Friday, February 29, 2008

Art and Life from Aestheticism to Langpo

So check it out: Kelly Comfort, an amazing polymath who knows about Latin American modernism, Cuban writing, and German literature, has cooked up a collection of essays called Art and Life in Aestheticism: De-Humanizing and Re-Humanizing Art, the Artist, and the Aesthetic Receptor. The second part of the title may be a bit of a mouthfull, but it does its job, giving as it does a shout-out to José Ortega y Gasset's 1925 treatise The Dehumanization of Art, which examined with a skeptical (but not a dismissive) eye the emerging emphasis on formalism in the art of the twentieth century. The essays in Kelly's book tackle ideas of formalism and the aesthetic as they intersect with, or eschew, lived experience, the social, and the political. The emphasis of the book is on the aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century, but the essays reach further back in time, and forward as well, as far as the present day, with a notes in one essay (by, uh, me) on Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, and company.

Here's what Kelly came up with when the good people at Palgrave MacMillan had her sum the whole project up in a couple of sentences:

Art for art's sake addresses the relationship between art and life, between the aesthetic and the social, and promotes the former term over the latter one in each instance. Although it has long been argued that aestheticism aims to de-humanize art, this volume seeks to consider the counterclaim that such de-humanization can also lead to re-humanization, to a deepened relationship between the aesthetic sphere and the world at large and between the artistic receptor and his or her human existence.

The book gathers together essays on a surprising range of authors: Baudelaire, Rossetti, Huysmans, Wilde, Nietzsche, André Breton, Nabokov, Adorno, Barthes and many more. Here's the opening of my own contribution, an essay called "The Aesthetic Anxiety: Avant-Garde Poetics, Autonomous Aesthetics, and the Idea of Politics":

If you are personally acquainted with any significant number of poets, you will perhaps not be surprised to find that the thesis of this essay is as follows: poets want to have their cake and eat it too. The particulars of the argument, though, go beyond the intuitive and the obvious, or so I hope. What I want to say is this: since the nineteenth century, poets have faced a dilemma. On the one hand, many poets have felt the allure of the radical freedoms of an entirely autonomous art, an art not in the heteronomous service of any religious function, ideological formation, moral system, cause, or institution, an art that exists for art’s sake alone. On the other hand, poets have faced the anxieties that such autonomy seems, inevitably, to create: fears of losing their readerships, their social roles, and their political utility. Many poets of the twentieth century, especially those affiliated with avant-garde movements, have been haunted by such anxieties, and have sought to assuage them by claiming that a commitment to aesthetic autonomy can, in and of itself, be a form of political action. Such an identification does not bridge the chasm between a belief in autonomous art and a belief in the kind of heteronomous art that serves a cause. Rather, it denies the existence of such a gap, and asserts that the disinterested pursuit of art for its own sake is also, by its very nature, politically efficacious.

Positions of this kind are by their nature fraught with contradictions, and raise many a question. Can withdrawal from political engagement be anything other than quietism? What are the politics of audience, when the art speaks neither to the disempowered classes nor to a significant element of the power elite? Can a political art still be autonomous, or does it bend its craft to a political end? Indeed, the attempt to work through such questions has been the driving force behind many an avant-garde polemic. Despite the difficulty of maintaining the identity of aesthetic autonomy and political utility, though, this dream of the poets has endured for the better part of a century.

Two groups of poets who attempt to identify aesthetic autonomy with the political — the surrealists and the language poets — are of particular interest because of the different forms of politics to which they to link autonomous aesthetics. Starting in the 1920s, the surrealists, under the general guidance of André Breton, sought a link between the radical imaginative freedom of their movement and the project of Communist revolution. Later, beginning in the 1970s, the American language poets sought to identify aesthetic freedom with a kind of negative politics — a politics of critique and resistance, rather than one conducted with a specific revolutionary utopia in mind. Whatever the form of politics, though, the enduring nature of the poet’s anxiety about reconciling aesthetic autonomy and political efficacy indicates that we may have reached a point in the history of poetics in which what I am calling the aesthetic anxiety (that is, the anxiety about the apparent political and social inutility of autonomous art) isn’t so much a passing crisis as it is a lasting condition of poetic production. Whether the solution to this anxiety proposed by the avant-garde poets can survive is, of course, another question, and one to which the answer, increasingly, seems to be “no.”

