Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Poetry and the Nation State

So here's the first thing I learned this weekend: when you want opposition from a group, there's no response more unnerving than a kind of bored acquiesence. Let me explain.

So I found myself, through a process too strange and hush-hush and picayune to dwell on, seated with a cluster of literati in a Chicago office tower overlooking Millenniun Park, evaluating a group of contemporary American poems. Like the others in the room, I'd been asked to bring in a few American poems I admired. Since I'm still Canadian enough at heart to resent the exclusion of poems from any kind of consideration based on their country of origin, I'd decided to mess with the system a bit and bring in poems by people from other countries. "Ha-ha!" I'd said over my waffles that morning, before heading off to the meeting, "surely these poems will win the acclaim of the group! And then, when we've all agreed that they ought to be praised, I'll spring it on the unsuspecting literati, assembled in all their learned glory! These poems have to be excluded on the basis of their national origin! They're illegal immigrants in the groves of Parnassus!" Oh indeed. The syrup bottle shook in my hands, such was the anticipation. "Oh, the shame they'll all feel at the unexamined nationalist jingoism of their assumptions! Oh, what a frisson I'll have!" I may even have startled the ever-indulgent Valerie as I sprung from my chair, shouting "Epater les bien-pensants! Vive la revolution!" But then again, she's used to my mouth-frothing inexplicabilites, and was probably just happy to see me awake and functional at a respectable hour, what with me being on sabbatical.

Things went as planned at the meeting, and one of my ringers, a poem by an English guy, was singled out for praise by the assembled cogniscenti. But when I raised my trembling hand and, with all the sanctimoniousness of a semi-Canadian, intoned my bit about how we'd either have to drop the American exclusivity of our process, or eliminate this fine and deserving poem from consideration on the basis of an accident of geography, I faced no withering barrage of opposition. Nor did I face any shame-faced liberal guilt. I think the response is best described as a kind of collective "whatever." And the poem was not deported from our proceedings. The idea of a national literature fell without so much as a fourth of July bottle rocket fired in opposition.

And this, I suppose, is the second thing I learned this weekend: the nation state as a category for poetry lives on by mere inertia. Few believe in it enough to defend it, but fewer still are bothered by it enough to get rid of it.

The idea of a national literature seems to have reached its high point in the nineteenth century, but even then it was being undermined by a sense that literature was not entirely compatible with collective national representation. Here's what the sociologist César Graña had to say about this in Bohemian vs. Bourgeois, his study of the nineteenth-century's growing division between literary values and the dominant values of bourgeois society (here he's talking specifically about Flaubert's views on the matter):

There were two kinds of literature, "national" and "individual." The first required a form of mass solidarity based on a common fund of ideas which no longer existed in modern society. The second could only be sustained by intellectual diversity. Flaubert looked at national literature in the way that the romantics looked at national history, as the expression of a unique spiritual collectivity. In a national literature the problem of freedom did not really exist. There was no opposition between the work of art and cultural reality because national life was a human architecture radiating a unified inner principle which had in itself the characteristics of a work of art.

For the idea of a national literature to have any real meaning, there has to be some kind of congruence of (somewhat unified) national values and the literature that expresses them. While the idea of a national literature had a lot of appeal for some Romantics, and for elements of the ever-rising middle classes (who rejected the aristocracy's internationalism), it became problematic for a number of reasons. One of these was the increasing heterogeneity of modern nations. The other was the increasing alienation of cultural-producers from the values of the bulk of the population (Graña has a lot to say about why this occurred -- his book is well worth checking out). So the steam started to go out of the idea, even as it was picked up and institutionalized by the educational systems of many countries.

Sure, some poets actually think of themselves as speaking for a nation. Walt Whitman did — but even he's an odd duck, as a national poet. You could say his Leaves of Grass embodies the tension between a national literature and an individual literature, picking up the dissonance between those two great Romantic ideas, nationalism and individualism. In our own time, you could say Robert Pinsky thought of himself as a national poet when he wrote An Explanation of America. But he's sort of out of joint with the literary community in doing this (in fact, at a recent dinner I attended at which he was a guest of honor, he seemed much more at home with the college trustee types than he did with the literary crowd, but that's another story). The great Modernists like Pound and Eliot were conspicuously Europhile in their sense of literature, and of their place in literature — Comp Lit majors avant la lettre, in a way. A lot of poets think of themselves as part of identity-groups based in non-national bases (Adrienne Rich, say). And at the level of style, we've got to ask whether the nation is really a useful tool of analysis. Can we speak of an "American-style" poem, or a "British-style" poem, when those two nations' laureates, Donald Hall and Andrew Motion, have more in common with each other (in terms of style, and the literary traditions with which they affiliate themselves) than they have with the experimental poets on either side of the Atlantic?

