Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Quite Obviously a Man of the Academy"

Joshua Clover's 1989 has finally been given some well-deserved ink in the New York Times, where it gets about a 300-word treatment from Marc Tracy in an omnibus review of books on music. Tracy is insightful and sympathetic, but he doesn't have enough space to do more than give the book a nod, note that it explains the popular music of 1989 in terms of material and economic conditions, and mention a few examples in passing. He does manage to wedge in a brief mention of Clover's prose style, though, saying Clover is "quite obviously a man of the academy — those allergic to jargon should stay away."

Clover is, of course, a man of the academy — in fact, like the present humble blogger he is a second-generation academic, a faculty brat who never got away (he nailed the nature of the experience, too, when he said in an interview with Ray Bianchi that he'd spent much of his life "with access to the the splendors of the cultural elite, but not the money that so often comes with it"). But for all of Clover's bred-in-the-bone academicism, something about Tracy's observation bothered me just a little. It wasn't that Tracy was wrong to put his caveat in the review: there are, after all, plenty of music fans who'd be put off by Clover's style, and Tracy's right to let them know what they're in for if they dial up a copy from What got to me, I suppose, was that Tracy treated academe as a single, undifferentiated bolus, and that's not quite right (though understandable, given the limits of the format). Prose style in the academy varies across disciplines, but even in the cultural studies and English department world there are significant variations. I think it would be more fair to say that Clover's prose style marks him not simply as a man of the academy, but a man of his particular academic generation.

Clover was born in Berkeley in 1962, got his B.A. from Boston in 1987, and his Iowa M.F.A. four years later. He doesn't have a doctorate, but I'm awarding him one right now, from The Autonomous University of Archambeau—Chicago, since it's pretty clear that his hanging around in coffee joints talking and reading has given him more than the equivalent of the standard humanities doctorate. But it's not the degrees that matter so much as the dates: Clover had his foundational academic experiences at exactly the moment when a half-dozen or so theoretical trends in academe (deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, social constructionism) were either radically on the rise or actually peaking.

We do have something approaching actual, legitimate data on this. Consider the following charts, from the Gene Expression blog. They show the use of certain keywords over time in articles indexed by the academic research search engine JSTOR. The Gene Expression site gives you a note on the methodology, which is admittedly a bit rough-and-ready, but valid enough to be revealing. The site also has a definite slant on the rise and fall of certain theoretical trends — the entry in question is called "Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads." It's not the slant I'd take, but I don't think the glee the writer feels has an effect on the data, which shows a pretty clear trend about the rise and fall of some kinds of cultural theory.

Here, for starters, is a graph showing the use of the keywords "Marxist" and "Marxism" in journals indexed by JSTOR from the 1880s to the early 21st century:

No surprises, really: the collapse of the Berlin Wall and other events of 1989 — events that fascinate Clover — seem to have led to a precipitous drop in interest in Marxism, which peaked as an academic interest at exactly the moment Clover was in graduate school.

Here's another graph, this one indicating the use of the term "hegemony" in academic articles:

The term, associated with Gramscian Marxism, peaks at about the same time as the term "Marxism" peaks, corroborating the hypothesis that Marxian thinking in the academy peaked (in terms of quantity, if nothing else) during Clover's grad-school years.

Turning to a different brand of theory often associated with jargony prose, here's a graph indicating the rise and fall of the use of the term "postmodernism" in academic articles:

There's no big event like the fall of the Berlin Wall to explain the decline of the term, and the peak here comes later than the peak for interest in Marxism and hegemony — "postmodernism" peaks around 1999, when Clover held the post of Holloway poet-in-residence at the University of California—Berkeley. But there's a clear drop in the new millennium.

