Tuesday, December 27, 2016


As usual, my activities have been circumscribed by holiday visitors whose presence makes it difficult for me to concentrate. Under these circumstances I imagine inhabiting a large castle and remaining alone in my chambers all day, coming out on occasion to dine with the guests. In the absence of that option, I have kept my reading light by limiting it to poetry. I am reading a collection of contemporary American poetry, and, as you might expect, I am not impressed. There are a few crazy poems that break out of the mold a little, but I tend to see them as desperate attempts to be different. I can understand why poets write them, because, as William Matthews said, the range of subject matter in published poetry – particularly American poetry – is extremely limited. I would be bored out my mind reading nothing but poems, but, on the other hand, it is still a good medium for expressing rarefied sentiments which might be awkward to express in fiction or prose. The main problem I have with the poems I read is that they seem hackneyed or mawkish, and when they are not they are likely to be excessively stylized, such as those of Jorie Graham, whom I don't think is worth reading at all. Then there are the poets whom I think of as stupid, such as Charles Simic; I always recall Auden's reference to Tennyson as "undoubtedly the stupidest" of all the English poets. Not much has changed since then.

When I read poetry it brings out the dichotomy in me between the arts and the sciences, and I realize that I don't feel entirely at home in either. I consider the arts more fun, but when the standards are set too low they become depressing. We usually watch the PBS NewsHour, which has arts segments reported by Jeffrey Brown, and we frequently find them so insipid that we turn off the TV at that point. Ironically, on one segment Jeffrey read some of his own poetry, which I thought was good. The problem here, as in most American art, is that when too much emphasis is placed on inclusiveness the bar is lowered and you soon become inundated with works of low quality produced by artists of lesser talent. In my opinion, the essay is the appropriate medium for many of the ideas that people try to squeeze into poems, and, for that matter, novels intended to shed light on subjects could just as well be essays too. The media force substantive issues into emotive packages because people are unable to assimilate them otherwise. At the other extreme, with scientific precision and mathematical rigor, even I find that something is missing, because I don't believe that it captures everything that is of interest to me. To some extent, the fuzzy thinking that occurs in the arts is balanced by the exactitude that occurs in the sciences. In most situations in which facts take precedence, science is more useful than art, but science does not lend itself to the expression of certain ideas. I think that, in addition to an intrinsic human tendency to reject the rigidity of science, science is deficient in the sense that it does not and perhaps never will offer a complete explanation for what we think of as reality.

I won't be entirely free of guests for some time, but am lining up a few books to read. I'm off fiction for the time being and am having trouble finding anything scientific that I want to read. On the agenda are Erwin Panofsky, the art historian whom I've read before, and some more Tony Judt.

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