Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I'll Just Wait for the Greatest Hits

I have come to the recognition in the last couple of days that I no longer have for myself even one creative writer (prose or poetry) for whose next work I sit in eager anticipation.

The last were probably Anne Carson, Umberto Eco*, and Carole Maso. And I will admit that this is in part due to that financial constraints prevent my full participation in any fandom (even, prevent my standing in the River of What's-Being-Published at all). But primarily it is because it has been so very long since I have been wowed by something literary – written by someone still alive, that is. Or, to bring the past names, perhaps I should say "wowed" by someone whose next work is being written with the intent to "wow" – literarily wow – yet again.

For that, I have come to a second realization: I more and more believe US literature is so overwhelmingly banal that it does not even know what it is to write great literature any more. It's efforts lie primarily in convincing us that the latest Don DeLillo (to pick a name out of the hat) is "great." When really it is at best good. Or, good enough.

What prompts this? I picked up Charlie Smith's Heroin because of a comment by an internet friend (as regards the recent NYTRB on Smith's new Selected), in truth not the first suggesting that I give Smith a look. And the book opened very well, with strong ideation and a use of free verse that justified itself as free verse.

But then, somewhere about a third of the way through, the poems became rather ordinary. Same thin ideation, same sense of paragraphs with line breaks, the appearance here and there of questionable poetic syntax. But above all poems that seem to be making no effort to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

Which very much made it that they distinguished themselves from the Collected of Merrill's that still lies upon the bookstand. It seems like poets today write books the way pop musicians cut albums: two or three songs with a strong enough hook to make a bid for the radio charts, and the rest rather unremarkable filler.


* It is a little argumentatively problematic my inclusion, there, of Eco, because he is Italian. Though, he does not generally write out of contemporary Italy to the degree that one loses too great a part in the translation. Generally, when I am wowed by a text these days, it is a work from another nation. For example, I was fascinated by Pamuk's The Black Book. But I also knew – and was frustrated by – that I was missing a great part of the book not being intimately familiar with contemporary culture in Turkey. That is the primary reason I have not read a second of his books. I loved Kawabata's The Master of Go, which is high literature even in translation, and have enough understanding to engaged it deeply. But other works out of contemporary Japanese culture, maybe no so much.

I could probably lose myself in Kundera for a while. But that is to the point. If you look at the list of books I keep on my phone, asofyet unexplored books in which I have a great interest, a very small minority of them come from the US. (Do any? of authors still alive? I'll have to look.)

That is prose. In poetry? I could see one or two that I might be following if I lived on the west coast. But in truth, the whole of the culture of US poetry seems disappointing. Yes, I enjoy Carson's books. But she too seems willing to publish poems – like the one I saw this year in the New Yorker – that make me only go why? Who cares? It's no different than any of the other generic poetry that appears in such mags.

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