Langpo fundamentalists will probably want to punch me, but I'm hoping they'll get bored by my turgid academic prose half-way through the essay, and I'll be able to sneak off to my escape while they snore.

Anyway. You can pre-order the book now from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Shop early! It makes a great gift!

Monday, February 25, 2008

New Books by Old Friends

Yeah, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking my friends are probably a bunch of stooges and degenerates. A plausible guess! I mean, just look at these guys:

Okay. So that's me on the left, and the blameless Ben Goluboff in the middle. But Stefan (on the right, visiting from Norway) — he's the one you think is sketchy, right?

And then there's this guy, also on the right, next to Sarah Conner (who illustrated the Kafka Sutra). Yep. It's none other than the deeply-suspect Dave Park:

But think of them what you will, these degenerate yos with whom I hang managed to rouse themselves from eating Funyons off the couch cushions long enough to finish their books, both of which appeared this week: Stefan Holander's Wallace Stevens and the Realities of Poetic Language and Dave Park's History of Media and Communication Research: Contested Memories. All thinking people are instructed to purchase copies forthwith!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Laureate Du Jour

You know who's a good poet? Robyn Schiff. That's who.

I dropped in on Robyn's reading up at Lake Forest yesterday, and really liked her new poems. The poems I most admired were versions of odes, though I don't know if she thinks of them that way. There they were, though: poems addressed to an object or an image, poems working through various meditative reactions to their subjects. From listening to Robyn read, I'm even willing to bet that some of her newer poems follow the strophe-antistrophe-epode meditative structure of the ode. There's a fair bit of elliptical disjunction and jump-cutting involved — elements of Our Period Style — but the meditative impulse and the consistency of the object addressed tie things together more thoroughly than in most post-avant poems, which can, at their worst, seem more like wind-chimes than compositions. What I really enjoy in her new work is the way the poems are about something in particular: they refer to cultural icons (Ralph Lauren, say) or historical events, often with a kind of moral conundrum tucked into them (as with the love & violence issues Robyn gets at by writing about the wedding of the inventor of the Colt revolver). Worth is out from Kuhl House, and I hear the new book's coming soon.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Negative Legislators: Ethics of the Post-Avant

Yes, Virginia, there is a definable post-avant, and its characteristic stylistic and ethical moves come, by and large, from particular generational experiences. At least that's the conclusion I'm prepared to draw from this week's web-browsing, magazine-reading, poem-downloading, blog-skimming, and lunching-with-poets. (Today's lunch was a particularly good curry at a new Irish pub — the kind of curry that can give a guy the courage to generalize and reify at will).

Exhibit A: Who You Callin' Post-Avant?

So. For exhibit A, I point you over to the Poetry Foundation's "Harriet" blog, where the ever-incisive Reginald Shepherd has a post up called "Who You Callin' 'Post-Avant'?". Here he offers as good a short definition of the poet-avant as I've seen:

"Post-avant" (as in, "post-avant-garde"—insider groups love shorthand) poets can be described as writers who, at their best, have imbibed the lessons of the modernists and their successors in what might be called the experimental or avant-garde stream of American poets, including the Objectivists (especially Oppen and Zukofsky), what have been called the New American Poetries (from Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara), particularly the Projectivist/Black Mountain School and the New York School(s), and the Language poets (including such poets and polemicists as Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman), without feeling the need (as so many other poetic formations have) to pledge allegiance to a particular group identity (the poetry world is full of fence-building and turf wars) or a particular mode of proceeding artistically.... Though many of these poets have projects and even systems, there aren’t a lot of programs. There’s much prose writing and thinking about poetry, and many, many blogs (this is a very wired “generation”), but not many manifestoes.

Post-avants, or elliptical poets (the term used by Steve Burt, among others), or poets of “lyrical investigations” (Shepherd's own term), tend, says Shepherd,

to eschew the standard and standardized autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical anecdote which predominates in what’s called (usually pejoratively) “mainstream” poetry. Indeed, they frequently problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience. But they don't just discard the self as an ideological illusion. As well, they tend to avoid or at least seriously complicate narrative of any variety. They incorporate fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle. They are interested in exploring, interrogating, and sometimes exploding language, identity, and society, without giving up on the pleasures, challenges, and resources of the traditional lyric. Their work combines the lyric’s creative impulse with the critical impulse of Language poetry. Theirs is a magpie-like eclecticism, that draws from whatever materials, traditions and techniques are of interest and of use, however seemingly incompatible, however ideologically opposed historically. They don't try to destroy the past for the sake of the future, or trumpet teleological notions (let alone grand narratives) of artistic "progress" or "advance" ...

