Sunday, May 28, 2006

&NOW...Now What

Can we have a drumroll please? Thank you! Steve Gadd, everyone, the Samizdat Blog in-house drummer!

And to what do we owe Mr. Gadd's musical stylings? The official addition to the blogroll of: The Now What Blog, a place for some of the prose writers affiliated with the &NOW Festival of Innovative Art and Writing to hang out, complain, argue, and endlessly opine. Sort of like a grubby left-bank cafe of the twenties, only available right on your lap-top, in a bring-your-own-absinthe environment.

Contributors include:

  • Ted Pelton

  • Laird Hunt

  • Lance Olsen, third nicest guy in all of alt-fiction land.

  • Davis Schneiderman, my colleague at Lake Forest, last seen stapling sandpaper to the covers of the limited edition of his new book.

  • Dimitri Anastasopoulos, who sports what is arguably the best hair in alt-fiction.

  • Christina Milletti, who deals patiently with Dimitri's hair-care needs and crises.

  • The omnipresent Joe Amato

  • The omnipresent Kass Fleisher

  • Michael Mejia

  • Steve Tomasula, who knows how to hunch over a plate of caprese with William Gass in deep conclave, from which the only audible words are "Kafka...Kafka...Kafka..."

  • And many more...

  • Even though the contributors are all writers or publishers of prose, there's been some interest in poetry at Now What: recent posts include thoughts on Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, as well as a few good words about Christian Bök's Eunoia, which seems likely to create as much of a stir in American avant circles as it did on the other side of the 49th parallel, now that Soft Skull is putting out an American edition of the Canadian Coach House book.

    Check it out, and remember to bring your own absinthe and clove cigarettes. Bear in mind: on the internet, no one can see how silly you look in a beret...

    Thursday, May 25, 2006

    For Whom and To Whom: Poetics of National Identity -- Or: What We Talked About in Hyde Park

    What's that you say? You couldn't make it to the symposium on my "The Poet as American in the Age of Identity Politics" paper at the University of Chicago, and you're going to hold your breath until I tell you all about what happened? Really? Get outta here. No, really? Well, if you insist. It went something like this:

    I took the train down to Hyde Park early, to lurk in the wonderfully comprehensive and architecturally ghastly Regenstein library and scoop up a few books and articles on Swinburne (don't ask -- that's a whole different project). After a few hours of late-Victorian poetry and poetics and some serious caffination, I legged it over to Rosenwald hall, where Lee Glidewell took me up to the seminar room. The event, he explained, would be sort of like a creative writing workshop, only it would be my critical writing under discussion. And so it was -- their exagmination round my fructification, to wax Joycean about it (though I should probably be waxing Poundian, as I spent the whole ninety minutes with a larger-than-life bust of Ezra Pound looking on from just behind my right shoulder).

    I'd sent about 40 pages on the cultural situation and critical reception of Robert Pinsky's An Explanation of America to the participants about a week earlier, in which I'd argued something like this:

    1. The movement toward identity politics in the 1970s was coincident with (and to a degree causal of) the development of various kinds of identity-poetics movements, in which editors, publishers, critics, poets, and readers established new poetries and new communities for poetry based on various previously disempowered identity affiliations (notably in versions of gender, sexuality and race).

    I don't suppose this is a particularly original or surprising point, or a controversial one, but I could be wrong about the latter. One thing the blogosphere has taught me is that everything is controversial to someone, and that the someone in question can find my email address faster than his or her blood pressure can return to normal. But I digress.

    2. This development did a number on those white heterosexual male poets who weren't so complacent as to be unable to really register what was going on. For such poets, certain questions came to the fore in ways they had not done before the rise of identity politics. "To whom do I speak?" was one such question. "For whom do I speak?" was another.

    There were all kinds of fascinating developments here. In my paper I mentioned two of them, both examined by Peter Middleton in his whip-smart essay "1973," which you can find in Mechanics of the Mirage. Middleton maintains that the decline of Robert Lowell had a lot to do with his inability to navigate a discursive environment in which it was no longer easy for a white male member of the American ruling class to assume he spoke for, and to, the nation. Middleton also maintains that Language Poetry, with its examination of the means of communication and the creation of reading publics, came about in no small measure due to the shattering of assumptions about audiences by 70s identity politics. (Oren Izenberg, one of the profs at the seminar, disagreed with Middleton about both of these theses, especially the Lowell thesis. I'd like to hear more from him in this regard sometime).

    One idea I've been toying with, but didn't mention in the material I sent to the symposium, is that some of the signature stylisitic devices of the New York School poets of the seventies could be explained with reference to identity politics' disruption of the poetic field in the seventies. The New York School conflation of public and private spheres, for example, could be seen as a very productive attempt to answer the question of who one speaks to/for, by reconfiguring the public sphere as the local scene (of course the second law of social science would apply to this, that law being "it's more complicated than you think, bub"). But I digress.

