April 20, 2009

Tradition and the Caribbean Writer: Version

Only a good Catholic like Pam Mordecai could have asked such troubling questions about anthologies. And yet, they must be asked. For what is an anthology, if not a method of meaning within a shared experience? In short, a hint at tradition.

But as one of my favorite e-mail interlocutors has stated in response to
recent post, “One of the problems that I have with the concept of 'tradition' and the ensuing expected respect thereof is that it can disable the recognition of and the impulse to respect/ treasure/regard our universe as a big pot of emergent phenomenon, one in which the constant influx of change defines our existence.”

With which I agree, but with a few caveats.

Tradition implies continuity, a passing of knowledge from generation to the next, as it answers these questions: Who are we? Where have we been? Where are we going? Thus, education or the transmission of knowledge is vital to the life and continuity of any culture.

We would never sit a child in front of a piano and say, “Figure it out for yourself. I’ll come back in a few years to see how you’ve been doing.” Instead, we would seek out the best piano player/teacher (two distinct areas of expertise) to educate the protégé about the history of the instrument, the best historical examples of mastery, and perhaps, notable contemporaries. The teacher would provide the student with the essential knowledge, so that even if she did not go on to be a world class pianist, she would be able to appreciate a fine performance when she heard one. And if the student were so inclined and the teacher were able, she would teach the student a few tricks of performance and composition, based on her experience and perhaps passed down from her teacher, so that her student would not have to reinvent piano performance or composition.

And this is where genius comes in. Genius takes a pre-existing form and changes it by building on the older forms or by questioning the a priori assumptions of a tradition. A prodigy absorbs/learns the old forms—sees the patterns at a faster rate than most of us—gets bored with repetition of the old, and creates something with which the rest of us can plod around.

Great composers do this all the time. They try to play the music in their heads that many of their contemporaries don’t hear—she often wonders why they can’t hear it (too much respect for tradition?), but strives ahead to manifest the music. Genius is not afraid of tradition. Their attitude is similar to
Joseph Campbell’s comment about shamans: they regard the gods as co-equals and disrupt heaven to bring back fire so that their brothers and sisters have a better way of consuming meat. The important thing to remember is that the musician usually has had some training with the instrument, so that she is able to hear the possibilities about which the older forms have given suggestions, but could not realize because the appropriate change had not occurred.

Which leads me back to Pam’s questions about anthologies. For an anthology is a textual representation of collective memory, and "
are part of our moral conversation as a society." It says these are the most important voices of the past, the ones who should not be forgotten, and represents the aesthetic zeitgeist of generation. Anthologies also present the “best” work of an artist and her era. They ask and answer: Who are we? Where have we been? Where are we going?

These are questions that every generation should ask, and as Chris Lydon in a recent interview reveals, James Carroll has been asking similar questions about Catholic tradition. In the interview, Carroll suggests that Catholicism has been held hostage by an ecclesiastical class and that the religion, in its present form, is slowly dying because of its inability to change.

A similar trend is happening with Caribbean anthologies. The ecclesiastical class of critics and a few publishers have a virtual stranglehold on the selection of writers in anthologies. And just as the role of the priest is to serve and educate the people about the revealed word, the role of the critic should be to educate students about literature. It is these critics who are teaching our children from primary to tertiary education the answers to the questions about the past, present, and future of Caribbean literature.

But a review of any number of conferences, anthologies, or books of criticism reveals that our ecclesiastical class of critics, like their medieval counterparts who used to argue about angels on the head of a pin, have become more concerned with conflicts over Derrida and Foucault or recycled papers on the “conflation of orality with the picaresque”—or whatever that means. Universities, the modern patrons of the arts, have become crowded with these literary critics who have grown fat with gold rings and critical indulgencies. Meanwhile, writers like Rachel Manley sit at the gates of the temple.

But, perhaps, these critics should not even be the ones deciding what goes into anthologies.

It is perhaps a team of writers who should decide which poets should be included in an anthology. For as
David Orr a of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell argues that a great poet demonstrates “qualities that make poetry seem interesting and worthwhile to such a degree that subsequent practitioners of the art form have found her work a more useful resource than the work of most if not all of her peers.” Ultimately, it will be the future writers, the practitioners of the art, and not the critics who determine the ultimate “greatness” of a writer.

So why should I worry now? I can almost hear my interlocutor, a lapsed Catholic, ask. To which I would answer, if the goal of an anthology is to preserve the voices of our generation, then our present resources should be used to continue the work of artists and not their handmaidens.

