Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Poet as Bohemian

"Bohemian Rhapsodies," a little thing I wrote about Roberto Bolaño and Jules Laforgue, has been out in print for a while but is now available online, too.  It starts like this:

Bohemia, that mythical land of outsiders, rebels, malcontents, slum- ming rich kids, and rent-grubbing scam artists, spreads its porous boundaries wide in both space and time, extending from Montparnasse to Green- wich Village to North Beach, from Thomas DeQuincey’s opium den to Barney Rosset’s office at Grove Press in the sixties, to a grimy gallery in a neighborhood too newly annexed to the Bohemian empire for the likes of us to know about it. Bohemia is often seen as a kind of effortless Arcadia, a patchouli-and-pot-smoke saturated world of laughter and lotus eating. But in two recent translations of books by Jules Laforgue and Roberto Bolaño, both of whose bohemian credentials are beyond reproach, we see something else entirely. In Laforgue’s case we see a struggle to overcome some of the habitual attitudes of the bohemian poet; and in Bolaño’s, a long struggle to endure the kind of alienation that drives the bohemian away from mainstream society.
You can find the whole thing here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Seeing Red: The Poet Resigns

I'm almost done (for the time being) with the shameless plugging of my forthcoming book The Poet Resigns, due out in the spring.  But before I lay off the blowing of my own horn, here's a new version of the cover, in red, and another jacket blurb, this one from Kevin Prufer:
Archambeau offers brilliant discussions of the complex intersections of poetry, politics, literary criticism, academia, and the movements that have influenced the direction of the art.  His treatment of the problematic position poetry holds among the American public is by far the most thoughtful I have read. There is much to admire in this book, but what I think most highly of is Archambeau's ability to survey the fields of poetry, poetry criticism, and politics with such amazing breadth and detail, as if he is able to see them simultaneously from a great distance and up close, offering arguments that are both ambitiously sweeping and precise.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to weep for my sabbatical, which officially expires in three days.  May it rest in peace.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Blurbs Are In: The Back Cover of "The Poet Resigns"

After a gathering of scholarly intensity of a kind not seen since the Second Vatican Council, my publisher has approved the jacket and catalog copy for The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World.  Here's what you'll find on the back cover, along with the least unflattering photo of me we can muster:
Robert Archambeau's book, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, is a fascinating study of what it means to practice the art in a new century. Archambeau is a wise and honest writer in assessing the pitfalls of poetry, and the shifting nature of the poet's role as public intellectual or private mutterer in the larger, noisier culture that has never really privileged poetry to the extent that the myth and history of its privilege purports. His personal touch and winning tone make the book suitable to those who favor a rich and friendly discussion of the social and cultural implications, and possible obligations, of poetry in our age. —Maxine Chernoff
"Archambeau is one of our smartest poetic sociologists, and he tackles the biggest problem facing poetry in our time: the dwindling of its audience and the growing divide between poets and a mainstream literary readership." —Norman Finkelstein, Contemporary Literature 
“If you want to see somebody having fun while thinking provocatively about contemporary poetry, try Archambeau: I always do.” —Stephen Burt
And here's the official description of the book: 
What are we really wishing for when we want poetry to have the prominence it had in the past?  Why do American poets overwhelmingly identify with the political left?  How do poems communicate? Is there an essential link between formal experimentation and political radicalism? What happens when poetic outsiders become academic insiders? Just what makes a poem a poem?  If a poet gives up on her art, what reasons could she find for coming back to poetry? These are the large questions animating the essays of The Poet Resigns: Essays on Poetry in a Difficult Time, a book that sets out to survey not only the state of contemporary poetry, but the poet’s relationship to politics, society, and literary criticism.