    3. Robert Pinsky offers a response to the discursive situation wrought by identity politics in many poems, most notably the book-length An Explanation of America. Here, he defines American identity in a way that isn't too rigidly essentialist. In fact, he defines it as something that looks very much like the self of modernity as defined by Jonathan Freidman in his “Cultural Logics of the Global System” (Theory, Culture and Society 5, 1988: 447-60).

    For those of you who haven't yet committed the late-80s issues of Theory, Culture and Society to memory (that is, everyone except for Joshua Clover), Friedman's piece says something like this: there are four fundamental orientations toward subjectivity possible under the current system of global capitalism. I'm too lazy to type them out this afternoon, so here's a chunk of the paper I gave -- a bit longwinded, but what the hell:

    What is this idea of a ‘self of modernity’ that informs Pinsky’s work? We can come to an understanding of it best through the cultural anthropology of Jonathan Friedman. In Friedman’s model of cultural logic, there are four kinds of selves: the selves of modernity, primitivism, tradition, and postmodernity. The self of modernity is a self addicted to the idea of more, and cannot allow itself a moment of restful wholeness. It is self as bildung, self as continuous accumulation of all things: wealth, knowledge, experience, what have you. It is, in Friedman’s words, “an identity without fixed content other than the capacity to develop itself, movement and growth as a principle of selfhood.” .... It is a notion of self necessarily opposed to the primitive, which Friedman defines as the kingdom of infantile desire. Primitivism “harbors all that is uncontrolled: the confusion of eating, sexuality, aggression and pleasure…but also the impulsive and compulsively superstitious relation to reality; [and] religious fetishism…” .... Traditionalism, which the self of modernity also disowns, consists of a culture that is “defined as a system of rules and etiquette pegged to a totalistic cosmology that provides an ultimate meaning to existence” and defines humanity’s “place in the universe as well as the significance of all activities.” .... The self of modernity must also reject postmodernity which, in Friedman’s definition, consists of a kind of return of both the primitivism and the traditionalism repressed by modernity. This celebration of primitivism in this sort of postmodernism involves “the confusion of the sexes, the liberation of infantile desire and its capacity for merging with the other, the expression of immediate feeling.” ....

    While the self of modernity is also “the dominant or ‘normal’ identity of capitalist civilization,” it is vulnerable to crises. It is a version of selfhood that “depends on expanding horizons, the possibility of individual development, mobility and liberation from the fixed and concrete structures of surviving non-capitalist forms” such as “family, community, religion.” This expansiveness, in turn, depends on an expanding modern sector of the whole global system, a growing “hegemonic center.” When the center goes into decline, modern selfhood becomes difficult to maintain, and other types of self — the primitive, the traditional, and the postmodern — rise to fill the gap. “Modernist identity,” writes Friedman, “dominates in periods of hegemonic expansion and trifurcates in periods of contraction or crisis.” The European crises of the first part of the twentieth century can, in this view, be seen as the decline of the self of modernity and the rise of traditionalism and primitivism in forms particularly virulent and deadly.

    The late sixties and early seventies certainly presented a similar crisis for the self of modernity. 1968, for example, was the year of the rise of a traditionalist threat to modernity in the form of George Wallace’s populist presidential campaign, a campaign popular not only in the south, but in those areas of the rust belt where the ever-expanding economic horizons of modernity had seemed, suddenly, to contract. And examples of the self of primitivism challenging modernity in the late 1960s are legion, ranging from the Yippies hurling handfuls of dollar bills down onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (a reversal of modernity’s accumulative imperative), to Country Joe leading the crowd at Woodstock in a chant that went “Give me an F, give me a U, give me a C, give me a K, what’s that spell!” (a public unleashing of the infantile and sexual impulses sublimated by the self of modernity) (documented in Michael Wadleigh’s film Woodstock). French Prime Minister Georges Pompidou even described the student/worker uprisings in his capital as a moment in which “our civilization is being questioned — not the government, not the institutions, not even France, but the materialistic and soulless modern society.” To Pompidou this was no mere workingman’s agitation or student demonstration. It was a world-historical event, one that threatened to put an end to modernity itself...

    In this contextt, Pinsky affirmed the embattled self of modernity, and makes it central to what American identity is all about. In a way, he became the consoling poet of the threatened self of modernity.

    4. I put together a demonstration of this vision in Pinsky's poems, and rounded out the paper with some claims about Pinsky's rise to national prominence having a lot to do with offering this vision. And don't go doubting his prominence in the 1990s, folks. Not only was he a three-time poet laureate: he was the only living poet ever to appear as a character on The Simpsons.

