Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Insular Literature?

In the second volume of his history of Modern poetry, David Perkins talks about the differences between what New Criticism espoused as opposed to the actual way the New Critics had learned literature, including by reading literature in foreign languages.

I admit to being an heir to New Criticism thoughts in that I am not fluent in any foreign language, only knowing stray phrases here and there from various languages I studied ad hoc while in school. However, not knowing a language is no excuse for not reading a book in translation, including some of the most exciting poetry currently available.

Kevin Bezner in Oyster Boy talks about how New Criticism was a wrong turn in American poetry in that it espoused a natural diction in poetry rather than a language wholly different. While I don't necessarily agree with all of the review (particularly Bezner's contention that sonnet imposes a form on content; rather, in a good sonnet, the content should be chosen as suitable for the sonnet as should each word in its ability to burst out into the compressed form of the sonnet. This is what makes Gerald Manley Hopkins' sonnets so memorable along with the sprung rhythm. The contemporary practice of seeing content divorced from form has led to many unmemorable sonnets.), I think Bezner has a point. The use of almost wholly colloquial language in poems seems to be a mostly American practise.

Perhaps this points to a question I had in an earlier posting as to why the poets writing in Portuguese and Spanish have been influenced in a different way by the Whitmanian tradition than Americans have. The Portuguese and Spanish language poets seem to have encountering Surrealism at the same time that they were encountering Whitman as a poetic influence whereas Americans seem to have incorporated Whitman more along the lines of Mark Twain colloquialism meets the long line.

It could be that we are at a point where we are headed towards a cycle of insularity unless we can break off somehow. I say this when I think about my own generation of writers who seem too content with the current American poetry scene. I once heard Paul Muldoon say during a lecture that a poet is doing something wrong if he is not uncomfortable. There's so much placid acceptance that I would prefer some anger at this point.

I consider Paul Celan as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. It is hard to think of another poet from anywhere who remained so true to articulating truths about the world while still maintaining veracity to the art. He did not write of everyday comforts, but of the difficulty of seeing the world without a veil. When I read Celan, I feel that this must have been a tremendously difficult task for Celan, one that required careful and lengthy parsing of language as well as much time spent at considering each articulation of the world.

Currently, it is estimated that only 3 percent of books published in the U.S. are works in translation (3 percent is also the name of a new review website dedicated to foreign literature). For a vast publishing industry, this is too small a percentage and we lag far behind most nations with a robust book industry.

While it is important to listen to American voices and to read the representation of American lives, in a time when our presence on the international scene reflects how little we understand other cultures, it's important for current generations and future generations to read about other nations. Moreover, I would say that such understanding shouldn't be done through the interpretations of an American author, but rather that we should fully encounter the unfamiliarity and strangeness of other nations, their artistic sensibilities, their perspectives, and their interpretations on the world.

Besides the political scene, it is crucial for writers to read literature from everywhere. How else are we to continue growing, to be made uncomfortable?

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