Sunday, October 30, 2005

Silliman Recants! Avant/Quietude Dichotomy Dies!

Though I've never posted twice in one day before, I've got to leap in with this late-breaking newsflash: Ron Silliman has recanted.

Surrounded by reporters and nearly blinded by the flashbulb-popping paparazzi, Silliman stood on the front doorstep of his home Saturday and read a brief statement:

In the process of writing these notes, day after day, I've learned far more than I could possibly have imagined when I first embarked on this process. The most obvious example would be that I had to give up my 1970s-centric map of the poetic landscape & replace it with one more appropriate to the 21st century.

Okay, the bit about the paparazzi and whatnot is just scene-setting, but the statement itself is real. No, really — check it out.

So the Avant/Quietude distinction is, quite possibly, dead (though we'll have to wait to see if it lives on in some hideous afterlife on syllabi and in academic articles). Now what? I wait by the poetic tickertape with bated breath...

For a suddenly dated discussion of these issues, see the post below. (Note that, in the new climate of glasnost, the younger generation may come to see Silliman as a kind of Gorbachev, not the Brezhnev he seemed to have become).

Stagnant Revolutions, Romantic Objections, and the One True Paradigm for Poetry

I see by the ever-handy site meter that last week's ruminations on David Kellogg's proposed map of contemporary poetry generated a huge spike in hits to this site of the sort not seen since the Contingent Manifesto was posted back in June. If the responses out there on other blogs are any indication, the response seems to have been one part glee at the smashing of old Langpo idols, one part enthusiasm about the possibilities of Kellogg's method, and one part glowering hostility. Great! I mean, if my poems could generate destructive glee, creative enthusiasm, and seething disdain in equal measure, I'd know for sure that I was on to something.

So, in the Kelloggian spirit of classification, here's a breakdown of responses:

1. The Children of the Stagnant Revolution Revolt

Kevin Andre Elliot (whose disdain for the Avant-Post/School of Quietude dichotomy launched a thousand posts) and Natalia Cecire both weigh in with posts about Kellogg's model being an improvement on the Sillimanic dichotomy. I know, I know, Ron's not the sole proprietor of the dismal dichotomy, but he's the primary propagator, and he's singled out by Natalia as something of an obsessive:

I must say, I do think Ron Silliman is ever-so-slightly on the obsessed side when it comes to this issue. Half his posts seem to say "OMG SoQ alert!!!!" about one book or another. I'm as unimpressed with Billy Collins as the next person with a pulse, but could we relax?

I want to state for the record that I think Bob Hass, Brenda Hillman, and Lyn Hejinian are all fantastic human beings and excellent poets.

What's interesting here, I think, is that both Kevin and Natalia are grad students, and watching their reactions to this little bit of resistance to the Silliman line seems just a bit like watching those kids in Berlin back in '89, when the wall came down and all the old statues that the aged revolutionaries had erected to themselves and their ever-advancing, ever-underdoggish revolution were pulled down. Okay, yeah, there's a difference of proportion, but you get the drift: a rising generation sees the rhetoric of the old former-revolutionaries differently than do the surviving firebrands themselves. I mean, I doubt Silliman and Company will ever feel like the establishment figures they have, in large measure, become, no matter how many research university posts they hold, no matter how many citations they get in the MLA database. And so they'll talk like they're the Che Guevaras of poetry, when for people younger than I am, they can seem more like the Fidel Castros (that's Fidel circa the Elian Gonzales imbroglio, not Fidel back when he looked cool in camo and the CIA kept trying to ice him). Or better yet: they come across like Leonid Brezhnev, peering out wanly from behind his medals and ghastly eyebrows, reviewing the parade of loyal Post-Avants in the Revolutionary Square below.

Natalia gives us a further glimpse into the Soul of the Grad Student when, after dismissing the Avant/Quietude dichotomy, she tells us:

If there's a dichotomy I really care about, it's "willing to be on my committee"/"unwilling to be on my committee."

By the way, I kind of like the sound of "Avant-Quietude." I hearby release all copywrite from the term, in the event anyone wants to apply it to some unfortunate poet or other (preferably someone who's been on the cover of the American Poetry Review).