In addition to pursuing these topics, The Poet Resigns peers into the role of the critic and the manifesto, the nature of wit, the poetics of play, and the persistence of modernism, while providing detailed readings of poets as diverse as Harryette Mullen and Yvor Winters, George Oppen and Robert Pinsky, C.S. Giscombe and Pablo Neruda.  Behind it all is a sense of poetry not just as an academic area of study, but as a lived experience and a way of understanding.  Few books of poetry criticism show such range — yet the core questions remain clear: what is this thing we love and call ‘poetry,’ and what is its consequence in the world?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

T.S.Eliot, Social Class, and Anti-Semitism

I've been working on a chapter about T.S. Eliot for a book whose current working title is Poetry, Autonomy, Society, and I've been trying to think of a way of addressing Eliot's very real, entirely inescapable anti-Semitism.  On the one hand, I don't want it to become the main focus of the chapter, since the book is about the idea of aesthetic autonomy.  On the other hand, I don't want to act like Eliot's anti-Semitism didn't exist, or didn't matter, or didn't play an important role in his poetry and his social writings.

One line of argument I'm making in the chapter is that Eliot's early interest in aesthetic autonomy comes from his break with his own social class' moralism.  That is: he comes from a long line of people who formed a social elite in Boston, and in various communities where Bostonians settled, as in his native St. Louis.  The Bostonian elite believed in a very paternalistic kind of civic-mindedness.   They were not firm believers in popular, bottom-up democracy—but they thought elites should be good stewards of the community, and they often lavished funds on hospitals, churches, schools, and charities of all sorts, and were wary of excessive avarice and of financial speculation.  

Beginning in the years after the Civil War, they began to be displaced by a newer and more overtly materialistic elite, often politically corrupt (this new elite was overwhelmingly made up of gentiles, both Protestant and Catholic).  The decline of their class accelerated right around the time Eliot was born in 1888.  And when their power fades and their old ideal of stewardship is no longer relevant to their new circumstances, Eliot turns his back on the moralistic aesthetic associated with his class—think of the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier, or of James Russell Lowell, both with family connections to the Eliots—and writes less overtly moralistic poetry, as well as poetry that satirizes the old elite's rectitude and reserve. Think "Portrait of a Lady" or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" — though there's more to both poems than a rejection of overt moralism and the ethos of the Boston elite.

So, since I'm already discussing Eliot's class circumstances as a way of explaining some of his aesthetic choices, I want to take this as an opportunity to discuss his anti-Semitism, especially since Eliot's prejudice isn't just a personal quirk: it's part and parcel of the outlook of his class.  Which is not to say that they were the only American anti-Semites, but their anti-Semitism took a particular form.  That is: the decline of the old elite happened to coincide with the arrival of numbers of Jewish immigrants, many of whom prospered in American conditions.  Always an easy target for those with axes to grind about their position in society, these immigrants bore much of the brunt of Eliot's class' resentment about their own loss of status.

Many among the old elite believed that scruple, gentlemanly habit, and class-based reservations hampering them in their attempts to retain privileged positions.  There is certainly some truth with regard to their loss of political power in cities like New York and St. Louis, where political bosses like William Magear "Boss" Tweed and Edward "Colonel Ed" Butler used tactics anathema to the well-bred gentleman to secure power, and it may have had some truth in the economic sphere, where fortunes like those of the Carnegies and Rockefellers (new money men, not members of the old elite) were built with a ruthlessness the old elite had never known.

But along with disdain for the new political and economic elite—both overwhelmingly Christian—came an anti-Semitism, drawing on longstanding bigotry and the coincidence of the arrival of Jewish immigrants with the decline of the old elite.  That is, a measure of the anti-Semitism endemic to Eliot and his class may be traced to their notion that their genteel ideals put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Jewish immigrants who were arriving in America and often thriving in an environment that did not restrict their actions to the degree that many European countries had.  No less a Brahmin than Henry Adams, thinking of the man of the old class, wrote:

Not a Polish Jew fresh from Warsaw or Cracow—not a furtive Yacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs—but had a keener instinct, an intenser energy, and a freer hand than he—American of Americans, with Heaven knew how many Puritans and Patriots behind him… 

The old elite’s sense of displacement, coinciding with the arrival and success of Jewish immigrants, in no way excuses the anti-Semitism of “Gerontion” or After Strange Gods, although it might be said to provide an explanatory context: Eliot’s bigotries were those of his class in a particular phase of its decline.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Poet Resigns: Early Notice

This is the cover of a book of my essays, due out in a few months as part of the series in Contemporary Poetics from the University of Akron Press.