This all seems about right to me: the eclecticism, the crossing of the lyrical with the non-lyrical (or of the expressivist with the constructivist, to dragoon Marjorie Perloff's terms into the mix), and the generally non-heroic sense of the poet's historical mission — I've seen these over and over in the works of the poets of my own generation (I was born in May of '68, which means I'm about to turn 40, buy a sports car or perhaps a sailboat, and go into full-on midlife male outfreakage. Watch this blog for signs of my impending disgrace).

That non-heroic, non-manifesto-writing ethos certainly applies to the post-avant sense of artistic progress. I mean, when you read the polemics of, say, the young Ezra Pound ("to break the pentameter, that was the first heave"), you get a sense that he really believes there's a kind of advancement taking place. It can seem a lot like one of those old-school charts of evolution, with the monkey-like Victorians at one end of things, and the proudly non-knuckle-dragging modernists at the other:

You get a similar sense from many critical accounts of what happened to poetry around the time of Robert Lowell's Life Studies: poets, it seemed, had suddenly broken through stuffy mid-century formalism and into a new, advanced form of freedom (in Modern Poetry After Modernism James Longenbach called this the "breakthrough narrative" version of American poetry). And although it's been satirized by some of the language poets themselves, there's often a heroic strain in langpo polemics, a sense of intrepidly bearing the art forward to some New Jerusalem while fighting back the undead armies of tradition. There's very little of that in the post-avant crowd. The post-avant seems to have very little interest in making grand claims of any kind: not only does it eschew a sense of heroic poetic progress, it eschews big political or spiritual claims. For better or for worse, you just don't find anyone acting the revolutionary or guru the way Allen Ginsberg did.

Exhibit B: The Negative Legislator

I suppose it is no accident, then, that George Oppen has had a kind of renaissance in our time. Consider what James Longenbach says about him in Exhibit B, a passage from his recent review of Oppen's selected prose in The Nation:

Neither before nor after his silence [a nearly three-decade hiatus from publishing poetry] was Oppen inclined toward didactic poetry; he considered the rhetorical excess of political poems--like the rhetorical excess of political meetings--to be "merely excruciating." In the early 1930s Oppen was associated with the Objectivist movement, a loose association of avant-garde poets that also included Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff and Lorine Niedecker. And while Discrete Series, his first book, is starkly elliptical, his later work combines Objectivist precision with a tender lyricism that his more staunchly experimental colleagues disdained:

Miracle of the children the brilliant
Children  the word
Liquid as woodlands  Children?

When she was a child I read Exodus
To my daughter  'The children of Israel...'

Pillar of fire
Pillar of cloud.

No other poet sounds like this. However adamant Oppen's convictions, his meticulously shaped lines embody a music of deference--a constitutional unwillingness to dominate the world by virtue of having understood it. True poetry, says Oppen in an essay collected in Selected Prose, is written in "a language that tests itself."

Here, Oppen comes across as a man with ethical qualms about making big claims. I get it: I mean, Oppen lived through that whole 1930s business of urgent-yet-mindnumbing political wranglings — the splitting of Trotskyist hairs while the world burned, starved, and suffered horribly, often under the banner of one or another totalizing ideology. Even after nearly eight years of pseudo-authoritarian rule here in the U.S., it's hard for us to imagine anything like the ideological pressure of a time when even so gentle and benevolent a soul as W.H. Auden found himself advocating political violence in the name of The Cause, as he did when he wrote of the need for "the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder" in his great-but-troubling poem "Spain."

So Oppen's not going to present himself as a prophetic figure, or a vatic poet with special insight. He's not going go all André Breton and write manifestos on how aesthetic liberation and political liberation are one and the same. And one of the ways he's going to express his qualms is at the level of form: his lyricism itself will often be checked by various elisions and distancing strategies. This isn't the poet as Shelley's "unacknowledged legislator" creating the laws of the future. This is the poet who's absorbed the same lessons as had the Adorno of Negative Dialectics: to walk in fear of totalization, especially of easy totalization. In fact, the Oppen Longenbach presents reminds me a just a little of that other saint in the post-avant poet's canon of forefathers, John Ashbery — especially the John Ashbery descibed by Stephen Stepanchev in his book Modern American Poetry Since 1945 as a poet who "seems to fear too much coherence as being a form of dishonesty or falseness" because "an orderly syntax sometimes forces the poet to lie, to say easy things that he had not intended."

