"There's all sort of walking—from heading out across the desert in a straight line
to a sinuous weaving through undergrowth. Descending rocky ridges and talus slopes
is a specialty in itself. It is an irregular dancing—always shifting—step of walk
on slabs and scree. The breath and are always following this uneven rhythm. It is
never paced of clocklike, but flexing—little jumps—sidesteps—going for the well-seen
place to put a foot on rock, hit flat, move on—zigzagging along and all deliberate."
My task here is to justify why I want to introduce beauty as a basic element of an
ecology and as playing a central role in ethical practices and quandaries. In order
to make my apologia feasible, I would insist that we not define beauty. Perhaps that
way, its needful particulars will remain that much sharper for each of us.
Then I ask: if a thing is written or made beautifully, does that make it more important.
Does that make it mean more?
My first answer is yes. If a thing is made with care, to mark the seer or reader with
its beauty, then it wants to underline its own urgency. It commits itself to its task.
By committing itself to a version of beauty, it is honest about its own partiality
and it is willing to risk idiosyncrasy and vulnerability. The beautiful thing's willingness
to persuade is an attempt to make a dialogic art that reaches out to the reader, is
hospitable. Beauty will consider, construct, and share a possible ideal, a utopian
version, not vision.
My second answer is no. The possible pitfalls of beauty abound. Too often beauty universalizes
itself, closing down other varieties of the beautiful, and through this bigotry, it
will upset the larger ecological balance of beauty. It may present itself as merely
decorative, a distraction from all that is crying for truer attention. Beauty may
be offered in regularized and standardized versions, so that we mistake blandness
for the more lively textures of a more vital beauty. It is not beauty after all if
it encloses, diminishes risk, ends speculation on the multiplicity of idea or ideas,
if it merely makes us comfortable.
In the essay that follows, you will see that I have been increasingly concerned by
the predominance of irony in a lot of contemporary, purportedly innovative, writing.
I acknowledge, of course, the ability of the ironic to dislodge us from assumption,
to tell tales on us in our complacency, but I see in this ironized writing a corresponding
tendency to become doctrinaire, to build walls around the fortress of hipness.
In other words, the response to irony should be, like the response to beauty: yes
and no. So now I invoke beauty to dislodge that dislodger, irony.
This brings me back to the Snyder quote: we need to be practitioners of the wild.
That is, we need to be out there, moving and walking, so that we can discover for
ourselves that sinuous weaving, irregular dancing, uneven rhythm, sidesteps, zigzagging.
If you are riffing across a hillside of talus and scree, you are guaranteed to dislodge
something, create a new balance, leap across some possible beauty.
"About the fourth or fifth time that Charles [Olson] says, 'We've had enough of beauty.'
And I'm muttering, 'Cripes, you've never seen anything beautiful in your whole life
you silly old man.' In a world that hasn't got any beauty around he's saying 'NO MORE
BEAUTY'. . ." —Robert Duncan on Charles Olson2
Among the poets I know, discussions of beauty tend to be somewhat covert. I suspect
that is because many of these poets equate beauty with the possible excesses of lyric
writing as described pejoratively by Lyn Hejinian:
The coercive, epiphanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry can serve as a negative
model, with its smug pretension to universality and its tendency to cast the poet
as guardian to Truth.3
We fear beauty because we equate it with hardened conceptions of perfection, a perfection
that would assert itself 'smugly' and in a totalizing manner. Steven Taylor summarizes
this trouble even as he inverts it into a provocative alternative, claiming that,
"On the one hand, beauty is troublesome because the idea of beauty can be a vehicle
for the imposition of identity, absolutes, universals, or final solutions; on the
other hand, beauty troubles identity because it embodies difference."4 I like Taylor's
sense of beauty as troubling and would so far myself as to suggest that beauty is
by definition imperfect: partial, transitory, and yet willing to embrace the valuations
that are intrinsic to the pleasure we take in perceiving beauty. From this perspective,
beauty would be the opposite of coercive, and the 'truth' it offers would be processual,
Yet the culture of contemporary writing is gun-shy when it comes to the beautiful.
Rather than risk what might appear a romanticized credulity, or perhaps simply to
avoid appearing unhip, this skeptical generation of poets has too often retreated
into an all-pervasive irony that—ironically—ceases to employ the discriminations that
enliven skepticism and instead becomes coercive, smug, and the guardian of an unassailable
anti-epiphany. Poetry that cannot step outside of its own system of ironization is
prey to all the pitfalls of any other ossified strategy: it becomes flat and boring.
