Sunday, August 07, 2005

CD Wright as the Love Child of Ron Silliman & Dolly Parton

A fascinating essay by Joel Brouwer, about the work of poet CD Wright, in the current issue of Parnassus. Here's a quote:

" . . . thoughtful readers of Wright's work fall roughly into two camps, with an epistemological line in the sand drawn between them. One side claims that Wright is at root a Southern storyteller who, regrettably, caught a bad case of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in San Francisco and has never fully recovered. These readers see Wright's more difficult poems as encrypted narratives, and suggest that the reader's task -- the reader's only choice, really -- is to fit the poems' shards back together into coherent stories. In a review for Poetry, David Orr calls Wright's poems "willfully odd," and accuses her of "dropping obliquities," but finds her warm and welcoming on balance: "her head might be full of Ron Silliman, but her soul is pure Dolly Parton." Adam Kirsch, writing in The New Republic, also believes in that Dolly Parton soul, but is deeply irritated by the Silliman superstructure that conceals it, and furthermore isn't much of a Parton fan. He argues that Wright's deliberate derangement of what he perceives to be perfectly good narratives is gratuitous and "discourteous," and, further, suggests that the disjointed surfaces of Wright's poems are designed to obscure a crucial secret: Wright has nothing particularly interesting to say." page 201-202

Check out the whole essay. It's an interesting read. And I have to agree with Brouwer on some level: when I don't think I have "anything interesting to say" is usually when I resort to word play, ellipsis, disjunctive narrative and other fun in a poem. But where I disagree is that there is a willful "concealing" that is going on. What I find to be the case is that the word play and disordering often help me find something new (and interesting) to say, that I didn't know I could say, and only found I could say once I started writing the poem.


Justin Evans said...

It's my own little theory that Frank Stanford really did something to her brain. I think it opened it, but also crushed a lot of what was there. Perhaps her being a language poet is more reaction to his death than being in San Francisco.

Emily Lloyd said...

Interesting. I've been meaning to reread Wright for ages; this gives me the push. I find the idea of two competing ideologies, goals, in poems exciting. Verging on necessary at this point, even.

And interesting, your last paragraph. I feel the same thing happens when I push a poem into a traditional form, sometimes--when I was "forced" (in school) to write in rhymed syllabics, for ex...I'll end up with something that doesn't have an "Emily wrote this" feel to it, and that is all to the good [grin].

I love Dolly: It doesn't bother me when people call me a dumb blonde. I know I'm not dumb. I also know I'm not blonde.

Charles said...

If I find a different way of telling of story, am I concealing the narrative or revealing a new one?

The Sublibrarian said...

All of this is assuming that a poem should say something.


A poem can do any damn thing it pleases. Whether or not a reader finds it interesting, well, that's the reader's problem. If the reader sticks around, maybe he or she will learn something that isn't a bromide tarted up with metaphor.

The notion that disjunction is a cover for no content is such a canard that, well, Kirsch should have all his pencils broken.

All of the other arts have broken the stranglehold of "expression" and "realism." I don't understand why it's so hard for writing to do so.

Steven D. Schroeder said...

A. Thank goodness not all poets have similar attitudes toward readers.

B. Writing is a different medium. People have different expectations of what they'll get out of a poem or prose piece than what they'll get out of a painting. People have different expectations of words than they do of colors or musical notes or bits of metal. Thus, it's evolved differently...

The Sublibrarian said...

A. I was exagerrating for effect, but still. And perhaps I'm misunderstanding your point, but this takes us right into the thick of the accessible poem. Which is a mistake. There really is a need for the reader to step up and put a little work into reading something. To be an adult. Meeting the poem on its terms as it were. That's when discovery happens. Everything else is self-affirmation which, while it has emotional satisfactions, is solipsistic at best, narcissistic at worst.

B. I, obviously, don't agree. The distance between 18th century landscape and one of Motherwell's Spanish Elegies is about the same as that between Keat's "Ode to Autumn" and Tjanting; or that between Also Sprach Zarathustra and Schoenberg's piano music. That there are expectaions seems to me an opportunity for art by either highlighting or breaking those expectations. Of course, it's only an opporutinity and one that doesn't need always to be taken. But it should not be denied, either.

One of my frustrations, too, is that there seems to be a very peculiar redaction of the history of American literature behind the insistence that a poem "say something." It isn't entirely on point, but take Williams _Spring and All_. In your average anthology only the poems are there. They're only about half of the work, though. No one ever prints the stretches of apocalyptic prose in which the poems are embedded. It's as if there was this burst of energy and activity before World War II and then everyone forgot about it. The history of European literature seems better assimilated by Europeans, and their literature is the better for it.

