) not only as passive, but as passive-aggressive. And I don’t think Orr would want that, do you?

More thoughts to come on this topic, but now I’m off to prepare for pre-Bastille Day celebrations. Vive Petanque!

1 comment:

Collins said...

i have missed you. and your (almost) daily dose of higher order thinking and vocabulary. achieve, indeed.