Sunday, January 29, 2006

Pastiche as Criticism

Even after all these years, the beginning of a new semester always smacks me upside the head a little more than I expect it will, and I've been away from blogging for a while, unless you count the rerun of a bit of social satire that I ran last week after the original post was quoted in a Chicago newspaper. I've been busy, though, what with teaching, getting the revised manuscript of Laureates and Heretics out the door, and writing an essay for Avant-Post, a book Louis Armand is editing for the very happenin' Litteraria Pragensia in Prague. I keep changing the name of the essay, but most versions include the phrase "Pastiche as Criticism," and today's re-entry into the inner blogosphere is fuelled by some of that project's fallout.

I've noticed several examples, lately, of critics straying into areas of composition where once only poets and fiction-writers dared to go. Specifically, I've noticed criticism being written in the form of pastiche, with the deliberate imitation, by the critic, of a pre-existing source text. This is interesting for all kinds of reasons, not least of which being the way it upsets one of our more established critical/theoretical applecarts: the idea that language is somehow entropic, that it becomes less meaningful the farther it moves from originality, and the closer it hews to the repetition (in style and in content) of earlier ways of talking. Here's Goethe taking this line, back at the end of the 18th century:

All dilettantes are plagiarizers. They sap the life out of and destroy all that is original and beautiful in language and in thought by repeating it, imitating it, and filling up their own void with it. Thus, more and more, language becomes filled up with pillaged phrases and forms that no longer say anything...

Okay. So Goethe tells us that we need linguistic innovation to regenerate cliched ways of writing, talking and thinking. We need heroic individual innovators to keep things fresh. If it all sounds a little avant-gardist, or at least modernist, it should (I actually came across the passage while reading a kickass essay by Jochen Schulte-Sasse, in which he claims that avant-garde ideas of lingusitic entropy and alienation are present much earlier than we tend to expect to find them, and are in fact coincident with the rise of capitalism). This is a way of thinking common to modernist writers (think Ezra Pound's "make it new"), and it persists today (think of Richard Rorty's riffs on Harold Bloom and the redescriptive power of the poet in the "Contingency of Selfhood" chapter of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity).

But what if repeating, imitating, using pillaged phrases and the like becomes not the means of saying nothing but cliches, but rather the means of creating new insights? This was also a modernist idea, but it was a modernist idea in what we think of as the creative genres (poetry, the novel), not in what we think of as the critical genres (the lit-crit essay, say, or art history). (I know, I know, the dichotomy is false, but it persists in our usual modes of thinking -- bear with me).

This use of pastiche as a form of criticism seems to be the method of a few innovative critical types lately, including Benjamin Friedlander and my man David Kellogg. They deliberately take old bits of language and go about "repeating it, imitating it, and filling up their own void with it." The result isn't the banality Goethe feared, though, but the shaking-up of our received modes of critical thinking. Check it out!

Here's Kellogg, who begins "The Self in the Poetic Field" with a pastiche made up of (in his words) "a line by line rewriting, with a few sentences removed, of J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick, 'A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid' published in the journal Nature in 1953.". The original essay, as every bio major knows, begins like this:

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.).

This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.A structure for nucleic acid has already been proposed by Pauling and Corey (1). They kindly made their manuscript available to us in advance of publication. Their model consists of three intertwined chains, with the phosphates near the fibre axis, and the bases on the outside. In our opinion, this structure is unsatisfactory for two reasons: (1) We believe that the material which gives the X-ray diagrams is the salt, not the free acid. Without the acidic hydrogen atoms it is not clear what forces would hold the structure together, especially as the negatively charged phosphates near the axis will repel each other. (2) Some of the van der Waals distances appear to be too small.

And here's Kellogg:

I wish to suggest a structure for contemporary American poetry (C.A.P.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable critical interest.

A structure for poetry has already been proposed by Eliot. He has kindly made his manuscript available to the world for the last eighty years. His model consists of an enveloping tradition, with the dead near the center, and the individual talent on the outside. In my opinion, this structure is unsatisfactory for two reasons: (1) I believe that the material that provides the poetic structure is the living community of readers, not the dead. Without the stack of coffins, it is not clear in Eliot's model what forces would hold the structure together, especially as the variously interpreted bodies near the center will repel each other. (2) The self of the poem is extinguished along with the poet.

