Round table participants:
Oren Izenberg is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago and his areas of study include Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics; History and Theory of Lyric; Twentieth-Century Literature; Literature and the Philosophy of Mind. His essay, "Language Poetry and Collective Life," appeared in Critical Inquiry 29:4 (Autumn 2003). He is currently completing a book entitled, Being Numerous: The Poetic Imagination of the Ground of Social Life.
Norman Finkelstein is a Professor of English at Xavier College in Ohio and teaches modern and contemporary American literature, Jewish American literature, literary theory, and creative writing. He has published several volumes of poetry including Restless Messengers (University of Georgia Press, 1992), Track (Spuyten Duyvil, 1999), and Columns: Track Volume II (Spuyten Duyvil, 2002). He has also published four books of literary criticism.
Stephen Burt is an Assistant Professor of English at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN, a poet, a book reviewer and critic. He is the author of Popular Music, a collection of poerty, and Randall Jarrell and His Age now available from Columbia University Press. His next book of poetry, Parallel Play, is forthcoming (Fall 2005) from Graywolf Press. More on Steve can be found here.
Alan Golding is Professor of English and Director of Undergraduate Studies in English at the University of Louisville, where he teaches American literature and twentieth-century poetry. He is the author of From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry (U of Wisconsin P, 1995), which won a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book Award in 1996.
H.L. Hix is Vice President for Academic Affairs at The Cleveland Institute of Art. He is author of three books of poetry and As Easy As Lying: Essays on Poetry (2002), essays that "delve into the workings of the poetic mind and offer incisive assessments of contemporary American poets and poetics." He has received numerous awards, including the T.S Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Peregrine Smith Poetry Award, as well as a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He received his Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Texas.
Kent Johnson has edited Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada (Roof, 1998), as well as Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada's Letters in English, forthcoming from Combo Books. He has also translated (with Alexandra Papaditsas) The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek (Skanky Possum, 2003) and (with Forrest Gander) Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz (California UP, 2002), which was a PEN Award for Poetry in Translation selection. He was named Faculty Person of the Year for 2003 at Highland Community College, in Freeport, Illinois, where he teaches English Composition and Spanish.
Joe Amato's many failures include two tenure denials; a Fortune 500 pink slip; a
nonunion construction boot off the job site (provoked); and failing his first
road test. His most recent collection of poetry is Under Virga (forthcoming later
this year from Chax Press), judged a "neophyte" failure by his most recent
tenure committee. While on leave from his soon-to-be-former institution, Amato
is employed as a nontenure-track (IEA/NEA) Instructional Assistant Professor
with the Department of English at Illinois State University, where he teaches
writing and literature. His online work is available here.
Avant, Post-Avant, and Beyond
An email-assisted discussion
hosted by Joan Houlihan
The seventh of my Boston Comment columns, Post-Post Dementia, an examination of the trend toward non-sequiturial poetry in some leading contemporary journals, seemed, as they say, to hit a nerve.
An entire community, heretofore nestled in online "blogs" suddenly erupted as if I had declared a war. Perhaps I did. Certainly, the response has been, to put it mildly, contentious. To explore this explosion, I've invited five foremost critics/poets with rational abilities and powers of articulation to start a necessary dialogue. I asked them all the same questions. The result is here. I am honored to have these participants and to host this discussion.
1. Is there an avant-garde in American poetry today? What is the usefulness of this term, if any? Are the terms "experimental" and "avant-garde" synonymous in your mind?
Obviously, there are poets today who view themselves as part of the avant-garde of American poetry. Those who claim the honorific use it quite variously—to name a range of styles or compositional techniques, to signal an attitude toward particular institutions, to indicate a set of theoretical commitments, to identify an artistic lineage, to claim an affiliation with like-minded contemporaries. Most of these uses of the term marry shorthand (we have fair sense what kind of thing to expect when it appears) to advertising (its appearance conveys a sense of urgency about the values its bearers wish to be associated with). For the most part, our avant-gardes no longer burden themselves with the political utopianism for which Peter Burger relegated it to history, nor do they set themselves up for the endless failures that led Paul Mann argue that death is the avant-garde's form of life. The designation “avant-garde” (or, in its somewhat more modest form, “post-avant”) may indeed tell us something about the poet's imagined or actual coordinates within a literary and intellectual culture, and in that sense it can be of real sociological interest. But I don't find the idea of an avant-garde very useful to describe the achievement of poetry.
For my own purposes, I tend to prefer the term “experimental” (though it, too, can certainly be used vaguely, or variously, or for promotional purposes). Although it does imply some normative values (it would be a trick to justify so labeling a poet who believed that the primary function of poetry was to cast in memorable form learning generated elsewhere, for example), the notion of poem as experiment does not determine in advance the directions that poetry may go. It does not always indicate novelty, for example: one can experiment en arriere as well as en avant. Nor, to my mind, does the term experiment make it easy to perform the sorting task that would take certain poets off the table in advance. There is no telling ahead of time who can or will perform an experiment!
The idea that poetry aspires to experiment has been particularly useful to me in considering certain parallels between literature and philosophy of mind—particularly philosophy in the analytical tradition, in which there is a convention of working with elaborately conceived thought experiments. Poems are particularly interesting in this context because they have a double aspect: on the one hand, they exemplify and demand the exercise of mental capacities (the mental capacities that go into the making of or reading of a poem—at the very least linguistic capacities, but no doubt other kinds as well). But they also dramatize other capacities—like sense perception, or memory, or feeling, often under the guise of merely exemplifying them. When Emily Dickinson writes a poem that dramatizes her reaction to reading poetry as the alteration and inversion of the senses,
And whether it was noon at night --
Or only Heaven -- at Noon --
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell
I would like to argue that she is engaging in a thought experiment no less serious than Ned Block's “inverted earth” argument about the nature of qualia. While its implications are not discursively elaborated, they are, arguably, more complex—the poem raises not just the problem of the reality of first person experience, but the problem of its communicability, and it does so from the inside as well as from outside; it raises questions not just by pumping our intuitions about experience, but by being an occasion for having an experience ourselves, under conditions of heightened self-scrutiny.
In a similar vein, when William Wordsworth writes a poem in which he describes his return to a place he knew in childhood in order to measure the difference between his reactions then and his reactions now, he too is enacting a thought experiment; one that is not so different from Derek Parfit's teletransporter experiment that begins his great book Reasons and Persons. Both, that is, require us to re-examine our intuitions (some of which come in the form of feelings and ethical judgments) about the minimum necessary requirements for the continuity of the self over time. And I should say that Wordsworth's thinking here is not less original for being syntactically or metrically regular.
It may be worth noting that of these two poets, Dickinson is the poet more commonly claimed as a predecessor in the avant-garde tradition (whether by Susan Howe, Rae Armantrout, or Michael Magee), despite the fact that Wordsworth is the poet for whom the term avant-garde is actually a better fit—stylistically and politically. My main point here is that these issues of filiation, stylistic innovation, and political activism, interesting as they may be on their own merits, can't tell us what we will find in poetry when we look. Which is fine, but they don't even, by themselves, tell us that we ought to look. The working hypothesis that a poem is an experiment enjoins me, as a reader, to find out what the poem wants to find out.
The avant-garde as a cultural formation has been the object of a great deal of study for many years—probably for as long as there has been identifiably modern (or modernist) literature and art. From Renato Poggioli through Andreas Huyssen to Paul Mann (whose Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde remains my favorite book on the subject), commentators have consistently pointed out the inherent instability of the concept. Not only do avant-gardes age and calcify as their breakthroughs and strategies are understood and their audiences adjust and grow, they are also increasingly apt to be absorbed, sometimes quite self-consciously, into what we must call, with equal imprecision, the mainstream. Indeed, this self-conscious instability may be the defining quality of avant-garde cultural production. From downtown punk to endowed professorship: it's an old story, and I suppose, one that is still current in American poetry.
Because “avant-garde” is primarily a sociological term, I would distinguish it from “experimental,” which I tend to apply to matters of technique—though since form is always an extension of content (as we have been told repeatedly), no experiment in method or procedure can be that alone. Perhaps this is why Wallace Stevens writes in his Adagia that “All poetry is experimental poetry.” Then again, it is clear from some of Stevens' other statements in the Adagia that poetry means a great deal more to him than words, however artfully arranged. If all poetry is experimental poetry, it is because the poem is an attempt at a new understanding of life, or as George Oppen puts it in a somewhat different context, “a test of truth.”
In considering this question, I find it quite ironic that the first piece of criticism I ever published was a brief essay called “On Experiment In Poetry,” in A Critical Assembling (1979, edited by Richard Kostelanetz). The rhetoric was inflated and the argument somewhat incoherent, but twenty-five years later, I continue to insist that there is no such thing as poetic experiment for its own sake. Yet we still can't seem to get away from the image of the bold poet breaking the rules (what rules?) and concocting something “new.” This leads in turn to the matter of “tradition,” and I'm not going to open that can of worms. Better to end with Eliot, from “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.” It's worth keeping in mind when one is moved to “experiment.”
"Experimental" and "avant-garde" shouldn't be synonyms. Yet both terms get used, and have for perhaps 30 years, to denote poets who:
(a) trace their aesthetics to certain strands of high modernism and to previous "avant-gardes"; in America, that means Pound, Williams or Stein (rather than Eliot, Stevens, Frost, or Moore), Spicer and Duncan or Ashbery and O'Hara (rather than Lowell, Bishop, or Jarrell), and perhaps Continental surrealists as well;
(b) eschew clear prose meanings and/or pre-modernist forms;
(c) rely on counterintuitive theories about the relation of language and art to politics, history, or "experience," especially when those theories have a left-wing cast;
(d) avoid, and often denounce, trade presses and large-circulation venues (such as the New Yorker), favoring instead a network of small presses, readings and magazines which aspires to horizontal, participatory community, rather than institutional authority.
"Avant-garde" has various art-historical definitions which provoke continued debate, and which seem to me to lead us away from individual poems. And "experimental" has other meanings which make it a questionable term for these groups, since all good poetry experiments (with language, with feeling, with form), and since in a scientific experiment, negative results are still results, whereas a failed work of art is a failure--though perhaps a precondition for future success. Some of the poets described by (a) through (d) above regard themselves less as makers of individual works of art than as participants in a collective enterprise; they may thus seem more like the scientific community, and hence more "experimental," than poets who think of themselves as individual makers, though the analogy strikes me as strained.
