Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Archambeau World Tour August 2008

The annual Art & Craft Northwestern Summer Writers' Conference kicks off in a few weeks, and I'll be sullying a schedule that includes S.L. Wisenberg, Susan Harris, Rosellen Brown, Simone Muench and Ed Roberson. I'll be on an August 14th panel about writers and the internet with Wisenberg and others. Expect a groggy Archambeau, though: it'll be at 9:00 in the morning, around the time I'm usually fumbling with the coffee pot and bumping into things.

I was there for the '06 conference, and was supposed to be there last year, but took a tumble on the bike trail and couldn't make it. Since this year's iteration of my bike crowd's 50-miler is tomorrow, I'll probably be able to recover from my inevitable humiliation and low-grade injuries in time to make the gig at Northwestern.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Innovation as Supreme Value?

The zeitgeist is nothing if not promiscuous, and apparently she's been two-timing me with Ron Silliman, whose post today has to do with continuity and change in poetry. I'd been tapping away at my laptop about how there are continuities and samenesses within poetry, which we tend not to notice in our quest to define newness, change, and different schools of writing (if you want to check it out, and have some semi-serious time on your hands, see the post just prior to this one).

Today, Ron weighs in, and I honestly can't tell from what he's written whether we're mostly in agreement, or mostly not. Consider this, his general thesis:

The history of poetry is the history of change in poetry, an account not of best works, but of shifts in direction, new devices, new forms, as Williams once put it, “as additions to nature.” The cruder writing & rougher edges of the first to do X, whatever it might be, invariably are preferable.

For Ron, innovation is what gets noticed and recorded. Poets may come along in the wake of an innovator and actually do more refined work in the new idiom than the innovator did, but these people don't get a place in history: history, in this view, is reserved for the inventors. In some sense, I think Ron and I are in agreement: we both believe that this is how the history of poetry (and, indeed, the history of any art) gets written nowadays. What I can't tell is whether Ron thinks this is a good thing. In fact, he seems to argue both that it is and that it isn't.

For the record, I think that the story of change and difference, while sexy, is only half the story, and if we're interested in really understanding the course of poetic history, we have to look for both change and continuity, both similarity and difference. As for Ron, it's hard to say. There are moments when he seems to celebrate history-as-the-story-of-invention-and-difference. Here, for example, when he's thinking about the recent Zukofsky blow-out, he even seems to gloat a bit about history celebrating newness:

Does anyone think you could fill up an auditorium at Columbia for a weekend, for example, to celebrate the centenary of Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, Robert Francis or Richard Eberhart, the SoQ poets closest in age to Louis Zukofsky?

I think the emotional content of this is something like "Woooh-hah! No one reads you no more, Eberhardt! Suck one, fool! My team beat your team till you all cried like little crying crybabies, so go cry, why don't you! History celebrates the winners! Nyaaaaaaaah!" Well, okay, maybe it's just a little like that. But there's certainly a sense that history is right to celebrate the new, rather than any other quality.

Then again, there are also moments when Ron seems to think it's sad that the dominant way we write aesthetic history — by emphasizing newness — winnows things down so much, and puts too much pressure on people to try to force innovation. "[O]ne could argue that the visual arts world," says Ron, "at least in New York & London, has become self-trivializing by thrusting change into warp drive because of the market needs of the gallery system." When he talks about poetry (where the lack of a big-money incentive insulates us from some of the art-world pressures), Ron also seems to see this "history is the story of changes" as problematic. Here, for example, Silliman laments the disappearance of Ron Loewinsohn from the historical record:

In The New American Poetry, Ron Loewinsohn – just 23 when the book was first published – demonstrated an uncanny ability to channel the style of William Carlos Williams.... Yet Against the Silences to Come, Loewinsohn’s 1965 chapbook from Four Seasons Foundation, arguably is the best work ever written “in the Williams mode” of stepped free verse. Who (but me) celebrates that?

So on the one hand, Ron revels in the idea of innovation as the main criterion for inclusion in the history of poetry. On the other hand, he sees how this can create a limited view of the shape of poetic history, a view that can make us blind to many fine books of poetry (I, for example, had never read Loewinsohn's book, and I'm going internet-up a copy ASAP) (for all of my disagreements with Ron, I've got to say, I'm glad he's got his particular form of erudition).