2. The Romantic Anti-Structuralist Institute of Providence, Rhode Island Registers an Objection

This is the powerful research institute headed up by Henry Gould. The fact that Henry's the only member does nothing to reduce the power of the institute. I remember, from the old days of the Buffalo Poetics List, that a fair fight would be something like Henry vs. All the Rest of Us. Henry maintains that the Kellogg grid isn't really an improvement on the tired/misleading dichotomy of Avant and Quietude, because even in with the added dimensions of the Kellogg model,

Poetry is assumed to be this product which flows out of culture in measurable quantities. You can establish fixed criteria for assigning individual pieces of the product to a grid : ie., "tradition" and "innovation" are already known & defined, "self" and "community" are items you can abstract without too much difficulty from any particular portion of the GNPP (Gross National Poetry Product). Voila : your poet is assigned a critical niche in the Standard Schema.

He goes on to describe the complications this model runs into:

But what if the patterns of formative imitation which poets utilize are exactly the same - whether you're in either of the so-called camps? Innovators are imitating their 20th-century models; traditionalists are doing likewise. Both are claiming the mantle of tradition (the traditions of new & old, respectively). Add a further twist : what if the innovators claim to be new by going back to older models (epics, Native American songs, collective poetics, performance art, etc.) in order to be "new"? What if the models of the so-called traditionalists (rhymed iambic couplets, say) are of more recent provenance than those of the innovators (say, free-verse anaphoric lines)?

You know, he's got a point. I tried to investigate something like this at one of the Modernist Studies Association conferences a few years ago, up in Madison. I took Joe Francis Doerr's book Order of the Ordinary as an example of a book that could be claimed from every pole of every axis on Kellogg's grid at once. For me, this was a sign of Doerr's interest (gawd, but he's underappreciated) more than it was a sign of the limits of Kellogg's model, but I take Henry's point.

I think, though, that there's more to Henry's objections than this. He writes, for example, that "The uniqueness of interesting poetry swallows up every proposed schema." An interesting point, because a very Romantic one. I mean, the singularity of genius, the unclassifiability of truly impressive aesthetic experience — it all sounds a bit like a riff on Coleridge's discussion of organic form. Sometimes I think that, for all of his critical intellect, Henry is in the end a "we murder to dissect" guy, especially if the dissection comes out of a structuralist tradition, which he seems to see as mechanical (I'm disappointed that he took down a post that made fun of models like Kellogg's by pretending to sell a machine for the assessing of poetry — even though it took a shot at a model I admire, I thought it made a powerful objection with good humor).

So let's call Henry's objection the latest chapter in the ongoing battle of the Romantics against the Enlightenment, now in year 216, with no sign of either side wearing down.

3. Brave Men of Science Discover a Third Dimension

Joshua Clover, in his persona as Jane Dark (which I like, but don't exactly get), goes all mad-scientist on the Kellogg model and takes it to the next level, adding another dimension for a three-dimensional system of Cartesian co-ordinates:

His third dimension locates a given poet's degree of partisan, polemical fever. What does this mean? He (she? what should one call a male poet's femal persona?) explains:

For example, in the cross as currrently constituted, we get a "tradition/innovation" axis: per Kellogg, Poetry that, for example, emphasizes its continuity with the past (such as the New Formalist work of poets like Dana Gioia) represents a position close to the “tradition” value-identification. In contrast, avant-garde writing represents a position near the “innovation” value-identification.

Strikingly, though Gioia and Silliman e.g. find themselves at antipodes in this scheme, they have a deep commonality: their shared interest in impressing their own sense of value on the field via their writings, talks, position-takings, jobs, blogs, blurbs, etc. Discursively, they are both proselytizers; Silliman and Gioia would find themselves sitting on the same branch, staring down its full distance to Andrew Joron and Karen Volkman in the great distance.

Pretty sharp, eh? But just when you think things have gotten as clever as they're going to get, someone with some actual knowledge of co-ordinate systems comes in and makes you feel like the neophyte you are. This happened to me when I ran across Jeffrey Bahr's take on the Kellogg model. Bahr, who is no mere poet but a poet and and engineer (and therefore equipped with math and stats chops you and I can only marvel at) says, with what I imagine to be a slightly weary sigh at the follies of humanists,

As I've mentioned before, there is a statistical procedure for teasing out underlying axes of discrimination (multidimensional scaling), but it would take getting lots of input from poets in the form of poet-pair ranks.