To begin by posing a counter-question: if there were an avant-garde in American poetry today, would we necessarily recognize it as such? Could we tell yet if the Bush years were generating the kind of context for avant-garde writing that the Vietnam years generated for Language writing? Can we assume that a contemporary avant-garde would take the form of previous avant-gardes, including urgent announcements of its own presence? Not necessarily so. We might expect a new avant-garde to redefine the term's meaning and the practices associated with it. It's possible that defining features of a contemporary avant-garde might include the impulse to fly under the radar, to avoid the publicity machine (including that of the academy) in ways that contrast directly with the historical avant-garde's courting of publicity. (Younger poets writing in a range of innovative traditions have written the customary self-definitional poetic statements but seem to have resisted the idea of some kind of putative collective practice.) Features of a new avant-garde might include a skepticism about the now-canonized features of Language writing, the most influential recent American avant-garde, and about the powerful, ambitious, but often hyperbolic claims advanced in the early years of that movement—a skepticism about some of the work, some of the claims, and about the avant-gardist rhetoric of manifestoes and claim-making more generally. Here we run into a complication, however. If we grant that Language writing has achieved a certain kind of paradoxical centrality, how does subsequent innovative writing that responds to it escape the cycle of recuperation and reaction that marks the historical reception of the avant-garde? Without such an escape, how thorough can any attempted redefinition of avant-gardism be? This conundrum seems a particularly pressing one for any emerging avant-garde. An avant-garde typically responds with a complex mix of embrace, adaptation and rejection to its own predecessors; from this point of view, a post-Language avant-garde stands in the same relation to Language writing as this movement did to, say, the New American Poetries, at the same time as it aspires to move avant-garde practice beyond such agonistic relationships.
But if it's hard to pin down a contemporary avant-garde in concrete terms, it's possible to locate some generationally specific ways of thinking about innovative writing: in what Steve Evans calls the “hatred of Identity” (including the identity of “avant-garde poet”), in Daniel Barbiero's “avant-garde without agonism,” in Mark Wallace's “free multiplicity of form,” in Susan Wheeler's “anodyne eclecticism.” (For the first three of these references, see Wallace and Steven Marks' collection of post-Language essays on alternative poetics, Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. For an anthological introduction to the related poetry, see Lisa Jarnot, Leonard Schwartz and Chris Stroffolino's An Anthology of New (American) Poets.) What complicates the association of this synthesizing impulse with an emergent avant-garde, however, is that the stylistic features once associated with the term “avant-garde” now appear in a wide range of work to varying degrees. The 1999 Barnard College conference, “Where Lyric Meets Language,” reflected a desire to cross rather than mark boundaries, to advance the kind of eclecticism that I've mentioned. But that eclecticism is not emerging uncontested, as writers and editors face charges of appropriation in the cause of careerism, incoherent editorial policy, and so on. Much rhetorical energy was spent at the Barnard conference on the ethical implications of previously “mainstream” poets seeming to adopt the surface features of avant-gardism without reference to the cultural politics and history that gave those features their larger significance. Even as they have collaged wildly, avant-gardists have tended to be purists, and now the argument concerns what counts as pure and impure eclecticism.
The death of the avant-garde has been repeating itself for decades, with every avant-garde that comes along. David Lehman has called the New York School the last avant-garde; Paul Mann has announced with perverse glee the theory-death of the avant-garde. As a number of writers have pointed out, however, what could reasonably be called avant-garde art practices have survived these critical and theoretical claims of their demise. Hence neither the insistence on the avant-garde's death nor the fact that we do not yet know what the next avant-garde(s) will look like invalidates the term. For one thing, it still retains plenty of historically descriptive power. The term may be more useful as a socio-aesthetic marker than as a specifically aesthetic one, but perhaps that's always been true: it refers to some combination of oppositional cultural (and/or literal) politics and certain features of style regarded in their moment as “innovative.” The absence of the latter is why New Formalism cannot seriously be considered an avant-garde, even though it liked to present itself as such; the absence of the former is one reason why I would not consider a great constructivist text like “The Waste Land” an avant-garde poem. Pushing further on the question of usefulness and meaning, I do not consider the terms “experimental” (and let's add “alternative,” “innovative,” and whatever else you can think of) and “avant-garde” synonymous. I'd agree that they both propose newness in relational terms (though surely it's impossible to pose newness in any other terms)—“experimental” or “avant-garde” in relation to something. But I have never found compelling the fall-back position that “all poetry is experimental”: that usually means that each poem is new, an attempt at something, and it strikes me as a weak definition of the term “experimental,” “weak” because it is so banal and all-inclusive that it defines nothing. The difference between “experimental” and “avant-garde” is the difference between the individual and the group or movement, between a relatively isolated (and perhaps even sui generis) practice and ideas of the collective, the collaborative, the communal, or the network. The avant-garde is a social or collective, if not collaborative, phenomenon, even while its aesthetic products will often overlap in many ways with the work of other “experimental” writers. The term “avant-garde” has a social component that the term “experimental” lacks. Hence I do not think it meaningful (or I don't think I do) to talk in terms of an individual avant-garde poet, in terms of an avant-garde of one, even when the salient features of that artist's work are features that one would associate with avant-gardism. Please feel free to cite Gertrude Stein as an immediate counter-example, or George Oppen, or William Bronk, or ---.
I myself find the term “avant-garde” of little use in discussing poetry. The martial metaphor implies much that seems to me inaccurate when applied to poetry: armies in concerted effort against one another, victory and defeat, and so on. I believe I understand the term (i.e. could use it according to the rules that govern the language-game of contemporary poetry criticism), and I don't object to it, exactly; it's just that for me the disanalogies claim the foreground and push the analogies back.
I can't help recalling Kierkegaard: “On the battlefield, it so happens that if the first line of combatants has been victorious, then the second is not led into battle at all but merely shares in the triumph. In the world of the spirit, it is not this way.”
That said, there do seem to be poets who find poetic conventions satisfying, and work within them, and poets whose work tests and questions received conventions. (Or, to borrow from Charles Bernstein, writing that assumes a method and writing that investigates a method.) Insofar as a poet tends toward the latter, she or he will qualify equally for either term, “experimental” or “avant-garde,” as I understand the “normal” use of those terms in American poetry criticism today.
I like the conception of poetry as a heuristic tool able to reveal information about the world, so I find the scientific implications of “experimental” more apt than the implications of “avant-garde,” and have preferred the term “experimental” in my own writings.
An American poetic avant-garde? If, as Peter Burger argues in his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde, the concept should be understood as defining a collective, self-conscious, and insistent attack on the “institution of art and literature” with the aim of reintegrating art “into the practice of life,” then it would be hard to find evidence of an “avant-garde” meriting of the title today. In Burger's view, one with which it's hard to argue, the historical avant-garde, in its poetic and visual genres, failed in rather spectacularly evident ways, its artistic products reintegrated with great velocity not into “the practice of life” but into the institutional “practices” of the very culture it set out to assault. Although Burger's ideas are seldom cited by contemporary poets and critics, I think his study holds some important lessons relevant to the current situation of American “innovative” poetry. Some of what follows, then, has his thesis on the fate of radical modernism as backdrop.
Of course, more than any other literary current of the past quarter century, Language poetry (or more broadly, now, as the intra-generational term goes, the “post-avant”) has been associated with the idea of the “avant-garde.” In its formative stages, when a dogged development of autonomous networks was in organic relation to an intense phase of iconoclastic critical/poetic activity (i.e., a phase peaking, perhaps, around the mid-80's), it had a credible claim to the term. But save for occasional nods to the original passions, the radical ideals have been largely shed, and it's now clear, to increasing numbers of observers, that this current, in repetition of the process of earlier movements from which its praxis had importantly been drawn, is effectively absorbed into the larger literary culture it once claimed to reject. Language poetry, along with its various second-generation satellite formations, now stands as an experimentalist, but respectful and loyal, opposition within the Parliament of Academic poetry. The “post-avant” is the mode that ambitious young MFA'ers study; it is the creative writing “style” scores of publishers are seeking; it is the aesthetic pedigree rising numbers of awards are prizing; it is the criticism and theory that prestigious university presses are publishing; it is the “subversive poetics” the current President of the Modern Language Association has made her reputation promoting.
In his study, Burger also deals at length (as any consideration of the avant-garde can't help but do) with the aesthetic theory of Theodor Adorno, arguing that the difficult formal practices the latter championed for their defiant “autonomy” were destined, by virtue of their tacit collusion with the underlying “productive and distributive” functions of high culture, to be institutionally domesticated and ideologically contained. It's quite interesting in this regard, if in the sense of dramatic irony, that the dominant pose of current post-avant cultural politics has come to affect a quasi-Adornean air, inasmuch as its poets not only militantly privilege avant-gardist forms over realist ones in practice (i.e., experimental forms proposed as historically necessary gestures of negation in commodity-driven culture), but also assign them a kind of supra-historical ethical value in principle, where the adoption of non-syllogistic modes of poetic discourse is held as a kind of categorical imperative, a formal sine qua non for achieving aesthetic-cognitive levels sufficient for resisting the co-optations of a hegemonic mass culture. Not that everyone explains the matter to herself in that somewhat Altierian, burdensome way, but such would be the general background assumption.
As a corollary that is by now trademark, this has also meant absolutist kinds of pronouncements and dismissals in regards to poetry based in narrative, I-centered approaches--poetry which gets filed, tout court, into reductive, straw man categories like “The School of Quietude” or “Official Verse Culture,” fuzzy tropes alluding to an enemy-realm that is never really defined except in the most general lit-critical terms (i.e., poetry based on the nostalgic or epiphanic experience of a "self" that naively assumes to stand beyond the language games within which it is staged, etc., etc.). This kind of "official" poetry, it is repeatedly and grimly charged, is the dominant mode of the "academy" and of the most influential magazines, like, for example, American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, or Poetry.
