Thursday, May 19, 2011

Poetics of Displacement

"If poetics, the term in general, has any meaning, it's attempting to find a form that's adequate to its historical moment" — Joshua Clover

I realized, as I looked at the scuffed-up paint on the walls of my dining room, that I'd been living in my current house longer than I've ever lived anywhere: about nine years.  In my generation, that's still a pretty short version of long-term residency: many of us grew up in the same house our parents lived in when we were born, and didn't leave until education or a job took us away.  Now, though, people seem to have become more peripatetic, at least in the United States: the rule of thumb among realtors is that people who own the places in which they live move every six or seven years, while renters do the same every four years or so.

This dislocated way of living — I'm sure a more sociological thinker than I could link it to the state of capital/labor relations in the globalized economy in a couple of bar-graph laden Powerpoint slides — can't help but have an effect on poetry.  In fact, a quick look at a couple of poems by two people whose work I admire, Calvin Forbes and John Matthias, combined with a glance at one of my own efforts, shows that all three of us have reacted to the same great whirlwind of displacement, but done it differently, adapting the poetic resources at hand to the problem of home-yearning in a world that constantly uproots us.

Calvin Forbes' poem "Homing," from his 2001 collection The Shine Poems, begins with a desire to get back home, a desire tied to that most visceral, Proustian of senses, taste:

The water's wonderful there
And the women aren't bad
Neither when you look at them
Twice, but the blame

Lies in that glass from the tap
For making me want to go back.

It sounds like we're in for a poem about the unshakable, rootedness of our experiences in our original homes: there's a particular sweet water taste the speaker remembers in his bones, a taste that calls him back.  But in the middle of the second quatrain things shift, and we start to encounter impediments to our return to a yearned-for home.  I think it's significant, too, that the speaker turns out to be in motion, on a highway: the highway a sign of our mobile, displaced condition, and pretty iconically American:

I went looking for where they get
It from but I got a ticket

For speeding; and when I said
I'm Mister Shine, a black ghost,
Cop said that's too bad.
Glow I was lost.

"Mister Shine" is a character from African-American folklore, a figure who appears in various songs, toasts, and stories.  Some say he's based on an actual historical figure, others say he's a kind of African-American Everyman, with his last name being a reference to the old racist use of the word "shine" to refer to black people (it occurs in this sense in a Louis Armstrong song).  Here, and throughout the last section of The Shine Poems he's a kind of ghost, as he sometimes is in the oral tradition.  Forbes has elaborated on the folkloric figure, giving him a girlfriend named "Glow" and a son named "Shade."  Some of this will be important later in the poem, but at this point Forbes chooses to treat the mention of the speaker's identity as a digression, and gets back to the topic of water:

But my sermon is about the water,
How it's precious like family
When you wanting something familiar.
It made me happy —

It taste like baby's breath,
Like dew.  I never knew sweeter water.

Family, simple happiness, the mention of babies and religion: we're in some pretty primal home-territory here, redolent of childhood and stability, all evoked by the taste of the water of a specific locality.  Surely we're on our way back to the source, the first home, the roots.  Or maybe not.  The poem continues with another sudden turn:

But I'm a spook's spook; I stole
This story from a dead man's mouth.

"A spook's spook" can mean a couple of different things: it could mean "an African-American's ghost," or it could mean something like what "a poet's poet" means: here, an African-American's African-American.  In the first case, it's a kind of a statement of essence — the speaker is literally the spirit of a black man.  In the second case, it's a statement of cultural authenticity.  So whatever comes next will be, as far as the poem is concerned, a statement coming close to the core of African-American experience.  And the thing that comes next is a statement of displacement: of saying that one's story — here, a story about one's deepest longings for home — is "stole[n]," is somehow an adaptation.  What does this mean?  Well, the poems next, and final, stanza elaborates on just that, by telling us about the man whose story about sweet water and home Mister Shine has stolen:

He was a preacher from Virginia
Who before he expired said:
Somewhere there's a well of sweet water.
Somewhere in Ohio or maybe Carolina.

