Monday, February 28, 2005

Baraka, the Canon

Not really a tremendous amount of interesting things happening here, cogitation-wise, for which fact I can, per usual, blame the weather. A reliable scapegoat.

I'm getting ready to teach Amiri Baraka's Black Magic tomorrow, abutted as it is by Ashbery on one side and Hejinian on the other; am struck as I was last time I sat down with him, by what an undervalued--albeit bigoted and anti-semitic and misogynistic queer-hating and frankly fucking scary--voice he is. If as Ron says (via Josh) "Complexity around one’s own identity is, I think, the greatest predictor of what kind of poet one is likely to become, or at least sensitivity to that complexity. . ."well, then, Baraka is greatly predicted to become, or have become. My sense is that many people whose encounter with him is marginal would expect to find a rather simplistic or essentialist notion of identity, but the speakers in Black Magic (shamefully out-of-print, by the way) present a far different picture, where the self slides between a social first-person plural and an alienated, bereft singularity:

. . . . All
my doubles, and friends, whose mistakes cannot
be duplicated by machines, and this is all of our
arrogance. Being broke or broken, dribbling
at the eyes. Wasted lyricists, and men
who have seen their dreams come true, only seconds
after they knew those dreams to be horrible conceits
and plastic fantasies of gesture and extension,
shoulders, hair and tongues distributing misinformation
about the nature of understanding. . . .
("The New World")

He's an important poet for the world in which I mostly find myself. I need the existentialist (and to me correct) notion that it is in mistaking, in misprision that we find not only our uniqueness but our commonality with each other, even as I feel I must reject his nihilism. In the end, it's a pretty Ashberian idea, but one where the stakes are not ethico-aesthetical but mortal. In Ashbery, misunderstanding misunderstanding might lead to a barren and joyless life, here it leads to a heroin overdose or a death by gunshot or the continuous crushing force of racism:

For the first-person plural

America, then,
n blind overdose.

Touche, Hart Crane! I'm going to carry around this notion of humanity as unrepeatable error for a good long while (maybe even an hour). As much as I cherish "Howl" and "Kaddish," I suppose I prefer my 'sixties-era jeremiads unleavened by Romanticism's tropological relics. I tried following the Grateful Dead once, but I couldn't stay stoned enough; I was left with "sad facts circled for unknown hippies carrying the mail."


Here's a question for those of you concerned with valuation and canon-formation: what's the criterion for adjectivizing a writer's name? Does it have to do their canonical value or phonetics? Why Whitmanic, Dickinsonian, Hopkinsian, Stevensian, Eliotian but not Mooreian, or Craneian or Frostian? Is it better--Mr. Milton, Mr. Byron--if your name ends in an 'n'? Is the worth of a poet determined by her name?

Or: what allows us to refer to a poet by last name alone? The easy answer I suppose is some ratio of death and fame, but I think there's more to it than that.

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