Friday, March 04, 2011

Facebook Live: Talking Wit in Louisville

I've been back in Chicago for five days, but I'm only now getting caught-up enough to pull together my thoughts about the latest Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900 — a terrible name for a great conference.  The consensus among the crowd with whom I hang seems to be that this was one of the best iterations of the conference yet, and that was certainly my experience.  There were the usual charms: interesting panels, good readings, a good party, and meeting face-to-face with people one is generally only in virtual contact with for much of the year ("it's Facebook live," said Robert Zamsky at one point, when he and I found ourselves sitting with Mark Scroggins and Joe Donoghue in the lobby, talking about the same stuff we talk about online).

One of the advantages of living in a big airport hub city like Chicago is that, when one sets out for a conference, there's a good chance of running into someone else on the way to the conference, an old grad school friend, a colleague from a hinterland university, or even the Big Cheese main speaker herself.  This time out it was all a but uncanny, though, as I found myself seated in a departure lounge next to a woman who looked, for all the world, like a tired and uncharacteristically grumpy Rae Armantrout.  I thought about introducing myself, but I've got godawful facial recognition skills, so I second-guessed my identification of her.  Besides, what would Armantrout, who lives in San Diego, be doing on a 7:00 a.m. flight out of Chicago?  It didn't add up.  As it turned out, though, it was Armantrout, who'd been through some kind of hellish system of delays and reroutings.  So I missed my chance to get my seat reassigned next to hers and bore her for an hour with My Fine Insights into Matters Poetic after telling her how much I like the new book, Money Shot.

Anyway.  I can report that Louisville's eating-and-drinking scene has improved since I started going to the conference in the early 90s.  While the Persian joint everyone was so keen to get to was just okay (seriously: I've had kebabs that good served up in styrofoam with a soda on the side for, like, six bucks), the Mayan Cafe was tremendous and not-to-be-missed, especially if you like your rabbit with mole sauce.  The place is down on Market Street, which seems to have gentrified lately.  There's a microbrew bar out that way called The Beer Store that I'd definitely hit again, supplementing my favorite Louisville dive bar (Freddie's) with a tonier drink or two.

But you wanted to know about the conference, not the places where I jabbered the night away with the usual villainous collection of poets, critics, and scholars.  It began auspiciously for me: no sooner had I stepped in the door and started sniffing out a coffee urn than I was waylaid by Norman Finkelstein, Jane Augustine, Michael Heller, and Henry Weinfield (who gracefully endured me over-enthusiastically reciting his poem "Song for the In-Itself and For-Itself" while we were introduced).  From there it was a blur of panels and conversations until Rae Armantrout's big reading, which went very well.  She reads unostentatiously, and does a lot of the things you're not supposed to do when performing (such as apologizing for the imposition of the performance -- "I'll just read three more, I know people are tired").  But the whole thing worked, I think in large part due to the way she just sort of radiates benevolence.  I've seen some very slick poetic acts that were undone by the clear and present fact that the reader was some kind of arrogant, self-absorbed shit-heel.  Armantrout's reading was very much the opposite sort of affair.  And it has me all hot and bothered to blog about her poetry soon.

My own panel, on contemporary poetry and wit, began with a disappointment and ended with the kind of controversy for which I'd kind of hoped.  The disappointment was the absence of Joyelle McSweeney, who couldn't make it due to a brood of sick kids at home.  But this was offset by the extra time Mike Theune could take in his talk on the paradelle — an allegedly historic poetic form invented by Billy Collins, who successfully hoaxed quite a few people, who took to writing paradelles as if they were the long-lost cousins of sestinas and villanelles.  This is a thankless task, in that the parameters of the paradelle are, in fact, such as to pretty much doom the poem to dire, flat-footed failure.  Here's the definition Collins cooked up, and many others swallowed whole:

The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d'oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only these words.

The sincere paradelles written in the wake of Collins are, it seems, all-but-universally horrible.  Try one at home sometime and see how it comes out.

It was my own paper, though, that provoked a bit of controversy, though much of it can, I think, be explained by my failure to make myself clear.  Long story short, my paper took up a topic I blogged about a while ago — the difference between the predominant forms of wit in eighteenth-century England and in contemporary American poetry, and what those differences tell us about the social and institutional norms determining the nature of poetry then and now.