There's another thread of argument to be made, too, around Hejinian's _My Lif_ and an essay by Rae Armantrout whose title escapes me at the moment, that sometimes anti-realism is more mimetic than the conventions of realism.

But, finally, I guess what bothers me the most are those folks who want to draw lines and say that anything on the other side isn't poetry. Folks can say they don't like something. Fine. But it's the height of arrogance, and a disservice to the art, to say that "all poems do X." There's enough history of writing to demonstrate in 90% of the cases that's it's bullshit. Second, it attempts to foreclose areas that just might be the most important for us to explore.

Oh, and by the way, I was going to delete my comment above. But then it was commented on. And hence, the response.

Peter said...

Fascinating discussion.
Must a poem always "say something?" On the other hand: How can it not? Isn't a poem saying something whether it is "saying something" or not? Oooh . . . I have a headache now. hehehe

It's all art to me. . .

Radish King said...

Sublibrarian, I am so thankful to have you as a reader. I think you may be one of my very best.

louise said...

Am I the only one that finds the Dolly Parton comparison quite dismissive? I've noticed that most of the people who give C.D.Wright a hard time happen to be male, and how long does Stanford have to be dead before she can be viewed on her own terms?

Also, I personally don't think she's been that affected by language poetry. She's organic, loose, subterrean, magical, mystical, wild, bodily, filled with voodoo, and the strange mist of the ozarks--

Disjunctive doesn't always equal theory laden Lang-po. Sometimes it's just someones innate and natural style. She has always struck me as someone who writes more from the gut than the brain.

Charles said...

Louise, I totally agree with you on Wright's influences. One thing that is very distinct about her is that she refuses to be categorized—her work resists categorization the same way. I interviewed her a few years ago and she was very adamant; in fact, she told a classmate of mine "not to sign up" when movements are handed out. I think her language is, as you say, completely organic, resisting both categories and traditional rules.

I'm hoping the Dolly Parton reference was one of reverence. In gay circles, that wouldn't be a statement of dismissal, but one of true appreciation.

Anne said...

I can't speak with much authority about Wright, having read only a couple of her books, but as for Dolly Parton -- the thing about her is that she's not at all what she seems, and then again, she is exactly what she seems. Somehow she manages to be utterly artificial and utterly "real" (whatever THAT means) all at the same time. She's the ultimate drag queen -- pure artifice and pure honesty all rolled together. Needless to say, I adore her.

And I'm sure it would be easy enough to make a parallel here -- how Dolly's artifice is what makes her honesty possible, and how the artifice of language makes the honesty of meaning possible -- but heaven knows I'm not articulate enough to do it, especially not right this moment. I do think the distinction between "storytelling" and "concealment" is a false, and possibly even a harmful, dichotomy -- I think poetry often, maybe even always, does both at the exact same time. And Peter, I think this is what you already said, it just took me more words to get there. :)

Peter said...

I love this thread.

And agree that I read the Dolly Parton reference as one of *reverence,* and not dismissal (or I'd absolutley have to turn in my gay card . . .lol).

And just to be clear about Wright's poetry: though I don't often understand it, I do often enjoy it.

Justin Evans said...

I merely suggested that Wright consciously moved away from Stanford. It was neither an indictment or complaint. Death often has a cathartic effect on a person, so why is it so unreasonable to offer that Wright made a decision to move toward the 'language' school out of a need to establish her own identity?

Am I really suggesting anything more radical than what Virginia Woolf suggested?

Certainly my "male" brain can think in terms other than sex and domination. Why is it that when a "male" asks a question about a female poet's relationship with a man, he is automatically accused of being limited by his gender? Can't we all just get along?

Pamela said...

I always thought that one of the many charms of Wright's work is that it's (no level of pun intended anywhere here) right-brain writing. There's not often a clear-cut narrative, but there's always backstory, and Wright calls for poets to "exploit the rind of narrative."

I agree with Peter that a poem's always saying something. Or nothing. Or everything.

louise said...

Gosh, I wasn't aware anyone wasn't getting along.

Historically, it's a point of fact that C.D. Wright has been given a hard time in various ways, and yes, it has primarily been by male critics. She has been accused of everything from "stealing" Frank Stanford's voice to somehow being implicated in his death--

Nine books, some thirty years and a MacArthur Fellowship later, I'm just skeptical that a short, though indeed powerful personal relationship with another poet is not nearly as instrinsic to her identity as people seem to think.

And let me say that I'm a deep admirer of Stanford too. I even went to Eureka Springs a few months ago and was deeply moved by the resonant echos I found of that wonderful, rustling town in his poems.

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Steven D. Schroeder said...

I think even a poem that deliberately says nothing is saying something, isn't it? :-)