Okay, that last sentence is a pretty big departure. But you get the idea. The original is inhabited the way a hermit crab inhabits another sea-critter's shell. Benjamin Friedlander takes this method to a whole new level in his new book Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism. Here's his description of the method of that book:

I describe these works as experiments because all four are based on source texts and thus inaugurate a species of criticism in which the findings only emerge after struggle with predetermined forms. Sometimes this struggle took shape as an exercize in translation, not unlike the re-creation of a sonnet's rhyme-scheme and meter. Often, translation was impossible, and the struggle resolved itself instead in an act of controlled imagination -- not unlike the sonnet's original creation. In each case, the production of my text had less in common with the ordinary practice of writing an essay than it did with the composition of metrical verse....[the book's] somewhat scandalous methodology [involves] the creation of criticism through the strict recreation of an earlier critic's text (or, more precisely, through as strict a re-creation as the discrepancy between my source text and chosen topic would allow). Thus, my "Short History of Language Poetry" follows the arguments (and even wording) of Jean Wahl's A Short History of Existentialism, while "The Literati of San Francisco" takes Edgar Allan Poe's Literati of New York City as its template.... Although I was predisposed in each of these pieces to certain arguments and conclusions, I willingly abandoned these when they became incompatible with the critical approach demanded by my source.

What's interesting to me about Kellogg and Friedlander are the ways they turn the dominant assumptions about language around. We do tend to think like Goethe: repetition of the past seems bad, derivative, weak, and destined to perpetuate cliches. But Kellogg and Friedlander avoid all this. In fact, their use of source-texts as a critical tool takes them away from their own instinctive thoughts about literature, and forces them into new insights, different from their own critical predispositions. This seems a lot like Oulipo to me -- the use of a deliberate, systematic form of writing, carried through with some rigor and against our 'natural' (that is, habitual) modes of composition and thinking, as a means of generating new insights.

What makes this particularly effective, I think, is the turning to source-texts at a bit of a remove from the dominant critical prose norms of our time. Kellogg leaves the humanities behind and seeks out a scientific source-text, while Friedlander turns to remote, belletristic stuff (Poe) or to a philosophy currently deeply out of fashion in the academy (Existentialism). This is different enough to break our usual norms of thinking, but familiar enough to generate insights that are still comprehensible, if not uncontroversial. It reminds me of a comment Vincent Sherry made about John Matthias' poetry and its use of arcane historical source-texts in Word Play Place: "on the one hand, the pedagogue offers from his word-hoard and reference trove the splendid alterity of unfamiliar speech; on the other, this is our familial tongue, our own language in its deeper memory and reference." We get an estrangement of thinking, but it is an estrangement based not on an absolute alienness, but on a revival and reexamination of disused discursive strategies.

The critics are doing it like the poets have been doing it for decades. This is positive, and I hope we can see more of it: nothing is more enervating than the prose-style of our immediate inheritance: the half-assed theoryspeak of the professoriate, 1979-1999. May it rest in peace. Long live pastiche as criticism!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Rich Twits of Chicago's North Shore: An Anthropology (Reposted)

Since I've been getting a lot of hits from subscribers to Crain's Chicago Business, which mentions this old entry, I'm reposting it. Enjoy! (Disclaimer: since this is probably something that looks like ivory tower snobbery about people who actually have or make money, note that I also make fun of academics like myself).

Although I always thought I'd stick to the humanities in this blog (poetry, philosophy, and a bit of art), I find myself morally compelled to sully my soft humanist hands with the rough silt of the social sciences -- let me explain.

The following report was passed to me by Raskolnikov T. Firefly, Ph.D., a former colleague of mine at another university. He seemed nervous, demanding to meet in the middle of the night at the Denny's on route 41. I arrived on time, but he was late, shambling in like a twitchy fiend as I was finishing my Eggs-over-my-Hammy special. He kept looking over his shoulder and trying, fruitlessly, to light cigarettes, which he then discarded. He said I had to help him, that my blog was his only hope now that the agents of his enemies had turned the respectable journals against him. Taking his yellowed, coffee-stained manuscript from his trembling hands, I promised to do what I could. This was all some time ago, and I haven't heard from him for weeks, although my caller ID indicates that the inhabitant of a certain single room in a certain Motel 6 near the Wisconsin border calls and hangs up every couple of hours. Frankly, I'm a little concerned for Rasko, as we used to call him in the grubby little leftwing bookshops in that university town in the mountains by the seashore in another country oh so long ago.

His report follows:

A Socio-Anthropological Typology of the North Shore
by Raskolnikov T. Firefly, PhD

My decade long researches among the inhabitants of Chicago’s North Shore have, at last, yielded results. I and my crack research team (thanks, Kid V, Pravda and Jimmies B and C -- couldn’t have done it without you), have spent the better part of the last ten years lurking in such dangerous and unpalatable locales as artisanal bread shops, high-end cycling centers, national-chain arthouse movie theaters and, in a true show of courage, Starbucks outlets not yet unionized by the I.W.W. Forthwith, our conclusions.