Now, there is little question the conclusions innovative poets have drawn about the culture industry's reach and power are well-grounded. And so it's deeply ironic, to the nth degree, that one of the key postulates in current post-avant polemics urges the increased propagation of “avant-garde” works into the structural functions of that very same cultural apparatus. Thus, the exigency of the moment, as leading figures of the “new poetries” have lately made clear, (see for suggestive example, Hank Lazer's The People's Poetry, Boston Review, April/May 2004), is not the development of radically sovereign zones of aesthetic and critical dissent; it is, rather, that the institutional venues of “Official Verse Culture” be prodded to make themselves more open and hospitable to experimental, “difficult” forms of writing, so that these last might be granted the broad divulgation and esteem they deserve. Consequently, Charles Bernstein, as distant now from the unambiguous calls for heterodox autonomy that once informed the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine as John Kerry is from the anti-imperialist manifestoes of the VVAW, is able to make such barely veiled appeals for integration and reform as the following:
I know a lot of people are… focusing their critiques more on universities than the PWC (Publications of Wide Circulation). But I think what Andrew Ross called "the oxygen of publicity" matters quite a bit. Poetry survives and thrives nurtured by its committed readers and practitioners, but I think the value of poetry is not just for us but indeed for this wider public and that the culture suffers when it isolates itself from its poets… Almost any poet will tell you not enough poetry gets reviews in publications-with-wide-circulation (PWC): big city newspapers, the newsweeklies, and the national journals of culture and opinion. Part of the problem would simply be solved if poetry were treated by these publications as a national cultural "beat": if poetry were covered the way art or TV is… When it comes to poetry, the PWC do a great disservice to their readers: their coverage is, to use the terms of opprobrium so popular in their reviews, inadequate and of poor quality. Almost no coverage is given of the field, something that is otherwise the prerequisite of journalism, and the choices of what is reviewed seem at best arbitrary, though obviously skewed to the trade presses, even though these presses, by almost anyone's measure, are responsible for only a small proportion of the significant poetry of our time... A culture's refusal of its poetry is not without consequence or redress. So when you ask if "the public [has] even the slightest interest in the material in question," (i.e., experimental poetries) I would say that the PWC's spurning of this, indeed, material in question, is a direct violation of the public interest, that we won't have a public worthy of the name until we engage with such material… [Interview with Marjorie Perloff]
One could say, if at the risk of too much Bernstein-like wittiness, that the post-avant in these first years of the century is auto-defined by a desire to keep its Steinian potatoes raw and roast them too: Its leaders' recycled polemics against “Official Verse Culture” or the “School of Quietude” are now accompanied by increasingly loud complaints (the above quote is also very much in line with the underlying premise of many of Ron Silliman's posts on his widely read blog) that the major publishing organs of that same official culture do not welcome them at the table of poetry haute cuisine. And in a sense, the resentment is understandable: “Experimental” verse is now very much an intrinsic part of the academic and elite poetry-biz scene. Its practitioners have their particular tastes, to be sure, but they have agreed, as good authorial citizens, to respect the ground-rule protocols of official literary etiquette. Now that they have paid their dues, as it were, a few more invitations to well-appointed PWC addresses would certainly seem fair…
Clearly, the process of normalization has now entered its late stages, marked by handsome “dissident” books of Ivy League provenance, Visiting 'Opposition-Poet' residencies at The Iowa Writer's Workshop, and predictable proclamations of poetic “difference” delivered with shiny name tags at the MLA and AWP per annum. But (to ask the begged question) what has gotten things from that rather high-hoped beginning to this rather ho-hum expiring? How and why has the American poetic “avant-garde” gone from a vital utopian radicalism to what is now, despite lingering self-proclamations of outsider status, an open, self-greased slide toward “professionalization” and institutional accommodation?
There are books yet to be written in answer to that, of course; however, the following can, indeed, be confidently stated: The denouement was determined in advance by the stubborn failure of the Language poets to practice what they preached. Polemically rejecting in their theory the “I” and “Self” as the ground of poetry, they enshrined it in their practice in the most nonchalant ways, framing and exhibiting their “avant-garde” products within the functional confines of Authorship, with all its attendant dynamics of cultural capital acquisition and private portfolio positioning. And doing so, they failed--predictably, for sure--to self-consciously interrogate the collapse of the originary avant-garde project they saw themselves as extending. Had they done otherwise, they might have seriously reflected on how the militant gestures of those past attempts were consistently appropriated as “artistic works” (Burger's term) and absorbed, via the canon and its mechanisms of classification and domestication, into the institutions of art and literature. More specifically, they might have begun to acknowledge (and thus begun to develop countermeasures to the inertial pull of the process) that it is the brand stamped on the work—the legal signature which confirms provenance and confers value—that is the means by which the literary economy catalogues, channels, and tracks the reproduction of its ideological authority. The offspring of Language poetry has followed in its path.
It is in this sense that the post-avant, accepting without question in its practice what Burger calls, again, the “productive and distributive apparatus” of the art/literature institution, differs not a whit in its generic essence from the “official verse culture” it so vociferously scolds; it is “opposite” in the sense of being the opposite side of a single coin and “oppositional” in the sense indicated earlier--of a loyal minority party which advocates for changes of form in the system, but not for the system's sublation.
Indeed, what has taken place over the past fifteen or so years is a steady drift by the so-called “avant-garde” toward a formalist aestheticism, where the old anti-capitalist claims have been progressively sloughed off as the poetry has become increasingly dependent on an academic-institutional environment (an environment, to be sure, that is not only strictly situated in the “University”) for its long-term currency. Its formal apartness—its relatively esoteric, hermetic character—becomes the meta-content of the work, marketed now, in open ways, as deserving its place in the “non-conformist” wing of the Museum of Poetry (or MoP, the mother of all PWC's).
In sum, the stance is no longer authentically oppositional. It hasn't been since the academy began in earnest to turn its attentions toward Language poetry and Language poetry its earnest attentions toward the academy. The broader post-avant that has devolved from that betrothal is, to repeat, fundamentally accommodationist in its outlook, taking up its “contentious” but responsible place in the overall literary field, whose ground rules for the taking of positions are understood and shared by all law-abiding parties. That the acculturation has happened is not unexpected, as the history of the avant-garde shows; that it has happened so quickly, in this case, is the stunning thing.
To say this is not to slight the gifts of individual poets, nor to diminish their accomplishments (the post-avant, old and young, obviously has deeply gifted writers in its ranks). But it's important, I think, to begin to sketch the outlines of a situation that is as yet barely discussed. To transcend the current impasse --to begin the construction of a truly autonomous poetic economy--a new kind of experimental community will need to emerge. When it does, it will need to be the kind of “avant-garde” that doesn't have reason to use the name.
Susan Sontag: "Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world." ("Notes on 'Camp'")
For "avant-garde" substitute "yellow submarine."
For "experimental" substitute "trial & error."
There is a yellow submarine in American poetry today. The term "yellow submarine" is useful because, among other things, it evokes the sixties, an era during which, according to some (like Arthur C. Danto, with his attention to Warhol), the history of representational art in the West came to an end. At least in retrospect, the term "yellow submarine" captures the stylized innocence of that camp-saturated era, arguably the last great era of widespread social change, when a collective apprehension of, attitude about, belief in a fiction of the possible, as opposed to merely the probable, became part and parcel of everyday life. During the sixties, the yellow submarine (beta version 2.0) was a prime embodiment of such fictive leanings.
Today's yellow submarine (re)figures this fiction, it contains such possibilities even as it reflects the prevailing mood among so many artists, a mood that has begun to take hold of our present era, that the real is only as real as we make it, as we live it. To put it another way: the yellow submarine persists as the irrepressible urge not to commodify, or to consume, but to "comedify" the cultural horizon. Life in this enterprise is not interchangeable with art -- Wilde merely teased us with this notion -- but it is closely allied with the aims of art.
Let me risk betraying camp by talking about it a bit (Sontag): camp artifacts by their very nature -- I'll offer another here, Adam West's Batman -- mock "serious" cultural (including campus) production. But in signifying the failure of authenticity, they likewise embody the authenticity of failure. And trial & error proceeds by failure, every Eureka! having a Dammit! hard on its heels. If trial & error implicitly feeds off of a nostalgia for a world that "might have been, if only -- ," it yet ushers in the unexpected pratfall or surplus. Trial & error, that is, may be inherently self-defeating as a pragmatic logic, yet as seeming evidence of its necessity, it never fails to open beyond itself, like a long silent laugh.
Sontag again: "In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails."
To fail at being serious: this is not to suggest a flip regard for the real, nor is it to imply that the locus of our desires ought to be artifice for artifice's sake (nor may one assume that I am drawn to watching more Batman episodes, as I have my own issues with the yellow aesthetic). It is rather to assert simply and profoundly that our desire to subvert social reality is itself constitutive of reality; hence that the real requires for its full elaboration, and alteration, our active engagement and our disengagement. One drops out to drop in. To be a real comedian, a comedian of the real, is to refrain from always humoring reason, with its scholastic ins and outs, overs and unders, fores and afts of logical default. "What does not change/is the will to change" may yet ring true, but one is tempted to wonder whether Olson might have conceded that the will to change demands, too, a willingness to entertain failure, to value the human theater of failure and resistance, of half-steps and fuck-ups. For even a slight divertissement can move one forward. Or backward.
Andreas Huyssen: "At the same time, the very notion of resistance may be problematic in its simple opposition to affirmation. After all, there are affirmative forms of resistance and resisting forms of affirmation." (After the Great Divide)
The issue at hand, my readers will demur, is too urgent to be left to solitary psyches amusing one another under the phantasmagoric sky. True enough. Still, the collective desire to risk failure has been played out -- and as I say, is playing out again today (for reasons having as much to do with globalization as with 9-11, which have of course much to do with each other) -- against the backdrop of those inexorably legislative, top-down fictions that foreclose on the real by programming life into lifestyles and the like. Stern faces, grim routines, get with the program why don't you?
Less fiction, come to think of it, than mythology.
In my more agonized (and misanthropic) moments, I imagine that our only collective response to "the program" to date has been those gaming communities springing up hither and thither around the globe -- method acting for the joystick-stricken. Not that I would mind a fan edit or two myself, you understand, or a little mortal kombat now and again -- but the current cultural milieu just can't seem to get enough of itself. Which almost makes me yearn for the good old days of M-rated movies -- for mature audiences.
I said almost.
But of late I am feeling optimistic, so I think now, here, that the rhetorics and convictions and social strategies of the sixties have in actuality been retooled for the coming decade. This is the Good News, never mind how this has come about. The apparatus is nearly in place. It will falter (as Howard Dean has faltered as of this writing, whatever else may be said about Dean's candidacy) only to the extent that the powers of the status quo are underestimated. These powers are legion. This is the Bad News.
But I digress.
The yellow submarine was designed initially to seek out workable propositions of love -- i.e., the terms of happiness. But something appeared and reappeared on its sonar screens over the intervening decades, something large and amorphous and encroaching. So the yellow submarine was retrofitted by succeeding generations of crewmembers to seek out this something, and this something turned out to be, lo! the social imagination -- the imagined collective as shared by, as imagined by the collective.
Depending on one's mood, then, the yellow submarine may be thought a metaphor, or a device, or a construct, or a pound of salt, or a def stab at conceptual bling bling, but however one thinks it, the yellow monster traffics in glimpses of the social imagination. This imagination requires for its sustenance, among other creaturely yearnings (and love is foremost), the intuition that we are part of something greater than ourselves. The overarching mission of the yellow submarine, then, is to be ever on the trail of the social imagination -- destination sans predestination, or destination less arrival, but with proximity.
Because it does not play fair -- playing fair would never level the playing field, in love or war or everyday life -- one might say that the yellow submarine is a cheat, but for all the right reasons. As a construct, it is no longer naive or pure in its camp maneuverings -- it is deliberate camp (see Sontag), but its extravagances now include forays into the murky waters of social thought and action. It busts chops.
As any punk can tell you.
