Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tragicomedy and the Politics of Poetry

Of all the responses I've received to "Poetry, Politics, and Leanings-Left", Mark Yakich's has been the most interesting. Mark's been kind enough to let me post it here:

I just read your essay in Poetry and you raise some important points. I think there are two that you don't mention, however, and they are the two responses (to my mind) contemporary poets favor: 1) using essentially nonfiction or oral history as witness; 2) using comedy or tragicomedy to subvert/engage the otherwise overly earnest dialogue of politics in "the world"/"society." There is the third way, the one [Joshua] Clover takes, though as you rightly point out it doesn't seem to engage in any overtly political way to the politic processes of the day, and (again to my mind) is much the same as the ole LANGUAGE poetry strategy which sought, as you know, to subvert syntax and grammar as as way of subverting the hegemony in the culture at large (a project, I would argue, that sounds nice but does little on the actual political stage).

To get back to my two points. The historical example of #1 above is Reznikoff's Holocaust, or his Testimony. A recent example of #1 is Ray McDaniel's series "Convention Centers of the World" (in Saltwater Empire) in which he uses the actual language of people who were in the Convention Center and Superdome in New Orleans. In talking with Ray, he told me that this was the only way he had of engaging the events — through the witnesses. Now, I think #1 is fine and of course reasonable and worthwhile; the problem I have is that nonfiction can do more in this regard (a good report on TV's 60 Minutes, say, or a film by Spike Lee) than poetry of oral reporting. The other problem, as Primo Levi pointed out, is that the only true witness is the dead witness — the ones who survive are one step removed from witnessing the horror of a tragedy. Levi takes an extreme position, one might argue, but he did live through a concentration camp, so who's going to argue with him?

To my main point: I believe that #2 above is an area that contemporary poets have largely failed to explore and exploit. Comedy and tragicomedy (as in Waiting for Godot, Slaughterhouse Five, Life is Beautiful, etc.) is doable in poetry, not just in film or fiction or stage). Again for me, outside of documentaries, I've always been most moved by tragicomic works, ever since first seeing Groucho Marx in Duck Soup and reading Slaughterhouse Five. There are a few poets who have worked in this vein, though they mostly get tossed off into some kind of "surrealistic" [sic] camp, and are mostly of the Latin American of East European variety. Tragicomedy (absurdity, if you like) in Central and Eastern Europe, as you well know, was the main strategy of subversion for decades. In the US, we didn't need as much of it of course because of our "free speech," and yet in the last eight years I feel that the only person pointing out the absurdity and engaging the politicos is Jon Stewart, with his Daily Show. This isn't news to anyone, I realize, but how come poets have been sitting around with their thumbs in their pieholes, debating "Oh, is poetry political or not? Should I or Shouldn't I? Oh, I'm so uncomfortable." For my bit, I tried in The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine, to play the tragicomic card — perhaps a weak card to many poets or readers who take all humor to be patently unserious, but to me humor is the only thing to take seriously. In the words of Gabe Gudding, humor and comedy are not here to make you suffer better or more (as a great deal of earnest, protest, or memorial poems are meant to do) but they are to help you endure.

In other news, over at Able Muse R.S. Gwynn's crowd are having quite a discussion of my post about him. Mostly they're not too happy about what I have to say (I understand). Gwynn got in touch too, first threatening to kick my ass at the AWP (I'd mentioned that, given the content of the post, he more-or-less had the right to take a swing at me), and then letting on that he was joking about the impending ass-whupping, saying that he had enjoyed the discussion. A hell of a good sport, really.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Old School

I recently discovered that two of my old high school pals, neither of whom I've seen in years, have both become poets: Oscar Martens and Keith Bridger. Must be something they put in the drinking water at Fort Richmond Collegiate in the 80s. We weren't drawn together by poetry back then: Oscar and I shared, I suppose, a general sense of being alienated grumblers, while Keith and I mostly bonded over binge drinking and ska. We also got involved with the same Icelandic girl and the same 1974 Fiat Spider convertible. Anyway, a little rooting around on the internet makes it clear that both Oscar and Keith are, in key respects, cooler than I am. While I (like just about every other versifier of my generation) became the poet-as-professor, these guys took alternate routes. Keith has become the poet-as-bohemian, making a living as a film and stage actor, a waiter, and a semi-successful competitive fencer (that's with swords, not fenceposts). Oscar's been the poet-as-adventurer, having lived in Kenya and New Zealand, and, to top it off, sailing a schooner through the Northwest Passage (the first time it's ever been done from west to east). He's also a badass martial arts guy who lives on a tugboat. You know: the full Hemingway. If you ever find yourself at a reading by either of these guys, shout "go Centurions!" and see what kind of reaction you get. And tell Keith I want my Sandinista! LP back.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Reading, 2008

I'm down in New Orleans, to which I fled so I could grade my students' final essays while lounging in the Cafe du Monde and eating beignets, or sprawling in one of the big chairs in CC's Coffee on Royal Street, listening to the French Quarter intellectuals jaw about how corrupt northern politics has become (as an Illinois guy, I'm ashamed to say that, with this Blagojevich affair, we've actually managed to disgrace ourselves by the standards of Louisiana politics, which is saying something). My plan worked fine yesterday, but Lousiana got some uncharacteristic cold and snow this morning, so I'm laying off the French Quarter flanneur routine and typing up a list of the books I read (or re-read) since the beginning of the year.

This is the first year I've kept a list of the books I've read, but I was inspired by Mark Scroggins' list on his blog last year. Frankly, I had no idea how many books I read in a year, though I thought it might be about one a week (way, way less than my wife, Valerie, who is a marathon reader). Then again, I think most of what I read now is either online or in journals (especially poetry, which I tend to read in the journals I scoop out of the magazine rack by the armload whenever I'm in a good bookstore). So this list is kind of incomplete. It leaves out books I didn't finish, or consulted for a chapter or two. And it also leaves out a lot of reading in anthologies (especially the Norton Britlit anthologies, from which I do a lot of my teaching), as well as the epic task, shared with Josh Corey, of reading the hundred or so manuscripts submitted to the Plonsker Prize competition. Thank god the latter task came during the lying-in-the-hammock-until-my-pals-come-to-collect-me-for-a-bike-ride season.

Anyway, here's the list...


Saul Bellow, Seize the Day

It's like all of Bellow: great characters, great predicaments, no shape to the thing. But while most of Bellow's works are "great loose baggy monsters" (to steal Henry James' term for Tolstoy's novels), this is a svelte little thing.

Marquis de Sade, Justine
There's something to be written — well, it's probably been written — about de Sade and the rise of self-interested, amoral capitalism. The unfortunate Justine is punished over and over because of her tenacious sense of virtue, while her sister, Juliette, is amoral and self-interested in a Hobbesian way, and she does quite well for herself in the world. All this, written at the time when the old aristocratic order is falling to the bourgeoisie.

Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal
Has something been written about the alchemy by which Genet converts the abject into the sublime? I kind of wish Raymond Federman had written something of that sort: he and I had a great discussion about Genet when Federman was in Chicago this last February (he agrees that Genet is full of shit, and that it doesn't matter).

Anne Louise Germaine DeStael, Mirza
Madame DeStael was a big wheel in early nineteenth century literary theory (I'm sort of stunned she's not more canonical in that realm — the second edition of Critical Theory Since Plato inexplicably dropped her work). But she's not so hot with the novella, believe me.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
There's something very strange and interesting in this: it's almost like a retraction of Wilde's l'art pour l'art stance. Then again, I can never quite tell to what degree Joris-Karl Huysman's À Rebours, the model for Wilde's novel, is an ironizing of aestheticism, and to what degree it is an advocation.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
This is sort of a perfect book, for me. It's got formalist balance, a powerfully articulated sense of the bildung of the heroine (who has to undergo a kind of Schillerian inner balancing to become self-policing and escape externally imposed order), and a lot more. I'm especially fond of how Bronte is clearly dealing with issues she intuits, rather than conceptualizes — she's clearly twigging to new developments in society before they can be fully understood and mapped out in any way other than the strange, contradictory way she gets at them here. And the love/hate business between Jane and Rochester — yow.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
You really see how Freud wasn't the only guy cooking up notions of id and superego. Also, this book can be filed with Dracula as a prime example of Victorian middle-class heroism: only the professionals, acting, for the most part, in accord with their professional values, can save us.

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
If you know anyone who does cosmic pessimism better, let me know. Oh: if you're looking for good sport while reading this, mark the book every time Hardy gives a vivid description of Tess' mouth. Hardy's a bit obsessed with it. Yep.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
I re-read this for a graduate course on Romanticism I was teaching. It really pulled the themes from the course together — how couldn't it? Mary Shelley was at ground zero of the movement.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
When I teach this book, I draw a chart of the structure on the board. And every year there's someone in the class who really responds to that sense of symmetry. "It's like some kind of magic trick," said one of my students this year. He's not wrong.

Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House and Other Short Stories
Does anyone remember where one can find E.M. Forster's little parody of Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall"? It's in a letter, I think.

Jerzy Kosinski, Being There
I liked Steps, which was less like reading fiction and more like reading a set of illustrations to the ideas in Sartre's Being and Nothingness. This one didn't do much for me.

Octave Mirbeau, Le Calvaire
You want misogyny? You've come to the right place. This guy does misogyny like he's Emile Zola. If that's not your deal, stick with the chapter dealing with the protagonist's experiences in the Franco-Prussian war. You don't get a better treatment of the chaotic pointless evil of it all anywhere.


Steve Halle, Map of the Hydrogen World
I wrote some jacket copy for this several months ago, and now it's actually out. See my previous post for some remarks about this one.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market
Genius, in every sense. Especially the Kantian sense. Every weird Victorian anxiety you can think of about sex, gender, consumerism, addiction, and commerce finds its way into this little fable.

Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music
I reviewed this, along with Hass' Time and Materials for the Notre Dame Review.

Robert Hass, Time and Materials
See above.

Jessica Savitz, Hunting is Painting
Coming soon from Lake Forest College Press!

Karl Shapiro, Bourgeois Poet
Shapiro seems to die inside a little every time he realizes that the poet-as-professor is also, in some sense, the poet-as-bourgeois. A lot of us prof-poets still seem to hate facing this truth. I once tried to discuss Robert Hass as a 'bourgeois bohemian,' which I thought was a description, not a judgement. Then I found a critic quoting me in the American Poetry Review, claiming I was so exacerbated with Hass that I'd slung this nasty label at him. Anyway, some of these prose poems of Shapiro's are really wonderful, especially the ones where he describes a now-lost Chicago.

Pablo Neruda, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
I love the first half of the book. I don't know whether the problem with the back half had to do with the work itself, or with my increasing jitteriness after five cups of coffee. I'd liked it more the first time I read it. Maybe it's a younger guy's book.

Sam Greenlee, Blues for an African Princess
By the man who wrote the screenplay for the classic of black-radical film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door. It took me forever to find a copy of this. It's like reading Amiri Baraka, in that it shows how incredibly concerned with community this kind of 70s identity poetics stuff was.

John Matthias, Kedging
I reviewed this for the Cincinnati Review, and, in the process, finally learned how to spell Cincinnati. Anyway: Matthias continues his move into rhizomatic, intertextual, pan-historical splendor.

Mary Biddinger, Prairie Fever
I wrote some jacket copy for this a while back, when I had it in manuscript. It's always different to read the thing when it's between covers. Suddenly it has more gravitas or something.

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Sad stuff. Not quite as sad as De Profundis, though: in that one you can see that the bastards really got to Wilde, and tormented him into recanting everything that made him special. It's painful to see.

P.B. Shelley, Selected Poems
Word on the street is that John Kinsella is editing a new edition of Shelley. This makes perfect sense: who else, among contemporary poets, could wear the Shelleyean mantle (radical, haunted, manic, living one's beliefs) so well?

Stephen Fowler, Thing Happen Hole
I discovered Fowler via an article he wrote on betel-nut chewing (not a bad pastime, I discovered, except for the great gobs of red spittle). Turns out he's a very good poet, in a kind of understated, Eastern Europe in the 80s way.

William Butler Yeats, Selected Poems
No one but Yeats could ever pull off so very well the trick of assimilating every poetic trend and fad around while remaining entirely himself.

Isabelle Baladine Howard, Secret of Breathe
From the ever-cool Burning Deck press, a two-voiced suite of poems written in a kind of whisper. Reminds me of Edmond Jabès.

Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray, Au Dela Des Gestes
You want Belgian Surrealist prose poetry of the mid-twentieth century? The Piqueray bros. have you covered. Much of this is really funny, uninhibited, and weird, in the great tradition of Belgian Surrealism, which tends to be a bit less full of itself than the Parisian variety. And I'm sure the Deleuzian concept of a "minor literature" applies here. If you ever write an essay about that, send me a copy, okay?

Mark Yakich, The Importance of Picking Potatoes in Ukraine
So funny and political you're surprised it's published by Penguin.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Selected Poems
When I was in grad school, my profs seemed to think of Tennyson as a kind of laughingstock. I'm going to work up a big section of my next book on him and, I hope, prove them wrong. He assimilates so many of the anxieties of his age. And it's interesting how the moralistic, utilitarian values that surround him clash with his innate sense of poetry as something beyond utility. By instinct Tennyson is like Keats, but he feels like he's supposed to make poetry into something good for us, and the tension makes for some incredible loops and twists. Some of which, I admit, are ghastly ("Locksley Hall" is truly weird stuff).

J.H. Prynne, Poems
I think it took me longer to get through Prynne than any other poet this side of John Peck. Worth the effort.

John Keats, Favorite Poems
I'm a bit disappointed with myself for loving the canonical Keats, and being cool toward the Keats poems everyone's cool toward.

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
I'm convinced that there's something terribly wrong with Bryon, and with anyone who doesn't love him.

Reginald Gibbons, Creatures of a Day
I blogged about some of these poems when they were coming out in magazines. Subtle stuff.

Frank Bidart, Watching the Spring Festival
When I read this, I thought Bidart must be dying. It had that feel to it. Such, it turns out, is not the case.

Simone Muench, Orange Girl
I think I understand the kind of woman who likes horror films better, now that I've read this. The thrill of being vulnerable permeates this book.

Adam Fieled, When You Bit
There are some great poems about Wicker Park bohemia in Chicago. Which is strange, since Fieled lives in Philly.

Jackye Pope, Watermark
Sad, quiet poems about a failed pastoral life-plan in Amsterdam. You have to listen carefully to these.

Kevin Prufer, National Anthem
Prufer's as angry about the political situation of the past eight years as the rest of us, and knows how to make poetry out of it (unlike most of us)

Robert Kroetsch, The Sad Phonecian
I used to read Kroetsch a lot: he was something like the godfather of western Canadian postmodern poetry back in the 80s. This one's a bit of a disappointment: it's structured like Joe Brainard's I Remember, with a lot of anaphora, but it lacks Brainard's charm. It deals with a dead/dying relationship, and it wallows in gloom.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads
They wrote this book to raise money for travel. Somehow I don't think that plan works for poets anymore.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience
I'm looking forward to reading these to my soon-to-be-born daughter. Yep.

William Blake, The Book of Thel
This too.

Joe Brainard, I Remember
Why, why why is this book as good as it is? I can't figure it out. Something to do with deadpan?

Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village
I thought this was harsh stuff...

George Crabbe, The Village
...until I read this.

Don Share, Squandermania
This is the kind of eclectic, smart book that makes me proud to be published by Salt.


Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art
The attack on the emptiness of what we call the 'art world' is fair enough. I wish he'd gone into what we find in the next book on this list, though.

Howard Becker, Art Worlds
A classic in the sociology of art, to which my colleague Dave Park hipped me. Becker sees aesthetic activity all over the place: a nice antidote to the claustrophobia of the official art world.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music
Man, can Nietzsche synthesize German idealism.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy
Okay. So I skipped some parts of this tombstone-sized tome. It's got all of Russell's charm, and all of his Romantics-hatin' idiosyncracy. He'll never be fair to Rousseau.

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction
I skipped a lot of the charts. But this is the book we all crib from when we talk "cultural capital." The parts about the psychological perils of the autodidact are heartbreaking, and they get to me every time I read this book. Heartbreaking. In an abstract, conceptual way.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement
I don't think any other book has been as important to me as this one. I spend a lot of time hanging out in its pages.

Aristotle, Poetics
I used to love the clean, clear, systematic qualities of Aristotle, and I still respect them.

Plato, Republic
I used to despise this authoritarian, poet-hatin' thing. And I still despise those qualities of the book. But Platonic idealism has been opening up for me lately.

I.A. Richards and C.K. Ogden, Principles of Aesthetics
Richards' first book, and a bit of a train-wreck in terms of the writing. If you've read Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, you can probably skip this one.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
My pals in the social sciences look down on this, but I like the middle bits, with their super-abstract history of Marxist thought. Debord: right on the borderline between pretension and innate coolness. Sort of the Johnny Depp of critical theory.

Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II
Deleuze didn't want to present this as a book of interviews, because he doesn't believe there can be a coherent subjectivity expressing itself as if in a vacuum, so it's not Deleuze who speaks here, but Deleuze-in-conversation-with-Parnet, or Parnetdeleuze, or something like that. Nice.

Alvin Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class
Gouldner is some kind of lost gem of social theory. Anyway, I cribbed a lot from this book for my essay on poetry and politics in the November '08 issue of Poetry.

Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art
I went back to this after sensing that Adam Kirsch had addled its argument a bit. It was as strange as I remembered it: aesthetics as ontology, I suppose you'd call it.

Garrick Davis, Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism
I've been rooting around in the New Criticism a lot. Just yesterday I scored an old copy of Wellek's Discriminations, and I'm going to devour it like it's a ham sandwich. Oh, I wrote about this for Pleiades.

Friedrich Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man
You've got to get the right translation of this or you're doomed. My favorite is in the cheapo little Dover edition.

Michael P. Farrell, Collaborative Circles
Never has plodding, slow exposition been so interesting. It's about the conditions under which creative vortices come into being.

Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature, Volume One
Worth the price for the essay on Beckett alone. And I don't even agree with what that essay has to say.

George Steiner, Martin Heidegger
I like almost everything Steiner writes, but I have a strong feeling we'd hate each other in person. I first came to this conclusion when I read an essay in which he claimed that kids today (the 'today' in question being, I think, the 70s) didn't understand that paperbacks were no substitute for well-bound uniform sets of an author's work. When I used to be a clerk in an antiquarian bookstore, I always thought these first-edition-and-bound-set people were like the people who chose their wine on the basis of the label, not the liquid.

Clive Bell, Art
It's amazing: only a Bloomsbury Brit could lay down Kantian ideas in a kind of charming, reader-friendly banter.


Samuel Beckett, Endgame
Funny and desperate.

Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape

Howard Brenton, Bloody Poetry
I blogged about this.


Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement
Taibi seems to want Hunter Thompson's mantle, which is sad, since Taibbi is good on his own terms. He notes the irrationalism on the right (religious fanatics) and the left (conspiracy theorists), and sees both as phenomena that come about when the government really doesn't do much for the people.

Chris Hedges, American Fascists
Scary stuff — he traces the deeply authoritarian tendencies of American fundamentalists.

Andrew Gelman, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State
Gelman is a professor of statistics, and it shows in the writing.

Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus
This puts a human face on the weird right-wing views of some parts of the blue-collar south. It continues the work Thomas Frank did in What's the Matter with Kansas, but this time the anthropologist is one of the tribesmen.

Graphic Novels

Craig Thompson, Carnet de Voyage
Quiet thoughts, quiet draftsmanship. Not his best work. I think his publisher pressured him into letting this be published.

Joe Sacco, Palestine
I would pay, say, a thousand dollars to be as cool as Joe Sacco. I'd also pay a grand to legitimately, and without charge of pretense, be universally referred to by Robert Louis Stevenson's college nickname: Velvet Jack. For real.

Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ: On the Ground
I would have loved this when I was twenty. Now I find it a bit slick and a bit cynical.


Howard Zinn, A People’s History of American Empire
It's a bad idea to read this while getting tanked up on coffee before attending a political rally.

William Doyle, The French Revolution
For a book this short, it gets at the complexity of the phenomenon. Thanks to Dan LeMahieu for sending it my way.

Olwen Hufton, Europe: Privilege and Protest, 1730-1789
If you want a picture of Europe during the period when Enlightenment ideas were percolating but hadn't yet transformed society, this is as good a book as any. You really get a sense of how the society of the era was organized on particularist rather than universalist principles. People didn't experience themselves as similar subjectivities with more or less the same rules and laws pertaining to them: rather, they were defined in terms of very localized obligations and privileges. You know — not "we all pay sales tax and can go to local schools" but "the peasants from Presdelay have the right to pick Lord Mugo's blackberries along the roadside from May to June, but the burghers of Bregnant have to give the local seigneur two piglets and a shoeshine every other Whitsunday." All this before liberté, égalité, fraternité, the Rights of Man, and all that erased the gothic complexities and left the big clean sheet of universality and reason.


Peter Stansky, William Morris
Just the facts, ma'am.

Stephen Burt, The Forms of Youth
I reviewed this for the Boston Review.

Angela Carter, The Sadean Woman
She's smart. And her notion of the patriarchal ideal of a "good bad girl" — a woman who has “a wholesome eroticism blurred a little round the edges by the fact that she herself is not quite sure what eroticism is” really cracks the patriarchal ideal of woman open (it's Marilyn Monroe, right?). I'm surprised it isn't a more prominent notion in contemporary feminist thought. Well, no, I'm not surprised. Just disappointed.

Ronan MacDonald, The Death of the Critic
I liked this book until he got into areas where I have (ahem) some expertise. Maybe the limits have to do with the brevity of the book.

Richard Kerridge and Neil Reeve, Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne
These guys understand the most obscure of English poets, and write decent expository prose, too. They do seem like True Believers, though. Then again, almost everything written about Prynne looks like it was written either by apostles or by sworn enemies. He's that kind of poet.

Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years
The stuff on Henri Rousseau is wonderful, the stuff on Satie even better. And the opening chapters really characterize the era. Still, I like the essays in The Innocent Eye better — especially when Shattuck talks about Dada and Surrealism.

Gene H. Bell-Villada, Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life
I'm torn, here: part of me wishes that more people would read this book (because he really understands the implications of aesthetic autonomy); then again, part of me wishes it would magically disappear (because I'm writing a book that takes on the same material).

Wendell Anderson, The Heart’s Precision
A neglected study of a neglected poet, Judson Crews

Marc Dachy, Dada: The Revolt of Art
I read this on the way to the Modernist Studies Association conference, and the juxtaposition led me to conclude that the difference between Dada and the study of Dada is the difference between tigers and National Geographic.

Tony Hoagland, Real Sofistakashun
The essay on the "jittery poem of our moment" is sharp, though not everyone's going to like it.

Bonnie Costello, Planets on Tables
I reviewed this for the Boston Review, but I don't think it's out yet. The review, I mean.


Herbert Gold, The Age of Happy Problems
I scored a copy of this here in New Orleans, and devoured most of the essays in the quiet courtyard of the Royal Blend coffee joint on Royal Street. Nobody writes about bohemia, in all its glories and imbecilities, better than Gold — the central trio of essays on hipsters of the 50s is the highlight of the book. No, that's not true. His essay on teaching at Wayne State is even better. I don't know why Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe became more famous than Herbert Gold: they're good (well, Wolfe is, or was), but neither's fit to tie Gold's sneakers.

Heather Sellers, The Practice of Creative Writing
A good example of its kind, but I can't quite make myself into a fan of this kind of book. I'm trying.

George Plimpton, Edie
If you want to get a view of the Warhol world, but you don't want the impression that the whole world revolved around Warhol, this is your book. A sad, poor-little-rich-girl junkie story, too. You kind of want to give Edie Sedgwick's father a beat-down when you're done with it.

So there it is. But I'm already skeptical about the exercise of listing these things as a kind of census of one's reading: I mean, it reminds me of that bullshitty NEA report, the one that claimed reading was in crisis because people seemed to be reading fewer books. When you looked at the study, you saw that the definition of what counted as a book was narrow, and reading online (which has truly exploded) didn't count at all. Then again, I'm kind of glad I don't know how much time I've spent reading things I found via Silliman's blog, the Huffington Post, and Arts & Letters Daily. If I saw all that quantified, I'm sure I'd conclude that I should go outside more often. Like maybe now: the snow's melted, and my favorite flanneur shoes are right by the door...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Map of the Hydrogen World

Steve Halle's new book, Map of the Hydrogen World, is just out from Chicago's own Cracked Slab books, and you're out of your mind if you're not already on your way to order a copy. Halle's got pretty much everything you'd hope to find in a younger poet: a sense of urgency, an easy grasp of tradition, and an adventurous sense of experiment.

I want to dwell on this last bit just a little, because I think Halle is truly experimental, at a time when the idea of experiment has become muddied. It's sad, and ultimately ironic, that words like "experimental," "complex," "difficult", and "indeterminate" are, in some quadrants of the poetry demimonde, not so much a shorthand for idiosyncratic adventure, but more a brand-name, a sign of membership and even conformity. Johannes Goransson gives us an image of the time and place where this started to happen in his reflections on his experience at the Iowa writing program:

Lots of people bantered around the phrase "post-language poet" - as in "I am a..." This means that they - like Jorie [Graham] - used some of the textures of langpo to recreate high modernism, elegance, high learning - as opposed to ... "Images" which were vulgar and had to be controlled against their natural tendency toward excess; "confessional poetry" was ridiculed; "indeterminacy" was important... because it was "complex" and thus more "realistic." I remember a debate I got in because someone called something (not mine) "pornographic" because it wasn't complex...

