Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Afro-Caribbean Women's Surrelism Update: New Translations of Lucie Thésée!

So you're looking for the latest in midcentury Afro-Caribbean women's surrealism?  You've come to the right place!  Well, almost.  You'll need to click over to Circumference: Poetry in Translation to see two new translations of Lucie Thésée's work, "Poem" and "Rapture: The Depths," by Jean-Luc Garneau and the present humble blogger.

More of the translations Jean-Luc and I have been working on appear here and here in Poetry.  There's a little essay about them here, and the New York Times did a little feature on one here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

W.H. Auden and Campiness

If you want to appreciate W.H. Auden, you’ve got to come at him with a good grasp of camp.  At least that's what I say at the start of a brief essay just out in the wonderful At Length magazine, which runs a feature unlike any I've ever seen called "Short Takes on Long Poems."  I've adapted some remarks from the Auden chapter of the book I've been working on, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself and turned them into an analysis of camp in Auden's early, hilarious, weird charade "Paid on Both Sides," where he camps Freudianism, in no small measure as a means of coming to terms with his own homosexuality (something about which Freud held views that, while not without their redeeming sides, are hardly those that enlightened people in our own time would endorse).
Here's how the essay begins:
If you want to appreciate W.H. Auden, you’ve got to come at him with a good grasp of camp, that hard-to-define quality that combines exaggeration, pastiche, transgression, and so many other things (the origins of the term probably lie in the French word camper, and refer to the exaggerated formalities and prescribed behaviors of a 19th century military camp, with all those big salutes, high stepping marches, and all of those epaulets, gold braid, and brass buttons). Camp is essential, for example, to Auden’s first large-scale achievement in verse, the play—or, more precisely, the charade—Paid on Both Sides. Completed in 1928, it appeared first in T.S. Eliot’sCriterion in January 1930, and later that same year became the longest piece in Auden’s Poems, a volume published by Faber under Eliot’s aegis. One can see much in Auden’s play that would recommend it to the author of The Waste Land: like that poem, it gives a clearly modern landscape, and it depicts a struggle between a faltering life-wish and the forces of sterility and death, and even includes a depiction of spring’s life-force faltering, in the manner of the famous opening of Eliot’s poem. One wonders whether Eliot was sensitive to the differences between the two poems, though. There are, after all, reasons to doubt how thoroughly Auden embraced the world-view that seems to pervade his poem. 
That world-view is distinctly Freudian. In 1920, at the age of 13, Auden had discovered Freud via his father’s library, and Auden consumed his works eagerly, along with those of others associated with psychology and psychoanalysis, in the years that followed. His attitude toward psychological theory tended toward the camp—taking the ideas seriously, but at the same time making fun out of them, an activity (as Auden’s friend Christopher Isherwood liked to point out) quite distinct from making fun of them. Auden enjoyed the theories and made much art out of them but self-consciously presented himself as giving them greater credence than he truly did, striking the pose of the dogmatist.
The issue also includes essays on Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, Randall Jarrell, and others!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

When Poetry Matters: This Tuesday in Poughkeepsie!

Like all right-thinking people, you're wondering what's going on Tuesday night in Poughkeepsie.  An excellent question!  And I have the answer: I'll be giving the George L. Sommer Lecture on Literature at Marist College at 7:30 in the Nelly Goletti Theater.  It's called "When Poetry Matters," and it will begin something like this:

The title of this talk, which I hope will only detain you for 45 or 50 minutes, is "When Poetry Matters," but since, like most people who've written poems, all I really want to talk about is myself, I've given it a subtitle, so the full, double-barreled name for what follows is "Why Poetry Matters, or: My Slide Down the Slopes of Parnassus."  I think I can get away with this, because one way to talk about the conditions under which poetry matters (whatever "mattering" may mean") is to talk about how I became less of a poet and more of a literary critic — how I slid off the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where poets commune with the true, the good, the eternal, and the beautiful, and landed in a research library, where critics push little carts of footnotes and citations around under the dim and flickering light cast by fluorescent tubes, refreshing themselves only with little plastic wrapped sandwiches and paper cups of terrible coffee from the commissary.  It was better on Parnassus, where we poets lived only on the nectar of the gods. 
Don't get me wrong: I haven't given up on poetry.  Far from it.  It's just that, back when I was writing poetry full time, without the shadow of scholarship looming over me, I began to wonder whether, and how, and to whom, and under what circumstances, poetry actually mattered.  So I decided to investigate the question from a historical, and to some degree sociological, perspective.  Well, the muses are intolerant of this sort of thing, and kicked me down the mountainside.  A decade passed, and here I am with my report...

