Friday, October 08, 2010

Wit and Experimental Poetry







Nester’s Complaint

Daniel Nester first became a minor god in my pantheon back in 2003, when his book of poems about the legendary glam/anthemic rock band Queen came out.  Last year he blew off the dust that had been collecting on his angelic wings, when his essay about getting out of the (fucking awful) New York poetry-scene came out in The Morning News.  A couple of days ago, he further burnished those wings when he complained on his blog about the narrow range of topics discussed in the demimonde of contemporary American poetry, a list that includes, among a few other things, “the literary feud news peg editorial” and “MFA hand-wringing."  “Can we all assign ourselves a topic to write about?” he asked, yearning for a little range and variety in discussion. 

When I read Nester’s post, I’d just emerged from a seminar room where I’d been talking about Coleridge’s aesthetics, which meant, among other things, that I’d been tossing around some of those grand old aesthetic categories — the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque.  One of my students had observed that no one seems to talk about poetry in terms of the particular kinds of beauty it pursues, a comment that rang true.  So I dropped an idea into Nester’s comment stream — why not talk about some of the effects of contemporary poetry in terms of some of the old aesthetic categories?  The ones that seemed appropriate to the dominant poetic modes of our time didn’t seem like the big ones (beauty, the sublime), and while I’m convinced there’s a huge body of work that is, essentially, picturesque, this isn’t really a body of work I can get excited about.  But another set of terms — Joseph Addison’s categorization of the different kinds of verbal wit — seemed pertinent enough to some of the more interesting currents in contemporary American poetry.  Why not see how contemporary poetry looks through the old Addisonian telescope?  There followed a comments-stream silence, people (perhaps unsurprisingly — I mean, one thing you can kind of count on in contemporary poetry is people not caring about the history of literary criticism and theory before, say, the middle of the twentieth century).  But I’m intrigued enough to give it a try myself.

True, False, and Mixed Wit

Addison sketched out his schema of the varieties of  wit in the the May 11th,  1711 issue of  The Spectator.  Addison took inspiration from a distinction he stumbled across in the writings of John Locke between judgment and wit: judgment, for Locke, was the capacity for discerning fine differences, whereas wit was a capacity for finding similarities.  Hence, Locke concluded, the tittering wits of London were unlikely to have much good judgment; while the sage and sober men of judgment were unlikely to crack a smile at a bon mot — the latter being a prospect I find just a little bit terrifying.  Addison praises Locke, then elaborates on the notion of wit as the capacity to find similarities, telling us that there’s more to it than just noticing that one’s mistresses’ eyes, being bright, are like the sun:






his is, I think, the best and most philosophical account that I have ever met with of wit, which generally, though not always, consists in such a resemblance and congruity of ideas as this author mentions. I shall only add to it, by way of explanation, that every resemblance of ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be such an one that gives delight and surprise to the reader. These two properties seem essential to wit, more particularly the last of them. In order therefore that the resemblance in the ideas be wit, it is necessary that the ideas should not lie too near one another in the nature of things; for where the likeness is obvious, it gives no surprise. To compare one man's singing to that of another, or to represent the whiteness of any object by that of milk and snow, or the variety of its colors by those of the rainbow, cannot be called wit, unless, besides this obvious resemblance, there be some further congruity discovered in the two ideas that is capable of giving the reader some surprise. Thus when a poet tells us, the bosom of his mistress is as white as snow, there is no wit in the comparison; but when he adds, with a sigh, that it is as cold too, it then grows into wit.

It’s a pretty good definition, as Addision himself isn’t too shy to mention, saying it “comprehends most of the species of wit, [such] as metaphors, similitudes, allegories, enigmas, mottoes, parables, fables, dreams, visions, dramatic writings, burlesque, and all the methods of allusion: as there are many other pieces of wit (how remote soever they may appear at first sight from the foregoing description) which upon examination will be found to agree with it.”  John Donne’s famous extended comparison of two separated lovers as the two arms of a compass, in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” certainly fits the bill as a poem of wit.  Here, the center, unmoving arm of the compass represents the woman left behind, and the other arm represents the man who returns.  The surprising resemblance is that found between the compass and (shall we say) a certain physiological effect of the prospect of reunion on the returning, male lover.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as it comes home.

The Motion Picture Association of America might label a film of the poem PG-13, but Addison would apply the far more civilized label “wit.”  Or, more precisely, he’d label Donne’s poem a piece of “true wit,” since wit, for Addison, can be either true or false.

