Friday, November 23, 2007

Poetry matrix

Consider this matrix. It’s a technique for categorizing poems. It’s not judgmental—it’s merely descriptive. Toward what end I’m not quite sure.

This technique is frequently used in management consulting. Upper right quadrant is superior to lower left quadrant, and the “maturity” or capability of something (e.g., the functionality of a software application) is judged by its position within the matrix. It’s used to assist business decisions about competing products or processes.

I think the technique could be used to discover relationships between poets that might not otherwise be noticed. Maybe. I have one qualification and one reservation:

I think it's better to categorize poems and not poets, as suggested in the matrix above. How in the world would you categorize an eclectic poet like Paul Muldoon?

And the idea of categorizing (pigeonholing?) poetry gives me pause. As soon as a poet puts pen to paper comparisons are invited, and the nature of comparison is associative, which breeches the boundaries of any conceivable set of quadrants. Critic Muldoon can begin with Emily Dickinson’s “I Tried to Think a Lonelier Thing” and wind up contemplating Emerson's essay "Fate."

Nevertheless, it could be a worthwhile exercise to flesh out a chart like this just to see where it might lead.

* * *
Not incidentally, I think the Guardian reviewer linked above misunderstands what Muldoon is about. As a poet and a critic Muldoon is willing to take risks and is happy to share his enthusiasms. So Muldoon is criticized because his oeuvre doesn’t cohere. It’s disjointed, in pieces. Not the individual poems but his body of work, even major segments of it: there are no themes to his books of poetry, no consistent style, no informing aesthetic, no supervenient worldview, no nothing.

What’s the difference between incoherence and eclecticism?

I suppose you could call Muldoon's work an exercise in poetic diversity. Every poem has an equal claim. (None should be disparaged lest it lose self-esteem?)

What unifies Muldoon’s work is the way he curates the language, as if he’s trying to preserve arcane words by writing them down in poems he’s (self-)confident will last. Cormac McCarthy, another egotist, shares this trait. Muldoon curates conceptual words and McCarthy curates the names of things, the parts of the world his characters inhabit. But he’s American and Muldoon isn’t. For Americans, the thing’s the thing, or as William Carlos Williams put it, “no ideas but in things.”

Maybe it's a reaction to an intellectually regressive culture playing out in txt msgs, in presentation bullet points, political soundbites and compressed YouTube videos. Dabs of thought all, Yaakov.

Then again, curating language seems to be an Irish trait. George V. Higgins curated idiom, especially the contractions employed in everyday speech: "That seemed to've put a stop to that . . . More's the fools they are . . . She knew for sure my life'd turned out dreary . . . they really couldn't've afforded it . . . how well their sons're all doing . . ." and, with syntactic brio, "Dad--and of course, Mother--'d shielded me from it."

Yes, and Yeats intentionally and purposefully curated the names of people by writing them out in a verse: "MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse."

Come to think of it, Higgins was a lawyer, an egotist by profession, and Yeats' rivals knew the arch-poet as an egotist. Maybe it's egotism that's an Irish trait?

Nah, it's a necessary condition for art, is all.

Who knows what really motivates an artist, Yaakov? Surely not the artist. All I know is that I can’t read Muldoon or McCarthy without a good dictionary at hand.

Come to think of it, Picasso was incoherent too. Schools tried to claim him but even cubism was just another assignation for him, like one of his numerous trysts. Picasso was a curator of painterly subjects. Aside from being an egotist.

If you want to know what Muldoon is about, revisit Picasso.

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