Hope to see you there!  I mean, a bunch of you.  It's a big theater.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Simon Jarvis as W.H. Auden

A young English poet, fostered by an ancient and glorious university, starts writing startling, experimental verses, which find their first audience among a talented, radicalized coterie of other young writers.  He’s got amazing chops, especially when it comes to his metrics.  He travels.  He writes.  He is appreciated, especially in the left-leaning quarters of the literary world.  He moves to America, grows increasingly religious and perhaps less radical.  He turns toward more traditional forms, shows a great aptness for rhyme, and embraces the Anglican Church.

The poet is, of course, W.H. Auden.  Unless you add “…but moves back” after “He moves to America.”  In that case, we’re no longer talking about Auden, we’re talking about Simon Jarvis.

I don’t know whether I should be surprised that the two careers bear such similarity, but they do.  Auden’s career is generally seen as splitting into two phases, with 1939 being the crux—and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that 2014 is Jarvis’ 1939.  Consider the words of William Wooten from the February 28th issue of the TLS:
When a devotee of the astringent ‘difficulty’ of J.H. Prynne and de facto member of the Cambridge School publishes a 7,000 line Anglican poem in formal rhyming verse, it is safe to conclude he has had something of a change of heart.  Not total, perhaps.  Simon Jarvis’ Night Office, the poem in question, echoes and alludes to Prynne and foregrounds the sort of Adorno-inspired theorizing Jarvis and others have used to justify Prynnian poetics.  Even the way Jarvis writes as if no one had produced a rhyming couplet since 1908 may be more a result of subscription to modernist orthodoxy than evidence of its renunciation.  Still, there is no pretending Night Office is your standard Cambridge fare.
There are grounds to be less sanguine when it comes to generalities about “standard Cambridge fare” than is Wooten, but one takes his point.  There’s a departure here, even as there is continuity, and the departure leads Jarvis down the Auden highway, toward long, formal verse and the consolations of the Anglican Communion.

Auden claimed that he left England because he feared that, had he stayed, he’d have become a part of the Establishment.  It’s a likely enough counterfactual: one could easily imagine the aging Wystan, or perhaps the aging Sir Wystan, hobnobbing with the English elite in town and country, rather than crouching in his filthy New York apartment, taking Benzedrine to keep up with his book reviewing assignments.  Auden’s fear of ending up an English establishment figure does make one wonder about Jarvis’ fate.  As the Gorley Putt Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Cambridge University, Jarvis is well positioned, should he wish it, to slide into the kind of fate Auden dreaded.  Perhaps that's why, in a letter appearing in a later issue of the TLS, Jarvis emphasized his (very real, very much ongoing) connection to radical Cambridge poetry figures like Keston Sutherland.  If Jarvis is the Auden of the group, Sutherland is the P.B. Shelley.  But that's another topic.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Poetry: What’s Next? Find out on Harvard Square.

“Poetry: What’s Next?” That’s the title of the first in a new series of critical talks to take place at the legendary Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts (6 Plympton Street, to be precise).  I’ll have the good fortune to be a part of it, speaking alongside Ben Mazer of Boston University and Stephen Burt of Harvard.

 The event kicks off at 7:00 pm on Friday March 14th.  Hope you can come by—but if you can’t, fret not: the proceedings will be published by the Battersea Review, and then in a new series of critical chapbooks put out by the book shop.

A day before the Grolier event I’ll be speaking on related topics at the New England Conservatory, but you’ll have to pull strings to get in: it’s a students-only event.  Buying me a drink afterward, however, is a proposition open to the public.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Devil's Dictionary of the American PoBiz

Research continues in the vital field of descriptive poetic sociology, people, and my army of assistants labors ceaselessly in the fourth sub-basement of the secret backyard writing dojo.  Below find a compilation of current research results: a provisional and partial descriptive vocabulary for life on the slopes of the American Parnassus! 

A Devil’s Dictionary of the American PoBiz

Adjunctivitis: The condition, visible on your vita, of having held so many adjunct teaching gigs for so long that tenure-track hiring committees suspect there’s something wrong with you and silently pass on to the next applicant.