    So that's the gist of the essay. The assembled scholars weighed in with all kinds of good points, the highlights of which (for me) include the following:

    Liesl Olson pointed out that Pinsky's emphasis on a shared national identity had its corollary in his reading style, the affect of which tends to be very regular-guy, and very oriented toward an identification with the audience, or an invitation for them to identify with him. She also pointed out that it was hard to tell if I was advocating Pinsky's view, criticizing it, or had no opinion. This last bit was particularly astute: I'd written the essay as part of a book on the last generation of Yvor Winters' students, and had tried very hard to seem disinterested for two reasons: firstly, Yvor Winters' readers tend to be very partisan, and I didn't want the book to get reduced to a footnote in the little bush war (can a bush war have footnotes?) between Winters' acolytes and his detractors; and secondly, because his students represent a range of poetries (Pinsky to John Peck), and I wanted to treat them all as social phenomena, as actions in a field of possibilities, rather than as teams for which one might root.

    Robert Von Hallberg made a host of contributions, not the least of them being his recommendation of a really good soul food restaurant nearby for post-seminar hanging-out. Of more direct pertinence to Pinsky was his demonstration that Pinsky loves surprising juxtapositions for their own sake, and that my paper, if not read carefully, seemed to imply that Pinsky advocated an ironing-out of these differences that he in fact did not advocate.

    In response to some comments about how Pinsky's view of American identity didn't address issues such as the redistribution of wealth (I didn't catch this guy's name), Von Hallberg pointed out that there's an interesting class angle on Pinsky, in that Pinsky has made what seems like a very deliberate decision to distance himself from the ideologies most prominent in English departments (variable forms of tenured radicalism) and affiliate himself with the kind of cultured liberalism prevalent among the American professional classes. Pinsky's move away from university presses, Von Hallberg pointed out, could be seen as part and parcel of this distancing. I was instantly convinced: Pinsky's long poem "Essay on Psychologists," for example, is in many ways a poem of affiliation with the liberal, urbane professional classes. The guy who'd grumbled about redistribution argued that Pinsky's views were determined by this class position, and Von Hallberg pointed out that it seemed quite likely that the grumbler's views had also been determined by class position. It was an interesting moment, and handled tactfully by Von Hallberg and deftly by Lee Gidewell, who chaired the discussion.

    Oren Izenberg introduced another line of inquiry, in which he raised the crucial question of whether, in Pinsky's view of American identity as a matter of modernity (in Friedman's sense), one could actually go around believing what one believes. That is: if Pinsky postulates that to be American is to be an open parabola of subjectivity, always taking in and accreting new cultural influences, can he accommodate people who have particular beliefs that they don't want to see absorbed into some other tradition.

    The question is important, not just for Pinsky but for navigating through a pluralistic culture: while Oren described the problem, I thought of a converation with a Muslim student here at Lake Forest College a few years ago. She was upset because the College's interfaith center, where she'd been invited to pray, had the emblems and icons of many religions on display. While she was a very broad-minded and tolerant person, she didn't want to pray in a room that represented her tradition as a part of some generalized spirituality: she wanted to pray in a space devoted to her particular tradition, in which she belived. Oren made some good points about how one accomodates such things institutionally, and raised some good questions about whether one can accommodate them in poetic enunciation.

    This raised all sorts of good questions, and led me to see that I'd failed to make a crucial distinction in Pinsky's treatment of American identity: that between an idealized American Self and particular American selves. What I mean is this: in many of Pinsky's poems, the individuals he presents don't think of themselves as part of an ongoing process of cultural synthesis. They don't experience themeslves as modern selves in Friedman's sense of the word. They may even think in the sort of essentialist terms of Friedman's traditionalist selves. But despite their inability to cognize their modernity, they embody it.

    I admit that the second half of that last paragraph was not my most glittering prose, so let's try an example by way of clarification. Consider "Memoir," a poem from Pinsky's book The Want Bone. Here Pinsky gives us an image of traditionalism first as a prison, then as a kind of false-consciousness for those who are actually living through a kind of modernity. The poem begins with an image of religious orthodoxy of the kind Pinsky grew up with as a version of traditionalism, defining one’s place in the cosmos and the significance of all activities. It’s rigidities are presented as confining rather than comforting:

    The iron cape of the Law, the gray
    Thumb of the Word:
    Careless of the mere spirit, careless
    Of the body…

    The “sealed words” of traditional religion make an unequivocal assertion in the poem: “It was like saying: I am this, and not that.” But the absolutism and exclusivity of traditionalism are, at the end of the poem, doomed to failure, where we return to a synagogue changed beyond recognition:

    The sandstone building converted now
    To a Puerto Rican Baptist church,
    Clerestory and minaret.
    A few blocks away, an immense blue
    Pagan, an ocean, muttering, swollen:
    That, and not this.

