Thursday, December 15, 2005

Quietude Redux, or: Varieties of Self in Contemporary Poetry

The School of Quietude. The Lyric I. The Scenic Mode. Confessionalism. MFA-verse. We've all thrown these labels around, trying in one way or another to get a handle on the kind of writing that, despite the bleed-over from old-school language poetry, still constitutes the bulk of new American poetry. The problem, of course, is that all of the labels are pretty crude. None gives a very specific sense of the concerns or formal qualities of the work in question. I'm fond of the Kellogg model of the American poetic field because it, at least, places the kind of writing we try to designate with these labels in relation to other kinds of poetry. It is, in his view, oriented toward the self rather than toward community, and it sits somewhere between innovation-oriented and tradition-oriented poetry (drifting more toward tradition every day, as we move ever onwards from the days when Lowell's Life Studies could shock us with its plainspokenness). But even Kellogg's model is still too crude (as Joshua Clover, among others, has pointed out). What to do? One way to proceed in refining the model would be to take one of Kellogg's poles of value, like "self," and convert it from a single point to an axis or array of its own, charting out different ways of emphasizing the self.

I was inspired to give this a try by an article I ran across while Googling a poet I've always thought of, somewhat unfairly, as a rival of sorts (yeah, its creepy, but you’ve Googled your ex-girlfriends and/or boyfriends, haven’t you? What — no? Really? I refuse to believe it!). Imagine my delight when he cropped up as a negative example in Ellen Hinsey's very sharp article "The Rise of Modern Doggerel" (you can download a pdf of it from the site of the journal Sources, a magazine published in France and edited, in part, by the incredibly cool Antoine Caze — the article is in the Autumn 1998 issue).

Hinsey begins by telling us that doggerel is alive and with us, but not in the form we've come to expect. Hinsey tells us that Victorian doggerel, with its emphasis on "obvious rhymes and labored meter...easy sentimentality and all those roses and trellises", set our expectations for truly dreadful poetry. But, if we think of doggerel as a style of verse that has become, in terms of style, a predictable pastiche of itself, and that addresses only "a codified range of subject matter" (as Hinsey does, taking her definition from Northrop Frye), we see that a great deal of the poetry we find in most of the journals out there is, indeed, nothing more than a new kind of doggerel.

And what does this new doggerel look like? It looks very much like one variety — but by no means the totality — of the poetry of the self. And here’s where the article gets interesting. She lays out a dichotomy between two versions of self-oriented poetry, claiming that “there has been a progressive re-definition of the ‘I’ in American verse, and a subsequent subtle but definite shift toward the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ as objects.” Check it out:

One might even go so far as to say that there have come to exist two different ‘I’s in contemporary American poetry: the ‘therapeutic I,’ which is self-reflexive and therefore object-oriented, and the traditional or axiomatic ‘I’ which has traditionally involved an implicit relationship with the reader.... [T]he poem which employs the first of these methods, the therapeutic ‘I,’ has at its base the goal of self-analysis and self-revelation, for which the poem acts as testimony. The process of the poem is one of identifying — often within the scope of predefined categories such as childhood trauma, abuse, or sexuality — certain “memories” and then finding their expression. At the base, this “objectification” and isolating of experience by the poet creates a texture in the poetry itself. Rather than communicating directly with the reader or working from an implied relationship, the poem asks the reader to understand and sympathize with the author’s relationship to his or her own history.

This, for Hinsey, is the cliched or doggerel form of contemporary poetry, in which the self is presented as the object of the poet’s concern, and you, as reader, have no role or implied presence in the poem other than as one who looks on at the poet’s self-presentation with the hushed breath of sympathy. As an example of this, she cites a few stanzas from “Zephyr” by Timothy Muskat (my predecessor here at Lake Forest, and the object of the initial Googling that led me to Hinsey’s article). Here they are, prime examples, according to Hinsey, of the “self as object” in poetry:

When my Airedale died I crawled into the dark
doghouse and lay down as the ghost of him
ran through me. That night, sleeping,
the chambers of my heart in ruins, I pleaded

with God. Curled into myself. wind circling
like a nighthawk in the far away fields, something
stirred, muted, from a distance. In the morning
thirteen years passed overhead in the clouds.

Understand me here: I know she was only a dog.
But grief is a faint light flashing on a mountaintop
while you are in a valley far below, tied
in darkness, like a dog, unable to move.

It’s all in that “understand me here,” isn’t it? The poet’s concern is with himself as the object of contemplation, with the exquisiteness of his own emotions, and the relationship to the other consists only of an appeal for that other to understand the exquisitely feeling self. About the only virtue of these stanzas, I suppose, is that they are so utterly bald: they make explicit the injunction behind of so many of the poems that have cluttered the journals and anthologies since the dawn of confessionalism. One can almost hear the dusty whisper arising from the pages in the literary periodicals section of your local university library, “understand me, understand me, understand me...”