Anti-Foundationalism: The belief that all evil emanates from the Poetry Foundation’s menacing, black-walled headquarters in Chicago.  It was once thought that being invited to air one’s dissent in the pages of Poetry or on the Foundation’s website would ameliorate symptoms, but studies have since shown such treatment just as likely to intensify the condition.

AWP Block: (Pronounce the “AWP” to rhyme with “yawp”): An occurrence in which your attempt to schmooze with the editor of an important journal is cut off by another desperate poet who sights the editor’s name tag and swoops in between the two of you, giving the editor a big air kiss and clocking you with a tote bag.

Bestseller: A poetry book purchased by at least one person neither related to, nor a former student of, the poet in question.  The existence of bestsellers has yet to be verified.

Brooklynschmerz: The anxiety caused among poets by the very existence of Brooklyn.  Those who live elsewhere (that is, in the provinces) often manifest such symptoms as: talking shit about Brooklyn, mentioning how glad they are to have left/never been sucked in by Brooklyn, or looking around at the local landscape of strip malls and Chuck E Cheese franchises and complaining about how they should be living in Brooklyn.  Those who live in Brooklyn manifest symptoms such as: talking shit about Brooklyn, mentioning how they wish it was like it was before people like those other guys in the slow-pour coffee line showed up, and looking around at the local landscape of condo redevelopments and crime scene police tape and complaining about how they should be living in Portland.

Censorship: Something that happens to poets in other countries.  American poets are protected by the constitution and widespread public indifference.

Close Reading: An event at which one performs one's poems in a venue the size of a phone booth.

Hinternet Publication: Online publications so obscure that only the hardiest of online frontiersmen will ever come across them.  Just as real-world hinterlands are often given misleading names to attract settlers (“Greenland”), hinternet publications have been known to include indicators of grandeur (the word “Review,” for example) in their titles to lure the unwary and deceive the department chair looking over one’s annual evaluation.

Impoetence: Writer's block.  A failure to rise to the occasion.

Mastblurbation: The writing of vague or incomprehensible blurbs, rife with terms such as “achingly,” “audacious,” “luminous,” and the name-checking of John Ashbery.  Alternately: the writing of one’s own jacket copy.

Metafore: The act of trying to convince a more prestigious poet that the two of you have met on a prior occasion.

Microphellatio: The widespread phenomenon of poets posting pictures of themselves with microphones dangling in front of their open mouths.

MFAphasia: The condition suffered by those who stop writing after they’ve finished their MFA theses and no longer have to come up with something for workshop every week.

Multiclutchural Poet: One who tries desperately to find a Native American, African-American, or Latino ancestor.  Mid-career name changes may be involved.

Oral Phase: The point in a prominent poet’s career when he or she spends so much time criss-crossing the country giving poetry readings and talks at conferences and hob-nobbing with the local literati that the actual writing of poetry ceases.

Oronism: The religious belief, widely held to be heretical yet celebrated irregularly by congregants at secret gatherings at Orono, in the remote woods of Maine, that only those poets with a personal connection to SUNY-Buffalo exist, and that all others are illusions created by an evil demiurge named Vendler.

Poetariat: The mass of unsung poets.  Adjuncts, mostly.

Profschmerz: The anxiety/defensiveness/resentment felt by American poets who are not working as professors during an era in which the most common source of a poet’s paycheck is a university English department.  Symptoms are various, but the phrase “I pity you academicians” is a sure sign of an advanced stage of the disease.

Reversifier: A poet who tries to write in meter but gets it backwards.  A New Formalist.

Many thanks to R.S. Gwynn, Paul Bond, T.R. Hummer and Michael Anania for their valuable research in cataloging these terms.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Shades of Oppen and Rimbaud

The other day Robert Pinsky said, a propos an insightful essay on his work by David Kaufman in The Yale Review, "it's good to be seen," meaning, of course, that he felt the review got at something central about his work.  Today the new issue of The Notre Dame Review came out, including Mark Scroggins' review of my book The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, and I feel much as Pinsky did. Firstly, Scroggins sees exactly what it is that has interested me most over the decade or so in which the essays in the book were written:

The shades of Oppen and Rimbaud stalk unmentioned through much of The Poet Resigns: Rimbaud, the intransigently avant-garde Communard sympathizer who abandoned poetry for gun-running; Oppen, who bailed out of the Objectivist “movement” (and poetry itself) in order to organize strikes for the American Communist Party. The two men are as it were limit-texts for the collision of poetry and active politics. But in their wake there have been whole generations of poets, in both Rimbauldian and Oppenian genealogies of influence, who have argued that making poems can be in itself a way of doing political labor. Archambeau’s subtitle, “Poetry in a Difficult World,” evokes Adrienne Rich (An Atlas of the Difficult World): where Rich’s poems aim to examine and perhaps even to intervene in a world of disquiet, cruelty, and injustice, Archambeau is interested in the place poets stake out for their art, the claims they make about the relationship of poetry and power—and the motivations for such claims.

