Sunday, January 28, 2007

Oppositional Poetry vs. Oppositional Poetry

So, while Sunday morning isn't exactly a matter of Wallace Stevens' "complacencies of the peignoir" chez Archambeau, I do generally manage to sprawl around with a few cups of freshly-ground-Sumatra coffee and the New York Times while I let the Saturday night haze drift out of my mind on the gently floating caffeine breeeze. Today I added the latest issue of Pleiades to the mix, which helped jazz me out of my torpor, including as it did John Matthias' new poem "Poetics," my own piece on poetic difficulty (which I scanned for typos, spotting one humiliating one, left in due to my own proofreaderly negligence), and Reginald Shepherd's very sharp essay "One State of the Art." It was Shepherd's essay that mixed itself into a heady brew with a piece by Jim Harrison in the Times Book Review, and that, with truly first rate coffee as a catalyst, had me thinking about the beast that hulks wherever poets gather nowadays: the idea of oppositional poetry.

Long story short, I suppose my thesis here is this: a lot of poets are driven by the idea that they should be in opposition to both the dominant aesthetic ideas and the dominant political forces of their time — but when you open the hood and poke around among its innards, this idea doesn't turn out to have much to do with politics at all. And its relation to aesthetics turns out to be of secondary importance: if you were feeling generous you could call the real driving force community; if you were feeling ungenerous, you could call it conformity. (I'm sure there are exceptions). Let me explain...

Jim Harrison's piece in the New York Times, "Don't Feed the Poets," was occasioned by Harrison's rediscovery of Karl Shapiro's 1964 book of prose poems, Bourgeois Poet lying around his study. Here's what Harrison says about the genesis of Shapiro's book:

Shapiro (1913-2000) had gotten the title for his book at a party, after giving a reading in Seattle, when Theodore Roethke called him a "bourgeois poet." The question is why it caused Shapiro such severe unrest that he poured heart and soul into what is really one very long poem?

The answer, says Harrison, lies in Shapiro's not-unusual "heroic notion of the poet," a notion formed early on and persistenting throughout his life. And when Shapiro wrote Bourgeois Poet, he was obsessed with the French Symbolists. "This explains a lot," says Harrison,

...since Shapiro's notion of what a poet was implies the outsider, the outcast, the outlier, one who purposefully deranges his mind to write poems like Rimbaud, or one who could not walk, so borne down was he by his giant wings, to paraphrase Baudelaire.

So this was the image of the poet, but how do you maintain it if, like Shapiro, you're tenured and respectable, and your concerns revolve (as Kenneth Koch used to say of the poet-professor) around "the myth, the midterms, and the missus"? As Harrison puts it, "How can you be raffiné ... on a campus in Nebraska?" What's interesting here isn't really the answer to that conundrum (if in fact there is one), but the persistence of the question, and the way Shapiro experienced it with a terrible urgency. It really ate him up, this charge of respectabilty. To be a poet, he had learned from the Symbolist tradition, meant to be an outsider — or better yet, to be part of a brotherhood of outsiders — or even better still, to be a part of a brotherhood of outsiders intent on defying the aesthetics and politics of the establishment. But all of this inherited sense of What A Poet Ought To Be was very different from the reality of what Shapiro was (and, I suppose, most poets in America since Shapiro's day, actually are). So it tore Shapiro up, as a perusal of the self-hating pages of Bourgeois Poet makes clear.

What's extrordinary here is this: it somehow isn't enough for the poet to embrace oppositional politics. To conform to the norms of the oppositional poet he actually has to assert some kind of equation between his formal practice and his oppositional politics. Consider Yvor Winters: as Reginald Shepherd recently pointed out in his blog, Winters is almost always dismissed as a reactionary, even though his political positions throughout his life were impressively progressive, and even courageus. He was a member of the ACLU in the McCarthy era, and joined the NAACP before civil rights became a respectable position among white guys. But he never drew an equation between an oppositional politics and formal experiment in poetry, and, having avoided this equation, he doesn't fit the inherited idea of an oppositional poet, who must combine the two, and see them as somehow the same thing. (Why does a commitment to old-school metrical poetry trump the whole anti-McCarthy, anti-Jim Crow business? It's an interesting question worth investigating properly sometime...)