The story Mister Shine tells is a about home represents a displacement of sorts, coming as it does from another man.  And when we look at that other man's story, we find it, too, contains a kind of displacement: the sweet water of home for which he yearns comes from a place he can't even name with any certainty: "Ohio, or maybe Carolina."  This is powerful stuff, because it opens up a kind of long-term, maybe infinite, deferral of home or origins.  The mobile, displaced Mister Shine yearns for home and has to steal another man's story about it.  And the preacher from whom he stole the story was, himself, telling a story about a place he doesn't really remember, and may never have known.  The prospect of an infinite, unending yearning for home opens out to us.  In the yearning for sweet water we can taste a bit of that African-American yearning for lost origins, for the unknowable Africa from which their ancestors were stolen, and to which there is no real returning.  An African-American colleague of mine once pointed out something that should have been obvious to me, but wasn't: I can trace at least some of my ancestry back to specific villages in France's Dordogne and even, thanks to DNA testing, back to certain regions in prehistoric times — but odds are she'll never know where her people came from, except at the vague level of the continent of Africa.  The way she said it showed me that it hurt to be in that condition.  Forbes' poem takes up the idea of displacement and the yearning for home, and, by filtering through the folkloric poetics of Mister Shine, ties it to an enormous historic experience of racial displacement.  The poem can't take him home to the place of sweet water, but it can tie him to the collective experience of an entire people (if my imagined sociologist were to continue his Powerpoint demonstration of the effects of globalized capital on people's sense of home, I'd hope he'd have a slide dealing with the slave trade, cotton plantations, and the textile industry as the one of the first great displacements of labor in the name of capital).

So that's Calvin Forbes' "Homing." Back in the early 1970s another American poet, John Matthias, wrote a piece with a remarkably similar title, "Homing Poem," which first appeared in the collection Turns.  This poem, too, comes out of feelings of displacement and homelessness, but the treatment of the theme is different.  Instead of a folkloric poetics, we get a kind of Poundian modernism.  Matthias, who had been involved in the radical politics of the time, and who'd had a rather traumatizing experience of the police riot at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968, was relocating to England, hoping for a peace of mind that had evaded him in the American upheaval of the 60s and early 70s (our sociologist wants us to look at some Powerpoint slides having to do with Vietnam, neo-colonialist capitalism and civil unrest, but he seems to be having trouble with his laptop).  The poem — slighter than most of Matthias' work, but exactly right for our purposes — begins like this:

An acre, a rod,
and eleven
perches of land

The stone walls
The thirteen towers

And all tithes
& corn & hemp & flax

Unornamented, free of adjectives, all concretion unmixed with abstraction, devoid of the narrative or essayistic: these trim little lines are clearly the product of a poet who has put himself to school at Pound's Ezuversity (distance education branch).  But the Poundianism isn't just a matter of form: there's a kind of ethos at work here that Pound would recognize, a kind of deeply American yearning for Europe as a rooted place, a place where every inch of soil felt as a link to the past.  God knows most Europeans get through the day without feeling the Medieval ruins beneath their feet, or thinking about the continuity of culture from Socrates to Sarkozy.  But the Pound/Eliot wing of American expat modernism is all about experiencing Europe as the living past, or at least as a society with roots and a steadying historical ballast.  And the imagery in these lines, along with their language — with the archaic means of measurement like rods and perches and old-school terms for financial arrangements like tithes — indicates that the landscape the speaker contemplates is deeply redolent of the past.  It's a rooted place this self-exiled American has come to, or so he believes.  But is it — can it be — his place?  The next three stanzas gives us a clue:

An acre, a rod,
and eleven
perches of land

The stone walls
The thirteen towers

And all tithes
& corn & hemp & flax

Inept though I may be with computers, that is not a cut & paste error: the final three stanzas of Matthias' "Homing Poem" are an exact repetition of the first three.  But why?  I mean, it's not like he's getting paid by the word.  The answer, I think, is this: the repetition indicates a kind of willfulness, an insistence that this place that the speaker surveys (and it does read like a survey, with all those rods and perches and crop listings) is somehow his place.  This insistence, of course, indicates that the place is only imperfectly his.  Someone who really belongs somewhere doesn't have to insistently will a sense of belonging or ownership.  The privilege of belonging somewhere is that you don't have to think about that belonging, you just embody it unselfconsciously.  Here we see someone not at home, but 'homing' — seeking to attach himself to a place.  We don't know if he'll ever achieve the sense of belonging and being-at-home that he wants: we just catch him in the act of trying to incant that sense of belonging into existence.

"Home and Variations" — the title poem of a book I wrote that (ahem) makes a fine gift for all occasions and can be ordered from the Salt Publishing web site — takes up the same kind of theme we've seen in Forbes and Matthias.  I'm not quite sure how to explain the poetics of the piece, except perhaps to begin by noting that much of it was a deliberate attempt to cut myself off from the Poundian modernism — imagist strictures, history — that had been so important to me as an undergraduate, and later, in graduate school, when I was Matthias' student.  So I wanted to be as abstract as possible, and to find a kind of music in the sound of abstraction as it repeated.  I think, somewhere in the back of my mind, was the sound I'd heard once, as I sat studying late at night in a library.  Nearby, a guy who clearly thought he was alone, was studying for what must have been a text on analytic philosophy, and he kept repeating to himself little bits of propositional language that I now recognize as coming from Wittgenstein.  Anyway, the poem begins like this:

Some stay in one place.
Others move. Still others move
from place to place, staying
for a while. But some
stay in one. And if they think of this,
they call it “home.” Stop.