Secondly, Scroggins nails something about how I tend to think.  He notes that the essays in the book were all written for one sort of occasion or another, then adds:

And they have the advantage of the best occasional writing: immediacy, a sense of responsiveness, conversationality. But Archambeau is a “big ideas” critic: he invariably wants to spin his momentary interpretations of texts into larger insights about the place of poetry in the world. Sometimes, as in the more general essays in the first half of the book, this results in excellent and provocative meditations; sometimes individual poets, poems, and passages from poems become grist for a relentless point-making mill.  There is enough to think about in The Poet Resigns to fill a shelf of books, and if Archambeau has the tendency sometimes to answer the big questions of our poetic moment a bit more rapidly than I’m comfortable with, he’s to be given abundant kudos for raising them in such a clear and thoughtful manner, and for tackling them in such lively and intelligent prose. There are many moments in The Poet Resigns when Archambeau’s affection for poetry (in all of its forms) and his sensitive critical intelligence align perfectly with his structure-making impulses. And the more personal moments of this collection, such as the delightful “My Laureates,” show that the poet-critic, whether his resignation be temporary or permanent, is by no means afraid to subject his own socio-politico-theoretical position to the same examination he has brought to bear on others.
He's got my number, Scroggins has: every time I read a poem I do want to spin the interpretation out into a general discourse on the history of Western aesthetics since the Enlightenment, and a concomitant social analysis!  And I do love giving an outline of an entire system of thought as a prelude to making often relatively minor observations (see, for example, the blog post preceding this one).  This can certainly be a vice, even as it can, on a good day, perhaps be a virtue.  Scroggins isn't the only person to have noticed this.  During the recent MLA convention in Chicago I was several drinks into the evening with the writer of another, forthcoming review of The Poet Resigns, who told me "most of those essays ought to be books!"  I took this as a compliment at the time, but I suppose there's a very different way of seeing it, too.

Anyway: I get what Pinsky means: its good to be seen for exactly what you are, and Scroggins sees pretty damn clearly.

The whole review can be found here.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Graham Harman, Kenneth Goldsmith, & Franco Moretti Walk Into a Bar: A Future for Literary Studies

Let's throw some big words onto the table: speculative realism, object-oriented philosophy, the digital humanities, and conceptualist poetics.  They all belong there together, I think, because they all have something to do with one possible future for literary studies.  Graham Harman is the leading figure of the movement known in philosophy as speculative realism or object-oriented philosophy.  While his name seems to strike fear into the hearts of the more uptight members of the Anglo-American philosophical community, he remains relatively unknown among those concerned with literary study, even in those circles where philosophically-informed critical theory holds sway.  All that may change, though: in the past few years he seems to have become more focused on the interdisciplinary possibilities of his thinking, and he's begun to speculate about just what his brand of thinking could mean for the future of literary study.  It's a weird prospect he presents, but an intriguing one.  What is more, it's a future that could easily build on two growing developments in thinking about literature: digital humanistic study of the sort practiced by Franco Moretti at Stanford's Literary Lab; and conceptualist poetics as practiced most prominently by Kenneth Goldsmith.

Speculative Realism

Harman tells us that speculative realism is "weird realism" (he likes the phrase so much it appears as part of the title of his book Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy).  While we literary types might want to think of "realism" as a nineteenth century literary movement, Harman uses it in a sense specific to philosophy: as one term in the realist/idealist debate.  Realists, in this context, are those who believe in an objective, exterior world of things-in-themselves, existing independently of our minds; while idealists like Kant believe that the only world we can know is the world of things present to our mind, the world of mental phenomena.  In the long history of realists vs. idealists, realists have tended to be the commonsensical bunch, those who seem least weird and most down to earth.  One thinks of Boswell's anecdote about Samuel Johnson responding to Berkeley's idealist speculations, in which the rebuttal to idealism could not have been more concrete:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
Vulgar empiricism! It worked for Johnson, but for Harman it just won't do.  He comes by his realism from another source: Heidegger, specifically the tool theory sections of Being and Time.