Just as important to the sense of Winters as reactionary is another factor: Winters' refusal to be identified with a band of brother-outsiders. I always knew Winters was a loner-curmudgeon type, but I never got to see the stubborness with which he protected his solitude until the latest issue of the Chicago Review clunked into my mailbox a month or so ago. The issue features an astonishingly cool and very large selection of Kenneth Rexroth's correspondence (edited by John Beer and Max Blechman, who totally deserve a shout-out for this). There's a fascinating exchange between Rexroth and Winters, in which Rexroth tries to wrangle Winters into attending the 1936 Western Writers Conference, which was to be a big oppositional-writers love fest. Winters voices some radical opinions (especially about Communism), and hints at his political activities, but is absolutely averse to the "let's get together and speak truth, not to power, but to ourselves" ethos of the radical writers congress. So Winters wasn't one of the boys, and he didn't write in the approved style of the bien-pensants, and, as far as his reputation goes, that seems to have meant more than the gutsy stands for the left that he actually did take. (Lest we think this kind of thinking dead, I might mention a big argument I got into after the Chicago MSA a few years ago, in which some people ganged up on Stephen Burt in his absence, calling him a right-winger. Some of Steve's poems rhyme, and he hangs with Helen Vendler, but I'm not inclined to the belief that this makes for right-wingery in politics — Steve was out there knocking on doors and holding placards for the good guys during the '04 elections, I recall, while I was curled up with my Mallarmé and my self-righteousness).

So this idea of the oppositional poet isn't entirely about political beliefs: it's about belonging as much as it is about believing. And one belongs, in no small measure, by displaying the appropriate formal plumage. Politics takes a back seat.

Anyway. Reginald Shepherd's Pleiades piece gets to the core of these issues by pointing out that there's kind of a disconnect between the things we think we mean when we speak of "oppositional poetry" and the what we actually mean. Shepherd begins by smacking both the poetry of "earnestly mundane anecdote" and the poetry of "blank-eyed, knee-jerk irony" upside their respective heads. He then goes on to say:

I am particularly disturbed by the self-righteous complacency of what Ron Slate calls the avant-gardeners, so smugly convinced that the grass on their side of the fence is not only greener but more virtuous. Their willful blindness to work by anyone who isn't a member of their club is especially problematic in light of their project's justification by its spirit of exploration and openness to the unknown. When it comes to the work of anyone they label a member of the "School of Quietude," all is already known, and there is never any doubt as to who is a member of this so-called school. If you're not one of us, you're one of them, and it is you who (by definition) are guilty of complacency and self-satisfaction. Such unnuanced either/or thinking is the opposite of openness and exploration, though it could be termed "oppositional" in a pejorative sense.

Zing! I mean, there it is: a lot of poets who think they're "oppositional" in the sense of opposing the (mysteriously linked) dominant aesthetic and political forces, are really "oppositional" in a very different sense: their most cherished belief is that there are two opposing forces in the world, and they yearn to be clearly identified with one side, and to condemn the other side. Much more than actual politics, this will to brand-identity motivates the thinking of such poets. (Memo to those who think formal experiment is political opposition: maybe it is, sometimes, but Dick Cheney does not fear your disjunction). Shepherd drives the point home with a great quote from Anne Lauterbach:

The aspiring young poet begins to write in such a way as to invite a certain critical attention, to 'fit' her work into one or another critical category. This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. "New York School" or "Language Poetry" are given brand-name status, commidifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences between so-called members of the group.

I don't think it's really any coincidence that the biggest pusher of the us-vs-them version of oppositionality, Ron Silliman, is also the biggest pusher of the catchphrase "poetry is community." Yeah, I know, Ron says he likes some non-langpo types, like Robert Hass (whom everyone has always liked, by the way, all through the theory wars of the 80s and 90s — for reasons I tried to investigate in the Hass chapter in Laureates and Heretics which I am promising not to talk about any more, though it is coming out this fall and will make an excellent gift for the whole family...). But unless Ron drops the whole "School of Quietude vs. Post-Avant" distinction, his protestations of bipartisanship ring about as hollow as George W. Bush's. The "oppositional" thing seems less about politics than about belonging (or, if you're in a bad mood, you could say conforming) to a community. Remember that old Who movie Quadrophenia? You can only tell you're a rocker by showing that you're not a mod. And the ruthless class structure goes on unperturbed while the two groups bash away at each other. I demand someone remake this movie, setting it at the 2006 MLA and casting Charles Bernstein in the lead!