I am making, of course, an overstatement, but we do have it on no less an authority
than The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics that irony, "a reflection of
skepticism and rationalism" can ultimately become "a device for avoiding commitment."5
My proposal, then, is that we reconsider the worth of the troubling, imperfect beauty
delineated by Taylor and regard it instead as an agent that makes way for the "radically
altering geometries of attention"6 espoused in Joan Retallack's poethics. Like Retallack, I am concerned that ironic
distancing can become a "closed case, a conspiracy of knowing that can leave little
room for noticing the nascent swerve."7 The 'swerve' in Retallack's discussion is "a constructive preoccupation with what
are unpredictable forms of change" that can "dislodge us from reactionary allegiances
and nostalgias" while leading us toward ethical wagers.8 Such wagers entail making and acting on valuations even though outcomes are unsure
because the potential gains make risk worthwhile. Crucial within this process is our
estimation of the beautiful. Which is to say that the beautiful is not merely ornamental
but offers some deep form of excellence, or as my dictionary says, provides "deep
satisfaction to the mind."9 Put differently, William Carlos Williams says "that 'beauty' is related not to 'loveliness'
but to a state in which reality plays a part."10
Having made my case contra irony and pro beauty, I want to go back and look at the
two in a less polarized manner. What I actually believe is that both irony and beauty
can operate in ways that are necessary and even surprisingly similar within the operations
of poetry. If we accept what Hejinian has to say about the efficacy of poetry as a
site at which "the incapacity of language to match the world permits us to distinguish
our ideas and ourselves from the world and things in it from each other," then poetry's
formal, ethical import lies in its ability to open, to make "variousness and multiplicity
and possibility articulate and clear."11 We are, as Williams claims, trying to discern "a state in which reality plays a part,"
yet refusing to tie down an ultimate reality. Rather the work at hand is to scrutinize
ragged niches in reality that afford multiplicity and possibility.
Irony and beauty can function in a parallel or even overlapping manner insofar as
each retains a generative preoccupation with error. To excavate this tendency, I'll
look at Paul De Man's discussion of the ironic in his essay "The Rhetoric of Temporality,"
and Elaine Scarry's description of errors made in relation to beauty from her book
On Beauty and Being Just. From the outset, I confess that I find Scarry's book frustrating
and often willfully reductive. Nonetheless, I appreciate her attentiveness to how
beauty can result in moments of de-centering and reorientation, an opening to previously
unattended possibility. She notes, "How one walks through the world, the endless small
adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things."12 Observe how this statement makes beauty a matter of ongoing perception, a process
that involves valuation, but an erring, changing valuation. What I would most foreground
here is what Scarry later describes as "the vulnerability of the perceiver."13 Though Scarry definitely wants to uphold some idealized notions of beauty, ones that
I find suspicious, she correspondingly acknowledges that to perceive at all is to
be vulnerable to one's perception. Inherent in this vulnerability is the charge of
responsiveness to the perceptual slaps administered by the world, a kind of deliberate
unbalancing and self-correction in the face of
beautiful things . . . placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small
wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.
Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual
Perceptual care demands that we admit to the partiality of our estimations, but not
that we discard them altogether. Therein lies the risk and pleasure of beauty. In
that sense, beauty brings the perceiver into the same dilemma described by Paul de
Man when he says that "the temptation exists, then, for the self to borrow, so to
speak, the temporal stability that it lacks from nature, and to devise strategies
by means of which nature is brought down to a human level while still escaping from
'the unimaginable touch of time'."15 In other words, humans tend to fortify their realities with a presumed permanence
that is fraudulent. Irony disrupts that presumption, necessarily I would argue, through
what De Man (responding to Charles Baudelaire's essay on laughter) portrays as a
division of the subject into multiple consciousness [which] takes place in immediate
connection with a fall. The element of falling introduces the specifically comical
and ultimately ironical ingredient. At the moment that the artistic or philosophical,
that is, the language-determined man [sic] laughs at himself falling, he is laughing
at a mistaken, mystified assumption he was making about himself . . . falling (or
rising) from a stage of mystified adjustment into the knowledge of his mystification.16
In a Baudelairean or De Manian conception, this ironic double consciousness "engenders
a temporal sequence of acts of consciousness which is endless"17 —Baudelaire's comique absolu—in which the individual who tries to escape being the
dupe of his own ironic situation endlessly bounces back and forth between the mystified
self-image and its ironic counterpart. Obviously, this is an immobilizing state of
affairs. What to do? The fall becomes vertiginous, the subject unable to right herself.
The causes me to recall the words of an 'alternative' philosopher, Laurie Anderson,
You are walking, and you don't always realize it, but you are always falling at the
same time. With each step you fall forward, over and over. You're falling, then catching
yourself falling, and this is how you can be falling and walking at the same time.18
In other words, the basis of any movement at all may be a continual falling combined
with a continual self-correction: there may just be ways to interrupt the ceaseless
circuit of ironic displacement without operating in bad faith. In any case, it is
incumbent upon us as writers to experiment with rubbing dissonantly against the grain
of a radical skepticism and ironization prone to fall into the epistemological 'conspiracy'
that Retallack sees as a potential hazard.