True wit, in this view, involves a substantial resemblance of ideas (the drawn-in compass really does have a similarity to the man’s anatomy), while false wit involves only a resemblance of words, or other verbal elements.  “As true wit consists in the resemblance and congruity of ideas,” says Addison, false wit takes many forms: “sometimes of single letters, as in anagrams, chronograms, lipograms, and acrostics; sometimes of syllables, as in echoes and doggerel rhymes; sometimes of words, as in puns and quibbles; and sometimes of whole sentences or poems, cast into the figures of eggs, axes, or altars.”  So: if the John Donne of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is a true wit, the George Herbert of “Easter Wings” is just some kind of asshole.  So are punsters.  I think I’m with Addison on puns — I mean, no one likes the guy who steps to you at the coffee machine and says “You know why mountains hear all your secrets? Huh huh?  Because they have mountaineers! Get it? ‘Mountain’ ‘ears’? Mountaineers! Haw haw haw!”  (This actually happened to me, and no jury would have convicted me if I’d hurled a cup of scalding java at the man).

There’s a middle ground, too, of middling worth, as far as Addison is concerned.  Between the resemblance of ideas in true with and the verbal resemblances of false wit lies “mixed wit,” a species of wit combining resemblance of ideas with verbal resemblance.  Such wit, says Addison, “is a composition of pun and true wit, and is more or less perfect as the resemblance lies in the ideas or the words: its foundations are laid partly in falsehood and partly in truth: reason puts in her claim for one half of it, and extravagance for the other.”

Wit and the English Compromise

Why, one wonders, does Addison, in 1711, hold up a wit based on ideas, reason, and resemblance of things in life over a wit based on verbal or phonetic cleverness without reference to the truth of the resemblance in life.  Long story short, one can find the explanation in the social role of journals like The Spectator in eighteenth century England.  More so than in any other European nation (with the possible exception of the Netherlands), the English were seeing a rise in trade, commerce, and finance, and a consequent rise of a bourgeois class without ties to the old landed aristocratic families.  At the end of the seventeenth century England was developing a mercantile society as vibrant as any in Europe, with fortunes being made in the trade of textiles, paper, and metals, but it was the Financial Revolution of the 1690s that really allowed a new elite group, based on trade and finance rather than land, to emerge.  The 1690s saw the founding of the stock market, the Bank of England, and the national debt, the last of which gave unprecedented power and influence to investors in public credit.  There was a new branch of the elite out there, a sober bunch of people who’d clawed their way up through prudence and calculation.  In this, they were unlike the bon-vivant aristocrats, inheritors of privilege.

Fortunately for England, there were no real legal barriers to the mixing of this new elite with the established one, and soon enough an amalgamated elite of bourgeois and aristocrats were in mixing together (what happens when such a mixing doesn’t occur, and the vital interests of new and old elites clash, can be seen in the events in France at the end of the eighteenth century).

The role of Addison’s various journals in this context was, essentially, to find a cultural ground in which these different elites could forge something like a common identity.  This is why so much of Addison’s energy is spent defining taste (and why the eighteenth century is sometimes called “the age of taste”): if bloodlines no longer marked out elite status, something else had to, and taste was eminently suitable: it was exclusive, but could be acquired with effort and expense.  Despite its gatekeeper-of-elite-status function, taste seemed neutral enough with regard to what had been the divisive issues of history.  I mean, the essays on Milton in The Spectator are all about form, and tasteful lines — they’re devoid of mention of the whole Puritan/Anglican/Catholic contretemps that so animated Milton's imagination.  In this context, the idea of true wit can be seen as a kind of compromise between the rational, hard-nosed, distrusting-of-mere-play viewpoint of the early commercial and financial bourgeoisie, and the more playful and aesthetic world of the hereditary landed classes.  It’s all more complicated, but that’s the basic outline, and I’m guessing no one really wants to hear much more about the amalgamating social elites of England circa 1711 anyway.  So: on to contemporary poetry and the forms of wit!

Wit and Experimental Poetry

I’m really in no position to make a claim as large as I’m about to make, but that’s not going to stop me from making it.  The claim is this: the more likely a poet is to be identified with experimentalism, or linguistic innovation, the more likely he or she is to be a poet of what Addison would call false or mixed, rather than true, wit — because the poet is more likely to be drawing attention to language as language, and less likely to be oriented toward statements about the resemblance of things in the world.  (Mixed wit points in both directions at once).  I don’t mean to say that I take Addison’s valuation of one kind of wit over another at face value.  In fact, I think most mixed wit tends to excite me a lot more than most of what Addison would call true wit, in the form of metaphors and the like.

One poet I admire immensely, Harryette Mullen, is often described as both experimental and as witty (by, among others, me).  But what would Addison think?  Surely he’d look at many of her lines as examples of false wit, as word play with no larger point behind it.  The line “as silverware as it were,” say, from the poem “Wipe that Simile Off Your Aphasia” gives a witty phonetic resemblance between “silverware” and “was it were,” but doesn’t make much of a statement about anything in particular.  But what about the verbally playful prose-poems for which she is best known?  Here’s one, in its entirety:

Of a girl, in white, between the lines, in the spaces where nothing is written. Her starched petticoats, giving him the slip. Loose lips, a telltale spot, where she was kissed, and told. Who would believe her, lying still between the sheets. The pillow cases, the dirty laundry laundered. Pillow talk-show on a leather couch, slips in and out of dreams. Without permission, slips out the door. A name adores a Freudian slip.


