Friday, December 29, 2006

The Heresy of Paraphrasing Adorno

This is kind of a belated response to some email I got about an Adorno post many weeks ago, in which I was accused semi-accurately of defiling Adorno's dearest truths by trying to explain a very few of his ideas as clearly as I could, and giving examples in the process. It's true Adorno wouldn't like the kinds of things I attempted, but then again, I don't think we need to treat his desires and beliefs as absolute truths. It might not even be the best way to respect him — as someone once said to me in a bar in Indiana, reading against the grain is the sincerest form of flattery.


We (I am embarrassed to see that I mean "we, the professoriate and/or literati" here, or something similarly mandarin) tend to sneer, nowadays, at Cleanth Brooks' notion of "the heresy of paraphrase": it is, after all, just another New Critical cliche that once hampered the adventurous reader. But we cower before the Inquisitor Adorno when he pronounces the same edict, and labels as heretics those who would say positively what he by negation. One midcentury view of the ineffabilty of the text is treated as outmoded, the other is treated as TRVTH.

But isn't paraphrase like translation? I mean, aren't both of these like the performance of a musical score? They can be well done or poorly (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Solti vs., say, the least-successful youth orchestra you've heard) — but the fact that no performance exhausts the totality of the score's potentials doesn't make it wrong to perform the score in the first place.

Adorno as the deaf Beethoven who hears the music only in his thoughts.

And isn't there an irony in Adorno saying of Heidegger, in The Jargon of Authenticity "he lays about him the taboo that any understanding of him would also be a falsification." (Martin Jay pointed this out in Adorno — though weirdly Jay didn't say anything about the other parallel between Heidegger and Adorno: both came to the conclusion that German was somehow a special language, with unique affinities for philosophy — creepy moment of Deutsche sprache über alles).

I know Adorno wants the kind of truth he wants to get at to be transcendent, above any commodification or reification. But I believe in the need to try to incarnate the transcendent — with the proviso that we make it plain to ourselves and others that these attempts will be innacurate — almost as innacurate as reverant silence.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Samizdat Notes to Alt-Poetry: A Potentially Good Idea Upon Which I Probably Will Not Act

So there I was, going over my notebook of annotations to Maurice Scully's two new books, Sonata and Tig for the review I was writing, when a small, buzzing lightbulb appeared over my head. At first it gave off no more than thirty or forty watts, and was more of an annoyance than anything else. But as its light grew and grew, and I was able to switch off my reading lamp and contine to work by the light of my idea alone, I finally came to the conclusion that I may be on to something.

And that something was this: if I were to post my reading notes to the various relatively unsung books of poetry I teach, review, or otherwise get into with some degree of seriousness, and make those notes available to the public, then I might have the basis for a substantial critical treatment of each book. If I were to put those comments into a wiki, then those who were interested could add their notes and observations Wikipedia-style, and pretty soon we'd have something like a "reader's guide" to each of the books. And if I were to create a format that kind of echoes the Cliffs Notes or SparkNotes format (though, you know, not so thoroughly as to get myself sued), the whole thing could be kind of cool. I mean, I'd love to be able to go to the "Study Questions and Essay Topics" section and see what people had put up -- I imagine at least 50% of the attempts to be funny would work, and there may even be some serious, worthwhile areas for futher inquiry outlined there.

I admit, I owe many of the watts coming from my lightbulb to the Bill Allegrezza Electrical Company -- Bill's recentlys set up some kind of Wiki for poetry discussion, which I've been meaning to check out.

So. Whaddaya think? Is this something you could get behind? Is it something to which you'd contribute? Would it be instantly vandalized by haters, oddballs and highly partisan freaks (who are, after all, our people, here on the fringes of alt-poetry land)? Drop me a line (my email is on my profile page) before the new semester starts and my zeal wanes and, if there's an overwhelming outpouring of support, odds are even that I'll actually make it happen.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Not a Good Sign

So we now live in a country where this happens. One could say something about the irony of an administration that says it fights against those who "hate freedom" turning around and censoring the news. One could point out how this latest action is of a piece with the creeping authoritarianism of an administration that has gutted habeas corpus, sanctioned torture, run secret prisons, and continually lied to a public for which it clearly has contempt. One could point out how censorship of the press is perfectly in line with the general outlook of an administration that maintains the president is in effect above the law. One could look toward the future with trepidation.

But right now I'm too sad for any of that. This has happenend, here.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Difficult Pleasures

Josh Corey, Eric Selinger and Mark Scroggins have been blogging up a storm about difficulty and pleasure in poetry (and, as always seems to be the case when difficult art comes up, ethics and politics have reared their sober heads). There's some interesting stuff going on, but I'm not at all sure there's a conclusion available, and some of the terms of the debate seem a bit squishy. For what it's worth, here's my take...

  • The Story So Far

    Josh began by writing about the different kinds of pleasure he gets from reading different kinds of texts. Long story short, he makes a distinction between the relatively easy and, to his mind, somewhat passive pleasures to be had from reading mainstream fiction (Richard Russo's novel Straight Man being his primary example) and the thorny, effortful pleasures to be had from reading experimental poetry. From the way he talks about this second class of texts, he seems to be thinking mostly of Language Poetry. And he uses one Language Poet's categories for his discussion, taking Ron Silliman's terms "absorptive" and "antiabsorptive" to describe the experience of reading mainstream fiction and alt-poetry, respectively. (For those of you who've gone a little foggy on Silliman's terms, the breakdown is like this: for Silliman, absorptive texts give you language that you don't notice as such, and allow you to settle back and watch a mental movie. In contrast, the anti-absorptive text throws a bit of a linguistic monkey wrench into the movie machinery, stopping the show — we have to confront the language in its unassimilability to our ordinary reading processes). Josh says he likes both kinds of reading for different reasons (the absorptive text, he says, will get you through a long flight better than the anti-absorptive text, and as a guy who suffered through a long wait in the Rejkjavic airport with nothing but Gulliver's Travels, a Toblerone and a bottle of duty-free scotch to sustain me, I feel Josh on this one). But Josh sort of worries about the non-hierarchical nature of his pleasures. Aren't the difficult texts somehow better for us, he wonders?

    Eric Selinger jumps in with his answer to this last question: a resounding No. In Eric's view, it's all good: straightforward texts, difficult texts, what have ya. He rejects the kind of moral hierarchy that Josh raises as a possibility. He rejects the dichotomy of purely-absorptive and purely-antiabsorptive texts (yet another one of Silliman's dichotomies crumbles under scrutiny). Eric also points out that the difficulty of a text is subjective, not objective: the mainstream fiction that Josh breezes through with ease is easy to him beacuse he understands the conventions well. Other people might struggle with it (the way I do when reading French or Swedish, where my skills are taxed by Le Monde and the Sydsvenska Dagbladet, let alone the poetry of Mallarme or Jesper Svenbro). This last point raises another idea (one Eric doesn't explore much): that something like Language Poetry isn't necessarily "difficult" to its primary readership: other language poets and the profs who swarm around them. (I try to follow this idea up a bit in a review of Allen Fisher's Gravity, among other books, in a soon-to-be-released issue of Pleiades: check the lit-journal section of your local supermarket for copies).

    Enter Mark Scroggins. After giving a summary of the debate much like the one I'm giving now, he takes sides, saying that he, like Josh, feels that there is a sense in which the difficult, anti-absoprtive text is better for us — if not in terms of pleasure, then morally or ethically or politically. Mark presents this as a gut feeling, rather than an argument, and admits that the various arguments for this position that he's encountered don't ever satisfy him for long. But he does give us some sense of what lies behind his gut reaction (and no, it isn't the volcanic south Florida hot sauce he uses as a metaphor for challenging reading): he tells us that the difficult, anti-absorptive text is connected to our ability to recognize the Other as Other (with all Lacanian capitalizations intact). The otherness of unabsorbable language becomes a kind of homology for the otherness of the Other, and our recognition of it somehow makes us, you know, better.

  • Some Problematic Equations

    Here are some assumptions that creep in here and there at the edges of this (interesting, stimulating, end-of-semester brightening) discussion. They are, I think, questionable, if by questionable we mean wrong.

    Difficult = Anti-Absorptive = Ethical

    Both of the equals signs in the above equation are problematic.

    1. Difficult = Anti-Absorptive

    Okay, so this is problematic in two ways. Firstly, there's the point (implicit, I think, in Eric's piece) that difficulty is something experienced by the reading subject, rather than inherent in the textual object. What's difficult for me may be easy for you, and vice-versa. This goes for all schools of "difficult" poetry. I mean, the formidably difficult works of Modernism have become pretty straightforward to thousands and thousands of readers over time, as we (I fear that is the professorial "we") have internalized the linguistic conventions with which they were written.

    Secondly, the equation of "difficult text" and "text that defies ordinary conventions of usage" leaves out a whole range of difficulties, from allusions to matters of sympathy-with-the-devil (I've harped on about this so much before, I feel I ought to leave it alone for a while). (It is also a part of the Pleiades piece I mentioned).

    2. Anti-Absorptive = Ethical

    Man, this idea just won't die. I mean, the idea is better than a century old, in one version or another (not to keep pointing to my own stuff, but I've got an essay on this coming out next year sometime). There have been all kinds of versions of it, from the Surrealist notion that their particular form of strangeness was fundamental to any true political revolution, through Brecht's revolutionary hopes for the baring of the device, and on to the more modest claims of the Langpo and post-langpo types, who so often to equate linguistic rupture and the like either with resistance to commodification (see Charles Bernstein's "The Value of Sulfur for a brief and distilled version of this argument) to the notion that it defamiliarizes our habitual perceptions of the world and therefore opens us up to the Other (the position dear to Mark's heart).

