I've had an interesting exchange on the "Cruelest Month" Harper-Collins lit-blog (www.cruelestmonth.com) about poet John Ashbery. Interesting is how the moderator of the blog, Michael Signorelli, worries that I might make a fool of myself with what I say about literature today.
His concern shows his lack of knowledge about the roots of language, ideas, and culture.
"The Fool" of course is the first card in the Tarot deck. It represents the seeker, the artist: the individual open to the world and experience, yet uncorrupted by human machinations. (Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," Prince Myshkin, is a variant of this type.) Throughout history there has been the "Holy Fool." In medieval times intelligent poets played fools for barbarian kings. "Fool" is an honorable name, from the perspective of the artist.
The larger point about John Ashbery is that he's a symbol of the established literary world's inability to change over the course of half-a-century. No art form survives by remaining static-- yet this is exactly what the Michael Signorellis of the world advocate. They're closed-- hostile even-- to criticism of their dusty plaster gods.
To further announce Ashbery's mediocre body of work, especially in the face of a dawning underground revival, would be as if newspapers were proclaiming the greatness of Al Jolson in the face of the rock revolution beginning in 1955. Hopelessly, pathetically out-of-date.
(It's like McCartney on sale at Starbucks-- a sign of stagnation in more than literary culture today.)
Our media mandarins are trapped in a time warp, and seem unable to move away. Our world of culture today is like a bad science fiction movie. It's actually the moment of calm before the deluge-- before a Katrina cultural hurricane.
Signorelli attacks me for being an egotist, because I try to find available avenues to get word out about my writing. Unlike Ashbery, I don't have access to a profusion of mouthpieces proclaiming to the world what I'm doing. I'm well aware of my limitations as a poet (my colleague Frank Walsh for instance is way better, as are a few other undergrounders I could name)-- yet I also think, if a quack like Ashbery is being proclaimed far and wide, for five decades, there should be room for me also.
The repetition I use in my poem, cited on the Cruelest Month blog, seems to have thrown posters Michael and "John"-- yet is easily defended.
Repetition has been a mainstay of art over the centuries-- the key is to find the right mix, which I'm imperfectly groping toward.
Done right, you get the perfection of a Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which repeats a simple musical motif again and again, with amazing results.
In another art, take a look at the way the lighting of a cigarette is done in the movie "Double Indemnity." The final time, because of the context, the simple action takes on power and meaning.
Song, a strong relative to poetry, uses the refrain to hammer home an artistic point.
But, for the brainwashed, like those who manage the media monopolies, anything done outside their narrow parameters is dangerous.