Anyway. This bourgeois poet needs to get back to his fabulous Sumatran coffee. And to his poetic community: Stephen Collis just sent me his new chapbook, which is formally audacious in all kinds of ways. I'm hoping to blog about it later this week...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

What Went Down at Powell's North, or: Notes on Poetry Readings That Do Not Disappoint

Last summer I posted a longish entry about poetry readings, the gist of which was "I, too, dislike them," at least much of the time. I got a lot of email after that, mostly from people who wanted to sympathize. I also heard from a number of people who wanted to talk about ways poetry readings could be improved. I don't think there's a single silver bullet that will put to rest all of the problems that bedevil poetry readings, but this week's reading by Zach Barocas at Powell's North in Chicago had me thinking about a few things that could help more poetry readings go well.

At least one of the elements that contributed to Zach's success isn't really tranferable: charisma. People like Zach, and he's confident and easygoing enough to pull off that delicate balancing act of simultaneously putting people at ease while impressing them. But not all of us are going to be former rock stars, (do drummers like Zach count as rock stars? Joe Doerr, another poet who toured internationally as a rocker, used to refer to drummers as "not musicians, exactly, but people who hang out with musicians...") (attention drum geeks: please direct your wrath at Joe, not me -- unless you happen to be Charlie Watts, in which case send your angry email to me and I'll have it framed, or maybe even cast in bronze).

Two other things about the reading at Powell's seem like good ideas that can be emulated elsewhere.

The first of these is a performace feature that I've seen elsewhere from time to time, and always liked: the featured poet reading work by other poets. This seems to work best when the work of the other isn't just offered up on a silver tray as a gesture of affiliation with Great Culture. Rather, it works best when the poems have some real, direct relation to the work of the poet doing the reading. Zach read poems by two poets — Pam Rehm and Graham Foust — who clearly have meant a lot to him. You could hear, too, the dialogue between their work and his, and sense his admiration, even love, of their work. I think this last bit about palpable admiration is important, because it helps to cut through one of the most baleful elements of the poetry reading as a performance genre: the inherent skew toward apparent egoism. The solo performer, up there by himself, reading work he wrote by himself, is the bread-and-butter of poetry readings, and no matter how saintly and selfless the poet may be, there's a tendency, induced by the very nature of the event, for the poet to look like a bit of a self-regarding creature (given the fact that many of us are in fact self-regarding creatures, the potential for the poet to look like something of a jerk is a bit high) (I think back on the first readings I gave with something of a shudder, and with gratitude for not being roughed-up by the crowd afterwards). So this was a good thing, Zach reading a few carefully chosen pieces by poets who had clearly meant a lot to him, and letting us see how their work had played into his own poetry.

The other good thing about the reading at Powell's was the inclusion of student readers (um... I mean "emerging writers") from nearby writing programs. Justin Palmer and Amira Hanafi, both writing students at th School of the Art Institute, served as opening acts, each reading a single piece (a shortish story in Justin's case, a long poem in Amira's). This was cool for a couple of reasons: firstly, it helpe to fight the Big Swaggering Ego bias built in to most poetry readings (regardless of the personality of the reader); and secondly, it helped create a different audience dynamic than is often the case.

One of the things I grumbled about in my post on poetry readings last summer was the disconnect between audience expectations and the things poetry readings often provided. Among other things, I cited the campus poetry reading as probematic because of the prevalence, in the audience, of students who had been dragooned into going as a class requirement or for extra credit. I'm not actually against this, and it can end up being a positive experience for students in many ways. It can even be the genesis for a lifelong love of poetry. But there's no surer way to suck the life out of something than to make it an administered requirement of some kind.

