10 February 2008

"Freedom from the Tyranny of What Is"

One of the best new essay collections I have read in a long time is Reginald Shepherd's Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry. I first encountered Shepherd some years back in an issue of Poets & Writers with an essay he wrote on Samuel Delany, though I didn't realize he had written it until I discovered it reprinted in Orpheus in the Bronx. I first noted Shepherd's name when I discovered his blog, which is consistently rich with thoughtful posts on poetry, writing, teaching, and living. (Shepherd has done some additional blogging the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog, which has become a diverse and fascinating site of discussion about all sorts of different views of poetry. Some of Shepherd's recent posts have stirred up passionate, valuable discussion in their comments threads and elsewhere.)

I've just written and submitted a review of Orpheus in the Bronx, and will offer more details on that once I know its fate. I think this is a book with broad appeal, a book that should be read by writers and readers of all sorts, not just those who are particularly interested in poetry and its various factions and fascinations. To persuade you toward this idea, here's a tiny and more-or-less random selection from some of the many interesting passages in the book...

From the introduction:
History, politics, economics, authorial biography, all contribute to the matter of poetry and even condition its modes of being, but they don't determine its shape, its meaning, or its value. Similarly, it's not that a poet's social position and background don't matter and shouldn't be discussed -- they obviously condition (but do not wholly determine) who he or she is and what she or he writes -- but that they don't define the work or its aesthetic value. They should not be used to put the writer into a box or to expect him or her to write in a certain way or on certain topics, to obligate him or her to "represent" or speak for his or her social identity (as if anyone had only one, or even two or three).
From "The Other's Other: Against Identity Poetry, For Possibility":
I have never looked to literature merely to mirror myself back to me, to confirm my identity to myself or to others. I already have a self, even if one often at odds with itself, and if anything I have felt burdened, even trapped, by that self and its demands, by the demands made upon it by the world. Many minority writers have spoken of feeling invisible: I have always felt entirely too visible, the object of scrutiny, labeling, and categorization. Literature offered a way out of being a social problem or statistic, a way not to be what everyone had decided I was, not to be subject to what that meant about me and for me. But even if one has a more sanguine relation to selfhood, Picasso's admonition should always be kept in mind: art is called art because it is not life. Otherwise, why would art exist? Life already is, and hardly needs confirmation.
From "Shadows and Light Moving on Water: On Samuel R. Delany":
There is a convergence between the position of poetry and the position of science fiction in contemporary American culture. Both are highly marginal discourses. Poetry has a great deal of residual cultural cachet (as attested by its use as an all-purpose honorific: a good quarterback is "poetry in motion"), but few people read it (there are many times more would-be poets than readers of poetry); science fiction lacks prestige but is widely read (often somewhat abashedly, as if one shouldn't admit to such an adolescent habit).

At their best, science fiction and poetry have in common the production and presentation of alternative worlds in which the rules, restrictions, and categories of our world don't apply; it was this freedom from the tyranny of what is, the domination of the actually existing, that attracted me to both, first science fiction and then poetry.
From "Why I Write":
To attempt something new and fail is much more interesting than to attempt something that's already been done and fail. I don't want to write something just because I know I can, just to reaffirm what I already know. Of course, to say that I don't want to do the same thing twice is to assume that I've done something in the first place. I not only don't know what I can do, I don't know what I've done. How could one, not having access to the vantage point of posterity? With every poem I'm trying to do something that I can't achieve, to get somewhere I'll never get. If I were able to do it, if I were able to get there, I'd have no reason to continue writing.

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