January 29, 2023

Save the Net Books

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The Citizen of Austin Allen

Editor’s note:
This is the third part of a three part essay. To read the first two parts, visit these links: Part I and Part II.

The ice caps are melting: the criticism has failed. This thought has been tormenting me lately. It may not be entirely rational or fair. But as people roast away the glaciers, as the sea rises around us, it becomes clear that there has been a cultural failure – which must be, in part, a failure of language.

Not necessarily from poetry. Poems don’t have to shake anyone up or save anything. In the face of disaster, they can simply rage or mourn. But what of the criticism, with its claim to separate true words from false ones in order to illuminate the poets’ private testimony in the public square? Couldn’t it have helped somehow? Shouldn’t it have?

I guess most people would shrug their shoulders and say no: literature is too insignificant to count for much. Karl Kraus – the Austrian journalist, satirist and poet – would have stared over his glasses and disagreed. Composer Ernst Krenek recalled meeting him in 1932 as the world headed for war:

At a time when people were generally lamenting the Japanese bombing of Shanghai, I met Karl Kraus, who was struggling with one of his famous comma problems. He said something like, “I know that everything is useless when the house is on fire. But I must do this while it is at all possible; because if those who should pay attention to commas always made sure that they were in the right place, Shanghai would not burn.”

At first, that sounds like the butterfly effect for narcissistic writers. What delusion, what imperial arrogance, to think that punctuation in Europe could influence events in Asia! But don’t all authors think like that sometimes? Poets and critics not particularly? Why worry about every little character on the page unless you’re feeling the weight of the world pressing down? Oscar Wilde (so the story goes) spent an entire morning erasing a comma from a poem and then putting it back again. Isaac Babel said that “no iron can pierce the human heart so frighteningly as a point set at the right time”. If Kraus was delusional, his delusion lies at the heart of the discipline.

Everyone seems to agree on this: if poetry changes the world, then only very slowly. Once again I think of WH Auden and Adrienne Rich. After sighing that “poetry lets nothing happen” – the sigh of a disappointed believer – Auden added that it was “a way of happening, a mouth”. He had in mind the mouth of a river, “to flow[ing] on south” of obscure origins. Decades later, Rich (whose first book, A Change of World, was voted a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets by Auden in 1950) declared that poetry “has become more necessary than ever: it keeps the underground aquifers flowing; it is the fluid voice that can carry through stone.” I am struck by how these authors, expressing opposing views of the poet as changemaker, have resorted to such similar metaphors. Both envisioned poetry as a hidden stream that takes its gradual course beyond the reach of the powerful. Only where Auden saw it as a process in its own right did Rich insist that it could erode the “rock” of deadlocked systems. You lost a kind of faith; the other made it.

Should poets hope for secular influence at all? Should they get involved in socio-political activities or wander around forever in the forest of ambivalence? In a late lecture, pondering these questions, Rich quoted South African Dennis Brutus:

I believe that the poet – as poet – has no obligation to commit, but man – as man – has an obligation to commit. What I’m saying is that I think everyone should get involved and the poet is just one of many ‘everyones’.

Grace Paley said something similar when asked if writers should “be socially active.” She replied, “Writers? I am advocating that plumbers should do something too, everyone should do something.” Paley himself spent many hours distributing anti-war pamphlets on the streets of New York for many years. Every now and then she would take a break and devote some free time to writing a poem, an article, or one of the great short stories of the twentieth century. (And no one would ever accuse these stories of being pamphlets: they’re as heartfelt and witty and conflicted as one could wish for.) This has always struck me as an admirable career.

Having created a few digital leaflets over the past few years, I find that they only overlap with my poetry at the edges. Like narration and drama, poetry needs inner tension: it slacks off when you know exactly where you stand. Criticism also works best as an exploration. So my “literary” writing lacks the certainty of the pamphleteer: instead of Here’s what I believe, it could be: That’s what I fear, or Here’s what’s funny about it, or Here’s how I failed.

Whether it is socially relevant or politically insightful is for the readers to judge. All I can say is be careful. Not cautious like risk-averse, I hope, but like meticulous. I constantly fuss over each piece and shamelessly exploit the editors’ patience. Whatever the work says, that concern becomes a part of it.

Poetry and criticism are more careful with language than most genres. As torrents of sloppy discourse flood our screens each day – another rising sea – poetry remains a separate, sharp, subterranean stream at best. Criticism, at best, brings these waters to the surface and clears them.

Meanwhile: The ice is melting, the house is on fire. Writers are a tiny coalition among “the many ‘everybody'” forced to face the mess. I have no practical advice other than what I tell myself: combine the passion of the amateur, the shrewdness of the professional and the commitment of the citizen. Play every role authentically. And watch out for those commas.