In the end, I think the reason I can't pin Ron down is that he's feeling contradictory things, as we all do at times. Since I'm feeling Manichean this morning, I'll lay down the following theory: Bad Ron likes the idea that history selects on the criterion of newness, because it makes all of the investments he made in innovation pay off. But Good Ron is less selfish, and more generous: Good Ron loves the celebration of Zukovfky, but laments the invisibility of Loewinsohn's Against the Silences to Come.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Us as Them, Now as Then: Sameness and Continuity in the Poetic Field

Gather round, boys and girls, and I'll tell you a tale of a long-ago magical time known as the Clinton Administration. Back in those charmed days of peace and prosperity, some of the good people of the land attended grad school, where they learned that we were to understand people in terms of otherness, and time in terms of discontinuity. Their professors taught them the gospel of otherness from yellowed texts written by a great, brow-furrowing, ancient wizard named Lacan; and from the yellowed texts of a great, bald-domed ancient wizard named Foucault they were taught the gospel of historical rupture and discontinuity. And happily romped the grad students in the sunny fields. All, that is, except one, a grumbling malcontent (let's call him me), who loved the wizardly teachings, but (forgive him, reader, he'd been reading Hegel) felt that the opposite ideas might also be a part of the truth. Snarl churlishly, did he, in seminar rooms; mutter uncharitably, did he, in the coffee shop; badmouth, did he, his kindly profs, who tolerated his general orneriness due to the mild kindness of their dispositions, with nary an eye-roll evident. Verily (ish). And so did pass the breezy days in the checkered shade of academe's quadrangles, until a great curse fell upon the land in the person of Dick Cheney. But of that sad tale we speaketh not.

Instead, we fast-forward to the dying days of Cheney's baleful reign, to test the grumbler's hypothesis that sameness and continuity are forces as strong as those of otherness and discontinuity. Let's start by checking in with the poets, tapping away into their laptops and eying one another across the coffee-joints and faculty lounges of the land. And it is with suspicion that they eye each other, oh doe-eyed and innocent reader (What's that? You're not doe-eyed? Not even one of you? And you lost your innocence when? Jesus, really? Ah, well, okay. Anyway). Where were we? Oh, right. The suspicion with which the poets eyeball one another. Okay. So consider these, the words of Mark Halliday, in his recent hatchet-job review of Joshua Clover's book of poems The Totality for Kids (he lays into Clover for pretension and twitchy insecurity, although to criticize a guy who writes rock criticism for the Village Voice for these qualities is like criticizing Los Angeles for the lousy traffic — of course it's true, but if you're going to get to what's valuable, you'll have to get past all that). After taking apart a few of Clover's poems in excruciating detail, Halliday says:

Will Clover or his admirers respond to my review? Probably not, though they blog constantly. Why should they respond? I'm on the other team (the lyrical and/or narrative mainstreamy team). We grant tenure to our players, they grant tenure to theirs; mostly we avoid shootouts.

There you go. The suspicion in the poets' eyes seems to come from a sense that poets play on two different teams, call them what you will (the prominent poet-blogger in the front row has raised his hand, I see, to suggest "School of Quietude" and "Post-Avant"). Otherness is rampant on what passes for Parnassus! And, as the generally reliable Al Filreis argued out in a semi-recent blog post, the lines of battle have been drawn for some time:

Robert Creeley wrote the preface to Paul Blackburn’s Against the Silences. Creeley there counted Blackburn as among those who starting in the late 1940s had hopes for poetry and felt “the same anger at what we considered its slack misuses.” Thus Creeley implicitly interprets Blackburn’s title phrase: this is a new poetry written against the quietude (to use that apt Sillimanian phrase) that Creeley and Blackburn, among others, associated with poetics that we can now describe as between modernism and postmodernism. I especially like the dating of Creeley’s realization: the late 1940s.

Okay, clarity-and-context wise it isn't quite up to Filreis' general standards, but you get the gist: the Big Division of Poetic Otherness between the School of Quietude and the Post-Avant (and that pre-Post-Avant phenom, Blackburn and Creeley's New American Poetry) is well established.

But this got the grumbly believer in the-truth-of-sameness equaling the-truth-of-otherness (let's call him me) thinking. I mean, when you compare what Paul Blackburn thought about the role of poetry in society to, say, what a representative of the square poetry community of the mid-twentieth-century thought, you actually find more continuity than difference. Sure, there's variability within the poetic field, but in the broader field of culture, the whole sub-field of poetry is actually pretty small, and pretty coherent. No matter how hot the debates may get, the two warring parties are in the end much more similar than they are different (make your own analogy to the American two-party political system here, if you like).