So what have we got, wit-wise?  Well, there’s the pun on petticoats “giving him the slip” — where slip refers to lingerie and to a kind of escape.  This is followed right away by the reference to “loose lips,” which is bound to the previous statement loosely, with only the similarity in sound between “slip” and “ship” (an absent but implied word here, as it is loose lips that sink ships).  We then get another bit of verbal play in the reference to the place “where she was kissed, and told,” in which we can hear a reference to the old saying “don’t kiss and tell.”  This is reinforced by the notion of the “Pillow talk-show,” a kind of portmanteau-ing of “pillow talk” and “talk show.”  So we’ve got quite a bit of verbal resemblances between phrases in the poem and platitudes/sayings outside it.  But does is there anything that Addison would see as a resemblance in idea, anything like Donne’s compass arms?  There’s some sort of implied statement lurking here about the making public of private eros, but the poem isn’t really referential enough to deal strongly in those resemblances in ideas that Addison thought of as essential to true wit.


Another one of Mullen’s prose poems, “Denigration,” takes on weightier issues, and does so with wit, for sure.  But what kind of wit?  Here it is:

Did we surprise our teachers who had niggling doubts about the picayune brains of small black children who reminded them of clean pickaninnies on a box of laundry soap? How muddy is the Mississippi compared to the third longest river of the darkest continent? In the land of the Ibo, the Hausa and the Yoruba, what is the price per barrel of nigrescence?


The verbal resemblance between “niggling” and “nigrescence” (and, for that matter, of the title word “denigration”) and the most denigrating term for African-Americans is clear enough, and there’s the play on “picayune” and “pickaninny” — so we’re reminded, by analogy with the resemblance of words, of how racism manifests itself even in those places where we least expect it.  The comparison of the Mississippi to the Niger river (the river near which the tribal groups Mullen mentions live) is important in this context, in that it reminds us that there are places where Africans are identified by tribe, not by race, and are certainly not identified by the denigrating American term for their race (the “price per barrel” business brings in the whole question of the Nigerian oil economy and the neo-colonialism it fosters, so the poem’s world is more complex than a simple Edenic Africa/fallen America dichotomy).  Here, the verbal play is the most noticeable part of the poem, but it connects more strongly to issues beyond the poem than does the “Of a girl, in white” prose poem.  In Addisonian terms, we’re in the realm of mixed wit — a rather politically pointed mixed wit.


But Why?

The emphasis on false and mixed wit, as opposed to true wit (loaded terms, but I try to see them as neutral, descriptive concepts) in experimental poetry cries out for some kind of explanation.  My guess is it’s to be found in the very different situation poetry inhabits now, compared to the Eighteenth century.  In Addison’s time poets were part of a general discourse about things, and published their work side-by-side with all kinds of prose.  No such thing as a poetry magazine existed.  The writers of poetry weren’t even poets, in the sense of having a professional specialization, still less in the sense of being special, sensitive souls in the mode of Wordsworthian Romanticism.  One wasn’t a poet, really, the way one is today, bearing credentials to certify the fact. Poetry was an activity, not an identity.  It was something one did, not something that defined who one was.  I mean, gossip for a guy like Addison — who wrote plenty of poetry, as well as the play, Cato, that made him famous in his day, and the essays by which we know him — wasn’t literary gossip, because there really wasn’t a literary world separate from other spheres, not in the way we know it today.  You have to wait for the nineteenth century for that (you can still get the cream of nineteenth century literary gossip from the journals of the Goncourt brothers — no similar document exists for the eighteenth century).

This, of course, brings us back full circle, to the world about which Daniel Nester complains, where the poets spend too much time talking about themselves and their feuds, and where wringing one’s hands about the ongoing dominance of professionalization and the MFA programs is a disease and contagious and pervasive as the common cold.  And try as we might to run from it, into fields as seemingly remote as eighteenth-century aesthetics, it catches up to us eventually.





34 comments:

  1. I admit I've only had a chance to scan this and probably I shouldn't post until reading more fully, but that may not happen this week, so I'll go ahead and throw this out:

    If the lamentable absence of "wit" in innovative poetry has not a little to do, as the post claims, with an official, ubiquitous professional abstract mode (I wouldn't disagree), in what way is the absence of wit to be seen as irrelevant to the "boring" issues of poetry's professionalization? It would seem, rather, to have a good deal to do with it.

    Does that make any sense? Forgive me if the post already deals with this!

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  2. Ego to absolve, Kent.