Yikes. I mean, there's the sad logic of competitiveness/conformity that you get when people study at the feet of some charismatic teacher, with hopes of finding a respectable post in a semi-regulated profession. There's actually a pretty good book about how the best outburts of artistic creation take place among groups of peers without charismatic masters or hope of professional placement. It's called Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work by Michael P. Farrell, and someday, in the unlikely event that I get my act together and clear the decks of other writing commitments, I'm going to read the big Langpo group autobiography Grand Piano and see whether the experiences recounted there confirm Farrell's various hypotheses, one of which is that the charismatic master, or group of masters, can end up establishing a style that the students don't really understand, or feel compelled to use for any reason other than that it is what they think they're supposed to use. It's a problem that can afflict even the most groundbreaking of creative figures in their early years: I remember reading about Andy Warhol's first soup-can works, which were spattered with paint drippings in the Jackson Pollock mode. When someone asked him why he added the paint-spatters, he told the man that he thought that's what you were supposed to do to make it a work of art. The things that Pollock struggled for, and that meant everything to him, were to the young Warhol just a kind of credential, a sign that he wasn't just a kid from the benighted side of Pittsburgh, but a Member of the New York Art World in Full and Good Standing. Tradition does tend to be govered by entropy.

Anyway: my point is that Steve Halle's not one of these "I'm experimenting the same way everyone's experimenting because that's what you're supposed to do, right?" guys. Perhaps it was to his advantage that he didn't really have a particularly charismatic teacher in his undergrad days (when he studied with, um, me), and now that he's plugging away at grad school after a stint teaching, he seems to have a pretty firm sense of himself (besides, Gabe Gudding, his prof now at Illinois State, seems laudibly eclectic, and not in quest of disciples). So Steve's work doesn't really look like period style, and there's an interesting combination of techniques and influences at play in Map of the Hydrogen World. The jacket copy provided by the publisher gets at some of this:

Map of the Hydrogen World, Steve Halle’s first collection of poems, shuns the so-called divide between post-avant and Official Verse Culture poetics by embracing traditional forms and themes while simultaneously developing new ways of knowing and working through poetry. From traditional lyric and narrative poems to formal experiments, investigations and cuttings, Halle attempts to find his own way through place, history, art, politics, faith and self, mapping particulars as small as an atom and universalities as big as a world.

I try to drive a similar point home in my own bit of jacket copy:

Ginsbergian incantation, high modernist allusion, the post-avant rhizome and the documentary collage — these are the weapons in Steve Halle’s arsenal. Joyce, Eliot, Emerson, Whitman and Keats shoot through the static of text-messaging, global positioning systems, surveillance culture, and an urgent sense of the world’s victims. Halle carries a humanistic heritage into an inhuman world. It comes out shredded, torn into the bandages we need even more than we know.

Okay, so I kind of let that extended metaphor have its way with me a bit. And I failed to work in any reference to the strong Dada strain in Halle's work. So let's move on to another bit of copy, this one by Steve's most charismatic teacher, Anne Waldman:

Delightful voices and moves play out in the latitudes & longitudes of Steve Halle's Map of the Hydrogen World. Edgy with savvy and brio. It's one wonderful exciting romp.

I'm not sure I'd have said "romp" — Halle's book seems a bit more... what? A bit more somber than that, a bit too concerned with the morally urgent world to be called a romp. But don't take my word for it: see for yourself.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

This Post is Not Called "R.S. Gwynn, or the Absence of Genius"

*DISCLAIMER: I woke up this morning with the urge to take this post down, because I think it may be taken the wrong way. But instead of getting rid of it, I'm just going to say this: I don't mean that Gwynn is a bad poet. In fact, as I say below, he's quite good at what he does. But I react very poorly to the kind of thing he does in poetry. It's not the rhyme and meter I have a problem with, it's something larger, something like the sensibleness of the New Formalism, or its containment, that bothers me. And I don't mean to say that I'm objectively right in disliking this, just that I'm a product of a tradition of thought and a structure of feeling that are at odds with the kind of work Gwynn does. In the end, I suppose this post is shamelessly self-indulgent: it's a long, drawn out examination of the basis of my own taste. Or perhaps I should say it's a long, drawn-out examination of my taste this week, since I've found myself defending plenty of formal, paraphrasable poems in print and in conversation. But if you can't be self-indulgent in your blog, where can you be? So I'm leaving this up. I've got a bad feeling, though, that R.S. Gwynn's going to gut-punch me someday. He's an old football player and probably knows how to knock a guy down, too!*


Sometimes, when I find myself utterly out of sympathy with a piece of writing, I wonder: is it the writing, or is it me? There are certainly instances where the answer is "It's you, Archambeau." Jane Austen, for example, is a writer whom I understand to be deeply insigntful, entirely excellent in a thousand ways, perceptive, historically significant, and full of a kind of charm to which I am utterly impervious. I think I'd rather eat a rat than read Emma again. And Emma is a great book. Maybe gender has something to do with it, although it's not that I can't get into classic British women's novels: I'm a big fan of Virginia Woolf, and I read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre at least once a year, always finding it both tremendously well-made and, you know, smokin' hot.

So, when I ran across a perfectly respectable, competent sonnet by R.S. Gwynn called "God's Secretary," while leafing through the latest issue of Poetry and found myself recoiling, I had to step back and ask myself: is it Gwynn's poem, or is it me? Deciding to give myself the benefit of the doubt (after all, if I don't, who will?) I began listing my reasons for disliking the poem. At first I found them pretty compelling, jotted down there on the back of my phone bill envelope. Soon, though, I noticed a pattern to the list of complaints — a pattern that revealed to me some of my own biases in taste. So: I'm going to list what I take to be the literary offenses of R.S. Gwynn, but bear in mind that in the end I think that the list of perceived offenses says more about my own limitations than it says about Gwynn.

Here's the beginning of Gwynn's sonnet, an octave set off as its own stanza (to emphasize, I suppose, the correctness of the author's use of the Petrarchan version of the form):

Her e-mail inbox always overflows.
Her outbox doesn't get much use at all.
She puts on hold the umpteen-billionth call
As music oozes forth to placate those
Who wait, then disconnect. Outside, wind blows,
Scything pale leaves. She sees a sparrow fall
Fluttering to a claw-catch on the wall.
Will He be in today? God only knows.

From a craft position, you really can't fault Gwynn: he knows what he's doing. If the rhymes are a bit full-on for some ears (mine, say), they are where they are supposed to be, and there's just enough enjambment to soften the effect a bit. The same goes for the scansion: it's regular iambic, with just enough thrown in by way of variation to keep it from sounding like a metronome (I'm a sucker for a spondee). You've got some variation of longer and shorter syntactical units, you've got an interrogative thrown in to mixup the declaratives a bit. And there's a fine balance in the combination of the mundane (email) and the highfalutin' (that allusion to Pope, who wrote that God "sees with equal eye, as God of all, a hero perish or a sparrow fall" — and beyond Pope, to the Bible). And "scything" is nice, with its conjuring up of mortality. So the poem is certainly succeeding on its own terms -- except maybe for the phrase, "God only knows," which seems a bit self-satisfied, this playing off of literal and idiomatic senses.

She hasn't seen His face — He's so aloof.
She's long resigned He'll never know or love her
But still can wish there were some call, some proof
That he requires a greater service of her.
Fingers of rain now drum upon the roof,
Coming from somewhere, somewhere far above her.

Okay. The sestet is actually a little less slick than the octave: I mean, that "of her" really, really wants to be read with the stress on the word "of," (echoing the stress-pattern of the line's rhyme-mate, which has a feminine ending). And that's a bit iffy. But the larger elements are all in order: the shift from external description to an examination of the secretary's inner state of mind comes exactly where it should in a straight-up traditional Petrarchan sonnet, at the volta or turn between the octave and the sestet. And the rhyme-scheme shifts, as the form demands. Again, there's a lot of full rhyme for some ears, but when it ticks over into actual repetition of the same word, it takes on a different kind of music, and we can appreciate it the way we appreciate the returning words of a sestina. So don't let anyone knock Gwynn's chops: he does what he sets out to do, and by and large succeeds on his own terms.

There's something about those terms of success that bothers me, though. The first thing I jotted down on my envelope-back of compaints was this: "utter lack of genius!" A bit churlish of me, no? But there's at least one sense in which I'm pretty sure I was right — the Kantian sense. If you'll all kindly turn to the 46th subsection of part two of the Critique of Judgement, you'll find the following passage, under the heading "The Faculties of Mind which Constitute Genius" (bear with the old sage of Königsberg here: like everything he writes, it makes your eyeballs feel like they're going to bleed, but it pays off in the end):

Of certain products which are expected, partly at least, to stand on the footing of fine art, we say they are soulless; although we find nothing to censure in them as far as taste goes. A poem may be very pretty and elegant, but is soulless. A narrative has precision and method, but is soulless. A speech on some festive occasion may be good in substance and ornate, but still may be soulless. Conversation frequently is not entirely devoid of entertainment, but remains soulless.... Now what do we here mean by "soul"? .... Now my proposition is that this principle is nothing else than the faculty of presenting aesthetic ideas. But by an aesthetic idea I mean that representation of the imagination which induces much thought, without the possibility of any definite thought whatever. That is, without a particular concept being adequate to it, and which language, consequently, can never get quite on level terms with or render completely intelligible.

