Saturday, June 06, 2009

In praise of clarity

These days at the college I spend my time in the library. But I keep my laptop in a building I have access to at any time, in a lockable cupboard in the English Department's Critical Theory Library. And there I find myself surrounded by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, Latour, Baudrillard, Barthes, and all the rest of the fashionable theorists of the postmodern intelligensia.

Let me say at once that I don't even know what "postmodernism" means. Every definition I have read is as abtruse as the authors themselves. Not that I haven't tried. I've given the pomo gurus my best shot, only to find myself wallowing in bafflement (with the occasional exception of Foucault). Maybe I'm just not smart enough. Maybe it was all those years of reading and teaching science, where X is defined with a precision that allows unambiguous measurement. Francis Bacon said that truth "is extracted...not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." The pomo crowd are supremely adept at rooting around in the closets of the mind; one wishes that now or then they would step out into the sunlight.

Give me instead the poet who sees and describes, simply, exactly, as in this poem, called Pheasant, by Sylvia Plath:
You said you would kill it this morning.
Do not kill it. It startles me still,
The jut of that odd, dark head, pacing

Through the uncut grass on the elm's hill.
It is something to own a pheasant,
Or just to be visited at all.

I am not mystical: it isn't
As if I thought it had a spirit.
It is simply in its element.

That gives it a kingliness, a right.
The print of its big foot last winter,
The tail-track, on the snow in our court --

The wonder of it, in that pallor,
Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling.
Is it its rareness, then? It is rare.

But a dozen would be worth having,
A hundred, on that hill -- green and red,
Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!

It is such a good shape, so vivid.
It's a little cornucopia.
It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud,

Settles in the elm, and is easy.
It was sunning in the narcissi.
I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be.
As the critic John Ruskin said, "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."

(I haven't mentioned the structural contrivance of the poem itself. Would someone like to observe closely and tell what you see?)