1. Method of Study

Lurking, malingering, and harumphing in lines outside American nouvelle cuisine bistros, sneering from our Hondas and Chevy Cavaliers as we pass the Aston Martin and Land Rover dealerships, looking suspiciously around the room during late night visits to Ben & Jerry’s, drifting aimlessly through Anthropologie or Jos. A Banks, trooping out to Lake Geneva Wisconsin to observe North Shore fauna in its semi-migrational mating-and-antiquing phase, attending community theater and Suburban Fine Arts Center fundraisers, checking the license plate numbers outside Unitarian churches, noting the girlish giggles of septuagenarian matrons in the Marshall Fields’ handbag section and the boorish grunts of Dick Cheney look-alikes from the 16th hole rough. Drinking cosmopolitans and anything ending in -ini, so long as it is from the color palette present in a roll of Jolly Ranchers. Also, a lot of internet surfing and repeated viewings of Ordinary People and Risky Business, for which we have drawn elaborate location charts and alternative storyboards depicting general uprisings of the people and the creation of a service-worker’s Utopia led by Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay. Oyez, oyez. Power to the people.

2. A Typology of North Shore Habitants

A. The North Shore Goof (NSG)

You know this guy. He looks like Chevy Chase, especially the Chevy Chase of Caddyshack. Good-natured, but more of less useless on account of never having had to work a day in his life. Habitats include golf courses, convertibles, east Lake Forest, and restaurants featuring club sandwiches. Harmless, except when seen objectively.

B. Predatory Corporate Status Monkeys (PCSMs)

Think thirtysomething or fortysomething. Think wire-rimmed glasses in sylishly contemporary frames. On the weekends you see him biking like Lance Armstrong and looking at you with a faint disdain for not making as much money and biking as frantically as he, or out with his wife (either a PCSM herself -- 25-30% are women -- or a Subscriber) on a powerwalk, pushing the kid in an ergonomic high performance mountaineering pram, making quality time with the nipper he’s not seen all week and won’t see again until he makes sure the guys in Acquisitions get the WEENUS report in on time. Habitats include west Lake Forest, east Highland Park, and Glencoe, also the Green Bay Trail and Miramar. American Express gave him his Blackberry as a Preferred Customer Premium.

C. The Man

He does not work. You work for him. The PCSMs work for him. In the end, one way or another, we all work for him. He neither toils nor spins: he owns. His markings include great height and a shock of white hair. Habitats include houses that cannot be seen from the road. With stunningly little variation, he looks like George Plimpton.

D. Vic Wilcox

Named after a character from David Lodge’s splendid little novel Nice Work, the Vic Wilcoxes of the world have some cash and won’t be shy about telling you that they’ve earned their pile. They’ve earned it by building up companies that plate things in nickel, or supply Styrofoam coffee cups to office parks in the western suburbs, they’ve earned it by getting the contract to sell tanning beds to Carnival Cruise Lines, they’ve earned it by keeping those union guys out, they’ve earned it and they don’t mind telling you and they almost almost don’t mind that they’ll never be The Man because they’ve earned it and they haven’t had time to get comfortable at Lyric Opera fundraisers and their picture won’t ever be in Chicago Social (sorry, “CS”), they’ve earned it and wonder if they can trade in their first wives for new ones who might have contempt for them but could tell them which charities they could give to so they could go to the parties where they won’t be comfortable -- and wouldn’t they rather watch football and eat a meatball sub anyway. Usual cause of death is angina and a quite despair that knows not how to speak its name.

E. Subscribers

These are, as you guessed, the subscribers to that esteemed and storied magazine, North Shore Bitch. Picture that title, if you will, in the elegantly curving cursives of that journal’s cover. You see them jogging with their iPods, keeping it all in shape. You see them buying tureens at Williams and Sonoma, buying sundresses at Saks, buying stylin' maternity clothes at Bellydance, buying DVDs of Martha Stewart. Basically, you see them buying, often in small gaggles of the likeminded, oblivious to those outside their braying bubble of buy-buy-buy. In their fantasies they are Princess Diana as she marries Charles, or better yet as she has that affair with the dark and brooding Saudi billionaire. “How fun!” they gush, between bites of the roasted tomato and grilled chicken salad at Southgate. Only one fear haunts the manicured lawns and magazine-ad-like, blowing-curtained, wicker-furnished sunrooms of their dreams: becoming DFWs.

F. Discarded First Wives (DFWs)

Little is known about these middle-aged women of the North Shore, seen only buying gin in the Jewel or behind the wheels of slightly aged Volvos. Little is known because one dare not meet their gaze, so bitter it is, so soaked in the tannic fluids of experience and thwarted entitlement. Fear them.