Greil Marcus on punk: "What remains irreducible about this music is its desire to change the world." (Lipstick Traces)
Critics and theorists will speak of social desire today in terms of symbolic capital, libidinal energies and the like. This moves the discussion more squarely into what we now think of as the theoretical domain proper, with its focus on ideological effects. But it should be emphasized that the yellow submarine is not merely a cultural or ideological by-product, afterthought or epiphenomenon (except to the extent that it persists in this bit of discourse as a tortured trope). The yellow submarine, as deployed here, is fueled by that aesthetic impulse or performative apprehension which brings timelessness, or permanence, again into historical perspective. To paraphrase (badly) John Berger (in Another Way of Telling), this is the "imperviousness to time" with which the individual endows certain ineluctable moments, which moments have the potential of casting history as a domain of responsible and responsive social action, and which corresponding political horizon is consequently subject to the historical subject's momentary apprehension of timeless value. Without the momentary perception of (let's say) patterned timelessness, we socializing bipeds are without a portal on ever-accelerating historical flows, and the real is always just out of reach. To posit immutabilities of shared experience, then -- not a belief in god, or country, or family, but something like the communal and (let's say) inspirited memory of the species, its reckoning both of geological certitudes and the contingencies of social strife -- may help us to rethink the dictates of historical progress, making it credible for us to speak once again of active and willful human agents who can, together, effect meaningful change. If we like.
So the yellow submarine is, in a fundamental sense, forever. It reclaims the public domain as a domain of freethinking public action -- it brings all citizens in from the cold ambience of social neglect and injustice -- and it torpedoes power brokers where they live by insisting that their love of power is but a corrupted application of the power of love. The yellow submarine makes power brokers look silly, and therein lies its transformational power.
And a yellow submarine that doesn't do these things ain't shit.
Now, a construct that permits some "us" access to such durations and to such possible publics has consequences. One consequence for poets of the sixties -- and please permit me to accommodate "poets of the sixties" in broad sweep as those of the Allen anthology; those not included in that anthology but with felt affinities to that writing; and those poets whose work was most immediately, in effect, a response to that anthology (i.e., l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e and other poetries) -- was that language was henceforth to be understood as a vehicle for (indirect or direct) social and cultural transformation. That is, poets helping to pilot the yellow submarine theorized (and revalued) the expressive or pleasure-seeking poem-object as something of an aesthetic (and usually suburban) atavism, and turned their attentions instead to generating a poetry (if not poem) with more purposive (if not purposeful) ends, a poetry more congenial to interrogation of the varying (institutional, community) contexts for reception of their writing (hence a poetry more congenial to theory as it was then developing in the academy).
In the wake of which, those "raw vs. cooked" distinctions that had been the hallmark of the poetry-cultural wars of the fifties, with their emphasis on generic product, seemed precious at best, at worst, confining. As the new, seemingly more difficult poetry proliferated, it drew charges of "inaccessibility," the negative buzzword of choice (with "indeterminacy" later employed critically as a means of accessing the ostensibly inaccessible). The competing aesthetic claims of warring factions aside, what was often glossed in the ensuing debates was the degree to which the newly difficult poetry may have profited from a revaluation of literacy itself, for a poem that need not mean OR be, but must nonetheless produce readerly effects and affects -- the reader henceforth to be understood as a less passive and presumably more participatory party to the poem-event -- pushes the referential residue of language in the direction, however tacitly, of social function. In which word processes, simple referentiality, including especially the associated view of language as an intrinsically transparent medium, often came in for a beating, not least because the circuits through which language finds its way to the real were understood as unremittingly circuitous. So it could be argued, and was (and is), that poems that ask to be understood as social artifacts, even as they defy easy (let's say) translation by so many (let's say) social workers, risk irrelevance; thus that the proper work of writers and artists is to short-circuit those aforementioned circuitous circuits, the better that others may have unmediated access to the truth, the facts, meaning, and so forth.
But of course the point, or polemic, all along was that the yellow submarine was devised to risk irrelevance rather than submit to the sleepy aphorisms of commodity culture, with its textbook approach to the real and its Hallmark approach to the arts. The arts, or so went the yellow line, are much more mysterious than these blokes would give us to understand, so no need to mystify things further by making literary value a matter of self-evident virtues and the like.
To recap: the yellow submarine was put to the task of exploring the subsea depths of contemporary language practices, the better to ascertain what these effects and affects might be, how they might work, when and how they might fail, and how they corresponded, or didn't, to the alternately amplifying or modulating functions of criticism and theory, the latter viewed as creative arts in their own right. Thus quite apart from its original purpose, as above, relating to the vagaries of love, the yellow submarine served, as it serves now, as a submerged mechanism for trial & error-driven social and institutional change. This is not to say that the yellow submarine produces only trial & error results, but that it operates under the premise that trial & error is generally the best way to navigate both life and the alphabet, and that form and content are at least as diverse as, well, seashells. The yellow submarine, in all, was and is axiomatically opposed not to axioms, not to principles, not to social or semantic order, but to a terrible excess of literary and cultural decorum.
The problem, or problematic, that has emerged in the meanwhile, however, is that people-populated yellow submarines have their limits. For if we all live in a yellow submarine, we all breathe in a yellow submarine. Ergo we need every so often, as Michael McClure urged at the beginning of the last deluge, to breathe bright fucking air.
And so our yellow submarine is at present approaching surface level again, coming up for air, ready to take on provisions, and perhaps new shipmates, before another dive! dive! dive! in pursuit of --
But which is how I conceive, in any case, of the occasion at hand -- this discussion among poetry pundits, agents of culture (in the more innocuous and more sinister senses of this phrase) working at a remove from, but in an imagined conceptual proximity to, one another.
2. Some have said the so-called American avant-garde of the past quarter
century, or so, is characterized (however various its techniques may be) by
a reverence for 'indeterminacy.' Of course, indeterminacy of some degree
is a fundamental quality of all poetry. But should one aspire to make it a
central, guiding role?
It is neither true nor is it untrue that the poetic avant-garde of the past quarter century has had a reverence for indeterminacy. Or perhaps: what one poet who reveres indeterminacy reveres may or not be the same thing that another poet who reveres indeterminacy reveres, and it may be that neither one reveres indeterminacy.
It is an inauspicious way to begin. All of that is only say that it does not seem to me that poetic discussions of “indeterminacy” take very seriously the philosophical problems that go by that name. Rather, the idea of indeterminacy in poetic contexts tends to be vaguely empowering, suggesting that something creative is left for the reader to do, or else it is vaguely disempowering, when the so-called indeterminate text becomes an occasion for discovering our own determinations by systems of meaning not of our own making.
It is often thought that the alternative to the poem of indeterminacy is what I might call (certainly with equal lack of precision and philosophical sophistication) the poem of meaning. If the indeterminate poem is a special kind of performance (on the part of the reader), the poem of meaning, is a special kind of object, perhaps afflicted to “some degree” with indeterminacy (as the question would have it) but blessed to a greater degree with mysterious and profound (and determinate) qualities of coherence, significance and depth that only this kind of object can achieve.
But while I do think much of the most interesting poetry of the last quarter, half, or indeed whole century is interested in a very particular kind of determinacy, I don't believe it has been much interested in the determinacy of meaning. In my view, poets are driven time and time again by the brutal urgencies of history to conceive of poetry, less as an art (neither a meaningful object, nor a readerly performance) than as a principle, a capacity understood to be coincident with the same essential quality that make a person a person. Poets across a broad range of stylistic and political orientations come to understand both poetic acts and social formations to derive from a single ground. And though the terms in which George Oppen conceives of it are going to be quite different from those that Frank O'Hara uses, they do share one important feature. Each poet of this kind means to make whatever capacity poetry names accessible to as many persons as possible; and indeed each does so by viewing “poetry” not as a prerequisite for membership in some particular community of persons (a learned skill like a language, a bestowed credential like a laurel, a distinguishing inheritance like genius), but as definitive or constitutive of personhood altogether.
Both indeterminacy and the poetics of meaning are meant to solicit difference or individuation as the way toward human flourishing. By contrast, the poetic I'm gesturing at here is intended to name a universal human entitlement not susceptible to the same rationalizations of scarcity or unjust distribution among persons as other kinds of knowledge, talent or quality. Such a revivified and intensified poetic humanism arises as a reconstructive response to a century of crises that are at once theoretical (the desacralization or critique of the subject) and actual—for the twentieth century has unfolded as a series of colossal failures to perceive persons as persons.
(This is, I recognize, quite abstract in its present form. If anyone is curious, a recent essay of mine on the subject called Language Poetry and Collective Life works out some of these arguments in relation to one recent avant-garde.
I certainly won't go so far as to say that all poets are or should be engaged in this work, I will say, however, that I find the moral impulses behind it deeply moving and terribly timely; for these reasons (and no doubt for reasons of temperament as well) they speak to me more than those that take as their end difference and variability. I also think they are much more common than proponents of either indeterminacy or its opposite tend to acknowledge.
This question almost answers itself, but for the record, I would say “No.” Let me qualify that, however: if it happens that a poet who has given indeterminacy “a central, guiding role” in his or her poetics is writing terrific poems, that's just fine. I would be very interested in learning how that were the case, as I am in understanding how indeterminacy plays its role in late Oppen, in Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, in Palmer's Sun, in Howe's Thorow, in Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulu—to name five favorite poets whose techniques of indeterminacy differ widely. But as the question notes, indeterminacy is a fundamental quality of all poetry, or as Spicer puts it in A Book of Music, “The grand concord of what / Does not stoop to definition.” Perhaps the past quarter century has been marked by some poets (or critics) making too big a fuss over this. What's really scary, though, is that even as you read this, MFA students in creative writing are in workshops learning how to make their poems sound more “indeterminate.”
The proof's in the pudding: if Liz Waldner, or Lyn Hejinian, "aspire to make indeterminacy a central, guiding role," then I hope they continue to do so, because I admire much of the writing they have done. On the other hand, critics instructed to seek indeterminacy in contemporary writing have often generated top-heavy, rather abstract praise for writings which strike me as pointless, toneless chaos. No good imaginative writing hews to only one goal.
I'm interested in the terms of this question as much as its substance (always an effective evasive technique, of course). The term “reverence” stacks the deck, implying the elevation of a principle to the level of the sacred and oversimplifying the diversity of a wide range of writing. Granted, in the avant-garde's most successful example of market penetration, Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, editor Paul Hoover calls indeterminacy “the period's most important theme.” But whether indeterminacy is a theme, an epistemological condition, or what Hoover calls “a compositional tendency away from finality and closure,” its manifestations are as various as the work it is alleged to guide. Very little poetry worth reading is written to demonstrate a principle. Marjorie Perloff's influential Poetics of Indeterminacy valuably surveys and analyzes the poetic forms that indeterminacy took from Rimbaud to the late 1970s, and in doing so she ably reveals the internal diversity of what one might call the tradition of indeterminacy. That is, for all their shared features, no one would mistake a Gertrude Stein prose poem for a John Ashbery dream meditation, or a performance text by David Antin for one by John Cage.
As regards the claim that indeterminacy is a fundamental quality of all poetry, this rhetorical strategy was recognized by Ihab Hassan years ago in some of the earliest writing on postmodernism: people will dismiss the new by finding ways to say that it's already been done. Hassan described the “rhetoric of dismissal” as falling into four categories, one of which he termed “the Old Story”; “Old Story” rhetoric takes the position that “it's been done before, there's nothing new in it; you can find it in Euripides, Sterne, or Whitman.” I'd grant, as the question implies, that whatever we mean by “indeterminacy” exists on a spectrum, not in a straightforwardly binary relationship with “determinacy.” But I think there's a different and more crucial distinction to be made here, between indeterminacy and ambiguity, or as Roland Barthes put it, between irreducible and limited plurality of meaning. Indeterminacy of some degree is a fundamental quality of all poetry because it is a fundamental quality of language, but with regard to most of the history of poetry, “ambiguity” may be a more precise term for its “fundamental quality” than “indeterminacy.”
