Today I was reading an Ars Poetica by Charles Wright, a favorite poet of mine. It's in an incredible anthology of "Ars Poeticas" by contemporary poets - not all poems are truly statements about the art of poetry, but the poets chose their representative pieces as demonstrating somehow their process or aesthetic, and most are accompanied by some prose statement (though not always clear) explaining their selection.
It's a great book: What Will Suffice http://www.amazon.com/What-Will-Suffice-Contemporary-American/dp/0879056924/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383492765&sr=8-1&keywords=what+will+suffice
Anyway, what struck me this morning about Charles Wright's work is the overwhelming heaviness and seriousness of it. This immediately clashed my recent valuation of having fun in life. Without getting too into it (because this is a POETRY blog...for now) I've recently felt I am most satisfied with my being if I'm trying to have fun. The exception of trying to have fun would be if someone's suffering before me, or if I'm mourning, grieving - but even then it feels there should be a limit on the funlessness, as I can easily imagine some fun helping to heal someone's suffering, and I can imagine myself mourning a loved one, then reflecting on the meaningful times I had with the dead, which would be fun and help me heal.
When my observation about the seriousness of Wright's work clashed with my fun-loving values, many things came to mind. First off were some other poets I love - Terrance Hayes and Bob Hicok (relatively young examples), John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams - they all seem to be having fun with their writing. It's fun to read - equal parts fun and meaningful. TS Eliot's work that I'm familiar with is this way as well - the black humor of Prufrock, the wry humor of Tradition and the Individual Talent, some of the tongue in cheek shorter works, the playfulness of his cat book.(I think the abundance of references to "great works," esoteric works, and biblical symbols, can sometimes obscure the humor.) Auden was definitely having fun (which may be why he detested the last line of Sept 1 1939...call that line what you will - saccharine possibly, bathetic). Paul Muldoon is DEFINITELY having fun - playing with form, within form, at times immoral sexual exploits, diction off the wall. Dickinson and Whitman have fun. Geoffrey Hill, a heavy Brit I don't hear much about more but once read was the premiere English poet - his book is loaded with Eliot-like Christian symbols, but man, there is no dark humor, it is just serious to the bone. Another poet whom I greatly admire and really appreciate is Ezra Pound - he seems to suffer from being too serious. And when he did try to be funny or "light" such as that golden toilet poem, it fell really flat.
Then of course some makers always seem to be having fun - Bob Dylan with his mid-60s triumphs and those outrageous interviews and press conferences; John Ashbery today in interviews. They aren't insincere, they're just having fun - it may be at someone's expense time to time, but usually that person is only the butt for being too serious. In fact, with regards to Bob Dylan, I'd say it was when he started playing and writing to have fun again - Time Out of Mind up to the most recent The Tempest - that was when he was at his best again, no question. I'm sorry, but nobody can convince me John Wesley Harding is good as the three preceding albums, and the JWH album is SO serious. The religious themed album (BIABH was America themed, Hwy 61 had a death / horrorshow motif, BoB was the love themed album). The real fun was had making the basement tapes with the Hawks - unfortunately that work suffers from lack of meaning, and is actually a good example of writing that's fun without meaning.
Ultimately, I called this post The Importance of Being Wild because I think fun is a necessary element to immortal work - Shakespeare is fun, Keats is fun, Chaucer and Spenser tremendously fun! Pope is wickedly fun. Coleridge more fun than Wordsworth but Wordsworth more meaningful. The Cavaliers are fun, Donne one of the greatest in that sense (not sure of those other metaphysical guys). Dryden isn't fun at all, hence nobody reads him anymore. Ovid is wicked fun, same with those other oft translated Romans!
My mind just came to Poe - I'm not sure what to make of him. He certainly was different, and along with Emerson took American poetry in a new direction. Poe is deadly serious tho, and I just don't like his poetry at all. His short fiction is undeniably fun tho! And I think that's what he'll be remembered for. Of course The Raven is fun as hell - I can't forget that landmark poem.
I recently purchased Zukofsky's "A test of Poetry," and afterward read some of his work. I couldn't really get into it - but I know he influenced Creeley, whom I sometimes enjoy, and when I think about, it's his fun poems I love (drive, he sd) more than some of his sincere statements of love which hardly strike me as poetry. And I know George Oppen was an objectivist who has been influential...I like the poem with the deer, and the men on the beam of the building being put up, but those poems strike me as a bit too serious. I'm not sure I can comment on Lorine Niedicker (sp?). Charles Olsen and Robert Duncan - again I'm not sure. I like the techniques of the LANGUAGE poets (i'm not taking the time to type out all the equals signs), but they strike me as too serious, except for Rae Armantrout, who's definitely having fun (i.e. Soft Money). For fun, the New York school is the best - O'Hara chief among them. I think he'll still be read 50-100 years from now.
Wow, I could really go on, thinking who's fun, who isn't. Surprisingly, despite all her anger, I think Plath is / was having fun. Despite the despair of her content, it's so explosively creative, I wonder if poetry was one of the few sources of fun, of happiness for her.
Neruda, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver - popular poets in terms of sales, all fun.
Rilke seems kind of an outlier - I dont find his work fun the way I do all the others, but I enjoy it, and he's a top seller, critical giant. Celan and Gottfriend Benn are more fun... And Yeats - he kind of oscillated between writing fun pieces and serious pieces. Many of his famous pieces are serious though. Frost was definitely having fun, but it sounds like he took his fun seriously. Perhaps what elevates Yeats and Rilke is a sort of spiritual thread of meaning in their work, not overtly any one religion, but something most can relate to - perhaps they seem to most readers to come closest to unveiling some of life's ultimate mysteries?
Anyway, I have a daughter stealing off my lunch plate and getting close to nap time. Thanks for reading.