Here it is.  Much of it is verbatim from this very blog, some of it is new.  At a couple of places I’ve indicated big tracts of stuff that I deleted from the too-long version I cut down to conference-paper size.


True Wit, False Wit, and the Situation of Poetry

We live in an age of false wit in poetry, but that’s not a bad thing.  And “false” should not be taken to mean “bad” here, any more than “minor” should be taken to mean “insignificant” when Deleuze and Guattari use the term to describe Kafka’s oeuvre.  But if we look at the dominant mode of wit in contemporary American poetry, and describe it in terms of the classical categories of poetic wit, it is indeed a “false” wit that dominates.  Of course this tells us as much about the values underlying the classical categories of wit, and the eighteenth-century England in which they were developed, as it tells us about our own poetry of wit, and the environment in which that poetry is produced and received.  Both the old categories of wit, and the dominant contemporary mode of wit are, after all, products of their social and institutional contexts.  Social being determines consciousness, as Marx said — and not just other people’s consciousness.  If there’s any excuse for what I’m about to do (that is, to spend half of a paper at a conference on “literature and culture since 1900” on eighteenth century matters) it’s that the task of understanding the assumptions underlying our own values and aesthetics requires a kind of echo-location, a contrast of where we are with some other time and place.

So.  The word “wit” has meant many things since it tumbled out of old German into the English language, but it begins to take on something like the contemporary sense when John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, drew a distinction between judgment and wit: judgment was the capacity for discerning fine differences, whereas wit was a capacity for finding similarities, such as the similarities upon which metaphors are founded.  Hence, Locke concluded, the snickering wits of London were unlikely to have much good judgment; while sage, sober, men of judgment were unlikely to crack a smile at a bon mot (a prospect we might rightly regard with terror).  But it took the eighteenth century to really codify wit, and it was Joseph Addison who popularized an elaboration of Locke’s idea of wit and made it into something like a norm for poetry.

Addison first sketched out his schema of the varieties of wit in a 1711 issue of The Spectator.  Following Locke, he defines wit as the capacity to find similarities, but he goes on to claim there’s more to it than just noticing that one’s mistresses’ eyes, being bright, are like the sun:

[Locke’s] 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. …. 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 decent working definition, as Addison himself isn’t too shy to mention, saying it “comprehends most of the species of wit, [such] as metaphors, similitudes, allegories, enigmas… dramatic writings, burlesque, and all the methods of allusion...”  John Donne’s famous 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.  There, the central, unmoving arm of the compass represents the woman left behind, and the other arm represents the man who returns.  The surprising resemblance is the one between the compass and (shall we say) a certain physiological effect of the prospect of a romantic 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.

This isn’t just wit, by Addison’s definition: more precisely, it is a poem of “true wit,” since wit, for Addison, can be either true or false.

True wit, in this view, involves a substantial resemblance of things in the world, or referents (the upright drawn-in compass really does have a similarity to the man’s anatomy), while false wit involves only a resemblance of words.  False wit, says Addison, takes many forms: “sometimes of single letters, as in anagrams, chronograms, lipograms, and acrostics; sometimes of syllables, as in echoes… sometimes of words, as in puns...”

[Post-conference addendum: I tried to do a bit of Addisonian “true wit” myself on Facebook after the conference, saying: “Giving a midterm today, which means all I have to do is sit silently, try to look serious, and zone out while everyone else in the room works nervously and worries about the outcome. It's kind of like being Clarence Thomas.”  I don’t know if I carried off any surprise or delight, but the resemblance is between two portly, zoned out idiots, me and Justice Thomas, rather than between two syllables or words, so in at least that one respect it fits Addison’s model.]

Why, one wonders, does Addison hold up a wit based on the resemblance of things in the world over a wit based on verbal or phonetic cleverness without reference to the truth of the resemblance in world?  Why value wit that says something about things rather than wit that plays with linguistic resemblance — the wit of puns or zeugmas or other verbal elements?