    I can see two problems with this equation. Eric points to the first when he says, a propos Mark's statement that his instincts point in the direction of this position, "show me the money." We'd need actual evidence that this stuff works, and such evidence is on the threadbare side.

    The second problem is this: it is wrong to imply that only the defamiliarizations of anti-absorptive art can truly bring us into relation with the Other. I mean, Mark's protestations that the Russian Formalists had a stake in the avant-garde notwithstanding, we would do well to remember that Victor Schlovsky (the man who gave us the concept of defamiliarization in his essay "Art as Technique") used Tolstoy for all (or was it almost all? I'd have to check, and the book is way over there, behind the stack of essays I'm supposedly grading right now) of his examples of defamiliarization. And one could point to plenty of entirely absorptive, formally conventional works that have gone a long way toward bringing people like me into contact with cultural otherness. Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, for example, gave me rich sense of the otherness of Nigerian history. Ditto Thomas Hardy for English country life of the last century. Ditto Charlotte Bronte for the contradictions of feminine desire in a patriarchy. I don't think I came away from anything by Lyn Hejinian or Catherine Daly with this much of a sense of otherness. (Josh points to a sharp essay on science fiction and experimental poetry with some bearing on all this). Which is not to say I don't find a huge value in anti-absorptive texts: I just don't think the window-to-otherness argument is very tenable.

  • Other Stuff to Consider

    1. Hierarchy and telos. I can't quite be down with Eric's "it's all good, to hell with the hierarchies" position (if that is in fact where he's at). I think it is inevitable that we have hierarchies for different kinds of pleasure -- every time we put one thing rather than another in our Netflix queue, we make an implicitly hierarchical decision. The trick is not to seperate hierarchy from telos: when we ask "is this better than that?" we're really asking "is this better than that for some particular end or purpose." Josh began with a kind of acknowledgement of this when he praised the "it will get through a long flight better than a bucket of Bernstein" virtues of the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian. But by the end of his post he'd been consumed by doubts, and seemed to wonder if there wasn't an absolute (rather than telos-driven) hierarchy, in which the anti-absorptive was absolutely (rather than relatively-with-regard-to-a-particular-telos) better. Gotta have the telos if you have the hierarchy.

    2. We aren't really talking much about pleasure any more. We've gone into ethics. What kind of pleasure does anti-absorptive writing actually give, and how is it distinctive from other kinds of reading pleasure (if, in fact, it is different) is a question we haven't done much to answer, although Eric gestures toward this kind of thing when he starts asking about Aristotelian eudaimonia in contradistinction to sensory pleasure (though the sensory, bodily pleasure of reading is generally minimal — way, way, way below neck massage, say, and not anywhere near the cold beer/hot day nexus).

    3. We need some actual data. I know all of the soulfull-eyed, soft-handed humanists of the world blanche at the those two syllables, for I am of that tribe myself, and nurtured in its non-empirical ways. But while my heart yearns for the kind of humanistic interrogation of pleasure Eric outlines (he calls for a discussion invoking "Barthes, Adorno, Freud, Lacan, even Aristotle"), my head tells me we'd do better to have some new information to work with, of a kind that can be measured with actual scientific instruments. You may snicker, oh my fellow humanists, but researchers have been doing interesting things with neural imaging and the humanities — there's been, for example, some interesting work on what happens in various parts of the brain during meditation and what the subjects of the experiments describe as religious experiences (long story short: when people report feeling a mystical union with the universe during Bhuddist meditation, it seems that they've managed to reduce the flow of blood to the part of the brain responsible for showing us our location in time and space). I know the Archambeau Institute for the Neurobiology of Aesthetic Experience isn't going to come into being in my neck of the liberal arts, but I think some serious research into what actually happens in the brains of different readers as they have different kinds of textual and aesthetic experiences would be an important beginning to getting beyond the "my favortie kind of art happens to be good for you and will open your mind to the Other" assertion as a justification for experimental art and writing. Go Big Science!

    4. I'm not through reading it yet, but it looks like Simon DeDeo's new essay on anarchist poetics may have some bearing on all of this. So I'm off to read the rest of it now — what better way to put off reading that pile of essays?

  • Tuesday, December 05, 2006

    Glam Rock: The Poem

    Hot off the internet, the first issue of Absent is up and running! Check it out for Simon DeDeo's new essay "Towards an Anarchist Poetics," as well as for translations of Mandelstam, for poems by Pierre Joris, and much else besides, including my own "Glam Rock: The Poem," which is about the famous image of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Tony Defries (pictued above). There's also a sharp new image, with text, by Johanna Drucker. Dig it!

    Monday, November 27, 2006

    The Liberation of Postmodern Theory

    This is great! I mean, you might not think so, on the surface of it. The event itself is one that may seem like a bit of a downer, or at least an inconvenience: the theft of two copies of Avant-Post: The Postmodern Under Avant-Garde Conditions, right out of the envelope, while they were in transit from Prague (where they were published) to Lake Forest College, where I'd hoped to carry them around under my arm until someone asked about them, at which point I'd casually respond "Oh, these? Another book to which I've added a modest contribution..."

    But think about what this means! An international ring of theory thieves, hungry for the latest international postmodern avant-garde ruminations! A market we can't saturate no matter how many copies we print! A yearning by the penniless oppressed subalterns for the books of theory they can't afford to buy! An anarcho-punk coalition that refuses to pay The Man for its theory fix! Oh yes, my people, the Joyous Revolution of Love can't be too far off, now that bank heists have been replaced by the mail-snatching of avant-gardist fulminations! Utopia is at hand! Or, you know, maybe someone thought the envelope contained DVDs or a video game. But I'm sticking to my theory.

    Tuesday, November 21, 2006

    Archambeau World Tour Winter 2006 Update

    I know you've probably parked the VW microbus you were using to follow me on my world tour this fall, but hold off on fumigating the hippie-funk out of that sucker for a few more days -- I'm adding another gig, and you and your hacky-sack playing, tree-hugging buddies will no doubt want to show up and make a bootleg tape of the rare event. And it's for a cause! Admittedly, "Poets for Human Rights" is about as surprising a cause as "Bankers for Money," or "Fox News Pundits for the Distortion of America's Highest Ideals" but roll with it, peeps. It'll be a good show, featuring a bunch of Chicago's Finest Poets. Here's the press release:

    Poets for Human Rights
    Speak Out Against Systemic Injustice!

    On December 10, 1948, in response to the tragedies of World War II, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Fifty eight years later, on May 18, 2006, a resolution was submitted in support of a national day and week honoring human rights—this, to the same congress that legalized torture and immunized torturers against prosecution for war crimes.

    Speak out against the injustice committed in our name with Poets for Human Rights: an evening of social engagement featuring the poetry of Robert Archambeau, Emily Calvo, Nina Corwin, Teneice Delgado, Maureen Tolman Flannery, Francesco Levato, Christina E. Lovin, Brent Mesick, Erika Mikkalo, Simone Muench, Charlie Newman, Kristy Odelius, Steven Schroeder, Rachel Webster (and more to come).

    For more information visit Poets for Human Rights.

    Date: December 9th, 2006
    Time: 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM
    Location: Acme Art Works, 1741 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006

    The Adorno Files: Hideous Progeny of the Culture Industry

    Park has some new notes on Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, including this interesting observation:

    Adorno seems to argue that art in general is losing its autonomy because of the encroachment of the culture industry (significantly, a term he uses for the first time in this book just before this quote I'm dealing with). He does not allow that there may be some differences between different media in this. It's like some master switch has tied the essence of all art together, and ruined it all at once. I suggest that the process he describes--to the extent that it can be said to exist--is almost certainly more messy.

    Park goes on to mull over the differences between music, visual art, poetry etc., in their capacity as things appropriated by the culture industry. But the interesting thing for me is this: the universality of Adorno's claim about the absorptive power of the culture industry (at the early point in Aesthetic Theory Park's talking about -- the second section). On the one hand, I want to point at all manner of exceptions, all of those kinds of art that work resolutely to remain uncommercial and unquantifiable — everything from Dada to Language Poetry to Punk. Then again, I can see how in some clever dialectical way Adorno is probably right about these forms being influenced by the prescence of the culture industry. I mean, you don't find many seventeenth-century poets or painters or composers working delieberately to distance themselves from, or immunize themselves against, a relentlessly commercial culture industry. The culture market just isn't developed enough to seem like a threat to artistic integrity (whatever that may mean). So Dada or Langpo or Punk can be seen as conditioned by the culture industry by virtue of their reactive rejection of it. By virtue of their attempted negation of the culture industry, they are its dissident offspring (long may they wave). One imagines a personification of the culture industry looking on them with a horrified recognition, seeing them as one's own yet horrified at their altierity, their otherness, and saying, like Mary Shelley a propos her Frankenstein, "behold my hideous progeny!"

    Saturday, November 11, 2006

    Is There a There There? The Idea of Chicago Poetry

    So I'm back from Iceland, which I'm defining as "the country with the landscape that tries too hard" — as you drive around the countryside, you can almost here it calling out to you, saying "glaciers! glaciers here! get your glaciers! What? Not into glaciers? Not a problem. How about a geyser? Would a geyser be something you'd be interested in? No? How about if I throw in a waterfall? Make that two waterfalls! And a gorge! With steam coming out of it! And a lava field! How about some hot springs? Could I interest you in some hot springs, with maybe a bubbling mud field thrown in for free, eh? Eh?" Extrordinary, really.

    Anyway. In a couple of hours I'm going to be giving a paper at the Midwest Modern Language Association, which is being held here in Chicago this year. I'm on a panel on Chicago poetry, run by the redoubtable Bill Allegrezza, and here's my paper in its current, slightly rough-around-the-edges state (I haven't proofed it, because I thought I'd only be delivering it out loud, but when someone suggested I throw it onto the blog, I couldn't think of any reason not to, so here it is, replete with whatever stylistic errors remain). It's called "Is There a There There? The Idea of Chicago Poetry." Some of you may recognize a few of the quotations from Paul Hoover, and a stray comment or two, from other posts on this blog. Auto-plagiarism is okay on the internet though, right?