    Actually, I don't think there's an absence of wit. But I can see where I misled you, since I'm trying to use categories that have judgmental names ("false wit"). I actually see plenty of what Addison would call false wit (which is still a species of wit, and to my mind not a bad one) in experimental poetry, and plenty of what Addison would call "mixed wit" too.

    Anyway. True/False/Mixed are all kinds of wit. Addison saw a hierarchy (for reasons I took a stab at explaining with reference to his social situation), but I don't.

    As for the issue of poetry's professionalization being boring -- well, I suppose on reflection I think there are boring and exciting ways to approach the issue. I'd rank them thusly:

    1. Most boring: ranking MFA programs
    2. Second most boring: complaining about the ranking of MFA programs.
    3. Semi-boring: complaining about the prevalence of MFA programs
    4. Sort of exciting: looking into the causes and effects of the rise of MFA programs from as disinterested and historically-informed a perspective as possible.
    5. Exciting: seeing how the MFA programs fit into several long histories: of the universities, of the social role of the poet, of professionalism.
    6. Totally exciting: linking the histories mentioned in 5, above, to aesthetic effects.

    I propose the following policies be implemented toward those engaged in the respective forms of investigation:

    1. Flogging
    2. Caning
    3. Face-slapping
    4. Tenure
    5. Promotion to Full Professor
    6. Apotheosis

    Best as ever,

    B.

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  3. Goddam spell-check. That's "ego te absolvo" not "ego to absolve." Now my old Latin teacher is going to come after me.

    B.

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  4. Typo Latin - it could catch on.

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  5. Thanks for the intro to Daniel Nester; what you've linked to here knocked my socks off, and I'm sure I'll find myself responding to it directly at some point.

    As for Addison, I can't get around the fact that his era was also the so-called Enlightenment, an era in which rationalism and reason were supreme. So his discussions of wit have limits for me precisely because they are rational, and not visionary. By Addison's criteria of false wit, George Herbert may have been a lesser poet, but in no other way can that be said to be true.

    BTW, I completely agree with you about the contemporary bias against historical knowledge of poetry and criticism alike. I find that very irritating.

    The mode that nobody talks about anymore, the elephant in the room as it were, is the vatic mode in poetry. The prophetic, visionary, metaphysical mode—at which both Donne and Herbert excelled, of course. I've lost track of how many occasions I've been booed off various litblog comments threads merely for mentioning this. Then again, the vatic mode is one I write in often, and no doubt some of my own poetic influences are responsible for that.

    The thing, I like experimental poetry. I've often been accused of it myself. I often find myself writing in ways that look like LangPo but with what I hope is true wit: that is, making connections, making links in the world, etc., as you and Addison describe. This is most unpopular nowadays, however, most unfashionable to actually carry *meaning* (shudder) in a poem that has unusual form or syntax.

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  6. My Latin's pretty rusty, so I looked it up to be sure: At the top of the Google list:

    "Ego te absolvo: The Catholic Route to Birth Control."

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  7. MFA discussions have gotten fairly boring, mainly because people get stuck in a rut of saying whether they are pro- or con-, as if we have a choice.

    I started a collaborative blog, montevidayo.com, precisely because I thought the discussions about poetry were too narrow and dull and because I felt the discussions just didn't measure up to, or even interact with the most interesting poetry going on.

    Interestingly, I get the most hits when I write about the MFA.

    Johannes

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  8. Johannes writes:

    >MFA discussions have gotten fairly boring, mainly because people get stuck in a rut of saying whether they are pro- or con-, as if we have a choice.

    I'm interested in this. Why do we not have a choice? And who is the "we"? The poets already contentedly inside?

    In fact, there *are* poets (can one believe it?) who are outside the MFA industry and stay outside it by choice. For some it's a matter of principle, go figure. My own guess is that such rejection of "poetry professionalism" will become more and more common in coming years. The change will be uneven and contradictory, of course, but growing numbers of younger poets seem to be developing a strong cynicism for the whole institutional apparatus-- and a growing grasp that the careerist sociology that's come to infect the innovative sphere is a pretty recent thing, nothing "natural" about it (and a total flip from what was the case merely four or so decades ago, when the notion of a mass cadre of "experimental poetic professors" would have brought on fits of tearful, disdainful group laughter from the Lower East Side to North Beach to Tulsa). Of course, change will also be driven by larger economics. That "as if we have a choice" might begin to take on a bit different ring not too far down the road.

    You can already begin to sense it: Lumpen is the new poetic Cool.

    Montevidayo? How'd that name happen, Johannes? Interested, because I grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay. Land of Lautreamont, Laforgue, Supervielle...