    Not only has traditionalism been displaced; it has been displaced by the syncretic culture of modernity, where traditions mix and accrete. The building now combines its original synagogue architecture with a Baptist service, a congregation of converted Catholics, and an Islamic minaret. The final line — “That, and not this” — undoes traditionalism’s emphasis on eternal sameness, and revels in modernity’s xenophilia. But the crucial thing is this: the people attending the church aren't going there for some kind of modern Catholic-Protestant-Jewish-Muslim fusion spirituality. They're going there for the Baptist version of traditionalism. So they falsely conceive of themselves as traditionalists, but what their actual experience, lived rather than cognized, is of the kind of accretive, syncretic, open-and-evolving modernity that Pinsky so loves and celebrates. The individual selves they experience cognitively are one thing, but the collective self they embody is another.

    Dustin Simpson, a comp lit guy working on a thesis on modern French poetry, observed that time plays a crucial role here, even a redemptive one. Narrow traditionalisms melt away in the ongoing, fruitful processes of modernity. That they do so at a level beyond the consciousness of those experiencing them is interesting -- that the processes can only be seen by the poet is doubly interesting, at least for me. I mean, I'd always thought of Pinsky as a kind of modern-day Augustan poet, committed to plainspokenness, essayistic verse, and an Augustan reasonableness, all learned from Yvor Winters during Pinsky's grad school years at Stanford. But suddenly here was a Romantic Pinsky, a poet-visionary with a specially disclosed prophetic sense of the nation. I suppose I should have grasped this side of Pinsky earlier, when I read an interview in which he said he “was conscious of Whitman as he wrote every page, sometimes every line, of An Explanation of America."

    The guy whose name I didn't catch (he who grumbled about Pinsky not addressing the redistribution of wealth) was a bit upset by this line of discussion. He didn't like the idea of someone proposing a telos to history, and said a few words about the "laughable" historical vision of Karl Marx. Von Hallberg countered by saying that anyone who wants to rise above the level of particular observation to speak of trends has to do something of this kind. Oren Izenberg weighed in by saying some interesting things about the limitations of any line of thought that prohibited positive affirmation or teleological assertion, causing my ears to prick up a bit. It all seemed very much like what Robert Baker had to say about the limits of language poetry in The Extravagant: Crossings of Modern Poetry and Modern Philosophy, a fascinating book of criticism that came out last year and that I'd only just got round to reading. "Have you had a look at Robert Baker's..." I began, but before I could finish, Oren gave a quick nodd, and finished for me: "The Extravagant. Right." He carried on, while I felt the warm glow of connection -- the two of us almost represented a quorum of that book's readers in the Chicago metropolitan region.

    The pertinent business from Baker's book, which Izenberg used as a kind of refutation of the guy whose name I didn't catch's rejection of Pinsky, is probably best encapsulated in this passage (bear with Baker -- the quote is torn a bit roughly out of context but comes around in the end):

    ...the feature of this history [of modern poetry and philosophy and their critiques of instrumental reason] that I believe has been insufficiently thematized is the emergence over time of an increasing emphasis on the force of a disclosive negativity.... [M]odern poetry and philosophy ... at certain moments come to trace an indirect return to those 'de-ontologizing' discourses developed in the margins of religious orthodoxies. At any rate, many adventures in modern poetry and philosophy, in blowing open wooden conceptual idols and fixed representational schemes, begin to sound like ghostly versions of some vanished negative theology... Indeed, the languages of unmaking and undoing, of dislodging and decentering, of negativity and indeterminacy seem to have become important languages in a broad range of artistic and philosophical discussions over the last century. This is a significant long-term tendency that I would like to thematize and interrogate throughout this book in part because it is my sense that this curiously expanded reverence for the negative may have backed us into a predicament in which we devote our energy to celebrating our fear of our own constructive and transformative powers.

    Baker's got a good chapter devoted to these issues, and he gives real depth to the critique of poetic indeterminacy so many people have been interested in lately.

    Anyway, the pitting of Pinsky's bardic-romantic-positive-teleological vision against the sort of negative-dialectics vision of the guy-whose-name-I-did-not-catch was particularly interesting, in that it proved to be yet another iteration of a kind of class-oriented difference of opinion, pitting the professional class view (Pinsky's) against the postmodern-professorial class view.

    One of Oren Izenberg's questions still haunts me from the seminar: "is Pinsky a serious poet?" He raised this in conjunction with the question of how Pinsky reconciles the syncretic, modern view of culture with the views of those who cling exclusively to particular traditions and beliefs. Inasmuch as Pinsky's poetry raises the issue (which, one could argue, is central to modern culture, from Locke to the whole interest-vs-disinterest debate of the 18th century, to postmodernism), one can at the very least say that Pinsky is a poet deeply concerned with serious things, and that he takes them up from a perspective outside those most readily celebrated in English departments.

