Monday, November 26, 2012

Rocket and Lightship

Adam Kirsch in the essay Rocket and Lightship at the Poetry Foundation threw down a pretty volatile gauntlet:

 "Literature claims to be a record of human existence through time; it is the only way we have to understand what people used to be like. But this is a basic mistake, if not a fraud, since in fact it only reflects the experience of writers—and writers are innately unrepresentative, precisely because they see life through and for writing. Literature tells us nothing really about what most people’s lives are like or have ever been like. If it has a memorial purpose, it is more like that of an altar at which priests continue to light a fire, generation after generation, even though it gives no heat and very little light."

I do rather like the quote he begins with from G.M. Hopkins: "Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone." This was a line from Hopkins' 1875 long poem  “The Wreck of the Deutschland” interestingly composed to "the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875."

And then it meanders like hell. (Both the poem and Kirsch' essay.)

I suppose I'm not surprised that Kirsch doesn't draw on writers from a wide range of world traditions. Primarily European and European American writers are cited as he makes his case. And perhaps that was going to be beyond the scope of an essay for the Poetry Foundation. Most of the questions he raises address poetry and literature the way European and American cultures grapple with it. Which isn't a deal-breaker, but I take that into account when reading the parts of it I find readable.

Kirsch asks us to consider that Ezra Pound is wrong. Kirsch notes "Pound’s goal was to “write nothing that we might not say actually in life.” But this is backwards, for nothing memorable is ever said, it is always written; only sometimes it is not written down, but written in the mind so quickly that it can be produced as speech. In speech, the mind is on the moment, the subject, the interlocutor; in writing, the mind is on these and also always on the self, and the appearance the self and its language are making."

There are some fun notions to consider. "Art begins to look like a method of whistling past the graveyard," Kirsch notes, pondering at length on the writer's struggle for posterity, to find a reason to write, given the likely fate of those writings. The sole surviving works of the Roman poet Catullus were found stopping a medieval wine barrel, for example.

Kirsch concludes with "authentic speech and writing are always productive of more speech and writing—indeed, that is the point of discourse, not to describe reality but to avoid silence.

As a Lao American poet, I find this the sort of essay that makes it difficult for me to draw others into the joys and merits of literature. The gulf between experiences and perspective on the world is really difficult to surmount. There are some nuggets of Kirsch well worth considering, that touch on universal questions, but I'm left instead returning back to the sentiments I mentioned in my old poem "Japonisme, Laoisme": "Just write, son." And we'll let history figure the rest out.

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