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  9. I'm not too sanguine about making predictions about the future, but if the tenure-track creative writing prof jobs continue to dry up, I expect that will be reflected in the numbers of people entering the MFA programs, and the reasons those people have for being there. Other changes in the poetry ecosystem (the end of department-sponsored print journals, maybe; the continued rise of online publishing, certainly) also seem likely to be important. And since changes in institutional, economic, and cultural situations have tended in the past to have stylistic effects, I imagine such changes will continue to change what much poetry looks like. But trends are only trends, and the art is likely to remain diverse.

    Wow. Those are the blandest predictions I've ever made. I wish I could say something more specific ("the poetry of the future will be poetry about chickens, and International Chickenismo will be the leading movement of the 21st century!), but I really can't.

    B.

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  10. Joyelle McSweeney8:56 PM

    Wow. I just wrote a really long post that got eaten. I will try again.

    My post was on the topic of Mullen (I'm a fanboy, I admit that up front.) It occurs to me that one way to think about Mullen's 'true wit' might be to go back to Donne and think about her form. That is, I always feel most struck and floored by Mullen when I read her in large doses. A poem like 'Muse and Drudge,' for example, could be 'decoded' for its weight of social/historical referent but the social commentary, for me, come from the shape of the poem itself, the way knowledge presses into the world through language, persists and subsides there, deformed into error, slur, parody, silence. The way everything frays, that is, that's the shape that proposes a resemblance. It seems like reading her sequences and whole volumes reveals a rhetorical shape that's not as available even in her topically direct short poems. I could also read Muse and Drudge in the opposite direction-- that is, as much as something accrues and erodes, something else persists, and that something is sound, a whole different kind of structure, a note (or chord) that deepens and shifts and attenuates but most of all persists. In that sense it might be compared to the shriek that Fred Moten discusses in 'In the Break' as persisting through black performance and the performance of blackness. The split between language/knowledge and sound/knowledge, the kind of double or counter epistemology, might also be the 'true wit' frame for Mullen. It's pretty magisterial and it seems to way outbalance the individual false wittines or trinketiness of puns, though I like the idea that one could build a counterepistemology through trinkets.

    JM

    JM

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  11. Kent,

    Yes, it's too tiresome to argue this. Especially with someone like you who think I should be interested in you lecturing me. Really. Yawn.

    We chose Montevidayo because we liked the name Montevideo, but that name was picked. The name hit our radar because we were rooting for Uruguay in the World Cup. Not much to it.

    Johannes

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  12. Hi Robert,

    FWIW, my dissertation is a combination of #5 and #6 (in your "ways to approach the professionalization of poetry," above). And what you list as #1 -- i.e., the most boring "way to approach the professionalization of poetry" -- is not intended, and never was, as a "way to approach the professionalization of poetry." That's not what the rankings are, and if you think so, I think you've overlooked functions of the rankings that are substantially more far-ranging and subversive. But the rankings are not a conversation about professionalization, no -- and I'm saying this as the person who created them, and as someone interested in actual conversations on the topic, as you are. I'm just not sure why you'd go out of your way to say the rankings are a boring way to discuss professionalization; that's like saying an apple makes a terrible banana. Well, you're right, it does.

    S.

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  13. Kent,

    This structuralist "inside/outside" paradigm is so very tired, don't you think? It's 2010, man, not 1959. Those who predict the demise of MFA programs do so because they understand absolutely nothing about them -- not how and why they originated, not the pace at which they're growing (and why they're growing), not how they're adapting quicker than anyone could have imagined to changing realities on the ground (that's right, they're reactive constructs, not generative ones). Unlike the brutal, archaic "sociology" that spawned most of the "experimental" poets of the 1950s and 1960s -- the theory that you either run away to NYC or SF and make it there by sleeping around and posing and dressing well and networking &c &c or you fail as a poet -- has nothing on the sort of institutional flexibility and responsiveness MFA programs are exhibiting. The only thing more boring than discussions of the MFA by those who know something about it are discussions by those who don't. Seriously now.

    S.

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  14. Hi Seth,

    Okay. I know you are very concerned with the whole question of MFAs, but you're not the only person who discusses those things. I hear a lot of people who complain (it's usually complaint) about professionalization, and then go into talking about careerism and MFAs. I don't know anything about your dissertation, and have no claims about it as boring, interesting, or otherwise.

    Best,

    Bob

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  15. Oh, I'd add one more thing -- leaving aside the general point you're making about Kent's post, Seth, I'd say that dismissing a methodology or perspective (structuralism) because it is old is not really sound reasoning. I mean, if I believed that I wouldn't be interested in Nietzcshe, Addison, or Adorno for that matter.

    I don't want to get into the scuffle with Kent here, but I stand up for taking what dead people said seriously. I never believed that insights have a sell-by date, though of course one has to look at the contexts that gave rise to those ideas (as I try to do by linking Addison's valuation of types of wit to the financial reforms of 1690, say).