Now, what is the relationship between indeterminacy and avant-gardism? We could define avant-garde writing as that work which (among other things) foregrounds indeterminacy. Though we might agree on indeterminacy as a theme, a rhetoric and a structural principle in most avant-garde work, however, its contextual meaning varies. That is, the indeterminacy of Hugo Ball's sound poem “gadji beri bimba” (or of any sound poetry) is of a different category from that of Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge. Contemporary poetic indeterminacy is intimately connected to—though not driven by or preceded by--contemporary theoretical rethinking of the reading process, of the processes and venues of reception, and of the dynamics of the reader-writer relationship. As such, it is likely to take forms or receive an emphasis that it has not taken or received before.
I aspire toward making poems overdetermined rather than indeterminate. From Hobbes, who equates truth with univocity, we have inherited an ideal of determinacy that has had more influence than I believe it warrants: “The Light of humane minds is Perspicuous Words, but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity”; “The foundation of all true Ratiocination, is the constant Signification of words.” This ideal manifests itself most monstrously in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, but also weighs heavily on Anglo-American poetry and criticism.
One way to resist determinacy, of course, is indeterminacy, and insofar as the avant-garde has resisted the Hobbesian ideal I applaud it. I prefer the opposite approach, though: not to empty the poem of meaning, but to fill it to overflowing. Not one meaning or no meanings, but many. (I leave open the possibility that indeterminacy and polydeterminacy may be the same; I pursue the latter, even if it leads me to the same place as those who pursue the former.)
I take it that the broad notion of “indeterminacy” we are talking about is The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry kind. The kind that fuels our “period style,” as they say.
Yes, postmodern versions of indeterminacy are privileged by some as manifesting the most advanced kinds of poetry, just like plain-speech, I-centered styles of writing are enshrined as the natural, proper discourse of poetry by others. The two parties, by the way, require one another in order to preserve their ideological identities, so the polemics between them tend often to be theatrically reductive and binary…But the question asks specifically about “indeterminacy” in relation to the newer, self-consciously "avant" poetries, so here are some thoughts. I'll be quite a bit briefer than in my last:
As I indicated earlier, it's clear that formal experiment is assigned a strong measure of categorical value by post-avant practitioners. So it comes to be, more or less ipso facto, that formal experiment gets invested with a certain teleological charge, where ethics and aesthetics are conflated and the poet's duty becomes entwined with particular compositional predispositions (as, acutely, in much of the post-avant's response to the last Iraq war—see LitVert, issue #8). Consequently, though no doubt it won't sit well with some, it's fairly obvious that there is a tacitly shared fundamentalist belief among “avant-garde” practitioners within the general orbit of Language writing that experimental engagements with textual form are requisite to convey poetry toward a conceptually and aesthetically more advanced future.
It's not so surprising, in this regard, that one must work hard to find in the criticism of the Language poets and their closest heirs any sustained axiological recognition of 20th century poetry written in “organicist,” relatively conventional syntaxes: whole traditions of European and Latin American poetries, for example; or metrically conservative and symbolist traditions in English-language poetry. All that “narrative verse,” one is led to believe, should be regarded as so much root and trunk of the “School of Quietude” tree. Thus, large numbers of younger poets have come to assume that it is a mark of higher duty and sense to raise Khlebnikov over Mandlestam, Stein over Rilke, or Mac Low over Milosz. Some would be of the opinion, naturally, that the quasi-theological conflations of form and value such attitudes imply have deleterious consequences for the body poetic…
In any case, that aside, and to get back to the point, the post-avant by and large regards its community as extending the work of the “cutting edge” historical tradition in poetry, and textually based modes of “indeterminacy” are assumed as the means for effecting its social critique and artistic vision. And there is certainly nothing wrong with pushing and stretching the language into outer realms of semantic and aural sensibility. Some remarkable effects have been achieved by recent poets who do so.
However, the question that might be more carefully considered by new poets is this: Should the sphere of “indeterminacy” be determined for experimental poets by official, “legal” protocols of literary convention? In other words, is indeterminacy destined to remain a strictly textual condition or variable, an effect on the canvass of the page, delimited by ritualistic Poet-audience dynamics and power relations? Or is it possible that indeterminacy might be expanded outward, to encompass the broader social relations of literary property, production, circulation, and exchange, thus drawing into poetic purview what are routinely deemed to be functions extraneous to poetry's artistic circumference?
I would answer “yes” to that last question. As I said in an interview with Gabriel Gudding, forthcoming in The New Review of Literature:
(Poetry is) not so much about the two-dimensional issues of whether your unit of measure is feet or sentences, whether on the page you are thematically narrative or abstract, lyrical or non-syllogistic; it's about the four-dimensional challenges of how your self and non-self relate to poetry's total space, to how you are going to negotiate those ritualized modes of production and branding that are regarded-- by Language, Post-Language, Pittsburgh UP, New Formalist, Cowboy, and Performance poets alike-- as more or less natural and happily ancillary to the nature of the “poem proper.”
Skanky Possum [June 2, 2003)
To move poetic indeterminacy into the “practice of life” it is not enough to “torque” the linguistic sign, as the Language poets have believed; one must begin to torque the key cultural sign that fixes poetic practice in institutional frames of classification and control—the sign of Authorship proper, to which traditional and avant-garde wings in our poetry are identically beholden. The theater of poetry is still confined to its set stage; but there are certainly dimensions of poetic performance and possibility waiting to be unleashed beyond it. When that happens, one might predict poetry will derive its mystery and force not so much from what it is "on the page," as from what it is in the world.
Let me simply add to what I've said, above, that indeterminacies tend to dissipate with the attribution, if not recognition, of design. Rothko is indeterminately (if decidedly!) abstract (read "inaccessible") unless and until one acquaints oneself with the history of art. Now, the end of the history of representational art (if it ended) and the move to conceptual art in painting (say) has been more readily embraced (and in some sense more quickly vitiated) than similar such movements in the literary arts. This is owing of course to everyone's participation in the language game (stop signs, cookbooks, talk talk talk) -- we hold on to our words' referential capacities often out of dear life, and who can blame us? -- and as Bin Ramke so eloquently elaborates in the current AWP Chronicle (Feb. 2004), visual art in any case "often gives something back much more quickly than difficult poetry does." (See his astute remarks, scattered throughout the fine interview with Sandra Meek.) This is also owing to the differing marketplaces for visual art and literature, and the dynamics (and resistances) implicit in these marketplaces. Literary art has in general suffered from its stubborn insularity -- I am speaking now of the literature that enjoys the swifter currents of the publishing mainstream -- and its continuing reliance on 19th-century narrative (prose) models and on poetry as self-expression continues to keep it, by and large, the province of those scribes who write primarily for those readers who sigh the loudest at their readings.
Though we would do well to recruit those scribes, too, along with aesthetes, punks, yodelers, mods, rockers, misfits and rascals.
Oddly or appropriately enough, one of the casualties of this resistance to more conceptual work -- the insistence that real emotions and real events and real life and real authors acquire their real legitimacy only when real words refer to real things, thank you very much -- has been realism itself. But if realism as a literary register has grown a bit shaggy, this is doubtless owing to its having little profited from the various incursions into realistic modes that one finds at work in other art forms.
Anyway. My hunch is that -- aside from the occasional "Up periscope!" -- a yellow submarine accomplishes its mission only by exploring the depths, which depths include something like Whitman's "real words" ("A Song of the Rolling Earth"). This is the yellow submarine's raison d'Ítre, or raisin debt. And after reading Diet for a Poisoned Planet some years ago, I much prefer to go in debt for organic raisins. And peanuts. And Raisonettes, and—
3. Can you find pleasure in a poem that does not display some kind of
organization and context, however loosely constructed? In other words, do
you enjoy reading a collection of individual, unconnected lines? If yes,
please explain. If no, same.
No, I don't believe I would get pleasure out of a collection of individual, unconnected lines. Fortunately for me, I've never encountered one, and neither have you. “A collection of unconnected elements” is an oxymoron—the act of collection is already a connection. The question is, then, whether, why, and in what context, some particular act of collection or principle of connection interests us (and surely pleasure is only one of the possible forms of interest!).
The complaint implicit in the question is a traditional one, related to Samuel Johnson's famous claim that in metaphysical poetry “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” If we are less inclined to feel the force of that critique of Cowley or Donne or Vaughan now, it isn't because we have become better readers in some general sense; it is that we have become readers of these poems, and as a result, work that once seemed to consist almost entirely of forced connections now seems to conform to its own logic. If I were less concerned about the connections between lines, I could imagine coming to a slightly different conclusion about these poems, in which it is not the poem itself but rather the forcing that is seen to be meaningful. (Indeed, T.S. Eliot may have been saying something quite like this when he used metaphysical difficulty—the fact of it, not an instance of it—to make an argument about the dissociation of sensibility endemic to modernity). This somewhat abstract notion of what it is to read is less doctrinaire about the question of where, precisely, intention or coherence are to be located in a particular poetic project. We need an account of this abstract notion to explain a good chunk of W.B. Yeats— for my money the greatest poet in the tradition with the greatest number of truly terrible poems. I don't think the point of reading Yeats is to learn to see why the bad poems are actually good, coherent or well made ones. Nor do I think it suffices merely to sort the good from the bad, celebrating the former and ignoring the latter. Rather, one of the many things that makes Yeats so interesting is that his badness is meaningful as badness, without ever becoming good, without ever ceasing to be part of the overall logic of his work.
As these examples indicate, there is nothing sacred about the unit of the poem itself, and its coherence is not the only issue to think about. It isn't always the case, for example, that there is much connection between one poem and the next in a book of poems—why should that trouble us less than the connection between line and line? Sometimes we find that there is a strong connection; at such moments, we find ourselves with productive thoughts and judgments about the coherence of the book. Sometimes we decide the book is not a relevant unit for this poetry. Sometimes poetic effects are orchestrated primarily in the theater of the line, and sometimes they unfold across lines; it is for just this sort of variation that we have terms like stichic and strophic.
In any particular poem, it may be quite difficult to state what the principle of collection is. But is it obvious what the connection between these two lines?