G. Evil Withered Sticks (EWSs)

If you’ve seen Nancy Reagan, you know the type. Her weight never gets into three digits, her skin has, through repeated exposure on tennis courts and seasons in Coral Gables, attained the consistency of fine Corinthian leather. She may once have been a subscriber, fearing DFWhood, but she is now a formidable feature of the landscape, braying with laughter behind her cocktail glass at a lawn party on a sunny afternoon. Try the Onwentsia club if you seek a high concentration of the species.

H. The Good People of Evanston (GPEs)

This is a subspecies of the PCSM, with the following distinction: they’re smug about their virtue. Having once written a $500 check to the Sierra Club, having once attended a book signing by Deepak Chopra or perhaps Dave Eggers, they are secure, indeed ontologically grounded in their sense of superiority to their fellow PCSMs from farther up the shore. Also, since they live near Chicago, they secretly suspect that they’re street, homes, street. Surprisingly, not all GPEs actually live in Evanston. Some live elsewhere but are members of the North Shore Unitarian Congregation.

I. Standard Academic Clowns

Not often found outside of Evanston and a small enclave established in the unlikely and infertile soil of Lake Forest, these hapless sorts are distinguished by rumpled chinos, dented upper-mid-range cars, Steve Earle CDs, good internet access and a wonderful conformity of ideas, consisting of centrist beliefs masquerading as radicalism. Often seen birding, or overheard telling their friends about how little television they watch.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Names and the Pity of War: Here, Bullet

I think it was because I've been thinking about war poetry lately that Simone Muench suggested I check out Brian Turner's Here, Bullet, a book that's been getting a lot of high-profile press (New Yorker, New York Times,). I gave it a read during the interstices of the first teaching day of the new semester at Lake Forest, devouring bits between my two seminars, and finishing it on the train home. Although it isn't my usual thing, I can see why she suggested it. It is (pardon the pun) hit-and-miss, but it is a good example of how in war poetry so much of the poetry is, as Wilfred Owen said nearly a century ago, in the pity. And much of the pity, interestingly, comes it the use of proper names.

The poems are generally anecdotal, loosely put together, and usually depend on a kind of scene-setting over which an emotional sheen has been cast. Turner's also not above a few cliched forms of phrase, like ending a poem with the adjective-concrete noun-of-abstract noun formula. What's strong about Here, Bullet, though, is the emotion, which covers a range well outside the usual poem of backyard epiphany. The white-knuckle world of the American soldier in Iraq comes through loud and clear, as does the strangely unreal quality of the soldier's experience over there. As does the all-too-real nature of the violence. As does the existential absurdity of it all, as seemingly inexplicable acts of violence tear through the day, and friend/foe/bystander categories become muddied.

I'm intrigued by the way names come into all this. In contrast to poets like Randall Jarrell and Kevin Prufer, who deal with the dehumanizing nature of war by making their soldiers anonymous, Turner is hell-bent on keeping the people around him real, and making their tragedy specific, through using their proper names (that he does this for both Americans and Iraqis is especially laudible).

This is most effective when a name is incanted over and over, as in "AB Negative (The Surgeon's Poem)." In just over a page, we hear the name of the wounded protagonist five times, twice with both given- and surname: "Thalia Fields lies under a gray ceiling of clouds"; "Thalia / drifts in and out of consciousness"; "a nurse dabs her lips with a moist towel / her palm on Thalia's forehead"; "Thalia / sees shadows of people working / to save her"; "a way of dealing with the fact / that Thalia Fields is gone, long gone." The repeating of the name is redundant, grammatically, but syntactical efficiency isn't the point here, any more than it is in any chant or lament. Repetition is the faith Turner keeps with the dead.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Naming Names: Corey and Palatella on Ted Berrigan

Lots of interesting responses to the Berrigan/proper names business, including some interesting thoughts by Josh Corey. He tells us that, when it comes to proper names in New York School poetry,

Well, I'm generally for it, as the same principle allows me to refer to a man I've never met as "Bob" in this blogpost. There was a time, though, when I felt that sense of outrage he describes when public sphere expectations are violated by the introduction of private codes: I remember reading an issue of The Germ years ago and reading an interview between Keith Waldrop and Peter Gizzi (long before I knew who either of those gentlemen were) and being irritated by the first-name basis they seemed to enjoy with legions of poets I'd never heard of. I felt deliberately excluded—yet if I were to read the same interview now I'd nod my head with recognition and feel a sense of warmth and inclusion more pervasive, if less intense, than my initial sense of repulsion. And for whatever reason that earlier feeling failed to deter me from my interest in the strange and marvelous world of poetry I discovered in The Germ... But come to think of it, maybe my irritation derived more from the fact that the medium was an interview, which I imagined was meant to be precisely the disclosure of a private sphere unto the public one: isn't that what we read interviews for?