    Thursday, May 18, 2006

    For a Limited Time Only...My Chicago Council on Advanced Studies Paper

    U of Chicago grad student Lee Glidewell, who's been co-ordinating the talk I'm giving Monday at the University of Chicago's Council on Advanced Studies Poetry and Poetics Workshop, tells me that my paper is available for download.
    That he has put all this together despite my dunder-headed file follies attests either to his inherent serenity of mind or to a longsuffering resignation with regard to professorial poet types, a state made tolerable only by his own dreams of revenge once he joins the professorial ranks and begins making arbitrary demands on his own phalanx of exploited research assistants ("Niblik, get in here!" I imagine him bellowing into his office intercom, "and bring me a dozen copies of Marjorie Perloff's new article -- this time on off-white paper! You know how sensitive I am to glare!").

    The posting of the paper continues the U of Chicago's tradition of distributing papers before a seminar (a very good idea, as anyone who's listened to interminable conference paper readings knows), but the catch is that the paper is only available until the seminar takes place. So act now, consumers!

    The paper comes out of the Laureates and Heretics manuscript, and is called "The Poet as American in the Age of Identity Politics: The Rise of Robert Pinsky." Essentially, what I have to say is this: in the seventies, the whole cultural field in America is shaken up by identity politics, but for all kinds of complicated reasons having to do with his intellectual formation, Robert Pinsky writes a poetry that affirms a general, inclusive American identity, and does so in a way that is particularly appealing to all those culture-brokers who eventually elevate him to his three terms as U.S. poet laureate.

    The real object of the paper is to map out some of the forces at work in the shaping of the American poetic field of the seventies (there's a short riff, stolen from Peter Middleton, on how the same forces help shape experimental poetry during the period, too, for example).

    If anyone wants to check out the seminar, it will be held in the hard-to-find Rosenwald Hall, room 405, from 5:00-6:30 on Monday the 22nd.



    Let the bells ring out among all parishes inhabited by admirers of Canadian Oulipo-inspired writing! Christian Bök's Eunoia has been excerpted in the latest issue of Harper's.

    Wednesday, May 17, 2006

    Text as, or vs, Experience, with a Peroration Concerning the Availability of British Experimental Poetry in the U.S.A.

    Steve Halle and Joanne Chapman have an interesting dialogue about poetry, intertextuality, and obscurity going over at Seven Corners. Here's a bit from Steve's contribution that struck me as interesting:

    When I started in poetry and wrote poems in the lyric/Romantic tradition, I struggled to find ways to include what I was reading and thinking, so much a part of my experience. Investigative poetics has freed/enabled/permitted me to use the source as is, so I don't have to translate something in order to use it in my own creative process.

    What I find particularly interesting here is the disabling dichotomy between text and experience implicit in the post-Romantic tradition Steve's talking about. I've used the dichotomy myself sometimes -- I remember trying to talk to my students about the difference between Catherine Daly's DaDaDa and C.K. Williams' Repair by saying something like "well, his poems are based in his ordinary experience, while hers are based in textuality." I suppose I wasn't completely off base, in that the poems in Williams' book tend to be slice-of-life stuff, often autobiographical, while Daly will do things like slice and dice Spenser's "Amoretti" in her series "Adorata," or compress the plots of dozens of novels in "Mistress Plot." But the simple fact that should have been staring me in the face as I opined in the seminar room was this: reading texts is an experience. Reading Spenser is as much a part of Daly's autobiographical experience as taking a train through France is a part of Williams'. I suppose the dichtomy rests on a whole bed of unexamined and indefensible ideas about a distinction between mediated and unmediated experiences, with reading being a mediation of experience. What's that? You want proof that non-reading experiences are no less mediated than reading experiences? Okay. Look no further than the nearest Hummer H2, being driven by an actuary on his way to a time-share seminar. Look deeply into his eyes (I know it's a long way up from your battered Hyundais, oh poets, and I know you should be looking out for oncoming traffic, but this is important so bear with me, and take the risk). There -- see that strange, faraway gleam? That's the gleam of mediated experience, folks: that dude is experiencing the I-94 as an off-roadin' festival of manliness, bustin' stumps in the wilderness of his mind. Oyez. Anyway: the interesting question might not be why Daly downplays her travels and moments-with-nature, but why Williams, a well-read guy, downplays his reading experiences.