So the idea of a national poetry seems, at least in an American context, a bit empty, a kind of holdover from another time. No wonder no one cared when I tried, in my small way, to sabotage the paradigm. No one seems to have much invested in it. I suppose the idea of a national literature is a bit like the body's appendix: we don't need it, and it is easy enough to remove. But no one bothers to take it out unless there's some urgent need. And we don't seem to feel that need, at least not yet.

(Artwork above copyright Matt Chisholm.)

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Kafka Sutra

No doubt you're well aware of the mysterious process by which Franz Kafka wrote certain passages of the Kama Sutra. But did you know those long-lost texts have been recovered and meticulously translated by the present humble blogger, and had their original illustrations restored to pristine conditions by Sarah Conner? No? Well, wallow in ignorance no more! Check out sections from that most evasive of texts, The Kafka Sutra, now available for viewing at The Cultural Society. Just click on "texts" and scroll down to the prose section.

Other contributors to the latest issue of Zach Barocas' Cultural Society include Michael Heller, Dan Beachy-Quick, Janet Holmes, Graham Foust, and many more.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The City Visible

The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century is so hand-searingly hot off the presses that you can't get it from Amazon.com yet, but you can order a copy directly from the publisher. [UPDATE: you can now score a copy on Amazon!]

The orginal title for the collection was (if my memory of a particularly louche night with the editors and sundry poets at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap serves) Alive with a Broken Nose: New Chicago Poetry, but the book was saved from such misconstitution by the intervention of Simone Muench, who proved yet again that she is our miglior fabbro (or should that be "fabbra"?).

So if you're interested in a taste of what's been cooking in Chicago poetry (and something's definitely started to bubble in our particular cauldron over the last few years), this is absolutely the place to dig in. Bill Allegrezza and Ray Bianchi have put together a striking list of contributors. I'm honored to be in such company:

Jennifer Scappettone
Suzanne Buffam
Srikanth Reddy
John Tipton
Eric Elshtain
David Pavelich
Peter O’Leary
William Fuller
Michael O’Leary
Mark Tardi
Erica Bernheim
Michael Antonucci
Chris Glomski
Garin Cycholl
Luis Urrea
Kristy Odelius
Lina Ramona Vitkauskas
Simone Muench
Lea Graham
Ed Roberson
Arielle Greenberg
Tony Trigilio
Shin Yu Pai
Dan Beachy-Quick
Maxine Chernoff
Kerri Sonnenberg
Jesse Seldess
Paul Hoover
Michelle Taransky
Robert Archambeau
Bill Marsh
Larry Sawyer
Cecilia Pinto
Johanny Vázquez Paz
Ela Kotkowska
Jorge Sanchez
Joel Craig
Daniel Borzutzk
Joel Felix
Raymond Bianchi
Cynthia Bond
William Allegrezza
Jennifer Karmin
Tim Yu
Laura Sims
Roberto Harrison
Brenda Cárdenas
Stacy Szymaszek
Chuck Stebelton

There will be readings around the country by select groups from this list. The New York reading (featuring Kristy Odelius, Simone Muench, Bill Allegrezza and Joel Felix) will take place on Monday, May 14th, at the Poetry Project at St. Marks. Not since the days when Michael Jordan would effortlessly float above the bewildered Knicks defense has our big-shouldered city sent such a team New York's way. Be there if you can!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Tag! (puff puff) You're (wheeze wheeze) It!

Good Lord — I'm it! I've been tagged as a "thinking blogger" by Steve Burt.

It was Ron Silliman who tagged the unsuspecting Professor Burt while Steve was sweating innocently away in an attempt to wedge his 40-volume set of the letters of Randall Jarrell (vaorium edition, with annotations both explicatory and exculpatory) into an old Tivo box in preparation for his upcoming Steinbeck-like trek from the central plains to Harvard (or am I misremembering The Grapes of Wrath?). Silliman himself was tagged in turn by Ashraf Osman, who was tagged (I think) by Wallace Stevens, who was in his turn tagged by Alfred Lord Tennyson, who was tagged by the zombified hand of an undead Homer while giving a poetry reading at Heinrich Schliemann's archeological digs. Since Homer was tagged by poets of the early Sumerian oral tradition, the ultimate origin of the tag-chain lies lost in the mists of literary prehistory, although I suspect a time-traveling Frank O'Hara may be behind it all in the end. I won't know for sure unless and until the grant money comes in for further research.