At Powell's there was a significant student element to the audience, but it wasn't a dragooned audience. It was, instead, a phenomenon I'd started noticing at many campus events (open mikes, choir concerts, etc.): students will turn up, of their own volition, to see their fellow students perform. So along with the usual Chicago poetry crowd (hey, O'Leary brothers -- good to see you there), and a music crowd from Zach's punk days, there was a whole crew present from the School of the Art Institute, many of whom, I think, wouldn't have made it to the reading if there hadn't been two students reading as well. In a way, the headliner-with-local-student-talent combo is symbiotic: Zach's presence lent prestige to Justin's and Amira's appearance, and put their work in front of an existing literary community; Justin and Amira brought in a crew who might not have made it otherwise. And it gets a student audience into an off-campus poetry reading, which helps further something that should be a part of any literary education: the cultivation of a sense that poetry isn't just something that comes on a syllabus.

It's important that this wasn't just the usual group reading, like the marathon at the MLA this year, since events like that don't bring different communities together so much as they give a venue to an existing community (I'd actually like to see a group reading that brought very different poetic communities together: Marc Smith and Charles Bernstein and Robert Pinsky and Geoffrey Hill and Margaret Atwood and Jimmy Santiago Baca, say -- I'd dislike individual parts, but it would be a hell of an interesting evening).

Powell's is sticking with this student-writer-as-opening-act format for at least this season. Next month one of Lake Forest's very own, Jessica Berger (on whose thesis committee I have proudly served) will open for a fiction reading by Steve Tomasula. If things go as well then as they did the other night, I think it will be safe to say that Powell's is on to something.


Amira Hanafi is an interesting poet, by the way. Judging by what she read, she's very much into what Robert Kelly used to call the "poetics of information." She read a piece about genetically modified foods, with some nice, subtle loopings back and forth between textual moments, and a clever way of showing how we are what we eat, which makes most Americans corn syrup of one sort or another. This beats the hell out of another confessional poem, another late-langpo disjunction fest, or another ghastly hybrid of the two, a combination that is surely the genetically modified hydrogenated corn syrup of contemporary poetry.



I've started using the "labels" function of this blog, which functions as a kind of an index. I'll be retrofitting old posts with labels slowly, though, so if the feature doesn't seem useful at the moment, give it some time. Sheesh, already, the impatience!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Live! One Night Only!

Live in Chicago! Minneapolis' very own Zach Barocas!

Z. will be reading tonight at Powell's in Chicago, 2850 N. Lincoln Ave, starting at 7:00 pm!

Clayton Eshleman's in town tonight too, but he's giving two readings, so roll over to Powell's with the true cognoscenti and literatti. Come to see and be seen! Mingle and wrangle! Meet the director of The Cultural Society, the drummer from Jawbox, and the man who blogs here!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Probably the Dumbest Thing Silliman Has Ever Said...

Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — rebutting Ron Silliman's more extreme versions of his characteristic us-vs.-them poetic manichaenism is like playing checkers with a monkey: you can win, but it isn't really worth the trouble (No — Mr. Pickles, no! Don't gnaw on the checkerboard! And for god's sake, don't fling that at the wall! Noo-ooooo-ooooooo!). But this time out I've got to say something, since Ron has committed at least two affronts to intelligence at once. They are as follows:

1. A false assertion that Geoffrey Hill and Gjertrud Schnackenberg have "fascist" aesthetic projects.
2. A false assertion that Hill and Schnackenberg have a shared aesthetic project.

  • Some Background

    So there I was, checking out Reginald Shepherd's brand spanking new blog, when I caught his reference to a new comment by Ron Silliman. I blinked. I did a double take. I resisted, with great effort, doing a spit-take with my Dr. Brown's Diet Cherry Soda. Then I went over to Rantin' Ron's site to make sure this was really what Ron said.

    For the record, here's what I now consider Ron's dumbest comment ever. The context is Ron brooding about Bill Knott. Mid-brood, Ron picks up on Knott's discussion of some other poets, including

    ...the likes of Geoffrey Hill & Gjertrud Schnackenberg (whose aesthetic program Knott characterizes, not incorrectly, as fascist).

