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.