Perhaps it's not surprising to find the term "social construction" — a mainstay of both Marxian and postmodernist thinking — plateauing somewhere between the peak of Marxism and the peak of postmodernism, as it clearly does:

Other theoretical trends also peaked in popularity the early and mid-nineties, as these graphs on the use of the terms "feminism," "psychoanalysis/psychoanalytic" and "deconstruction" indicate:

There's more of this sort of thing over at the Gene Expression site, but I think the trend clear enough: Clover came of age as an academic at a point in time when there was a perfect storm of theory in academe: several kinds of theory were flourishing at once, and (with the partial exception of feminism) these were the kinds of theory we most closely associate with a difficult or jargon-laden kind of prose.

Why these forms of theory are associated with jargon is an interesting question, which would take me way, way beyond the scope of a blog entry I'm trying to finish before my Sunday morning coffee buzz comes to an end. The usual explanations — a post-New Critical anxiety about professional status, an urge to justify cultural and literary studies as legitimate academic disciplines, the need in a tight job market to seem cutting edge, and the sheer excitement of new ideas pouring into the American academy — all have some validity, but many of those conditions still pertain, so I don't know that they give a sufficient explanation for what happened to academic prose in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the case of Marxism, the lack of an American mass movement didn't do much to encourage a plain language — Marxism in America almost never makes an appearance on the street. It's more of a seminar-room thing. And the converse might be said of feminism: I don't think it is a coincidence that feminism both connected theory with a mass movement and always had a plain style (Kate Millet/Sandra Gilbert) to go along with its more technical style (Julia Kristeva/Helene Cixous).

Since some embers of the old Theory Wars still burn, I feel I should pause here and say that I, unlike the compilers of the data, am interested in and sympathetic to much of the theory in question, though I try in my fumbling way to write in a manner that can carry the insights of this kind of theory into a less jargon-ridden prose. This may be connected to the fact that I'm from a slightly later academic generation than Clover, and came of age as the trends mentioned above began to decline. But there's probably more to it than that. I should probably also be clear about the fact that I find much to admire in Clover's work, though I'm sure neither of us wants to write in the other's preferred prose style.

Anyway. Tracy is right to say Clover is "quite obviously a man of the academy," but it would be more accurate to say that he is "quite obviously a man formed by the academy circa 1991." As to why the language of the academy began to shift, and where it is likely to go in the dawning Age of the Adjunct — well, those are bigger questions. And, like Marxism, postmodernism, and social construction, my caffeine buzz is starting to fade.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Laureates and Heretics

Laureates and Heretics, my new book of literary criticism, is officially out and order-able on

Here's the publisher's page for it, and here's the Amazon page. And here are a few kind words from the back jacket, by the inimitable and redoubtable Mark Scroggins:

The varying critical and public fates of Winters and the poets who worked under him make a fascinating study, even gesturing towards a global history of postwar American poetry.

It makes a great gift, doubles as a coaster on which to rest your martini, and (if you teach at a college or university) belongs in your library. If you want to write a review, get in touch with me at my Lake Forest College email address.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Immanence, Sublimity, Infants: More Notes on Fatherhood

It’s been just over a year since I became a father, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been waylaid by people who want to admire the lovely little Lila Archambeau. Generally, I’m happy when this happens, even when it’s at the grocery store and I’m in a hurry: paternal pride is a powerful force. But there’s one expression, intended as praise, that I’ve always rankled at a bit. This is the statement — usually delivered as a kind of conclusion of after some questions about Lila’s age, name, and the like — that “she’s a miracle.” Maybe it’s the all of the religious freight the word carries that irks my cold, dark, atheist’s heart. I always want to pull out some medical records and point out that the kid is the product of some serious science, not an act of divine intervention. But the more I think about it, the more I find my reaction every bit as unthinking, and probably shallower, than the statement that the baby-admirer was actually making. Because I have been professorized beyond any help or hope of repair, and because I can do nothing without a text, I’m afraid I can only explain what I mean with reference to some passages of Gilles Deleuze and Immanuel Kant.