I'd like to know more about this statistical procedure, which remains murky to my qualitative mind. Perhaps equipped with such forbidden knowledge, I will on some dark and stormy night ascend a windy trail to a dark tower on a mountaintop and, with the able help of my student assistant Igor, I'll fire up the Jacob's Ladder and the various machines that go ping and wait for a lightening strike, at which point I'll throw a mighty lever and bring to life the Paradigm that will Explain Poetry! No — Igor no! Not now! We don't know the ramifications! We've meddled in things meant for God alone! Too late! Nooo-ooooo-oooo! Igor! I am so very afraid!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Field Charts, Venn Diagrams and Dead Dichotomies: Maps of Contemporary Poetry

Kevin Andre Elliott, in dismissing the dichotomy of the School of Quietude and the Avant-Garde as tired and ready to be banished from literary discourse, has come out and said what many of us have been thinking. Who, other than Ron Silliman's old buddies from the wanna-be legendary past doesn't groan audibly when some Buffalo alum from the early nineties trucks out another load of heroic-us vs. oppressive-them rhetoric? And really, how far does a dichotomy like this take us in understanding poetry?

A case in point regarding these limitations: Jonathan Mayhew's recent test of avant-garde or quietude purity does more to illuminate the inadequcy of the dichotomy than it does to illuminate the countours of contemporary poetry. He asks his readers which set of poets they prefer. Do they like

Norman Dubie, C.K. Williams, Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Sandra Gilbert, James Dickey, Howard Moss, Robert Pinsky, Irving Feldman, Charles Wright, Charles Simic...


Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe, Tony Towle, Bernadette Mayer, Ronald Johnson, Jess Mynes, Nada Gordon, Lisa Jarnot...

Mayhew then goes on to tell us about the significance of our choices:

Most people, if they've read contemporary poetry at all, will have a strong inclination toward one or the other side. If you like poets on both lists equally, then you are a true eclectic.

So here's the dichotomous model. Red vs. blue states of poetry, with homogeneity in each group and no overlapping:

But ay yi yi. I mean, look at that first group of Mayhew's! Robert Pinsky and Charles Simic are so different, you've got to wonder about the usefulness of any category that lumps them together. Sure, they're both English professors living in the northeastern states, but so's Susan Howe. And Pinsky's commitments have been to a kind of essayistic, discursive, neo-Augustan poetry of clear statement and careful judgement. He was, after all, a student of Yvor Winters, and his strongest critical praise has been for the most essayistic side of poets like James McMichael and Frank Bidart. His most strident complaint about poetry (made in The Situation of Poetry) has been aimed at poetry in the American Surrealist tradition launched by Robert Bly in his magazine The Fifties. This deep-image stuff eschews statement and, in the manner of European Surrealism, makes a poetry that, as Bly put it makes an art “in which everything is said by image, and nothing by direct statement at all.” Charles Simic, in contrast to Pinsky, is very much the product of this kind of deep-image neo-Surrealism. He's the editor of anthologies of European and Latin American Surrealist poetry, and his own work is very like the Serbian poets he reads in the original: odd, elusive, hard to reduce to statements. And don't even get me started on the differences in the second group!

The dichotomy between Quietude and Avant is about as crude as the political dichotomy between conservative and liberal -- in which the conservative label can be applied equally to groups as diverse as down-home Kansas blue collar anti-abortion protectionists and plutocratic Connecticut free-trade types.

So, what else is there? One tiny step toward a more nuanced view of things would be to look for some kind of overlapping between the two dichotomized groups. Think of a Venn diagram, for example:

In political terms, you might interpret the chart this way:

A = Liberals
B = Conservatives
C = Reagan Democrats.

Not particularly useful, but better than the simple dichotomy. In poetic terms, we could probably interpret the chart like this:

A = Avant-Garde
B = School of Quietude
C = Jorie Graham

Or whatever. But this still doesn't get us into anything like the Realm of the Subtle Insight. I think we can get a little closer to this promised land with the help of David Kellogg. Back in 2000, Kellogg wrote an essay called "The Self in the Poetic Field" for Fence, which has to be one of the most underrated contributions to contemporary poetic theory.