I'll look next at two poems (or sections thereof) that I feel offer a particularly
evocative balance because they neither portray beauty in facile, idealized terms nor
lapse into ironic apathy. The first of these is Wallace Stevens' "Anything Is Beautiful
if You Say It Is"19 which I will quote in its entirety:
Under the eglantine The fretful concubine Said, "Phooey! Phoo!" She whispered, "Phui!"
The demi-monde On the mezzanine Said, "Phooey!" too, And a "Hey-de-I-do!"
The bee may have all sweet For his honey-hive-o, From the eglantine-o.
And the chandeliers are neat . . . But their mignon, marblish glare! We are cold, the parrots cried, In a place so debonair.
The Johannisberger, Hans. I love the metal grapes, The rusty battered shapes Of the pears and of the cheese
And the window's lemon light, The very will of the nerves, The crack across the pane, The dirt along the sill.
It must be remarked immediately that this is a very strange poem. Riddled with exclamation
points (six of them) and odd colloquialisms ("phooey" and "hey-de-I-do"), the poem
exerts itself to be absurd. The rhyme scheme is utterly ragged, changing from stanza
to stanza until rhyme disappears completely in the last stanza of the poem. Even such
conventionally attractive images as the bee hive and the eglantine are made ridiculous
by the "o" that is attached to them as a suffix. The chandelier glares, the metalwork
is rusted. Hans the Johannisberger appears out of nowhere to join the concubine, the
demi-monde—ladies whose questionable social standing colors the setting of the poem.
Stevens' "sincerity" as author can hardly go unquestioned in light of the form and
content of this poem. The De Manian double consciousness that incites irony is at
work here. The poem depicts exactly the kind of fall from a mystified vision of the
world that Baudelaire describes. Beauty is equated, after all, with fallen women,
with dismissive slang, with glare and dirt. These are beauty's "battered shapes."
It's tempting to say that this poem is wholly ironic and that its pleasure derives
expressly from Stevens' willingness to mock received ideas of the beautiful. The poem
shrugs off such a straightforward reading, however: it troubles its own irony. There
is, first of all, the hinge of the title, the purely assertional value of "Anything
is beautiful if you say it is." Stevens may even have begun with the intention of
undermining his own assertion, but as he goes along, he risks something more. The
reader becomes, with the parrots, "cold . . . 'in a place so debonair'"20 and the assured irony becomes more unsteady. Hans the Johannisberger is a comic figure,
but his love of "rusty, battered shapes" is less so; it is strangely sympathetic.
In the last stanza, the glibness of Stevens' rhyme crumbles and vanishes. The final
four lines list nouns: three of the four of them are very concrete: the window, the
crack, the dirt. Surprisingly, the "window's lemon light" illuminates in a frankly
lovely way. But Stevens ends in a world that is fraught both with ironic tension and
in a world whose beauty is compromised: the ludicrousness of the demi-monde crying
"Phooey!" dissipates with the realization that what beauty is available exists mostly
in broken panes and dirty sills, exists, in fact, only by the "very will of the nerves."21 That act of will reflects back to the title and softens the ironic consciousness
of the poem with something that I would argue is more painful, but also very valuable.
The willingness to eschew ironic distance and acknowledge the flawed nature of the
experience demonstrates Stevens making a commitment to examining the effects of his
willed attention, to his vulnerability as a perceiver. Stevens is no guardian of poetic
truth here, but he does seem to affirm, by way of beauty, that the besmirched, broken
window can still permit light through.
I turn now to (an altogether too brief) discussion of the way I see beauty working
in the work of George Albon whom I consider one of the best poets of my generation.
