Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Bleed-Over and Decadence, or: No Bones About It, They're Talking About Language Poetry

“Let’s make no bones about it, what both Bob & Josh are talking about is Language poetry,” writes Mark Scroggins in Culture Industry. The conversation Mark’s referring to, for those of you keeping score at home, has been one in which Josh Corey, in his Cahiers de Corey, and I, in my last two entries here, have both been advancing version of the following thesis: the poetry of indeterminacy has run its course as a vital force in American literature and culture.

Josh’s version of this thesis is subtler and more nuanced than the one I laid down in my last post with all the subtlety of a bull elephant serving afternoon tea. Is the poetry of indeterminacy in its decadence, you ask? “In one respect, the answer is no,” writes Josh, because he feels “the fostering of a capacity for negative capability in readers is an absolute good that poetry can produce.” But in another respect, he maintains, the answer is yes, “because it has been possible for a while to adapt indeterminacy as a style whose detachment from late-capitalist market logic is no longer a meaningful one.”

I think this second part of Josh’s statement is particularly astute, and it helps me in answering Mark’s claim that what we’re talking about here is the future of language poetry. Let me follow Josh’s even-handed formulation and answer Mark by saying yes, in one respect I at least am talking about language poetry when I talk about the poetry of indeterminacy. But in another respect I’m talking about something larger than language poetry. The fact is that indeterminacy has bled over from language poetry (and other sources — but mostly from language poetry) into a great deal of English-language poetry. It is this large body of poetry, a body that includes both language poetry and bleed-over verse, that I call “the poetry of indeterminacy.” The very fact of the bleed-over is, I think, a sign, though not necessarily a cause, of the decadence of indeterminacy.

Before going on to that decadence, I should say that Josh and Mark are both right in noting that despite everything, the most common kind of poetry being written in English remains the sort of thing Charles Altieri has called “the scenic mode.” It’s good to see Altieri’s definition back in play, since it sticks to genre as a way of defining this sort of poetry. I’ve been too willing to define such stuff by what were once its institutions, calling it “MFA” or “APR” poetry. But since so many MFA programs now seem to produce almost as many poets of indeterminacy as they do poets of the psychological moments and narrative interludes that make up the scenic mode, and since so many of those poets find their way into mainstream journals like the American Poetry Review, institutional definitions won’t do the trick anymore. Bleed-over has happened at the level of institutions as well as at the level of composition. Poets of indeterminacy hold a number of the big ivy-league jobs, for example, be they language poets of the purest pedigree (Bob Perelman of Penn, say) or otherwise (take, for example, Jorie Graham of Harvard). Mark Scroggins notes this phenomenon at a less exalted level when he writes “I’m not a regular reader of Poets and Writers, the industry mag, but on my occasional scans through I’m astonished by how many poets of a definitely “non-scenic” bent are getting regular rotation on the visiting writer circuit.”

If, broadly speaking, language poetry’s indeterminacies came about as a way of rejecting the universal commodification of all things — including language — in twentieth-century capitalism, then there’s a real irony at work here. Indeterminacy has become, among other things, a style-marker, even a kind of prestige-brand marker of sorts: in short, a kind of commodity. The scenic mode is certainly the most common kind of poetry, but the poetry of indeterminacy has, in certain limited markets, greater cultural capital. Hence the bleed-over from those most concerned with social issues to those whose concerns have more to do with landing the gigs advertised in the pages of Poets and Writers.

So, if, as Josh says, indeterminacy has long-since “hardened into a style” and more recently “softened into a decadence,” what is to be done? “Whence,” as he puts it, “the new style?” I, too, feel we are on the verge of something new, but the nature of the beast that slouches toward Parnassus to be born has yet to be seen. Theories welcome from all quarters, speculations to follow.