I kind of like the breaking of public sphere/private sphere norms in Berrigan's poetry, where I think it serves a number of interesting roles (not the least of which is drawing our attention to those often-unexamined norms). But I'm not sure how I'd feel about the Waldrop-Gizzi interview. Anyone want to send me a copy?

John Palatella, who didn't get to say everything he's hoped to in his review of Ted Berrigan's Collected Poems for The Nation, has a number of good points to make.

I think readers have been inclined to misunderstand Berrigan’s use of personal names in part because of the way other poets have reduced what Berrigan and O’Hara did into simple name-dropping, a manner of advertising one’s eccentricity and status. Berrigan says in an interview with Anne Waldman and Jim Cohn that one of the many poets he read when he arrived in New York was Ezra Pound, and that he learned from Pound what to put in a poem—everything that’s going on in your life. What you learn from the letters you get, the books you read. What this means is that instead of Browning we get Dick Gallup, instead of Confucius, Ron Padgett, instead of Jefferson, Joe Brainard. I don’t think Berrigan was joking when he said this. I think he meant it, mostly because he was a poet who, not unlike EP, read in order to write.

I also think the names are a way for Berrigan to imagine a listener, to create the conditions necessary for sympathy, or the transmission of a feeling that touches some second figure. In that same Waldman interview Berrigan says “I didn’t want people to come into my poems, but if I could make things come out…” One of the things that comes out is sympathy. (It comes out explicitly, and a little viciously, in "Red Shift"-- "I'm only pronouns, & I am all of them, & I didn't ask for this / You did / I came into your life to change it & it did so & now nothing / will ever change / That, and that's that.") What's more, because the names are a way to invoke a listener, the personal identity attached to the name often doesn’t matter. The name could be mine or yours. Some of Berrigan’s readers have been keen to figure out the identity of the Chris mentioned in The Sonnets. Alice Notley’s notes in the Collected to The Sonnets enable one to do that, but again, I think that the significance of the appearance of the name Chris in the poems, like the appearance of the name Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey,” doesn't hinge on knowing Chris's personal identity and biography. It's very interesting to me that when Berrigan does speak fondly about certain friends, as in "Red Shift," he chooses not to identify them by name.

Although Wordsworth never actually names Dorothy in "Tintern Abbey," I see what Palatella means. In fact, this makes Berrigan's use of names into a way to construct the relational self Ellen Hinsey talks about, and helps to take Berrigan out of the depths of self-obsession that so much of American poetry fell into during the sixties and seventies. Were I not fried from the last-chance-before-teaching-starts-again attempt to go over the manuscript of Laureates and Heretics one last time, I'd opine about it at great length. You may well consider yourselves spared...

Veni Vidi Ambiguity

Steve Burt (who should, as of yesterday, be a new father), writes in with regard to my Robert Hass post made about Robert Lowell calling for a "return to Rome":

Aren't you being a bit unfair to Lowell? He "advocated a return to Rome" in the sense that in the 1940s he was a Roman Catholic, but I think you mean his Juvenal adaptations and other pseudo-neo-Latin work from the Sixties, especially Near the Ocean -- & the point of that work was not that we should become more like ancient Rome, but that we (the US) were too much like Rome and didn't know it, that if we all knew more Roman history and literature we wouldn't be repeating Rome's dreadful mistakes,

in small war after small
war, to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in his monotonous sublime.

(He was right, too!)

You know, I think I let the fact that three of my degrees are from Notre Dame blind me to the fact that "returning to Rome" can mean different things to different people. I was thinking about Lowell's turn to Catholocism in the 40s -- a longing for a more hierarchical/theologically clear religion, in contradistinction to the world of Hass, with its "flexidoxy" in religion.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Private Faces in Public Places: The Lower East Side as Public Sphere

Rejoice, oh subscribers to The Nation magazine! Amid the usual depressing/outrage-inducing catalog of the
, arrogance , venality, and miscellaneous atrocity of Bush's regime, we find full-scale reviews of the collected poems of both Ted Berrigan (by John Palatella) and Kenneth Koch (by Melanie Rehak).

Two things struck me from reading the reviews. First there was a very clear statement of something I'd intuited about Berrigan's sonnets, but never really articulated, even to myself.

