I think Perl seems to be very much simplifying WCW if he is suggesting
that Williams did not have "standards" in the sense of aesthetic definitions.
The issue, it seems to me, is not standards vs. no standards but what kind
of values and aesthetic criteria were at work in the two poets. There is a
very thoughtful essay by Denise Levertov (who deeply admired Williams but
focused on the different ways these poets defined art) called "Williams and
Eliot" (1989) It is in the collection _Denise Levertov: New and Selected
Essays_ along with her very careful discussions of line and of her notion of
Williams's aesthetics as exacting and capable of "a Franciscan sense of
wonder that illumines what is accounted ordinary"--"Williams and the
Duende" (1972), same book. Her writing on Williams is a fine way to start
thinking about his work because she was also a major poet; she was very
influenced by Williams; and she was also a fine critic who wrote in a clear,
lucid, readable style. I think her comments on Eliot and Williams, whether
one ends up sharing her positions or not, aptly set out more valuable
distinctions than "everything is art" or "only a few things with clear
standards are art."
I also think you could find all the same differences in current discussions of
aesthetics as you find in the Modern period. Neo-tradionalists want
sonnets. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets want to efface the subject and
experiment with form. Given that, a discussion here that tried to go beyond
simple dichotomies would be fascinating. I don't think there is any
agreement on even the term.
Date sent: Wed, 15 Aug 2001 11:08:12 EDT
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Subject: Definition of art
One of the questions that jumped out at me from the Perl lectures was
notion of a definition of art. It seems that people like William Carlos
Williams took a very general view of the question of "what is art?".
Recall the Williams' quote, "There is nothing sacred about literature. It
is damned from one end to the other. There is nothing in literature but
change, and change is mockery. I'll write whatever I damn please, whenever
I damn please, and as I damn please, and it will be good if the authentic
spirit of change is on it." The notion that art must have a very broad
definition seems echoed in Williams' line, "Better than to deprive birds
of their song, to call them all nightingales." In his poem "The Red
Wheelbarrow", Williams calls our attention not to nightingales but rather
to "white chickens".
On the other hand, people like Eliot had 'standards' for art. As Perl
(referring to the Williams' quote about nightingales), "I think you're now
in a position to understand that that sentence is a Paleo-Modernist's
nightmare. What Eliot or Pound or Yates or James or D.H. Lawrence most
feared was that the attempt to reconcile high culture with egalitarian or
democratic ethics would cause us to accept as art things that were NOT
art; would cause us to accept that all birds are nightingales. Some of
them are chickens."
I am very suspicious of some 'authority' deciding what is and what is
art, but, at the same time, I am sympathetic to the view that not
EVRYTHING is art. What do the scholars have to say about the existence
artistic standards in art and literature? What is the current thinking
about the question of "what is art?".
-- Steve --