Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Us as Them, Now as Then: Sameness and Continuity in the Poetic Field

Gather round, boys and girls, and I'll tell you a tale of a long-ago magical time known as the Clinton Administration. Back in those charmed days of peace and prosperity, some of the good people of the land attended grad school, where they learned that we were to understand people in terms of otherness, and time in terms of discontinuity. Their professors taught them the gospel of otherness from yellowed texts written by a great, brow-furrowing, ancient wizard named Lacan; and from the yellowed texts of a great, bald-domed ancient wizard named Foucault they were taught the gospel of historical rupture and discontinuity. And happily romped the grad students in the sunny fields. All, that is, except one, a grumbling malcontent (let's call him me), who loved the wizardly teachings, but (forgive him, reader, he'd been reading Hegel) felt that the opposite ideas might also be a part of the truth. Snarl churlishly, did he, in seminar rooms; mutter uncharitably, did he, in the coffee shop; badmouth, did he, his kindly profs, who tolerated his general orneriness due to the mild kindness of their dispositions, with nary an eye-roll evident. Verily (ish). And so did pass the breezy days in the checkered shade of academe's quadrangles, until a great curse fell upon the land in the person of Dick Cheney. But of that sad tale we speaketh not.

Instead, we fast-forward to the dying days of Cheney's baleful reign, to test the grumbler's hypothesis that sameness and continuity are forces as strong as those of otherness and discontinuity. Let's start by checking in with the poets, tapping away into their laptops and eying one another across the coffee-joints and faculty lounges of the land. And it is with suspicion that they eye each other, oh doe-eyed and innocent reader (What's that? You're not doe-eyed? Not even one of you? And you lost your innocence when? Jesus, really? Ah, well, okay. Anyway). Where were we? Oh, right. The suspicion with which the poets eyeball one another. Okay. So consider these, the words of Mark Halliday, in his recent hatchet-job review of Joshua Clover's book of poems The Totality for Kids (he lays into Clover for pretension and twitchy insecurity, although to criticize a guy who writes rock criticism for the Village Voice for these qualities is like criticizing Los Angeles for the lousy traffic — of course it's true, but if you're going to get to what's valuable, you'll have to get past all that). After taking apart a few of Clover's poems in excruciating detail, Halliday says:

Will Clover or his admirers respond to my review? Probably not, though they blog constantly. Why should they respond? I'm on the other team (the lyrical and/or narrative mainstreamy team). We grant tenure to our players, they grant tenure to theirs; mostly we avoid shootouts.

There you go. The suspicion in the poets' eyes seems to come from a sense that poets play on two different teams, call them what you will (the prominent poet-blogger in the front row has raised his hand, I see, to suggest "School of Quietude" and "Post-Avant"). Otherness is rampant on what passes for Parnassus! And, as the generally reliable Al Filreis argued out in a semi-recent blog post, the lines of battle have been drawn for some time:

Robert Creeley wrote the preface to Paul Blackburn’s Against the Silences. Creeley there counted Blackburn as among those who starting in the late 1940s had hopes for poetry and felt “the same anger at what we considered its slack misuses.” Thus Creeley implicitly interprets Blackburn’s title phrase: this is a new poetry written against the quietude (to use that apt Sillimanian phrase) that Creeley and Blackburn, among others, associated with poetics that we can now describe as between modernism and postmodernism. I especially like the dating of Creeley’s realization: the late 1940s.

Okay, clarity-and-context wise it isn't quite up to Filreis' general standards, but you get the gist: the Big Division of Poetic Otherness between the School of Quietude and the Post-Avant (and that pre-Post-Avant phenom, Blackburn and Creeley's New American Poetry) is well established.

But this got the grumbly believer in the-truth-of-sameness equaling the-truth-of-otherness (let's call him me) thinking. I mean, when you compare what Paul Blackburn thought about the role of poetry in society to, say, what a representative of the square poetry community of the mid-twentieth-century thought, you actually find more continuity than difference. Sure, there's variability within the poetic field, but in the broader field of culture, the whole sub-field of poetry is actually pretty small, and pretty coherent. No matter how hot the debates may get, the two warring parties are in the end much more similar than they are different (make your own analogy to the American two-party political system here, if you like).

