Dyer’s book is about trench warfare, World War I, artistic responses to war (especially in literature), the conventions of war memorial sculptures, his personal journeys around WWI battlefields and cemeteries in France, and other things, but his main concern is the nature of cultural memory. How do societies construct and revise the past? “The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory but the way memory has determined — and continues to determine — the meaning of the war.”
While this is a book very much focused on WWI, a period which of course had massive (and, he shows, lasting) import for Dyer’s native Britain, many of the book’s insights about history and memory are easily transferrable to other events. He writes persuasively, for example, about the ways in which the realities of historical events and their representations in language interact and determine each other, and his observations seem to me applicable to any such events, from the fall of Rome to 9/11.
One thing that feels kind of weird here is the personal parts, which I think maybe — speaking of how our perception of the past changes over time — may have seemed innovative and edgy in 1994 but now after 25 years of rapid evolution in the genre of CNF seems no longer very edgy and in this case kind of just annoying. When we get the accounts of Dyer driving around from monument to monument, village to village with his buddies, cracking jokes and eating sandwiches in their rental car, I think we’re meant to understand something about how memory is always cultural but also always personal? But the jokes are dumb and I could have done without them.
I don’t want to end on a sour note because this is a very sharp book and I enjoyed it. There are plenty of passages worth underlining. The one I’ll probably remember best: “Theodor Adorno said famously that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Instead, he failed to add, there would be photography.” Smart. Not entirely accurate, but smart.
Ben Lerner’s brief essay makes some smart if not new points about poetry’s most ancient and fundamental sorrow: It cannot succeed. The “re” in “representation” means that poetry’s always at a remove from the genuine. Plato was the first to note this bummer; folks still aren’t over it. As Lerner correctly writes, “The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” An ideal and perfect Poetry can exist as an imaginative category, but every actual poem has fallen and will fall short of that ideal. Lerner quotes George Oppen: “Because I am not silent, the poems are bad.” Lerner: “Hating on actual poems . . . is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry.” Exactly right. Poems are always large or small failures, but the beauty and force of Poetry is eternal.
So what then? My personal advice: If the ideal matters to you, instead of writing poems, be a poet. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to write poems to be a poet.) Lerner astutely points out that “‘Poetry’ is supposed to signify an alternative to the kind of value that circulates in the economy as we live it daily, but actual poems can’t realize that alternative,” because the making of poems is just another commodity production process. But being a poet merely means that you are devoted to the idea of the ideal. It doesn’t mean you think yourself (or anyone else) capable of realizing or reifying that ideal. That would be crazy. Writing poems is a doomed enterprise, but to be a poet is to live a dream. The only downside is that I mean that literally; you can only be a poet in your dreams. Once you wake up, you’re just a writer of poems, a failure.
I hope Lerner writes more criticism; he seems capable of being in uncertainties, which is my chief qualification for a critic. Nice read.
There’s no contemporary poet I’ve read as deeply or written about as much as much as C. D. Wright, who died this week, unexpectedly, at her home in Rhode Island. I admired her so much, for so many reasons. Most of all I admired her faith. She had as much faith in poetry as I’ve always wanted to have but have never quite been able to muster.
Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self are the major works for me. Partially, no doubt, because those were the ones I came across first, and at a time when my sense of what poetry was, and what it’s for, was changing rapidly. I remember reading Deepstep for the first time and just laughing out loud at the audacity of it. You can just riff like that, just drive around and say what you see, love what you say, say what you love, and see what you say? My deeply internalized belief in poetry as first and foremost a form of rhetoric dissolved in the acids and syrups of those lines, which seemed genial and occult at the same time.
And then One Big Self. Here was the same technique — notice, speak, circle back, connect, repeat — but deployed in public rather than private, in a real prison occupied by others rather than the self-occupied imagination of the poet. I didn’t think you could do that. I’m actually still not sure you can, or should. (See elsewhere in today’s Times for an analogy.) But she just did it. That’s the faith I’m talking about. Doing it anyway, not because you trust yourself, but because you trust poetry.
I’ll never trust it as much as she did, but she helped me begin to persuade myself that believing in the stuff didn’t necessarily make me a sucker. I’ve never been the same, and I’ll always be grateful.