    This is the passage that redlined my bullshit detector.

  • Getting to the Source

    To track down the arguments about Hill and Schnackenberg's allegedly fascist aesthetics I surfed over to a post on Knott's blog. There, I found that the ideas came originally from an essay in Magma by Laurie Smith. Since Smith's essay, "Subduing the Reader" is up online, it was easy enough to check out. Smith actually has some interesting things to say about the differences between Anne Carson and Geoffrey Hill, though he's a bit dismissive of Carson. Smith actually seems to admire Hill's chops, but he's actively angry at Hill for reasons that seem to me entirely wrong.

    There are two things about Hill that enrage Smith, and Smith links both of them to what he calls fascism: Hill's allusions to high culture, and Hill's juxtaposition of past and present to the advantage of the former. Let's check these out.

  • Unbelievably Lousy Argument Number One: Dense Allusions Are Fascistic

    Here's Smith taking both Hill and Carson to task for making allusions that most readers wouldn't be able to catch without footnotes:

    ...Carson and Hill share a common aim which is achieved by a common method. It is to interweave their material with such a frequency of cultural reference that the reader loses confidence in her ability to understand, therefore to judge, what she is reading. Faced with a plethora of references to 'high' culture which she feels she ought to know but does not, the reader feels increasingly ignorant and unworthy. She is forced to accept the poem on the poet's terms or not at all; her critical faculty is subdued.

    and later:

    [Hill believes] that 'high' culture should be accessible only to a small educated elite (kept especially small in this case by oblique references and a lack of notes), leaving the majority in vacuous ignorance, strong because obedient.

    There's no ambiguity to Smith's condemnation of this as an aesthetic — at the end of his essay, he comes right out and calls it "fascist."

    There are all kinds of things one could criticize in Smith's contention. For starters, there's the idea that the subduing of the reader to a state of vacuous ignorance is the "aim" of Hill and Carson. Smith does nothing to prove that inducing this state is the goal of either poet. I rather think that including arcane allusions challenges the reader to be active, to seek out some things outside of his or her current range of knowledge. Far from being passive and ignorant, the reader has to be both active and, eventually, informed.

    Smith's argument is so strange I have to put it in capital letters just to fix it in my mind as something someone actually said:


    Okay. There it is. But I'm going to need, say, one piece of empirical evidence that Hill's Mercian Hymns has created a group of fascist zombies. Come on, guys, just one?

  • Unbelievably Lousy Argument Number Two: Preferring the Past to the Present is a Fascist Thing

    Here's Smith on Hill's preference for the past over the present:

    Hill's aim is that of Pound of the Cantos, his acknowledged master - to expound a view of culture in which the past is held up as admirable and the present dismissed as worthless. It is a view that brooks no argument, no discussion, and is, in the sense that Pound respectfully used the word, fascist.

    Leaving aside the hyperbole (does Hill really see a "worthless" present?) there are three things that I can think of that are problematic (by which I mean "wrong") here:

    1. To present the past as superior to the present is not to "brook no argument" any more than any other artistic or poetic position does.

    2. To prefer the past isn't always to prefer fascism. It all depends on what version of what past one prefers to what version of what present. Raymond Williams has a really good chapter on this in The Country and the City. The chapter is called "Golden Ages," and its main contention is that there are aristocratic, bourgeois, and radical-worker versions of the past, all of which can be held up as criticisms of the present. The English folk rhyme (recited by the rebel priest John Ball during the peasant's revolt of 1340) "When Adam delve and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman" is just one very brief example of the radical-worker version of preferring past to present.

    3. While Pound may have looked to the past, the poets most clearly identifiable with fascism were the Italian Futurists (Marinetti and company). As the name of their movement implies, they preferred the modern to the ancient — even going so far as to assert that "past-loving Venice" should be destroyed.

  • A Weird Assertion

    Smith's essay concludes with yet another weird assertion: that the problem of fascism in poetry isn't limited to Hill, but extends to Gjertrud Schnackenberg "who is much admired by the New Republican Right."