Check it out. Here are a few lines from Paul Blackburn's "Statement," a kind of declaration of ethos and poetics he wrote in 1954 (you can find the whole text up in an old issue of Jacket, where the line breaks and indentations are preserved better than I preserve them here, html-challenged creature that I am):

Personally, I affirm two things:
the possibility of warmth & contact
in the human relationship :
as juxtaposed against the materialistic pig of a technological world,
where relationships are only ‘useful’ i.e., exploited, either
psychologically or materially.

2nd, the possibility of s o n g
within that world

And then, later, this:

...if a man could sing the poems his poets write

— and could understand them — and if

the poets would sing something from their guts, rather than
the queasy contents of same,
then that man would stand a better
chance, of being a whole man, than
him who stands or sits and says but ‘Yes’ all day.

Enough man to stand where it is necessary to take a stand.

So okay. For Blackburn, the big problem of our time is instrumentalism, the reduction of everything to utilitarian concerns, or to a calculation of gain. Everything, including human relationships and human beings, gets reduced to its usefulness in a big, technocratic scheme. You know the nightmare he's talking about: something like the situation diagnosed in Dialectic of Enlightenment or One Dimensional Man, or embodied in, say, How to Win Friends and Influence People. And poetry's role is to help save us from that nightmare: instead of reducing us to our value as money-making machines, it cultivates the "whole man" (pardon Blackburn's sexist language, won't you? It was the fifties). And this cultivation of our whole character actually helps give us some ballast against the immoral, or amoral, imperatives of the big technocratic scheme, giving us the fiber to "take a stand" rather than bend, yes-man-style, to whatever wind blows from the direction of Power.

Not a bad role for poetry, eh? I mean, the view really honors the art, and makes big claims for it — it certainly seems more important than mere decor. It's oppositional, dammit! I mean: Woo! Yeah! Long may the counter-culture's mangy flag fly! And screw those squares in their uptight, formalist ivory towers, right? All they cared about back when Blackburn was laying down this righteous line was formal irony and the affective fallacy, right? Right. Except, you know, no.

Let's check it out by comparing Blackburn to the godfather of the New Criticism himself, I.A. Richards, when he talks about poetry's role in society. The presentation is more button-down collar than unbuttoned work shirt, but the points he makes are, in the end, strikingly similar to Blackburn's. Richards’ thinking involves a kind of theory of the balancing of opposed drives in the experience of art. Aesthetic experience tempers what Richards calls emotional belief with intellectual belief. Without such tempering, says Richards, we would behave as primitives, indulging self-interest and bending truth to fit our desires. This passage from Practical Criticism is as compact a statement of the kind as I can find:

In primitive man ... any idea which opens a ready outlet to emotion or points to a line of action in conformity with custom is quickly believed.... Given a need (whether conscious as a desire) or not, any idea which can be taken as a step on the way to its fulfillment is accepted... This acceptance, this use of the idea — by our interests, our desires, feelings, attitudes, tendencies to action and what not — is emotional belief.

Without a balancing of intellect and emotion, we’re left with little more than a crude will to power, and we end up treating the world as means to our own ends, or self-advancement. We end up becoming a part of what Blackburn called "the materialistic pig of a technological world, where relationships are only ‘useful.’"

