Elizabeth Robinson: The Ecology of Beauty (and the vulnerability of the perceiver)

Fall '06 TOC

Lecture from Summer Writing Program 2006

Listen to the audio (mp3)


"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." —Gary Snyder1

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, not fixed.

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 care.14

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, who observes:

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 of us.32

1. Snyder, Gary, The Practice of Being Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 113.
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, 2000), 41.
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, 2003), 1.
7.Ibid., 7.
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, 2001), 15.
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.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid.
22. Albon, George, Step (Sausalito, The Post-Apollo Press, 2006).
23. Ibid., p. 15.
24. Ibid., p. 19.
25. Ibid., p. 18.
26. Ibid., p. 58.
27. Zukofsky, Louis, Prepositions + (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 194.
28. Ibid.
29. Albon, George, Step, 26.
30. Gilfillan, Merrill, from an unpublished essay.
31. Ibid.
32. Ducornet, Rikki, interviewed by Gregory, Sinda and McCaffery, Larry, (Review of Contemporary Fiction, Volume 18.3, Fall 1998).
Albon, George. Step. Sausalito: The Post-Apollo Press, 2006.
Birman, Lisa, and Waldman, Anne, editors. Civil Disobediences. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004.
De Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays on the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Ducornet, Rikki, interviewed by Gregory, Sinda and McCaffery, Larry, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Volume 18.3, Fall 1998.
Gilfillan, Merrill, unpublished essay, 2006.
Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Preminger, Alex, editor. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Retallack, Joan. The Poethical Wager. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Revolution of the Word. Boston: Exact Change Press, 1998.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.
Stein, Jess, editor. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Random House, 1967.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions +. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Elizabeth Robinson, A shorter version of this talk appears in Five Fingers Review.

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