I also liked the idea of "stop" as a kind of telegram-sounding out of punctuation.  And I wanted the rhythm of a thinking, obsessing mind to have some sort of break to it.  (Now that I look back, I realize that I took a whole lot of cues from the poetry of Randolph Healy, especially the wonderful "Colonies of Belief").  But maybe that's all neither here nor there.  Maybe we should get back to the poem, which eventually arrives at a statement of displacement:

And if those who stay in one place
and know it are at home, others, moving, or
moving place to place to stay
and move, are not.
And if they know it, know
they’re not at home. Stop.
And if they stayed in one place and moved on
and if they know it, then they know that
when they hadn’t moved, they were at home.
Whether they knew it. Whether they not.
And if they left and know they left
they feel a lack.

So there it is, the sense of lack you feel if you've moved.  But even if you don't move, you're likely to feel this kind of lack: it's a Heraclitan universe out there, and all things flow.  Even if you stay in the old neighborhood, the old neighborhood won't stay as it was just for you:

And others stay in one place. And if
they stay and the place won’t stay as
the place they knew was the place that’s “home” they feel
a lack. Stop. And this tells.

What to do, then, in this world that changes even when we stay put? (One may imagine our sociologist's Powerpoint demonstration continuing with a few maps indicating gentrification, urban decay, white flight, the growth of the interstate highway system, and perhaps a few charts about capital flows and the movement of jobs out of the urban core).

And some who feel a lack will fill
the lack they feel. Stop. And my father
played the phonograph. Played sea chanteys,
played Hank Snow. Played them till my mother,
or went and played them till they stopped. Stop.

All that's true, by the way.  I can still, when plied with enough gin, give a fair rendition of a lot of old chanteys, most of which seem to include the refrain "around that cape we all must go!"  But what do these songs have to do with displacement and the yearning for home?

Played at being with the sailors, played at being
with Hank Snow. Played at doing what
they did, which wasn’t play. Stop. If work
was what men did with hands and tools
on farm and sea and if my father’s father worked
with hands and tools but didn’t sing. Would the
singing of the sailors would the singing of Hank Snow
be singing so my father he could play at
being home. Stop.

The songs, I suppose, were a way of invoking my expatriate American father's lost, working class home in Ohio, a world of glass blowers and bricklayers and shop stewards that he left behind at sixteen, for the Marines, then for beatnik ramblings, then for art school and academe.  It was a path of personal fulfillment, but also of cutting himself off from his roots, by upward mobility, by education, and by many hundreds of miles of geography.  If you're not too bored to look at another Powerpoint slide, you could glance over at the one showing now, which is all about gemeinschaft and gesselschaft, and includes some kind of statement about how, in the era of capitalism, all that seemed solid about social relationships melts into air.  Maybe the idea to write in a kind of bloodless, disorientingly abstract language, with just a trace of specific personal detail was a way of trying to convey, at the level of form, something about this modern, abstract, rootless way of life — I mean, most of us are more familiar with tax forms than folk tales, nowadays.  But speaking of personal detail: the poem ends with the presence of the poet, me, impersonally, in the third person:

                                    And if his son who moved, and
moved from place to place. Whether he wanted.
Whether he not. If he thought of father thinking father
thinking work and farm and home would
the thinking take him farther would the thinking take him home.

Here we're sort of back in the place we were in at the ending of Forbes' poem: looking to someone else's yearning for home, and yearning through it for an ever-more-distant version of lost belonging.  I'm not sure why I didn't want to end with a question mark: perhaps it was a desire to keep the poem kind of flat and declarative.  If Forbes invokes a whole collective experience of displacement, I wanted to invoke something much less community-oriented.  I suppose I wanted to give a sense of the soulless, modern, bureaucratic world, the Weberian "iron cage" of modernity.  And to give a sense of the yearning, within that cultural condition, for an older, more rooted way of being.  It's all very young suburban white boy angsty, really.

Anyway: one widely felt element of the moment we live in — let's call it "late capitalism," and let's date it from, say, 1945 — is surely a sense of displacement.  But (to echo Joshua Clover) what are the poetics adequate for this moment?  I suppose my answer would be that they are plural: folkloric in Forbes' case, Poundian for Matthias, and, in my own case, whatever kind of odd mash-up of impulses we find behind "Home and Variations."  While Kenneth Goldsmith recently claimed that the kind of poetry he cares about is "the most contemporary" kind of poetry, I just can't buy it.  We're all contemporary, and face a shared historical condition — but we find our own ways of doing it.