It isn’t unfair to think of this sort of poetry — let’s call it poetry of the self-as-object, for now — as the School of Quietude, to use the term from Ron Silliman’s subtle-as-a-blunderbuss quietude/avant-post model of poetry (a model which refuses to die, despite a few heart palpitations of late). But, as Hinsey goes on to point out, there’s a whole other way for poetry of the self to proceed. In contradistinction to the poetry of self-as-object, Hinsey tells us of a poetry with “a more generous ‘I’”:

This ‘I,’ while naturally originating with the author, nevertheless contains within it an opening towards the reader: it encompasses not only ‘personal’ experience but orients itself outward towards multiplicity. It is this second sort of relationship which Martin Buber describes in his famous work I and Thou. For Buber any ‘I’ that does not include a corresponding ‘thou’ turns both the self and the other into objects, eliminating the possibility of real communication. The result is a lifeless one: “...the I that is not bodily confronted by a You but surrounded by a multitude of ‘contents’ has only a past and no present. In other words: insofar as a human being makes do with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no presence. He has nothing but objects; but objects consist in having been.” Thus, for Buber the encounter with another can only take place when the “I” is not oriented towards itself—implicitly knowing that the severing off of individual experience leads not to understanding but further isolation.

An ‘I’ gazing at itself, and turning to the other only to command that other to “understand me” is, then, a curiously lifeless thing. But the ‘I’ that opens to the other can be found in poetry of the self, too, provided that the poem contains “a space where the reader is invited to enter, and join the poet on his or her journey.” What would such a poetry look like, you ask? One imagines there’s a wide range of possibilities, but Hinsey’s example comes from Czeslaw Milosz. Here’s the poem she chooses as an example of what we might call a thou-oriented poetry of the self, the appropriately-named “Encounter”:

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Sadly, Hinsey doesn’t spend much time unpacking this passage, but I think what she wants to get at is the way the speaker has a somewhat complex set of self/other relations (the “orientation outward toward multiplicity” that a navel-gazing poem like Muskat’s lacks). There’s the relation of the self to the you-here-now we get in “O my love,”say, and there’s the relation of the self to the prior self. There is, too, the relation of the prior self to the other with which it traveled, and the confounding of the identity of those two entities in the line “one of us pointed to it with his hand.” The poem is more populous than the kind of work in which we are invited to look over the shoulder of an exquisitely sensitive poet as he gazes deeply into his own navel. But there’s more to it than that: the poem gives us a self defined by a large set of relationships to a group of others, rather than a self defined only by its relationship to its own emotional experiences.

I read Hinsey’s article yesterday morning, and I was still tripping on the distinction between an object-oriented poetry of the self (the real doggerel of our time) and a thou-oriented poetry of the self when I went to lunch my distinguished historian colleague Dan LeMahieu. I somehow steered our conversation around to these matters and nattered on happily for a while. Dan listened indulgently, as he always does, then asked me whether I could talk about someone like T.S. Eliot, with his objective correlatives, in these terms. Flummoxed, I meandered back across campus, and had almost made it to my office before a solution came to me. “Aha!” I cried at the threshold of my office door, startling a group of students who were taking an exam in a nearby seminar room. “Eureka!” I shouted, dancing a little jig of intellectual delight. “I need another axis!” Unperturbed by the startled — nay, concerned — glances of the exam-takers, I reached for my Moleskine notebook and quickly scrawled “direct/mediated.”

Here’s what I had in mind (*note to Henry Gould, most skeptical of my readers and respected for that skepticism: you are not going to like this). If we think of the treatment of self in poetry as a horizontal line with “object-oriented” written at the left end and “thou-oriented” written at the right end, we can get some real analytic traction by thinking of that line as intersected by another line, a vertical one marked “mediated” at the top and “direct” at the bottom. A guy like Eliot, who is in some sense profoundly autobiographical (you know, writing that epic of cultural sterility The Waste Land while having all sorts of procreative problems of his own), deals with the self, but not as directly as a confessional poet. Instead, the personal or emotive content is mediated, in his case by the presentation of an objective correlative” for personal emotions. I’d place Muskat in the lower-left corner of the grid, as a direct-presentation, object-oriented poet of self; I’d place Milosz on the lower-right corner of the grid, as a direct-presentation, thou-oriented poet of self. But Eliot would be at the top of the grid, his presentation of self being indirect. As to where he’d go on the horizontal axis, my instinct would be to put him more toward the object-oriented side of things (but I’m open to hearing otherwise. I mean, give a poet-critic a break — I’ve only been trying to think in these terms for about a day).

If I had to come up with a way of approaching the self that would cover the area in the upper-right hand corner of the grid (thou-oriented, mediated stuff) I’d think almost any poet working with the death-of-the-author theory of writing (that is, many members of the post-avant tribe) would fit the bill. What kind of self, after all, could be more open to multiplicity than the scriptor, the postmodern writer defined by Roland Barthes in “The Death of the Author” as one for whom

The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. Similar to Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, at once sublime and comic and whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary...

Oyez. The Aristotelian taxonomist who lies within me yearns for an elaborate system of many-dimensional classifications, in which each pole of value on Kellogg’s grid (or on Joshua Clover’s more elaborate grid) opens out into a dimensional space of its own.

But enough! Off to grade exams for an hour or two before putting together one of these delicious bastards.