It will include essays on the situation of poetry in the marketplace, poetry and politics, the real or imagined link between avant-garde aesthetics and left-wing politics, Cambridge school poetry, the post-avant, poetry and power, the question of whether poems can communicate, the attitude of language poets to academe, the New Criticism, the definition of poetry, avant-gardism in critical writing, the meaning of the manifesto, the decadence of the nationalist tradition in Irish poetry, and the state of American poetry.  There will also be essays on individual poets: Reginald Shepherd, Harryette Mullen, C.S. Giscombe, Yvor Winters, James McMichael, John Matthias, Pablo Neruda, Michael Anania, George Oppen, Robert Kroetsch, and Rimbaud.  It ends with a couple of more personal essays about what poetry has meant to me over the course of a life of reading, writing, writing about, and living with the stuff.

It should weigh in at around 300 pages, and will make a great gift for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, bar or bat mitzvahs, religious holidays in all faiths, and for that most important of Canadian holidays, Bigfoot's birthday.

I'm currently trying to find a photo of myself in which my head looks neither like a giant pinkish egg nor a demonically grinning bearded demon effigy for use on the back cover.  Success has thus far been limited.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Creative Writing Seminar: A Factual Parable

Bill Berkson, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch

I was on the phone today with one of my great mentors, Michael Anania, talking about poets as academics, and was regaled with the following anecdote about Delmore Schwartz:

Schwartz was teaching a graduate poetry writing seminar, and asked the small gathering of students how many of them thought they would go on to become great poets.  Every one of them raised a hand.

"Ha!" said Schwartz.  "If more than two or three great poets were alive at any one time, it would count as a renaissance!"

The students in the seminar were John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, Robert Bly, and Frank O'Hara.

Four out of five ain't bad.

UPDATE AUGUST 19: Opinions on the factual nature of this anecdote vary: see especially Andrew Epstein's convincing note about what probably really happened in the comments stream below.  Also, I'll take the rap for any garbling of the anecdote -- listening on a sketchy cell connection while trying to keep a three year old from smashing things introduces an element of surrealist distortion to most narratives!

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Bruce Andrews, Bill O’Reilly, and the Location of Knowledge

Where — or perhaps the better question is ‘through what means’ — does one find knowledge?  I wasn’t expecting to end up asking this question when I was hanging out at the Unicorn Café in Evanston with Michael Gregory Stephens and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas.  We were talking about how there’s been loss as well as gain with the rise of the new media: we all conduct our business with publishers over the internet now, and it’s just not the same as the days when Michael used to meet with the Grove Press people at Max's Kansas City.  This led us to talking about Youtube clips of various poets, and Lina mentioned Bruce Andrews’ appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News broadcast back in 2006.  I’d never seen it, but when I watched it, I felt almost immediately that the conflict between Andrews and O’Reilly wasn’t really a conflict between the political left and the political right, although that’s certainly how O’Reilly saw it.  At its core, it was a conflict deeper than that, a conflict about where, and how, one finds the basis of knowledge.  The most intriguing part of the conflict hove into view when it became clear that O’Reilly’s view of the location of knowledge had its origin in ideas propagated not on the right, but by the New Left of the 1960s and 70s — while Andrews’ view had deeper historical origins, in the classical liberalism of people like Matthew Arnold and, behind them, the Enlightenment.

O’Reilly wasn’t interviewing Andrews in Andrews’ capacity as a leading representative of Language Poetry, but in his capacity as a professor of political science at Fordham University.  Someone on O’Reilly’s staff had heard that there was a well-known book about then-President George W. Bush’s Iraq War lies on the syllabus of a course Andrews taught on foreign policy, and O’Reilly wanted to present this to his public as an outrage.  The segment of his show on which Andrews appeared was even called “Outrage of the Week.”  The conversation began with O’Reilly noting the presence of this anti-Bush book on the syllabus, and asking Andrews if “that sounds fair and balanced.”  When Andrews begins to talk about his syllabus, O’Reilly demands “which book is fair and balanced, or presents a pro-capitalist point of view.”

