Against totalitism

So, Lytton Smith wrote an interesting post about negative reviews and the purpose of criticism, centered around a particular very negative review by Michael Schiavo that is maybe getting discussed a bit in the blogs. So maybe, go read it, or read them all; I pick more nits in the comments of that last link. I want to jump on one particular bit that bugged me about it, but I still think it's worth reading. It's actually from the original review, but he quotes it approvingly:

"Name-checking the states of the Republic does not make your poetry Whitmanic. Shoveling pop culture references into sloppy lines does not transform your poems into Frank O’Hara’s."
But, doesn't it? Of course it does. These are specific features that the poetry in question shares with Whitman's and O'Hara's poetry. Because they share features, we can talk about the one in terms of the other. That is how such comparisons work.

So, what's the problem? Well -- and yes, I suspect this is all fantastically obvious -- Whitman's poetry and O'Hara's poetry and the poetry under question all have all these other features. And these other features don't match up. So a reviewer can say "this poetry is Whitmanic" without articulating in what way it's Whitmanic -- which of Whitman's poetry's various features it shares. Because Whitman's poetry has so many various features, saying another poetry is Whitmanic doesn't let you know which features are shared. It becomes an inane comparison.

But, of course, that isn't what Schiavo is complaining about. Schiavo is complaining that for a poem to "be Whitmanic" it must share more than this one feature of Whitman's poetry. It has to share in a significant number of features of Whitman's poetry. Or, what I think is really going on: It has to share in all (or a significant majority) of the features of Whitman's poetry that Schiavo finds salient. I suspect that Schiavo that if he found a poem that shared in a majority of the features of Whitman's poetry that he finds salient, then he could call the poem "Whitmanic" without qualification -- but I might be putting ideas into his head there.

I worry that Schiavo is upset that these reviewers are thinking of Whitman in terms of specific features, rather than appreciating him as a complex whole. But this might be my own resistence and discomfort with the idea of Whitman-as-a-whole. I think Whitman's symptoms are stable enough to merit discussing, but the holistic Whitman is a kairotic assemblage constantly being reformed and discarded. Or, I'd rather push for that, for us to not "decide" upon Whitman-as-a-whole, but to keep him (such as there is a him; to keep the "totality" of his poetry, anyways) as potential, as occasional, as tentative.

Which is to say, I'd prefer for "Whitmanic" to mean "name-dropping American geography" or "writing slobbery poems about young soldiers" or "using a whole lot of exclamation points", rather than trying to point to some totality about Whitman or Leaves of Grass.

And this is what I want from my poetry reviews, as well. I don't want them to try to lay out the totality of a poem, or of a book, or of a poetics. I want them to open a few doors into the tangle, so I can wander indecisively. And I worry that Schiavo's use of "Whitmanic" (which, to be fair, he only sorta uses in that review) is, in fact, more closed than the obviously facile uses found in the reviewers he rants against. After all, the next time they talk about a "Whitmanic poet", they'll probably be referring to something like the length of his beard.


  1. Lemon Hound said...

    I'm not sure there is anything more behind this whole discussion other than the creepy feeling one gets when one comes across a poem and/or a poet that is consciously playing the system. They're out there. The poets who gauge the field, figure out the "winning" formula and give it to those who are looking for it.

    Not pretty, but it's part of the system we've created.  

  2. Anthony said...

    three things:

    a) kairotic?
    b) isn't one of whitman's main points a formal one, and isn't what this dude arguing, is that he makes the rookie mistake of assuming that because whitman's meter is a wild rumpus, it does not have some kind of formal control?
    c) i am never sure that whitman slobbered over soilder boys, or to put it another way, whitman's root chakra pretty much opened to everyone or thing, the soilders, the 22 boys swimming by the shore, the woman on the shore, the sun, flowers, rain, borgie women and working class men...i think that the problem with the twins is that they do not seem to like anything, & one of the things that o hara and whitman have in common is not petty bitchery, but liking things (noting that O Hara likes less things then Whitman)
    d)please do not denigrate Whitman's beard.  

  3. Anthony said...

    point b, the second he refers to the twin  

  4. Chris said...

    Kairotic, from the Greek καιρός, meaning "the opportune moment".

    You could just as easily argue that Whitman's "main point" is that poetry which is less controlled than the typical poetry of his time is more exciting/interesting/effective/fun.

    I'm not sure that liking things makes you a better poet (though it probably makes you a more interesting person to pal around with, at least as far as I'm concerned).  

  5. Anthony said...

    liking things made o hara and whitman better poets, but made ginsberg a worse one, for example  

  6. Hein said...

    I thought that the critical point was that Sharing Salient Features With Something That I Like Or At Least Feel That I Should Like Does Not In Itself Make My Me Like The Thing That Shares Those Features, But Instead Of Saying I Don't Like It I Will Say That It Is Not The Thing That It Reminds Me Of.  


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