    A shout-out goes to Michael Anania for talking through some of this with me from Austin, and another shout-out to Dave Park for listening to me run all this by him while he was trying to eat a Monte Christo sandwhich.


    It was 1937 when Gertrude Stein, ensconced in Paris, said of her native Oakland that “there is no there there.” It was her way of justifying a move from the provinces to the glittering literary metropolis. Since Chicago is paradoxically both province and metropolis, with all the anxieties and complexes appertaining thereunto, I suppose the question “is there a there there?” is pertinent to our city as a center of literary — and, more particularly, of poetic — production. Certainly there are poets in Chicago, of both innovative and conservative stripes, and there have been for generations. But is there something we could call Chicago poetry, and is it in some way innovative? Is there, poetically speaking, a there here?

    The answer seems to be yes, according to the city’s poetic movers and shakers. But the yes is a very strange one, for this reason: at almost any point in Chicago’s literary history, you can find someone claiming that there was no distinctive, innovative Chicago poetic scene until that very moment. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the general point: over and over again, for just shy of a century we find people willing to say that the natives were without any authentic poetic culture until a great pioneer came along and made the heroic effort to civilize the wilderness.

    What I’d like to do today is to root around a little in the documents of our city’s poetic history, with an eye to the way certain myths of origin crop up again and again. I’d like to focus on three in particular, which I’m calling the myth of the aboriginal as missionary; the myth of benevolent eclecticism; and the myth of a poetic freedom that resides in having nothing to lose. By myth here I don’t necessarily mean “falsehood” — although you have to be more postmodern than I am to believe that all of these origin stories (in which the tabula rasa of Chicago suddenly becomes a city with a distinct poetic life) can be true. I suppose I mean “myth” in something like an archetypal sense, as a story that different generations seem to come to again and again, consciously or (more likely) unconsciously imitating their predecessors.

  • The Myth of the Aboriginal as Missionary

    Before the twentieth century, Chicago’s image of itself as a poetic city was humble enough. To judge from these words of Chicago poet Eugene Field, taken from his 1887 collection of literary journalism, Culture’s Garland, Chicago was a culturally self-hating backwater, almost unworthy of the Missionaries of Culture and Poetry sent to its embarrassingly commercial streets from the east coast: “The presence of [the visiting Bostonian poet] Mr. James Russell Lowell,” writes Field,

    …Has given Chicago a tremendous boom as a literary center…. This impetus first became apparent last Saturday afternoon, when one of the distinguished members of the Chicago Literary Club — a manufacturer of linseed oil — happened to call at the office of another distinguished member of the club, a wholesale dealer in hides and pelts. “I see by the papers,” said the first litterateur, “that James Russell Lowell is going to be in town next week.” “Lowell? Lowell? Oh yes, I remember, the author of ‘The One-Hoss Shay’” “Yes, he’s going to read a poem in the Central Music Hall next Tuesday” explained the first litterateur and it occurred to me that we ought to elect him an honorary member of the club.” “Well,” said the second litterateur, “we’ll think about that…. Here, you, Jim, go up on the back roof, and drag in them calf-pelts out of the rain!”

    The eastern missionary comes among us and we are, it seems, not worthy, being mere hewers of wood and haulers of calf-pelts. But this nineteenth century poetic abjection all comes to an end in 1912, with Harriet Monroe’s founding of Poetry magazine. From this point on we Chicagoans won’t be mere aboriginals craving guidance from eastern missionaries. Now we will generate our own missionaries to ourselves, local literati able to spread up-to-date ideas about poetry to the locals. Monroe saw herself as bringing, to a poetic scene that could only with great charity be described as mediocre, indeed non-existent except in embarrassingly provincial form, a beacon of the innovative and modern. Where there was nothing, suddenly there was something not only substantial, but advanced, innovative, world-leading, right here in Chicago.

    But there’s curious combination, in Harriet Monroe’s writing, of two seemingly contradictory views of Chicago. On the one hand, it appears as a provincial place to which her magazine is bringing the innovative poetic light from the distant cities where Real Art happened. “We women of the staff and our visitors used to have lively discussions…and each new letter from Ezra Pound sharpened the edge of them,” she writes in her memoir A Poet’s Life, thinking of the glamour of “Ezra’s and Hueffer’s [that is, Ford Madox Ford’s] groups in London.” On the other hand, Chicago appears as a metropolitan place, creating a new poetry that is in some sense both distinctive and shockingly cutting-edge. We get a good sense of this from her account of publishing what was to become the signature poem of the city, Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”: “Alice [that’s Alice Corbin, a poet and also a reader of manuscripts for the magazine] had handed over to me a group of poems in very individual free verse, beginning with ‘Chicago’ as the ‘hog butcher of the world.’ This line was a shock at first, but I tool a long breath and swallowed it, and was laughed at scornfully by critics and columnists when we gave it the lead in March 1914.” So on the one hand Chicago is a mere backwater, a knitting circle awaiting letters from the spectacular elsewhere of London. On the other hand it is an advanced place, an envelope-pushing center of innovation happy to epater les litterateurs.

    It’s not just Monroe who feels this: the provincial/metropolitan tension (in which Chicago seems to be both an innovative leader with its own distinctive style and a provincial follower of developments in London and Paris) is epidemic in the Chicago poets of the period. Floyd Dell, for example, wrote of the early years of Poetry magazine as a time when Chicago fostered “a growing youthful body of [distinctly] American literary taste … nourished … upon the very best European literature and the civilized modern standards.” Which is it — an authentic, advanced Chicagoan American poetic, or the reflection of the real action taking place elsewhere? For him, it seems to be both at the same time.

    The persistence of the pattern of thinking we find in Monroe and her circle in the nineteen-teens is remarkably persistent. Again and again, we find Chicagoans describing themselves as coming of age in a city without a significant past in innovative poetry, then making their own innovative scene. And just as persistently, we find descriptions of that new scene to contain a strange tension between the idea that Chicago has some distinction of its own, some aboriginal virtue, and the idea that the poet in question is a kind of missionary bringing us up to date with New York or London or Paris of San Francisco. Such discussions aren’t exclusive to poetry, by the way: discussions of these kinds take place among prose writers like the Chicago realists and naturalists, from Dreiser through Algren – but these discussions take place perennially in poetry, notably in the 1960s with poets like Paul Carroll and Michael Anania.

    Perhaps the most notable recent instance of the pattern I’m describing came about in 2004, at the AWP convention held (if memory serves) at the Palmer Hilton. This is where Paul Hoover gave the talk “My Kind of Town: Local Literary Community,” later reprinted in the Chicago Review. Echoing Harriet Monroe some 92 years before him, he sees his city as having been something of a dire poetic backwater before his arrival. “For years,” he tells us, “Chicago was a fly-over city.”

    The real world of literature existed on the coasts. Chicago's main poetry event used to be Poetry Day, sponsored by Poetry. In 1972, at the suggestion of Paul Carroll, a few of us, including Lisel Mueller, Mark Perlberg, and Martha Friedberg founded the Poetry Center at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The idea was to bring poets to Chicago to read their work. For the same reason, to leap high enough to connect with what was not local, Maxine [Chernoff] and I published New American Writing, which sponsored a reading series at Links Hall, and served on the board of the Poetry Center. San Francisco comes ready-made. Someone else did the work of building (Kenneth Rexroth, the Duncan and Spicer circles, and so on). Chicago remained to be built.

    And that building, it seems, fell to Paul and his comrades in the art. His description of his own tasks comes across as somewhat Herculean, in a professorial kind of way:”I taught a double load in the fall semester of each year (five classes), ran a reading series with eight to ten annual events, took responsibility for two poetry magazines, and coordinated a growing undergraduate poetry program.”

    The result of all this building was, in Hoover’s narrative, a distinctly Chicago-inflected innovative poetry and a set of institutions to support it. “…In Chicago, my role as a teacher, editor, organizer of poetry readings, and poet was to encourage openness to the ‘new’,” he writes. And his efforts stand, in this version of the origin myth, behind the current framework for innovative poetry in Chicago, a network of institutions that prove that the city has finally become pure metropolis, leaving its provincial past behind. Here’s how Hoover puts it:

    I have a printout from the website It shows the incredible growth of experimental poetry in Chicago in recent years: The Discreet Series, the Danny’s Tavern Series, the Chicago Poetry Project, the Myopic Poetry Series, Chicago Review, and Conundrum. To that list I would add Flood Editions, edited by Devin Johnston and Michael O’Leary, Peter O’Leary’s magazine LVNG, Columbia Poetry Review as formerly constituted, Another Chicago Magazine at its most Beat, the recent arrivals of Margy Sloan and Bin Ramke, among others, and a new openness to such writing at the School of the Art Institute and the University of Chicago….One can now say “Lisa Jarnot is in town” or “Ron Silliman is reading at the Chicago Poetry Project.” In this respect, the city has finally grown up.

    So that’s that. No longer a wilderness of calf-pelt dragging rubes hypnotized by the coastal elites, we are a shining city on a hill — or at least on a stretch of lakeside prairie. But not so fast. Just like Monroe before him, Hoover seems haunted (even in these moments of local pride) by the sense that the real cutting edge is elsewhere. Some of the highest praise he can offer to the poetic city that he helped found is this: “there’s almost as much experimental activity in Chicago as in San Francisco!” If you want to judge where the real metropolis of innovation is, you’ve got to ask whether the New Yorkers or San Franciscans are making comparisons of themselves to us, here in the second city. One rather suspects not. Moreover, even in an essay in which he claims Chicago has “finally grown up,” we see that true poetic validation still comes from other (mostly coastal) places. When Hoover describes the ascent of Chicago-born innovative poets, for example, he does it by telling us the glamorous places to which they have escaped: “My students,” he says, “were being accepted into the country’s leading MFA programs: Brown, Bard, Columbia University, the University of Iowa [and] Bennington.” If his other students went on for further study in our own city, it was study of a sort to humbly local to mention.