One finds 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 Dutch), the English of the early eighteenth century were seeing a rise in commerce and finance, and a consequent rise of a bourgeois class without ties to the old aristocratic families.  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, 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 and lovers of wit as a form of sophisticated play. The role of Addison’s journal here was, essentially, to find a cultural ground in which these different elites could forge something like a common identity.  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.  [You might imagine here extensive quotation from The Spectator, and huge tracts of tedious social analysis drawn from Raymond Williams and Stefan Collini.]

Having spent the first part of this presentation in the eighteenth century, I find I’m going to have to a rather bold synecdoche, taking one contemporary poet to stand for the dominant form of poetry in the dominant institution of poetry of our time — the university (which Ron Silliman famously described as “the 500 pound gorilla at the party of poets”).  The poet is Harryette Mullen, the form of poetry a broadly-conceived set of genres generally described as “linguistically innovative,” “formally experimental,” or “elliptical” — and these are the dominant, though by no means the only, forms within the university in terms of several criteria: amount of critical discussion, prominence at prestige institutions like Brown, Harvard, Iowa, and UCLA, where Mullen herself teaches, etc.  And, I might add, prominence at this conference over the years.  I don’t mean that this dominance is or isn’t justified, merely that it exists.  I refer you to Keith Tuma’s wonderful article “After the Boom” in the most recent Chicago Review for an analysis of the situation. 

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 based primarily of the resemblance of words or phonemes or other linguistic elements rather than on the resemblance of things in the world.  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 “as it were,” but doesn’t make much of a statement about the resemblance of objects in the world.  And what about the verbally playful prose-poems for which she is best known?  Here’s one, called “Of a girl, in white,”:

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” (“ship” being 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.”  We’ve got quite a lot of verbal resemblance between phrases in the poem and other verbal structures such as familiar platitudes.  But is there anything that Addison would see as a resemblance between things in the world?  There’s some sort of implied statement lurking in the poem, something about the making public of private eros, but the poem isn’t really referential enough to deal in those resemblances of referents that Addison thought of as essential to true wit.

Another one of Mullen’s prose poems, “Denigration,” takes on weightier issues, and certainly does so with wit.  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 offensive of terms for for “African-American” 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 reside) 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.  There is certainly a politics to the poem, but the wit of the piece is based entirely on verbal resemblances, not resemblances of objects in the world of referents (such as bright eyes and the sun, say, or a raised compass and the tumid male appendage).  In Addisonian terms, we’re still operating in the world of false wit.

I want to stress here that I am making a description, not a judgment — though Addison’s classifications of wit as true or false is inherently judgmental, and were he able to decipher such a resolutely postmodern poems he would surely judge them an inferior form of wit.  But we need not accept the literary values of Addison’s age.  Indeed, it is unlikely that we would, since we are not the products of his circumstances. 

To understand why Mullen’s kind of wit has become so prominent (and it is with of this kind that we find most prominently in most branches of linguistically innovative poetry), we need to look to our own circumstances.  

I suppose the briefest way to describe our circumstances is to say this: we live better than a century into an era of relative aesthetic autonomy in poetry (one could and should qualify this in any number of ways, but, caveats aside, to say otherwise is to misrepresent the history of Western poetry).  What I mean is this: for reasons that I bore people with in another article, poetry has long-since turned against a feeling of responsibility toward the dominant logic of modernity — the logic of the market.  Hollywood screenwriters and writers of genre fiction tend to write first and foremost with an eye to serving the market.  At least since the days of Pater and Mallarmé, though, poets have not: they turn their backs on the market that has turned its back on them.  This turning-of-backs is a feature of the bohemian environment in which poetry, like many arts, operated throughout the early twentieth century, and in which it, to some extent, operates in our own time.  It is also a deep, underlying principle of the institutionalization of literary study and literary creativity in university departments of English [Imagine here a great deal of quotation from César Graña’s work on bohemia, as well as Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature, along with some amusing quotes from the correspondence of the New Critics about how to establish literary studies as an autonomous field, and similar quotes from debates during the rise, and eventual containment, of cultural studies as a possible new paradigm in English departments].