By contrast, the aesthetic experience, for Richards, harmonizes our conflicting interests. The results are very much like what Blackburn seemed to have in mind when he described poetry as engaging the "whole man," since an engagement of a broader spectrum of our urges and impulses moves us toward a balanced subjectivity: “the equilibrium of opposed impulses” in “aesthetic responses,” writes Richards in Principles of Literary Criticism, “brings into play far more of our personality than is possible in experiences of a more defined emotion.” Our appreciation of the world becomes broader than it would have been had we made our perception and thought instrumental to self-interest, because “more facets of the mind are exposed and, what is the same thing, more aspects of things are able to affect us.” Moreover, Richards envisions this process as leading us past our own primitive urges to reduce everything to a means to our ends: "since more of our personality is engaged the independence and individuality of other things becomes greater," he says in Principles of Literary Criticism. "We seem to see ‘all round’ them, to see them as they really are; we see them apart from any one particular interest which they may have for us. Of course without some interest, we should not see them at all, but the less any one particular interest is indispensable, the more detached our attitude becomes. And to say that we are impersonal is merely a curious way of saying that our personality is more completely involved."

So there ya go. Someone like Richards and someone like Blackburn may be at different ends of the poetic field, but that field itself has a lot of coherence, and people who occupy different camps within the field end up offering a fundamentally similar view of poetry's position vis-a-vis society: for Richards as for Blackburn, poetry is a corrective to the instrumentalizing bias of modern society; a corrective that works by cultivating the whole personality and teaching us to see beyond instrumental ends.

And that's my argument for Sameness. But wait! No! Don't file out of the ponderous professor's lecture hall just yet! I know the seats are uncomfortable, but I haven't delivered my Peroration Concerning the Continuity of the Poetic Field over Time! Let me just dust off these lecture notes, and see if I can adjust the (admittedly feeble) air conditioning. Ah. Much better, and thank you, Igor, for wiping my brow with that moist towelette. Now where were we? Oh yeah. Continuity. Well, since most of you seem to have snuck out under cover of Igor's towelette intervention, I'll keep it brief. My point is this: the position held in common by Blackburn and Richards in the middle of the 20th century was already a well-established one, dating back at least to the Romantic period. I mean, check out what Schiller had to say about poetry's place in society, way back when he wrote Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man in the 1790s.

Letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man gives us a theory of a two-sided human nature. The first part of our nature consists of what Schiller calls the stofftrieb, a kind of sense-oriented self-interest, a collection of appetites and desires. The second part of our nature is the formtrieb, something like our reason, but more specific: it is our drive to impose order on our experience, to create moral and conceptual systems. Neither of these parts of our nature should be allowed to dominate the other, lest we become imbalanced creatures. An excess of stofftrieb would either reduce us to mere appetites (think of Charles Dickens’ image of the industrial workers of Hard Times as nothing but hands and stomachs), or turn us into monsters of self-interest, exerting a Nietzschean will to power over our rivals. For a creature of stofftrieb things exist “only insofar as it secures existence for him; what neither gives to him nor takes from him, is to him simply not there.” The inverse situation, in which we have an excess of formtrieb without sufficient stofftrieb, is no better. Without an appreciation for the senses and the particularities of the material world, the man of formtrieb becomes “a stranger in the material world.” Worshipping only his abstract system, he will be a figure as disconnected from quotidian existence as the scientists of Laputa in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

For Schiller, we can finally become fully integrated creatures, in whom both urges are fully developed and fully reconciled. But we are capable of such a reconciliation only through the cultivation of a third drive, the spieltreib or play instinct. Man is “only Man when he is playing,” writes Schiller (forgive him his sexist language, oh reader, it was the 1790s), because it is only play that allows for a full recognition and engagement of both the senses and the urge for rules and order. The whole person is recognized and fulfilled in play. And play is most fully available to us through art and poetry, because the “cultivation of beauty” will “unite within itself” the “two contradictory qualities” of our nature. Blackburn's "whole man" comes from a long tradition of people influenced by Schiller, and Richards' ideas are even more rooted in this: he summarized Schiller in his early Principles of Aesthetics.

So sure, okay, poetry is divided into camps. And poetry changes over time. But in all our emphasis on different teams, and micro-evolutions of styles, maybe we should take a break and check out how samenesses exist, and continuities endure. And maybe I should head outside and knock back a cold one. All formtreib and no stofftrieb makes Archambeau a dull guy. And thirsty, too.