I haven’t read Deleuze’s “Immanence: A Life,” for a long time, but Johannes Göransson recently reminded me of it when he posted some choice quotes to his blog. My favorite is one where Deleuze gives an example of the difference between the idea of a life and someone’s particular life:

A life…No one has described what a life is better than Charles Dickens, if we take the indefinite article as an index of the transcendental. A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degrees that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death. The life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens…

This is interesting stuff! I mean, Deleuze really gets at the way a life is different from life in general and someone’s particular life. Life in general — what’s that? Something general, like “wildlife,” or all creatures? Or maybe some abstract notion of the life-force itself, like you get when you read D.H. Lawrence. That’s hard to connect to emotionally, because of how general or abstract it is. And particular people’s lives — well, you can love or hate a particular person for his or her personal qualities (or, more likely, you can feel ambivalent or indifferent). But there is a very real phenomenon that Deleuze is getting at here — the widespread reverence of the single life that is not particularized by personal qualities or a particular subjectivity — not "all life," not "Dave's life" but "a life." Think about it: those characters gathered around Dickens’ dying rogue don’t really care for the man. His personal qualities, the things that make him into a particular human, are odious. The people don’t admire him as an individual, still less do the love him for who he is. But when he starts to fade out, he loses those personal qualities, and what they see is not the guy who was cruel to them — they see one little life, at the verge of disappearing (“Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death”). Individual qualities like greediness, pettiness, and a general propensity to be a selfish asshat suddenly lack relevance, and all that’s left is the essential fact that there is a life in front of us. This life is “an impersonal and yet singular” because, in this state of near-death, no personal qualities come into play — but at the same time, this is not all life, or an abstract life force. It’s a singular life.

The way we feel about infants is, I think, very much the same as these characters from Dickens felt about the dying rogue. Deleuze felt this way, too. Here’s what he says:

It even seems that a singular life might do without any individuality, without any other concomitant that individualizes it. For example, very small children all resemble one another and have hardly any individuality, but they have singularities: a smile, a gesture, a funny face — not subjective qualities…

It’s true: infants have qualities that make them singular (no one else looks quite the same, no one else has quite the same smile or wave or way of sitting), but to have these qualities is not the same as having a full-blown individual subjectivity. Very small infants haven’t had the experiences to form themselves into individuals in the sense we normally mean by that word. They’re singular, but they’re not quite personalities. Before, say 18 or 24 months, they haven’t yet learned about autonomy and shame. When they start saying “no” and throwing tantrums, you know a sense of self is starting to develop, and the kid’s on his or her way to being someone in particular. But before that, we’re dealing with a singular life that isn’t yet a fully individuated subjectivity (I’m bracing myself for people telling me I’m wrong, and that little 9 month old Egbert is fully individuated, but what I’m saying here is pretty standard-issue developmental psychology, so I refer your outrage to the nearest department of psychology).

With infants we’re dealing with the presence of a life, not someone in particular. This in itself goes a long way to explaining why strangers come up and admire babies. I mean, we don’t come up to adults (who are, after all, infants who’ve been around a while) and praise or adore them: it wouldn’t be appropriate, because we don’t know that person’s individual qualities. We don’t know if he or she is a decent person or a complete shit. But with infants, personal qualities aren’t the issue: the fact of a little, particular life is what’s important, and we tend to react well to these little, particular lives. We even call them “miracles.”

But what, you ask, is up with that? Why this awe at the fact of the infant as a life? I think Kant can take us to something like an explanation with his discussion, in Critique of Judgment, of the sublime. Sublimity has been a topic of discussion for literary theorists at least since Longinus, but guys like Longinus and Edmund Burke (the other heavy-hitter in the field of sublimity) had concentrated for the most part on the properties of sublime pieces of writing, or sublime art objects, or sublime scenes in nature (largeness, awe-inspiringness, grandeur, and all that). Kant took the discussion away from the properties of objects in the world and toward a discussion of what happens in our minds when we experience the sublime. Long story short, he felt that there were two main components to the experience of sublimity:

1. We apprehend something awe-inspiringly vast in space, in time, or at a more abstract level —a glacial seems ice-sheet seems sublime when we see it, or the idea of the rise and fall of civilizations seems sublime when we contemplate it (perhaps in the presence of some suitably grand ruins), the vastness of space seems sublime when we’re aware of it, and even the concept of mathematical infinity, when it hits us square in the forehead, feels sublime.