Now lies the Earth all DanaŽ to the stars,
A planet is conceived, first as a figure that can have a “posture”; as a woman in a particular posture of ravished receptivity; that posture is likened to that of mythic woman ravished by a god in the form of a shower of gold (the sight of scattered and falling stars, perhaps, provoking the direction of these imaginings to begin with). That whole initial complex imaginative act is connected to the receptivity (desired or actual) of the beloved (figured synechdocally as her open heart)— but how? Causally? As shared symptoms of some greater design? By force of artistic will to see coherence? As part of a rhetorical ploy using metaphor (in which the essence of one thing penetrates another) as a seductive argument that all things (yourself included!) ought to give of themselves to be penetrated by another? If it has come to seem obvious that these lines are connected by all these principles and others, it seems to me that this is because we have come to value the connections we are making here, learned to credit certain kinds of connection and in very high degrees, and cultivated our language for describing them. But our ability to state and to take pleasure in these connections is not an argument that all poetry should be modeled upon them. The principle that organizes the events in a historical poem is, in its own way, as random and arbitrary as the one that organizes the elements in a poem by Jackson Mac Low—the principle is what happened; that, too, makes a sort of whole.
And all thy heart lies open unto me.
Should one aspire to grant infinite credit? To simply say that it is all poetry and it is all fine? I'm not trying to advocate an empty pluralism, and there is no reason why readers should have to declare for poems that don't interest them. (Sometimes, for the sake of a big picture, teachers do have to teach such poems). I do, however, hope for a poetic culture in which I might try to persuade you to be interested in kinds of connection that have not in the past interested you; at the same time, I have no doubt that my own interest in certain forms of connection has intractable limits. I'd simply like to not always know in advance where they will be.
If a reader can't find “some kind of organization and context, however loosely constructed,” then he or she is probably not reading what I, for one, would call a poem. Then again, I can imagine a reader searching in vain for organization and context in some of my poetry. Uh-oh, looks like we're heading toward the realm of reader-response criticism (or what used to be called “taste”), and I'd just as soon not go there, because discussions involving such a high degree of relativism usually end up telling us remarkably little about poetry, that is, about how poems work or how they come to be written. It happens that I'm rather skilled at finding verbal patterns in what may appear to be “a collection of individual, unconnected lines” (some of my colleagues might even say I've made a career of it). But do I enjoy it? Sometimes. And sometimes it proves not to have been worth the effort. For the most part, when it comes to poetry, I like work in which other kinds of patterning and contextualization (and other types of ambiguity and difficulty) are featured at least as much as indeterminacy and fragmentation. For me, a poem must in some way embody the music of thought or Pound's dance of the intellect among words. In my experience, the kind of writing described in the question offers relatively limited opportunities of this sort.
No, and no. I have, however, enjoyed reading collections of lines, or sentences, whose connections strike me as tentative, uncertain, or arguable--poems which might well seem disorganized to other readers, and whose relatively loose, unstable organization is part of their charm. (I just spent a very rewarding afternoon, for example, teaching Stein's Tender Buttons.)
Just as indeterminacy exists on a spectrum, so does connection and the perceived lack thereof. I take it that displeasure (frustration, bafflement, revulsion, rejection) often resides in the experience of not being able to find readily enough whatever connections are present. But where are those connections present? Where do they reside? To whom are they present (or not), and at what point in the reading process? Especially for any teacher, these are not merely theoretical questions. Every day, we work with students who experience a given text as a collection of “individual, unconnected lines” until we suggest that they've overlooked certain connections (or are still learning how / where to locate them), at which point the connections often start to emerge. So how evident or close to the surface does the organization of a poem have to be for it to be considered “present,” “there?”
Here is what appears to be a series of “individual, unconnected lines” in which I take considerable pleasure. The poem is “9,” from the subsection “Formation of a Separatist, I” in Susan Howe's serial poem “The Liberties”:
1. antimony one
The first level of connection that we might find here is an overall structural and visual, even mathematical, one: the nine-line poem that ends with the perfect trinity framing the text through its title and last “word.” Another level of connection is aural: the alliteration, assonance, and half-rhymes that hold together “tangle 3. trinity I / Liberties sigil C,” for instance, or the passage from “antimony” to “antinomy” to “atomies.” This latter sequence also calls up thematic connections that depend for their registration on their place in the overall serial poem. “The Liberties” has linked Howe, Swift's Esther Johnson (Stella), and Shakespeare's Cordelia (“C”) in an increasingly entangled trinity, and has returned again and again to whiteness and blankness as figures simultaneously for historical women's erasure and for a possible space of expression (the page). The opening of “9” offers us an aurally entwined trinity of antimony, the white element found only in combination with other elements and that hardens and increases the resistance of other metals in alloys; of antinomy, the opposition of one law to another (the Law of the Father?) or the inconsistency between two laws (hence its placement here between “two” and “2”) and the root of the antinomianism that readers of American literature first associate with Anne Hutchinson, a key figure in Howe's pantheon; and of atomies, “tiny beings” (from Webster's) that may nevertheless gain in size and strength from their chemical combination into a Trinitarian alloy. Through the trinity of antimony-antinomy-atomies, that is, beings that have suffered diminution (another running trope throughout the sequence) gain a resistant, oppositional strength even as each “I” (or Roman “one”) maintains its own identity, juxtaposed to “trinity” (“trinity I”) in a way consistent with the sub-sequence's overall title, “Formation of a Separatist, I.”
two antinomy 2.
splash atomies dare
tangle 3. trinity I
Liberties sigil C
willow whitethorn yew
1. 2. 3. x
one two three =
poesie sign wave 9.
Well, I could go on, but the risk already is that I have displayed nothing but my own fevered inventiveness. Rather ponderously, perhaps, I have wanted to make a point about “connections” in the reading process—that in avant-garde writing they are more likely to be immanent and hidden than self-evident, but to tease them out in reading can be a form of pleasure, a form of play. (And, to return to the terms of the previous question, play in the interests of exploring a plurality of fairly determinate meanings, not the old hoary “free play of signifiers.”) If modernism is the art of fragments, if collage and parataxis are the quintessential twentieth-century (and beyond) structures, avant-garde art tends to push those aesthetic features to their limit. William Carlos Williams, simultaneously one of American poetry's great practitioners of paratactic method and one of its great democrats, wrapped up an early serial poem of his own, “January Morning,” with these lines: “I wanted to write a poem / that you would understand. / For what good is it to me / if you can't understand it? / But you got to try hard.” Yeats called it “the fascination of what's difficult,” and it's a human, not merely academic or theoretical, fascination.
One part of my response has to be that I doubt we could recognize anything as a poem without its having some kind of organization and context. Another part, that placement in a collection of individual, unconnected lines is the creation of a context for any given one of those lines, and is an organizing principle. Juxtaposition can be as informative, revealing, and emotionally valid as plot or syllogism.
Certainly, I affirm the value of rhymed lines clustered into octaves and sestets, and I consider them capable of granting me certain kinds of access to the world. However, I also affirm the value of individual, [apparently] unconnected lines [or lines not connected in an explicitly determinate way]. I find pleasure in reading both sorts of poem, and have tried to write both sorts. I don't want to know the world in only one way.
Well, this extends the previous question in some obvious ways. Certainly, a poem that appears to be made of senselessly “disconnected lines” to one reader might well hold richly allusive and resonant textures of meaning for another. One need not be trained in the latest versions of reader response theory to believe that—or to believe that beauty, that weird hermit crab, takes up house in the most disparate of dwellings. The limpid, didactic odes of Horace are beautiful, but so are the dark, gnomic poems of Celan. It's satisfyingly mysterious that they both are, I think.
Anyway, different reading formations will naturally have different backgrounds, aims, and expectations—particularly so, I'd say, where the matter of “pleasure” is concerned. Renga is an example: A typical sequence will likely be complete non-syllogistic nonsense to the reader coming at it without training or context, yet the same poem will unfold the most fractal and beautiful semantic textures to someone seriously engaged with the practice. And this is a genre of “individual, unconnected lines” that goes back more than 800 years. Viva la Avant-garde!
No, it's common sense that there are different ways of making sense, and poems that radically depart from narrative, anecdotal, scenic means of telling--be they from the Tsukubashu anthology or from In the American Tree-- often show how “sense” may be a more complex and dimensioned field than the partisans of expository, “plain language” poetry (traditionally metered or not) would often have it. As Stein says, a poem may be “not unordered in not resembling.”
So creating fluid, non-determinate “sense environments” in poetry is nothing new. True, procedures of collage and montage can be used in the function of nonsense and poetic careerism, just as representational forms can be used in the function of schlock and poetic marketing. But there is much well-wrought, abstract writing that rewards those who don't simply give up because the poem resists prosaic states of apprehension. At levels of political engagement, such “difficult” writing is what's often required for exposing semantic relations obscured by ideological convention or, at levels of aesthetic experiment, is what's often required for “making strange” that which has been familiarized into banality (familiarized, to no small extent, by the “normal” representational modes of the culture, to which, of course, many poets feel poetry should submit).
It seems relevant to note that at the Armory Show more than ninety years ago, critics were furiously jotting notes about the “nonsensical” paintings made of “unconnected lines,” bereft of any “organization” or “context,” outraged that the cultured citizen's expectations of artistic “pleasure” should be so mocked by purveyors of random visual gibberish. It's a complex matter fit for a book, no doubt, but it's interesting how even now, the 21st century underway, abstraction in literature still rankles so widely, even while the culture has become quite tolerant (even avidly welcoming, in the case of painting, say) of radical experiment in all the other arts.
As I said earlier, though, this is beginning to change, as neo-non-narrative modes move toward becoming a period style and the post-structuralist theories and poems of Language writing that begat them begin to occupy a place in the poetic/academic canon (catalogued neatly and obediently under their Author's names)—a place comparable, historically speaking, to that occupied by Abstract Expressionism, Pop-Art, or Minimalism inside the MOMA. To continue my quote from Gertrude Stein above, “The difference is spreading.”
This question brings out the Aristotle [cough] in me, to wit: all men and women by nature desire to know. (Again, I am feeling optimistic.) I feel I need to respond here, first, in terms of simple perception, then as a reader/interpreter: as knowledge consists, initially, of rendering objectifications (I am clearly speaking as someone born and raised in Syracuse, New York), of seeing or conceiving of something, first, as a thing to be seen or conceived as such, I would conjecture that things are grasped as whole and continuous in an analog world, and in terms simultaneously of their similarities and differences from other such things -- particulars as they are particular, and as they represent a general, not to say universal, idea (i.e., something approaching a Hegelian dialectic, which Berger (above) approaches in his work, too, even as he locates the elemental unity of appearances in the fact that they cohere). What we know, first, about a thing to be known is that it is a thing as such -- a Not-I -- this is how (a dominant, if not hegemonic, kind of) knowledge works. And by identifying the thing that is Not-I as something possessing its own existential, self-identical legitimacy -- and as nonetheless coexisting in a continuous field (of vision, of perception) that includes my, uhm, I and other such Not-I's -- I am, speaking for myself, comfortable with all manner of said thing's internal irregularities. (I may feel "at one" with the object, nature, form of life, Not-I, what have you -- but let's save it for a rainy day, OK?)