In fact, this kind of reticence (often expressed at the level of form) regarding statement, didacticism, prescription, visionary experience, etc. is itself a kind of ethical imperative one infers from the post-avants and their precursors. I mean, there's an ethic to the whole "unwillingness to dominate the world" through didactic statement, and in the sense that "too much coherence [is] being a form of dishonesty or falseness." The imperative here is negative, though: make no laws, tout no truth-claims, avow no total understanding, nor anything close to it. It's a kind of Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.

Exhibit C: Some Negative Legislation

As an actual example of an actual post-avant poem actually embodying this ethic of negative legislation, let me point to what I think is a very sharp poem, hot off the pdf file I downloaded (gratis!) from Eric Elshtain's Beard of Bees Press website. It's the opening poem from Gregory Fraser's chapbook A Different Bother:


I piped the dizzy for who knows how, argued,
Without catacombs there can stand no town,
and one night slid my head through the crown
at church, then followed a river glued

to its ember. Who couldn’t predict my brass
would one day burst? That I, end-time, would stew
in a velvet folly? A bashful kid, I consented to
spoil the mildew’s nap, decapitate the grass,

haul trash to the curb in bags that were, after
transport, trash themselves. Never once did I aid
the roaches treated like thugs in black suede.
By travel, I hoped to find not heaven, but a rafter

where mind and body hang, negating one another.
No such. Wind combed back the cattails, I
turned in a circle that wouldn’t point. Why decry
the addict, who only seeks a different bother?

Someplace florid, a prince paints a topical picture.
Imagine—art about actual happenings! Of course,
of course, of course, of course,
the unathletic started in: Old world with your

lovely clarities, etc. Then I thought of the stars—
what trumpeted commotions fill their repertoires.

Did you notice the ABBA-CDDC etc. rhyme scheme in the quatrians, culminating in the rhyming couplet at the end? It's a kind of extended-play Shakespearian sonnet, which itself shows something of the historical openness of the post-avant. A hard-core avant-gardist of the early 20th century would sooner have been caught dining with a petit-bourgeois policeman than have written such a thing, but now we're more laid back about all that.

More importantly, though, the poem really shows a lot of the qualities Reginald Shepherd saw as typically post-avant. Does the poem "problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience" without "discard[ing] the self as an ideological illusion," as Shephard suggest the post-avant poem does? Sure! I mean, "I piped the dizzy for who knows how" comes straight out of the John Berryman playbook, offering an odd bit of diction and syntax that nevertheless obliquely suggest an inner, emotional experience. And through the first few stanzas there's a strong suggestion of autobiography, albeit with a great deal of static on the channel. The post-avant poet, as Shepherd says, "incorporate[s] fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle" — surely that's what we have here: we see a developing self, and get a sense of its quotidian moments (taking out the trash), and its social context (a troubled figure surrounded by those who can see its impending breakdown but don't do much to stop it ("who couldn't predict my brass / would one day burst"). But there's a delicate balancing act going on between lyrical, confessional revelation on the one side and disjunction and fracture on the other.

More importantly still, the poem follows the project of the post-avant negative legislator: it refuses to judge, prescribe, or assume a position of moral authority (except, of course, inasmuch as such refusals are a kind of moral position). We get this most clearly toward the end, in lines like these:

Wind combed back the cattails, I
turned in a circle that wouldn’t point. Why decry
the addict, who only seeks a different bother?

Turning in a circle that won't point: now there's the negative legislator in his natural habitat, a kind of neo-negative-capabilty, in which all contradictory positions and directions are explored, and none taken. That question about the addict is good post-avant stuff, too: it implies a possible moral equivalence between the speaker and the junkie, each of whom is hooked into his own trip. On the one hand, the question seems to imply a kind of "who's to judge?" position. On the other hand, it is a question, not a statement such as "Don't decry the addict...", so it remains ambiguous whether we're even meant to assume the relativism of "who's to judge?" — we can turn around the circle all day, and it just won't point in a particular direction. This is the antithesis of didacticism or poetic legislation (except, again, for the possibility that a rigorous refusal to point in any particular direction is itself an ethical position, a kind of disinterestedness or even unworldliness).