For my money, Kellogg’s essay provides the best model for understanding the social and aesthetic structure of American poetry. Kellogg proposes a field of poetry charted along two axes, one running from tradition to innovation, the other from self to community. It is within this matrix that poets take positions through their various actions (writing poems, giving poetry readings, seeking or spurining certain audiences, seeking or declining to seek honors, displaying or downplaying antecedents, etc.).

The total configuration loosely resembles Bourdieu’s model of the cultural field; that it, the actual possibilities are on the inside of the field and the abstract value-identifications on the outside. As Kellogg put it,

There is an effect in the field made by each successive position-taking. I have assumed that the independence of each position-taking is compromised by the presence of other, adjacent position-takings, so that a cluster of position-takings congeals into a stable position within the field. The space of poetry as such is measured by the distance between the center and the four possible sources of poetic value. As these named sources are on the outside, critics have all too easy access to them and critical positon-takings in the service of canonicity are predictable. The structure is an open one, and its capacity for change is rather high….The novel feature of this structure for poetry is the manner in which the two axes are each informed by the formal and social loci of value. The loci of each axis repel each other. The axes join together in the center so that the two axes map a four-sides field when represented on a two-dimensional plane. One axis maps a set of social possibilities and the other a set of formal possibilities.

Kellogg’s field or grid can be visualized as a simple square with the four value-identifications (self, community, tradition and innovation) making their claims from the outside:

Think of the vertical axis as having self at the top of the scale, and community at the bottom. Think of the horizontal axis as having innovation on the left and tradition on the right.


While position-takings are rarely, if ever, matters of pure identification with one principle alone to the exclusion of all others, there are identifiable positions that come close to one or another value-identification. Poetry that, for example, emphasizes its continuity with the past (such as the New Formalist work of poets like Dana Gioia) represents a position close to the “tradition” value-identification. In contrast, avant-garde writing represents a position near the “innovation” value-identification. I want to use the Language Poets as an example here but, as Kellogg points out, since poets like Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe started showing up in the American Poetry Review, the field seems to have shifted, and like all successful innovators, they lie closer to the center than they once did. The more-or-less confessional poetry of poets like Robert Lowell (after Life Studies), Sharon Olds or Louise Gl├╝ck, with its emphasis on individual experience and distinctive authorial voice represents a position over by the “self” value-identification. Community, though, proves the most difficult of the value-identifications to define.

“The mirror image of self,” as Kellogg puts it, the community value-identification has to do not only with matters of subject and voice, but also with the audience a poet defines for him- or herself. While the poetry of self produces authors, says Kellogg, the poetry of community produces audiences. “Less important than ethnic, regional, religious, or sexual identity per se,” he continues, “is whether a certain poetry participates in, or is read as participating in, the social claims of one or more of these identities." Mark Doty, by this measure, is a poet of self, while Paul Monette is a poet of community. Adrienne Rich may well be the community-poet extraordinaire, claimed as she is by feminist, gay, and disability communities, all of whom she seeks to gather round her by her various position-takings.

So. I know Kellogg didn't quite pull Excalibur from the stone and rend the veil of oversimplification, but he did give us a much better swiss-army knife than the two-blade model (the one with the Quietude can-opener and the Avant toothpick) that Kevin Andre Elliot rightly tells us just doesn't cut it.

What we need:

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Because it Matters: Some Politics

Democracy for America, an outfit I've supported for a long time, has started an online pledge to send a message to candidates in the upcoming congressional elections. It's worth a look. The essence of it is this:

I pledge to only support candidates who:

Acknowledge that the U.S. was misled into the war in Iraq.

Advocate for a responsible exit plan with a timeline.

Support our troops both at home and abroad.