So: genius, in the Kantian sense, involves the possibility of presenting us with a work that animates a thousand ideas, but isn't reducible to any one idea. It's like a conversation that takes on a life of its own, sparking ideas and arabesques of wit, rather than plodding dutifully along. Picture yourself on a barstool, listening to Oscar Wilde jawing with Quentin Crisp on your left, and a kind elderly couple having a discussion of the "How's your whiskey sour, dear?" "Fine, dear" on the other, and you'll have a fair sense of the genius/non-genius distinction. If you want more on this, consider what Douglad Burnham has to say in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Kant argues that art can be tasteful (that is, agree with aesthetic judgment) and yet be 'soulless'... What provides soul in fine art is an aesthetic idea. An aesthetic idea is a counterpart to a rational idea: where the latter is a concept that could never adequately be exhibited sensibly, the former is a set of sensible presentations to which no concept is adequate. An aesthetic idea, then, is as successful an attempt as possible to 'exhibit' the rational idea. It is the talent of genius to generate aesthetic ideas...

The Kantian idea of genius connects, then, with such post-structuralist darlings as indeterminacy and polyvalence. But it also connects to that dusty old New Critical term of praise, unparaphrasability. Which is not to say that indeterminacy is sufficient for genius in and of itself — I've read plenty of indeterminate, sub-Ashbery, semi-Jorie Grahamified poems that didn't set ideas alive in the least. The journals are full of them.

But I digress. To return to Gwynn. If there are three things that are in short supply in Gwynn's poem, they are precisely indeterminacy, polyvalence, and unparaphrasability. I mean, I think we could paraphrase the poem thusly: "there may or may not be a God, and sometimes we yearn for one. Signs of his existence remain ambiguous, although many of us dutifully go on trying to serve him." I mean, that gets most, if not all, of the conceptual content right there, no? The poem says what it says, we get it, and we're done. Was it Yeats who talked about a poem closing shut with a satisfying click, like a small box? (Strange that he'd say that, since such a clicking-shut would only apply to his mid-period verse, not the the early Mallarme-influenced stuff, still less to the late prophetic work, but I digress. Pedantically.) Anyway, looked at in positive terms, Gwynn's poem does just that sort of clicking-shut that Yeats, if I remember correctly, would like. Looked at in negative terms, it fails to manifest much by way of genius.

Another thing that bothered me about the poem made it onto my envelope as "cute when dealing with the uncute." That is, it's cute with a subject it shouldn't get cute with. I mean, we're talking about divinity here. Brahman. The Abgrund of Being. The First Mover. All that. And we do it by picturing the doings of the divine as a matter of answering the emails sent by the pleading souls of this mortal coil (the whole concept of God having a secretary is a bit cutesy). I mean, that's cool if what you're aiming at is comedy (the same trope is used in the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty), but that's not Gwynn's trip, here. The gesture toward the infinite in the final couplet indicates that we're aiming for profundity. So what's called for is a brand of beauty at a pretty far remove from the cute — something more like the sublime, maybe. Beauty with a sense of awe at the impossibility of our mind grasping the infinite particulars of the totality before us, or of awe at the magnitude of a force we would be helpless to resist, but which leaves us undestroyed. This is more of Kant, by the way — rough and ready versions of his mathematical and dynamic sublimes, respectively. I'd quote another big chunk of his work, but fear I've exhausted the patience of all moderately sane readers already.

I suppose the fact that I'm bothered by the use of cuteness where sublimity is called for means that I'm outraged by a breach of decorum. Which makes me feel like I should look like Colonel Mustard, standing at the door to the conservatory, appalled that someone's left a revolver and a coil of rope among the candlesticks. It's got to be one of the most unhip things imaginable, being outraged at a breach of decorum. But there are breaches of decorum and breaches of decorum, and I can get down with a lot of them. The good kind, I think, is the kind outlined by Schiller in his truly great essay "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry." Here, he tells us that one of the ways our nature asserts itself is by welling up as a strong feeling that must come forth, no matter how socially inappropriate it may be. When I think of this idea, I always think of the great scene in the movie Mrs. Brown, in which Judi Dench's Queen Victoria is moping around in an interminable funk after the death of Prince Albert. Her groom, played by Billy Connolly, sees that the Queen is going to let herself die, and that none of her fawning hangers-on has the guts to step up and tell her to snap out of it. Finally, despite his lowly status as a servant, he can't stand it anymore, and his feelings burst out of him in a thick, Scottish burr: "Honest tae God woman, I never thought I'd see you in such a state." All are appalled, decorum lies in ruins. And the outraged Queen is suddenly in love. That's a breach of decorum in which a trivial set of rules is violated by a powerful and deep emotion. In Gwynn's poem, the breach runs the other way: a powerful and deep topic — the divine — is treated in a trivial mode, the cute. If disliking that makes me into some kind of fusty Colonel Mustard, meet me in the conservatory.

Finally, my list of complaints ended with this: "God = Dude? Again?" I mean, if there's any image calling out for some kind of Victor Schlovsky style defamiliarization treatment, it's the notion of the divine as a personality, specifically a male, patriarchal personality. Gwynn gives us that old image, and the goes further, picturing divinity as an administrative personality, a kind of celestial bureaucrat. We've seen a lot of this, and probably should have stopped with the implied celestial bureaucracy of It's a Wonderful Life.

So those were my criticisms. In a way, they aren't really criticisms of Gwynn's poem, so much as they're criticisms of the whole movement he's a part of, the New Formalism. And they're criticisms made from a very particular standpoint. Consider the ideas I've been knocking around: Kant's notions of genius and sublimity, (the parts of his thought most loved by the Romantics, especially Coleridge), Schiller on breaching decorum, and the nineteenth-century-lovin' Victor Schlovsky's idea of defamiliarization. Somewhere along the line I seem to have ended up interpolated into Romanticism. And Romanticism's exactly the sort of thing from which the New Formalists turned away in reaction. Asking Gwynn to appeal to a Romantic sensibility is like asking a vegan to sit down and eat Thanksgiving turkey with the rest of us. And asking someone immersed in Romanticism to like Gwynn is asking for trouble — it'd be like asking him to put down Brontë in favor of Austen.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bang on the Drum: Adorno and Free Time

I think I must be undergoing some kind of Frankfurt School hangover from the panel on Adorno I attended down at the Modernist Studies Association conference last week, since I haven't been able to look at, read, or listen to anything all week without asking "What would Adorno Say?" For example: as I was brushing my teeth with my alarmingly overpowered electric toothbrush this morning, I flipped the radio on and caught the tail end of the Todd Rundgren classic "Bang on the Drum" (which, by the way, isn't a bad song to get down on your back molars to). And I think the sentiment Rundgren expresses is very much in line with what Adorno had to say about free time.

I suppose it's not really all that helpful to begin with Adorno's quip, in Minima Moralia about free time being nothing but "the reflex-action to a production rhythm imposed heteronomously on the subject." So let's move on immediately to Alex Thomson's gloss on the idea: "even when we are not working," says Thomson, summarizing Adorno, "our rest or relaxation is determined by our need to prepare for work, anticipate work, or simply work again." That is: we aren't really free in "free time," because free time isn't something that's there for us to be autonomous in. Rather, free time is time designated for our recovery from work, so that we can work again. Heteronomously (that is: not for ourselves, but for someone else's agenda. You know — for The Man.) If we're really autonomous in any meaningful measure, we don't think of ourselves as on or off the clock: we're doing our own thing. Such a blessed state is unalienated labor. And it's how I feel when I'm writing an article or book or poem: I can't really tell whether it's work or not, and I'm never really "off," since I end up writing notes with weird, often failed, ideas for the project all the time, on napkins or the insides of books or, more than once, on the side of a styrofoam coffee cup.

But this isn't the way most of us experience things most of the time: there's work, and there's free time, and they imply one another in a dialectical relationship. That is, the idea of free time implies unfreedom, for Adorno. It's only an officially sanctioned moment where we can adjust body and psyche so we can go back to work. I think this is what Adorno was getting at when he claimed that "free time is tending toward the opposite of its own concept." If the idea of free time is autonomy, then it's sadly ironic, because it's really just a compensatory moment that re-fits us to work on someone else's terms. It's not about autonomy at all: it's the shadow-self of alienation.

