Markings on wood, from the African art collection at the Brooklyn Museum: Beautifully ambiguous

Poems, poets and poetry provide a parallel universe that sometimes helps make a little more sense of my own huddled world of paintings, painters and art. A good example is this excerpt from an essay by Joel Brouwer that appeared on Poetry Foundation, In Praise of Promiscuous Thinking: On Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems and David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless:

I understand the impulse to talk about poems. Poems are objects in the world. They appear on bus kiosks, in magazines, on makeshift stages in coffee shops, at weddings, in classrooms. They exist, like raccoons. We see or hear them. It’s natural to want to talk about our impressions of them, and what they’re up to. “This poem is confusing me.” “That’s one big damn raccoon.”

It’s harder to talk about poetry. Poetry is a subject, not an object. You can’t see poetry; you can only see poems. Poems are poetry like raccoons are nature. It isn’t nature that’s made a nest in your attic and given birth to four more mewling natures, batting their little black claws at the air. Poems, not poetry, have baffled you, or made you laugh, or reminded you that, in the words of Holderlin, “The flock of swallows that circles the steeple / Flies there each day through the same blue air / That carries their cries from me to you.” I have over time developed some methods for talking about what a poem is doing. I have no idea what poetry is doing.

Subject and object. Racoons and nature. This is really good.

Brouwer continues in a direction that continues to speak to me:

I don’t need Bernstein’s or Orr’s critical positions to be correct or incorrect—–I don’t need them at all—–but I want them to be…oh, let’s say “lovable.” (I choose the term in part because it’s embarrassing, vague, and dorky; criticism marked by cool, clear confidence is exactly what I’m trying to discredit.) By a lovable criticism, I mean a criticism that allows space for its readers’ imaginations without compromising its own convictions; which ventures its ideas rather than asserting them; which would rather start a conversation than end one; which not only speaks but also listens; which admits and embraces uncertainties. A lovable criticism is a criticism willing to make itself vulnerable, willing even to embarrass itself.

And are these books by Bernstein and Orr lovable? They are. Each ends with passages I find strange, ambiguous, and open to interpretation, and so, to my mind, lovable. Indeed, the extent to which each book’s closing contradictions can be engaged but not resolved is precisely the extent to which each is lovable.

What is “strange, ambiguous and open to interpretation”—that’s a credo I can live with. And by.

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