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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Misreadings and misgivings

I can't imagine a more irresponsible article to be posted on the Poetry Foundation's web site for National Poetry Month than this one, subtitled "Did Kurt Cobain die because he misread a poem?"

The author analyzes a page from Cobain's journals as an example of how Cobain read poetry:
But Cobain didn’t read with an open mind. He sought what resonated with his fiercely puritanical disenchantment, and with his plan to get rich and famous “and kill myself like Jimi Hendrix,” which he announced to at least seven friends in junior high school.

We can study his poetical imagination at work by reading the only poem in his published journals, “A Young Woman, a Tree,” by award-winning poet Alicia Ostriker. Cobain’s response to Ostriker’s poem demonstrates that he died by a willful act of misreading.

What does the author mean by "puritanical disenchantment"? Is it reasonable to try to imagine someone's "poetical imagination" by guessing why he quoted a fragment of a poem in a drawing? Or then to extrapolate to an explanation for his suicide? I can't tell if this is clunky writing--that is, maybe the author tried to write a nut graf but ended up limiting his idea to a Semi-Outrageous Claim Supported with Proof by Myopic Close Reading type of essay--or if he really believes the claim. What happens next is not an interesting reading of the Ostriker poem, but a set of suppositions about why Cobain only quoted part of the poem and what he would have thought of the redemptive ending. I'm uneasy about these overdetermined readings of Cobain's public and private writings; it's hard to take Cobain at his word and one risks making him say exactly what one wants him to say. It's irresponsible to make these guesses, and I'm troubled by the heavy-handed message about the value of reading and writing poetry that's offered at the end:
Maybe Cobain would never have been able to read the redemptive message of the poem. His imagination was all about the moment of explosiveness, not the wisdom of reflection. He felt he had exhausted all creative possibilities: if you think his posthumously released tune “You Know You’re Right” sounds like the same old formula, he felt the same way. In his journals, he sarcastically envisions Nirvana as a washed-up oldies act.

But his biochemistry made him believe from the start that all hope was exhausted before he was born. He writes in his early journals that it’s all been done, there’s no point in music, and yet “it’s still fun to pretend” that his generation could find a living music of its own. As the forbidden page shows, he no longer had the spirit to keep up the pretense. He could not see that his restless questing, his gnawing hunger to create, and his ability to pour that frustration into art was in itself potentially his deepest gift.

(link from Rake's Progress, which has a couple of links about Courtney Love's use of Anne Sexton, the odd convergence between "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Thomas Pynchon, and a more interesting example of Cobain's reading taste in Patrick Suskind's Perfume.)

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Blogger Ben on Thu Apr 20, 05:36:00 AM:
If you want to work on better alternatives to poetryfoundation.org, you might consider going to work for poets.org, who is hiring an online coordinator.