Most of us in literary studies who cut our teeth on continental literary theory have absorbed, to one degree or another, the sense of reality as socially constructed, as the product of discourse or language, or as constituted in social systems of one sort or another.  Whether our maître à penser was Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Bourdieu, or, if we're very hip indeed, Bruno Latour, we've tended to believe in objects as formed by human consciousness or consciousness' products (such as language or systems of prestige).  Harman believes, instead, that objects necessarily exceed their relationship to humanity, and even their relationship to each other.  As he put it in an interview for the Cultural Technologies podcast, his theory centers on "the notion that the objects of the world are not exhausted by their interactions, that there is some nucleus in the object that is never fully deployed in its relations."  This grew out of Heidegger, especially those parts of Heidegger's thinking that rebel against the phenomenological philosophy of his mentor Husserl, who was interested in the way objects appear in human consciousness.  For Husserl, objects were important in terms of their appearance to us, but Heidegger saw that things exist, for the most part, without our consciousness.  We depend on them as tools or equipment, but even as we're doing this they're not something we think about, or are conscious of.  Things, for Heidegger, are mostly not in our consciousness, but are unconsciously relied on and taken for granted.  Things don't tend to appear in consciousness until something goes wrong with them: you don't think about your computer keyboard until the space bar sticks; you don't think about the hammer you're using until it breaks (the latter is Heidegger's famous example in Being and Time—you might recall something similar being said about shoes his "Origin of the Work of Art").

Harman goes a step further than Heidegger: for him, it's not just that objects go deeper than our consciousness because of being used without being present in the mind: the object goes deeper even than its use.  The existence of the hammer exceeds both consciousness and use, and withdraws from us in ways upon which we can only speculate.  It can't be summed up by how we think about it or use it.  Neither can it be explained as a bundle of its components.  As Harman puts it,
Just as humans do not dissolve into their parents or children but rather have a certain autonomy from both, so too a rock is neither downwardly reducible to quarks and electrons nor upwardly reducible to its role in stoning the Interior Ministry.  The rock has rock properties not found in its tiny components, and also has rock properties not exhausted by its uses.  The rock is not affected when a few of its protons are destroyed by cosmic rays, and by the same token it is never exhaustively deployed in its current use or in all its possible uses.  The rock does not exist because it can be used, but can be used because it exists…. It is a real form outside our minds.  It is what medieval philosophers called a substantial form: the reality of an individual object over and above its matter, and under and beneath its apprehension by the mind.
One might say that Harman's philosophy is concerned with essences, in that it is looking for what makes a thing itself, in excess of its uses or relations or components.  "The term 'essence' gets a bad press these days," Harmon once told an interviewer for Design and Culture, "because it has come to be associated with all kinds of repressive and reactionary dogmas, but if we take 'essence' in a more minimalistic sense to mean 'what a thing is quite apart from its accidental circumstances,' then a certain essentialism is unavoidable."  Moreover, we're not going to get access to those essences, or even look for them.  We're going to "look instead at how individual entities… withdraw" from systems of definition or use or relation.

Essentialism and Weird Realism

Maybe the point about essentialism and its putative relation to reactionary views is worth elaborating on.  Harman certainly does elaborate on it—here's a passage from his article "The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer":
According to one familiar narrative… philosophers used to be naïve realists who believed in real things outside their social or linguistic contexts; these things were ascribed timeless essences that were not politically innocent, since they subjugated various groups by pigeonholing each of them as oriental, feminine, pre-Enlightenment or some other such tag.  According to this view, we have luckily come to realize that essences must be replaced with events and performances, that the notion of a reality that is not a reality for someone is dubious, that flux is prior to stasis, that things must be seen as differences rather than solid units…
The thing about this narrative, though, is that it takes one view of objects and their essences as the only possible view of them:
The problem with individual substances was never that they were autonomous or individual, but that they were wrongly conceived as eternal, unchanging, simple, or directly accessible by certain privileged observers.  By contrast, the objects of object-oriented philosophy are mortal, ever-changing, built from swarms of subcomponents, and accessible only through oblique allusion.  This is not the oft-lamented 'naïve realism' of oppressive and benighted patriarchs, but a weird realism in which real individual objects resist all forms of causal or cognitive mastery.
An emphasis on the question of what makes an object itself is not, then, a sure sign of reaction: this is not your father's essentialism.

