September 30, 2010

Wordsworth, Blake and constructive criticism

Filed under: Poetry,reading — crcb @ 10:19 pm
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I was reading William Blake‘s notes on reading William Wordsworth (Blake’s verdict: conflicted), and I started thinking about the two poets together.

Wordsworth’s problem as a poet: he became possessed by Wordsworth. Anything was significant if he observed or experienced it.

Blake’s problem: he was a crank, with no one to tell him when he was being silly. As a “signal of solemn mourning” (Milton), a sandal on the head is hard to pull off with a straight face.

Both needed someone — someone loved and loving, respected and respecting — to laugh at them, or yawn.

But given such friendly critics, would either have written his greatest poems? Isn’t it their excesses that bring their work to life? Wordsworth could be full of himself and focused on minutiae, but close observation of his experience and inner life are the marks of his best work. Blake was eccentric, but if he hadn’t followed his imagination into questionable realms, we wouldn’t have the wonderful Marriage of Heaven & Hell, and we’d be missing at least half of Songs of Innocence & Experience.

Wordsworth and Blake willfully flouted the tastes of their time. The fact that they sometimes violate my tastes may not be a condemnation of them.


May 27, 2010

Garrison Keillor: Too many writers killing culture

Filed under: General — crcb @ 7:02 am
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I generally like Keillor, but he can be a back-in-my-day codger sometimes. According to a new op-ed by Keillor, book publishing is “about to slide into the sea,” and all because it’s too danged cheap and easy to write and publish and read. His prediction: “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75”

I’ll let others discuss the financial side. They can parade examples of self-published authors who have large followings and make good money, like the enjoyable and prolific Cory Doctorow. Instead, I call William Blake to the stand. Blake’s work never would have survived any editorial vetting process in any era, even ours, and without his egotistical determination to print it himself, the world would be a poorer place.

If I can play the codger myself, back in my youth we had something called “the zine explosion.” Cheap photocopying and cheap postage made it possible for anyone to be a publisher. There were zines on coin collecting, zines on librarianship, racist zines, peace zines, erotic zines, religious zines, zines espousing socio-politico-economic theories that been developed with the aid of powerful chemicals, mobs of music zines, and literary zines — oh, were there literary zines! I saw my own poetry and satire published across the world: Finland, Turkey, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. (My readership was small, but it was cosmopolitan.) I read poetry and fiction and humor and rants and manifesti from those countries and more. And it was good. Not all of it, not most of it. But I would pluck a piece from the spillage and, as Keillor says, “read the first three sentences” to decide if I wanted to read the rest, just as I do with fiction in The New Yorker. I found many poems, stories and articles that were just as good as those in mainstream publications, but I never would have read them there.

For Blake, creative work was synonymous with worship; every poem, book, story, song, drawing or sculpture was another stone laid for the New Jerusalem, and he exhorted every Christian to contribute to building that city. I’m sure many aspects of modern technology would have troubled him, but “everyone an artist” would not have been one of those aspects.

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