It shouldn't surprise us that the latest round of internecine British cultural warfare has occurred on American soil. I mean, this country was founded by a bunch of disgruntled refugee British cultural dissidents with funny hats and a lot to learn about growing corn and trading beads for turkeys and real estate. So the Brits have a distinguished tradition of exporting their squabbles. They also have another distinguished tradition: one of arguing bitterly about the nature and value of avant-garde poetry over the last three decades or so (if you want to read about a particularly savage episode, check out Peter Barry's new book Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court, out last summer from the good people at Salt Publishing). And the last few weeks have seen the two traditions collide, with the carnage splattered across the pages of the Chicago Review, and on the walls of Chicago's Elastic Arts Center.
Let me explain.
It all started quietly enough, with a review of a new book by the younger British poet Simon Jarvis by John Wilkinson, a fellow Brit recently transplanted to (God help him) South Bend, Indiana. The review itself begins with the not-all-that-hyperbolic assertion that Jarvis is an odd kind of poet. "It would defeat rhetoric to overstate the peculiarity of Simon Jarivis' book The Unconditional: A Lyric," writes Wilkinson, claiming that it "must be among the most unusual books ever published." How's that, you ask? Well, Wilkinson continues: "imagine if you can... a continuous poem of 237 pages mainly in iambic pentameter, in which whole pages pass without a full stop," a poem "dedicated to a high level of discourse on prosody, critical theory, and phenomenology; all this conducted in a philosophical language drawing on Adorno's negative dialectics" and "a narrative language that is the unnatural offspring of Wyndham Lewis and P.B. Shelley." Moreover, the book is filled with a particularly unusual cast of characters, a group resembling nothing so much as "refugees from an Iain Sinclair novel finally fed up with walking" with names like "=x" "Agramant" "Qnuxmuxkyl" and "Jobless," a group who start out on a Canturbury Tales-like trip, but wind up in a dingy pub displaying unlikely degrees of alienation and erudition.
(I can't be the only one to rush to Amazon.com immediately after reading that description, can I? Amazon's note on the status of the book, then and now — "currently unavailable" — indicates that Jarvis' American fan base is either so large that the book flies off the shelves like the latest Harry Potter, or so small that Amazon can't be bothered to keep the book around. I dream of a world where the former case prevails, but suspect otherwise...).
Anyway, after outlining the oddball parameters of Jarvis' book, Wilkinson lays down some heady lines about the goals of Jarvis' project, saying that Jarvis wants to invoke Adorno's notion of a negative utopianism, that is, "a redemptive utopianism that is understood to be impossible" but is nevertheless "the necessary horizon for art, philosophy, and political struggle." What Jarvis fears, says Wilkinson, is that "the extinction of a utopian horizon for the left leads necessarily to the installation of capitalism as an historical terminus." Instead of getting his Thomas More mojo on and laying out a specific utopia, though, Jarvis (in the story Wilkinson tells about him) refuses such a temptation (which could only lead to violence and dystopia). Instead, says Wilkinson, Jarvis wants to use difficult form, full of things that can't be glossed over or assimilated to our usual patterns of understanding, to set the reader "on edge" so he or she will not "float into a complacent sphere beyond all struggle." You know, the usual Frankfurt School, Langpo-ish stuff you learned from the local school marm while working on your M.F.A. Ah, how fondly I look back on those days, taking a crayon to the image of Max Horkheimer in my coloring book, and nervously standing before the class, my hair slicked down, my Hush Puppies freshly shined, as I recited Charles Bernstein's poems at prize day in the quaint old chapel by the soccer pitch. Oh, the fun we had in those salad days! But I digress.
So. When I first read Wilkinson's review, I admired his specific and clear description of Jarvis' book, which sounds unlike anything I've read. But I sort of blew off the big ideological claims Wilkinson made, since claims of that kind I have read before, in, I think, about every third review of experimental poetry I've come by over the past 15 years.
But Peter Riley did not stand by so idly and complacently in the face of these familiar claims for the political value of experimental poetry. Gird, did he, his loins for serious battle. Tap, did he, most vehemently into his laptop. Publish, did he, an open letter, in the next issue of the Chicago Review. And, judging by Wilkinson's response, wound, did Riley, his formidable foe. Check it out.