For writers can and do give up because of a lack of support—material and moral. Even two giants of American literature, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell relied on each other, as Jackson Taylor in another review of Words in Air states:“In spite of, and partly because of this kind of aesthetic elitism, it is touching to comprehend how much they actually depended on one another for a certain confirmation of self, a certain calibration of culture, and a certain appreciation for what the other writes.”

It is always reassuring to think that one’s work will be vindicated in the future, but in the meantime, it remains a nagging thought that such an idea should only be the cold comfort of tyrants.


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FSJL said...

Traditions are created. What the creators don't know is that they are creating the traditions, they just think that they're telling stories, writing poems, writing plays, scratching a living. Shakespeare, after all, did not know that he was Shakespeare.

All that we can do is write what we know, and what we want to write and believe we need to write. Tradition, and meaning, flow from those facts. What is produced, after all, is not produced in a vacuum, but in the context of existing language, existing culture, and existing values -- both with them and against them.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Fragano, thanks for this:
"What is produced, after all, is not produced in a vacuum, but in the context of existing language, existing culture, and existing values -- both with them and against them."
What seems to be happening is that the critical establishment (critics in universities) have lost their way. For although it is a career, they are much more content to speak about other critics rather than reading contemporary work. Theoretical frameworks have taken precedence over books.

It's a mixture of laziness and fear. It is easy to write about the past, but to take a risk and say, right now,"this is good (or bad) and for these reasons," and to take your lumps is missing.

The other extreme is snarkiness and sycophancy--of which there is far too much.

FSJL said...

Geoffrey, by the bye, the book landed safely.

University literary critics seem to be operating under the impression that they are anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and political scientists -- minus any actual knowledge of anthropology, sociology, economics, or politics beyond what can be garnered from reading a newspaper or, these days, a blog or two -- and are seeking to engage in social, political, or economic critique instead of looking at the actual texts and the experiences the texts are seeking to describe and encapsulate. Sorry, that's a hobby-horse of mine.

The writer, the artist, the musician, is trying to tell a story with the tools that s/he is given. One way of looking at tradition (in the sense of what we inherit, as opposed to what we pass on) is to see it as the ensemble of those tools, and the ways they have been used. It is a guide, though, not a fixed road. To assume that we must do things only in a particular way, because that's how it was done in our grandparents' time is to assume that we are our grandparents. To paraphrase a recent prime minister of Jamaica, tradition is not a shackle

Geoffrey Philp said...

"Tradition is not a shackle"--I couldn't agree more... I mean, look at what Walcott did with terza rima in Omeros or with rhyme in "Spoiler's Return."

clarabella said...

Hi Geoff, Fragano. First, thanks for this, Geoff, and for the responses, both of you. I'll go back and read it again, but just a couple things for now. Like Miss Lou says – who I will keep on thinking is very important, never mind opinion to the contrary – you have to know where you come from before you can know where you are going. For one thing, if you don't, you might find yourself unwittingly going back the way you came and so reaching nowhere. Anthologies are little libraries. They represent what's here now or what has been, i.e., tradition, for the present is becoming past even as we speak. They do this not to set it upon a throne, to prescribe, to shackle, but rather to say: "Look at this! It's what we've made. Isn't it well made? Let's see what we can discover by appreciating the making of it." By chance, I was reading today about Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth century mystic whose two volumes of poetry and prose, after lying in manuscript for over two centuries, were discovered in a London bookstall in 1896. The MSS eventually came into the hands of the bookseller, Bertram Dobell, who identified their author and published the Poems in 1903 and the prose (Centuries of Meditations) in 1908. Anthologists can save us from that kind of loss. And anthologies are a good sharing mechanism. I mayn't be able to afford fifty books by fifty different authors, but I might be able to buy an anthology that has works by all of them.

clarabella said...

So now I'm rereading, and seeing that I agree, though I say, "Look at what we've made!" and Geoff says, "Look at who we are, where we've come from, where we're going." Same thing. Re Geoff's "ecclesiastical class of critics" (GRIN), I'll only say that I have for a long time been concerned that everywhere, Canada, the Caribbean, all over, we're doing a poor job of communicating to students at all levels the excitement of song and story, so that now, agents are saying that publishers aren't "interested so much in fiction"! (We all already know the fate of poetry!) Whoever is supposed to be doing that job ought to be fired or retired. And thanks so much for the Elizabeth Bishop/Robert Lowell story! I guess I'm lucky. I have a Lowell in house!

Geoffrey Philp said...

"the excitement of song and story"--when money becomes the sole/soul reason for song or story, then something is wrong.

I remember an interview with Bob where he was talking about music and he said, "Music is a godly thing, you know."

I am not against artists and agents making money, but if you're only going to sing if you get a "dunny" when the song is bubbling up inside you, then something--dare it say it--perverse happens inside and we all suffer from the loss of that voice.