    Anyway. We all have out pet peeves. Yours has to do with MFA programs. One of mine has to do with the dismissal of the past because of the (generally wrong, as Faulkner pointed out) notion that it is actually past.

    Best,

    Bob

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  16. Johannes! Why do you think I am lecturing you? I'm not lecturing you, I'm simply making a rather obvious observation, pointing out the somewhat simplistic assumptions underlying your (apparent) perspective on this particular matter. You shouldn't take that so personally and defensively (as if my comment means I'm looking down at you). My actual estimations of your general critical/poetic capacities are neither here nor there--we're just talking specific things. See my comment on Adorno, etc, though, in Bob's newest post. One thing we're together on, however, is La Celeste in the World Cup. We're they great, or what?

    Seth! I know you are invested in your Business Week ranking thing. But I'm not entirely clear what you're getting at in your comment to me, really. You seem to have some kind of idealist notion of MFA Programs, as if they are outside history, or something. We are talking about a tiny institutional niche-blip, my friend, inside the grander flows of capital. And where we will be in ten years, well, not even capital knows. It may not be looking so good for the free daily breakfast in the Creative Writing dormitory, though. My point above, merely, is that there seems to be a shift of attitude underway among many younger poets. Admittedly, this is just a sense, based on some interesting local examples and anecdotal gossip. Many of these poets, though, it's quite clear, are beginning to regard the MFA industry with a measure of amused scorn, having come to see that (bingo!) maybe there's a whole poetic way of existing outside the Academy, that poetry itself might actually become more interesting inside (as yet unsuspected) versions of autonomous states or zones. Could be the frightening shock of the anthology American Hybrid had something to do with setting this embryonic attitudinal shift in motion, I don't know...

    Kent

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  17. Reading these comments over, I think I sound kind of grumpy. Please chalk it up to lack of coffee. I'm assuming the same about anyone else's apparent grumpiness. Let's all get another cup.

    B.

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  18. Bob,

    There's a particular sort of knowledge I value in discussions of MFA programs, and it's not a sort of knowledge many have access to or are interested in because it's research-based. So for instance, you're one of those who discuss MFA programs, and you've said that the lack of creative writing jobs may well lead to fewer applications--which would make sense, if the boom in the number of MFA programs hadn't coincided with enormous publicity about the lack of jobs in academia, and if applicants weren't indicating, in polls, that only around a third of them have any interest in teaching (and none indicate that as their sole interest in the degree). Just so, Kent's on about -- whether he realizes it or not -- the value (or lack) of the MFA as a "credential," yet only around 20% of applicants to MFA programs indicate that the "credential" is any part of their decision to attend. Certain conversations can't be had without data, and most of the conversations you're referring to happening surrounding the MFA are data-free and it makes them less useful. (Sorry, I'm rushing out the door, so I am not being articulate.) As to "professionalization," as most of those who like to harp about it have never been, will never be, and don't see themselves as "professionals" in any field, they're not particularly well-qualified to speak about what the term actually means in practice--and if any term can only be discussed "in practice" it would be that one (for obvious reasons).

    Bob, I didn't dismiss structuralism because it was old--I mean that Kent's simplistic take on structuralism would be more apropos in 1959 than now. But as a critical methodology I think it still has significant purpose when employed intelligently. Sorry for the confusion there.

    Kent, that's a knee-jerk response to a more or less knee-jerk understanding of what the rankings are and why I do them. I could explain it to you but I don't have the time or interest. Suffice to say I'm not an idiot, and I wouldn't rank programs for the sorts of stupid reasons you appear to suppose. Prestige means nothing to me, nor do numbers--in a vacuum.

    And as a side note, your reading of what's happening in the poetry community happens to be precisely the opposite of what's happening--much like a famous poet-theorist who told me recently that MFA programs were headed toward "open admissions" and that the whole system is in the midst of a massive privatization--and you are both wrong for the same reason: you have no data whatsoever at your disposal. I do.

    S.

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  19. Hey Seth,

    I don't think anyone called you an idiot. In fact, no one did, at least not here.

    As for your comment "most of the conversations you're referring to happening surrounding the MFA are data-free and it makes them less useful" -- yes. I think we agree on that. That's the sort of thing I referred to as deserving of flogging and caning (I'd note, since you seem to be taking this as personal, and as somehow about you, that the comment was intended as lighthearted -- I don't actually want to see people flogged).

    As for the "I, Seth, have data, and the rest of you have nothing" business. Well, we all know different things. I do know a thing or two about both the history of professionalism (in general) and about the history of the social role and position of poetry. I'm thinking I may have to address these issues in some detail when I get the time, perhaps this weekend. But I think you and I may be coming at things differently. I'm interested in changes and trends regarding poetry over several centuries, you seem very focused on MFA programs in the here and now.