Object-Oriented Literary Study

What could all of this have to do with literary study?  Well, for starters, its one more nail in the coffin of one of the old dogmas of the New Criticism—that every part of the poem exerts pressure on every other part, and that no part is extractable without utterly changing the poem's meaning and effect (this is really a more of a refutation of Cleanth Brooks' "Irony as a Principle of Structure" than of New Criticism as a whole, which was wider and more various than most of its current detractors and advocates seems to believe).  Here's Harman discussing the famous ending of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," with the assertion (the urn's, not Keats') that "beauty is truth, truth beauty."
If Keats' 'beauty is truth, truth beauty' can only adequately be read as the outcome of the earlier part of the poem, this is not true of the whole of the earlier portions, Cleanth Brooks notwithstanding.  We can add alternate spellings or even misspellings to scattered words earlier in the text, without changing the feeling of the climax.  We can change punctuations slightly, and even change the exact words of a certain number of lines before 'beauty is truth, truth beauty' begins to take on different overtones.  In short, we cannot identify the literary work with the exact current form it happens to have.
What is essential to the poem remaining itself is not immediately clear, but the insistence on total integrity doesn't hold up, as far as Harman is concerned, no more than the sense that a few protons of an individual rock being destroyed would destroy its identity as a rock.  What we can't do is determine the essence of the particular literary text: "the literary text," writes Harman, "runs deeper than any coherent meaning, and outruns the intentions of the author and reader alike."  What, then, can we do?  Here's where things get interesting—because we can try, through various methods of indirection, to allude to what makes Keats' ode itself.  We won't get to the core of the thing, but we can begin to understand the nature of what makes that poem that poem, and we can understand something about what would mark the limits of the poem, when we would find that it is no longer itself.  The critic of a text or set of texts would go about this sort of thing by
...attempting various modifications of these texts and seeing what happens.  Instead of just writing about Moby-Dick, why not try shortening it to various degrees in order to discover the point at which it ceases to sound like Moby-Dick?  Why not imagine it lengthened even further, or told by a third-person narrator rather than by Ishmael, or involving a cruise in the opposite direction around the globe?  Why not consider a scenario under which Pride and Prejudice were set in upscale Parisian neighborhoods rather than rural England—could such a text plausibly still be Pride and Prejudice?  Why not imagine that a letter by Shelley was actually written by Nietzsche, and consider the resulting consequences and lack of consequences? … all the preceding suggestions involve ways of decontextualizing works… showing that they are to some extent autonomous even of their own properties.  Moby-Dick differs from its own exact length and its own modifiable plot details, and is a certain je ne sais quoi or substance able to survive certain modifications and not others.
It's a different world than what we normally think of as the province of the literary critic, isn't it?  But it's also a world that has to some extent already come into being, independently of Harman's recommendation.

Goldsmith, Moretti, and a Future for Literary Study

We've seen decontextualizations very much along the lines suggested by Harman— but not in the main works of literary critics working in any of our conventional modes (new historicist, formalist, Marxian, feminist, poststructuralist, etc.).  We've seen it much more consistently in the works of conceptualist poets like Kenneth Goldsmith.  Consider Goldsmith's transcription works: his typing, verbatim, of a year's worth of weather reports in his 2005 book The Weather, or his transcription, again verbatim, of the September 1, 2000 issue of The New York Times in the 2003 book Day.  These projects raise many questions (including questions about the meaning of manual transcription in the age of mechanical reproduction, about the meaning of authorship and the importance or unimportance of originality, and about whether a poem needs to be read or simply acknowledged as a concept).  But Goldsmith's conceptualist projects also raise exactly the kind of question Harman raises with " Why not imagine that a letter by Shelley was actually written by Nietzsche, and consider the resulting consequences and lack of consequences?"  Why not imagine that the September 1, 2000 issue of The New York Times was a book written by Kenneth Goldsmith?  What are the consequences or lack of consequences?  Goldsmith has undertaken other projects very much in accord with other elements of Harman's projected future for literary studies.  Consider, for example, the following items from his 2002 list poem "Head Citations":

1. This is the dawning of the age of malaria.
2. Another one fights the dust.
3. Eyeing little girls with padded pants.
4. Teenage spacemen we're all spacemen.
5. A gay pair of guys put up a parking lot.
5.1. It tastes very nice, food of the parking lot.
6. One thing I can tell you is you got to eat cheese.
7. She was a gay stripper.
8. Fly like a negro to the sea.
9. Hey you, get off of my cow.