2. We apprehend our own smallness and weakness in relation to this vast thing, and stand in awe not only of the big thing, but of our own ability (insignificant as we are) to exist in the presence of something this big and powerful, and to not be destroyed by it.

So: if you stand on the edge of the volcano, and see its huge force, you experience the sublime not merely by standing in awe of the power of the volcano, but by thinking “little me, I’m here, I’m seeing this thing compared to which I’m nothing, but I’m still here! I am not destroyed!." There’s a kind of awe in this, and a quickening of the senses, an appreciation of both our power and our fragility.

I think it’s this notion of our power and our fragility that comes into play when we see a life (as opposed to a particular life) — as we do when we see an infant.

Consider this: when we encounter another adult human going about his or her business, we get bogged down in the particulars of self-interest and social interaction (“is this guy trying to fuck with me?” “how can I get this chump to sign on the dotted line and buy my old Camaro?” “whoa — if I play my cards right here, I might get laid!” or whatever). But when we encounter an infant, we’re like those Dickens characters gathered around the dying rogue. We see one small life set against the vast darkness of the universe. We see this little thing that, somehow, in all of the gigantic void of space and all of the eons of lifeless time in the universe, opens a little window of being-and-becoming, of existing, of living. We don’t have to worry about all of the usual chickenshit of human interaction: we’re dealing with fundamentals here, with the small flame of life flickering against a darkness of non-life that extends out to the limits of space and backwards and forwards to the limits of time. And we get a sense both of that vast lifelessness and of the unvanquished, fragile, infinitely small reality of a life. It’s sublime

If that’s what people mean when they call the presence of my daughter a miracle (and I think at some deeply felt — if not deeply thought — level, they do mean this), I’m down with it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Poetry/Not Poetry: Hopkins and Poe

What’s that you say? What? You’ll have to speak up: I’m trying to set the Samizdat temporal distortion teletype to the 1860s, and I keep on grinding the gears in the transmission. It’s making a hell of a noise. So: what? Oh! You’ve been reading my post from last July, about how the line dividing poetry from prose shifted in the early nineteenth century, and hasn’t really shifted back. You poor, sad person. I mean, this is how you spend your time? But I remember that post. I think the important bit was this:

I think we can say that something changed in the way we answered the question "how is poetry different from prose" right around the beginning of the nineteenth century, and that, with some small modification, the new answer poets came up with at that time is still with us. This is Romanticism, people, nor are we out of it.

and maybe this:

“Poetry is always different from prose,” writes Roland Barthes, in Writing Degree Zero but in the classical period “this difference is not one of essence, it is one of quantity. It does not, therefore, jeopardize the unity of language, which is an article of classical dogma.” In other words, the classical or Augustan writer doesn’t grant poetry one of the rights that we moderns and postmoderns grant it: the right to follow rules significantly different from those governing discursive prose. It is more or less the same stuff, but with the added use of particular literary devices such as rhyme and meter. Think about it: Alexander Pope's poem Essay on Man is more or less what it sounds like — a discursive, explanatory essay — it just happens to add versification. Even the title indicates a fundamental continuity between prose and poetry.

And then I sort of went on about how Coleridge saw poetry as involving a formal unity that was something an end in itself — that the poem was no longer paraphrasable, like prose. I think I quoted Colerdige’s essay on Shakespeare, where he said that in a true poem, the meaning cannot be paraphrased: “it would be scarcely more difficult to push a stone out from the pyramids with the bare hand than to alter a word, or the position of a word, in Milton or Shakespeare… without making the author say something else, or something worse."