And then there's the ending, where we're offered a glimpse of a different kind of art, one that does take up social positions and get all litterature engagée on us:

Someplace florid, a prince paints a topical picture.
Imagine—art about actual happenings! Of course,
of course, of course, of course,
the unathletic started in: Old world with your

lovely clarities, etc. Then I thought of the stars—
what trumpeted commotions fill their repertoires.

There you go: art about actual happenings. But how does the poem coach us to feel about it? Well, like a good post-avant poem, it doesn't coach any one position. The fact that the topical picture is painted by a prince suggests a number of possibilities, most of them negative: that such art is antiquaited; or despite any possible leftish sentiment, that it's ultimately the product of privilige; or that it's all a bit egomanaical and self-important. Then again, there's the breathless "art about actual happenings!" which can read like a statement of envy at the prince's audacity, or as the opposite of that (in which case the breathlessness makes the line read as arch, as a faux-naif faux-excitement about a social project seen as banal). Then there's the wonderful "of course, / of course, of course, of course" — which signifies what? An admission that social engagement is needed, or important, or a necessary alternative to the kind of poem we're reading? Or perhaps it suggests a kind of impatient or world-weary dismissal of socially didactic art (can't you just see the phrases accompanied with a sigh and a dismissive wave of the hand?). You get the idea: we're turning in a circle that won't let us point in any particular direction. Which is kind of the point, I suppose: to establish the poet not as a legislator, but as a negative legislator, whose one firm law is to make no other laws.

Exhibit D: Aeroflot Blue

And here's where I turn to my generational explanation of the post-avant embrace of what I'm calling negative legislation. I came to it from a recent blog entry by Ray Bianchi, in which he maintains that our generation (in this case defined as poets born between 1965 and 1975) tends to have a "sense of the world as a drawer of broken things." Bianchi goes on to say:

The one thing that defines Generation X it is that the world is a drawer of broken things. We are a generation that bridges and our poets do the same. We are trying to put back together a world and to understand what has been lost and adopting what has been found.

When I asked him to elaborate on this at lunch today, he talked about lack of any faith in big, coherent beliefs among our generation of poets. When we came of age in the 80s, we were presented with a big, smiling picture of Reagan's America, full of flags, battleships, the unqualified joy of the free market, etc. etc., but the world around us didn't look like that picture at all. There was no reason to have faith in the big narrative we were offered by Reagan's image factory. At the same time, we'd seen enough hypocrisy and enough backwash-and-burnout from the 60s that we didn't have much faith in its heroic narrative either. That wasn't all, either, Ray opined as the waitress carted our plates away and brought us coffee. All kinds of big narratives were taking a beating. Did you believe Catholicism was a force for good? Well, you got smacked upside the head with all sorts of scandals involving the clergy, creating serious cognitive dissonance. Were you a believer in Israel as a necessary haven for the victims of atrocity? Too many images of the treatment of the Palestinians were coming to light for that narrative to remain spotless. Was family the great saving force in a dark world? The boom in divorce put that belief through an enormous metaphysical Cusinart. One could of course have gone on, but the check came and we had to leave, though not before we remembered Douglas Coupland's not-so-hot-but-generation-defining novel Generation X, and how it opened with the image of a girl at a party wearing a dress in a color that could only be described as "Aeroflot blue," and how it captured the mood of the generation perfectly, with its washed-out reminder of a dead Grand Revolutionary Narrative.

Aeroflot blue, redolent of failed utopias. Where to go after that, except around in circles, refusing to point in any particular direction?

I don't think this applies to all poets of my generation. In fact, I don't think it applies to my own poetry, or at least not much of it (I'm no objective judge here, but I don't think I've ever been much for disjunction). Then again, as I look back on this blog entry and think about proofreading it (you'll have noticed that I haven't), I see in my own disclaimers, choice of tone, and in my ironizing of my own generalizations that I'm just as hesitant about big claims as the next soon-to-be-40 poet in America. For better or for worse.

In Other News

Over at Johannes Göransson's retro-revolutionary-looking Action Yes! web site, you'll find a bunch of freshly-published stuff, including some translations of the Belgian Surrealists Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray I cooked up with Jean-Luc Garneau. Check it out!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Illinois Primary Voting Irregularities: Argh!