  • The Myth of Benevolent Eclecticism

    So the persistent myth of origin — the recurring sense that we as Chicagoans have to establish something up-to-date in what we secretly fear is our backwater town — remains with us. But I’d like to turn now to another recurring theme of Chicago poetry: the idea that our true innovative nature lies in an aversion to orthodoxy, in a benevolent eclecticism of experiment. Here, as always, Harriet Monroe anticipates all who will follow. Describing the Poetry magazine circle’s discussions of poetics circa 1913, she tells us that “poetic technique was an open forum, in which everyone’s theories differed from everyone else’s, and the poems we accepted were a battleground for widely varying opinions.” Indeed, Monroe saw the milieu she was creating as “the scene and center of all controversial action in the art” and a haven for those rejecting the schools and orthodoxies found elsewhere.

    We find this idea of Chicago as a place gloriously free of restrictive aesthetic orthodoxy again and again. In the eighties, for example, Another Chicago Magazine editor Barry Silesky states that while the city of Chicago has a definite literary distinction, and has “an influence on individual writers, there is no school, no genre” and nothing constrictingly “unitary.” More than a decade later I myself repeated the myth, in my editorial for the inaugural issue of the journal Samizdat. Here, I tried to explain the heavily-Chicago oriented table of contents by claiming that it reflected the particularly fertile nature of our local soil for innovative writing, saying that the preponderance of locals was:

    ...reflective of the way that the cultural climate of Chicago has fostered poets 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.

    Paul Hoover played this note too, offering himself as an example of the kind of innovative eclecticism that comes about when one emerges as a poet in a city without a dominant innovative traditon (“New York School,” say):

    The most important turn in my reading may have come when a classmate dropped Ron Padgett's Great Balls of Fire on a conference table in Adams Hall at UIC....I didn't plunge completely into the New York School, nor did I remain where I was. I'm thankfully still in passage, within and among a number of heavy planets: Deep Image, Surrealism, the English Metaphysicals as well as the American (Dickinson), Williams and Stevens, Cesar Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, Language Poetry, Ashbery and Schuyler, Lorine Niedecker, Thomas Trahearne, Robert Creeley, Zukofsky's "A-14," Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore's "The Fish," and Gwendolyn Brooks' amazing vocalizations and close rhymes...

    I’m sure all this is true, and in Hoover’s case the eclectic mix has certainly helped to make for an interesting body of work. I mean, had Paul started out in San Francisco, One wonders how different Hoover would be had he started out in, say, San Francisco. Perhaps his magazine New American Writing would have been a more narrowly Duncany-Spicery kind of journal. And what if Paul had first seen that Padgett book in New York? The powerful gravity of the New York School's levity could well have pulled him in, I think, and left the Trahearne and Brooks and Vallejo sides of his poetry less well developed.

    But if one takes an uncharitable view — not of Paul’s particular case, but of the persistent myth of a benevolent Chicago eclecticism in innovative poetry — one could wonder if we aren’t really just making a virtue of necessity. One could take the tack that we’re simply justifying our failure to create something truly distinctive by calling it a commitment to openness. It wouldn’t be the first time a myth transmuted failure into virtue.

  • The Myth of Freedom in Nothing to Lose

    Connected with this myth of benevolent eclecticism is another cherished myth of Chicago poetry, one dating back at least as far as the nineteen teens. Since I’ve babbled on too long already, I’ll keep my comments here brief, and cite just one source, although my sense of the anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that the view is still fairly widespread. It is the belief that the lack of any serious, tangible reward system allows Chicago poets a freedom not to be found in a place like New York. Out here by Lake Michigan, says this myth, we can’t get too worried about whether or not we’ll be invited to the Paris Review party, where we may well have met and inadvertently charmed one of those mysterious fellows who hands out the MacArthur “genius awards.” Unburdened by such worries, we are free to act and write as we will, without an eye to impressing the powers that be. I hear this view from time to time, and we can find it in print as far back as 1920, when H.L. Mencken (writing from Baltimore) wrote his essay on Chicago writers, called “The Literary Capital of the United States.” New York can’t be such a capital, despite appearances, says Mencken, because in New York there are “great rewards” but “also inviolable taboos.” The new poet arrived in New York senses the existing hierarchy, and sees that those who play by the rules may win the very tangible prizes, so that poet’s “ideas are deliberately flattened out. He learns to do things as they should be done.” “New York, when it lures such a recruit eastward, makes a plaint conformist of him, and so ruins him out of hand. But Chicago … leaves him irrevocably his own man.”

    Two questions spring to mind immediately: firstly, is this really just a “sour grapes” moment for Chicago poets? And secondly, can such a freedom-in-having-nothing-to-lose survive such a catastrophe as the hundred million dollar Lilly bequest to Poetry magazine?

    My best guess on this last question is that the answer is “yes,” given the decreasing importance of geography to culture in general. In the age of blogging and frequent flier miles no province is as provincial, and no metropolis as metropolitan, as it once was. If this means that the future of innovative poetry will take place in locations that are simultaneously kind of provincial and kind of metropolitan, then it means that the future of innovative poetry will look, in some sense, like Chicago. There will be a there there, and it will look like here.

  • Thursday, November 02, 2006


    I'm in Iceland. Long story. But I'll be back soon. In the meantime, why not amuse yourself by translating Jónas Hallgrímsson, the leading Icelandic poet of the 1830s? Here are some lines to get you started...

    Ísland! farsældafrón og hagsælda hrímhvíta móðir!
    Hvar er þín fornaldarfrægð, frelsið og manndáðin best?
    Allt er í heiminum hverfult, og stund þíns fegursta frama
    lýsir, sem leiftur um nótt, langt fram á horfinni öld.
    Landið var fagurt og frítt, og fannhvítir jöklanna tindar,
    himininn heiður og blár, hafið var skínandi bjart.
    Þá komu feðurnir frægu og frjálsræðishetjurnar góðu,
    austan um hyldýpishaf, hingað í sælunnar reit.
    Reistu sér byggðir og bú í blómguðu dalanna skauti;
    ukust að íþrótt og frægð, undu svo glaðir við sitt.
    Hátt á eldhrauni upp, þar sem enn þá Öxará rennur
    ofan í Almannagjá, alþingið feðranna stóð.
    Þar stóð hann Þorgeir á þingi er við trúnni var tekið af lýði.
    Þar komu Gissur og Geir, Gunnar og Héðinn og Njáll.
    Þá riðu hetjur um héröð, og skrautbúin skip fyrir landi
    flutu með fríðasta lið, færandi varninginnn heim.
    Það er svo bágt að standa' í stað, og mönnunum munar
    annaðhvurt aftur á bak ellegar nokkuð á leið.
    Hvað er þá orðið okkart starf í sex hundruð sumur?
    Höfum við gengið til góðs götuna fram eftir veg?
    Landið er fagurt og frítt, og fannhvítir jöklanna tindar,
    himininn heiður og blár, hafið er skínandi bjart.
    En á eldhrauni upp, þar sem enn þá Öxará rennur
    ofan í Almannagjá, alþing er horfið á braut.
    Nú er hún Snorrabúð stekkur, og lyngið á lögbergi helga
    blánar af berjum hvurt ár, börnum og hröfnum að leik.
    Ó þér unglingafjöld og Íslands fullorðnu synir!
    Svona er feðranna frægð fallin í gleymsku og dá!

    Saturday, October 21, 2006

    Blogging the MSA Part Two: The Two Cultures

    Hey y'all (I'm trying to blend in with the good people of Oklahoma, so I hope you'll bear with my affected "y'all," which I think may be indigineous to these climes). So y'all remember C.P. Snow's classic essay The Two Cultures, right? The one about how the sciences and the humanities had become two very different animals, incapable of communicating with one another except through a rudimentary system of grunts and mewlings? Well, I'm not going to say anything much about all that, but Snow's title seems like a good jumping-off point for the second installment of my ongoing chronicle of the eighth annual Modernist Studies Association. And I report from the field, folks: live from the 14th floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Tulsa, just down the hall from Michael Bibby, with whom I (and Grant Jenkins and George Hart and Tenley Bank) tore up certain parts of Route 66 last night. If by tearing up we mean having a beer or two and talking about teaching, his new book, my old book, and the horrifying truth about parenthood. Yep. Anyway. A lone ant from a tweedy anthill, ego scriptor.

    So what's the "two cultures" angle on the MSA? It goes something like this:

    Yesterday I was moaning and whining about the culture of ordinary academe, wringing my hands about how so many profs feel pressure from their higher-ups to write on certain prescribed topics in certain prescribed ways. I cringed and blanched at the administered nature of it all, the harnessing of the life of the mind into narrow specialities and narrowly-conceived genres of writing (I refer to how our genres of writing about literature are narrow — at least if they're going to be considered legit by the thesis committees, hiring committees, tenure committees, promotions committees, not to mention the hiring and promotions committees at the institutions where one hopes to encounter that great mirage, The Better Gig). I also bemoaned what I thought was a decline of participation by the less conventional academic conventioneers, the actual living poets and their devoted critics. Such types — especially the Legions of Langpo — once roamed the great savannahs of MSAs past with impunity, but this year the herd seemed rather thinned.