This is a fascinating question, since it seems to propose two contradictory theories about the path to truth and knowledge.  On the one hand, O’Reilly seems to be saying that only a book with a “pro-capitalist” point of view could be “fair and balanced.”  On the other hand, he seems to imply that individual books should be partisan, and that a course can become “fair and balanced” only by presenting different partisanships, letting the truth emerge from the clash of admittedly biased ideological viewpoints.  As the conversation goes on, it becomes clear that O’Reilly holds the latter view: that everyone has an ideological bias, that their discourse inevitably reflects self-interest, and only through presenting different views together can we arrive at valid knowledge.

Andrews, to his credit, does not let O’Reilly control the terms of discussion.  Rather than trying to find a “pro-capitalist” book on his syllabus, he responds by saying that the point of his foreign policy course is not to be pro- or anti- capitalism, but “to explain different countries’ foreign policies.”  It’s not about advocacy; it’s about analysis.  This simply does not compute for O’Reilly, who resumes his line of questioning about the ideological content of books on the syllabus.  “Is there any… book in your class you consider pro-American?” he asks.  Unshaken, Andrews replies by saying his is “not a normative class” — he doesn’t want to embrace or reject a particular ideology.  “It’s about understanding,” he says.  Unwilling or unable to grasp the notion of a course that aims at objectivity, O’Reilly asserts that Andrews is taking advantage of his students, “feeding them one world view” when he should be presenting more.

Andrews’ sense of the location of knowledge, here, is that it can be found in the individual’s attempt at objective, disinterested analysis—that we approach our texts with as cold and unprejudiced an eye as possible, and look not for what confirms our desires or our self-interest, nor for what we wish would be true, but for what is actually the case.  There’s a long tradition behind this way of thinking, with a center of gravity in the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century.  More proximate exemplars of the tradition include Matthew Arnold and, later, I.A. Richards.  Since I have a particular fondness for Richards, and have his Practical Criticism ready to hand, let’s quote from him.  Here, he defines what he thinks of as primitive thinking:

In primitive man . . . any idea which opens a ready outlet to emotion or points to a line of action in conformity with custom is quickly believed. . . . Given a need (whether conscious as a desire) or not, any idea which can be taken as a step on the way to its fulfillment is accepted. . . . This acceptance, this use of the idea—by our interests, our desires, feelings, attitudes, tendencies to action and what not—is emotional belief.

In Richards’ view, primitive thought is thought that takes confirmation of one’s own biases, needs, desires, or vested interests as true.  There’s no sincere attempt at objectivity or disinterest.  Rather, what feels right must be right.  If you’ve ever had the dire misfortune of getting into an argument with a gun rights zealot, you’ve probably encountered this kind of thinking: dubious and misinterpreted statistics fly fast, and are hurled around without much checking into their validity or applicability.  Statistics are valued less for the rigor that went into their creation than for their utility as intellectual ammunition. 

Another, better approach to knowledge comes when we attempt to achieve disinterest — something not possible in an absolute sense, but approachable by degrees (there is, after all, a difference between outright propaganda by, say, climate change deniers, and the attempt at objectivity by most members of the scientific community).  Here’s how Richards describes the process of attempting disinterest:

To respond, not through one narrow channel of interest, but simultaneously and coherently through many, is to be disinterested in the only sense of the word which concerns us here. A state of mind which is not disinterested is one which sees things only from one standpoint or under one aspect. At the same time, since more of our personality is engaged the independence and individuality of other things becomes greater. We seem to see ‘all round’ them, to see them as they really are; we see them apart from any one particular interest which they may have for us. Of course without some interest, we should not see them at all, but the less any one particular interest is indispensable, the more detached our attitude becomes. And to say that we are impersonal is merely a curious way of saying that our personality is more completely involved.

The individual’s attempt to see things as they really are — that’s the essence of disinterest.  The goal of thinking, here, isn’t to win a fight by thinking up arguments for what you already believe, or what you think will advance your particular interests.  The goal, as Bruce Andrews might say, “is understanding.”