So here's a press release from the Illinois Green Party, which won 10.4% of the vote in the 2006 gubernatorial election, and the right to be treated on par with the Republican and Democratic Parties. Sadly, this right has been denied, as I found out today at my polling place, where I was told on multiple occasions by multiple officials that there were no Green ballots on offer (that's precinct 218, Moraine Township, the Edgewater School polling place). When I insisted, and told them they were in violation of the law, they finally found one for me, but they hadn't offered them to anyone all day. Oy.


Voters who hoped to participate in the Illinois' first ever statewide Green Party primary are receiving a very rude reception at many polling places, especially in Chicago.

In the early hours of voting, Green Party officials began receiving reports from frustrated voters across the state who, in many cases, had been told by pollworkers that there are no Green Party ballots available at their polling places, or that they had to vote on suspect electronic voting machines, even while other parties use paper ballots.

Some of the most outrageous incidents, however, occurred across the wards of Chicago, where Green Party ballots have been apparently tampered with so they can't be read and accepted by voting machines, voters are given Democratic ballots despite requesting Green ballots.

Check for more reports as they are received. More information will also be available at the Green Party gathering tonight at Decima Musa Restaurant, 1901 S. Loomis, Chicago (in Pilsen).

If you're in Illinois and weren't offered a Green ballot along with the Republican and Democratic ballots, shoot a note off to — even if you hadn't planned to vote for the Greens, the officials were required to offer the ballot, and in bringing violations to public attention you'll be helping everyone who thinks the two-party system has failed us.

Okay. Enough with the Righteous Indignation (for now). I think I need a scotch.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Baby Remember My Name: Poets and Posterity

About mid-way through reading fellow Canadian expat Todd Swift's essay "Canons to the Right," I caught myself humming the theme song to that classic of slightly-embarasing 1980s television, Fame (based on a movie of the same name, with a Broadway musical tie-in). For those of you wise or fortunate enough to have been doing something better with your lives in the mid-eighties, here's the 411 on the show: a bunch of kids attend a New York high school for the performing arts and aspire to fame, singing and dancing their way across the screen as maudlin melodrama and broad comedy ensue. The lyrics to the theme song go something like this:

I'm gonna live forever.
I'm gonna learn how to fly,
I feel it coming together,
People will see me and cry
I'm going to make it to heaven,
Light up the sky like a flame,
I'm gonna live forever,
Baby remember my name,
Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember...(slow fade out)

I inflict this on you only because I think the theme from Fame actually gets at the unspoken motivation behind Todd's generally very incisive essay on literary reputation and the deeply suspect process of canon formation. Bear with me, and try to keep the theme song from getting stuck too deeply in your head. It's a real earworm, and hard to shake without massive doses of Funkadelic or perhaps the Carmina Burana on the iPod.

Todd begins by casting a cold eye on what most poets want, and on what it is they tend to end up with:

Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves, as a thought experiment, what the poet might wish for, might dream of... Well, a poet might want, in this order: to write a good poem; to get the poem published in a good magazine; to have that poem, and others like it, collected and published by a good press; to receive some good reviews; to maybe be listed for, or win, a prize; and, either before, or after death, to be respected, or at least enjoyed, by either their peers, or poetry readers, or both. Now, all but the most hardened Dadaist would at least grant that this trajectory might accurately model the desires of most poets (I have yet to meet any who do not want to be published, or read).

These poets, who want these things, then enter into situations with other poets, and persons, to achieve these ends. However, here is where something very significant happens, which most poets do not accept. At the point where they enter into the world of publication, two roads diverge. One of those roads is marked The Canon; the other is marked Oblivion.

After acknowledging that there are, at this late date, several kinds of poetic canon, he claims that only being enshrined in the mainstream canon offers poets any realistic hope of being remembered after death. Sadly, though, such enshrinement doesn't seem to have as much to do with the quality of the poetry as it does with the relative heft of the poet's publisher (Todd ran away from Canada to England, not America, so his points of reference are mostly UK-ish):

Now, the general, naturalist position (which is basically a capitalist one) suggests that the forgotten are bad poets, the remembered are good poets. This in turn plays into the idea of the market deciding value. The problem with this position, is that it almost entirely positions evaluation into the hands of the editors for large publishers, and larger poetry imprints.