    That was yesterday. Today, after retiring to my base camp and consulting my carefully compiled field notes, I've decided that there are two distinct cultures of literary study here at the MSA. The dominant one is the beast I described with such dismay yesterday: an administered and regulated and prescribed and sort of nervous creature. The counter-culture, though, is a stronger-than-I'd thought language poetry scene of sorts. This creature takes a very different form, but one that is not necessarily any more benign. Let me fumble through my safari gear and see what conclusions I can draw from my notes. Ah yes. Here's the stuff. Let's start with the dominant culture of the convention:

    Name of Creature: Homo Academicus Modicus
    Form of Discourse about Literature: Standardized (genres: peer-reviewed article, peer-reviewed book, nervous and defensive conference paper, generally comparing two writers in terms derived from a Revered Theorist)
    Motivations: self-preservation, career security in a climate of relative scarcity
    Relation to Others: professional, after the gestation period in grad school, where collective misery makes for a feeling of ritual belonging.
    Notes: See my post from yesterday for observations on the inner life and outer behavior of the creature.

    And now for the counter-culture of the convention:

    Name of Creature: Vates Lingua Auto-Laudatius
    Form of Discourse about Literature: Various, but with particular emphasis on the following:

    A. Complimentary remarks about fellow language poets and a narrow canon of approved others.
    B. Obfuscatory verbiage about European theorists from the Prescribed List, often combined with A, above.
    C. General remarks about the political evils of the world, and the redemptive power of the kinds of poets mentioned in A., above.
    D. Catalogs of the names of other members of the tribe, uttered ritualistically in order to consolidate the sense of belonging, and the sense of the specialness of the tribe.
    E. Shout-outs to their homies in the room, all of whom are, to judge from the content of the shout-outs, well above average.

    Motivations: The Advancement of the Cause of the Group. Lauditory commentary on one another's work, the creation of panels and publications about one's comerades, the propagation of the species via one's disciple-grad students, and similiar activities are the means to this end.
    Relation to Others:Unlike the administered, professional, distant, Weberian world of Homo Academicus Modicus, Vates Lingua Auto-Laudatius lives in a world rich in face-to-face tribal interaction, a warm community of the likeminded. What might be taken as conflicts of interest in a culture that aspired to the (impossible) ideal of disinterest are here celebrated. "As I was having dinner with [name of specific Vates Lingua Auto-Laudatius on whose work one is about to speak during a panel], I was thinking about how important our work together has been..." What might be taken as indecorous actions by Homo Academicus Modicus are here considered quite acceptable -- working a mention of a book about oneself and one's friends that one has co-authored with one's friends into a panel on one's friends given with one's friends, say.
    NotesThere is a powerful appeal to all this, especially when set against the background of the colder, less supportive world of Homo Academicus Modicus. There is less fear in this world, and no sense of administrative surveillance, though the unspoken codes of conduct are as real and as restrictive as in any small, premodern village (one doesn't speak ill of the tribe in front of the tribe, one venerates the appropriate gods and only the appropriate gods, one walks in suspicion of outsiders, and considers most of what outsiders have to say about the village to be pernicious lies told by the hostile). There is an apparently — and perhaps actually —greater variety of forms in which one may write or speak about literature, though the canon of texts is, perhaps, somewhat narrow, and public feuding is as discouraged as it is among Homo Academicus Modicus.

    So. How to choose between the dominant culture and the counter-culture? One needn't run with either crowd, I suppose. And I admit I get a certain no-doubt-illegitimate frisson from telling myself I can keep my distance from both species, bestriding the MSA like some Byronic collossus as I shout out lines from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage like:

    But soon he knew himself the most unfit
    Of men to herd with Man; with whom he held
    Little in common; untaught to submit
    His thoughts to others, though his soul was quell'd
    In youth by his own thoughts; still uncompell'd,
    He would not yield dominion of his mind
    To spirits against whom his own rebell'd...

    Oh yeah. Like a rebel without a cause. Like a rolling stone. Born to be wild! Death before dishonor! Unchained to the mere thoughts of man, I rise in glorious and splendid isolation above the ... what's that? I've got to get my annual self-evaluation in to the department chair this week? But there's no time! I've got to update my vita, and put the bibliography of my paper into MLA format. And it's cold out and I can't find my tweed jacket... (cut to shot of Archambeau wandering off through the groves of academe, the tail end of his knit tie flopping into his styrofoam cup of coffee as he mutters about committee meetings and the grading of essays).

    Coda Concerning Adorno

    I unearthed this bit about Adorno on Barret Watten's Site. It's a pretty sharp (if dubiously syntaxed) take on how the autonomous artwork is both a critique and a symptom of the conditions in the world from which it comes:

    At the heart of the aesthetic, for Adorno, was precisely a relation to necessity, directly connected to the determination of necessity by nature, that can be found in the hybrid aesthetics of market socialism. The "windowless monad" of the artwork still conveys its social constructedness through the critical distance from the relations of production it demands to be a work of art; the artwork is critical precisely insofar as it escapes from mere necessity (of production and consumption) as its fundamental determinant.

    Friday, October 20, 2006

    The Word From Tulsa: Blogging the MSA 8, Part One

    You know, the last time I attached the phrase "part one" to a post, I never quite got around to creating a "part two," so I know I'm on thin ice in labeling this, my dispatch from the eighth annual Modernist Studies Association conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma the first part of a series. But I intend to write daily dispatches from the trenches of the Doubletree Hotel. Honest.

    Eric Hertz, an old pal from grad school, jumped me at O'Hare, and at the Tulsa luggage rack I ran into Jim Hansen, another old Notre Dame guy. Together we trucked it in to the hotel, where we hooked up with Grant Jenkins, last seen dancing samba with Cate Ramsden at the Miramar bar after the &NOW Festival.

    Despite the cameraderie, though, I feel a little foreboding about the conference, which gets underway in earnest today (actually, the 8:30 a.m. sessions are well underway, but the unshaven and otherwise unpresentable Archambeau still lingers over his crappy room-service coffee, so enfeebled hath old age rendered him etc.). Why foreboding, you ask? Well, for one thing, it looks like the poets have largely abandoned the MSA. The conference used to get a healthy dose of the language poetry crowd and their poetic and critical fellow-travellers: you'd find yourself in the elevator with Bob Perelman, Barret Watten, Susan Howe and Charles Altieri. Watten's still here (we'll be reading together along with illustrious others tomorrow night), and so is Benjamin Friedlander, but by and large the actual living writers and the people who hang with/write about them seem to have given up on the conference. I'm not sure why, but I think the trend is real: my colleague the freakstream novelist, used to come to the MSA but has given it up, saying "I just don't like those people..." So that's evidence for foreboding point number one: fewer poets, plus more people who define themselves by having a specific field of study, equals Bob wondering whether this may be turning into another big standard academic gesselschaft festival, along the lines of the MLA and its regional offshoots.

    Foreboding point number two has to do with the conversation at the expensively catered, big-ass opening reception last night. Don't get me wrong: I talked to some cool people, yukked it up happily, and learned a few things, most notably from Jim Hansen, who knows a lot about Adorno, and who may start up a blog to get in on the red-hot prof-on-Adorno action on Culture Industry, Pravda Kid and my own humble blog. I nattered away to him about things various, including my new work on the conundrum of the poet since the advent of full-scale aesthetic autonomy, and he pointed out that much of Beckett's work is a kind of dramatization, even a burlesque, of the idea of the autonomous artist's predicament (being free but isolated and possibly, just possibly, useless to the world). All those verbal artists of Beckett's, buried up to their neck in sand or living in trash cans, yearning, from their isolation, for some connection to the world or some definite purpose. Great! I'm going to have to riff on this for a few pages in my next book. But intriguing talk of Beckett aside, I heard, and overheard, and took part in, a distressingly large number of conversations of the genre I suppose we could call "l'anxiété d'académie."

    What's this anxiety all about? Well, I suppose I use the French terms to draw a kind of parallel between academe today and the French academic painting establishment of the late nineteenth century. I mean, I kept running into people who were fretting about pleasing the powers-that-be in their particular institutions: they expressed their anxieties variously. Examples include:

  • A yearning to blog, balanced by a fear that senior colleagues would find out about it and consider it a waste of time.

  • An expression of frustration at how they "have to" write things they don't want to write in order to please their senior colleagues (this is not always an "I don't want to write but just teach really well" sentiment -- sometimes it was followed by an expression of hope that someday they'll really be able to write the book they really want to write.

  • An anxiety that their book won't be published by one of the dozen or so presses their senior colleagues consider legitimate.

    Ay yi yi. I mean, the sense of a mighty set of graybeards dictating what one may or may not do, and limiting the weirdness and waywardness of one's intellectual and creative impulses -- this is a nigthmare version of academe, and puts it into too-close a comparison with the nineteenth century French art establishment, with its disdain for Impressionism, Fauvism, and all the rest. You know, the academy that kicked Manet's "Dejuner Sur L'Herbe" out of the Salon.

    What we need is the spirit of the Salon Des Refuses, the Salon that embraced with pride the work kicked out of the Salon. And we have it, too, in the world of oddball small presses, freaky journals, and of course in the Mighty Mighty Blogosphere. Of course, like the Salon Des Refuses and Rodney Dangerfield, it can't get no respect. But neither could punk rock, long may it wave its shredded and safety-pin pierced banner.

    Anyway, I'm hoping all my foreboding is for misguided: in a few minutes I'm going to hit my first real panel. With any luck, my crotchety old associate prof fog of pessimistic funk will be blown away by some powerful grad-student fireball of intellectual freedom. Vive les jeunes!

  • Tuesday, October 17, 2006

    At Last, Adorno

    Right then. Here at last is my first contribution to the ongoing project of blogging about Adorno's Aesthetic Theory with Mark Scroggins and Dave Park, both of whom have gotten down to business before I have.