  1. I think of Virgil's Eclogue 1 where place and displacement are characterized by their different relationships to urban, imperial power. One shepherd finds himself in his own locus amoenus, while another is expropriated and condemned to exiled anywhere from Africa to Britain. Home is transient, which is part of what makes its enjoyment so intense.

    But about Clover's statement, wouldn't it be just as true if instead of poetics he had written science, politics, or cuisine? Why not just say that poetics is an argument over poetry's ambitions and tasks? Would form be as important in such an argument where form would mean form of address?

  2. Good questions. In fact, the reason I had Clover's quote in mind is that I've been thinking a bit about this notion of what it means to be contemporary, and how very strange some people's notions of it can be (the bit from Goldsmith about some things that are happening now being more contemporary than other things that are happening now -- which can't, logically, be literally true, is a case in point). The notion that particular moments require particular forms seems to be a late 19th century idea -- Bourdieu's got some good stuff on this -- though I image one could find earlier manifestations. One nearly always can.

    What I'd really like to know is what sorts of conditions gave rise to this way of thinking.

  3. While I am sympathetic to the impulse behind "We're all contemporary, and face a shared historical condition — but we find our own ways of doing it" (Bob, you old vulgar materialist you!) of course it also serves as a total abdication of critical effort. Just because everyone is necessarily a product of their time doesn't imply that everyone has equally captured their situation, that everyone is an equally accurate sundial of history: to believe that Rimbaud and Catulle Mendès have commensurately grasped and broken open 1872, or that Gertrude Stein and Father Dollard simply have "their own ways" of finding language for 1910, is — alas — the precise inverse of historical thought.

  4. Hi Joshua/Jane,

    I imagine we may disagree, and I'm okay with that, but my sense of things has become rather close to that of our imagined, Powerpoint-wielding sociologist, and I tend to see people like Catulle Mendès as interesting, too -- as ways of living a moment. That particular ways of living a moment that don't get us aesthetically excited is, too, of interest, and in its way exciting for me. (On a day when I really go down the rabbit hole, my own interest in taking this kind of perspective becomes an object of socio-cultural interest to me, and from there on it it's all a big series of inter-reflective funhouse mirrors, until I end up taking notes about the backs of my own eyeballs).

    One could argue (and again, I'm cool with disagreement here) that a way of thinking that sees some phenomena produced by a historical situation -- like the poets that please us -- as more interesting than other phenomena -- like those that we dislike -- is not really social or historical thinking.

    It'd be as if Bourdieu decided to only write about reactions to art he liked, or as if Bourdieu didn't want to include mention of the culture industry and kept to Mozart, or Franco Moretti only wanted to count novels that he thought said true things.

    I don't know if that sort of thing would be an inversion, let alone a precise one, of historical thought (though I'd be interested in the details of how and why you think the position I took is such an inversion), but I do feel it would be a flawed critical approach, and flawed by virtue of historical narrowness and a kind of Whig theory of history in that old Butterfield sense.

    The notion that only those we can see as admirable are really worth our attention also seems much about canon, a concept I find interesting less as a means of giving us 'the best,' and more as a means of telling us about what's going in in the consciousness of the canon-maker

    I very much enjoyed the reading you gave (as you know but others might not, the quote I give at the start of the post is something you said in the Q&A section afterward). Like the first questioner, I'm also curious about what your shirt said.

    All best,


  5. A quick addendum: when I talk about poets we like, I mean, too, those we like because we feel/think/deeply believe they've done a better job of capturing their situations.

  6. Robert/Bob,

    warning: I'm feeling cheerfully tele-loquacious this morning, havng just come off a cross-country drive.

    I think you've managed to hold your ground — nobly — without quite addressing my point. First of all, this doesn't have to be valuative: the question of preferring one poet to another isn't at stake, and if someone preferred Father Dollard to Stein, that wouldn't change my argument in the slightest. Rather, and here we surely agree, said preference too would be something that can be thought historically. Indeed, we would very much want to wonder why, in 1910, so many preferred Dollard to Stein, for that might tell us something about 1910.

    When I refer to "historical thought," I mean the ability to understand a historical conjuncture and what might distinguish it from others. Now of course we could say, well, there's just an aggregate of all books from 1910, if we read them all as flat reportage of that moment whatever their explicit content, we'll get a nice aggregate picture. This would be something like Moretti's method. But Franco admits that his proposal doesn't really work for poetry, as poetry isn't in the business of facticity. Indeed, his quasi-universal method makes sense for the 19th century realist novel and not all that much else, and again, he concedes this point (very good-naturedly).