So that's Adorno. And here's Rundgren:

Every day when I get home from work
I feel so frustrated — the boss is a jerk
And I get my sticks and go out to the shed
And I pound on that drum like it was the boss's head

I don't want to work
I just want to bang on the drum all day
I don't want to play
I just want to bang on the drum all day

So what happens after work? Well, play —the expression of spontenaity and freedom — isn't possible here. We're too frazzled and frustrated from the day job. The act of drumming isn't some outward expression of joy, here: it's a compensatory act for the frustrations of work, and in the end it serves work, in that it allows us to go back to work for our jerk of a boss, having let out (symbolically) the violent urges to which his jerkish bossery led us. So Rundgren isn't celebrating fun: he's crying out about the sad ironies of a system where even the things that should be fun are somehow linked to an alienating system of labor relations. Only he's doing it by rocking out, rather than laying down the kind of pseudo-leftist theory jive that is (I'm sad to say) all I've got to offer on the subject.

Adorno was famous for disliking popular music, and considered it a part of the nefarious culture industry. But I really do think there are significant areas where his point of view coincides with that of certain popular musicians. I remember Robert Kaufman saying, down at the Modernist Studies Association conference, that toward the end of his life Adorno was dragged to the movies, and urged to watch television, by his students. I kind of wish they'd made him tune in to a rock station, too.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Giscombe! Matthias! Ivănescu!

I'm back in Chicago from the Modernist Studies Association blowout down at Vanderbilt, but I arrived with mixed feelings. It was good to see all the Obama signs, Steppenwolf Theater posters, and Museum of Science and Industry banners on the way out of O'Hare. Nashville seems to specialize in advertising different kinds of things — in one two-block walk I saw bumper stickers reading "Drill Here, Drill Now," "McPalin for President," "Choose Life," "A Proud Descendent of a Confederate Soldier," and "1 cross + 3 nails = 4given." So it's nice to get back to a place where one's own values seem to be a part of the social landscape. On the other hand, Chicago was bite-ass cold and semi-snowy. The locals down in Nashville were complaining about their weather, but I'd take it over what we've got in the windy city any day.

Anyway — Ron Silliman has been hinting that he wants a full report on the conference, and I'm hoping to work up some kind of post on it within the next couple of days, but I'm pinned down for the moment with teaching (if it's Tuesday it must be Yeats), reading proofs, and following up on post-conference correspondence. So for now I'll forego the conference wrap-up report and point, instead, to the hot-off-the-presses new issue of the Cincinnati Review,which proves once and for all that the cultural life of Cincinatti continues to thrive, despite the demise of the much-lamented WKRP. The issue has (along with much else) new poems by C.S. Giscombe, Bradford Gray Telford (whose work I discovered this summer), and Mary Szybist (whose work you can hear on the latest Poetry podcast, too), as well as a big slab of translations of Mircea Ivănescu, an essay by Margot Livesey, and a bit of critical writing on John Matthias' amazing Kedging by your present humble blogger. Order a copy now and it'll get you through the long wait at the airport this Thanksgiving.

(By the way: this record store is my favorite place in Nashville, narrowly edging out the full-size replica of the Parthenon, complete with gilded 40-foot Athena — for real. The store may not have any Greek goddesses, but it did have a ton of Steve Reich, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Daft Punk. A welcome relief in a sea of honky-tonks!)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Archambeau World Tour November 2008

I'm about to jet down to Nashville to speak on a panel about the New Criticism at the Modernist Studies Association's annual conference, held this year at Vanderbilt University. For those of you who haven't been to one of the MSA's conferences, I'll just say this: it's a good place to check out the latest styles of black turtlenecks, rimless glasses, and nervous grad-student hook-up rituals. It's also got some good speakers: this year Frederic Jameson will be there, along with T.S. Eliot guy David Chinitz, big-wheel Canadian scholar Melba Cuddy-Keane, Kevin Dettmar (who knows his way around vinyl records), Molly Hite (whom I met in Sweden about a decade ago, when she wanted to talk about Virginia Woolf, and all I wanted to do was tell her how much I liked her campus novel Class Porn), Erich Hertz (whom I remember from grad school as an heavy-hitter on Adorno), poetry scene stalwarts Aldon Nielson, Robert Zamsky & Tom Orange, John Paul-Riquelme (who gets it about how Romanticism is still with us), British modernism guru Vince Sherry, and the ever-fantastic Barrett Watten. Also the not-to-be-missed Per Backstrom, and the blogsophere's very own Johannes Goransson. I want to check out all of their papers, but my usual conference modus operandi involves getting too caught up in conversation at a nearby bar to make it to more than a few panels a day.

My own part of the show is called "Formalism and Ethics" — a preview, of sorts, of two forthcoming pieces of writing: a longish take on Garrick Davis' anthology of the New Criticism in the next issue of Pleiades, and a chapter of a book called Re-Reading the New Criticism, edited by Miranda Hickman and John McIntyre. I'll be saying something along the lines of this: the New Criticism has long been dismissed as mere formalism, and is now in danger of being revived as... mere formalism. In fact (certain claims by people in the movement notwithstanding) it was a lot more than that. In many instances, New Critics even presented their work as a kind of ethics. If this is the kind of thing that gets your pulse pounding (and why wouldn't it? I mean, what? you have a life now?) meet me in Nashville. If I'm not at the conference when you get there, look for me in one of the bars on West End Avenue.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Politics of Poetry

A while ago David Orr had a very sharp piece in Poetry about the politics of poetry. He was interested in why it's such a perpetually hot topic. "We don't spend much time wondering what poetry has to do with neuroscience or television writing or college basketball," wrote Orr, "yet these are important areas of American life that involve assertions about truth, form, morality, and the nature of culture—all subjects regularly claimed as poetry's turf."

Around the same time, Lucia Perillo posted to Poetry's Harriet blog about the left-wingishness of many American poets. She speculated that "it may be that poets are aligned with the left because they tend to share the concerns of the poor, or at least the not-rich, having only moderate incomes and job stability." An interesting hypothesis, I thought, but one that doesn't really look all that true: compared to the population as a whole, American poets aren't, as a rule, particularly downtrodden (of course there are exceptions).

Anyway, reading Orr and Perillo got me thinking, and I put together an essay that tries, in its bumbling way, to shed some light on these issues from a sociological perspective. Why do so many poets think of their work as political? Does it make sense for them to do so? And what's with the prevailing left-of-center view (which I share, but which must have some sociological explanation) (which doesn't mean it isn't a valid political viewpoint). The essay I came up with is called "Poetry, Politics, and Leanings-Left" and it's in the November issue of Poetry, and also available online.

I talk about some of the same things I cover in the essay in the last half of this month's Poetry Foundation podcast, "The Savage Detective Turns to Poetry" (I'm not the savage detective: that's the much-more glamorous Roberto Bolaño, whose poetry is also featured). I thought I was groggy when we recorded the interview, but apparently the jug of java I downed just beforehand had kicked in by the time I started speaking: in contrast to the calm, controlled Don Share and Chris Wiman, I fear I may sound like some kind of jittery fiend, the kind of guy who'd grab you by the elbow on the subway and give you his nine-part theory on how the Aztecs invented the internet. (Did I ever explain how the Aztecs did that? No? Okay! A topic for my next post!).

And speaking of jittery fiends, I'm about to jump back into the fiend-friendly environment that is the blogosphere to read obsessively —nay, with maniacal zeal — about the election! Why? Because it's just like the ending of Peter Pan — you know, the part of the movie where, if we all clap hard enough, Tinkerbell will live. I mean, isn't it true that every time you read an online analysis of a swing state poll, Barack Obama gets just a little closer to the White House?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Roberto Bolaño and the Extravert Muse

There's something primal and pre-rational in the fear I've always had of heights. Picture a sweaty, trembly Archambeau trying hard not to look like he's freaking out, and you've successfully pictured me in any high structure or on the edge of any precipitous precipice. At the Tour Eiffel, on the cliffs of Dun Aengus, climbing a fire lookout back in Manitoba, or even in the upper floors of the Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame, I'd always feel like my lower intestine had been seized by something I can only describe as an icy, electrified demon-fist. It's always hazardous for me when people come to visit from Europe: invariably, they want to go up in one of Chicago's skyscrapers, and I gamely take them, but have learned to stick to the Hancock Center: it has a bar on the 95th floor, and one can steady one's nerves somewhat with a bucket-sized slug of bourbon. It's funny to see, I'm told, this gripping-of-handrails and gritting of teeth, but it really takes me to some bizarre, primal emergency state. Once, while we were visiting a colleague who lived on the 19th floor of a tall, narrow building with floor-to-ceiling windows, an ornithologist pal of mine mercilessly teased me about my queasiness (used as he was to lurking around in trees and the edges of ravines in his bird-watching escapades, it was hard for him to appreciate my crisis of confidence in high places). I like the guy, and we bust each other's chops all the time, but heights mess with my chi, people, and so messed-with was I just then that I pulled a very uncharacteristic move, hauling-off and knocking the poor guy into the wall to make him stop. Not cool, I know. But that's how freaked I get when I'm more than, say, a dozen stories up. (I think he forgave me, but I notice he doesn't ride elevators with me any more).