    Schnackenberg isn't a challenging poet of allusions like Hill (she's a New Formalist, more akin to Dana Gioia than to Hill or anyone in the Poundian tradition). So Smith must mean that a preference for the past to the present alone leads to, or equals, fascism. I think I've already given my reasons for why I think this is a lousy argument.

    I'd also add that I think it is false to say that Schnackenberg is the darling of "New Republican Right." I mean, most of those people don't read poetry. And the Republicans who do read poetry don't tend to come from the wacko wing of that venerable political party. But even granting Smith this point, one could argue that to judge a work of art by the politics of those who like it is a dicey business. Hitler, after all, loved the art of ancient Greece. That's ancient Greece, folks — the culture that gave us democracy (early, flawed, limited, but real democracy).

  • Coda

    Ooosh. That's enough for now. Anyway, my cherry soda's warm, so it's off to the fridge for a fresh one. But first two quick points by way of a coda:

    A. I suppose I'm focusing on Silliman's endorsement of Smith's arguments (rather than on Knott or Smith himself) because Silliman looms larger than the others in the small corner of the poetry world of which this blog is a part. If you're reading this, you're more likely to read Silliman than Knott or Smith.

    B. There's a good article over at Salon on the perils of throwing the word "fascist" around lightly. It is especially worth reading in these our troubled times, when there are real authoritarians out there.

  • Tuesday, January 02, 2007

    Getting Ugly: Adorno, Anti-Pastoral, and the Punk Body

    Forgive me, gentle reader, for the hyper-academic title of this post, utterly, irredeemably formulaic as it is. A punchy little phrase, a colon, a famous theorist's name, a genre, some pop culture and "the body" — half the papers at this year's MLA probably followed that format. But some day a rain will come, a real rain, that will wash all those titles from our works, and we'll go back to calling things "Aspects of the Novel" or "Some Versions of Pastoral."

    But that's not why you dropped by. You wanted to know what was up with the Adorno confab in the works between Scroggins, Park, and the present humble blogger.

    I wish I had my copy of Lipstick Traces handy, but I'm hanging out on the abandoned Lake Forest College campus today (old habits die hard — as the son of a prof I grew up in the university ghetto, and I couldn't wait for the students to head home so I could have the place to myself, scudding around the big concrete campus on my skateboard or, through a little minor-league vandalism, making my way to the rooftop of the chemistry building to read A Moveable Feast) (but I digress). So I'm here, and Greil Marcus' masterpiece repines on the radiator in my front room back at the house, pages yellowing in the late afternoon sun. And I'll have to respond to Park's new post on Adorno without throwing down the big chunks of Marcus' book I'd like to, though I can work with a few photocopies I've got in the office somewhere. Since I'm too jacked on caffeine to wait until I get home, I'll just have to freestyle, and throw in some bits of poetry from the Norton anthology (which is never far from my soft, pale, academic hands).

  • Ugliness and Anti-Pastoralism

    Park has made it to the chapter on beauty and the ugly in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, a book he and Scroggins and I have been going through more-or-less simultaneously. Park's taken up the bit where Adorno talks about the rise of the ugly in art. Here's what Park says:

    ...Adorno concerns himself with the ugly and the beautiful. He addresses art's relationship to the 'ugly', which he situates as a more or less recent development. "The motive for the admission of the ugly," he claims, "was antifeudal. The peasants became a fit subject for art" (p. 48).

    This is familiar stuff to anyone who's spent time with nineteenth century lit: think of all those peasants in Wordsworth ("Simon Lee," "Michael" and the like). Poems like these deal a heavy blow to the feudal era's pastoral tradition of idealized landscapes and work-shy shephards who seem to spend their days lounging beneath the grape arbor pining languidly for love.

    Or go back earlier than Wordsworth, to the late eighteenth century: George Crabbe's "The Village" gives us a dire landscape of socio-economic ruin and general nastiness where we (as 18th C. readers) may have expected to read of beautiful pastoral comforts. In fact, the poem begins with a good sharp kick to the teeth of the beauties of the pastoral tradition. Check it out:

    Yes, thus the Muses sing of happy swains,
    Because the Muses never knew their pains:
    They boast their peasants' pipes; but peasants now
    Resign their pipes and plod behind the plough;
    And few, amid the rural-tribe, have time
    To number syllables, and play with rhyme;
    Save honest Duck, what son of verse could share
    The poet's rapture, and the peasant's care?