    The false dichotomy between the experience of texts and other forms of experience is surprisingly pervasive in our culture. There's a whole racket out there in the vast wasteland of middlebrow contemporary educational theory devoted to this very distinction. One finds the dichotomy in discussions of poetry, too: usually in the writings of people who want to return poetry to a Romantic emphasis on the moment lived intensly in the presence of nature (I'd say "return" instead, but scare quotes were banned after the 1996 MLA -- too many repetitive stress injuries at the postmodernism panels). But you also sometimes see the dichotomy in the work of those who want to defend experimental or intertextual writing -- as in Eleana Kim's "Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement," which holds up "deconstructive strategies" against "experiential" poetry. The irony here is this: when you buy into the distinction you've already surrendered too much ground to what I'm calling (for today) the post-Romantic tradition. Wordsworth may have bounded like a roe through the hills above Tintern Abbey, but this was no more or less experiential than Robert Duncan bounding like a roe up the stairs of Cody's Books. Dammit.


    In other news, it seems I spoke too soon when I claimed that there was only one late 60s/early 70s era anthology of British experimental poetry, John Matthias' 23 Modern British Poets. Mark Scroggins has taken a minute off from jamming out like a crazed sasquatch on obscure stringed instruments to hail me from the confines of his thirty-story scriptorium in the swamps of Florida (where, when he's not jamming, he's busy with the deep, rich experience of sneezing over mouldering pages), and waves Michael Horovitz's 1969 anthology Children of Albion enthusiastically in the humid air. If anyone can tell me where to score a copy, let me know.

    Mark also blogs away learnedly about British experimental poetry, noting that American ignorance of the stuff has a lot to do with material conditions: very little of it is readily available in the States. He's not wrong, but if you're in America and feel the urge to check it out, you can always order directly from the publishers. Salt, which puts out a lot of great stuff by British experimentalists, makes their wares available via, and so does Wild Honey, but some others don't. There's only one Reality Studios title available on, for example (Spitewater Provocations, a pamphet-length interview with Peter Riley). But you can do a bit better on, the British Amazon, which will ship to the U.S., and is happy to accept your gringo greenbacks, reduced in value though they be by these late years of war and fiscal follies.

    Thursday, May 11, 2006

    Experimental British Poetry: An Open Letter to Stephen Burt

    Stephen Burt, who has become ubiquitous in all print venues as a poetry critic, does all sorts of good things by way of getting the word out about developments in poetry. And I owe him one for teaching a session of my nineteenth-century Brit lit survey when he was in town last fall. So I revel in his ever-increasing visibility, and was glad to see his review of new books of poetry by Robin Robertson and Nick Laird in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Steve said some sharp things about both poets, but one of his opening remarks has been a bit of a stone in my shoe for the last few days. So here, by way of shaking the stone out from my sneaker, an open letter to Stephen Burt.

    Dear Steve,

    I was glad to see your piece in the New York Times the other day, but I can't help wondering about one of your opening remarks. You began the piece by claiming:

    Americans do not read many living British poets, nor — except for international standouts like Seamus Heaney — do we see much current Irish verse. Poets who take their bearings from London or Edinburgh, Belfast or Dublin tend to depict realistic characters or places, in poems that grow from a sliver of plot or a stub of event. If these poets seem limited, that may be because we don't read enough of them. Their requirements — brevity, clarity, story — permit approaches as different as Robin Robertson's and Nick Laird's: the first stoic, generalizing and compellingly terse; the second loquacious, voluble, able to revel in details.

    Spot on about Robertson and Laird! And I'm with you all the way about Americans not paying enough attention to the Brits. But this business about British poets as down-to-earth, low-key realists, giving us slices of ordinary life in clear, straightforward language -- I just don't think it's true enough to stand as a generalization. In fact, I think the persistence of this idea about British poets as post-Movement Larkinizers may be a part of the problem you're working so hard to solve. I'm with you, Steve, in your desire to spread the word about British poetry. But I think the notion that the British are formally conservative isn't just false, but an actual impediment to generating interest in British poetry on this side of the Atlantic.

    The idea of British poetry as fundamentally conservative in form (if not always in its thematic concerns) is a pervasive one, both over here and in many British circles. Andrew Duncan, in The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry, goes so far as to describe the idea as constituting a climate of received opinion, one so dominant that goes without saying in many of journals and syllabi that concern themselves with British poetry. Duncan tells us that the history of postwar British poetry, in this version of events, looks something like this:

  • 1950s: Larkin + Hill

  • 1960s: Hughes + Heaney

  • 1970s: Harrison

  • 1980s: Motion + Grace Nichols + Craig Raine + Muldoon

  • 1990s: Maxwell + Armitage

  • One might take issue with Duncan's assumption that Geoffrey Hill is formally conservative, but there's something to his view. I think most of my colleagues, when they think of British poetry since WWII, think of a history more or less like this.

    Low visibility, though, isn't the same as absence. Just because Britain has been presented as the Land that Modernism Forgot doesn't mean that modernist and postmodernist poetry haven't flourished there, beyond the charmed circle of public attention. There's a long history of British modernist poetry (David Jones, Basil Bunting, et al) and a whole range of postmodern British experimental poetry, too, from Roy Fisher, Jeremy Prynne and Tom Raworth, to Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths and Geraldine Monk, to Caroline Bergvall, Rod Mengham and Peter Middleton, and on and on.