One of the things this century of relative aestheric autonomy has meant is an increasing emphasis on form and medium (in poetry’s case, on language).  Pierre Bourdieu has, in both The Field of Cultural Production and The Rules of Art, charted the social dynamics of this, showing that as fields of artistic endeavor become more autonomous from the market, they become increasingly interested in their inner workings — in poetry’s case, this means linguistic innovation, a movement against the transparency of language and toward its foregrounding (one might think here of Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption,” with its militant rejection of poetry in which language tries to disappear to make way for its referents — or one might think of Ron Silliman’s argument in the essay “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” which argues powerfully for the foregrounding of language).

This institutionalizing of aesthetic autonomy (in bohemian and academic form) is an enormous underlying force in how poets operate, a force that runs deeper than we are generally aware.  What was the old Buffalo poetics scene if not a confluence of bohemian and university environments?  Such a confluence is central to the formation of many poets, and it was central to Harryette Mullen’s formation, too: she began writing in an Austin-based community of writers, artists, and musicians, and has taught at Cornell and UCLA. (She’s also been connected to the Black Arts movement, which adds a community-oriented dimension to her writing, along with the prominence of form).  But she, like most of us, is oriented toward language itself to an extent that prior eras, such as Addison’s eighteenth century, would find shocking, and false.  I don’t think this is a bad thing: it is, in fact, strong evidence that we can use in understanding where we are in the social and aesthetic history of poetry.  And I think any understanding of poetry that means to get beyond the polemical expression of current norms would do well to look to this kind of historically comparative evidence.


When I looked up after mumbling my way through all that, I was afraid I’d see what one often sees at conferences: a bunch of tired looking people making their way for the exit.  Instead, it seemed that almost everyone in the room had a hand in the air. I particularly noticed Bill Howe who, in the back, extended a Conan-the-Barbarian like limb high, as if to smite down upon his opponent with great force and mighty vengeance.  

A number of the comments were positive, but let's not bother with those: it's the negative ones from which one really learns.  The first thing I learned was that I'd somehow fucked up, and failed to make it clear that I didn't think Mullen's poetry was non-referential.  Several people wanted very much to make the point that her poems do refer to things in the world, and have all sorts of social and political things to say.  I agree!  I'd meant merely that the center of gravity in her wit had to do with the resemblance phonetic elements: she, like a lot of langpo/post-avant types, riffs off of phonetic resemblances in words ("as silverware as it were"), and much of the surprise and delight in her poetry depends on that kind of technique, as opposed, say, to the kind of resemblance between objects that I tried to work on in my own clumsy "I am like Clarence Thomas" comment. Mullen does compare things in the world, like the Mississippi and Niger rivers, but that particular comparison doesn't seem to aim at surprise and delight.  Anyway, I don't deny that there are instances of what Addison would call true wit in Mullen: I just mean that the center of gravity in her wit is more on the phonetics side. Later, a couple of bottles of wine into the evening Grant Jenkins demanded that I give the percentage, which I couldn't do. He proposed something like 60/40 true to false wit, and a big-ass balloon glass of Cabernet later I proposed 80/20 — but neither of us really knows.  Maybe we need a research assistant to check it out.

Some other comments took us into a discussion of degrees of falseness in wit (with the reminder that the term "false," while a judgmental one for Addison, was only a descriptive term for us).  My own contender for "instance of falsest wit" was a brilliant bit of spontaneous comic performance by Charles Bernstein, as reported by Daisy Fried in the New York Times.  Here's what she wrote:

At a reading I attended in the Smith College science lecture hall a few years ago, Charles Bernstein, famous as a poet and anti-poet, pointed to the giant poster on the wall behind him and said, “I want to thank the Poetry Center for putting up my poem ‘The Periodic Table of the Elements.’ ” He then proceeded to give a mock-dramatic rendition of the symbols, left to right, down the page. “H, He, Li, Be!” he panted, growled and spluttered. “Why!?” he complained when he got to yttrium (Y). “I!” he declared solemnly for iodine, as if toasting his own ego. He slowed down, sped up. “No!” he bellowed for nobelium, then finally whispered “Lr,” the last chemical symbol. He turned to face the audience. “I’ve always wondered if I should have ended with ‘No’ rather than putting that ‘Lr’ on the end. I think it was a mistake. I think it would have been more emphatic with the negation.” This was the funniest, most impromptu-­brilliant, serious moment I’ve ever witnessed at a poetry reading — and very much about sound, language, expression and communication.

