Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Reason on a Banana Peel

There has been a lot of talk recently about the whimsy playwriting style that seems to be appearing with increasing frequency. Like anything else, it can be troublesome to pursue the grouping of very different artists under a such a thin umbrella.

But I also agree with Garrett Eisler of Playgoer, who said, a while back, that there is definitely a something going on that looks like a trend.

In the New Criterion this month there is an article about the New Critics and their attempts to deal with the increasingly difficult imagery constructs of poetry in the Modern era.

Superstitions were common among the modernists (in painting as well as in poetry). A profound mysticism and spiritual longing animated much of the early twentieth-century avant-garde: think of Yeats’s private mythology in A Vision, Eliot’s Anglicanism, Tate’s Catholicism. Such systems were mined for their mystery and potent symbolism. The New Critics were careful, however, to draw a line safely on this side of unreason.

Contemporary poets have pushed this irrationalist-obscuratist
tendency in modernism to extremes. The result is a kind of secular mysticism that poaches on the religious impulse. At its best, it works a travesty on the mysteries comprised by deism; at its worst, it is an ironized shadow-play, in which the poet winks to his knowing audience of experimentalists and agnostics to acknowledge that the outmoded traditions are over once and for all. In their place, they substitute the vague charge that results when meaning is drained
from language, offering this cloud of unknowing as a kind of sham religious experience.


The recipe for poetry of this kind is easy to follow. As the critic
David Orr wrote recently in The New York Times Book Review, “the trendiest contemporary style” relies “heavily on disconnected phrases, abrupt syntactical shifts, attention-begging titles, … quirky diction, … flickering italics, oddball openings, … and a tone ranging from daffy to plangent—basically, two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein.” For “daffy” read playfully opaque, the irrationality that results when reason slips on a banana peel—a briefly amusing, but ultimately cheap gag.

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