There are two exceptions to this sad and weird phenomenon, though: I'm in no way freaked out when I fly, and for some secret reason known only to the muses, I never get the icy demon-fist effect when I visit the offices of Poetry magazine. Since their current digs hover 18 floors up over Michigan Ave, with an open floor-plan and glass walls, this is a true surprise. And a welcome one, since I'd really rather not knock Don Share or Christian Wiman into the wall, even when they publish Jorie Graham. I'm sure Don and Christian had no sense of all this Tuesday, when the elevators whisked me up to their aerie for an interview about an article I wrote for the November issue. Insufficiently caffeinated, I think I sort of tanked at the interview, but the editor, I'm assured, is good at cleaning up one's mumblings for the podcast. Anyway, Don was kind enough to hook me up with an advance copy of next month's issue of Poetry, and I pawed through it on the train home, eagerly devouring a dozen or so pages of the great Chilean poet Roberto Bolaño in translation. I'd been reading the October issue on the way down, and something struck me about how different Bolaño was from the (very able) poets I'd been reading in the October issue. I couldn't quite put a name to it until I was almost at my stop, when the word finally leapt to my lips: "extravert!" I said, eyes wild with discovery, "Bolaño's a Jungian extravert!" The conductor's sidelong glance indicated that he either disagreed (holding deep-seated views on Bolaño and Jung at odds with my own), or that he thought it was weird to see a big beardy dude talking to himself on the Metra. Be that as it may, I really do think Jung's ideas are a good way to get at what's special about Bolaño, and at some of the limits of a lot of American poetry.

Jung is one of those guys whose work is more wide-ranging and various in actuality than it is in the popular perception. I mean, when most people think of Jung, they probably remember that he quarreled with Freud, that he said something about archetypes, and that Robert Bly more or less drowned his own chances of being taken seriously when he watered down Jungian ideas in his Iron John-era drum circles. I'm no expert, but when I was writing about the poetry of John Peck (a Jungian analyst by trade), I worked on getting my Jung chops up a bit. My favorite discovery was the essay "On the Relation of Analytic Psychology to Poetry" (which runs some 20 very readable pages in Penguin's Portable Jung, if you want to check it out).

Long story short, Jung's argument is that there are two fundamental orientations a poet can take toward his or her creativity: introverted and extaverted. Like a lot of Jung's terms, these don't quite mean what they do in common parlance. And like any binaries, of course, the introvert-extravert split is pretty limited, but it makes for a good way to start drawing distinctions between different types of poetry. Jung's introvert poet isn't what you might think (the phrase conjures up some spindly, black-sweatered guy sort of hiding out behind the Emily Dickinson books in the library, hoping not to have to talk to anyone). Rather, he's a poet who identifies with his own creative process, seeing it as something he understands, consciously directs, and is generally on top of. It's a matter of knowing, or thinking that you know, what you're doing, of going about your poem-making deliberately. The artist thinks the art comes from inside himself and is under his control — so it is in this sense that he is "introvert" in orientation. Here's Jung on the idea of introvert writing:

There are literary works that spring wholly from the author's intention to produce a particular result. He submits his material to a definite treatment with a definite aim in view; he adds to it and subtracts from it, emphasizing one effect, toning down another, laying on a touch of color here, another there, all the time carefully considering the overall result and paying strict attention to the laws of form and style. He exercises the keenest judgment and chooses his words with complete freedom. His material is entirely subordinated to his artistic purpose, he wants to express this and nothing else. He is wholly at one with the creative process, no matter whether he has deliberately made himself its spearhead, as it were, or whether it has made him its instrument so completely that his intentions and his faculties are indistinguishable from the act of creation itself.

So this is a guy who doesn't think of the act of writing as a mystery, or the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, or a visit from the capricious muse. This isn't the guy who objects, in a creative writing class, to the idea of writing a poem as an assignment. This is a guy who believes in craft, in technique, and in setting out to nail an effect with care and precision. You can imagine him looking with approval at all those heavily marked-up pages they put next to interviews with writers in The Paris Review — "Ah!" he'd think, looking at an annotated, revised page, "there's a guy who knows what he's doing, and isn't afraid to park his ass in a chair and work!" (I remember the short fiction guru Lee K. Abbott actually saying this, once, when he came up to Lake Forest for a visit).

What Jung's describing here isn't so much poetry, or even the process of composition, but the attitude a poet takes toward his or her work — an attitude of deliberate, careful, conscientious control (an attitude we profs kind of hope our students will take toward the writing of their essays, if not necessarily in their poems). Of course, this could be a kind of false consciousness on the part of the poet: as Jung puts it later in his essay, "it might well be that the poet, while apparently ... producing what he consciously intends" nevertheless gets carried away by "an 'alien will,'" or force beyond his or her conscious intellect. The first example of this that comes to mind for me is actually one from visual art: I really believe Georgia O'Keefe meant it when she said she thought there was nothing sexual about her paintings of flowers. But something sexual clearly got expressed there — it just came from a part of herself that O'Keefe didn't let come to consciousness. So she thought of herself as a controlling, introvert artist, but something else was at work, too, something alien to her intentions.

Disclaimers about false consciousness aside, the attitude a poet takes toward his or her creative processs matters for Jung — not least because it will tend to have an effect on the kind of work the poet ends up creating. The introvert poet will give us "a conscious product shaped and designed to have the particular effect intended," a poem that will "nowhere overstep the limits of comprehension," and the effect of which will be "bounded by the author's intention and ... not extend beyond it." Let's set aside deconstructive notions of the inevitable failure of such intention-driven outcomes, since, in a way, they're just versions of Jung's idea of a secret alien force slipping in, O'Keefe-style, behind the controlling consciousness of the introvert artist. And let's see what a poem of this kind looks like. As my Metra North Line epiphany made clear to me the other day, a lot of the poems in Poetry magazine are of this type. Here's one from the October issue by Derek Sheffield (after all these years of blogging, I'm still not clear if quoting the whole poem is fair use — but since it's up on Poetry's web site, I'm hoping it's cool. If it's not, and you're Derek Sheffied, Don Share, Christian Wiman, or one of their phalanx of lawyers, let me know):

A Good Fish

Jerk that bitch, urges my guide,
and I give my shuddering pole
a jerk, hooking the throat
of the first steelhead of my life.
Reel 'em, he mutters and revs the motor.
I horse my pole and reel and horse.
The boat's mascot whines, her claws
clicking. Let it take some line.
My father, uncle, and cousin
are reeling. First fish! they shout,
and I shout, What a fighter!
A silver spine touches the air.
There, he points, a hen. And guess what?
She's gonna join the club,

somehow spotting in that glimpse
the smooth place along her back
where a fin had been snipped.
He leans over the gunwale, dips a net,
and scoops her into the boat.
She is thick with a wide band
of fiery scales, slap-
slapping the aluminum bottom.
Welcome to the club, he says,
and clobbers her once, and again,
and once more before she goes still.
A bleeder, he says, shaking his head
and handing her to me. I curl
a finger through a gill the way
you're supposed to, determined
not to let her slip and flop
back to the river, a blunder
I'd never live down. A good fist.
Fish, I mean. A good fish.

Okay! I mean, sure, the poem deals with an unconscious process — the way something apparently innocent, like fishing, is linked with some deeply primal stuff, like sex and violence. It even includes a rendition of a Freudian slip ("fist" for "fish"). But the way it deals with this process is clearly very deliberate, and all of the details push toward making the single point that fishing contains these primal things. I mean, if you wanted to show your students in a creative writing class how to establish a consistent pattern of gestures, you couldn't do much better than to aim them at this poem and ask them about the emotional undertones to each of the actions undertaken by the characters in this poem. Every time Sheffield has them handling a fish or fishing implement, it's either associated with violence, or with sex (or, really, more properly with masturbation — all that jerking, all those poles, and that fist at the end add up to an almost indecent image). It all looks very deliberate, and all points in the direction of a single, rather authoritative, interpretation. Even the Freudian slip, so carefully placed at the end, has the feel of deliberation and control. There's nothing in it that refuses to make sense, flirts with disaster, or seems troublingly unassimilable to an interpretive paradigm or sense of aesthetic wholeness.

The word for a poem like Sheffield's is, I think, accomplished. Or maybe skillful. Or fully-realized. All of which are legitimate terms of praise, especially when we think of how many poems aim at this sort of effect and miss by about three feet. In all this accomplishment, the poem sort of reminds me of nineteenth-century French academic painting: it shows the artist knows what he was doing. But along with this very real virtues comes a kind of limitation. Trying to describe that limitation, I fall back on a comment my dad made once, after we'd spent a day in the Louvre, among all those galleries of grand format state paintings. "What I saw," he said, looking wearily up over his espresso, "was a whole lot of technique, and not much else." That's too harsh as a statement about Sheffield's poem, but it gets at the weaknesses to which introvert art is prone. (I think it's not a coincidence, really, that Georgia O'Keefe's best work are those floral paintings where she's expressing all kinds of sexual stuff that her conscious mind denies is there — when she gets away from that, her work gets closer and closer to well-made kitsch).