The mistake that most poets make, is that they think that, even if they publish with a small, well-meaning press, they have a chance, at perhaps winning a prize, or being reviewed in the TLS or The New York Times, say, of being "discovered". Far from it. The "tap on the shoulder" system of quiet approval and promotion, among the ranks of most contemporary-canonical poets in the US, and UK, occurs prior to publication - during, and before, the editorial process. That is, the business of criticism is mainly now the business of editorial approval, or rejection.

It is not quite true, but almost true, that to have a collection published by a small, marginal press, in the UK (or Canada, for example) is the same as having no book out at all.... The sad truth is, almost all the ground for canonization is laid during the lifetime of the poet - as in the church, with future Saints. We do not know who the "major" poets of our time will be, exactly, but we can rest assured they are currently being published, somewhere in the Anglo-American world, by larger presses... There will always be small, pleasing surprises... but the for the main part, if you find yourself out while alive, your work is mainly out forever. That's a long time.

It comes down to marketing budgets, says Todd: while we may cling to the polite fiction that there's no glass ceiling, there really is: you either hook up with a big publisher, and get marketed and networked into the big prizes, or there's little hope for your posterity. He's got a point. I mean, I think about how I recently cast my votes for the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) awards, and was unsurprised to see that none of my picks made it to the final list of prizewinners. The prizes all fell to people who published with bigger, more visible houses than my (admittedly idiosyncratic) nominees. I can't help but think that most of the critics who voted for poetry books went with the books they'd heard the most about, and I wondered how far beyond the bigger publishers lists they'd really read. Or I think about how a prominent young poet-critic I know once told me that an older poet we both know should really stop complaining about his merely moderate degree of fame. "He's as famous as he can be, without a New York publisher, or elite grad students," said the young poet-critic, and I couldn't really disagree.

Todd suggests that an alternative series of awards and prizes may help remedy the situation, but not by much. Again, I've got to agree, and I'm semi-happy about how the NBCC is going to supplement its prizes with seasonal lists of recommended books. I'm even trying to do my bit, and am working with some colleagues from the &NOW Festival to set up a series of anthologies as a kind of anti-Pushcart Prize. But I don't suffer under the illusion that any of this is going to bust the doors of the Norton Anthology open to any of my poetic heroes.

There are a lot of directions one could go in responding to Todd's points. One could talk about the long game of canonicity, and invoke all the big ideas about how some reputations rise from near-oblivion (William Blake, say), while others fall (W.D. Snodgrass, anyone?) and still others go up and down (Felicia Hemans, for example). There's the idea that over time the best will out (thank you, David Hume), and the idea that each generation will find a past to suit its own needs (Gertrude Stein believed this as did a boatload of others). Or one could talk about the value of fame in one's own lifetime — how some of its rewards are intrinsic (recognition feels good, like a deep-tissue backrub for the ego) and others are extrinsic (fame — even in the junior-varsity form of poetic fame — can get you money, sex, illicit pharmaceuticals, and an appearance on The Daily Show). But I'm most interested in the question of posthumous posterity, which seems core to Todd's thinking. It really seems to bother him that posthumous fame goes to the well-marketed and well-hooked-up rather than to the well-deserving.

And this brings me to the Big Questions Todd's essay raises: why should we care about how people view us after we die? What benefit do we hope to derive from posthumous acclaim? I mean, there's a staggeringly obvious fact to deal with here: we won't be around to see if we're remembered or not. So why should we — why do so many of us — care? In addressing this issue, I thought I'd take the radical step of checking in with some people who actually know what they're talking about vis-a-vis the psychology of fame. Here's what I found out.

1. The notion of fame has been with us for a good long while, but not as consistently as we might think.

David Giles, a pyschologist who used to have a gig interviewing rock stars, is perhaps uniquely qualified to talk about the psychology of fame. He's got a good historical sense, too, and takes his investigations back beyond the invention of modern pop celebrity. Here's a big picture zoom-out on fame, from his book Illusions of Immortality:

The history of fame is about nothing less than the history of Western civilization. It is also about the history of the individual, and therefore it is about the history of human psychology too. I make these grandiose claims not simply to sensationalize the material … but also in an attempt to step backwards and rearrange one’s perspective from a time when individual humans did not even have names.