    Like Mark and Dave, I'm working with the Robet Hullot-Kentor translation, which tries to preserve Adorno's style — huge paragraphs, no subject headings, sentences that give with one dialectical hand while taking away with the other. We're working on the first sixteen pages at the moment.

    Unlike Adorno, I'm a great believer in section headings, so let me begin this way:

    1. Obligatory Opening Statement on Adorno's Style

    Martin Jay nailed it when he called Adorno's style "paratactic, anti-systematic, non-cumulative." Reading Aesthetic Theory isn't really like reading most philosophy or social thought: there's no sense of thesis-supporting points-conclusions to it. Much has been made out of this. People often seem to want to say that this is a product of Adorno's desire not to be assimilated into any blandifying culture industry pap, not to be dumbed-down and standardized. I suppose there's something to this. And there's something to the idea that Adorno's style comes out of his dialectical thinking -- his sense that there's no such thing as a simple transhistorically true thesis, but that all thinking is contextual and that ideas tend to generate their own contradictions.

    As I slowly warm to the style (something I did not actually expect to do), though, I feel more and more that the effect of Adorno's style is like the effect of listening to an exceptionally bright and clever and ironic colleage thinking out loud, and trusting you to catch his ironies, hyperboles, and arcane references, as well as those moments when he's kidding on the square. He begins going in one direction, maintaining, say, that art is hopelessly implicated in the dominant ideology of the time; then suddenly he'll react to the limits of his own thesis, and argue the other way, without entirely ceasing to believe what he'd been arguing. If you can stop worrying about determining Adorno's exact position, you can learn to love the way he writes. Negative dialectics and negative capability are less far apart than one might think.

    2. So What's Art For, Anyway?

    This is one of the questions animating the first few pages of Aesthetic Theory: Adorno begins by saying that nothing is self-evident about art anymore, least of all its right to exist. As it turns out, he's talking about one of my own favorite themes: the autonomy of art, once it ceases to have a cultic/religious function (as it did for all of those painters of Renaissance altar pieces), or a directly ideological function (as it does in, say, Hyacinth Rigaud's immensely rhetorical portrait of Louis XIV), or even much of a market function (as, say, Dickens' Christmas books did). From about 1910 on, Adorno says, art has been very much on its own, reveling in freedom but worrying about its role in the world.

    There's no easy way out of all this, for Adorno: art just wouldn't be art anymore if it decided to take up a directly social function, as Socialist Realism did. Or as a lot of art did in the 1970s, when it hooked up with identity politics: the other day while flanneuring my way through the local Borders Books I put down a Denise Levertove book I was browsing in when I ran into the section that seemed to renounce art in order to deliver no-doubt-valuable social statements like "That a woman never leave meaningful work for a man; that a man never leave meaningful work for a woman," words just as artless to that effect. Good feminism, but kind of crappy poetry from a poet who has done much better work.

    Adorno, probably relishing the scandalousness of his lines, even writes that art may well have no function any more, it may be over with. One senses a thin-lipped smirk appearing briefly on his gravid visage as he thinks of what Hans in Hamburg will think when he reads that.

    There does seem to be a purpose to art, often, though it's one Adorno feels quite ambivalent about. I suppose we could call that purpose otherworldliness, though that's not really Adorno's term.

    3. The Other Worlds of Art

    Adorno maintains that art creates other worlds, different from the empirical world around us. (But what about abstract art? you ask. Good question! But Uncle Teddy Adorno will get there, worry not). These other worlds tend to be consoling, says Adorno, even if they aren't pastoral idylls or splendid utopias. They console, often, simply because they posit the possibility of another way of life. So, I suppose, one could say that even as depressing and elegaic a writer as Thomas Hardy can be consoling: sure, he shows us a comforting and tough-but-authentic country world only as it is dying, being replaced by a soullessly technological and administrated world. But at least he posits the countryside as a kind of other world, a repository of dying virtues. The weary bourgeois may put aside the copy of Tess of the D'Urbervilles he's been re-reading in order to teach it at, say, Lake Forest College, glance over at his wife and say something like "Hey, Valerie -- whaddaya say we rent us a cottage in the Cotswolds next summer?" This consolation is bad news for Adorno, though: it is the opiate of the masses, the pap for the dispossessed, the thing that keeps us from changing the unjust world in which we live.

    Abstract art, or art that otherwise refuses to be about, or in the service of, anything but itself (think Mallarme, say), is just as suspect to Adorno. Its radical autonomy, and its rejection of the empirical world

    The principle of autonomy is itself suspect of giving consolation: by undertaking to posit totality out of itself, whole and self-encompassing, the image [of another world] is transferred to the world in which art exists and that engenders it.

    Think of Huysmans' Des Essenties from A Rebours here, or of any dandyish aesthete living on and for art alone. To lose oneself in art serves much the same function as losing oneself in a Hardyesque dream of the virtuous other world of the countryside. Or imagine the bourgeois and his wife taking a weekend trip down to, say, The Art Institute of Chicago, and tripping on the Calders and Mondrians, and feeling a general sense of peace and harmonious balance in all those clean well-lighted rooms as they let the disorder of the external world take care of itself. On the way back to their Honda they'll pass homeless people looking for handouts, but by the time they're home they'll be pawing through the exhibition catalog and chatting happily about it all.

    And that's not all. Check this out, a continuation of Adorno's last bit on autonomous art. Autonomous art is suspect of giving consolation "by virtue of its rejection of the empirical world ... art sanctions the primacy of empirical reality." Okay! By Adorno's reckioning, then, when a guy like Kazimir Malevich painted his red squares on white backgrounds, he was treading on dangerous ground. And when Malevich said that he wanted his ideal viewer to stand in front of his painting and say "everything I knew is dead -- before me stands a red square on a white field" he was in even deeper trouble. Instead of making a bold, past-clearing gesture, a gesture that puts us in touch with the primal act of seeing, Malevich was surrendering to the world as it is. His viewer gives up on any engagement with the world out there and, gooned on red, becomes a kind of lotus-eating quietist. Art becomes an opiate — if not for the masses, then at least for the connoisseurs.

    4. But no!

    And here's where Adorno does a little dialectical pirouette. While he finds art that consoles to be insufferable in a deeply unjust and imperfect world, he thinks that art that interrogates or attacks or investigates its own foundations — art that takes a good hard look at what it is that art does — to be potentially redemptive. It can be as oppositional as it is (malevolently) consoling.

    What does this mean? I suppose Adorno has something like Dada in mind: avant-garde art that questions what it is art is for. So when the Dadaists displayed their art with hammers and axes next to it, for the viewer who didn't like it to smash it to bits if he so desired, they were showing us all sorts of fundamental things about the bases of art. For one, they were showing us how passive our relationships with art objects usually are: we're just supposed to soak up art's consolations, and if we find those consolations problematic we're left with little recourse but some private grumbling. (There's a terrible irony in what's happened to Dada: exhibited at places like the National in D.C. reverantly, and with nary a hammer to hand, and with no one taking the provocation to blast what one dislikes seriously. I've been thinking about this lately, and I think I can make a chapter of my next book out of the fate of the Dada tradition. I mean, the institutions have really eaten Dada. One wonders if Dada poisoned them in the process, changing them fundamentally as much as the institutions changed Dada? But I digress).

    I think Adorno's observation about self-interrogating art's ability to contest as well as console applies to a lot of art we wouldn't think of as avant-garde, though. Consider this poem of Ken Smith's, which I had the pleasure to publish in Samizdat back in 1998:

    Countryside Around Dixton Manor, Circa 1715

    [Countryside around Dixton Manor is the title of a huge painting by an anonymous artist, dated circa 1715, on view in Cheltenham Art Gallery.
    The harvest verse is from Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, 1580, by Thomas Tusser, published by OUP, 1984]

    Now strike up drum
    come harvest man come.
    Blowe horne or sleapers
    and cheere up thy reapers

    Layer under layer under the paintwork
    England is making its Midsummer hay—

    the dancing morris, pipelads and drum,
    scythemen and rakers, cockers and carters

    and centrefield my lord with his ladies
    riding where now the pylon hums

    with its wires over spring wheat
    through the early morning mist.

    These are the same hedgebacks,
    same lie to the landscape, Mickle Mead,

    Barrowdine, Harp Field and Sausage
    still here though the names gone now.


    In oils, unsigned, anonymous, a jobber
    moving through landscape, used maybe
    the wide angle lens of the camera oscura
    for this sweep of a corner of Gloustershire,

    back when all was thought well enough,
    and nothing would change beyond this—
    these peasants sweating in harvest
    content dreaming brown ale and a fumble

    among the haycocks, and the dancers dance off
    to their drink and their shillings. My lord lies now
    and since and soon and thereafter in Alderton
    in St Mary of Antioch, long dead.


    Long gone, nameless maids in a row,
    long curve of the back of 23 men
    in a Mexican wave of swung scythes

    to their lost graves. Two gossips
    by the gate that is still a gate
    maybe went for infantry, and the pipeboy

    shipped out to the far world, most
    stayed, went hungry, died anyway.
    The painting’s a lie, the landscape true

    where the field keeps its shape. Everything
    beyond this moment is yet to happen.
    Everyone here is part of the dust now.


    If my heart aches it’s for this
    though none of it’s true:

    the world we have lost never was
    so we never lost it:

    glitter of horse brass, bells
    rolling over the evening:

    all my lord’s dream of himself
    in a hired man’s painting:

    same tale then as now
    and this has not changed either:

    the enrichment of the rich,
    impoverishment of the poor.

    None but the reaper
    will come to your door.

    On the one hand, the poem is all about pastoral consolations. On the other hand, Smith acknowledges the fictive nature of those consolations: he knows that what his heart aches for (a just and better and altogether more congenial world) never existed, at least not under the old squirearchy in the eighteenth century. So he lets us feel deeply his (and, be extention our) need for a better world, gives it as local habitation and a name by embodying it in the painter's vision, and then tells us that there's no point pining for that past. We're consoled, but we're also left questioning what we could do, and where in the world we could turn, to find or make the better, other world.