    BUt what if we wanted something other than facticity to understand a moment. What if we wanted to grasp better an era's "emotional tonality," as Mario Tronti put it? What if we wanted to know what was provisionally different or new about a conjuncture? What if we wanted to understand the shifting dynamic of emergent, dominant, and residual? Those are questions that cannot be satisfied by simply deferring to the idea that everyone is equally contemporary; indeed, such a suggestion renders Williams' categories completely inoperative, which seems a considerable loss.

    Let me be clear on what I am not saying. I am not saying only some poetry has information. I am not saying only some information comes from its own situation. All communication is a kind of information, and all communication arises from its time and no other. But one thing that arises is a deaf ear to change, to difference, to a moment’s differentia specifica, in Jakobson's terms — something that distinguishes it from other moments. The averral that all poetry comes from its time doesn't in any way suggest, much less guarantee, that all poetry captures that differentia specifica.

    If it did, and here's the lynchpin, poetry as a totality would change all at once as the situation changed. Except that, as we know, historical situations don't change all at once. They change unevenly, heterogeneously, and with an indiscernable relation between rupture and continuity. So as that change happens, we would have to expect, both by your logic and by the logic of history, that poetry itself would change unevenly, heterogeneously, etc — that it wouldn't be self-same in the moment, that not everyone would be equally caught up in the tides of change, that some would still be writing the poetry of the previous conjuncture even as for others it had changed utterly. To blithely smooth this motion out into different but equivalent expressions seems to me inadequate to the task of the critic.

    As a side note: Bourdieu? Really? I can't imagine him being taken seriously any more. If you must use him to think about history (what a thought!) then let us put him in his proper historical place: as a tedious scion of rissentiment for the soixante-huitards, fundamentally aligned with the nouveaux philosophes in the dull urge to oh-so-knowingly blunt the force of any radical thought. Not that all (or much) radical thought is wonderful — in this it resembles thought in general — but let us be honest about what Bourdieu is for: kneejerk anti-anti-conservatism. He sure ain't gonna persuade of much, these days.

  7. Michael Robbins9:42 AM

    I don't want to have this argument again at length, but I do just want to say that whether we find given poets "interesting" or "pleasing" or not to our taste is irrelevant to the question of whether they have "captured their situation." One can certainly find Mendès "interesting," but that isn't the question. "Liking" a poet, whether because we "believe they've done a better job of capturing their situations" or because their work reminds us of our childhoods, is in this analysis an inadequate measure.

  8. Hi Joshua/Jane

    Well, it sounds like we agree on a number of points.

    I'd like to make a clarification or two, and also try to draw out where I think we disagree.

    On the question of Moretti and historical thought: I do admire what he does. The impossible ideal, approachable only incrementally and imperfectly, of examining the entire corpus as an era, looking on all pieces as responses to a cultural condition without weighing some over others, is a powerful method. I don't think the method need be limited to the "reportage" or mimetic elements of the texts — a colleague of mine when I taught at Lund University in Sweden had a part in a research project with a team of linguists working on examining the formal qualities of different novels in this way. I think there's a lot of important historical thinking of this kind to be done for poetry, especially with attention to form. But this isn't where you were going, and may not be something you'd have a problem with. You wanted to talk about the things that are new and different in a historical period.

    And here's where I think we emphasize things differently. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that some works are more legitimately contemporary than others by virtue of addressing what is new in a historical moment. To turn to the terminology you use from Raymond Williams (one of my heroes), you seem to be claiming that what is emergent is more fully legitimately contemporary than what is dominant or residual.

    I don't see what is new to a moment as more legitimately of interest or important than what is old or ongoing — I think I was groping toward this point when I clumsily invoked Butterfield. I think, too, this is where I differ from Goldsmith, who seems to define "most contemporary" as "most connected to information technology developments." In my understanding, which I'm not suggesting you adopt, those novel elements of the moment are of no more contemporaneity than less novel elements. On the one hand, this could be dismissed as a matter of semantics ("you define 'contemporary' one way, I define it another way"). But I think the difference between us is more profound than this. Let me get to that in a moment.

    (I also think the plurality of the moment needs emphasis: there are many new things, and some are new only to specific places or classes or groups — we may agree on this).

    Where I think we may have a difference beyond mere definitions of terms is in our view of history. I see the notion that 'the new or emergent is the most important' as historically contingent — for the most part a late 18th century development, linked to a host of changes that we might want to shorthand as "capitalism." It is, itself, far from an emergent view in our time. Of course every perspective, including my own, comes from its moment. But one of the things I've been trying to comprehend is the nature of our own consciousness, or, to turn to a less grand scale, the nature of our own view of poetics and aesthetic production, and I'm trying to treat the historicize the valorization of the new, especially in its more sophisticated forms (Marinetti wanting to smash Venice, in this model, is pretty crude; your own sense of looking to poetry for comprehension of a moment's differentia specifica is pretty sophisticated). So I want to step outside the assumptions of such an understanding, inasmuch as I can. It is, sometimes, a bit like trying to look at the back of one's own head.