I take "supporting our troops" to mean "wish them well, and well-cared for, and safe at home when war is not absolutely necessary." Some of my best students, as well as many members of my family, have been in the military, and (tenured radical or not) I've got a lot of respect for them. And their opinions about this war have been interesting. I remember talking with a student after my Irish lit class around the time Bush &Co decided to invade Iraq. He'd been a Marine lieutenant in Somalia during the whole "Black Hawk Down" fiasco, and he predicted the course of action we've seen with tremendous accuracy. We'd be stuck in Iraq, he said, with no way out and no way to win and no meaningful support from the people we were told we were helping, and every now and then a helicopter would go down or a patrol would be ambushed or a bomb would go off and a few more Marines would die. I wish Bush would interview soldiers who hadn't been screened by PR aides and given scripted lines. But there's not much chance of that.

The pledge is particularly important at a time when too many Democrats continue to refuse to take a stand on Bush's war. Representative Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for example, was recently on NBC saying that Dems must avoid calling for an exit strategy. We can't let people in the Democratic party continue to take the anti-war vote for granted.

Anyway. When you sign you're given the chance to type in a few words about why you're signing. I went a little overboard, and wrote this:

I am signing because I believe that members of the Bush administration systematically propagated lies about the need for a war in Iraq, that they proceeded against their own best intelligence, that they acted without a responsible plan, and that thousands of combatants and non-combatants have died needlessly due to the arrogance of a powerful few. I am signing because too many Democrats have remained complicit with a failed administration, and because Republicans need to know that the current administration's policies are unacceptable, regardless of party affiliation. I am signing because history will show that those who stood silently by while this war continued failed in that most essential of tasks, citizenship.

Signing takes about a minute, and it matters.

On a happier note, Chris Glomski's new book Transparencies Lifted from Noon arrived unexpectedly today. Must blog about him, and about Jim Behrle, another poet I've been admiring lately.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Raymond Federman On the Run

As those of you who've read my recent post on Stephen Burt's visit to Lake Forest know, I wasn't able to make it to Raymond Federman's gig at the College (I refer you to my earlier comments about the incompatibility of shellfish, campari, and the Archambaldian digestive system for an explanation). So, by way of making up for my inability to report on the visit, here are some excerpts from the campus newspaper's account, written by Melanie Meyer, a student at Lake Forest.

Considered a legend in the world of innovative writing, French author Raymond Federman told a group of students last Thursday that his style was defined by his childhood experiences in the Holocaust. "I am immortal," said Federman, who came to campus as part of the On the Run Lecture Series. "I should have been dead before, I'm not ready to give up."


"Language," said Federman, quoting Samuel Beckett, is "what gets you where you want to go and prevents you from getting there."


After opening with a reading from Loose Shoes, his book of short, fragmented writings, Federman read from his latest novel, My Body in Nine Parts. The novel is divided into nine sections, each describing a different aspect or feature of his body. The first aspect Federman shared was "My Toes." "Most people don't listen to their toes," Federman read. He then revealed the lessons have given through their colorful personalities, describing the big toe of his right foot as "neurotic." Federman also read from a passage on his scars, theorizing that scars have souls and want to tell stories.


Federman is currently working on three projects: a novel to be called Out of the Whole, an autobiography (Federman without Limits), and a memoir called The Sand Book about Samuel Beckett, whom Ferderman calls "the best author of the twentieth century."

Wish I could have been there, and at the traditional dinner and drinks with the author afterward, since by all accounts Federman is one of the most charming and funny guys you're likely to meet. Then again, it may be for the best. In the presence of a man who was a close friend of the man who wrote Waiting for Godot, I'm likely to get all wide-eyed and weird, cut him off mid-anecdote, grab him by the arm, and in a near swoon ask "what was Beckett really like?"

Saturday, October 08, 2005

I am, it seems, Extreme

So there I was, surfing around to see what was up in Chicago poetry this month, when I came across, and a surprising reference to myself as first on a list of Chicago's forty most "eX-treme" poets.

What could this possibly mean, you ask? An interesting question! I haven't got an answer, although I feel the weight of the expectation pressing down on me. I mean, I just gave a poetry reading as part of the Rosemary Cowler Book Festival in Lake Forest, and if I'd known I was "eX-treme" I'd have done it from a skateboard, or pehaps while rapelling down a rock face. At the very least I'd have had my hair done up in some kind of purple anime-style do. But, alas, no such extremity was in evidence. The most radical gesture I made was to read my poem about Vermeer after noting that the sterotypical poem by an academic poet begins with the line "Vermeer would have loved these Connecticut woods." I declared myself militantly academic, and may even have raised my right fist ever so slightly in the air, weakly echoing the old salute of the revolutionary POUM of Catalonia.