    5. A Bunch of Stuff on the Origin of the Work of Art

    Adorno next tells us that there's no single, authoritative concept of what art must be. Definitions are historically contingent and prone to change. This was probably a more interesting and controversial section back when the academy still harbored tweedy old coots who though the Greek ideas were the best ideas because the Greek ideas were the first ideas. There's a kind of anthroplogical The Raw and the Cooked quality to this section: Adorno makes a big deal out of art being defined, at each historical moment, against whatever the culture deems to be "non-art."

    The most interesting bit for me, here, has to do with autonomous art again: Adorno tells us that "artworks became artworks only by negating their origin." That is, only after they left off their "ancient dependency on magic" and their "servitude to kings and amusement" did they become art, in the present sense of the word. Autonomy is essential to the artwork at this particular point in time, and we define it against religious artefacts, ideological shills, and mere fun. (Here's a point where you can feel that things have changed since Adorno wrote: the high/low distinctions in art, and the art/fun distinctions have been largely eroded — I'm sure Adorno would have something clever and interesting to say about this, too).

    Yargh. I've got to catch a train, and I see that I've covered only about four pages of Adorno. Well, more later. Metrarail is a cruel mistress.

    Saturday, October 14, 2006

    Beyond Close Reading and the G.I. Bill: A Secret History of the New Criticism

    What's that you say? You can't make it down to Tulsa, Oklamoma next week to hear me talk about the New Criticism and read my poems at the eighth annual Modernist Studies Association Conference? You're kidding! What are we going to do about this terrible state of affairs? Oh, come on. No whining. Okay, fine. But only since you insist. Here's the paper I'm giving.

    If any of you ever want to cite it in some dusty academic article, or perhaps attack it in a firey editorial, you can pretend you were in Tulsa and give it the full treatment:

    Archambeau, Robert. "Beyond Close Reading and the G.I. Bill: A Secret History of the New Criticism," Modernist Studies Association Convention, Tulsa Oklahoma, October 22, 2006.

    The essay is based on some material I was asked to eject, as irrelevant to my main argument, from the Laureates and Heretics manuscript. I did so at the behest of the very sharp and well-informed anonymous reader evaluating it for the press, a reader I'm increasingly convinced has to be Keith Tuma (J'accuse, Keith!).

    Oosh. I just realized that I'll have to come back to this post and fix all the formatting errors my cut-and-paste job is sure to introduce. No italics, and no footnotes will appear (and some of the "works cited," will seem irrelevant, as the works were cited in the footnotes).If you're reading this in 2008 and the italics still haven't reformatted, odds are I've given up on actually getting around to the task.

    Anyway Here it is:

  • Beyond Close Reading and the G.I. Bill: A Secret History of the New Criticism

    As I hope my attempt at a sexy title makes clear, I want to talk a little about some of the less-frequently-discussed elements of the rise of the New Criticism. The story of that rise has been told countless times in many a graduate seminar, and tends to go something like this:

    Once upon a time there was a small group of men who cared about poems, but not much else. They wanted to discuss poems in terms of their form, and such was their love for poetry they wanted these poems to be perfect, for every detail to balance out every other, and for the poems to come together in wonderfully ironic wholes. They worked hard reading those poems, searching for unities and ironies and balances, and they called this hard work “close reading.” This was all a terrible mistake, but they didn’t know it, because Derrida had yet to come down from his mountain with the ten commandments of deconstruction. And the men so loved poems that they didn’t want the messiness of the world to enter into the poems, so they read the poems they loved without reference to context. They worked hard to avoid looking at history and ethics and politics, and they called this hard work “formalism.” This too was a terrible mistake, but they didn’t know it because Greenblatt had yet to come down from his mountain with the ten commandments of the New Historicism. But these men, misguided as they were, came to dominate our English Departments, because something called the G.I. Bill came along, leading behind it a long line of eager and ambitious people, a new generation of students who hadn’t been prepared for college at fancy prep schools. Someone had to find a new way to teach them, a way that didn’t depend on the students having prepped for college at Groton or Choate or some provincial equivalent. And the New Critics came forward and said they didn’t need for their students to do anything but closely read a few short poems and all would be well. But all was not well until the New Critics were driven from the land by Derrida and Greenblatt, for whom we should all give grateful thanks.

    Anyone likely to be reading this — that is, anyone attending a seminar called “New Approaches to the New Criticism” — is likely to be dissatisfied with stories of this ilk. My own dissatisfactions with such stories are legion, but for the present context let me concentrate on just one: the insistence on unity where there is none to be found, really. In an oddly ironic way, those who tell stories like the one above are doing to the story of the New Critics exactly the sort of thing they are likely to condemn the New Critics for doing to a poem: taking a contradictory and dissonant thing and hammering it into something coherent, where all the parts are subordinated to an interpretive whole. What I’d like to do here, by way of chipping away at the dominant story of the New Criticism is this: I’d like to point out how the institutional imperatives that gave rise to the New Criticism within our universities also helped to exacerbate divisions that were latent in the movement from the beginning. The important institutional imperative, for my purposes, is not the need to serve a new generation of returning G.I.’s: it is the need to establish English as an autonomous discipline, a need created by the Germanic model of the university that became dominant in America in the twentieth century. My case study will be that of Yvor Winters, a New Critic who came to seem a marginal figure in the movement because his poetic and critical practices were at odds with this institutional imperative. Since I’ve indulged myself in this elaborate introduction, my demonstrations will of necessity be brief, but fret not: should you be so sadly addicted to this arcane topic that you hunger for more, I’ll be happy to inflict large chunks of my manuscript on you via email.

  • Autonomous Disciplines: Legitimating the Midcentury English Department

    While the common story of the rise of the New Criticism isn’t wrong in emphasizing the democratizing of higher education in postwar America, there is another factor to be considered in understanding that rise. This second factor in the success of the New Critics is the emphasis of many — but, as we shall see, not all — such critics on the autonomy of literary study, and their accompanying emphasis on the autonomy of the literary object. The American university, like its German model, is predicated on the assumption of discrete and autonomous areas of knowledge, and was therefore receptive to New Critical ideas of literary study as an autonomous endeavor.

    In addition to the need for a pedagogy that would suit the postwar student body, the American university turned to the New Criticism because it seemed that movement shared the universities’ amenability to an autonomous view of literature. The division-and-department administrative model of the university was one that favored the idea of autonomous areas of inquiry . This idea of clearly divided and administered knowledge-areas implies, as Gerald Graff puts it in Professing Literature, “the isolation of literature as its own autonomous mode of discourse with its own autonomous ‘mode of existence.’” Moreover, as Graff points out, the English Department’s mode of discourse and existence must, in this view, be “distinct from that of philosophy, politics, and history” and put a premium on “methods that seemed systematic and could easily be replicated” (145).

    This predisposition of the American university to autonomous rather than heteronomous views of knowledge predates the New Criticism considerably, having its origins as far as the founding of Johns Hopkins University on German educational models in 1867. By and large, though, literature departments lagged behind the sciences and social sciences in developing autonomous principles for the study of their subject matter. But by the mid-1930s (just as New Critics like Brooks and Warren were launching their fledgling academic careers) the institutions were ready for change. R.S. Crane of the University of Chicago, for instance, looked to reform his own department on the autonomous principle, calling, in 1935, for a faculty that did not subordinate formal to political or moral concerns: “…men of the type of the older impressionists we could hardly use, and as for the remnants of the Humanists, there is little to be hoped for from the kind of principles — essentially political and ethical rather than esthetic in character — for which they mainly stood” (4).

    Crane may not have known exactly what he wanted, but he knew what he didn’t want: heteronomous principles of literature, the prevalence of which seemed to threaten to subordinate literature to politics and ethics. It should come as no surprise that three years later, in the year of Understanding Poetry’s first edition, John Crowe Ransom would look back on Crane as a visionary, and praise him as a great reformer in the famous essay “Criticism, Inc.”. By 1950, many proponents of heteronomous principles of literature and literary study in the academy had come to feel that the reformers had them up against the ropes. MLA president and Harvard professor Douglas Bush’s address to the MLA two years earlier (“The New Criticism: Some Old Fashioned Queries”) had been less an act of resistance than an angry surrender to an enemy that dismissed his own ethical and humanistic views as nothing more than “the didactic heresy” (19-20). Then, as at many an MLA conference since, the desperate pleas of the president were ignored by the eager young assistant professors, ready to make names for themselves by following the next new thing.

    In an institutional environment that called out for a method of study based on autonomous principles of literature, critics like Tate and Ransom were there to supply what was needed. This is not to say that the they were nothing more than opportunists, merely that the ideas they produced happened to fit the demands of the academic/literary marketplace of the time. Then again, one can sometimes detect a whiff of opportunism in private correspondence, as when Ransom writes to Tate in 1937, saying that “I have an idea that we could really found criticism if we got together on it” and that “the professors are in an awful dither trying to reform themselves and there’s a big stroke possible for a small group that knows what it wants in giving them ideas and definitions and showing the way” (Young, John Crowe Ransom 85).

    Regardless of how deliberate any particular New Critics may have been in exploiting the universities’ need for a theory of literature as an autonomous object of study, those who prospered most seemed to embrace the idea that both the method and object of literary study were autonomous. Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.,” for example, echoes R.S. Crane’s criticism of non-autonomous methods of literary study in claiming that the unreformed English department could “almost as well announce that it does not regard itself as autonomous, but as a branch of the department of history, with the option of declaring itself occasionally a branch of ethics” (Graff 148). A year later, in 1939, Cleanth Brooks would write in The Well-Wrought Urn that, without an insistence on formalist methods, professors of literature would wake up one day to find that they had been “quietly relegated to a comparatively obscure corner of the history division” or were being “treated as sociologists, though perhaps not as a very important kind of sociologist” (235). Against these dire consequences, Brooks held up a strictly formal method of literary study. By 1951, he felt able to codify the method in a number of “articles of faith” published in The Kenyon Review under the title “The Formalist Critic.” No minor sociologist he, but a professional practitioner in a proper field of inquiry.

