15 July 2014

For People

Mark Strand (image:The Poetry Foundation)

Rachel Danielle Peterson

For People
A Reaction to Mark Strand's "Against Persona"

It is false causation to say that just because persona isn't something some students are mature enough to handle, that persona itself is the culprit. Maybe it is the culture or short attention spans. There are plenty of examples of persona used well in classical as well as contemporary times. Milton to Berryman to Sexton, they are all the obvious examples. You could say that the moment a speaker moves away from the "I," he or she is taking liberties (actually, there is liberty taken with any "I"). First person is tricky. Actually any person is. Just clothing we wear, like gender, race, education, class, etc.—these things do exist for the author and for those who hope to craft fine poets. Both temperament and point of view, these drives are there, but in the work of great art, they require not only a recognition of uniqueness, but of how to rise above even personality and circumstance to say something that seems real and relevant to everyone who takes the time to read the poem not just today, but in the ages to come.

Big ideas, I know, but that seems like the better lesson to teach and learn. Robert Frost is considered canonical stuff in pretty much every MFA program, but he had a hard time getting his work published because it did things that poetry wasn't supposed to do. He's also given us spectacular dramas via his “unfashionable” poetry, but I am digressing. It is impossible to be unique, to innovate, if you aren't willing after learning all the tricks, that is, to mount the canonical pony.

To buck said trends is to find something wilder to help make the leap from one cliff of human isolation to another. You have to be willing to ride, to leap, to fall.

What I am writing now isn't me, as much as I want to shout “Me, me, me!” With all today’s philosophical and scientific theories about the self, I cannot make such bold a claim. We all must create a version of self to be understood in things like essays, to be recognized as something vaguely human-shaped. I would argue that persona is at work in every poet and every poem because, as much as we like to think we are special, and we are, it is never, truly US on the page. It is kind of like you, and not like you at all. All this that I am doing now is a re-creation, a resurrection—literally from words. We try to be truthful and logical, but a poem, self, word, is one moment, one glimpse, one paradigm that soon slips away from us and all our grand intentions.

We might have given breath to this “I,” birth to it, but it has its own profound existence. It is conscious. Therefore, we should turn our attention to the sort of creatures we are creating because we can make life in all its infinite variety: the hideous and horrible no less than the beautiful and delightful.

The categories Strand cites to draw his conclusion place poets/poems into those three categories: the lyric, the narrative, and the dramatic. Just because this information came from a handbook does not mean it useful information. I had my own students ignore the introduction to their own texts. To each instructor her/his own, right? These three categories are products of not even contemporary tastes, but of what critics have spoken from the Ivory Tower for about a hundred years’ worth of literary culture. They seem valid until you try to employ them to every circumstance in which poetry is involved. Then you realize that it is just a fashion, a fad, like acid-washed jeans.

Is there any reason for a poet, in the midst of creation, to even worry about such things as category placement? Later, upon reflection and revision, the poet might see such things in hindsight. Categorization comes to the poem, but only long after it’s been cut and reworked. This process of revision shows me that I can’t assume that I know every possible permeation of my art in the future. Milton wrote epics a long while ago, and while they aren’t trendy now, that doesn’t mean someone can’t/won’t make one. Just because there hasn't been a clear one written/recognized in generation or so does not mean they can’t be written. It'll happen. Just like acid-washed jeans may (fingers crossed) return.

We can’t assume. Some of the most compelling work being written today not only defies false dichotomies and categorization, but is often unabatedly dramatic/cinematic. With films and television, people just gobble up dramatic structure long before they have any name for it. It appears in so many ways, I can't list them all here.

What is amazing about our species is how we long for meaning even when we realize that the world is chaotic and defies every label, every name we offer up. Way back in my undergraduate days, maybe when I wore acid-washed jeans, I was taught not to personify shit, that it was sentimental and cliché, but, but, but…There is a person in everything: every observation, every thought, every language. I felt this sense most keenly in Proust. In his work, every object becomes human in some way, even things like trees. But don't believe me or my anecdotal evidence. What you should believe is your own point of view and all its glorious limitations.

Whatever pants you wear, put them on one leg after another. Arguing about such classifications, let alone making doctrinal/blanket statements about poetry or those who we are trying to teach, without real evidence of some kind, isn't helpful to teachers or students involved in the process in any real way. Dialogue is helpful, deconstruction and re-creation—both helpful—but don’t tell me what sort of pants I should wear. Or steal. Really, what do we own? Everything on this earth is borrowed, including art. We’re just making it ours for a brief flicker of time, then passing it on. People have worn pale pants probably since pants have been around, and I think it likely that someone somewhere will wear them tomorrow—probably me. After all, pale pants are such a useful thing to put on in a long, hot summer.

Also, let’s not forget the framework underpinning such broad strokes as Strand is making: the top-down equation. What do I mean by that? The language in which his argument is framed speaks to one, select audience. These statements do not delve into deeper issues, such as how we frame such issues in the first place. We educated folk have all learned what we should say to be taken seriously and how to name things correctly. It is so easy to want to belong, be “in,” in some way. We wish to move beyond class and race and gender, patriarchy, consumer culture, violence…all these things. We want to create art that is above it, but, but, But …we can’t. The price of privilege is always the denial of something else. That is why I must ask Strand directly—How do your three categories address these things?

Perhaps that wasn't Strand’s intent to be understood in this way. But any criticism, especially when written and addressed to the public, is going to face outside critique. If I have said anything of value or added to this conversation, a very important conversation, great. If not, then then we just might have to shake hands, agree to disagree…But, if you want to, go ahead, convince me that criticism should be narrow rather than broad, relevant, and encompassing.

Go on. Tell me acid-washed jeans, like these pert opinions, are passé.

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