Check it out. Here are a few lines from Paul Blackburn's "Statement," a kind of declaration of ethos and poetics he wrote in 1954 (you can find the whole text up in an old issue of Jacket, where the line breaks and indentations are preserved better than I preserve them here, html-challenged creature that I am):

Personally, I affirm two things:
the possibility of warmth & contact
in the human relationship :
as juxtaposed against the materialistic pig of a technological world,
where relationships are only ‘useful’ i.e., exploited, either
psychologically or materially.

2nd, the possibility of s o n g
within that world

And then, later, this:

...if a man could sing the poems his poets write

— and could understand them — and if

the poets would sing something from their guts, rather than
the queasy contents of same,
then that man would stand a better
chance, of being a whole man, than
him who stands or sits and says but ‘Yes’ all day.

Enough man to stand where it is necessary to take a stand.

So okay. For Blackburn, the big problem of our time is instrumentalism, the reduction of everything to utilitarian concerns, or to a calculation of gain. Everything, including human relationships and human beings, gets reduced to its usefulness in a big, technocratic scheme. You know the nightmare he's talking about: something like the situation diagnosed in Dialectic of Enlightenment or One Dimensional Man, or embodied in, say, How to Win Friends and Influence People. And poetry's role is to help save us from that nightmare: instead of reducing us to our value as money-making machines, it cultivates the "whole man" (pardon Blackburn's sexist language, won't you? It was the fifties). And this cultivation of our whole character actually helps give us some ballast against the immoral, or amoral, imperatives of the big technocratic scheme, giving us the fiber to "take a stand" rather than bend, yes-man-style, to whatever wind blows from the direction of Power.

Not a bad role for poetry, eh? I mean, the view really honors the art, and makes big claims for it — it certainly seems more important than mere decor. It's oppositional, dammit! I mean: Woo! Yeah! Long may the counter-culture's mangy flag fly! And screw those squares in their uptight, formalist ivory towers, right? All they cared about back when Blackburn was laying down this righteous line was formal irony and the affective fallacy, right? Right. Except, you know, no.

Let's check it out by comparing Blackburn to the godfather of the New Criticism himself, I.A. Richards, when he talks about poetry's role in society. The presentation is more button-down collar than unbuttoned work shirt, but the points he makes are, in the end, strikingly similar to Blackburn's. Richards’ thinking involves a kind of theory of the balancing of opposed drives in the experience of art. Aesthetic experience tempers what Richards calls emotional belief with intellectual belief. Without such tempering, says Richards, we would behave as primitives, indulging self-interest and bending truth to fit our desires. This passage from Practical Criticism is as compact a statement of the kind as I can find:

In primitive man ... any idea which opens a ready outlet to emotion or points to a line of action in conformity with custom is quickly believed.... Given a need (whether conscious as a desire) or not, any idea which can be taken as a step on the way to its fulfillment is accepted... This acceptance, this use of the idea — by our interests, our desires, feelings, attitudes, tendencies to action and what not — is emotional belief.

Without a balancing of intellect and emotion, we’re left with little more than a crude will to power, and we end up treating the world as means to our own ends, or self-advancement. We end up becoming a part of what Blackburn called "the materialistic pig of a technological world, where relationships are only ‘useful.’"

By contrast, the aesthetic experience, for Richards, harmonizes our conflicting interests. The results are very much like what Blackburn seemed to have in mind when he described poetry as engaging the "whole man," since an engagement of a broader spectrum of our urges and impulses moves us toward a balanced subjectivity: “the equilibrium of opposed impulses” in “aesthetic responses,” writes Richards in Principles of Literary Criticism, “brings into play far more of our personality than is possible in experiences of a more defined emotion.” Our appreciation of the world becomes broader than it would have been had we made our perception and thought instrumental to self-interest, because “more facets of the mind are exposed and, what is the same thing, more aspects of things are able to affect us.” Moreover, Richards envisions this process as leading us past our own primitive urges to reduce everything to a means to our ends: "since more of our personality is engaged the independence and individuality of other things becomes greater," he says in Principles of Literary Criticism. "We seem to see ‘all round’ them, to see them as they really are; we see them apart from any one particular interest which they may have for us. Of course without some interest, we should not see them at all, but the less any one particular interest is indispensable, the more detached our attitude becomes. And to say that we are impersonal is merely a curious way of saying that our personality is more completely involved."

