Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Contingent Chronicles: Formalism, Modernism & Contingency

Despite wanting to jump into what looks like an interesting discussion about poetry and paraphrasability going on in blogs by K. Silem Mohammed and Henry Gould, and despite having promised to say something about Kevin Prufer, today I've got something else in mind, something that connects, in a sideways manner, with contingent poetry.

My unlikely starting point is Adam Kirsch's new book of litcrit, The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets. There are no surprises to this book for those of you who've somehow found yourselves browsing through copies of The New Criterion, the unintentionally funny neoconsevative cultural screed journal (there's a great game, by the way, in to picking up a copy, seeing who the article is about, and predicting at the outset exactly what will be said. I've got about an 80% success rate, but a novelist friend of mine who asks not to be named is batting a thousand). Kirsch, in that journal, consistently condemns anything that doesn't fit into the New Formalist paradigm for poetry -- you know: buh-dump-ta-dump-ta-dump-ta-MOON, buh-dump-ta-dump-ta-dump-ta-JUNE -- the sort of thing a really good formalist would wince to hear. In this book, he praises those poets we've come to call confessional for what he sees as their rejection of modernism. In essence, he recruits Lowell, Bishop and company into his little war on modernism.

Wierdly, there are points where I find myself in complete agreement with Kirsch. He lets fly, for example, at Jorie Graham's Swarm for its foggy indeterminacy. But where I've been hoping for a turn away from indeterminacy toward a poetry of contingent difficulties (see the Contingent Manifesto for details), Kirsch plumps for iambics and regular rhyme. Where I see a re-engagement of some ideas that the Modernists sniffed around as a good thing, Kirsch sees Modernism as the treason of the poets.

Reading Kirsch, I sometimes felt like he and I spoke different languages. Then my copy of The Nation clunked into my mailbox (revealing my political differences from Kirsch, I suppose -- I'm a standard quartlerly-magazine-with-no-subscribers leftist, he seems like more of a standard back-pages-of-the-ideological-magazines-with-big-right-wing-money-behind-them neocon). John Palatella reviews Kirsch's book, and makes plain one of Kirsch's main shortcomings: when it comes to modernism, he's myopic.

As Palatella points out, Kisch's Modernism is the narrowed and watery doctrine of the New Critics -- so when Lowell ditches everything he'd learned at Kenyon in Life Studies, that's enough for Kirsch to claim Lowell as a Modernist apostate. There's not much of an excuse for this kind of narrow-minded, shortsighted, historically uninformed error anymore -- not, at any rate, since the publication of volume two of Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris' anthology Poems for the Millenium. In the introduction to that book Rothenberg and Joris describe the period of New Critical hegemony after World War Two as a time in which the poetic energy of the prewar years had been drained away by the institutionalization of a tamed and truncated version of modernism. These years witnessed “an ascendant literary ‘modernism’–hostile to experiment and reduced in consequence to a vapid, often stuffy middle-ground approximation.” There was a willful forgetting of the openness of modernism, and a turn to “a fixed notion of poetry and poem, which might be improved upon but was never questioned at the root.” The task of poets coming of age in the fifties and sixties, argued Rothenberg and Joris, was to find what had been lost, to revive the electrical energy of the force that had crackled through poetry at the beginning of the century. They call the fulfillment of this task “the second great awakening of poetry,” and the second volume of their anthology is an archive of that awakening. (Aha! Cry the surviving subscribers of Samizdat magazine, "Archambeau is quoting himself out of laziness!" a charge to which I offer no more defense than a White House spokesman offers to the charges that Karl Rove must, by Bush's own logic, be fired). Given this woeful misunderstanding of the range of Modernism, where but to New Formalism is a guy like Kirsch to turn for an alternative to the decadence of indeterminacy?

So. Strange bedfellows, on the one hand: Kirsch is as against indeterminacy as I am. But our senses of literary histroy are so different, there's no way we could agree on an aspirational future for poetry.