"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Sunday, April 24, 2005

David Antin wrote/spoke the following lines, which Paul Hoover reproduces in his introduction to Antin's entry in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry:

... i had always had mixed feelings
about being considered a poet "if robert lowell is a
poet i dont want to be a poet if robert frost was a
poet i dont want to be a poet if socrates was a poet
ill consider it"

My first inclination is to nod my head in agreement until I realize that--at least to my way of thinking--Socrates was full of shit. Socrates, the anti-rhetoric rhetorician has done more to mess up (and then help clarify by means of my own struggling) my own ideas about teaching composition and rhetoric than anyone else. But this isn't about teaching composition. Or even rhetoric-qua-rhetoric. It's about, I think, in the end, doing the "right thing."

Of course, Aristotle wrote The Rhetoric, but Socrates and his emphasis on Truth and Moral Responsibility equally compel and infuriate me. On one hand, I feel compelled to agree a little with Callicles who argues that might makes right, because so often it does, at least if we define "right" as how the winner gets to characterize his actions, post-. But we don't define "right" as "that which has been accomplished." We define it as what is correct, proper, and morally responsible. But if I shoot you while you try to reason with me, or if I sing an Allen Ginsberg poem while a police officer beats the shit out of me (this actually happened to a student of mine who was ambushed at his own home by police officers looking to catch one or two underage drinkers), the fists and the guns have indeed "won." At the end of the day, does it matter who's right? It only matters who's "right." And of course I disbelieve this as often as I believe it. But we can't mandate "rightness" can we? We can't force people to act morally, to obey the golden rule. And Socrates (and Aristotle) ignored most of the grey area.

If a poet, then, as Antin seems to imply, is one for whom moral obligation is a clear imperative, is one who knows right from "right" and wrong, too, and acts in accordance, even when it may harm him, or even when lying might save him from death, I'm not sure I want to be a poet. I think I'd rather be fusty Robert Frost with his skepticism about humanity, or drugged-up, looney-binned Robert Lowell. But maybe Antin is speaking about an ideal world. Maybe I can't keep living in my mind.

But the question is still "what does it mean to be a poet?" And the follow up, "What is the poet responsible for?" and "Is it worth it?" What's the pay off? Is it merely an unhealthy compulsion to spill?

I'm spilling and I'm alternately manic and depressed today, a strange mix, fueled by coffee and my inability to say what I mean and communicate my needs clearly.

And following Socrates in The Gorgias, I want to be able to say (and mean it, and I think sometimes I do) that it is better to lose than win if winning requires exercising power over another for mere gain. And I want to say, paraphrasing Kurt Vonnegut (who Josh Corey recently pointed out is not a very rigorous thinker, but neither am I), "Dammit, you've got to be kind."


A. D. said...

Great post Tony.

chris said...

yeah. Socrates the tease. And Socrates the ventriloquising mouth for author Plato. And: Republic, Book X. No poet allowed dignity of philosophy, reasoned with hard-core dialectics. But then the author escapes responsibility because of a very Gorgias-like trick: hard to tell who's really speaking there, Plato?--Socrates?--and then there's Ion. Sheesh!

best wishes,

Stuart Greenhouse said...

I hear you.

2 quick things: 1, I think Antin's attraction to Socrates (especially in contrast to Eliot and Frost) is that Socrates didn't write his poems, he spoke them. And he did so in an aggressively and generously inquisitive manner, investing himself as much as he could in the process (if Plato is to be believed). and 2, I think with your (and predecessors) weighing of might perhaps making right, an important element is being neglected, and that is the quality of one's own consciousness created/maintained by the chosen process of interacting with the world. So you got a person acting as they consider morally appropriately being taken advantage of by some bully--who then gets to tell the story his/her way. But the telling is adjunct to the living, and the living of the bully is degraded by their own action. They only win for pretend--in reality, they've lost.

So I think someone addicted(?) to talking like Antin would admire Socrates' decision to die rather than shut up, if you see what I mean.

But I know where you're coming from. Besides, you could choose worse than Vonnegut to stake your flag on.

Laura Carter said...

I don't think you're so unclear! You're clear enough to know that you might be unclear, &c.

Tell me more about this student!

Laura Carter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tony said...

Thanks, Stuart, and AD, and LC.

I agree with Mr. Greenhouse, really, but then I get frustrated with "reality."

But I always feel like the loser, so it's easy for me to critique anyone whom I perceive as "winning," regardless if the gains are ill-got or not.

Laura, backchannel if you want more info on the student.

Laura Carter said...

I had a Ginsbergian student with similar stories who hasn't yet migrated west, but it was a curious flashback for me. He was the bomb. We hung out & drank Japanese tea & talked about ... stuff.

I know what you mean about some of this stuff, man.

I think Kurt's flags are good, as SG says.