Giles then gives a nod to Julian Jaynes’ The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind:

Jaynes’ basic premise is that what we today call individual consciousness emerged as an experiential phenomenon only in modern times – previously, phenomena such as forward planning were attributed to divine intervention....The birth of individual consciousness, according to Jaynes, can be traced back to the advent of names. He estimates it as being during the Mesolithic era, some time between 10,000 and 8,000 BC. At this point the ice sheet that covered most of the planet retreated … leading to the development of more static communities. Giving individuals names intensified relationships, leading to the practices of burial and mourning of the dead. The first tomb, that of a king, has been dated at around 9000 BC, at Eynam, just north of the Sea of Galilee. The dead king appears to have been worshipped as a god, and Jaynes argues that this point marks the beginning of civilization.

So posthumous fame of a sort has been with us for a while, but as it turns out the idea of individual fame takes quite a while to get off the ground. According to Giles and others, Alexander the Great is in some meaningful sense the first famous individual. According to Leo Braudy (in his book The Frenzy of Renown, which is the great go-to text on the history of fame) it's not that others weren't famous before Alexander, but they were famous in different ways. Alexander was different because he sought to be famous not as a part of a dynasty but as an individual. Check out visual representations of him as compared to his great rival the Persian Darius – only the representations of Alexander attempt to show a portrait of an individual, rather than an image of a social role:

Alexander's presented as someone in particular; Darius is really just a stylized leader, an embodiment of the Persian dynasty.

After Alexander, you get a huge emphasis on individual fame in classical civilization. As Giles points out, it's Rome, after all, that gives us the words fama and celebritas. But the emphasis on individual fame waxes and wanes historically. The middle ages, for example (with numerous exceptions) tends to place less emphasis on fame than the classical civilization that preceded it. Think of all the aesthetic anonymity of the Middle Ages, for example: all the unsigned poems, all the catherdral sculpture from unknown hands. So the need for fame in posterity is a deep-seated phenomenon, but by no means a constant in history.

2. The idea of posthumous fame is generally experienced as an imagined extention of life

Giles is really good on the particulars of this:

There are historical cases of childless individuals who have craved fame as compensation for not being able to reproduce, such as Elizabeth I, who took great pains to ensure that her official portrait followed strict guidelines … or even John Lord Lumley, an early art collector of no note until all three of his children died, and he set about creating his legend accordingly.

Braudy takes things further, and argues that there’s an inverse relationship between how strong a culture’s interest in fame is and how strong its religious idea of the afterlife is. Giles picks up on this, citing Braudy when he points out that, while Classical Rome had a fairly weak interest in the afterlife (and a vigorous culture of fame and celebrity) the ideal of celebrity “was certainly less popular in Medieval times when the Church had such a strong influence on Western society.”

What’s astonishing to me is how powerful this notion of posterity as an extention of life remains. It seems terribly primitive — "me get fame, me make others sing praises of me after me dead, me not all dead, me live!" There's a ghost of this kind of thinking in Todd Swift's essay: we can see it glimmer into view in, say, sentences like these: "What is oblivion, and why does it matter? Oblivion is a concept ... that suggests that most poets, after death, become basically extinct." Of course Todd knows we're literally extinct at death, but still, the language is telling.

I get Todd's point that it's sad for future readers to lose out on the opportunity of getting to know most poets of the past, and to know only those few poets who've been enshrined by the very suspect test of time. But I don't really get the urge for posthumous fame I've seen in so many people (I grew up as an art-school brat, and believe me, there were times when you could just about taste the ambition in the air, even in the provinces).

Uh, wait. No. Who am I kidding? I do get it. I get the hunger for posterity the way I get the hunger for cheesecake or salty snacks. None of those hungers is going to do much good for me, and at a fundamental level they are futile and superfluous. But it isn't like the urges go away (although as my man Josh Corey points out, other priorities can act as trump cards). The reason the notion of posterity as a life-beyond-life has endured so long seems to be that the will to extend life, even in irrational ways, endures, hard-wired into us. It may be modified by cultural context (the Augustans tried to throw cold water on the flames, the Romantics dumped gasoline on them instead), but it's still there. How else to explain how happy I was when the tiniest of unexpected recognition-crumbs recently fell onto my plate?

Right, then. Off to rehearse my dance routine and see if I can't audition for a local theatrical revival of Fame.