    There have, periodically, been attempts to dislodge the notion that British poetry is a conservative, Movement-oriented game. There was even a smaller version of America's anthology wars, in which John Matthias' 1971 book, 23 Modern British Poets was the central battleground. The anthology was edited, says Matthias in his introduction, as a wake-up call to all those whe felt that, in poetry, “‘British' means old or tired … Philip Larkin rather than Tom Raworth.” Matthias' anthology upset a few people, including Donald Davie, then one of the leading critics of British poetry, who chose to lash out at it as if it were but the most visible of a whole series of attacks on the cherished canon of Movement types:

    There are now on offer to the American reader anthologies of British poetry since 1945 [sic — there was only one such anthology, Matthias’], which claim to show that British writing over this period is as “exciting,” as little “genteel,” as what is being written in America. Of the poets I have considered, it should be plain which will be represented in such an anthology, which will be excluded from it. Let Larkin stand as an example of those who will be excluded. Yet, like it or not, Larkin is the centrally representative figure.

    It was remarks like that, I suppose (from Thomas Hardy and British Poetry), that helped to perpetuate the myth that British poets weren't experimental, (or, if they were experimental, weren't really British). That such myths die hard was shown clearly enough as late as 2001, when Keith Tuma's experimentally-inclined Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry had a very divided, very heated reception. (In the interests of full disclosue, I'll own up to having been one of Oxford UP's readers for Tuma's book. I'll also own up to being published by Salt, which publishes many of the British experimentalists I've mentioned, as well as the poetry of John Matthias).

    There's much more to say about why the myth of British poetic conservatism persists, and just as much to say about a similarly pervasive myth about Irish poetry. But the question I'd like to turn to now is that of just how much damage the myth does to the presence of British poetry on the American scene. I don't know any way to quantify it, but I'm sure the idea of the Brits as conservative has put many American readers off. We live, after all, in the age of Langpo Triumphant, and in a scene where even the most stalwartly mainstream of publications has taken to pubishing poetry inflected by various forms of experimentation. The rise of Jorie Graham, a crossover/fusion figure if ever there was one, is a case in point, and the continued prominence of John Ashbery is another. American poetic tastes have turned, to some degree, toward the postmodern and experimental (albiet often in dilute or hybrid forms), and the perpetuation of the Movement idea of British poetry, with its Larkin-to-Armitage succession, won't help turn Americans on to the breadth and depth of British work in poetry.

    The American failure to appreciate British poetry in all its variousness is particularly disconcerting because some of the most vibrant British experimental poetry has something important to offer to American poetry. Romana Huk, one of the few American critics attuned to British poetry beyond the Larkin-Armitage variety, makes an acute point about this in "Between Revolutions, or Turns," her contribution to Word Play Place. She tells us that British experimental poets have been deeply interested in matters of geography and history, or what we might (if we're feeling just a bit academic) call the geo-historical location of poetic articulation. This, Huk tells us, is what separates the Brits from their peers in postwar American experimental poetry where, with a few notable exceptions, the emphasis lies more on linguistic disruption than on the locatedness of the poetic subject. “In Britain,” writes Huk, “interest in the collisions of historically influential discourses in contemporary frames occupies more time in experimental texts than does fully disjunctive assemblage of words made into material objects.” What is more, “the project of locating language rather than releasing it from particular places and speakers also might be said to differentiate British from American work.” I've ranted too much elsewhere about the need for American poets to get beyond the two dead ends of self-absorbtion and linguistic ideterminacy for me to bore you with my usual routine here. Suffice it to say that British experimental poetry's emphasis on matters beyond these may just be the cure for much of what ails us over here. But if the Movement myth persists, there's very little chance Americans will catch on.

    So, Steve, I thank you for reviewing Brit Poets in the most prominent book reviews section in the land. I can't help but think, though, that you've missed a chance to dispell a disabling myth. Then again, given your laudible ubiquity in so many jounrals and reviews, I'm sure you'll have plenty of chances to set the record straight. I'm looking forward to it!

    And I still remember that I owe you one for that class you covered last fall. Call in the favor any time.

    Warm regards,


    Saturday, May 06, 2006

    Democracy, Sycophants, and Styles of Comedy: Madame De Stael Reads Stephen Colbert

    I know, I know, it's been a while, but ol' Archambeau's been busy, running the &NOW Festival of Innovative Art and Writing, and digging himself out from beneath the wreckage of the semester, so ease up already. But all that's behind us, and I return at last to the sunlit uplands of the blogosphere. I'm motivated, in no small part, by the fact that I'm soon going to be cashing a check from a major university that has hired me to talk about my blog, and it would all get a bit embarrassing if I chucked blogging just prior to the appearance. The gathered blog enthusiasts would render up an outcry such has not been heard since the assembled Newport folkies hurled abuse at the newly electrified Bob Dylan.