But think of the company I'm in! At the local grocery store, for example, they've taken to making the cashiers offer you, on the way out, the "extreme deal of the day." Recently this has included deoderant, Cracker Jack, and, if memory serves, some sort of mouthwash.

The true honor of being "eX-treme," though, lies in being made into a creature of one's time. Were I a poet of the sixties, I could perhaps have been part of the "psychedelic 40," and had I flourished in the eighties (when I was too busy pursuing militant hedonism to write many poems) I could have made it as a preppyishly "outstanding" poet. Instead, I find that I embody the zeitgeist of this decade. Now if only they'd start pushing my book at the grocery check-out...

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Audacity of Stephen Burt

A genuine, unironic embrace of pop culture, especially music. Politics, on the left, and not just in the poems. Charm, pitched a bit more toward the young than the old. A facility with form. Critical comments every bit as good as the poetry. A poem about homeownership. The ability to use the word "messagiorno" offhandedly and convincingly. These qualities belonged to W.H. Auden, but the belong, equally, to Stephen Burt, or did on his recent triumph here at Lake Forest, where he read to a packed house in Carnegie Hall. And like the young Auden, Burt gives the unmistakable impression that he's Going Places. More impressively, you find that you Really Want Him to Get There. (I think he knows all of this about himself — as a line from one poem, which I'll almost get right, testifies: "it isn't enough that a few people who don't know me like me").

Steve came down from Minneapolis for a reading Tuesday, and seems to have made quite an impression on the students who were there. File part of this under Boyish Charm (the Rough Trade Records T-shirt, the glasses that one of my wittier students dubbed "emo goggles"). File more of it under Polished Reading Style (the best part of which is a kind of full-body shrug at the end of certain poems, a gesture that seems to say, rather disarmingly, "yeah, I know you may have reservations, but, you know, I really believe this"). More of the appeal has to do with what I, not unbiased after a decade teaching at Lake Forest and some experience with big university teaching in the U.S. and Europe, think of as the liberal arts style of addressing an audience. Steve asks the audience questions, finds out and uses their names, forms an immediate bond with them more or less as equals, and takes requests. Like a really good liberal arts college prof (which he is, at Macalester) he plants the seeds of the questions he wants his audience to end up asking him, and when they ask those questions, he comes across with real answers. He also deals with big issues in a very clear and jargon-free language, which we can attribute in part to the liberal arts background, and in part to what seems like a generational shift. Where once it was a badge of honor to speak in hazy terms that seemed (to you, and perhaps to your friends) sophisticated, European, theoretical, that vile phase seems to be on the wane, and the bright people in their thirties seem to want you to understand what they mean, even — indeed, especially — when it is complicated.

Steve also scored a hit with the crowd when he talked about politics and art in unpretentious, deeply practical terms. You make political art to make art, not to influence politics, at least not if you've got any sense of the relative influence a poem is going to have on the electorate, he said. Steve's a guy who's done his share of knocking on doors during political campaigns, and this, he said, is the kind of thing that's going to help your cause. Give money if you have money, make calls, use some shoe-leather. Disrupting syntax can be good for your poem (or not), but it isn't going to disrupt the political system. For a generation that seems to be casting a concerned eye at the Hummer-driving, creationism-teaching, McMansion-building, war-waging, propaganda-eating America presided over by our current leaders, this hit home (even at Lake Forest, which was onced listed as one of America's preppiest colleges in The Official Preppy Handbook ). Maybe politics just doesn't seem as abstract to them as it did to those of us who argued about Deleuze and Guattari in the campus coffeehouses of the early Clinton years.

As is often the case, I left the room feeling good about the poetry crowds we've been turning out at the college for the last few years. Full auditoriums and good questions from young people warmeth the professorial heart. I'd hoped to see more of the same two nights later when Raymond Federman came to town, but was too ill (long story, involving shellfish and campari) to make it. Still, it was a good week for literature in our particular corner of the groves of academe. When Burt's new book Parallel Play drops in February, I'll want to get my hands on it right away, and so, I think, will a few of his new fans from Tuesday night.