    Sorry to take a whole day to get back to you on this. I turned 43 yesterday (speaking of becoming historical!) and people had plans for me.



  9. Oh, hey, Robbins. Yeah. I was unclear. I wanted to say that choosing to valorize some poets from the past because of their real or perceived comprehension of their situations was not really the kind of thinking I think of as historical. Anyway, I think the bits Joshua and I have added kind of clear up some of what each of us meant.

  10. Maybe a better way of saying what I tried to say in the response to Joshua, above, would be this:

    I don't believe, with Pound, that artists are "the antennae of the race" (which i take to be a statement about art's role being to twig to the new, the differentia specifica).

    I see his beliefs not as true in any absolute sense, but as a response to the economic and cultural marginalization of poetry and some other arts, and an attempt to dream up a special role that would authorize aesthetic production. That is, I see Pound's self-understanding not so much as true, but as useful to him. And I've been trying to get behind the belief and understand it on terms other than its own.

    Of course my desire to do this is itself a product of my own situation, and not an absolute knowledge.

    It might be that my desire to get behind those old-school assumptions (so prominent in Modernism and elements of the avant-garde) is simply part of an emergent attempt to move beyond an existing model. Or not.

  11. Roberto,

    as Michael suggests (and I tried, perhaps poorly), you seem very (very) hung on on valuative categories: liking, more interesting, legitimate, etc etc. My suggestion is indifferent to all of these. There is no need for any valuation in the claim that I can know more about how 1872 wasn't 1841 by reading Rimbaud than Mendès.

    Now it is certainly true that one may have no desire to get the news "about how 1872 wasn't 1841" from poetry. But that is what I mean by historical thought. Speaking only for myself, I am interested in change.

  12. Yes, well, I see what you mean. I do think of what we do as valuative -- deciding that Rimbaud tells us more about something than Mendes does is, to my mind (and perhaps not to yours, or to others -- I don't know) a valuative move.

    I get a lot of my news from poetry, but maybe the way to put it is that I treat poetry as something that grows out of circumstances rather than as something that comprehends them. This may be a difference in emphasis between us.

    Anyway: I feel like I understand where you're coming from, more or less. I hope I've been able to convey a sense of how I approach things, too.

    All best,


  13. Oh: hey. There's a really messed up phrase in one of my earlier comments.

    For "to treat the historicize the valorization of the new" please read "to historicize the valorization of the new." Mea maxima culpa etc.

  14. Jean Cocteau on the new in art:

    "We are worried when we cannot make comparisons. Our whole system of pleasure is based on comparisons. If we are satisfied with our own work, it is probable that it bears some resemblance to other works with which we are preoccupied. But if we produce something really new, as this novelty is not based on any definite recollection, it leaves us as it were, with one leg in the air, alone in the world. We are as much disconcerted and disappointed by it as the reader will be.

    We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar."

    As an artist, I get called "experimental" a lot, but the word is often used as pejorative. Or, as rudely happened recently, total dismissal by other poets of my recent poems as "unreadable"—which says a lot more about the poet than it does about my poem, which I think is one of your points about canon-making.

    I think Cocteau's comments are tremendously insightful, and go to the heart of matters. Ask any minority artist (gay, black, Latino, etc.) about displacement, and they'll point to their own lives as good examples of displacement. I'm not talking about nomadics, in the Bruce Chatwin sense, although that too is relevant here, I'm talking about inner displacement: feeling alien and alienated even in "your own home." I've run into a lot of discussions recently about whether or not there is a "gay sensibility" in poetry (other than the obvious truth that some poets are gay, and write about their lives), and what it always seems to come down to is feeling alien even in one's own culture, or home, or office, or whatever. I think the Modern sense of displacement doesn't have to be geographical. (Although for myself, as a global nomad, it often IS, literally, geographical. I know that turns up in my own writing.) Cocteau, being homosexual, openly, in a culture pre-Stonewall knew this only too well. (As do contemporary LGBT writers and artists, in very much the same way: the culture has not changed all THAT much, as yet.)

  15. "I get a lot of my news from poetry, but maybe the way to put it is that I treat poetry as something that grows out of circumstances rather than as something that comprehends them."

    The minim of dialectical thought assures us that poetry comprehends circumstances precisely because it grows out of them, and necessarily the reverse as well.

