Thursday, January 11, 2007

John Barr

Reginald posted this poem by John Barr—anti-barbarian poetry defender guy, President of the Poetry Foundation, memorably described by Steve Evans—on his website. I don’t know if Reginald really thinks this is lovely or interesting, or if he’s just being nice. But I had a strong allergy to it. I was going to post this to his comments box but I’ll just do it here. (I should say: Reginald is my friend. It’s probably OK to mention now that he was the only creative writing professor—literature profs. Roger Gilbert and Debby Fried were great too—at Cornell who gave a damn about poetry, mine or anyone else’s, or who had anything relevant to say about it. The others were nice people, but. He’s taught me a great deal as a poet and a critic. Other than Reginald it was Karl Parker and Gabe and Gina who taught me the most. Josh and Karen Anderson and Theo and the whole, now-vibrant scene in Ithaca didn’t arrive until much later.)

But anyway, I couldn’t not say something about this poem.

Restoration (from Poetry Daily)

I love to recover the quality
of things in decline.
To scour stone, scale paint from brick,
to compel, with wire brush,
the flourish wrought by iron.
To refinish wood, solving for
forgotten grain.
To give, by weeding, our stone wall
back its dignity.
To left and right the borders of our lot,
to square the corners of our keep.

I have even dreamed: pushing a pushcart,
I stop anywhere and start
doing what needs to be done.The first building takes time:
replacing windows, curing the roof.
I know compromises must be made
and make none, a floor at a time.*

I work along an interstate
a century after Johnny Appleseed.
A modest people makes me chief.
(They, too, enjoy the hazy shine
of finished work by last light.)
Storm drains relieved, brick walks relaid,
a heritage of dust and wrappers
is renounced. The square square,
trim trim, the town for once
is like an artist's conception of the town.

I don't know, Reginald. It's a fine enough poem if you don’t read it too carefully, no worse than many a mild turn of phrase you could find in any magazine, on any side of rhetorical divide(s). But could anyone come up with a better statement of the ethics of conservatism, of nostalgiac preservation of values that never really existed anywhere anyway? What's this ironwork he's polishing? And these modest people who appointed him chief? Seen next to the kinds of things he says in his addresses to the Lillys of the Field, and it's impossible not to, the poem makes me a bit queasy. I take your point about the wrongmindedness of equating political and aesthetic conservatism--no doubt, avantgarde or modernist poetics do not necessarily an anti-capitalism or a liberalism or even a Hillary Rodham Clinton make. Modernist experimentation is fissured by, and probably even constituted by, all sorts of political violence. But all of the pieces of a nostalgiac, sentimental and, yes, reactionary attachment to a narrow notion of "people" and the connection of this to a traditional stance--and these are the philosophical and aesthetic undercurrents of political fascism--are here. I'm not making the facile comparison between form and politics; he is. No doubt, when coupled to an erudite classicism and an admission of the necessity for change, and a recognition of the fact that modernism and modernity exist, like it or not, you get Pound, who I can't really avoid. This, though, strikes me as a pale imitation of Frost's “Mending Wall”, without the menacing ambiguity. Good fences, yeah, but no neighbors.

*These are the best lines in the poem. Bush’s new motto anyone? How better to say “change the course” and mean “stay the course”? I’m going to remember this rhetorical move—a sort of intra-sentence non-sequitur--the next time I need to change the subject.


Simon said...

Woah, woah Jasper, "fascist", this is really bad stuff, don't say that. I'm serious. Fascism only makes sense in a politlcal context, I'm serious, I don't know where all this talk about "aesthetic fascism" is coming from these days.

I was taught in school that fascism was the aestheticization of politics. I think this is a clear enough definition, and it's clear also that there is no such thing as the aestheticization of politics of poetry.

I've been grumply reviewing things all day so I won't lay into this poem. Reginald, I don't know man. He seems like a nice guy, but. I felt a little disappointed when he kind of backed down from talking seriously about the difference between the avant-garde and "everyone else", and wrote a post that could have been titled "I Like All Good Poetry". But the last time he was on the internet he really got grouchy about genre.

I also feel a little awkward about interacting with him because I wrote a negative review of a poem of his a while ago.

Jasper Bernes said...

Hi Simon--

I see your point, and I too dislike the the use of "fascist" as a blanket term for all things hateful. I'm not using it that way here, though, and I stand by what I said. If you'll reread what I wrote, I said that this poem evinced the the philosophical and aesthetic undercurrents of fascism; that's a bit different than calling it fascist. What I'm reacting against is the sentimental attachment to orderliness, to heritage, to the squaring of lefts and rights, and his election of himself to the post of representative of a "modest" people.

There are many people who were not fascists but nonetheless participated in the intellectual culture which gave rise to it; indeed, many of them were Jews and other people who stood to suffer greatly under fascism. And plus, Benjamin's remarks at the end of "The Work of Art. . ." about the aestheticization of politics don't really mean that you can't have a fascist poetry; political power needs to draw its aesthetics from somewhere, and it's not like any old poetry or art or film will do. Would this mean that there's something *essentially* fascist about that poetry? Probably not. But when you read it in its context, and with its representational content, then it becomes something different. Does this mean that the poetry or art is uninteresting? No, of course note. There are interesting fascists--like Celine or Houllebecq or Pound--and then your garden variety boring ones.