The point I was trying to make was that the idea of poetry became a kind of autonomy: the poem couldn’t be put at the service of conveying a meaning, because it couldn’t be paraphrased. Also, the the poem couldn’t be bound by compositional rules (as prose is), since it makes its own rules and defines its own formal harmony. I went on with this for a while, and then argued that a lot of our own poetics are a minor deviation from the Romantic position — we argue that the poem is autonomous, free of formal rules and free of particular meaning, but we tend to say this has to do with its discontinuity and disunity, rather than with its unity.

So. Is that all you wanted to talk about? No? You say you want further elaboration? Ah! Well, I’ve just been able to set the Samizdat temporal dislocation teletype to 1864. Unless it pops out of gear, we should be able to get some kind of Victorian feedback. Let’s see. Ah! We’ve got Gerard Manley Hopkins on the line. Let me check the tickertape for what he has to say…

Okay. So it looks like he sees poetry as falling into several different categories. “First and highest,” he says, there’s “poetry proper, the language of inspiration.” Set against this is something called Parnassian poetry. This is lesser stuff, and not inspired. “In a poet’s particular kind of Parnassian lies most of his style, of his manner, of his mannerism, if you like.” Each poet will have a different idiom, but it is the simple fact that it is his or her idiom, the recognizable stock-in-trade kind of line in the oeuvre, that makes it Parnassian. It’s different from “poetry proper” because it seems to follow the author’s own rules of ordinary composition (think of Wordsworth’s meditative line, or Ashbery’s phrases-bumping-together, or Milton’s sublimity and inverted syntax, or what have you). “I believe that when a poet palls on us it is because of his Parnassian. We seem to have found out his secret,” or, in other words, his implicit system, his rules of composition — no matter how weird or arcane, we discover that “his poetry really does run in an intelligibly laid down path.”

This Parnassian mode is still better (because idiosyncratic) than what Hopkins calls the merely Delphic, which is simply plainspoken language put into verse. But true poetry, for Hopkins, eludes rules, even idiosyncratic ones. It stands free, autonomous, above explanation, as inspiration. What’s really interesting is (to borrow from and modify Barthes’ terms) the hyperdiscontinuity of language we find in Hopkins’ poetics. For him, it’s not just that real poetry is different from prose: it’s that real poetry is different from most of what we call poetry. I suppose we could see in this an intensification of the Romantic sense of poetry as distinct from prose by virtue of its various kinds of autonomy.

(We probably like to think we’re beyond such mystifications as the idea of inspired language, but an enormous amount of the writing about poetry now falls into a variant of this kind of thinking — it argues that poetry is beyond instrumentalism, disruptive of the rules of discourse, etc. So we’re walking down the same road walked by Coleridge, and later Hopkins. But I digress.)

Oh hell. The Samizdat teletype seems to have popped out of gear. Let me see if I can get it back…argh…ugh. Nope. Now it’s stuck in the 1840s. We’ll probably end up getting a transmission from Frederick William Faber or Caroline Clive or some other B-lister. Oh! Wait! We’ve got Edgar Allan Poe. Let me type in a question for him: “Hi Ed stop what makes a poem a poem stop just wondering stop Bob stop.” Wait for it… ah! The reply. He says he’s happy to discuss “the essentiality of what we call Poetry,” but we’ve got to be careful of what we mean:

…here, in the beginning, permit me to say a few words in regard to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully, has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, "a long poem," is simply a flat contradiction in terms.

I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags- fails- a revulsion ensues- and then the poem is, in effect and in fact, no longer such.

