Charles Harper Webb and the Nihilism of Difficult Poetry

Friday, December 2, 2016

Charles Harper Webb and the Nihilism of Difficult Poetry

“The fascination of what’s difficult.” – W.B. Yeats

A recent noontime gathering of students and faculty at CSU Long Beach heard two of my colleagues in the Department of English debate the virtues and drawbacks of “difficult” poetry. The discussion came about after Charles Harper Webb, representing the Creative Writing option, had published an article, “The Limits of Indeterminacy: A Defense of Less Difficult Poems,” in The Writers’ Chronicle, and George Hart had responded with a brevity enforced by the WC’s preference for letters under 300 words. Webb is primarily known as the staunchest spokesperson of the Stand Up poets, a loosely affiliated cluster of poets that started to become known in the 1970s in Southern California. Hart is a specialist in American poetry, with a particular interest in Robinson Jeffers and Larry Eigner. Since I have written and have had published both Difficult and “Less Difficult” poems myself, as well as written critical commentary on poets working on each side of that divide, I was very pleased to see this conversation scheduled at CSULB, and even more delighted to see almost 100 students turn up.

In the article, Webb’s attack on critical theory conflated scientific discourse with literary tropes, which led Hart to lead off the discussion by asking Webb, “What does science have to do with poetry?” Webb responded that “it has to do with truth,” but he seemed hard pressed to articulate exactly how modernity’s scientific investigations destabilized the field of cultural work enough so that post-modern poets relied upon critical theory to legitimate their “Difficult” writing. As their conversation continued, there didn’t appear to be much common ground or an opening for a resolution of their differences. As George Hart put it, “Derrida deconstructs metaphysics, not physics,” to which Webb responded that “deconstruction was no more than playful sophistry.” Webb’s lack of in-depth knowledge of critical theory left him floundering at one point, during which he asked Professor Hart to repeat his question three times. It was discomfiting, to put it mildly.

There was a question-and-answer period afterwards, and I let the students have first crack at them, especially since I have a blog and can post my response at length and leisure. Before I pose my questions to Dr. Webb, in particular, I will first present three central passages from his article:
(1) “For decades now, American poetry has been under the influence of literary theories arising from and contributing to the collapse of fundamental Western “truths.” Revolving around concepts of uncertainty and indeterminancy….. these essentially nihilistic ideas include the following: atheistic contingency; ego dissolution; textual equivalency; and the metonymic replacement of author by reader.”
(2) Difficult poems do not, as a rule, do what I most want poems to do: 1) Facilitate the waking dream. 2) Lodge in my memory; 3) Allow me to inhabit fascinating minds. 4) Evoke a wide range of emotions, including positive ones.
(3) Difficult poems are not memorable. Shakespeare’s brief candle, Donne’s compass, Keats’s Grecian urn, Arnold’s retreating sea of faith, stay in my mind and change the way I view the world. Among contemporary poems, Kinnell’s bear, Komunyakaa’s Vietnam Wall, and other images too plentiful to name, have also reshaped my world.

My own quibble with the first of these passages concerns its emphasis on nihilism. Are the ideas that Webb cites truly nihilistic, or is Webb appropriating the same broad brush of antagonism that middle-brow artists and writers have used ever since Nietzsche had to endure similar dismissals? When Professor Hart asked Webb to clarify his intermingling of scientific theory and literature’s poetics, I had hoped that Webb would be more forthcoming and specific about this particular designation. “Nihilism,” after all, is hardly a term that pivots on emotionally neutral ground; its static electricity alone is enough to make the average person start singing some cheerful ditty, lest one be hauled away to a re-education camp. Does nihilism, however, only lead to existential torpor and social dysfunction? There must be some hidden fondness for nihilism’s clairvoyant powers, otherwise Webb wouldn’t cite as one of his favorite chunks of verse MacBeth’s cri de coeur of “life’s brief candle.” Given Webb’s affirmation of lines that speak of life as “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing,” what exactly is it about nihilism that upsets him so much?

Articles in the Writers’ Chronicle are hardly known for their in-depth analysis, so needless to say there are no lengthy footnotes discussing books and articles that examine relevant issues about nihilism’s allegedly intimate relationship with “the metonymic replacement of author by reader.” This lack of scholarly appraisal of his keywords reinforces my suspicions that Webb’s basic method of attack amounts to an earnest ad hominem attack: nihilists are bad people, Webb believes; and taking up where Plato left off, he also urges us to band together and drive these bad people out of the Republic of the Imagination, or at the very least quarantine them in their solipsistic Quonset huts.

Why are nihilists such bad people? one might ask him. Apparently, in the case of poetry, nihilist theory mongers have convinced many gullible contemporary poets that they need to write difficult poems, and we all know (according to Webb) what a baleful impact difficult poems have had: five minutes after one reads a difficult poem, Webb claims, one can’t remember it. Actually, I misquote him here. The pronoun is personal, which brings us to one of the most irritating parts in Webb’s diatribe: its almost presumptuous subjectivity. His argument is built around the notion that Charles Harper Webb is the representative reader in contemporary society. “I don’t remember what a difficult poem is about five minutes after I read it,” he says with an aplomb that assumes we have the same problem. His argument does not pause for a second to ask if maybe… just maybe … there are other people in the world who have no trouble at all remembering a difficult poem, but savor the encounter. (In point of fact, during the discussion, Professor Hart quoted from memory some lines from John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Afterwards, Patty Seyburn commented that she was not impressed that he could recite famous lines from that poem. I then mentioned to her that I had no problem remembering Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” the first time I read it.)