    And no, "Honest Duck" isn't a superhero, or some figure out of a mealy-mouthed Christian cartoon. He's a poet, Stephen Duck, an actual peasant, and remarkable autodidact. Sort of the John Clare of his day.

    Anyway. Oliver Goldsmith, another late 18th C. guy, does something similar to Crabbe in creating an aesthetic of the ugly in his long poem "The Deserted Village." My favorite bit of Goldsmith's antipastoral aesthetic of ugliness comes when he imagines the inhabitants of his ruined village forced to emigrate from England to the banks of the Alatamaha river, somwhere between what are now the cities of Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida. What they find isn't pretty:

    Through torrid tracts with fainting steps they go,
    Where wild Altama murmurs to their woe.
    Far different there from all that charm'd before,
    The various terrors of that horrid shore;
    Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
    And fiercely shed intolerable day;
    Those matted woods where birds forget to sing,
    But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling;
    Those poisonous fields, with rank luxuriance crown'd,
    Where the dark scorpion gathers death around;
    Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
    The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake...

    Goldsmith's Georgia is so gawdaful the birds actually refuse to sing. Beauty resigns in disgust! (Last time I was in Georgia, the birds were singing full force, but that was in Athens, where the soft patchouli-scent of bohemia gentles the air).

    In one sense, all this Goldsmith/Crabbe business is all in line with what Adorno has to say. Here's a bit of Aesthetic Theory (quoted by Park) in which Adorno spells out the function of the ugly in terms that seem to describe what's happening in Goldsmith and Crabbe:

    Art must take up the cause of what is proscribed as ugly, though no longer in order to integrate or mitigate it or to reconcile it with its own existence through humor that is more offensive than anything repulsive. Rather, in the ugly, art must denounce the world that creates and reproduces the ugly in its own image, even if in this too the possibility persists that sympathy with the degraded will reverse into concurrence with degradation. (p. 49).

    Crabbe and Goldsmith give us a kind of ugly very different from, say, Shakespeare's comic ugliness (Falstaff, Dogberry, etc.). The ugly isn't in their poems for an (inherently classist) comic relief. It's here to throw the crappiness of the unfair and unjust world in our faces. In this, it's of a piece with the whole Zola groove of late nineteenth century Realism and Naturalism: it shows us the suffering people in art in order to condemn the world that creates ugliness and suffering.

  • Antifeudal Ugliness? Not So Fast!

    But in another sense all this evidence points in a slightly different direction than the first passage of Adorno points. I mean, from Goldsmith and Crabbe in the 18th C. through Wordsworth in the early 19th C. on to Zola in the late 19th C., the protest art makes via the rejection of traditional ideas of beauty isn't "antifeudal" at all: it's anti-capitalist. Sure, Wordsworth and Goldsmith explode the pastoral tradition, but in both cases they are protesting against the end of a sort of late feudal world, against the destruction of that world by capitalist developments. In Wordsworth's "Simon Lee," the problem is that the eponymous protagonist has been displaced from his old livery-wearing job as a huntsman in a nobleman's house. The decline of the aristocracy is a bad thing here, not a happy development (after his early revolutionary zeal, Wordsworth became a kind of Burke-reading conservative — for which Shelley never forgave him). And Goldsmith's village has been decimated by the enclosure system — the closing of small tenant farms so that landlords could keep flocks to grow wool for the emerging capitalist-owned textile industry. So the poem can hardly be taken as a protest against the residual feudal order. (Crabbe's another story — I don't think he's nostalgic for anything. He's like the old donkey in Orwell's animal farm, the one who thought that things have always been bad and always will be bad, a general miserablist of the first order, and therefore really very good reading for a bad day, when you want to cast a curse on all houses). And Zola? Fuggetaboutit — there's no nostalgia for feudalism in his work. But there's plenty of anxiety about capitalism — the lead character of Nana is a nightmare of capitalist consumption (of course Adorno has a lot to say about anti-capitalism in art and literature and music too).