Imagine a ball of string, say, made up of short snippets of string tied together, each snippet a whole in its own right. Remind me sometime to tell you a story about my mother and her large Not-I balls of string that she kept in a little cabinet behind her desk at work, in order to prove to management that they were wasting, uh, string. This was at GE Corporate Research and Development in Schenectady, New York, and --
But I digress.
In my case, as a simple observer (and armchair philosophizer of string theory), I tend, first, to view a poem, any text, as a (whole) poem, however fragmented, diverse, discontinuous or incomplete my interpretive-analytical efforts may eventually render it (which assumes only that circumstances, whatever they may be, have offered a text to me as such -- a poem as a poem, say); and, secondly, as a reader/interpreter, I seek out patterns and singularities in this whole poem, or whole book, or what have you, often in terms of (my experiences with) other such texts, but also in terms of other knowledges (my knowledge of Whole Foods, for instance).
This may all be an illusion, of course, this perception of the poem as a thing apart (from other poems), but also as a thing participating in the received idea that we name "poem." Indeed, the perception of the real as a continuous flux may itself be an illusion -- but I don't think so, even in a non-simultaneous universe. Consciousness, interiority, neurophenomenology, etc., may suggest an anthropologically mediated real, in that we are in an important sense the measure of all things we measure. But I am willing to grant the real its own self-identical legitimacy too (whatever it is), one independent of our perception of it. Call this an act of faith, if you must, but it means that I don't believe our experience of the world to be arbitrarily subjective. There is no parting from your own shadow, as Whitehead famously observed. Further, the articulation of accumulated and myriad perceptions, like our apprehension of continuous discontinuities (cf. those balls of string), requires that we assign value to our experience, regardless of whether "[f]ragments are our wholes" (Coolidge) -- which is what literature (like science, like music, like the Food Network) does, even while language helps to shape the conditions of experience. So to plumb the shadows may require something more than linear narratives, objective (public and private) histories, and hermetically sealed poems. If we can process an analog world using the full array of digital technologies, writing technologies are no exception.
Anyway. Does this give me pleasure, this activity, this effort, this work, this labor, this fussy parsing of attributes? Does making such knowledge, and not infrequently confronting the limits of (my) knowledge, give me pleasure? Sometimes. Often. Not always. Pain too. Kinda.
And, too, as a former practicing engineer (yet another highly ritualized, even elite knowledge base), I yearn for telos, if not in the poem per se, then in the symbol-strewn transactions occasioned by it. I'm a bit of a utilitarian at heart, am always hunting down consequences (albeit when it comes right down to it, I prefer to think of myself as a deontologist, someone bound by his obligations). Whatever my work and play ethic, the more I know about what I'm observing, the more "studied" I am in the object at hand (including all vectors of value leading into it and out from it), the better I am able, generally, to seek out said patterns and differences, some of which appear to me instantaneously, and some of which can take years. (After watching Groundhog Day for the umpteenth time, Kass and I finally noticed that the character Bill Murray plays is named Phil. Duh.) And this knowledge enhances the mystery of the encounter, for that matter, which experiential mystery for me is chiefly a matter of my coming back to a work again and again, and taking a small part of it (sometimes, sadly, a very small part of it) away with me.
(I'm doing my best here not to discuss meaning as such.)
Which is not to mistake, either, the work that I do as a reader with the work that I do as a writer. These are different efforts for me, ultimately, different work (and play) modes. In fact I am often troubled by the tendency of some instructors of writing and reading to treat reading as pretty much an extension of writing, presumably to achieve egalitarian ends of one sort or another -- for me this amounts to a misunderstanding of technique, and a failure of imagination. For one, writing a poem is not burdened, even superficially, by anything like a hermeneutic circle -- it often unfolds, for the poet, not as a matter of wholes (as above) but as a matter of transient insights. Granted, past a certain structural point, some whole manifests itself as such, but even revision can comprise a radically successive remaking. Anyone who has seen The Mystery of Picasso has had that little mystery cleared up for them, and is on to other mysteries. In short, the relation of parts to wholes in writing may not be what it is in reading, notwithstanding the various mythologies one hears regularly along the lines of Papa Hemingway's crack about the "laws of prose," how "immutable" they are, etc.
Further, having had in my life to puzzle out, for instance, piping designs to determine what was flowing where, and at what pressure, and so forth -- with my paycheck riding on my success or (a different kind of) failure -- I long ago gave up on the notion that my gut instincts were a reliable guide to the physical world. (I think Stephen Jay Gould writes somewhere that, in science, one learns never to trust a gut instinct.) Why should poetry be any different? -- because poetry, too, partakes of the real. As any yellow submariner will tell you.
So to exploit a false binary: if we cannot do without our gut feelings, our passions, our knee-jerk reactions, our unconscious desires, our epiphanies, our animal natures, our intuitions, our capacity to be utterly overwhelmed, or our Rorschack glimpses of the eternal, we cannot do either without our disciplined minds -- minds that are disciplined to reject even the edicts of the disciplinary. Submariners are used to this sort of paradox.
And we submariners think it's high time that we posed a few questions of our own to our (landlubber?) interlocutor:
(A) Do you read poetry primarily to find the message in the bottle, in that jar in Tennessee? (B) That is, do you think of yourself as the 21st-century decoder, as opposed to interpreter, of the 21st-century information widget some stubborn few persist in calling a poem? (C) Do you particularly enjoy reading lines that neatly accumulate meaning in order to reinforce the meaning of the whole, which is thereby reflected in each part? (D) Does the latter describe the poetry you prefer to read, the poetry you prefer to write, or the way you prefer to read or to write poetry? If yes to A, B, or C, please explain vis-ŗ-vis D. If no to A, B and C, no need to.
(I was doing my best there to discuss meaning as such.)
4. If the avant-garde points us toward the future of the poem, describe the
direction you see.
I hope that the future of the poem will be unanticipated and unheralded, even by conversations such as this one. That the poem is, as Celan said, solitary and on the way.
That said, I do think that the history of poetry, and particularly the poetry of the last hundred or so years, is being presented in a way that places unnecessary constraints on poetry's future. To simplify what is already a simplification, our prevailing taxonomy for thinking about poetry is a “two tradition” model. It divides the poetry of the 20th (and now the 21st) century into a traditionalist or symbolist genealogy in which Modernism is continuous with High Romanticism (it begins, for example, with Yeats's atavistic modernism)— and an avant-garde or experimentalist genealogy repudiating it (founded, for example, in Stein's experimental modernism). The critical heirs of Harold Bloom and those of Marjorie Perloff agree on very little; but they do often share a consensus about which poet belongs to whom. (There are, of course, contested cases. John Ashbery is our Jack of Diamonds, the card whom everybody would like to have in hand. Lately, Ezra Pound looks something like the Queen of Spades, the one you'd like to stick to the other guy). The effort to make the dense field of contemporary poetry legible has resulted a taxonomic engine so frightfully efficient that it has begun to reproduce itself as an orthodoxy not just in criticism—where it has leapt from being the conclusion of an argument to its premise— but in poetry itself. What began as description of some tendencies in art has been adopted by the artist as an obligation; the poet's felt need to find a tradition has hardened into the demand to pick a side; and style is taken as a sort of a declaration of allegiance.
Much more could be said than has been said about how this came to pass; it is an interesting story. This discussion—and the argument that gave rise to it—is one of its chapters. I've gestured in a very cursory way at what I think is a truer story (in question 2). I do think, though, that it is difficult to overstate the impact this critical division is having on the shape of contemporary poetry. As a general rule, critical and poetic partisans, bent on consolidating, celebrating, claiming or extending one tradition take note of the other (if they take note of it) just long enough to deride—and such derision is a reflexive reaction rather than an analytic one. The result is that poets are cut off from fully half of the history of what ought to be their art. We read less, or we think tendentiously; and so we write from less, or our writing begins with self-blinding.
What are the losses? Since the topic at hand is the poetic avant-garde, I'll limit my comments to that side of the aisle, but I note that a) the list that follows is meant to be suggestive and symptomatic rather than universal or comprehensive and b) an equivalent set of complaints could be aimed in another direction.
One loss is of a range of feeling. When I read the poetry of my contemporaries who locate themselves in the tradition of radical innovation, I find there many shades of humor to enjoy—broad, sophisticated, sly, wry, campy, brutal. The negative emotions are also broadly represented—by many flavors of rage and indignation, passionate bewilderment, mourning and even flatness in response to loss. Both of these spectra of feeling belong, by and large, to the humiliated person, to the voice whose occasions for speaking are instances of the world's failure either to accommodate its existence or to provide a justification for its desire to exist. I do believe these truncations and self-limitations of tone and feeling arise from a genuine wish to be rigorous and realistic (rather than from some perverse impulse), but I note nonetheless that a poetic founded on this kind of rigor has a hard time achieving ease. It cannot inhabit the particular tone that is licensed by the feeling of the fitness of self to world, by the “relaxes” that Blake blessed. Of poets I have been reading and admiring recently, Lisa Jarnot strikes me as an example of a poet whose emulation of ease is purchased only at great cost.
(There are in my life, and I imagine in the lives of others, some occasions of uncompromised feeling; there are unalloyed joys. Is it always and forever poetry's job to hunt them down at their source outside the self? We find ourselves having to consider—by no means for the first time—whether it is necessary that poetry demand that we dismantle our pleasures in the interest of truth: After such knowledge, what forgiveness?).
Some kinds of emotions may simply not be compatible with radical skepticisms. Even some very basic emotions have intentional structures that involve complex beliefs about their objects—including the belief that their objects actually exist. To cease to believe in the object intended by such an emotion is to cease to have the emotion; it may be that to achieve a full emotional range, poets must allow for the existence of adequately grounded subjects. (It may also be the case that there is a limit to our ability to entertain skepticism about the world).
If there is a wish for poetry's future in these scattered observations, it is that poets cease to nurture their shame about recurrent or perennial features of experience, and relinquish some of their terror in the face of invariances.
Finally, I'll note the loss of the kind of effects made possible by the existence of a broadly shared sense of what the central valid poems are, and of some shared notions about the function of a tradition. Just one example will have to do: There is a line in Robert Lowell's “Beyond the Alps” in which Lowell offers a series of what (it becomes clear) are meant to be alternative nominations or aspects of the goddess Minerva: “prince, pope, philosopher and golden bough[.]” This line, I believe, is meant to echo the inventory of Belinda's dressing table in Pope's “Rape of the Lock,” upon which one finds “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux” (here rhymed funnily with “shining rows”).
To call this connection an echo, though, doesn't quite do it justice. For while the aural similarity is what first forged the connection in my mind, it is the conceptual difference that constitutes the interest of Lowell's poem. Pope's satire works by recalling the catalog of epic, gently deflating Belinda's claim to piety by ranking bibles alongside her other tools of seduction. Lowell, recalling Pope's recollection, subjects satire itself to merciless critique—for satire requires the existence of functional values, some sense of the direction in which the world ought to be revised. Lowell's stanza is as syntactically unconventional and innovative as one could wish—perhaps it is even indeterminate. But the level of semantic and cultural density that it achieves may only be possible when there is a shared world upon which to whet the knife of a thought. This is certainly “conservative” in one sense (it is not at all politically conservative)—but it is very hard for me to think of it as somehow outmoded or insufficiently innovative to merit respect. Perhaps a poet could even learn from it.
