Saturday, April 15, 2006

Beyond categories

A student asked a smart question yesterday: if Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" is a demonstration of the power of metaphor -- which turns the poet's father into a constricting shoe, a "bag full of God," a Nazi, and a devil; turns another man (Ted Hughes) into a vampire-replica of her father; and turns the poet herself into their victim and assassin -- how does it fit the idea of a confessional poem? In other words, is the poet confessing, or displaying the power of her own imagination?

For me, that question highlights the problems of applying categories and labels to works of art. Like Duke Ellington, I prefer to think of works of art as "beyond category." One problem with artistic categories is that they are often merely shorthand terms of critical convenience. It was a critic after all (M.L. Rosenthal, I believe) who first thought of calling Plath and other poets "confessional." Such terms can be useful for highlighting resemblances as they begin to appear in the work of individual artists. But such terms can just as readily serve as epithets of pigeon-holing and dismissal -- "Oh yes, he's a [sniff] New York School poet." Makers of art who themselves promulgate such identities in earnest sometimes find themselves in a prison of their own devising -- Allen Ginsberg is still a "Beat," not simply an American poet.

Category-think too often leads to reductive understandings of art. I'm reminded me of the story of a student who wanted to write an essay "proving" that The Sound and the Fury is a modernist novel because it displays "the seven characteristics of modernism." But there aren't seven characteristics, or five, or nineteen -- there is only the individual work, with all of its complications, and with a broad range of similarities to and differences from other works of fiction. And calling Faulkner's novel "modernist" does nothing to tell you what those are.

Doing a weekly jazz program at a college radio station some years ago helped solidify my skepticism about categories. Back in the day, every record (yes, LPs) had to be labeled for the benefit of less-astute djs. Duke Ellington would be labeled "swing." ("Creole Love Call": swing!) John Coltrane, "hard bop." ("A Love Supreme": hard bop!) There were even (I don't think I'm making it up) records labeled "soft bop." Those labels no doubt helped give some coherence to half-hour sets (before the iPod Shuffle made chance juxtapositions an organizing principle). But to think of an artist's accomplishment being reduced to -- literally -- a label, 3.5" x .75", saddens me.

comments: 3

The Chuck said...

"A student asked a smart question yesterday: if Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" is a demonstration of the power of metaphor -- which turns the poet's father into a constricting shoe, a 'bag full of God,' a Nazi, and a devil; turns another man (Ted Hughes) into a vampire-replica of her father; and turns the poet herself into their victim and assassin -- how does it fit the idea of a confessional poem? In other words, is the poet confessing, or displaying the power of her own imagination?"

To me that shows the ridiculousness of Plath's poem. If it takes that much exaggeration to move you, you've probably lost any appreciation of the subtle beauty that poetry can accomplish; however, I say this because I like the imagists and the beats, and not the out-grown, death-fixated, teen-angst melodrama that saturates the work of Plath. (How's that for categories?)

Sorry, I guess I'm grouchy today. I’ve done too much German translating in the last five hours to be complimentary.

Ah, no I'm not--here you go: I like the anti-classification discussion on the jazz sector. Coltrane (although he had is roots in hard-bop with the Davis quartet) definitely helped shape the break away from the rigid structure, paving the way for the stuff I really like: Archie Shepp, Andrew Cyrille, even modern stuff like Nels Cline, and the DKV trio.

Michael Leddy said...

I'm not a fan of Plath's poetry. Plath though seems to be a gateway poet for many readers. Camille Paglia's short essay on "Daddy" in her book Break, Blow, Burn has made the poem a lot more interesting to me.

The Chuck said...

I'm grinding my teeth right now.

I loathe Paglia.

I heard her interview on NPR a while back, and as she tried to describe imagism she made it clear that she knew almost nothing about imagism or the haiku from whence it came.

I should have known what was coming from her though--since she built a career upon writing books that "flame" (as the kids call it) feminists. She seems to be writing on the same caliber academically, but has simply switched subjects.