Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Am I Trying Too Hard?

That is me doing a rather failed chest roll.

I've been thinking about the word "precious," and I'm curious about the ways different communities of writers use it--usually negatively. I'll be up front, I really despise the word "precious." However, I'm guilty of calling other people's work precious, and my work's been called precious, but what really are we talking about?

I think that "precious" is code for "pretentious." And we all have different ideas about what exactly is pretentious. Pretension has a lot to do with our notions of boundaries, and those notions are informed by culture. The first time I wrote anything that had references to China and Chinese, someone called the piece pretentious. I've been noodling away with a piece that does in fact use some Chinese language, but it's not going to see the light of day for a while, and when it does, I know someone is going to say it's precious and/or pretentious. No doubt it was probably pretentious of me to study Chinese in the first place.

Preciousness is also related to affect, artificiality, and over-refinement: if a poem is precious, the suggestion is that there's something inappropriately costumed or ornamental (read "trivial") about it--it's paying attention to detail or playing with language that, for whatever reason, is irrelevant. That "precious" tends to have feminine metonymic associations seems quite obvious. That point alone is enough to make me suspicious of it as a vague descriptive term.

I don't think anything can be irrelevant in poetry, though I suppose it's possible to have something irrelevant to a particular poem in a poem, but I'm not even sure about that. Irritating, strange, failed, unexpected, frustrating yes, but not irrelevant. Parataxis, especially when it involves a variety of supposedly trivial details, always risks failure, that's why I like it.

Part of what poetry can do is address things that we can't/don't/aren't allowed to/don't know how to/are afraid to/ talk about in other discourses. Sometimes this means poetry's doing heavy creative thinking on big concepts like hopelessness, violence and racism in the US (Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, for example), or poetically witnessing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Carol Mirakove's Occupied). But equally important are books like Nada Gordon's Folly, a book that really picks at stubbornly gendered dichotomies like folly/reason, trivial/serious, affect/authenticity in ways that are hilarious, strange, intelligent, and purposely very difficult to pin down. Folly is proof that social critique doesn't have to be the opposite of throwing a party, even though a lot of people, especially those smitten with Reason, would like it to be.

Preciousness is also related to a sense of "trying too hard"--if you're going to impress, you shouldn't give it away that you want to impress. If you're going to wear make up, it should look "natural." I remember having a debate with my mother about this when I was around 12 and busy attempting to wear eyeshadow and nail polish in a way that probably made me look like a confused tart. Eventually I said something like, "but mom, the point of painting my nails red is so that they do not look natural."

The dance movement piece I performed with a lacrosse ball as part of my movement for theater class went well, and I got a lot of useful feedback. However, one of the critiques I received was that one of the movement/shapes I'd held for a sustained period of time clearly looked like a strain, like I was "trying too hard." It's true--I was trying too hard, and I wanted everyone to know it. I wanted to, sigh, be vulnerable, and wanted the piece to be as precarious as possible. That shape was one way of letting the audience see the structure and process of the piece in that moment. I purposely chose a shape that was difficult for me to hold, and I choreographed a variety of ways of falling out of it. I don't believe in self-harm, so I made a conscious decision to not just fall out of the shape. What's weird about that is that my attempt to be direct and honest was read, by some, as artificial.

I've only ever used the word precious to describe someone's work in private conversation, but I'm going to make an effort to not use it as a descriptive word relative to writing again.


Matt said...

i usually think of "precious" as meaning something more along the lines of "corny"...like a lot of poems on the Writer's Almanac... like, the kind of poem that ends with a neat little nugget of wisdom that you roll your eyes at...

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Precious as corny--that's definitely different from my understanding of it, both dictionary and discourse wise, but nonetheless fascinating. Can you elaborate? Precious as the direct, often expected, rather cliched epiphany of the more conventional narrative poem?

Matt said...

well, something like cliche i think...something that makes you groan or wince... like a really forced metaphor or something. ooh! i just thought of the perfect example. that william stafford poem, "traveling through the dark":

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason--
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.


especially the phrases "brought me the reason" and "my only swerving". but really the whole thing. like he's trying so hard to be "poetic" --which is i guess what preciousness means to me: trying too hard to be poetic.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

So, preciousness as trying too hard to be poetic--I think my reading of the term would agree with that. I guess I realize the problem then, though, would be with the definition of "poetic." I mean, my problem with this poem is that certainly does give us a kind of epiphany at the end which isn't surprising or unexpected, and I have a distinct preference for surprise and the unexpected; The poem's language/structure doesn't allow for much bewilderment in the Fanny Howe sense of the term.

Matt said...

yeah, i should have put "poetic" in quotes. it's actually a word i pretty much only ever use in quotes, even if it's just air quotes, and in a pejorative way. like, falsely poetic, you could say.

"really" poetic, on the other hand...what does it mean... well, that's a tough one :)

K. Lorraine Graham said...

"Really" "poetic" in a "sense." : )

Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

Thanks for invoking me in this post, Lorraine. To me, preciousness and ornamentality are possibly overlapping, but basically distinct. Ornamentality, doused with excess and irony, or even just out on its own, perfectly brash and gorgeous, isn't precious at all. Artworks are precious when they consent to be little ("I'll just sit in the corner eating chicken wings")or "slow." Even more when they pride themselves on that littleness or slowness and think that makes them important. I realize I'm anthropomorphizing the poems here if only not to pick on their poets.

Preciousness is mannered, to be sure, but it seems to me that it is more related to PIETY (not religious. poetic.) than to decoration. Some kind of self-consciousness and cloying-gloating. Maybe that's like what you mean by "trying too hard"?

Steven Fama said...

Just to maybe add to the mix, take a listen to, or remember, Chrissie Hynde and The Pretender's song, "Precious".