Berrigan's sonnets ring serious changes on the traditional sonnet structure of an octave followed by a sestet. Influenced by Tristan Tzara's cut-ups, John Cage's chance compositions and the jarring polyphony of John Ashbery's second book, The Tennis Court Oath, Berrigan assembled his fourteen-liners according to various methods. Lines quarried from Berrigan's unpublished poems are worked into a sonnet according to strict formulas. Lines, phrases and shards of lines from sonnets early in the series reappear later in different permutations. Berrigan's own words are collaged with language snatched from the work of other poets.... If [William Carlos] Williams considered the sonnet a Procrustean box, Berrigan turned it into a Rubik's Cube.

This is Ted Berrigan as a Barthesian scriptor (a role for the poet I've always found compelling, as I mumbled about in my last post). I suppose this is one reason why reading his sonnets en masse is so much more rewarding than reading one of them in isolation. Much of the pleasure comes in watching the same lines change in new contexts.

But the most interesting thing in the Berrigan and Koch reviews is the attention they draw to one the most distinctive stylistic markers of the New York School: the tendency to write publicly as if one were speaking privately, dropping names and making in-group allusions. I kind of like this (maybe because the need to footnote some of it pleaseth my elbow-patched academic soul), but people I know who don't like New York School poetry often single this out as something to grumble about, and even people who like the New York School sometimes dislike it. Palatella quotes Ed Dorn, who felt that Berrigan's greatest shortcoming "was that his subject matter was limited to his friends, or circle."

This sense of New York School parochialism comes up again in Rehak's review of Koch, where she says that Koch, James Schuyler, John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara constituted a "merry band," or a "little cosmos" of their own. You get this in the stories of their lives, but the thing that throws some people for a loop (and delights others) is the way this sense of a little cosmos finds its way into the poems. I mean, it isn't hard to parody this part of NY School poetry, because we've all seen it so often:

The rain was falling on Larry's windows like fog but heavy,
Jane, but I was upstairs where you were painting
and rain doesn't come through the telephone,
except as noise, like you'd get at Ted's but that's downtown
and we're here where it's warm and Willem is on the way

So what's the deal on this, anyway? Here's a hypothesis. I think what bothers Dorn about Berrigan's version of the in-group name-droppery of the New York school is the way it short-circuits our expectations about how published writing communicates.

Ever since the development of subscription-based journals in the eighteenth century (you know, Habermas' classic public sphere), most of us have tended to think of published work as a venue where we, the readers, all encounter the writer on roughly equal terms. None of us are meant to be privileged as readers by virtue, say, our social position -- we read the published word and our ability to assess it is, we assume, meant to be based only on the power of our intellect. Theoretically, we all have access to the word equally. That's why it isn't usually a scandal when, say, a your uncle Ed says he disagrees with you, a PhD-wielding English Prof, about the interpretation of his favorite novel; and why it would be a scandal if you were to try to win the argument by saying "I must be right -- I'm a professor!" In the classical model of the public sphere, you are meant to demonstrate the superiority of your understanding through reason, not an invocation of authority or social positon. (Yeah, I know: the should be qualified in a hundred ways, and when articulated at book-length by Habermas it is. But I'm not out to defend Habermas, just to say that most readers and writers in our society operate on the basis of principles more-or-less like those described by Habermas).

In this context, many readers are going to be scandalized, or at any rate a bit irked, by a published book (an entity belonging to the public sphere) that seems to communicate more like a private letter or even (to use a NY School favorite metaphoe) a phone call. When the poem becomes difficult to read because of what seem like in-group shibboleths, such a reader feels a bit cheated. Even when the poem isn't made cryptic by in-group stuff, it seems at odds with public sphere norms just by virtue of seeming to appeal first to a small group of friends, and only secondly to a big, anonymous audience. This kind of poem is an anomaly in a publishing world whose norms are defined by the public sphere.

My guess is that this is one of the things Berrigan wanted, though of course he never sunk to the language of communications theory. But so much of his life was a deliberate rejection of bourgeois norms, I imagine his rejection of bourgeois published-communications norms was a part of his bohemian ethos. I mean, he rejected bourgeois materialism, bourgeois careerism, the bourgeois division of time into productive day and recreative night, even bourgeois bodily health, in his poete maudite role. He was every inch the bohemian -- modernity's anti-modernity invention -- and he'd enter the public sphere of publication only in order to short out its norms. Those post-card poems from near the end of his life are a real slap to the logic of our dominant publication system.

So, now that the internet has changed everything, do we still have those classical public sphere assumptions? Does it still seem wrong to drop names, as if only a close circle had a privileged status among your readers? What do you think, Josh? Henry? Eric? Kevin? Catherine? Mark? Joshua? Jeffrey? Steve? Simone? Natalia? Brian? The rain is falling on your windows like fog but heavy. But I'm upstairs where I've been writing and rain doesn't come through the internet.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Poet as Scriptor

My "Imitations and Collage: From the Poems of Blas de Otero" is up on, a very cool site devoted to the art, music, and literature being made in Chicago.