    But that's not why you stopped by. Nosiree. You wanted to know what Germaine Necker De Stael, the great French literary theorist of the late eighteenth century, would have to say about Stephen Colbert's perfomance at this year's White House Correspondent's Dinner. Have no fear, class, I'm hear to answer all your questions on the topic.

    You're all, of course, too intimately familiar with Madame De Stael's treatise of 1800, De la Littérature Considérée dans ses Rapports avec les Institutions Sociales to need any kind of recap, right? What? Really? Oh, very well. The relevant business goes like this: De Stael, having lived through the transition from the ancien regime to the French republic, took up the question of literary genres and styles from a historical vantage point, meditating on how comedy and tragedy were different under the two modes of political organization. Here's the basic breakdown:

    Under a monarchy, says De Stael, comedy tends to work through various modes of in-group affirmation and out-group exclusion. Since power is centralized, proximity to power is coveted, and conformity to the norms of the powerful is the only path to distincion, this makes a kind of cruel sense (if you attended high school, or have seen the movie Heathers you probably have some idea about this already).

    In monarchies ridicule is big, in that it re-enforces in- and out- group status (if you've seen Patrice Leconte's 1996 costume drama Ridicule, you've seen how they used to do this at Versailles back in the day). Ridicule is generally directed at those who act in ways that don't accord with their designated social station, so there's a big hierarchical element to it all. The monarchial system also encourages shibboleths, and all manner of jokes that allow the privileged insiders to revel in knowing things that the vast, unwashed hordes of peasants, fishwives, and bourgeoise undesirables don't know. In the end, Monarchial humor is all about being a sycophant in a system of concentrated power.

    Under the republic things are different, says De Stael. The most effective comedy will be that which takes aims at those who commit social ills. In such a system, the comedian is a social critic, ever on the lookout for the abuse of power. Such comedy will be very much of the moment, and may not age well -- think of Lenny Bruce killing, just killing, with material that doesn't go anywhere now. (One weird corollary of the view, I might add, is this: should all social problems be solved, there'd be nothing left to laugh at. Utopia would not be a funny place).

    So what happened when Colbert laid down some savage comic hoo-hah at the Correspondents' Dinner? I'll tell you what happened, peeps: the assembled correspondents, politicos, pundits and beltway barnacles were expecting monarchial humor, and got slapped upside the head with the comedy of a republic. Let's break it down, shall we, class?

    1. The White House Correspondents and Suchlike Insider Rabble Have Developed a Taste for Monarchial Humor

    Michael Scherer nailed this in Salon, when he wrote about how Wahington press and political types prefer, and have come to expect, "insider jokes that drop lots of names and enforce everyone's clubby self-satisfaction" such as "Did you hear the one about John Boehner at the tanning salon or Duke Cunningham playing poker at the Watergate?" It makes sense that they'd like this sort of thing, especially at their annual shindig. Even as it pretends to poke fun at them, this kind of comedy flatters their sense of insiderdom, their in-the-loop proximity to power. Give a feeling like that to a pack of journalists who spend their time chasing around the self-important stuffed shirts of Washington (you know, guys with real power), and you're doling out free doses of a powerful drug, baby.

    2. The Correspondents Expected This, But Colbert Gave Then the Comedy of a Republic

    I don't think I need to even cite examples here. But I want to, oh, how I want to. So here's one, delivered in Colbert's deadpan, fake-FoX News right-wingnutty persona:

    I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

    So okay, it was clear enough that Colbert made political wrongs, not personal foibles, the object of his humor. He did this to such an extent that some members of the affronted journalistic community have accused him of substituting partisanship for comedy. Which didn't happen, but when you're waiting to be flattered, and get skewered for your complicity with the regime, you're bound to be a bit miffed, and want to attack the comedian who flayed you on behalf of the citizenry. Of course, De Stael wouldn't be too sypathetic with the wounded journalistic egos. She'd recognize Colbert's brand of comedy as the very stuff of true patriotism.

    I suppose it is fitting for the political hangers-on of a country with an increasingly imperial presidency to expect monarchial forms of comedy. But the republic's not dead yet, folks, and yukking it up in front of the visibly steamed emperor is a good way to prove it. Vive les entarteurs!

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Oh yeah. I was informed today that, for reasons known only to themselves, the Illinois Arts Council has given me the state Literary Award. I kiddeth not. So I encourage you to celebrate wildly in the streets outside my lovely home -- it will help me slip unnoticed past the thronging papparazzi.