  16. Sure. Part of what poetry is is its comprehension. And perhaps we agree that this comprehension is a growth from its moment. This is one of the reasons why I think that all sorts of comprehensions are of interest, not just the "better sundials," to use a term from a poet I admire. Even the very limited comprehensions signify by virtue of their limitations. I'm not sure we're even in disagreement here, except perhaps in how much patience we have for seeking out the significations of limited comprehensions in detail. I mean, I wrote 20,000 words on Tennyson last summer, and that guy had very little idea of what was happening to him. Which for me was really, really significant.

    About African-American senses of displacement: yeah. Calvin Forbes' poem, about which I wrote in the post, affirms that, certainly -- the sense of displacement there is initially geographical, but the gesture is broader than that in the end. So yeah. The final quarter of that book, The Shine Poems, is worth a look in this regard.

    It makes me angry to hear that you encounter people who dismiss your work out of hand, and who use the word "experimental" as an insult. People like that really don't make it easy for dialogues like this to take place -- I mean, in a general atmosphere of distrust and insult, the impulse is to bunker with those who share, or seem to share, most of one's own assumptions (Keith Tuma likes to talk about "foxholes" of experimental writers in England, but it certainly applies to people whose sensibilities are more traditional, too, perhaps even more so).

    Since we're talking about irritation with those who dismiss us: I'm getting used to getting it from all sides. That is, when I write about what I'll just shorthand as "experimental" work, I'm pretty used to having experimental people get bent out of shape at me for talking about them on terms other than their own, and not believing that their self-representations are adequate explanations for what they do. And I'm also getting used to hearing from people outside what I'll call, for now, experimental quarters, who wonder why I'm wasting my time on this "incomprehensible" stuff. On the other side, my more experimental peeps have accused me of being a "sell-out to the Poetry Foundation" (actual quote) and a deployer of "repressive rationality."

    So. Yeah.


  17. (first part of the above in response to Joshua, second part -- "It makes me angry" on -- in response to Art)

  18. To bring this all back home a bit... Joshua wrote:

    "Just because everyone is necessarily a product of their time doesn't imply that everyone has equally captured their situation, that everyone is an equally accurate sundial of history: to believe that Rimbaud and Catulle Mendès have commensurately grasped and broken open 1872, or that Gertrude Stein and Father Dollard simply have "their own ways" of finding language for 1910, is — alas — the precise inverse of historical thought."

    I think it might be time to quote this, since it seems to me that the crux of any disagreement is here.

    I don't believe everyone is an "equally accurate sundial to history" in that I don't believe that everyone has equally "grasped" their situation in their poetry.

    I do, however, believe that everyone is an "equally accurate sundial to history" in that anyone's language act, or version of "grasping" their situation is enormously telling.

    To make a crude analogy: a guy who chooses to drive a Prius and recycle has grasped something about our moment that a guy who drives a Hummer and throws his Cheeto wrapper out the window has not. But a) the phenomenon of the Hummer driver is as telling about our moment as is the phenomenon of the Prius driver, and b) the Prius guy may well not be grasping other things about our moment -- emergent things or residual things -- that the Hummer guy does grasp. (I think this is part of what we agree on).

    I am also suspicious of our ability to know which of these "graspings" or "sundials" is in fact accurate. They are all in one way or another engaged with some element of a moment, while none is engaged with the totality of a moment (and moments are plural, fragmented things -- the dominant/residual/emergent paradigm from Williams, which I use all the time, hardly begins to scratch the surface of that plurality). And of course what we're able to perceive about their engagement with their moments, from within our own moment, is deeply limited. (I am not saying you are against any of this, I am just laying down my position).

    My inclination is to think that no one way of being a sundial/grasping a time is going to be as significant or telling as a series of different sundials/graspings seen in relation to one another.

    So there's that. I'm not sure how much of it we agree on, but I imagine it's a fair sized chunk.

    Then there's the business about how much emphasis to place on the emergent & the differentia specifica. I get that, speaking for yourself, you're interested in change. Speaking only for myself, I think that my interest in change may be more tempered with an interest in continuities than is yours. I'm okay with that.


  19. Thanks. One does develop a thicker skin at some point. The mad craziness of the attackers did lead me to go off on my own for now, following my own inner compass. Even if in the long run it leads me astray, and I'm sure those anti-experimental types would think so LOL, at least it's mine.

