Sunday, March 29, 2009

Speaking of the Indefensible

Thinking about norms today. Reading Jonathem Lethem’s recent story in The New Yorker, and feeling like fiction is such a better ambassador than poetry, if you take it on a likeability basis. Mainstream fiction in its most diplomatic form--the short story--has a very small space to shake hands with you, pass you a drink, and charmingly sketch a random trauma with a cocktail toothpick, and then slope off to the buffet table, never to be seen again. You have to establish the norms of the character, all the while doing a soft-shoe behind the text to establish your authorial norms (i.e. “I don’t like to eat puppies, am not aroused by the smell of cordite, and do not have 25 cats which I think of as my ‘community’”). Maybe it’s this constant, polite stream of implied social mediation (“Hmm, yes, of course the folk arts of Romania have some relevancy to my life” and “Yoga can be a transformative presence in the lives of electricians”) that makes fiction reading sometimes feel like eating a whole mess of vitamins.

Yet people rarely ever discuss norms in poetry. It’s taken for granted that the author and/or the speaker is unapologetically rapturous, irritable, hermetic, erratic, aphasic, etc. and that’s that. If the poem lingers on a mosaic of chewing gum on the underside of a baby carriage and appears to hold it up as evidence of some obscure consecration, poetry readers seem trained to buy into the system of signs. Not sure if this makes poems compact little logic bombs or just scams hiding behind a long, distinguished history.

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