Friday, September 21, 2007

Poetic License and the Powers That Be *

Some interesting reactions to my last post on mailing lists and by the backchannel. The hip stance is revulsion, almost horror; this is not something we care about, not something we could possibly care about. And indeed as I said myself in the comment box, in the main "prizes don't matter a fig. Most times, they're not actually about literature."

What I was trying to do was to inject an element of playfulness and merriment into the general gloom, to suggest that (if these things occasionally rankle us, and they do seem to rankle even the hipnoscenti, for all their supposed aloofness) we're not entirely powerless to tweak those conditions, or even turn them slightly on their ear, if we take them into our own hands. What is always fascinating, and poignant, is to see how many people do think we're powerless as arbiters of taste, that there's no way to accumulate enough literary capital and credibility to make us anything but fodder for establishment guns.

Ron Silliman has written as well and as frankly as anyone about prizes over the years, remarking at one point that "It’s this need for external validation that strikes me as sad, finally, though I’m sure I crave it just as badly as the next human being, maybe more. What makes it sad is what it says about how our culture doesn’t let us value the act of writing itself, for its own sake, as its own reward."

And yet he often links contemptuously to notices of particularly idiotic prize selections (so they must eat away at him on some level), notes the better choices ("And when prizes do work: / More on the Pulitzer / for Ornette Coleman"), or says, on some sunny morning, "It strikes me as bizarre that John Ashbery, of all people, never has received a National Medal for the Arts."

Bizarre indeed: according to something called the Ashbery Resource Center ("project of the Flow Chart Foundation for Bard College"), Ashbery has won everything from the Discovery Prize in 1952 to the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award and the Robert Frost Medal (both given by the Poetry Society of America) and on and on, not to mention fellowships from the Guggenheim, MacArthur, and Rockefeller foundations, to name a few.

Nor should we forget for a moment the much more culturally salient fact that he is now, as we all know, poet laureate of MTV.

Of course he deserves every bit of it plus the National Medal for the Arts to boot. Given all the fashionable loathing for awards, I do think it's interesting that nobody has ever suggested that (in order to remain intellectually respectable) he should have turned them all down.

Often (mis)quoted in these discussions is something Charles Ives is reputed to have said, that "Prizes are for children." I went looking for accounts of the Ives remark and found two good ones, the first marvelously romantic:

Equally significant was Lou Harrison's performance of the Third Symphony in 1947. It won Ives a Pulitzer Prize, forty years after the work had been composed. Ives was gratified; he disliked the hubbub, however, and remarked: "Prizes are for boys. I'm grown up." He had a point. The years that followed saw the recording of virtually all his important works, and Ives took his place in the textbooks as, all things considered, probably the most important American composer.

Europeans discovered him as well. When Arnold Schonberg died in 1951, his widow mailed Ives a sheet of paper that she had found. On it he had written:

There is a great Man living in this country—a composer.
He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self and to learn.
He responds to negligence by contempt.
He is not forced to accept praise or blame.
His name is Ives.

(Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization: Robert M. Crunden, University of Illinois Press, 1985)

But the second account, from Timothy A. Johnson's Baseball and the Music of Charles Ives: A Proving Ground (Scarecrow Press, 2004), may, in the end, be more telling:

1947 also was the year that Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Third Symphony. According to legendary accounts, Ives replied to the committee, "Prizes are for boys. I'm grown up." Moreover, he claimed that "prizes are the badges of mediocrity." But this public reaction perhaps has been overplayed. As Jan Swafford noted, "In private he hung the certificate proudly on the wall."

* Title cribbed from this.


Anonymous said...

completely unrelatedly, dick of the dead is really pretty great. found that and your blog via google. best, annam.

Rachel Loden said...

Annam! Where have you been, you mysterious personage? I almost posted an all-points bulletin!

Have missed you. Please backchannel when you can.

Shaun Kelley said...

I like much of Ives' music a lot. That being said, what makes him "probably the most important American composer"? College professors greatly overestimate their own importance and consequence. I think this fact was at the heart of Ives' attitude toward the Pulitzer. Professors don't make music important, people do.