I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge some pleasure in ending my first sally in what I hope will be an ongoing conversation about innovation and experimentation in poetry by citing Pope and Lowell; but I hope that pleasure is not merely perverse. Indeed, if there is a slogan for the “experimental” way of thinking about poetry that I have been advocating here, it isn't so much “anything goes” but rather “take it where you can get it.” And why shouldn't we be interested in thinking, wherever we find it?
If the avant-garde endlessly commodifies and recycles itself (like capitalism itself), as I believe it does, then it's highly unlikely that it will point us toward the future of the poem—and if it does, that future is bleak indeed, because it will look just like the present. As Paul Mann notes, “The avant-garde has in fact served, in most cases quite unwittingly, as an instrument for the incorporation of its own marginality. The avant-garde is the outside of the inside, the leading edge of the mainstream.” Granted, some poet who thinks of him or herself as “avant-garde” may at this very moment be writing a poem that will lay the groundwork for a future poetry. But as soon as that future poetry comes into being, then this inaugural poem will cease to be “avant-garde”! As Spicer defines “tradition” in his letter to Lorca (OK, I have opened that can of worms), “It means generations of different poets in different countries patiently telling the same story, writing the same poem, gaining and losing something with each transformation—but, of course, never really losing anything.” As long as there are lovers of poetry—both readers and writers—then the future of poetry is secure. The task is to make sure there are at least a few of those lovers in every generation.
Does "the poem" have one future? Does poetry? (Are they the same?) "The avant garde," if it exists, does not point me toward anything. The communities of "experimental" writers I invoked above (in trying to answer question one) point towards several possible futures for poetry, and the communities of "non-experimental" writers (those published by Sewanee/Overlook, for example), point towards other possible futures, all of which might be realized if new and developing writers follow all available examples. I dislike speculations on so large a scale; I'd rather look at individual poets and poems, at the circumstances which produced them, and at what those individual pieces of writing can do for poets to come.
I'm more inclined to say that the avant-garde points us toward the future (or one possible future) of the present. But I really have nothing useful to say in response to this prompt. The poem or poetry has many futures (or perhaps none, but that's a separate question), most (all?) of which we can't anticipate. As David Antin once nicely remarked, the present is open on its forward side—that is, we don't know what's going to happen next. If there does turn out to have been an avant-garde, or avant-gardes, today, they will likely turn out to have been arguing over the future of poetry, since that's been one feature of American avant-gardism since Pound. At the same time, however, any contemporary avant-garde is likely to be more diverse, in race, gender, ethnic, class, and any other terms, than earlier avant-gardes. As a result, its suspicion of rhetorics of control and domination is likely to be even more profound than the anti-institutional skepticisms of earlier movements, and so perhaps it will be less inclined to propose itself as The Future of the Poem.
That's a big if! For the avant-garde to point us toward the future of the poem, we would need to know what the avant-garde is, and know which poems/poets belong to it; the history of poetry would need to happen by gradual accumulation of changes, not by paradigm shift; we'd have to know it will continue that way into the future; and so on.
I don't mean to sidestep the question, but any prediction I made would reveal more about my own prejudices and ignorance than about future poetry. Poetry's sacredness comes in part from its unpredictability. I appeal again to Kierkegaard: if one can know in advance that god will not command something unethical, ethics is a higher power than god. Similarly, if one can know where poetry is headed, the history of poetry is prevenient upon poetry itself.
The lush abundance of ambitious new poetry being written now — more than I can keep up with, and no doubt more than I am even aware of — makes the poetic environment resemble a tropical rain forest; we cannot see as far ahead as we might be able to see if we lived on a poetic savannah.
I don't know where my own poems will go next, much less other people's poems. By saying so I intend, not to adopt a posture of false modesty, only to affirm how deeply I value the state of attentive expectancy that such agnosis provokes.
No one can know. But I think the expatriate Syrian poet Adonis is on to something when he proposes that,
To save itself, poetry will need to progressively espouse the
unknown eternal truths and refuse again and again to be
regimented from the outside by any kind of ideology, system,
or institution....[P]oetry will have to advance by exploring
regions the invader cannot reach....[T]he traditional view of the
poem cannot survive, it will have to be transformed in its very
structure. Just as the traditional concept of poetry has already
broadened to exceed the limits of traditional forms of speech,
so, in order to resist the utilitarian goals which nearly strangled
it this century, in order to escape ideology, the structure of
poetic language will have to open itself to more movement, and
move always toward a concept of the total poem. [Boundary 2, 99 Poets/1999]
In an interview with Bill Freind at Steve McCaffery's North American Center for Interdisciplinary Poetics, I commented on Adonis's observation. I'll quote myself at some length here, since the remarks seem very apropos the question:
(T)his movement or opening toward the total poem will also require a sloughing-off of narrow and false notions of authenticity…. I don't mean that all poets would or should cease to attribute their poems to their persons. That would be more than a quixotic proposal. So I'm not suggesting that modes and versions of heteronymity will totally replace traditional conceptions of authorship. Nor, I should say, will any move to something truer and more authentic have anything to do with simple notions of anonymity. But I believe there will be, in this future and broad-based refusal to be regimented from the outside, a more subtle and fluid relationship with poetic identity as legally and culturally, even biologically, circumscribed. And in this resistance to regimentation, the circulation of created, fully realized hyperauthorships will become a vibrant and branching and authentic utopian space, with schools and collaborations, journals and sub-genres, critical forays and epistolary crossings. I think that readers will flock to this apocryphal space and jump in wholeheartedly, grateful to abide in mystery and to pursue the traces, clues, and revelations its authors leave behind. Poets both real and not real will move in shimmering ways back and forth between realms and across times. Cross-disciplinary forms and genres unimaginable at present will flower forth. It will be a wavy zone impossible to appropriate or to discipline, because authorship in this topography will not have a discrete
location or body; it will be continuum-like, a wave, to draw from (Mikhail) Epstein again, going across times, places, and personalities…But this will require strong conceptual moves that leave behind the vanishing point of genetic ascription and push poetic-performative activity—sometimes illicitly and against known laws—beyond the generic canvass-horizon of the page.
So my feeling is that the future of any “avant-garde” will have only secondarily to do with compositional form, as traditionally understood. Forms on the page are barely the first level. The most radically innovative poet of the 20th century, after all, Fernando Pessoa, wrote as a transcendental pastoralist, a monarchical classicist, and a maniacal proto-futurist. What Pessoa points to, quite thrillingly, is that the nameless, libidinal force of Poetry overflows, when tapped at its deepest sources, the contingent, transient fashions of prosody. Following Pessoa's lead, then, one possible challenge for future “experimental” writing will be to discard the ritualistic shackles of private authorial ownership and adopt imaginative vehicles sufficiently capacious to that force.
Of course, were this to happen to any significant degree, staunch resistance would no doubt come from all quarters of official verse culture—from those, that is, who have a stake in maintaining the status quo, “traditional” as well as “avant-garde.”
I will respond to this big juicy meatball as the academically-bound poet that I am at present, working in an English department (my sixth), and with (I am happy to report) all of my teeth intact (well: one crown, one on-lay). Here is how, as a poet, I would like to imagine the future of English studies -- which has something to do with "the future of the poem," finally -- and which I offer with all due respect for the questions posed here and for my fellow yellow submariners:
Tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of English, with an emphasis on contemporary poetry, beginning fall 2005. Ph.D. in English or creative writing required, and appropriate publications. The successful candidate will join an English faculty configured around the daily pretense that all is well even as the working divide between scholars and creative writers on this campus is palpable. We are looking for an outstanding writer and teacher who can (1) persuade our scholars that exorbitant critical attention to the reception of contemporary mass cultural artifacts is contributing to the public's general ignorance of challenging writing and the lamentable state of publishing that fosters this ignorance; (2) persuade our creative writers that their reluctance to engage with the theory and criticism of the past four decades is resulting in an impoverished art form; and (3) persuade our undergraduate and graduate students that they need to develop a better grasp of how the critical is always already the creative, and vice versa. The candidate must be well versed in the social mechanics of publishing, including related debates over authorship and the canon; must be proficient in maneuvering among communities that privilege, alternately, aesthetic and ideological value; must be able to negotiate professional differences collegially, but candidly; must be attuned to the labor issues that characterize the profession as such; must understand the institutional histories at stake in English studies; must treat diversity in terms of subject position, EEO and the like, and also as a matter of conceptual outlook; must be able to read contemporary poetry of all kinds; must be committed to teaching not simply as a site of practice, but of praxis, and of building learning community; must not be afraid to use the words "discourse" and "shoddy" in the same sentence, as in "I will now critique this shoddy discourse for the next 300 pages"; must be willing to theorize just about everything, theory included; must be thoroughly familiar with digital writing technologies; must not refrain from passing critical judgment, and must be able to articulate the basis for such judgment; must meet deadlines; must shoulder a fair share of the bureaucratic workload; must be an intellectual in the best sense of the word; must be an advocate who is willing to fight the good fight; and above all, must have a high tolerance for asshole behavior. In addition, we anticipate that the successful candidate will have an abiding love of literature and popular culture, as well as substantive experience post or pre-doctorate working outside of academe. This is not an appointment for the faint of heart. We expect you to fail at times, and we expect you to facilitate a learning experience in which students may occasionally fail without penalty, thus some first-hand experience with outright failure is desirable. Competitive salary and benefits, by which we mean a living wage that will permit the new hire to purchase a reasonably sized house a reasonable distance away from campus, and a new wardrobe annually, without having to fret over sufficient food in the fridge. We try to be what we appear to be, and are especially sensitive to how prevailing economic disparities can make things tough for our faculty, staff and students. For this reason we would probably prefer someone politically left of center whose faith, passion or enthusiasm does not preclude a grounding, for instance, in the central tenets of evolutionary theory, but we will try to keep an open mind. That said, a strong predisposition toward feminism, social justice issues and environmental agenda would be a plus, as would a willingness to move beyond the assumptions specific to one's own lifeways, whether rural, urban, suburban, military, penal, monastic, or showbiz. While we're on a roll: we would prefer someone, too, who can think through, as opposed to around, the corporation. We want you to stay here if we hire you, and will endeavor to create incentives to keep you here. We are open to spousal accommodations (please inquire). Submit only a letter of application and c.v. at this time. We will be conducting phone interviews initially, and will not be interviewing at MLA or AWP. We are an equal opportunity/affirmative action, proactive, ethically aware and socially responsible employer committed to reforming our institution so that we may better contribute to building a better world. Women, minorities, the disabled, atheists, ex-cons, the middle-aged, the transgendered, and those who hail from the underclasses are encouraged to apply.
[copyright 2003, Joan Houlihan]
Boston Comment Home