“On the Limits of Indeterminacy,” it should be noted, is hardly the first example of Webb’s attention deficit disorder in regards to complex or difficult ideas. If his prose on poetry falters, it should be noted that his best poems remain memorable enough to grant him a substantial slot of airtime on the “Seriously Funny” poetry channel, hosted by Barbara Hamby. One of his most amusing poems, “Jackass: The Viewer,” addresses a variant on his essay’s theme. In the poem, Webb says that “Brains save what they think they need to survive.” Classical literature, with all of its ponderous layers of allusion (and fancy diction: why didn’t I say “palimpsests of allusion,” instead?), is a heavy trek, and when the whip comes down, when push comes to shove, etc., etc., wouldn’t a good laugh be of far greater assistance in helping you extricate yourself from terminal depression?

My brain has dumped the words King Lear howled

on the heath, but saved some Fool promising some car-
rental guy, “I’ll take good care of this baby,” then driving
straight to Demolition Derby.

“Why is High Culture so hard to grasp today?” Webb asks in line 38 of “Jackass: The Viewer.” It’s hardly a new question, though Webb’s exuberant paean of low culture makes for a very satisfying carnival.

I barely smile watching that French
genius-mime, but nearly fill my pantaloons watching a guy

crack a newspaper in a hardware store, then deflower
the display commode. I can’t contain the sense
of teleology, but can’t let go of sqwonking air-horns

as pro putters flail. I can’t quote one line of Hart Crane,
or grasp why celebrated critics celebrate certain poets
of today, …..

All well and good in terms of a quick, satisfying laugh, but the main idea of this poem begs the question: what about those of us who do remember the images and phrasings associated with high culture? Is an ability to recall lines from Henry IV, Part One somehow less meaningful than being able to describe a scene from A Fish Called Wanda? Webb might claim to be engaged in deliberate hyperbole in regards to his poems, but nevertheless the argument in his poem would seem to complement his essay’s straightforward sincerity in dismissing difficult poetry. The poem, in fact, pointedly cites the problem Webb sees in much modern as well as contemporary poetry and its criticism. “Jackass”’s out-of-hand castigation of a “difficult” poet such as Hart Crane might please an audience predisposed to cheer Webb on, but one wonders if his followers might not have noticed the fine print: “Brains save what they think they need to survive.” Perhaps there is a difference between what “brains need to survive” and “what they think they need to survive.” If one is going to propose that the brain remembers what’s most useful, and the useful is defined by how easily something is retained, then what accounts for those who retain the “difficult” with an ease that suggests complete functional felicity? Surely one of the aspects of fascinating minds is that they notice how the brain can deceive itself about what it needs to survive, and that idea itself has comic rewards and pleasures beyond dry irony. What is particularly odd, almost contradictory in fact, is that Webb cites fascinating minds as one of his expectations and rewards for reading poetry. Are fascinating minds, in and of themselves, less difficult minds?

John Keats was most certainly not in search of less difficult minds to emulate when he recorded his conversation with Dilke and jotted down his definition of negative capability as someone “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.” If Webb were to revise this article (and doing so from top to bottom would be my recommendation), I would urge him to consider starting with Keats’s key term and trace from there how “difficult” poetry came to occupy a citadel of cultural magnetism.

The capacity to dwell “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” is not a trait that is developed through mental assiduity alone. It also involves the emotional maturation of an artist, too, and must also be proportionately characteristic of readers. The issue of emotion, in fact, which is cited in the second passage by Webb I quoted above, is perhaps the issue that Webb should especially devote himself to in the next iteration of this essay. “Less difficult poems,” he implies, provide a more favorable environment for a “wide range of emotions, including positive ones,” and (once again, implicitly) enable the poem to “lodge in the memory.” The appeal to the emotional content of poems is a particular problem. It amounts to a sentimental privileging of affect as the most desirable component in an image, defined by Ezra Pound as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” The choice by Pound of the conjunction “and” rather than “or” is fairly crucial, is it not? An image is not just a sensuous evocation of human perception designed to manipulate the reader’s emotions with the rhetoric of figurative language; an image is also required to have intellectual rigor. Webb’s neglect and implicit dismissal of the “intellectual” aspect of the image’s impact leaves me suspicious of his claim to be in favor of a wide range of emotions.

Surprise is the key emotion to poetry. It is to poetry what charity is to the hierarchy of virtues in many religions. Without surprise, all the other emotions in a poem quickly turn rancid with banality. Intellectual surprise is just as much as much a legitimate emotion as the surprise that sunders or unites social passions. What Professor Webb calls “less difficult poems” are often less surprising poems, and since surprise is one of the constituent elements of happiness, I often find myself less happy when I am reading poems that strive to be “less difficult.” All poems are not created equal, and the best poems enable me to pursue the surprise that is at the heart of happiness.

Finally, I would like to mention one puzzling absence in Professor Webb’s argument in favor of less difficult poems. How difficult does the use of meter make a poem? Many students struggle with comprehending how a poem should be “a meter-making argument,” but that difficulty should hardly be an excuse for poets to write free verse. The fact remains that a poem – a memorable poem – can more than occasionally derive from such an otherwise overwhelming experience that one calls upon the dexterity of meter to “facilitate the waking dream.” In many memorable poems written in English over the past half-millennium, meter has been an essential part of the poem’s composition. In citing poems or passages of dramatic verse that he regards as “less difficult” and more memorable, it would behoove his argument to address the role that formal poetry plays within the realm of the “less difficult.”

In that regard, it would probably help his argument if he included a citation and explication of a poem by Emily Dickinson, who much to my surprise is not mentioned at all in his article. Perhaps, though, her poems belong to the nihilistic canon of “Difficult” poetry. I am teaching a seminar on Emily Dickinson’s poetry this coming spring, and Webb is more than welcome to join as a guest lecturer in addressing this issue.