Part of me thinks this whole blog-tag phenom is just a schoolyard game. The other part thinks so too. But neither part minds. Who doesn't miss the schoolyard, where one could whip a big red dodgeball at one's peers with impunity, aiming for face or crotch with velocities approaching mach one? I mean, what wouldn't you give to make that sort of thing a regular part of all faculty meetings? (Imagine here Archambeau supine upon the floor, mercilessly pelted by his colleagues, who wield a mace-like untethered tether-ball).

So. It looks like I'm supposed to tag five others. So here's who I'd chase down across the asphalt-and-wood chip landscape of the virtual schoolyard. Only in the virtual world would I, puffing like the bookworm/hedonist I am, be able to catch even one of them and shout "Tag! You're it — a thinking blogger!"

  • Mark Scroggins. I know Mark has already been tagged by Silliman, but since Mark objects to Ron's description of him as "a scrupulous literary scholar who doesn’t take short cuts even in his blog" I thought I'd tag Mark again in terms with which he'd be happier. It isn't that Ron's wrong — Mark oozes legitimacy: he once delivered a scholarly ass-whupping of epic proportions to a manuscript of mine, ridding it of half its pages and two-thirds of its many flaws in the process. Rather, it's that Mark feels Ron's description lays waste to his "cherished self-image of jaunty, effervescent bons mots, of quicksilver connections & startling juxtapositions" and depicts him as "Professor Microscope Drudge." (One could say Mark is over-reading things, but who doesn't fret over representations of themselves? I once blew a nearly John Edwards-level sum of cash on a new haircut after looking in horror at my photo on the cover of an alumni magazine). So here, for the record, is my characterization of Mark (cribbed from P.B. Shelley's Alastor):

    By solemn vision and bright silver dream
    His infancy was nurtured. Every sight
    And sound from the vast earth and ambient air
    Sent to his heart its choicest impulses.
    The fountains of divine philosophy
    Fled not his thirsting lips, and all of great,
    Or good, or lovely, which the sacred past
    In truth or fable consecrates, he felt
    And knew. When early youth had passed, he left
    His cold fireside and alienated home
    To seek strange truths in undiscovered lands.

  • Ron Silliman. Is it banal to tag the most popular blogging poet in the world? Probably. But I've been so relentlessly ready to fly off the handle at his worst qualities (his insistence that there's such a thing as a "school of quietude," his calling of Geoffrey Hill a fascist) that I feel a need to tap him on the shoulder and tell him I admire him for his alt-poetry-erudition ("altudition"?). Nobody knows more about the books nobody knows about.

  • Reginald Shepherd. Holy crap he's smart. Some of his recent blog entries are adapted from a forthcoming book of essays — a great preview of coming attractions. He also wins the Congressional Medal of Clarity for that rarest of feats, discussing people like Adorno in graceful English sentences.

  • Mairead Byrne. While the three guys I've already mentioned write essayistic blogs, Mairead Byrne's is a kind of diary-in-poetry. She's a thinking blogger, for sure, but her dialogue with the world takes place in poetry, not prose.

  • Simon DeDeo. Simon writes about individual poems with an energy and insight that leave me as slack-jawed as any roadside yokel watching a UFO suck up his Chevette with some kind of space-hose. And DeDeo should know about space-hose-having UFOs: he's a physicist at Fermilab, where (if memory serves) they invented both the tractor beam and the shamrock shake.
  • Wednesday, May 02, 2007

    The Battle of Chicago: Peter Riley Emerges from the Rubble

    This just in from Peter Riley, regarding my earlier post "British Poetry Wars: The Battle of Chicago.". Riley, whose open letter to John Wilkinson set off what I've thought of as a bit of a dust-up about the claims made for British experimental poetry, weighs in here with a few points about the context of his remarks and, more importantly, his reservations about a phrase of my own, "the Prynne tradition."

    Just read Archambeau's excellently cheerful American response and wanted to append a couple of disclaimers.