Okay. No one ever said Poe would be entirely coherent. I mean, he starts out talking about how a poem can’t be long, but then shifts on the fly to talking about how a reader can’t be attentive for long, which is a slightly different thing. Still and all, we get the general drift, and it’s a drift not too different from that of Hopkins: poetry is not like most other language. In fact, since the bulk of most long poems isn’t really poetry, real poetry isn’t like much of what passes under the name of poetry. There’s a real discontinuity between poetry and prose, and between poetry and much of what we call poetry.

But there’s more! It’s not just the case that poetry is defined by that post-Augustan discontinuity of language Barthes described: it’s also the case that poetry is autonomous. It’s free, for Poe, of any need to communicate any particular content, and exists as an end in itself. He begins by attacking anyone who sees a didactic use for poetry, then makes his point about autonomy:

It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral, and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea, and we Bostonians very especially have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.

So there it is: the old Romantic line about autonomy and the discontinuity of language passes straight through the middle decades of the nineteenth century before arriving at the New Critical phase of the “heresy of paraphrase,” and then morphing into the “disjunction is poetic” world of elliptical poetry.

But I seem to have spilled my milkshake into the Samizdat temporal distortion teletype, and lost the connection to Poe. In fact, I seem to have gummed up the works pretty badly. I doubt we’ll be using the gizmo again.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Archambeau World Tour, Spring 2010

During the months I was carting myself around in a wheelchair after my little car-vs.-bike accident last year, I turned down just about every speaking engagement I was offered. I'm still taking it pretty easy, even though I'm more or less back to walking (albeit with what I hope is a rakish cane). But there's one engagement I didn't turn down, though, since it will let me return to my alma mater and see some old friends. So I'm firing up the motorcade, the tour busses, and the police escort, and making my way in stately procession to South Bend, Indiana this March, to give a poetry reading on a bill with Joyelle McSweeney and Cornelius Eady. It's part of a gathering of poets affiliated with Notre Dame. I'm hoping to be able to stick around to be on some follow-up panel as well. But those with a serious wish to either strew rose-petals in my path or hurl rotten fruit in my general direction are advised to look for me on the evening of Monday, March 29. Here's the schedule:

Monday, March 29

3 p.m. Reading: Jenny Boully, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Kimberly Blaeser.

(All readings followed by Q & A.)

4:30 p.m. Reception at McKenna Hall. Informal conversation open to all.

5 p.m. MFA and PhD students present papers and give readings from The Open Light: Poets from Notre Dame, 1991-2008.

8 p.m. Reading: Joyelle McSweeney, Robert Archambeau, and Cornelius Eady.

Tuesday, March 30

3 p.m. Reading: Francisco Aragón, Jacque Brogan, and John Wilkinson.

4:30 p.m. MFA and PhD students present papers and give readings from The Open Light: Poets from Notre Dame, 1991-2008.

8 p.m. Reading: Henry Weinfield, Orlando Ricardo Menes, and Mary Hawley.

Wednesday, March 31

10:30 a.m. Panel on poetry and poetics.

1:30 p.m. Panel on the poetic vocation and the poet’s education.

All events are in McKenna Hall, Seminar Room 100-104.

Many thanks for Colleen Hoover and Orlando Ricardo Menes for putting all this together.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Primitivism and Speech in European and American Poetry

Lately I've been spending my Fridays in the dull duty of an editor, working on an edition on the uncollected English works of the late, great Swedish poet and critic Göran Printz-Påhlson. I had the privilege of meeting him back when I used to teach at Sweden's Lund University in the 1990s, and he was living nearby in Malmö. He'd had a long career teaching in the U.S. (Harvard) and U.K. (Cambridge), and seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of English-language poetry and poetics, as well as a deep understanding of European poetry in several languages. He'd also been a mentor to the Swedish writers I admired most, notably the amazing poet Jesper Svenbro.