Albon's recently published book, Step22, is a long poem written in stanzas of three terse lines with two groups of three
stanzas each per page. Thus, the poem's rigid format implies a kind of stability,
a stability that is belied by the content of the poem. To my reading, this is a challenging
and beautiful poem. Its beauty is a direct consequence of its ability to get sinuously
inside experience and make an ecology of relations. It lacks graceful imagery or aural
mellifluousness because it is largely free of concrete images and the short lines
can lead to jerky rhythms. Such attributes, typically understood as diminishing the
beauty of a poem, are crucial to the function of this poem. That is because Albon
so intentionally plays with sense of imbalance:
response of scape to the orienting force that threw it
as the torsion be- hind, a deviance turned to full, to next23
This is Baudelaire's fall enacted. The subject/narrator understands his environment
as unsteady, his own place in it as "an aim/suddenly vacated//sense-enthused/head-erect,
as/clapped on a body."24 The awkward anatomy operates in a helter-skelter world, but the result is less ironic
than disconcertingly fluent. Albon is well able to create in the poem a subjectivity
divided into multiple consciousnesses, but rather than stepping away from this dilemma
through ironic distance, Albon's strategy seems to be to enact the ironic unraveling
of the self without lapsing wholly into irony, thereby making his poem an ongoing
"quest-/ion"25 which moves only through its stumbling gait, and works "to draw utopia/from their
natures in/the exploded view//not a color but/a color space."26 My conjecture is that Albon's poem attains beauty because its processes are somewhat
akin to Zukofsky's sense of "sincerity" which strives for "the detail, not mirage,
of seeing, of thinking with things as they exist, and of directing them along a line
of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind sense and receives awareness."27 The detail, the exploded view, are recognized in their limitation where even, as
Zukofsky admitted, the minor unit of sincerity "is an ironic index of the degradation
of the power of the individual word in a culture which seems hardly to know that each
word in itself is an arrangement."28 This awareness is bleak, but there are still risks to be taken, and beauty (that
deep pleasure of the mind, that tangling with reality) to be had. In his own semi-ironic
turn, Albon invokes "abjection as ecology," but pushes on from there, falling and
then righting himself, in pursuit:
sighted as urgent the needful place no awareness explains29
What I said before, I'll say again: embedded in our judgments about beauty, even if
implicitly, are judgments about ethics, about the good. Assessments of beauty are
valuations. But there are differing beauties and differing valuations. The fact of
this multiplicity is also a good thing, an intrinsic part of the way we learn to imagine
and learn to make community.
I remember realizing when I lived in the Bay Area that many of my poet acquaintances
were reticent about telling me what current books they liked. This indicated to me
that we feel at risk in sharing our pleasures, that sharing things that we value involves
trust. Yet there can indeed be pleasure in bringing together the varieties of our
experience, of creating an ethical and aesthetic ecology. We can, as the wonderful
Colorado poet Merrill Gilfillan says, work to get our bearings and balance as we partake
of "the simple satisfaction of standing in the presence of enormous complexity-in-progress."30
So much of what we contend with in our current political, environmental, and social
(im)balances causes distress and pain. One way to readjust the balance within this
disarray is to reclaim the vitality of pleasure. The world is not worth fighting for
if we can't celebrate some aspects of it and see that they are life giving. Beauty
reaches out toward pleasure and imagination "as a fundamental capacity to not only
see, but reach, reach via connection and charged memory."31
Imagine, then, my delight when I was going through the Summer Writing Program's M.F.A.
readings and I found these remarks from Rikki Ducornet:
It seems to me that rigor—aesthetic and intellectual—is at the heart of creative work.
But what I call rigor resists definition because it cannot be reduced to one small
bone; it is not palpable, but intuited. Every artist worth her salt knows what I mean—either
one chooses the well-trodden path, platitude, sentimentality, the current orthodoxy,
whatever, or one blazes a trail which is, no matter the nature of the work, part of
the process of becoming. . . . In this way the artist reveals the darkness and the
wild beauty at the heart of things. Such a revelation can be a profound aesthetic
experience and, simultaneously, a transgressive, a regenerating experience.
I fear we are undergoing a "facistization" of culture and one indication of that is
the idea that beauty is elitist or somehow "soft." As if beauty didn't belong to all
1. Snyder, Gary, The Practice of Being Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990),
2.Duncan, Robert, interviewed by Anne Waldman and John Oughton. "A Little Endarkenment:
and in my poetry you find me" in Civil Disobediences. Edited by Anne Waldman and Lisa
Birman. (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2004), 52.
3.Hejinian, Lyn, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press,
4.Taylor, Steven, "Beauty Trouble: Identity and Difference in the Tradition of the
Aesthetic" in Civil Disobediences, 383–392.
5.Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1974), 407.
6.Retallack, Joan, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press,
9.The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, edited by Jess Stein (New York:
Random House, 1967), 131.
10.Williams, William Carlos, "Spring and All" in Revolution of the Word, edited by
Jerome Rothenberg (Boston: Exact Change, 1998), 114.
11.Hejinian, Lyn, The Language of Inquiry, 56.
12. Scarry, Elaine, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
13.Ibid., p. 73.
14. Ibid., p. 81.
15. De Man, Paul, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 197.
16. Ibid., 213–214.
17. Ibid., 220.
18. Anderson, Laurie, "So Happy Birthday" from Talk Normal: the Laurie Anderson Anthology
(Santa Monica: Warner Brothers, 2000).
19. Stevens, Wallace, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1989), 211.
22. Albon, George, Step (Sausalito, The Post-Apollo Press, 2006).