    I find the Taoist position to be useful regarding the change/continuity interface. Lots of wisdom in that little book about change, flow, balance, and how to live in those. So I agree that no one way is the "true and only" way of engaging with, or existing within the historical moment. I think one can find the appropriate and necessary way of engaging with the present moment in one's present locale—which may not be universal, or permanent, but I think this search that so many poets seem determined to go on, to find the universal and permanent, is at root delusory. I grew up in a foreign country, as I said: my whole life's experience has been about change, impermanence, and adapting to those conditions. You do learn to surf the shockwaves.

    As for engaging with the varieties of poetry (within the vast galaxy of plural modes) which I personally don't care for (which does include a lot of the so-called post-avant), I think it's absolutely necessary. You have to know what's out there, even if it's not your cup of tea, and in the end you don't engage with it much. Your efforts in those directions, Bob, are very much appreciated in these quarters.

  20. This conversation reminds me of something Jerry Bruns says about modern poetry and art: "anything goes, even if not everything is possible at every moment."

    If you look at Poetry Magazine's early issues, it's pretty clear that what counted as innovation was very much up for debate. Vachel Lindsay's primitive enthusiasms, Sandburg's demotic verse, or Monroe's technophilia were all innovative, but formally very different. But what is still interesting is Monroe's motto: "to have great poets there must be great audiences too." Formal variety and conflict as a means of developing a more robust audience? This seems a more interesting position than today's formal division between experimentalism and traditionalism, hybridity notwithstanding.

    Reading Sandburg's defense of Pound in Poetry is bracing:

    There are those who play safe and sane in poetry, as in mechanics and politics. To each realm its own gay madmen. Some win their public while they live. Others must mould a very small public while alive, and be content with a larger one after death. Still others need no public at all, and in the role of bystanders they get more enjoyment and knowledge of life than as performers.

    In a world with so high a proportion of fools, it is neither disgrace nor honor when people say of a finished work, "I can't understand it." The last word on the merits of it will be spoken by the future. And sometimes the future decides that a work is beautiful and worth treasuring, and then ironically destroys it and leaves behind no word of explanation nor apology. (

    I think Stein's valuable because she's still difficult, while Sherwood Anderson's Mid-American Chants are neglected because their difficulty has been resolved in various ways, even if thematically the Chants are more relevant than ever.

  21. Hey Todd,

    Thanks for this -- I don't think I've ever read Sandburg's defense of Pound. I'll check out out.

    All best,


  22. And Art -- I agree about the importance of engaging poetry that doesn't initially, or even eventually, appeal to one. I once wrote a long-ass post about a poem I really didn't like, and came to a better understanding about my own affinities in the process:


  23. Here ya go, Bob. The Sand-man on EP, in POETRY, February 1916:

  24. Interesting quote. A form that's adequate to its historical moment is required for success; but a form that defies the historical moment may be required for literature.

  25. Kent Johnson sent me an email saying Blogspot is acting up and he can't post the comment he wants to post. This is the message he sent me:

    It sounds exciting and avant-reaffirming, I guess, to say that Rimbaud tells us more about 1872 than Mendes. Or Stein more about 1910 than Dollard.

    Implicit in the claim, from what I gather, is that there's something about "insurgent" literary forms that sheds a higher, more total light on historical forces, class struggles, the ideological matrix of the times, and so forth than more conservative styles and discourses do.

    Question to Joshua: WHAT is the "more" that Rimbaud and Stein lay bare? Can you be more specific? HOW SO do they give us greater, more comprehensive information about the insides of their times than, for example, contemporaneous conservative poets or realist writers might? Not according to Lukacs, for one, they don't. And not according to Marx, either. Or Engels. Or Lenin. Or Trotsky. Or Luxemburg. Or Gramsci. Or Mariategui. Or Brecht, even, who nobly had at it with Lukacs on the political uses of literary experiment. Not even Adorno, really (though I can see Joshua's misapplied drift comes from Aesthetic Theory and the "cognitive" status of major works--by the way, as an aside, has anyone ever written on the weird anti-Kantian semblance betwixt Adorno and the New Critics?)

    Actually, Joshua's argument sounds "Marxist," but has rather little to do with the core tradition, I'm afraid. It's more to do, at bottom, with the exhausted (what would the old folks call it: petit-bourgeois?) Tel Quel/Language poetry idea/ideal of radical *form* bearing some advanced teleological charge, some immanent and superior measure of critique. I'm not saying that there isn't a lot to learn about 1872 or 1910 through Rimbaud or Stein (!), or whoever. But to say that their writings give you a deeper, more total grasp of historical "essence" than more conventional artists like, say, Zola, Feneon, or the Parnassians, or than, say, Henry James or EA Robinson is just plain silly--*and* outmoded.

    Though I have to hand it to Joshua: His little rant there contra Bourdieu (whose work leaves Joshua's somewhat supernatural tropes on the field like a jockstrap) is pretty entertaining.