Fantastic! Brilliant! Wonderful!  And, in Addisonian terms, utterly false as wit!  I mean, think about it.  First of all, part of the conceit here is to strip the periodic table of its reference to actual chemical elements, and to treat it as a kind of sound poem.  In fact, the act of comparison is between the periodic table and a zaum-like kind of poetry based purely on sounds (like Alexei Kruchenykh's work).  So we've got the verbal resemblance between the periodic table as sound and a kind of poetry based only on sound.  It's the phonetic resemblance of the chart to a purely phonetic kind of poetry that creates the surprise and delight.  Reference to things outside of language is minimal (there's no "a compass is like a penis" or "I am like Clarence Thomas" move operating at all).  And the fact that both the reading and our discussion of it took place in academic rooms was just sort of perfect, given the historical connection between a foregrounding of language and the academic institutionalization of literature.

This little discussion of Bernstein generated it's own objections ("It's not just false wit! It's performance! It's Charles being Charles!") all of which I grant — there are a lot of different things happening in that bravado performance.  Among those things, though, is a kind of word play that the Addisonian eighteenth century, being for various socio-historical reasons more uptight about these matters than we are, would condemn.  Which is interesting, I think.  I also think that not everyone in the room got past the accusatory sound of the word "false."  Maybe I should have said "Addison calls this false, but we'll call it language-based."  But I wanted to keep present the sense that Addison's time and our own had very different aesthetic values, so that we could think about how and why those differences came about.

One really good question came from Alan Golding, who asked what was to be gained from reviving "wit" as a category of critical analysis.  While I actually think it would be interesting to go through contemporary poetry with a whole set of aesthetic categories from other cultural moments (wit, the beautiful, the dynamic sublime, the mathematical sublime, the picturesque, etc. — as opposed to the terms we use now, like innovative, the gurlesque, the abject, and so forth).  But that's not the exercise I was trying to engage in.  I talked about wit, but I could have talked about something else, so long as there was a point of comparison and contrast between different cultural moments.  Any such point is interesting, because it is through points of contrast that we can understand the differences between contemporary and earlier aesthetic values, and through examining the factors that gave rise to those different values we can understand a lot.  Specifically, we can understand why the past was as it was, and we can understand things about ourselves that are concealed to us if we only ever examine our values on our own terms.  Self-reflexivity is tricky: you need to bounce your observations off something culturally remote in a kind of echo-location.  Or maybe the better analogy is to say that trying to understand ourselves is like trying to look at the back of one's own head: you can't do it directly. You need some reflective surfaces to do it.  So the game, for me, isn't "let's revive wit!" — it's "what are we doing and why?"  And we need to understand ourselves on terms other than our own if we're really going to be able to play that game.  So: let's let the past interrogate us, and listen to what it says.  That sort of thing doesn't really get done much in the academic humanities, where the game is so often "let's expose the assumptions of other times and places" or even "let's judge the past on our terms, and find it morally appalling for believing things we don't believe."  

There were other really good comments: Tyrone Williams telling me that many African-American interpreters of Mullen read "A Girl, in white" not as a poem about eros, but as a poem about passing.  I really hadn't seen that angle before (talk about being blind to our own assumptions!).  And Scott Pound discovered, from the paper, that he and I have been working on similar projects in the history of aesthetic autonomy.  We've been emailing each other files of our work ever since.  But my favorite comment came from Keith Tuma, later, at a party.  I was a bit glassy-eyed by that point, but I think his words were  "I admire you, Bob, because there's no foxhole you won't blunder into, and do it with good humor." He then said something about me criticizing the Cambridge poets in The Cambridge Literary Review, and calling Mullen, a beloved African-American experimental poet, a "false wit" in a room full of her friends.  I think Tuma might have been saying something about my ham-fisted, bull-in-a-china-shop naïveté, but I don't get a lot of people coming up to me and starting a sentence with "I admire you," so I'll take what I can get.  And I think I'll head back to Louisville next year.