  • Adorno Meets Johnny Rotten

    But here's where I want to bring in Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces and his riffs on punk style. I've got a hunch that had a mischevious God plucked him from his study where he'd repaired to listen to Alban Berg, and plopped the bewildered philosopher down backstage at a Sex Pistols concert, Adorno wouldn't much like what he heard or what he saw. But in a way Punk seems very much in line with the kind of aesthetics of ugliness Adorno goes on about. There's the deliberate crudeness of the music, but there's more, too: think about the late-seventies, King's Row punk body-and-clothing parade.

    "It's hard to remember how ugly the first punks were" — that's one of Greil Marcus' great lines in Lipstick Traces, and he couldn't be more right. I mean, think of it, before it all got cleaned up and domesticated and marketed in that Great All-Consuming Maw of Capitalism way. The unbearable ugliness of Doc Martens, the affrontery of the big-ass safety pin through the face, the ripped up, filthy, S&M-inflected outfits, the penchant for spit and vomit — it's all more or less of a piece with the idea of the ugly as a protest against or refusal of social conditions. For starters, there's the great refusal of instrumentality and use-to-the-system of it all: back in the late 70s, you dressed that way and modified your body that way and talked that way in order to declare (and choose) your unemployability. You felt like a social leftover and you chose and declared that status, throwing it in the face of whoever came your way. Here's a bit from Marcus, not quite the one I wanted, but the best bit I've got with me right now:

    They were ugly. There were no mediations. A ten-inch safety pin cutting through a lower lip into a swastika tatooed onto a cheek was not a fashion statement: a fan forcing a finger down his throat, vomiting into his hands, then hurling the spew at the people on stage was spreading disease. An inch-thick nimbus of black mascara suggested death before it suggested anything else. The punks were not just pretty people, like the Slits or bassist Gaye of the Adverts, they made themselves ugly. They were fat, anorexic, pockmarked, acned, stuttering, crippled, scarred, and damaged, and what their new decorations underlined was the failure already engraved in their faces. The Sex Pistols had somehow permitted them to appear in public as human beings, to parade their afflictions as social facts.

    And that's why we like Greil Marcus more than we like Lester Bangs, boys and girls: the insight that things like punk bodies were a statements, throwings of ugly "social facts" up into public view. (Lester Bangs' freaky homophobia also doesn't help his cause) (but I digress yet again) (but I can't stand it that Bangs couldn't appreciate glam rock, so I beg your indulgence).

  • But Wait...

    But there's a catch:the whole aesthetic of the ugly thing has a tendency to drift away from being a refusal of the existing social world into being something that sophisticated people use to re-enforce their elite class identity.

    I was saying that the ugly as protest becomes something different. I'm thinking of what Pierre Bourdieu points out in another book I don't have with me, Distinction. One of the things Bourdieu's data points to is this: that people without a lot of cultural capital (that is, people who don't have a lot of background in the kind of cultural attitudes and tastes that the society as a whole views as prestigious) don't groove on the ugly. They prefer photos of non-abject subject matter to photos of stuff people think of as abject. I think the examples were pictures of first communions vs. pictures of potatos — I could be wrong, but it was something like that. There was a kind of inverse relation between cultural capital and the kind of subject matter people preferred in their art. If you're one of the culturatti, you're more likely to appreciate a photo of rotting potatos ("such fantastic contrast between the deep blacks and the pale highlights!" "what texture!") than you are to appreciate the overtly beautiful aesthetic ("girls in their pretty communion dresses — so banal!"). And the other way around, too. So in a weird and ironic way, the anti-social aesthetic of ugliness that we see from Crabbe and Goldsmith down to Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten can turn into a sign of one's relatively high social status: only the rubes shudder at the ugly, so embracing it becomes a sign of savoir-faire.

    So, here's my question: how does Adorno respond to this kind of irony? I'm sure he does, somewhere. Let me know, Adornonauts...

  • In Other News

    Brian Campbell and R.J. McCaffery have some interesting posts up on the ever-ongoing absorptive/antiabsorptive art debate.