It is, as you've probably noticed, a list of misheard musical lyrics.  The poem contains some 800 of them, taken from various sources.  The distortion of the original text is not so great that all of the lyrics are unrecognizable, though we've clearly moved beyond the words as written by the songwriters.  The question of how far is too far, of where the limits of the song are to be found, comes to the fore—and gets complicated by the fact that these mishearings are all actual instances of what people have experienced when they've heard the songs.  Once again, Goldsmith's practice anticipates Harman's call for action—it's object-oriented literary criticism avant la lettre.  

Goldsmith remains a controversial figure in poetry circles, and it would take a remarkably progressive English professor to consider what he does a kind of literary criticism.  But what about Franco Moretti?  His lit-crit bona fides are as respectable as one could wish: he's written extensively in the Marxian mode, holds the appropriate degrees, holds an endowed chair at Stanford, and has published a half-dozen books of criticism, well received in many quarters.  He's also at the forefront of the movement for the digital study of the humanities, running Stanford's Literature Lab.  The massive digitization projects done at Stanford under his direction have yielded all sorts of interesting results, but one of the directions Moretti has taken comes tantalizingly close to the project outlined by Harman.  The most fascinating part of Moretti's recent book The Bourgeois examines what many may think of as an unpromising topic: verb forms in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.  His analysis of those verb forms leads him to notice that the most typical formation involves Crusoe narrating events in a sequence moving from the past participle to the simple past and on to an infinitive.  "Having stowed my boat," says Crusoe, "I went on to shore," and then concludes with "to look about me" (I am indebted to David Winters for this particular example).  This is important, says Moretti, because it embodies the bourgeois worldview of instrumental reason and deferred gratification: of doing something in order to prepare for a next step that will lead to another step in an ever-proceeding process of building and mastering.  It's a far cry from the verbal structures we find in Homeric epic, where the "Having done that I did that in order to do the new thing" pattern is in relative abeyance.  Gathering this kind of data is important—but monkeying with it could be even more important.  Moretti has the technical resources to make massive substitutions: he could change Crusoe's verb forms around electronically, and produce exactly the kind of modified text Harman describes, allowing us to investigate the boundary at which Robinson Crusoe ceases to be recognizably itself.  How important is that bourgeois verbal structure?  One modification would go unnoticed by even the most committed Defoe expert.  When would we meet the threshold?

One often hears that there's little happening in literary studies lately, that after the theory wars of the last decades of the twentieth century we have become complacent, or given up on innovation in literary criticism.  The model propose by Harman is not as far-fetched as it may seem—in fact, it has already taken root among creative writers and those most committed to bringing technology to the study of literature.  We won't know how valuable it could be until we try it in earnest.  So I say we work to get Harman, Goldsmith, and Moretti installed on three adjacent bar stools.  When they walk out of the joint, they might just be able to point us to where we could be going.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Aiming High, Aiming Low, and Landing in Jail: Poetry and Risk

“We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive,” wrote the Qatari poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheed al-Ajami, in a poem praising the uprisings of the Arab spring.  He wrote in praise of those who put their lives at risk for freedom, and must have known he was taking a great risk himself: his poem landed him in a Qatari jail, where he remains.  He’s a poet who knows about the kind of risk it is hard to imagine an American poet running—protected as our poets are by freedom of speech and widespread public indifference.  It’s not that American poets can’t run risks; rather, it’s a matter of much lower stakes.  The most common thing our poets put at risk is the sympathy of their readers and editors, and they may do so by aiming too high or too low.

That's the opening paragraph of my contribution to a symposium on poetry & risk in the latest issue of Pleiades, now appearing in bookstores and in the mailboxes of subscribers.  The essay goes on to discuss Peter O'Leary's poetry as aiming high, and Michael Robbins' poetry as aiming low—in both cases it's a matter of diction, and of alienating potential audiences.  

The poetry and risk feature includes a lot of fine things, including Rae Armantrout writing on Ben Lerner; Carl Dennis writing on David Wojahn; Joan Houlihan writing on Brenda Shaughnessy, John Gallaher writing on Michael Benedikt, and much more.  It's not available online, but on this strange alternative medium called "paper."

***UPDATE FEB. 4, 2014: My contribution to the symposium is now available online.