The other pole of Jung's binary is inhabited by the extravert poet. Again, the term is misleading: I mean, doesn't it make you think of some kind of coffeehouse blowhard, cornering you by the big jar of biscotti and forcing you to hear his sub-Howl effusions while he rants, gesticulates, and tears at his Moses-length beard? But enough about my last poetry reading! That's not what Jung had in mind at all. By "extravert" Jung means the poet who thinks the source of his or her creativity lies outside of the conscious self, maybe even outside the self entirely. Instead of feeling like he's in control of the process of composition, he experiences the process as an urgency, a matter of being seized by forces beyond conscious control. This was very much the idea held about poets and rhapsodes in classical antiquity — remember Plato's "Ion," where the title character describes himself as being seized, in the poetic act, the way a piece of metal is seized by a magnet? It's like that. Spontaneous overflow, a visit by the muse or the daemon, a welling-up of We Know Not What that makes us grab the pen (or brush, or keyboard) and get something out. The poem seems to come from beyond, from something alien, from outside — hence "extravert," the other-oriented position. Jung puts it this way — with extravert creativity, positively force themselves on the author; his hand is seized, his pen writes things that his mind contemplates with amazement. The work brings with it its own form. Anything [the poet] wants to add is rejected, and what he himself would like to reject is thrust back at him. While his conscious mind stands amazed and empty before this phenomenon, he is overwhelmed by a flood of thoughts and images which he never intended to create and which his own will could never have brought into being.... Here the artist is not identical with the process of creation; he is aware that he is subordinate to his work or stands outside it...

Hollywood loves this idea of the artist (as a topic, not as a way of directing movies, for which it relies on a bunch of dependably careful introverts). I mean, think of Vincent van Gogh as played by Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, or Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock. These are depictions of artists who receive, rather than direct, the gift of creation. Or at least that's how the extravert artist sees him- or herself. He's gripped by something as primal as that icy, electrified demon fist that grips me in high places.

From Jung's point of view, what's really going on is that the artist has formed an autonomous complex within his or her psyche, an area of mind not fully unified with the rest of the personality. It wants to come out and find its expression, and does so by breaking through the filters of the conscious mind. It's a very Romantic sort of idea, and one that the champions of deliberate, introvert writing often look on with suspicion. Yvor Winters based his whole mature poetic on a rejection of this extravert sort of thing, arguing that people (Hart Crane, say) who engage in what Jung would call extravert creativity are unhinged, psychologically unintegrated, and quite possibly a danger to themselves (though one could argue Winters' own attempt to prune the wild antipodal gardens of the mind held their own dangers, to art and to psyche alike).

[Digression of interest only to people who love German Idealist philosophy: those of you who are deep, deep, deep into German philosophy will probably recognize the influence of Schiller on Jung's thinking. The categories extravert and introvert roughly correspond to Schiller's ideas of the naive and the sentimental, respectively — Jung even acknowledges the debt in his essay. I think this connection must have had something to do with my coming to think about Bolaño and Sheffield in these terms: the reason I was so groggy and impervious to caffeine during the interview for the Poetry podcast was that I'd been teaching a night class the previous evening — a seminar on Kant and Schiller for our grad students. So Schiller and Jung were percolating somewhere in the back of my head while I was reading the October and November issues of Poetry on the Metra.]

Anyway. Just as the introvert orientation to creativity had consequences for the products of creative action, so too does the extravert orientation affect the poem. With the extravert artist, says Jung, "we would expect a strangeness of form and of content, thoughts that can only be apprehended intuitively, a language pregnant with meanings, and images that are true symbols because they are ... bridges thrown out towards an unseen shore." This kind of stuff may lack the polish of careful, introvert poetry, but what is it Rimbaud says? "La musique savante manque à notre désir" ("sophisticated music falls short of our desire"). I mean, extravert poetry may be rough around the edges, but because of its sources in the repressed or unconscious areas of the psyche, it often comes out with a force, a freshness, and a surprising, even unsettling, set of insights or emotions.

One thinks of Surrealism here, of André Breton and automatic writing. (I wonder, sometimes, what Jung would have made of something like the Oulipo, or other forms of procedural writing, where the poet sets up an arbitrary series of conventions, then lets them produce a text that comes into being without his control. I imagine he'd see the creation of the rules for these procedures as very much an introvert's act, but the product as looking much like an extravert's poem). One thinks of Breton, but not necessarily of Poetry magazine. I mean, while a journal with such a long track record is bound to have published quite a few extravert works in its time, the reputation of the magazine is that of a venue for highly accomplished, but generally non-freaky, poetry.

That's why it was such a great thing to find the big spread of Roberto Bolaño's poetry in the November issue. I mean, Bolaño's work has all the hallmarks of the extravert poet: rapid juxtapositions, images that call out to us as significant without being reducible to a particular significance, a sense of urgency and of rapid, inspired composition, and all the rest of it. The connection to Breton isn't all that far-fetched, either: I remember that Benjamin Kunkel once described Bolaño in the London Review of Books as the co-founder of a "punk-Surrealist poetry movement called infrarrealismo." Consider, for example, "Soni," the NC-17-ish poem that opens the Bolaño section in Poetry:


I'm in a bar and someone's name is Soni
The floor is covered in ash       Like a bird
like a single bird two old men arrive
Archilochus and Anacreon and Simonides       Miserable
Mediterranean refugees       Don't ask me what I'm doing
here, just forget that I've been with a girl
who's pale and rich       Either way, I only remember blush
the word shame after the word hollow
Soni! Soni!       I laid back and rubbed
my penis over her waist       The dog barked in the street
below there was a theater and after coming
I thought "two theaters" and the void Archilochus and Anacreon
and Simonides sheathing their willow branches       Man
doesn't search for life, I said, I laid her back and
shoved the whole thing in       Something crunched between
the dog's ears       Crack!       We're lost
All that's left is for you to get sick, I said       And Soni
stepped away from the group       The light through dirty glass
rendered her like a God and the author
closed his eyes

Zowie. It's harder to say something about this poem than Derek Sheffield's, isn't it? We could start with the nonstandard punctuation (although after a passionate, eros-driven number like this, I feel like the King of the Nerds leading with punctuation). But it's significant! For one thing, it leaves those Greek names marooned, their status and significance not fully defined. Are they the two old men? But there's three of them. Are they the Mediterranean refugees? The geography works (Bolaño's writing this in Mexico City, thinking of Greece), but the syntax and punctuation leave it all a bit ambiguous. Some of images decode pretty well (two theaters? Sure: the real one outside, and the imaginary one where Bolaño — I take the speaker as him — and Soni just performed for one another). But others don't: like those two old men who arrive as a single bird. I'd bet Jung would consider this one of those images "pregnant with meaning," but not an image that had actually given birth to a defined meaning. Compared to Derek Sheffield's "A Good Fish," which masters the experience it describes, this poem's a tangle of undigested emotions. It's hard to sort out what Bolaño feels about his encounter with Soni, and what his feelings had to do with her wealth and paleness, sociological facts that seem to matter to Bolaño in ways too deeply buried to be comprehended (but not too deeply buried to be expressed). Do the sociological facts have something to do with the presence of Simonides and Archilochus, both of whom were social satirists? Maybe. But I'm still not sure why Anacreon's hanging around in this poem. Maybe it has to do with how he writes about intoxicating love — but who among those Greeks didn't? It's a tense little ball of the deeply felt and urgently expressed, too strange and opaque to pin down.

Jung saw work of this kind as important, because it was through extravert creativity that the least-understood elements of our experiences came to light. Truths arise from this kind of art that can't find articulation in any other form, and through contemplating these things we're eventually able to articulate them and integrate them into our self-understanding. It's not the sort of thing an introvert artist can do, really: his task is more a matter of reiterating, or working variations on, things we already know (saying "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed," as Alexander Pope put it — and what's Pope's neoclassicism but the distillation of introvert creativity?). It's also not the kind of thing that's easy to teach in an MFA seminar, which may be why we see comparatively little extravert poetry in our most prominent journals: after all, the most careerist, professionalized, outwardly-ambitious types of poets, the types who'd sweat to get into a brand-name journal, tend to come out of such programs. It's a shame, really, that there's an extravert-introvert imbalance in the big journals. But the generous Bolaño section in November's Poetry gives me hope that this can change.

(Valerie Archambeau offers her opinion of Roberto Bolaño)