    As for predictions about the future -- as I said, I'm not sanguine about making them. Too many variables, even if one has some survey data on hand. That's why I present my speculations on these issues tentatively and with a lot of qualifiers.

    Also, and I don't know why this is, you seem very defensive, very ready to perceive things as being about your writing, and as negative. I mean, the inference that someone has called you an idiot is disconcerting in this regard. I have no axe to grind with you, nor do I have any strong opinions on your work, which has not often been much of a focus for me.

    Best,

    Bob

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  20. Also, I think I can be forgiven for thinking that this sentence:

    "This structuralist "inside/outside" paradigm is so very tired, don't you think? It's 2010, man, not 1959. "

    was a statement about structuralism being old and therefore invalid, rather than a statement about Kent's particular take on structuralism being something that was old and therefore invalid.

    In either case, the "old = invalid" equation is the kind of thing that gets my dander up, just as people talking about MFAs without having your particular information at hand seems to be something that pushes your buttons.

    My god. We're both acting like the thin-skinned people on Silliman's old comments list, aren't we?

    Bob

    B.

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  21. Hi Bob,

    I apologize... I've not expressed myself well here, in fact I've expressed myself quite poorly and I'm sorry about that. My reference to "idiocy" was not an attempt to quote anyone here, but rather a sort of response to Kent's submission that my interest in ranking MFA programs is the same interest Business Week might have in ranking things. As (to me) that would be and is an idiotic impetus, I was sort of responding to my own internal thought on the subject, which I now see didn't come out at all. Again, I'm sorry, it's been a long week (already!).

    Cheers,
    S.
    P.S. I didn't mean to suggest I'm the only one with data, sorry if it seemed that way--in fact all the data I'm speaking of is public, it's accessible to everyone, it's merely a question of whether people have retrieved it, see its value, know how to synthesize and contextualize it, &c.

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  22. Oh, aw, hey. I was being a bit touchy myself. And I do recognize that you've put more work into understanding the MFA scene than anyone.

    Best,

    Bob

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  23. Seth, I said "Business Week" when I meant "US News and World Report," the one that does all the college rankings.

    Never said you were an "idiot," and never would.

    You say that my comment is informed by a "simplistic structuralism" (I think that's how you put it). I'm not sure what you mean. There's not much by the way of "structural" analysis in that brief remark. It's beyond me why you would refer to it that way. Because I suggest that a deepening economic crisis in higher education will likely have an impact on the growth, organization, and institutional position of creative writing programs? Because it suggests there are signs of a rejectionist turn toward the MFA industry among serious younger poets (maybe the growing poetic proletariat's "most advanced sector," as they used to say)? You're obviously a smart guy, and I don't begrudge you your work with data, but one can get a bit too enamored with numbers and supply/demand charts. There's a myth about that, somewhere, and the guy falls into the stream and drowns... Though seriously, certainly you're aware that the "micro" doesn't necessarily trump the "macro" and is often contradicted by it. Or at least that's what history so often tells us. Think Bubbles.

    I haven't seen the piece, but some of this roughly relates (I think, anyway) to a general description I've heard of an essay coming out shortly in Chicago Review. It sounds very interesting, and the author of it is one of the sharpest critics going, so you'll want to be sure to check that out and maybe comment in the letters section of the journal.

    Anyway, no need to get so annoyed. As always, Time will tell, and its passage will force us all to revise our assumptions, one way or another!

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  24. Joyelle McSweeney12:10 PM

    Uhm. Weren't we talking about Harryette Mullen?

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  25. I wish, Joyelle! That's more fun than head-butting.

    I agree about the way forms of language become ways of talking about the world in Mullen -- how she shows linguistic phenomena as social phenomena. I'm calling this "mixed wit," in that it combines linguistic similarity with similarity in the social world. I don't think of this as better or worse than what Addison called "true wit." In fact, while I understand the socio-historical reasons for his hierarchy of kinds of wit, I don't think the hierarchy has much value for us. I certainly don't think of wit in hierarchical terms. Then again, I like that Addison begins to give us ways to talk with some precision about forms of wit.

    All that said, I also think Mullen sometimes delights in phonetic similarity for it's own sake. I suppose some people would think of this as empty jam-band noodling around. And my guess is that Johannes would hold it up as a glorious example of excess, which seems to be his primary term of praise. I'm developing a General Theory of Johannes, in which his beliefs are explained as a rejection of Swedish over-reasonableness, compromise, and "lagom.". In fact, my 3,000 page multivolume work on Johannes is called "From Lagom to Lagniappe"

    B.

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  26. >Uhm. Weren't we talking about Harryette Mullen?

    Well, it was Johannes who brought up the MFA thing, actually!

