Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On Literary Theory, and a New Poem

 I came across the following by way of the excellent online journal Numéro Cinq (full disclosure: I am an adviser to the magazine, which is edited by my good friend Douglas Glover, a superb Canadian fictionist and essayist –see, most recently, his remarkable story collection, Savage Love). Here is a comment by one Paul Bowes, of whom I know nothing save that he echoes many of my own sentiments. Mr. Bowes is responding to an article in The Guardian (U.K.) called "In theory: the death of literature," by Andrew Gallix.

In critical circles, ... (an argument) seems to depend increasingly on placing excessive weight on the 'symptomatic' significance of essentially minor writers such as Blanchot, whose reputation in the anglophone world as an important fictionist I find to be simply undeserved. (His non-fiction may be another matter.)

The recent literary-theoretical attention to Blanchot seems to me to have a lot more to do with the academy's perennial need to find new fodder for theorising - and to make careers for young entrants to a well-worked-over field - than any inherent merit in the writer. Theory will always be more fascinated by notions like 'belatedness' and 'exhaustion', because by implication they magnify the status of theory in relation to creative work. In readings of 'thin', 'exhausted' literature, the theorist is usually doing - and can be seen to be doing - more creative work than the original writer.

I also find arguments of this type curiously olde-fashioned, even Whiggish. They all seem to assume that 'literature' has a guiding spirit, and that its history is always moving towards the realisation of some final predestined form. But curiously, no matter which book or writer or era one chooses as the 'last book' or 'final author' or 'terminal epoch', actual literature has the bad manners to pay no attention, and persists in appearing in new forms.

The worst thing about these ideas is the authoritarian way in which they seek to take control of, and foreclose on the future. Where is literature going? These people don't know, any more than the rest of us, and their notions are essentially polemical rather than diagnostic.

Amen and amen.

The following new poem takes its impetus from the coldest Vermont winter I can recall in years and years. The temperature dipped to 30 below two nights ago, and has gone below zero every night for weeks. When the weather is thus frigid, however, the beauty of the woods and mountains is, as the poem implies, indescribable:

          Keeping At It at 20 Below

It’s too cold for me to stay out long at my age,

So I trek the half-mile road below our shed,

Its earth deep-hidden beneath the white.

Far east, Black Mountain shows up, razor-edged

On a sky full of crystals. My boots on frigid ground

Cheep so loudly that with my old guy’s ears

I can’t right off discern another sound:

Pine siskins in their scores. They wheeze from every

Evergreen in sight. I used to plow

On snowshoes through powder, hour on hour.

It shames me to say the notion scares me now.

Still it’s hard to keep with wistfulness when air

Keeps glittering so, and creatures no bigger than thumbs

Keep at it, cheerful, determined. Each bird tears

At bough-tips, feeding and chanting. I focus on one

That doggedly worries the tip of a spruce-cone, eats,

Then flits away.

                                                               Beyond the bird,

Beyond the emerald tree in which it sat,

Beyond the outlying mountain– well, what passes

Even beyond bright air, and who might sense it?

Not I.  It’s birdsong that prompts such opening phrases.

Beyond all this, let time complete my sentence.

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