Friday, February 17, 2012

Poetic Pluralism on Trial

Back in 1998, it still seemed marginally plausible to believe that much of the grand expanse of American poetry could be divided into two fields, one centered in Iowa City lyricism, the other in Buffalo language writing.   It was then that a much younger and more naive version of the present humble blogger wrote in praise of Chicago, in the first editorial for Samizdat.  "Chicago has fostered poets," I claimed, "without pressuring them to conform too closely to the establishment or the counter-establishment.  It is in the interstices between orthodoxies that poetry finds innovation and life, and this is why Chicago has become one of the good places for poetry."  It was the first in a series of essays in which I tried to go to bat for pluralism.  I wanted to say that confessional lyricism and language writing were both important, and that good work could be produced in both of those idioms, and in a whole range of other modes.  In the years that followed I like to think my understanding of the contours of the American poetic field has become subtler and more detailed, but I also like to think that my pluralism has remained intact.

On the face of it pluralism is among the least exciting and provocative of positions.  Who, after all, could really get worked up at someone who advocates letting a thousand flowers bloom, who wishes for nothing more than that we live, let live, and try to find things of value in works that come from traditions other than our own?  Who indeed? Well, as it turns out, just about anyone who strongly believes in what they've committed to.  I was reminded of this recently when reading Keith Tuma's On Leave, in which Tuma, whose criticism both explains and advocates experimental poetics, writes of the difficulty he had in maintaining his friendship with the immensely charming formalist poet Michael Donaghy, whom he knew when they both studied at the University of Chicago.  Differences in poetics mattered between those two guys (both of whom, I should add in a pluralistic aside, I admire).  And I've had people take me on for my pluralism, too, sometimes quite effectively: if you bother to root around in some of the comments on old posts of this blog, for example, you'll find Keston Sutherland letting me have it for a lot of things, including, if I remember correctly, my pluralism.  If you're seriously committed to a particular program, pluralistic poetics can look like a cop-out.

Rather than revisiting any old arguments, I'd like to put my own pluralism on trial today.  For that purpose I've put myself in the defendant's chair, called Judge Lance Ito out from whatever room they send you to after your fifteen minutes of fame have expired, and summoned two imaginary lawyers to do the talking.

THE CASE FOR THE  PROSECUTION will be made by a thin man in black, his turtleneck unwrinkled, his great bald dome gleaming above his expensive glasses, his elegant, pencil-skirted assistant whispering in his ear intermittently.

THE CASE FOR THE DEFENSE will be made by a puffy, sweaty man in a worn brown corduroy blazer.  I am unnerved to see that his shirt is only partly tucked in, and that his briefcase contains a tuna sandwich, Doritos, and what looks like a pair of extra socks.

After a shuffling of papers, the prosecutor speaks, pronouncing the word "professor" with just a touch of icy contempt.

THE PROSECUTION: Let me begin by reminding the court that we are here to determine whether Professor Archambeau's longstanding poetic pluralism is a defensible position, or an affront to all those who truly care about poetry.  It is, as I shall demonstrate, the latter.  I call to the witness stand an academic whose standing, it will be agreed, exceeds that of Professor Archambeau: G.W.F. Hegel, late of the University of Berlin.  I thank you, Mr. Hegel, for taking the trouble to appear here from beyond the grave.

MR. HEGEL: Ja, ja, gut.  Indeed.  Though why you couldn't simply cite my books is beyond me.  It's quite a long commute from the circle of hell reserved for bad writers, you know.

THE PROSECUTION: Would you speak, please, to the issue of pluralism in the matter of aesthetics.

MR. HEGEL:  There was a time, you know, when poetry, and all art, mattered to people, and mattered as something powerful, not merely as something interesting.  Plato, of course, cast the poets out of the Republic, even though he admired them: they were too important for him to tolerate, because they were too important to the people.  They could move the masses, they could change the beliefs of the populace,  they could sway not just a few aesthetes, but the entire polis, and they couldn't be tolerated.  I didn't live in an age when art mattered like that, still less do you.  I, and you, live in an age when science prevails as a way of knowing and of making things happen, not art.  Art does not disappear under such conditions, but it affects people differently.  "However splendid the effigies of the Greek gods may look," I have written, "and whatever dignity we may find in the images of God the Father, Christ, and the Virgin Mary, it is of no use: we do not bend our knees before them."  Art, since the triumph of science, is at the periphery of our society, and no one goes to war over whether images should or shouldn't adorn a church.  Art has worked itself out, and the reason people like this Archambeau can say they admire poems in all sorts of different styles and idioms is that art simply doesn't matter to such people.  Poetry is interesting to people like him, not vital.  He is symptomatic of an age in which art has become marginal.  

THE PROSECUTION: Thank you, Mr. Hegel.  No further questions.

THE DEFENSE: If I may, Mr. Hegel: what are we to make of the partisans of one or another sort of poetry?  If we live in an age when poetry is merely interesting, and not vital, how do we account for those who would say "Jeremy Prynne is good, or right, and therefore Glyn Maxwell is bad, or wrong"?

MR. HEGEL: Those who truly care, those for whom different kinds of art aren't simply different but worse or somehow (politically, ethically, morally) wrong are throwbacks, of course, to an earlier age, survivals within our age in the way that Greek civilization survived inside Rome.  But we can say this: at least poetry matters to them, as it surely does not to the defendant, a modern-era dilettante if ever there was one.

THE DEFENSE: I see.  Well, I'd like to call on another witness now, whom we've fetched in with some difficulty from the cycle of eternal return.  Mr. Nietzsche will now take the stand... ah.  Thank you.  Mr. Nietzsche, what do you make of the most extreme partisans of particular kinds of poetry, those who condemn the works of other schools of poetry?