Going through anyone's unpublished works is a bit like trying to clear out the Augean stables, and if your scholarly patience is anything like mine, it can feel a bit like trying to clear those stables out with nothing more than a worn-out Swiffer. But there are some serious rewards, from time to time. The jewel-box hidden in the mire, in the case of Printz-Påhlson's work, has been the discovery of decent drafts of a series of unpublished essays from the 1980s called "The Words of the Tribe: Primitivism, Reductionism, and Materialism in Modern Poetics." My faith in American literary xenophilia is weak enough that I don't foresee these making a huge splash when the book appears, but my faith in Printz-Påhlson is such that I'm convinced they should produce some serious waves. I've just about knocked the first one, "Linguistic Primitivism in Modernism and Romanticism" into publishable shape (a few missing citations aside). Printz-Påhlson takes on various ideas of primitive language, eventually concentrating on the idea of common speech as a medium for poetry. He's not an advocate of it, though — more of an critic taking a cold, hard look at theories of simple language and speech as a fit medium for poetry. He looks at Romantics, notably Wordsworth (who believed in the language of the poet as the language of "a man speaking to men") and the young Ezra Pound, with his strictures about "no hindside-beforeness, no straddled adjectives (as ‘addled mosses dank’), no Tennysonian-ness of speech; nothing — that you couldn't, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say." He concludes with some sweeping statements about European vs. Anglo-American poetic traditions:

Linguistic primitivism has put its distinctive mark on modernist poetry in the whole Anglo-American tradition. When we look at modernism in a wider or European setting, we find very little that corresponds to it. The voices of modernist poetry in French or German poetry, from Hölderlin to Celan, Baudelaire to Bonnefoy, speak defiantly in another dialect, lofty, vatic, solemn, sermo sublimis rather than sermo humilis. Paul de Man has in a masterful and pregnant early essay traced the primary vocabulary of that dialect to its sources in figurative language of great simplicity, “The Intentional Image in Romantic Poetry.” In this essay he reminds us that whatever the demands of the language, of the social world or the sensual world, or even the ontological primacy of the natural object, words are used in poetry not as signs or names, but in order to name, in an Adamic act. He is quotes the words of Mallarmé (from his epitaph on Poe) “donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu.” Is this to be taken, with the English poet, as an act of social acquiescence in the face of the intractability of language, or with the continental poet, as a defiance of social demands in order to reach the silences behind the words? Those are the questions that will be present for us in further investigations of these problems in this series of lectures. Let me conclude here with a quotation from Wordsworth’s third “Essay Upon Epitaphs,” which marvellously comprises both views in two sentences: “Words are too awful an instrument for good and evil to be trifled with” and “Language, if it do not uphold, and feed, and leave in quiet, like the power of gravitation or the air we breathe, is a counter-spirit, unremittingly, and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate and to dissolve.”

Like all sweeping statements, what's swept away are the moments when actual practice doesn't line up with the large theory. But still — there's much to think about here. Pound, Olson, Oppen, and in a different way much in the New York school (Printz-Påhlson was Ashbery's Swedish translator) — all have an affinity for speech, and the affinity became so strong in American poetry that Robert Grenier had to break with it, making his grand declaration "I HATE SPEECH." And the dominant English poetic tradition (in whose shadow the large, adventurous experimental crowd still stand) seems interested in maintaining a kind of continuity between the norms of spoken language and poetry (think Auden, think The Movement, think Andrew Motion et al). The question of just what this distinction from the more radically anti-speech Continental traditions can mean, especially socially, is fascinating. And it's the pull of that question that keeps me editing. On to the next three essays in the series! Excelsior!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Cambridge Literary Review #2: The Scuffle Continues!

Good news! The second issue of The Cambridge Literary Review is out. This is my kind of production: essays on Hume and Hegel rubbing shoulders with poems by Stephen Rodefer, Andrea Brady, Drew Milne, and other luminaries of experimental British poetry. Gluttons for punishment may want to turn to the letters section, where Andrea Brady and I continue the exchange we began on this blog, after an essay I wrote about Cambridge poetry appeared in the first issue of the journal.