    The literary object of New Critical literary study, too, was to be an autonomous. When W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley wrote, in “The Intentional Fallacy,” that “poetry is a feat of style,” (The Verbal Icon 4) they were codifying a position at a far pole from any notions of the poem as, say, a moral statement, an intervention in (or product of) history, an establishment of identity, or the like. This sense of the autonomy of the poem-as-poem was central to the idea of English as an autonomous discipline, and of great importance to the rise of critics like Wimsatt and Beardsley. But the triumph of this idea, fostered by an institutional structure with which it was eminently compatible, also created, or at any rate exacerbated, schisms within the New Criticism. One of these, to which we will now turn, involved the marginalization of one poet-critic associated with the movement: Yvor Winters.

  • The Heretic of Paraphrase

    In 1951 Randall Jarrell wrote:

    Is Clarity the handmaiden of Popularity, as everybody automatically assumes? How much does it help to be immediately plain? In England today few poets are as popular as Dylan Thomas — his magical poems have corrupted a whole generation of English poets, yet he is surely one of the most obscure poets who ever lived. Or take an opposite example: the poems of the students of Yvor Winters are quite as easy to understand as those which Longfellow used to read during the Children’s Hour; yet they are about as popular as those other poems (of their own composition) which grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, And Edith with golden hair used to read to Longfellow during the Poet’s Hour. If Dylan Thomas is obscurely famous, such poets as these are clearly unknown. (18-19).

    These comments, published four years later in Poetry and the Age are flippant but telling, in that they encapsulate much of the New Critical critique of Wintersian poetry and poetics. That critique, in most instances, boiled down to a preference for the interestingly obscure over the plainspoken or easily paraphrasable. While Winters, in one of his less tolerant moods, could write that “many poems cannot be paraphrased and are therefore defective” (see Von Hallberg, “Yvor Winters” 804), it would only be stretching things a little to say that the standard New Critical assessment of Winters was that his later poems were defective because they could be too readily paraphrased.

    This was the basic substance of John Crowe Ransom’s quarrel with Winters, and the substance of the critique that his student, Cleanth Brooks, would level at Winters. Both Ransom and Brooks objected to the statement-oriented, paraphrasable side of Winters’ poetics, and for the same reason: Winters’ work violated the autonomous principle of poetry. Two other New Critics, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, would also object to Winters’ work on the same grounds. The repeated rejections were strong enough to sting even the thick-skinned Winters, who remarked in 1953 that the young Turks of Ivy League thought of him as “lower than the carpet” (Hall 224).

    Ransom explicity objects to Winters’ heteronomous principles of poetry — his subordination of formal concerns to moral concerns — in the 1941 volume that became the namesake of a movement, The New Criticism. Here he maintains that “Winters believes that ethical interest is the only poetic interest” (214). This is a problem, Ransom argues, because it looks to poetry for reasons other than “poetical interest” itself (that is, the autonomous principle of poetry):

    Now I suppose [Winters] would not disparage the integrity of a science like mathematics, or physics, by saying that it offers discourse whose intention is some sort of moral perfectionism. It is motivated by an interest in mathematics, or in physics. But if mathematics is for mathematical interest, why is not poetry for poetical interest? A true-blue critic like Eliot would certainly say that it is, though he would be unwilling to explain what he meant. I think I know why all critics do not answer as Eliot would: because criticism, a dilettante and ambiguous study, has not produced the terms in which poetic interest can be stated. Consequently Winters is obliged to think that mathematics is for mathematical interest — or so I suppose he thinks — but that poetry, in order that there may be an interest, must be for ethical interest. And why ethical? Looking around among the stereotyped sorts of interest, he discovers, very likely, that ethical interest is as frequent in poetry any other one. (214).

    The passage reverberates with the energies that were to bring the New Criticism to power in the universities: the science-based emphasis on a division of knowledge into discrete, autonomous fields; the condemnation of “dilettante” critics; the call for an articulation of “terms in which poetic interest can be stated” (terms, one imagines, like irony, balance, and unity — terms that stress complex structure over moral statement). Ransom takes a position that will advance New Criticism to the center of academic and literary authority. A great deal, in fact, depends upon his ability to establish the autonomous principle of literature: “there’s a big stroke possible for a small group that knows what it wants in giving [professors of English] ideas and definitions,” as Ransom wrote to Tate four years earlier. Winters, in this process, serves as a foil: he is the poet-critic who fails to grasp the autonomous principle; the representative of an outmoded, heteronomous aesthetic.

    Winters, never one to let a criticism of his own work go unanswered in print, objected to Ransom’s criticism in his scathing essay “John Crow Ransom, or Thunder without God” from The Anatomy of Nonsense. Here, he claims quite rightly that Ransom has a truncated notion of Winters’ moralism, which was never as simple a matter as demanding that a poem make an overt moral statement. Instead, the poet’s responsibility is to co-ordinate rational statements about the world with the emotional connotations appropriate to those statements (In Defense of Reason 502-507). Nevertheless, Winters still maintains that the subject matter of poetry is inevitably human experience and that “it can therefore be understood only in moral terms” (506). That is, “the act of the poet” should always be “an act of moral judgment” (503). The poet, in this view, is ultimately responsible to morality, rather than to internal or formal “poetic interest” alone. This is a profoundly heteronomous idea of literature, and it is heteronomy itself, rather than any particular definition of morality, to which Ransom objects.

    Brooks’ major contribution to the anti-Wintersian argument comes in the middle section of his famous essay of 1947, “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” where Inquisitor Brooks fingers Winters as the leading heretic. Like Ransom, Brooks objects to Winters’ emphasis on statement on the grounds that it violates the autonomous nature of literature. “Mr. Winters’ position will furnish perhaps the most respectable example of the paraphrastic heresy,” intones the Inquisitor, naming Winters as a heretic because “he assigns primacy to the ‘rational meaning’ of the poem” (963). This is a violation of the autonomous principle of poetry because “to refer the structure of the poem to what is finally a paraphrase of the poem is to refer it to something outside of the poem” (964). For true believers free from heteronomous heresies, poems are to be judged in terms of structure and “internal order” (964) only. In addition, Winters’ is condemned for conceiving of the language of poetry as continuous with the language of “science or philosophy or theology” (964). Brooks, like Ransom, holds to the dogma that poetry is a special kind of language, and so is unsympathetic to Winters’ idea that poetry does not differ in essence from prose. While no dunking stools were available for use on heretics academy, the most powerful weapon available was deployed against the heretic Winters: he was derided, and worse, ignored.

    One of last major attacks on Winters — or perhaps we should say, one of the last moments when Winters’ work is taken seriously enough by a New Critic to merit sustained attack — comes in W.K. Wimsatt’s 1954 study The Verbal Icon. Even here much of the material devoted to Winters comes in a which Wimsatt co-wrote with Monroe C. Beardsley in 1946. In addition to making light of Winters’ concerns about improperly motivated emotion, they repeat the standard New Critical case against Wintersian poetics when they say they will not embrace “the extreme doctrine of Winters, that if a poem cannot be paraphrased it is a poor poem” (35). While they are willing to use some of the ideas about the emotive qualities of poetry, they share neither Winters’ sense of the dangers of unmotivated or spontaneous emotion, nor his sense of the poem as statement. He is, for them, largely passé.

    For critics like Ransom, Brooks, Wimsatt and Beadsley, the poems most favored were “obscurely famous,” centered on formal concerns, and consecrated because of those concerns. Had the Robert Lowell of Lord Weary’s Castle not been born, the New Critics would have had to invent him in a secret laboratory beneath Kenyon College’s biology building. But the poems of Yvor Winters, like those of his unnamed students in Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age, were “clearly unknown.” It was their clarity, in fact, that kept them that way. And it was his insistence on such clarity, and on a heteronomous poetic, that made him marginal in an movement that was riding high on the American university’s autonomous imperatives.

  • Works Cited

    Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. New York: Norton, 1978.

    Bush, Douglas. “The New Criticism: Some Old-Fashioned Queries.” PMLA 64 Supplement Part 2 (March 1949): 18-21.

    Brooks, Cleanth. “The Formalist Critic.” Kenyon Review 13 (1951): 72-81.

    Brooks, Cleanth. “The Heresy of Paraphrase.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Revised Edition. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992:961-968.

    Brooks, Cleanth. The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Dobson, 1968.

    Crane, R.S. The Idea of the Humanities, vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1967.

    Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

    Hall, Donald. “Rocks and Whirlpools: Archibald MacLeish and Yvor Winters.” Paris Review 121 (1991): 211-251.

    Jarrell, Randall. “The Morality of Mr. Winters.” Kenyon Review 1 (1939): 211-15

    Jarrell, Randall. Poetry and the Age. London: Faber and Faber, 1955.

    Ransom, John Crowe. “Criticism, Inc.” Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1979.

    Ransom, John Crowe, The New Criticism. Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1941.

    Richter , David, ed.. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1989.

    Von Hallberg, Robert. “Yvor Winters.” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Supplement Two, Part Two. Ed. A. Walton Litz. New York: Scribner’s, 1981: 785-816.

    Wimsatt, W.K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1967.

    Winters, Yvor. In Defense of Reason. Denver, Colorado: Swallow, 1947.

    Young, Thomas Daniel. John Crowe Ransom: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1982.