[A great shriek of feedback comes from the microphone on the witness stand as it becomes entangled in Nietzsche's mustache]

MR. NIETZSCHE: What kind of untermensch wired this place for sound? Hah? Bah!  Well.  Of course we must look at the partisans of various schools of poetry — when these schools are not the dominant one — as people compelled by ressentiment, by a sense of injustice and injury.  They look at the prizes and accolades awarded to those who write in the dominant poetic styles, and they grind their teeth in frustration and outrage.  They feel that such poetry isn't just different, it is evil, because its prominence deprives them of what they crave.  They wish to see it cast down, and yearn for a great redemption in which they and their kind of poetry are redeemed into the light.  This, of course, is slave morality.  "It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey," I have said, and we shouldn't be surprised when the lambs talk to each other, saying "these birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb—should he not be good?"

THE DEFENSE: So you'd say, then, that those who condemn pluralism are just envious?


[Lance Ito nods slightly, though it is unclear whether he sustains the objection, or is simply nodding off in a stupor.  The prosecutor pounces on the opportunity, while the defense attorney seems absorbed in trying to unwrap his sandwich].

THE PROSECUTION: Mr. Nietzsche, does this not imply that Mr. Archambeau's pluralism, in contradistinction to the alleged slave morality of his critics, is an aristocratic ethos?

MR. NIETZSCHE: Yes! Or close enough.  If he actually has some preferences, but is willing to tolerate the things he doesn't really care for, that would be true.  The birds of prey look on the lambs without any real hatred or sense that the lambs are evil.  Rather, they say of the lambs "we bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb."

THE DEFENSE: [with a mouth full of tuna sandwich] Surely you don't mean that Archambeau would eat poets he doesn't like!

MR. NIETZSCHE: Him?  No, he'd hardly have the will to overcome his own hesitation.  He'd just write a lukewarm review, with mild condescension hidden behind seemingly neutral language.  I've seen him do it.  But in a general sense, his pluralism implies a kind of privilege—just as the resentfulness of the partisans of particular styles masks a slavish ressentiment.

THE PROSECUTION: Just so.  Partisans seek justice for their excluded and despised poetry, while Professor Archambeau, ensconced in the ivory tower, looks down on them.

THE DEFENSE: I must object.  This line of argument implies that Mr. Archambeau advocates for a particular style, and merely tolerates others.  I assure you: my client has never had a clear aesthetic conviction in his life!

[Archambeau looks distinctly uncomfortable, shifts in his chair, and, brow furrowed, seems about to speak, when the attorney for the defense speaks again]. 

THE DEFENSE: I must now call my final witness, the late Mr. Leszek Kolakowski, whom some of you will know for his devastating critique of Marx in three volumes, Main Currents of Marxism.  I know this may seem strange, but I assure you his comments will be most relevant to proving the defense.  Welcome, Mr. Kolakowski.

MR. KOLAKOWSKI: Make it quick.  We're poking Stalin with sharp sticks in the afterlife, and it'll be my turn as soon as Orwell tires out.

THE DEFENSE: Very well.  Could I prevail upon you to read a passage from your study Modernity on Endless Trial—the part I texted you about?

MR. KOLAKOWSKI: Yes, yes.  Here it is: "A few years ago I visited the pre-Columbian monuments in Mexico and was lucky enough, while there, to find myself in the company of a well known Mexican writer, thoroughly versed in the history of the Indian peoples of the region.  Often in the course of explaining to me the significance of many things I would not have understood without him, he stressed the barbarity of the Spanish soldiers who had ground the Aztec statues into dust and melted down the exquisite gold figurines to strike with the image of the Emperor.  I said to him, “you think these people were barbarians; but were they not, perhaps, true Europeans, indeed the last true Europeans? They took their Christian and Latin civilization seriously; and it is because they took it seriously that they saw no reason to safeguard pagan idols; or to bring the curiosity and aesthetic detachment of archeologists into their consideration of things imbued with a different, and therefore hostile religious significance. If we are outraged at their behavior it is because we are indifferent, both to their civilization, and to our own.”  There it is.  But what relevance this passage on the fate of civilizations could have to these picayune proceedings is beyond me.

THE DEFENSE: Ah! Yes.  Well, the point is this: isn't my client, by virtue of his pluralism, free from any charges of insensitivity and cultural arrogance?  He's no conquistador — I mean, just look at his paunch and soft hands!  He couldn't destroy an Aztec temple if he wanted to, and I assure you he wouldn't — no more than he'd write a negative review of a book just because it came from some poetic movement with which he had no affiliation.  He's a man of peace and tolerance!  The defense rests.

THE PROSECUTION: I confess I must shake my head in disbelief.  Can my colleague on the defense really misunderstand Mr. Kolakowski's passage so profoundly?  Can't he see that Kolakowski defends western civilization against its critics?  Can't he see that what Mr. Kolakowski says only affirms Mr. Hegel's charge that people like the defendant don't really care enough about anything in particular to have beliefs?  Indifference, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is my charge against the defendant.  If he truly cared about something, he'd be less ready to tolerate anything.  The prosecution rests, as well.

JUDGE LANCE ITO: ...What? What?  We're done then?  I leave it to the jury.  If the charge won't fit, you must acquit.  Who wants to go for a smoothie?  My boss at Orange Julius says I'm getting good at making them.


  1. What is it called to be in the process of making up one's mind, to be working on developing aesthetic convictions? It so happens that this process takes many many many human life spans to begin to approach an opinion so one may appear vacuous and indifferent..?

    What's handed down in itself is already the result of heavy culling. A lot of what's easy to rail against just never manages to reach a threshold of signal over noise.

  2. Seeking to replace one orthodoxy with another is a political, rather than a poetical, act. The rest of us, I guess, just keep on writing.