The piece is a set of loose translations (like Lowell's Imitations, or at least that was the plan), combined with a short coda in the form of a pseudo-cento, which combines elements of the translations into a new poem. When I wrote the piece I was tripping on Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author," (still a favorite of mine), and was very interested in the idea of the poet as a scriptor, someone who doesn't so much invent as recombine existing elements. My largest project of that kind was "Citation Suite," which Randolph Healy published in a very slick Wild Honey Press edition, and which you can read online.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

This Nest of Gentlefolk: Robert Hass and the Bourgeois-Bohemians

I've been away from blogging for a while, and have let a few things slide, including some good email responses to earlier posts (John Peck on war poetry, Steven Burt and Brian Campbell on Ron Silliman, and more, which I'll get to, really I will). More recently, Mark Scroggins makes two good points about the whole mapping of contemporary poetry discussion: first, that while Silliman's quietude/avant dichotomy may be too simple, the real value of his blog comes from all of the historical/social background he gives on a range of poets; and second, that drawing up a series of Cartesian co-ordinates for poetry is easy, and actually writing a history of various poets' trajectories through the field is tremendously difficult.

Don't I know it! I've been putting the final touches on a drastic overhaul of the manuscript for Laureates and Heretics lately, a book in which I try to chart the paths taken by the last generation of Yvor Winters' students (Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, John Peck and John Matthias) through a changing field of poetic institutions and expectations. I'm a bit frazzled as a result, as the above image from my snazzy new web-cam attests (yes, that's a Nixon poster in the background, oh fellow leftists -- don't ask).

Here's a shortened and de-footnoted part of a section of the Laureates and Heretics manuscript that I stand behind, but can't use in the final draft. It takes on the matter of Robert Hass' popularity in terms of the social class of poetry's primary readership, and it goes something like this:

On Richard’s last night
in Berkeley, we drank late and drove home
through the city gardens in the hills. Light
glimmered on the bay. Night-blooming jasmine
gave a heavy fragrance to the air. Richard
studied the moonlit azaleas in silence.
I knew he had a flat in East London.
I wondered if he was envying my life.
“How did you ever get stuck in this nest
of gentlefolk?” he said.
(“Santa Barbara Road”)

California has been imporant in shaping Hass’ work to fit the expectations and tastes of a large audience. California is, after all, the root source of the bourgeois-bohemian culture of America’s new dominant class. As David Brooks describes it, the “new cultural wave” of the bourgeois-bohemian elite “has taken the ethos of California in the 1960s and selectively updated it.” Hass’ work is deeply rooted in the culture that Richard Burns, the English poet in Hass’ poem “Santa Barbara Road” calls a “nest/of gentlefolk,” and the work finds a receptive audience among the new national elite whose norms and expectations of taste are conditioned by such culture.

Robert Pinsky also finds a receptive audience among the bourgeois-bohemians. But Pinsky’s and Hass’ affinities with bourgeois-bohemian culture differ in an important way. Pinsky’s poetry, with its praise of the “conquering, crazed immigrants” of America, affirms the desiring and ambitious self of modernity much more overtly than does Hass’ work. The ambitious modern self, ever acquiring new things, new knowledges, and new cultures, is central to such important Pinsky poems as An Explanation of America and appeals directly to what Brooks has called the bourgeois-bohemians’ worship of the “Résumé God.” The new class consists largely of what German sociologists used to call bildungsbuergertum, not besitzbuergertum — it consists, that is, of ever developing, acquiring and desiring selves, not the relatively fixed identities an elite that derives its identity from property. Such a class glories in the very conquering and desiring celebrated by Pinsky. Hass, though, has never been as sanguine about the “crazed and conquering” side of American life as has Pinsky. He even writes in his doctoral dissertation against what he calls “the long disease of acquisitive individualism.”

What Hass and Pinsky share with each other and with the receptive bourgeois-bohemian audience are what Brooks calls the “sumptuary laws” of the new elite. Pinsky could write in warmly in “Essay on Psychiatrists” about people who are

Into elegant machines and luxuries, with caroling
And kisses, with soft rich cloth and polished

Substances, with cash, tennis and fine electronics,
Liberty of lush and reverend places