Riley begins with a genteel moment, praising the Cambridge/Prynne tradition embodied by Jarvis and polemically upheld by Wilkinson. But this feels sort of like the moment when two boxers "shake hands" by thumping their gloves together at the start of a match, and soon the blows begin to fall heavily. Riley's main target is the identification of formal innovation with political utopianism. As the first sentence in this paragraph of Riley's makes plain, he's going after Wilkinson here, for sure, but he's also going after all those other Frankfurterized reviews of avant-poetry:
For Wilkinson as for most other commentators on the forward side of things, to speak of poetical virtue is to speak of political virtue, there is no distinction. Poems and poetical thinking are politically good or they have no good in them. I guess we are used to that these days. The one big claim left to the poem, that it (rather “somehow”) holds the answer or counter to political harm by occulted inference. It’s more alarming to notice that in this particularly fervent British version the contrary also holds: political virtue can only be poetical virtue. “Aesthetically-founded politics” (which involves more than poetry of course, but): only the (poet) is qualified to be a politician. It is not just that the poet “knows better” than the working politician, indeed I don’t think that claim is made, but that only the poet has the spirit to inhabit the sphere of total oppositional negation which is the only political register to be tolerated. Doesn’t this mean that in a sense there is actually a withdrawal from politics, from the politics that happens and can happen into one that can’t possibly? An understanding of how politics works and how amelioration can be wrought through the science of it, of what the mechanisms are and so of what could be done – all this would be beneath us? To assume that you can go straight from aesthetics to ethics is worrying enough, but aren’t the two here fused into one substance?
Yow. Didja see where Riley landed that blow? Right smack on two of the Big Assumptions of avant-poetry: that formal radicalism is special because it is political radicalism; and that the total negation of current political reality is the only responsible position, and the rest is all complicity, all the time. Such assumptions, says Riley, leave "the entire non-poet population of the world (and most of the poets), condemned as criminals." Come on, admit it: you've encountered the very thing Riley's on about: the insistence that only a certain kind of poetry can be ethical, and the rest of the poets may as well all run off in their giant SUVs on their way to Dick Cheney fundraising events, spouting clouds of carcinogens from their tailpipes and tossing non-biodegradable burger wrappers out the window as they go.
Anyway, after this comes my favorite part of the piece, Riley's powerful cri de coeur directed toward the avant-garde community in which he himself has much standing: "How do we get to be so haughty?" It kind of hits home, really. I think of some of the haughty-ass theoretico-jive that's come out of my mouth at various conferences and coffeehouse readings over the years, and I shudder.
I think Wilkinson must have shuddered a bit, too, judging by his (not yet published) response. He begins with what seems like a kind of conciliatory statement, saying that he didn't mean to imply that Prynnite, Langpo-ish avant-postery was the only good or ethical kind of writing:
I reject the idea in Peter Riley’s letter that referring to a relatively small number of poets must imply an exclusivity in taste or could be used to impute an aesthetic or political programme. It is a mistake to assume that anyone necessarily worries away publicly at what he most loves; and this is especially misleading where writers rather than scholars are concerned, since generally writers write about two kinds of writer – those whom they feel fail to receive their due, to some extent a covert special pleading for their own work; and those whose work seems whether successfully or not to tackle ideas or technical problems which trouble them. But we all have different ways of reading in different circumstances, as musicians do of listening and painters of looking; what need to argue why merely to glance at certain poems by John Donne or Thomas Hardy or James Schuyler can bring tears to my eyes, any more than I have to justify to myself a preference for Lee Konitz over John Coltrane or for sea pinks over daffodils. It is typical that working life has left me too dependent on early-established taste, but teaching now shows me much to enjoy and admire in writers I once dismissed with youth’s arbitrariness.
(Many thanks to Wilkinson for letting me quote from this — you've got to admire I guy who'll let you quote unpublished material that you find intelligent but not always entirely convincing).
I'm not too keen on the "don't expect me to be fair, I'm a writer" argument. And I'm not sure how to feel about the "hey, I didn't get the chance to read around enough to have a broad taste because I had to work at a real job" line (Wilkinson was a mental health professional for many years). Had he directed the comment at me, I'd have assessed my career path so far in life (brief and inglorious military service, used bookstore clerk while a student, and standard-issue academic since), felt some kind of prof-caste guilt, and cut Wilkinson some slack. But he's directing this at Peter Riley, who scrambled to make a living as a rare book dealer for years (and may so scramble still, for all I know). So the ethical high ground falls away from beneath the Wilkinsonian sandals. That said, the embrace of ecumenical pluralism is encouraging.
