Thursday, January 2, 2020

Always Sexually Companionate is not Realistic

When I talk about God - especially in relation to the writing that I do, which I think is almost always either implicitly or explicitly related to God - it is an error to always talk about "gifts."

Because something is also taken. You lose something when you agree to worship at the altar of art, and it's a nontrivial loss. It's a required loss.

Over and over this loss appears in the art itself (even as the art), as if demanding to be recognized and integrated (i.e., we must accept ourselves as broken in order to heal and forever after that we limp).

Saying it that way feels very consistent with Robert Bly's attempts to think and write mythically in the eighties and nineties, which was when I first encountered him. I read Iron John several times, not because it spoke to me in particular, but because many men in my circle were reading it and I wanted to be fluent in the relevant language. The book itself always felt less substantial than Bly's critical writing about poetry.

Bly no longer feels challenging to me, is the thing. I'm grateful to him, recognize his craft, et cetera but . . . the resonance, the interior amplititude, is no longer there.

The writer from those seminal years who remains provocative - or is presently provocative - is Jack Gilbert, about whom I have been trying to write intelligently for the past year or so. I feel a lot of shame around reading Gilbert (both for reading him then and for reading him now), and so - I think "so" is the right word here - there is also a sense of being stuck at a site of unresolved poetics (where poetics is understood broadly to include one's psychology et cetera).

The problem is Gilbert's relationship with women (which is in many senses the problem all the male writers I read in my twenties had - save possibly for Carruth, though I will have to reflect on that). Gilbert pretty plainly objectifies women, sexualizes them, and leans into the objectification to see what it will yield.

And what does it yield? I think just more objectification and possibly the sour grapes of one who has missed out on some fundamental experiences of women accordingly. Does Gilbert ever once mention his mother?

While I appreciate the emotional honest of his later work, and his abiding commitment to an aesthetic, it felt sterile to me in the end and embarrassing even, the desire to be always sexually companionate is . . . not realistic.

On the other hand, Gilbert's steadfast insistence on western images and art and mythologies and rhetorical strategies continues to matter to me, as I feel my own "eastern flirtations" were just that - shallow flirtations that never remotely approached consummation, let alone relationship. A lot of the helpful clarity in my thinking over the past two years has been the result of deliberately exploring the western canon. It turns out I have a lot of mothers and fathers (and aunts and uncles and cousins . . . ) and nearly all of them are monotheistic (or victims of monotheism, i.e., western pagans).

Anyway, where did this brief expository essay begin? In the notion that when one consents to spend a life writing, they are not just gifted with a life of writing, but also to a life without . . . what? What is taken away?

Gilbert eschewed the easy comfort of western-style Buddhism and careerism. I remember running into him one time in Stop n Shop and he was studying decrepit, marked-down bananas, like looking for the least decrepit. Shades of Wendell Berry in this ruthless fidelity, though Berry conjured his comfort through a kind of right living (he can be very tiresome championing his way of life). Gilbert's crisp lines - like marble, really - were only possible because of the material deprivations he accepted (where is Gilbert's mother?). On that view, one can appreciate how much it must have hurt when he couldn't make love as reliably or ecstatically. It was the only sensual excess he allowed himself.

Anyway, this is becoming judgmental, unfairly so. Poet, study thyself! And if you can't manage that, at least notice when you're projecting onto somebody else.

Let's say - for now - that my pathology - as I have been using that word in recent posts - is conceptually related to Gilbert's pathology with women and strict attention to western intellectual and theological culture, and that if I want to explore this in a fructive meaningful way, then I might want to answer this question:

Where is the mother in Jack Gilbert's poetry?

[note that this may be related to a similar question: where is the mother in Emily Dickinson's poetry? But in Dickinson's case, the question is muddied because her fame has led to a lot of biographical data and interpretation that is largely unavailable with respect to Gilbert).

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