    I thought your comments on Mullen were really interesting, Joyelle. But I had a question after reading, and so I thought I'd go ahead and ask it; I'd be interested in your response:

    Couldn't everything you say be equally applied to quite a few poets, regardless of race? In terms of this pressuring of language into outflows of "error," for example, and other things you claim for Mullen: Couldn't we say the same thing about Susan Howe or Joan Retallack, just for instance. That's to say, I find your linking of formal/epistemological qualities to race a bit problematic. In fact, I suspect (and I'm NOT suggesting any "accusation" myself) some might say your typology risks more than just being "problematic."

    Anyway, thought I'd throw that out for discussion.

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  27. Kent,

    The center/periphery paradigm you're working off is structuralist, it seems to me, and to the extent it's dialectical it seems (also) simplistic. As to the economic crisis in higher education, again I think we have to acknowledge that it's been going on for years and nevertheless 40 new MFA programs (at a minimum) opened their doors in the last decade. Even if we say the crisis is "deepening," the fact remains that it's extremely hard to shutter a program once it's begun--at worst, the growth in MFA programs will stagnate (actually it already has, since 2008) and then the boom will continue once the economic crisis tails off.

    I think you'll agree that no conversation is possible when we're using arguments like, "there are signs of a rejectionist turn toward the MFA industry among serious younger poets..." Who decides who's "serious"? And what about all the "serious" younger poets who attended or are attending programs right now? And is it really the case that there's a "rejectionist" turn, or merely that those who rejected MFA programs ten years ago -- and are now in their 30s -- are being more vocal about a decision they made in the late 1990s? That would hardly represent a current trend. Not to mention the fact that we can't suddenly "snapshot" a generation of "serious young poets" -- two years from now a poet may emerge who, at the moment, is unrecognized and working in an MFA program. Or 100 such poets.

    My analysis of the MFA is devoutly historical and "macro" -- anyone speaking of a small gaggle of poets they personally recognize as "serious" is actually the one speaking of "micro," right? Likewise, I just can't take lit-mag articles on MFA programs seriously when (for whatever reason) these mags are bringing in freelancers who are totally unknown to those who are steeped in MFA research. It's like Obama bringing in a political guru to advise him and everyone in Washington saying, "Who the heck is this guy?" Just because Chicago Review publishes something doesn't mean it's responsible, needless to say.

    Yes, the future will prove one of us prescient. But in the present, only one of us has more than anecdotes backing his predictions. That's the reason I'm skeptical of the predictions you've put forward.

    Be well,
    S.

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  28. Cool post, Bob!

    A coupla things:

    In read of the traditional division between judgement and wit and I thank god for Hazlitt, who argued again and again that there is no such distinction. Hazlitt's main target was Hobbes, who, Hazlitt argued, simply plagiarized Locke's ideas, the split between wit and judgment being just one...

    And, in case you're interested: I've done a little thinking about wit and contemporary American poetry in a couple of review-essays, including "Wit's Worth: A Reflection on Contemporary American Poetry" (at http://works.bepress.com/theune/8/) and "It Not Do Fall For: On the Paradelle" (at http://works.bepress.com/theune/5/).

    The paradelle essay is, I think, directly applicable to this conversation. The paradelle has been accepted into the realms of contemporary forms of poem-making; there's a chapter on the form in "Principles for Formal Experimentation," the final section of Finch and Varnes's An Exaltations of Forms. However, as I argue in my essay, I critique the paradelle for being a form that allows for the making only of the *semblance* of wit, and I complain a bit (as is my wont) that this smeblance seems to be enough for many a reader of contemporary American poetry.

    Springing off this paradelle essay, Bob, I guess I might ask: while I get the distinctions among true, false, and mixed wit, there remains *failed* wit, yes? And much contemporary American poetry (in all camps, schools, movements, cells) falls into this category, yes? (There's that wont again...)

    Cheers!
    Mike

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  29. Hey Mike,

    Good to hear from you! And I'll check out those wit essays.

    Maybe we should put together a panel on wit and contemporary poetry for a conference fairly soon. Is there anything being held in a reasonably civilized city? I'd even go to the MLA if I had to. I'd be interesting to do it without being on a hiring committee for a change...

    Bob

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  30. Wait, no. Not the MLA -- it's in Los Angeles this time.

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  31. I love this idea, Bob--let's certainly discuss it!

    Cheers,
    Mike

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  32. Fantastic! I sent you an email. Joyelle's on board for this, and it looks like I can get us wedged into the schedule of the Louisville conference if we work quickly.

    Viva wit!

    Best,

    Bob

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  33. O.K., but how do you get from "wit" to "beauty"? Synonyms? One a feature of the other?

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  34. I suppose I'm taking wit as a category of aesthetics -- "beauty" often does double duty in those kinds of discussions, both as a blanket term (covering the varieties of aesthetic experience) and as a specific kind of aesthetic experience (different from the picturesque, say, or the sublime or the cute). It's pretty sloppy, but it does seem to be the way a lot of us talk about these things.

    B.

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