Unreal Nature

October 25, 2014

On the Rim of the Wheel

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… he will fail who always writes another poem instead.

This is from Journal of the Fictive Life by Howard Nemerov (1965):

… The exact taste of this small fame in our time would not be easy to describe, since everyone experiences it according to his own temperament, and presents to its situation the mask he considers appropriate and within his dramatic means. I guess the main divisions are three, The High Priests, The Nice Guys, and the Sansculottes, or Beats, or Beards. (Though a Beard may easily be a High Priest, it depends on the trim and the combing.) I suppose I am the Nice Guy type, I grin at people, I tell them funny things, I am almost utterly noncontroversial, even nonpolitical. If you behave in this manner publicly, I’ve found, it is possible to say the most shocking, and even subversive, things, equally certain that they will have no effect and that people won’t challenge them, for they are stubbornly persuaded of one’s harmlessness, as well as, maybe, of a certain innocuous unreality in the whole subject and situation.

… It is often contended, mostly by those who do it, that this sort of thing — lecturing, giving ‘readings’ (like a gypsy with tea leaves?), and teaching — is very harmful to the artist. I don’t experience it in that way, for several reasons: it came to me late, when I was already very set in the forms of my devotion; I am of a somewhat cynical temper; I like to meet people, for short times, and rather enjoy getting out of the house, though I also enjoy getting back; I like teaching; I like being made much of, though not for very long, and commanding those ridiculously large sums of money is a sort of gaming pleasure. Most of all, that business has nothing to do with art, which takes place elsewhere and has quite other problems (analysis, communion, not imitating oneself, for instance).

[ … ]

… Lyric poetry, just because of its great refinement, its subtlety, its power of immense implication in a confined space — a great reckoning in a little room — is perpetually in danger of preferring gesture to substance. It thins out, it goes through the motions, it shows no responsibility. I conceive this responsibility of poetry to be to great primary human drama, which poets tend to lose sight of because of their privilege of taking close-ups of single moments on the rim of the wheel of the human story. The poet will improve his art who acknowledges the necessity of always returning to that source; he will fail who always writes another poem instead.

… But alas — and this alas is thematic — what do great works signify? What is the human story? and has it the former interest, the former passion? The great powers of the day are powers of patient, minute analysis; in the realm of the highest eros man shows mostly impotence.

There is a sickness of literature, too, a surfeit and a sickness. To believe in the human story, to love the human story — how unsophisticated, parochial, maybe even sinful. Better to behave like an ant, that is, a patient specialist responsible for statements of great precision in precisely limited situations, never for the whole of the wholeness of things.

My previous post from Nemerov’s book is here.

-Julie

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