    First is that while I recognise the light tone I don't thing "war" or even "conflict" is the right way to characterise this. It is not a row between me and John Wilkinson, still less between two cultural positions. It is a challenge within a shared framework. I am not ironic in positioning myself within the tradition which I interrogate ("how did we...") . If I speak strongly it is because my worries about my own share in the condition entitle me to, and also put me in a position to shoot out arrows at targets far beyond immediate company.

    And I'd essentially like to add for the record that when I sent the letter to Chicago Review I didn't know that the next issue was to be a British poetry issue featuring particularly those four poets. So it's not a response to that content, and John Wilkinson's review of Andrea Brady in it is both prior to and posterior to my remarks, for it indeed confirms that what I say is being said, is being said, but it is also a pre-answer to what I say.

    Secondly I can't take this idea of a"Prynne tradition", which I think is an American reading. What I said was "The poetry that developed through Cambridge in the 1960s and 1970s" to which I attach great importance. This isn't a "Prynne tradition" for a number of reasons--

  • 1) Jeremy Prynne was only one of about ten poets strongly involved in that formation. The poetry I'm speaking of emerged from a meeting, confrontation and to some extent conflict, between Prynne and the other poets, who I think affected his writing at that time as much as he did theirs. This contact produced a particular and recognisable way of writing which has emerged sporadically from those poets and others for some ten or twenty years afterwards, including some who were only marginally involved. Anthony Barnett, for instance, is relevant, the only contemporary British poet Prynne has ever devoted a lecture to, but who seems to have vanished from sight in the "Prynne tradition".

  • 2) There are at least two JH Prynne poetries, polarised as early and late, and I for one find them so separated from each other that I don't see how one can be in the tradition of the other, let alone anybody else's.

  • 3) I think Prynne's poetry has always been unique and inimitable. All attempts to write like him have failed. That's because there is a long developed and cultivated aesthetic underneath the affects of his poetry which he has pursued to an extreme condition and if you don't participate in that, and you can't, you don't have a chance of writing in that way. R. F. Langley, alone, knows and participates in this programme, which he turns to his own purposes. I don't think Keston Sutherland's poetry resembles Prynne's, or barely, still less any of the other poets in that issue.

  • I've got to own up to this much, at least: I did invoke Prynne in a broad way, using him as a figurehead for British experimental poetry with a Frankfurt-school inflection from midcentury on — from where Riley sits, this is painting with very coarse strokes indeed. And I can see why I finer brush is needed: as one of the many people who got in touch with me after the initial post pointed out, what's at stake here (in what I still take pleasure in calling the "Battle of Chicago") is Prynne's place in the history of British experimental poetry. Will we end up treating Prynne as the godfather of experimental Britpo, the key figure of the current generation's "useable past"? Or will he recede in importance until he seems like one of ten or so equally important figures? Will we or won't we see some future Hugh Kenner writing The Prynne Era? We don't know the future, but we know where Peter Riley has taken his stand.

    Tuesday, May 01, 2007

    Two Very Different Kinds of Press

    "Hey Archambeau — you made me bite my cereal spoon!" Those were the words with which I was greeted as I walked into my English Lit seminar yesterday. One of my students, it seems, had been sitting down to a perfectly innocent breakfast and, glancing at the local newspaper, had been confronted with my face staring out of the pages. Yeah, I know what you're thinking ("What kind of horrible scandal has Archambeau entangled in himself this time?") but for I change I haven't been caught outing Valerie Plame, conducting illegal wiretapping, firing government lawyers for political purposes, or authorizing torture at secret prison sites in crumbling eastern European republics. Nope. I'd been tapped to say a few words on poetry and the teaching of poetry for a string of Chicagoland suburban papers. What's that? You need to read my comments right now? Aw, gosh, really? Well, okay, if you must. But the online version lacks the spoon-damaging picture of me, aptly described by my student as "sort of creepy."

    Those of you jonesing for a bigger dose of me shamelessly opining about poetry (both of you?) might want to check out the
    latest installment in Adam Fieled's "Waxing Hot: Poetics Dialogue" series over at P.F.S. Post (Adam is pictured here in his best Ezra Pound beard). He and I tossed the poetics football back and forth for a while, jawing about such topics as the real-or-imagined rise of the book-length poetic sequence, transparency vs. opacity, what's up in Chicago poetry, and the secret resemblance of the Norton Anthology of English Literature to a portside bordello. Ahoy!