Similarly, Hass’ work is full of references to the world of casual, unstuffy luxe and hedonism that constitutes bourgeois-bohemian taste. “Sourdough French bread and pinot chardonnay” reads one section of “Maps.” It is both an image of San Francisco Bay culture in the 70s and an invocation of what would become the bourgeois-bohemian substitute for hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. Later in the same poem Hass will write “How odd/the fruity warmth of zinfandel/geometries of 'rational viticulture' ” — an almost perfect bourgeois-bohemian trifecta, invoking not only connoisseurship, but also a respect for scientific technique (“‘rational viticulture’”) and by a slight distance or even distaste for industrial production techniques, a distance supplied by Hass’ quotation marks. Hass, like Brooks’ bourgeois-bohemians, doesn’t much care for old gilded-age notions of grandeur: “The souls of the wives of robber barons/are imprisoned in the chandeliers” he writes in “The Failure of Buffalo to Levitate.” Nor does he seem to care much for the kind of moneyed people who lack the self-conscious cultivation of the bourgeois-bohemian, pillorying them in “Lines on Last Spring” where he writes of his friend John Peck’s one-time neighbors, who

fermented in their bed
all day and watched TV.
Texas oil and California land
married their tanned, torpid bodies
and produced one hand steady enough
to switch the channels by remote control.

Instead, Hass finds beauty and virtue in the combination of such traditionally bohemian interests as art and the life of the mind and the “durable, unimaginative pleasures” (“Weed”) of bourgeois life: family and work. In this combination he is as far from smugly philistine bourgeois Babbitry as he is from the traditional bohemianism voiced by, say, an Alfred de Musset, who damned family, society, and work. Consider the beginning of Hass’ prose poem “Museum,” from Human Wishes:

On the morning of the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit, a young man and woman come into the museum restaurant. She is carrying a baby; he carries the air-freight edition of the Sunday New York Times. She sits in a high-backed wicker chair, cradling the infant in her arms. He fills a tray with fresh fruit, rolls, and coffee in white cups and brings it to the table. His hair is tousled, her eyes are puffy. They look like they were thrown down into sleep and then yanked out of it like divers coming up for air. He holds the baby. She drinks coffee, scans the front page, butters a roll and eats it in their little corner of the sun. After a while, she holds the baby. He reads the Book Review and eats some fruit. Then he holds the baby while she finds the section of the paper she wants and eats fruit and smokes. They’ve hardly exchanged a look. Meanwhile, I’ve fallen in love with this equitable arrangement…

The scene rings up all the cherries on the bourgeois-bohemian slot machine: modern artiness (Käthe Kollwitz, no less!); lack of concern with formality (that tousled hair, that baby in the museum); the institution of family; and the equally formidable institution that is the great gray lady of journalistic respectability. Hass’ happy couple even follows one of the lesser tenets of bourgeois-bohemian consumption: “Only vulgarians spend lavish amounts of money on luxuries. Cultivated people restrict their lavish spending to necessities." Everyone reads a newspaper now and then; the airfreight edition of the New York Times, though, is a clear marker of the new elite class.

One might make similar observations about any number of Hass’ poems. “Quartet,” also from Human Wishes, is worth singling out for its “interestingly employed” characters, with their bourgeois-bohemian interest in a third-world-inflected cuisine, their independence-from-but-acknowledgement-of fashion, and the flexible form of their spiritual beliefs:

The two couples having dinner on Saturday night — it is late fall — are in their late thirties and stylish, but not slavishly so. The main course is French, loin of pork probably, with a North African accent, and very good….They are interestingly employed: a professor of French, let’s say, the assistant curator of film at a museum, a research director for a labor union, a psychologist (a journalist, a sculptor, an astronomer, etc.) One of them believes that after death there is nothing… Another believes dimly and from time to time not in heaven exactly, but in a place where the dead can meet and talk quietly, where losses are made good. Another believes in the transmigration of souls, not the cosmic reform school of Indian religion, but an unplanned passage rather like life in its randomness and affinity. The fourth believes in ghosts, or has felt that consciousness might take longer to perish than the body…

The jobs are a splendid catalog of bourgeois-bohemianism. We find that old compromise between respectable professionalism and intellectual freedom, the college professor. We find a curator, not of something as fusty as Grecian urns, but of the recently consecrated art of film (she has things both ways, with a respectable professional title and a bit of hipster street cred). We have a labor activist of a special, knowledge-industry variety who in lieu of muddy boots probably wears very expensive sneakers. And we have a psychologist, perhaps a refugee from one of Robert Pinsky's poems. Beyond this, though, we have a thoroughly bourgeois-bohemian spirituality, the sort of belief system that Brooks calls “flexidoxy.” They’ve all, it seems, thought long and hard on spiritual issues but like Brooks’ bourgeois-bohemians they shy away from the rituals and ceremonies of institutional religion (even the reincarnationist is careful not to accept Hindu orthodoxy on its own traditional terms). Hass’ poetry isn’t like that of the Robert Lowell who, at a certain point in his career, advocated a return to Rome. It is, though, a poetry to which members of the new dominant class can turn as if looking to a mirror.