Bill O’Reilly’s sense is that knowledge isn’t located in the mind of the person who attempts disinterest.  Rather, it is located in the clash between overtly self-interested antagonists: that’s why O’Reilly can’t seem to understand Andrews when he refuses to accept the pro-American/anti-American or pro-capitalist/anti-capitalist dichotomies O’Reilly throws his way.  Knowledge must be a matter of conflict, in this view, and the notion of disinterest makes about as much sense as bringing a slide rule to a knife fight.

The truly interesting thing about O’Reilly’s view, which has become a staple of the right wing, is that it comes from a left wing source.  That is, biggest challenge to the notion of disinterested knowledge came from the left radicalism of the 1960s.  Here’s an anecdote that I think captures something of the circumstances under which that challenge emerged.  It’s from a memoir of teaching at SUNY-Buffalo in Robert Hass’ Twentieth Century Pleasures:

The year must have been 1969; the room was packed with students and faculty dressed, as the style was, to their archetypes: Indians, buffalo hunters, yogis, metaphysical hoboes, rednecks, lumberjacks, Mandingo princes, lions, tigers, hawks, and bears.  Everything the American middle class had repressed lounged in that room listening to speaker after speaker with beatific attention.  Which took some doing.  I remember in particular a graduate student from the Progressive Labor Party who read an exceedingly long essay on the parallels between Bob Dylan's career and the growth of political theory in the New Left….When he finished, Edgar Friedenburg, the sociologist, rose to speak.  He is a dapper man and he wore a light gray suit with a striped broadcloth Brooks Brothers shirt.  His glasses sat low on his nose, his hair was tousled, and he looked amused.  He only managed one sentence: "I have been reflecting this afternoon that we are patient beings, and that, though popular culture deserves our most urgent attention, it requires from us a good deal less credence and more clearwater."  Some of the audience laughed; and a student in the front stood up, jabbed a finger forward, and said, "Friedenburg, it took twenty fucking years of repressive fucking education for you to learn to talk like that."

Friedenburg is clearly a representative of the Arnoldian tradition, looking to the free and fresh play of ideas and to the calm clarity of the disinterested mind as the sources of truth.  The kid from the Progressive Labor Party isn’t having it.  For him, Friedenburg’s position is just another unconsciously ideological bit of self-interest, worse than most in that it masquerades as an objectivity that it can never be.

This New Left skepticism about disinterest entered the academy over the course of the 70s and 80s, becoming quite commonplace in certain departments, especially English and Comparative Literature.  A famous article by William Spanos appeared in PMLA in 1985 that explicitly attacked notions of disinterest, and called I.A. Richards to account.  Richards,” wrote Spanos, “categorically dismisses as inevitably activating intellectual warfare … a hermeneutics of understanding as antagonistic dialogue.” For Spanos, the path to knowledge didn’t lie through the attempt at disinterest.  Rather, it was to be found by constructing arguments for one’s own self-interest, and pummeling the opposition with them.  The opposition was welcome to pummel back (if you want to know more about the Richards-Spanos debate, you might have a look at my article “Aesthetics as Ethics: One and a Half Theses on the New Criticism, in Re-Reading the New Criticism, edited by Miranda Hickman and John D. McIntyre, out from Ohio State University Press earlier this year—you can actually read a large portion of the article for free using the "look inside" feature on's listing for the book).

At some point, the right wing adopted the New Left’s distrust of disinterest, taking the idea that no form of knowledge was free of bias and distorting it into the belief that opposing views must be presented on all issues, and are to be treated as if equal. Hence the phenomenon of talk shows on which a scientist, presenting what he or she sincerely believes to be the truth, is forced to debate a propagandist, often funded by giant corporations or their think tanks, who only wants to present facts, or pseudo-facts, that advance the interests of his paymasters.  We’ve got people who live by the culture of disinterest (always imperfectly attained) set in combat against people who don’t really care whether what they say is true, only whether it advances their cause.

It’s the triumph, on the political right, of what Spanos (himself no right winger) called “a hermeneutics of understanding as antagonistic dialogue” that makes it impossible for Bill O’Reilly to understand Bruce Andrews when he says his course isn’t normative, but devoted to understanding.  And it’s Andrews’ embrace of old notions of disinterested knowledge—in a climate where both the academic left and the political right distrust claims to disinterest—that makes him a truly counter-cultural figure.