One suspects that Gombrowicz could be a pain in the ass in mixed company. Not only did he want to strip away illusions when it came to presenting himself, but he was compelled to find ways to strip away what he perceived to be illusions in others. He had a genius for finding humorous, or at least palatable, ways of doing this. But of course whenever you expose yourself or others there are likely to be elements of ugliness. We see this happen in his attitude to the fine arts in general and to poetry in particular. I have retained, for my purposes, the best part of what he had to say, but I’ll save that for another day. Today let’s talk about the ugly.
There’s a passage on page 92 in which he describes himself walking through the world of artistic production as if through a vast manufacturing plant. He saunters through as casually as a country boy through a field and everywhere he looks he sees men (one does not imagine women in his factory) sweating profusely over their art works. His description of the poets is especially evocative: “…. a thousand workers, dripping with sweat amid the dizzying speed of assembly lines and gears, work a sharper and sharper electromagnetic knife in harder and harder material….” When I first read this I was in my twenties, I was indeed that country boy, and I wrote the word “beautiful” in the margin. Today, although still that country boy at heart, I had a different sensation. There was something almost arrogant about it. I do not labor over my novels the way other artists labor over their work. I’m free and easy!
It’s not as though I disagree with this passage. I live in a world where poets are split into two great categories. The first group are academics. They’re teachers and professors who run creative writing workshops, operate online journals and small presses, go to AWP every year and publish each other’s work. I am outside this world. I am in the second group: the blogging/self-publishing poet. There’s not a lot of interpenetration of these two groups. And it seems to me there’s about as much understanding between individuals in these groups as there is between a billionaire and a McDonalds worker. Naturally, in the context of Gombrowicz’s sketch I am the carefree boy and the workers are the academic poets pressing out the product that fills their journals.
But it’s not as simple as that. I do come across good poems sometimes in these journals, and I would like to be published in some of them. I like the idea of having my work selected rather than simply thrown out at the world. At the same time I can’t ignore the chip on my shoulder: Hey! I can read a book and even write one as good as someone with a doctorate. It’s a constant battle. If I’m as good as they are then I don’t have to prove it. But if the gatekeepers are inclined to think an autodidact can’t be as knowledgable or hardworking as a college graduate then even if my work speaks for itself it may not matter. There’s no choice but to shove this concern to a corner. Bad editors exist, after all, just as we have bad poets—and bad plumbers, etc. It can be found periodically, however, glaring out of its corner. Being self-taught is without a doubt a stigma in my world, just as being a Pole was in Gombrowicz’s.
Gombrowicz called himself a clown. This to distinguish himself from these robotic laborers. And as if clown garb isn’t just another costume. He was, if you can imagine it, an aristocratic clown. His accomplishment was to elevate Polish literature—the idea of a great Polish writer—through the sheer power of his art at a time and in a world where Poles just “weren’t as good” as Western Europeans. He accomplished this while promoting the idea of an elite lineage of international writers all the while with the repeated counterpunch: mercilessly mocking what he saw as the pretenses of Greatness. Like an acrobat he maneuvered to have it both ways. But with the result that the humor sometimes wore thin and the self-portrait that emerges is profoundly schizoid. Welcome, Modern Man.
Gombrowicz didn’t like poetry. That’s fine and he was honest about it. But he made the oh-so common mistake of using that honest confession as cover or an excuse to blur and even deny the fact that others do indeed like it. In this he was comparable to some working cliche Joe who laughs at the very notion a grown man can versify on wildflowers and mockingbirds. Well, in fact a grown man can do it. He can even say, “The mockingbird is my spirit animal” and mean it. And that’s ok too.
We’re overdo for a direct quote. In his Kultura article Against Poets which appears at the end of Volume One, Gombrowicz declares that virtually no one likes poetry, that the world of poetry is a big sham and thus poets are perpetrating a fraud, pretending to be and to offer something that does not exist. Poetic language is fake language.
We said that an artist must express himself. But, in expressing himself, he must also take care that his manner of speaking be in harmony with his real situation in the world and he must render not only his relationship to the world, but also the relationship of the world to him. If, being a coward, I take on a heroic tone, I am committing a stylistic mistake…. And thus in poets not only their piety irritates us…. but also their ostrich politics in relation to reality…. pp 217-18
Regardless of what kinds of poems Gombrowicz may have been reading (few examples are given) in the 1950’s, this attack is familiar enough to us: it’s that old mantra that contemporary poets as a whole write only for each other, they exist in a closed world of their own making, their poetry is derived from and directed at itself. We encountered them earlier, it’s those toilers on the assembly line feeding each other’s words into the hopper to concoct more product to be poured back into the hopper…. This scenario, at best a half-truth, denies the possibility of an honest worker. Poets are by definition bullshit artists. Not an honest man in the bunch.
Where to begin? Let’s start with Gombrowicz’s “issue” with poetic language. He has apparently never encountered a poet with his feet in reality, and this is reflected in his view of the language of poetry.
Why didn’t I like the taste of pure poetry? Wasn’t it for the very same reasons that I didn’t like sugar in a pure state?…. the excess wearies…. poetic words, metaphors, sublimations, finally, the excess of condensation and purification of all antipoetic elements, which results in poems similar to chemical products…. today one is a poet the way one is an engineer or a doctor. The poem has swelled to monstrous proportions so that we no longer control it; it rules us. pp 216-217
This is a great criticism of a certain kind of bad poetry, a certain kind of bad poet, and if you wanted to you could even make a case that this type of diseased art is widespread. But to make the claim across the board, to apply it to all of poetry and all poets, really! For sure, the world reeks with bad poems. Oh, and by the way, also with bad novels, bad paintings, bad songs…. The world is rife with artists of all kinds who do not put reality first but instead are ruled by their so-called art, who merely stamp out cliches like license plates in the prison of their self-view. Does the world of poetry have a higher percentage of these fakers and failures than the other arts? Not as far as I can see.
As for poetry being a bullshit art, certainly there are pretentious poets in the world. But to claim that all poets are such simply by being poets because poetic language itself—“pure poetry”—is pretentious, just isn’t grounded in reality.* I’ll go further. One can know why one writes poetry and not be heroic, but to deny those reasons would indeed be cowardly, even with a dearth of readers.
*Isn’t “pretentiousness” one of the most overused and misused of criticisms? I heard someone claim that At Swim-Two-Birds was pretentious. Why? Because it was a novel about a guy writing a novel about a guy writing a novel. Gee, I thought that just made it a literary Babushka doll. How is Mr. O’Brien presuming to be smarter or better than he is here? Maybe he is, but I’m not smart enough or good enough to tell, because he’s smarter and better than me. I knew a guy once who said he hated In Watermelon Sugar, a novel I adore, because it was pretentious. Dumbfounded, I asked why. He answered, “Because the author did not achieve what he was trying to do.” So by that definition, if I try and fail to do something, I’m pretentious. But here’s the kicker. When I asked what Brautigan was trying to do my friend couldn’t tell me. The strict definition of “pretentiousness” seems to be almost as misunderstood as “irony”.
** All quotes from Witold Gombrowicz, Diary Volume One, Northwestern University Press.