Wilkinson goes on for a few pages, and, being both bright and combative, lands a few good blows of his own. But as I was watching the critical fisticuffs fly, I couldn't help thinking that what gets lost in his exchange with Riley about exclusive taste and pseudo-political haughtiness is the poetry itself. Then, as if on cue from whatever goddess reigns on Parnassus these days, a group of stangers appeared at the edge of town. They were Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady, and Peter Manson, and if you wanted an actual exhibit of the kind of post-Prynne, Jarvis-y poetry Riley and Wilkinson were arguing about, you couldn't have asked for anything better. All three poets have work in the Spring '07 issue of the Chicago Review. But the poets themselves were making a Chicago stop on their trans-continental American tour, courtesy of Kerri Sonnenberg and her ever-amazing Discrete Reading Series at the Elastic Arts Center, so I hightailed it down to the city, disgracefully wolfed down enchilladas at El Cid with Kristy Odelius, Bill Allegrezza, and Jennifer & Chris Glomski, then made the scene. Which was really two scenes in one, since the usual Discreet crowd had been joined by tout le monde du Hyde Park, especially the Chicago Review crowd. I ran into Josh Kotin, Bobby Baird, Eirik Steinhoff, as well as Dustin Simpson and Josh Adams (who seem to be engaged in a Surrealism-versus-Oulipo debate of the sort that can only rage with such intensity in the rarified air of Hyde Park). Also Joel Craig. And I saw Chicu Reddy and Suzanne Buffam from across a much-crowded room of black turtlenecks and Amstel Light bottles. If Ray Bianchi hadn't been in Istanbul, and if Albert Goldbarth had descended upon us from his secret mountain fortress, we'd have had almost all of the main speakers from this year's Lake Forest Literary Festival on hand.
But I digress. I wanted to talk about the poetry, not the audience. For my money Keston Sutherland gave the strongest performance, and I've got to say this about his work: it was all the things Wilkinson said Jarvis' work was: formally strange, intriguingly metrical, and very much in the Prynne tradition. It even had a strong social component, addressing anxieties about capitalism (particularly incipient Chinese capitalism) and the ways it enters into our most intimate psychic spaces. Sutherland's work tries to get a handle on these anxieties not through making a statement about them (the mimetic and statement-oriented elements of language are only intermittently in operation in his work), but by casting them in oddly familiar forms (his work is strangely ode-like, and intriguingly metered — formalist, I want to say, but nothing at all like Dana Gioia). He registers all kinds of things that are going on out there politically. But there's nothing messianic about it. There's nothing in the work (at least in what I saw that night) that claims "because I do this, my politics are pure" or "because I do this, the Empire of Media-Saturated Capitalism quakes" or even "because I do this, Philip Larkin was a bad poet." And it was a hell of a show, too.
In the end, I'm inclined to agree with a comment Eirik Steinhoff made between readers at the Elastic Arts Center that night: "the problem isn't the Prynne tradition — the problem is the messianism attached to it." If Keston Sutherland represents the Prynne tradition in its current iteration, I'm inclined to think it's the most vital part of British poetry today. If we could only find some way of talking about it that didn't imply it was a way — no, the way — to save the world...
LATE-BREAKING NEWS: THE SENTIMENTALITY OF EXEMPTION
This just in from Eirik Steinhoff:
Did I really say that about Prynne the Messiah? ....Can we correct that quote to read "print" for "Prynne" and "Masala Dosai" for "Messianism"? That sounds more like something I might have said that exciting evening.
That sd, the Wilkinson/Riley colloquy does usefully illuminate the issues that crop up when promises are made that poetry is often hard pressed to keep. Keston's keenly alive to this problem, speaking of the "sentimentality of exemption" avant-gardes fall prey to.
MORE LATE-BREAKING NEWS: HENRY GOULD WEIGHS IN
I'm not sure how to feel about being called "chipper." Then again, I've been called a lot worse, generally with justification.