Sunday, February 07, 2010

Through complete chance I came across the following article on Berryman's legacy resulting from the Dream Songs, and on the reasons for the popularity of the latter. The conclusion is pretty dim: the popularity is attributed more to sociological reasons (put crassly, the "cool" factor associated with reading poetry that initially seems resistant to easy interpretation) than any inherent worth in the poems! In particular he claims that they represent a school of thought that is fundamentally incompatible with good poetry, namely, obscurity and the lack of cogency. What the school allows is the for the glorification of snippets of phrases and lines that appear among the weeds, with the rest being vaguely cited as realistic or the like. The school's approach is to avoid the difficult road of creating something with meaning and coherence; instead it is akin to randomly spraying a jumble of words and leaving it to the reader to affix meaning to them.

It makes for fascinating reading, and I embrace the idea that we must at least be willing to point out when something is championed for reasons other than self-worth. I think a lot of my qualms with certain strands of popular music can be characterized by the arguments made in the article: once we let go of structure, it can be thrilling but it's difficult to tell one item from the next. Perhaps that explains the lack of consensus on such things. The author makes this point when he states his belief that no two people will have the same notion of what any particular Dream Song is about. I don't think that there is necessarily any inherent meaning to poetry - there is space inside the words and their texture to let the reader insert his own mind and experiences - but there's a difference in having space between valleys and just having a blank slate. One can affix meaning to anything; but when we are hinted as to which direction to travel, the results are much more resonant, as a general principle. So even forgetting the fact that the latter requires more skill on the poet's part, in terms of what is more powerful, it's clear that the poem with meaning is the one with greater intrinsic worth.

Given my limited exposure to the poems in the Dream Songs - I've been through the original batch, but with some generous skipping - I'm wary to comment too much on his specific criticism of the writing. I completely agree that #44, say, is tough to figure out. But had he chosen any of the well known ones - say, #1, #14, #29, #50 - I wonder if you could draw the same conclusion. Which would refute his stance insofar as it shows that there is something substantive in the poems; it just may not be there in all of them. It seems more reasonable then to explain its popularity based on the good ones rather than chalk it up to a form of mob mentality. If you were to press me further and ask why I like those poems, I might concede that in some cases there's a particularly good line that makes the poem memorable, but by no means are these good lines amongst an array of impenetrable ones: they're just neat summarizations of the feeling of the dream song in question. Quite often they're funny, too, which it strikes me must be another explanation for the popularity of the work. I can't imagine too many people laughing at Tennyson the way they might at a dream song, and so that gives it a certain novelty. Given this, I'd imagine that there are quite a few readers today for whom this style of poetry seems more, well, real than the alternatives.

The article did its job in one sense, in that it made me pause and reconsider my stance on art in general. I'd like to think I'm above the mass that is attracted to something just because it is strange or different - I'm much more interested if the thing is resonant. But is there some part of me that is excited by the idea of the Dream Songs more than the poems themselves? Is the kick I get out of "Are you radioactive, pal? / Pal, radioactive" not much more than the thrill of absurdity? Sure: these things are just human nature, as the author points out. I'm not sure that as a mere consumer of the arts, one should take pains to be dispassionate and clear about why one likes something; but of course the other extreme can mean that you shut yourself out from what's genuinely good, in favour of something that satisfies a more easily pleased impulse. I think the important point to be made is that often, one can sense there is a reason behind liking something, but it is just out of reach; that is different from liking something with no concrete understanding of why that is. Not a warning sign necessarily, but certainly a common occurrence when the item in question is of questionable intrinsic value. I suppose my take is that it's fine to get taken in by things head over heels, but every now and again it pays to stop and reflect.