So there ya go. Someone like Richards and someone like Blackburn may be at different ends of the poetic field, but that field itself has a lot of coherence, and people who occupy different camps within the field end up offering a fundamentally similar view of poetry's position vis-a-vis society: for Richards as for Blackburn, poetry is a corrective to the instrumentalizing bias of modern society; a corrective that works by cultivating the whole personality and teaching us to see beyond instrumental ends.

And that's my argument for Sameness. But wait! No! Don't file out of the ponderous professor's lecture hall just yet! I know the seats are uncomfortable, but I haven't delivered my Peroration Concerning the Continuity of the Poetic Field over Time! Let me just dust off these lecture notes, and see if I can adjust the (admittedly feeble) air conditioning. Ah. Much better, and thank you, Igor, for wiping my brow with that moist towelette. Now where were we? Oh yeah. Continuity. Well, since most of you seem to have snuck out under cover of Igor's towelette intervention, I'll keep it brief. My point is this: the position held in common by Blackburn and Richards in the middle of the 20th century was already a well-established one, dating back at least to the Romantic period. I mean, check out what Schiller had to say about poetry's place in society, way back when he wrote Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man in the 1790s.

Letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man gives us a theory of a two-sided human nature. The first part of our nature consists of what Schiller calls the stofftrieb, a kind of sense-oriented self-interest, a collection of appetites and desires. The second part of our nature is the formtrieb, something like our reason, but more specific: it is our drive to impose order on our experience, to create moral and conceptual systems. Neither of these parts of our nature should be allowed to dominate the other, lest we become imbalanced creatures. An excess of stofftrieb would either reduce us to mere appetites (think of Charles Dickens’ image of the industrial workers of Hard Times as nothing but hands and stomachs), or turn us into monsters of self-interest, exerting a Nietzschean will to power over our rivals. For a creature of stofftrieb things exist “only insofar as it secures existence for him; what neither gives to him nor takes from him, is to him simply not there.” The inverse situation, in which we have an excess of formtrieb without sufficient stofftrieb, is no better. Without an appreciation for the senses and the particularities of the material world, the man of formtrieb becomes “a stranger in the material world.” Worshipping only his abstract system, he will be a figure as disconnected from quotidian existence as the scientists of Laputa in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

For Schiller, we can finally become fully integrated creatures, in whom both urges are fully developed and fully reconciled. But we are capable of such a reconciliation only through the cultivation of a third drive, the spieltreib or play instinct. Man is “only Man when he is playing,” writes Schiller (forgive him his sexist language, oh reader, it was the 1790s), because it is only play that allows for a full recognition and engagement of both the senses and the urge for rules and order. The whole person is recognized and fulfilled in play. And play is most fully available to us through art and poetry, because the “cultivation of beauty” will “unite within itself” the “two contradictory qualities” of our nature. Blackburn's "whole man" comes from a long tradition of people influenced by Schiller, and Richards' ideas are even more rooted in this: he summarized Schiller in his early Principles of Aesthetics.

So sure, okay, poetry is divided into camps. And poetry changes over time. But in all our emphasis on different teams, and micro-evolutions of styles, maybe we should take a break and check out how samenesses exist, and continuities endure. And maybe I should head outside and knock back a cold one. All formtreib and no stofftrieb makes Archambeau a dull guy. And thirsty, too.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Fit Audience Though Few: Cambridge Poetry and its Readers

Back from Paris, where I was at a fabulous, compact conference on poetry and "the public/private divide" at the Sorbonne. There were too many excellent papers to discuss — Daniel Szabo on R.S. Thomas, Marc PorĂ©e on several British women poets, and (the best of the lot, I thought) Helen Goethals on the effect of the growth of newspapers on the discursive place of poetry in the eighteenth century. I missed Stephen Romer's reading, but in the first of two odd bits of delayed serendipity I found a solid discussion of his new book in the TLS I'd brought along for the flight home. If I'm being totally honest, though, I've got to say the real highlight happened on the flight from Chicago to my layover in Amsterdam, when through some capricious gift of the gods, I was seated next to the great jazz drummer Hamid Drake, who set me straight about Sun Ra, Eddie Harris, and Kurt Elling. He knows a thing or two about poetry, too — and as I should have expected from an adventurous improvisatory musician, he's sympathetic to the avant side of things. He was also on his way to work with Amiri Baraka as part of a European tour.

My own presentation at the Sorbonne went well enough, I thought, although when it comes to poetry events I always seem to end up as either the squarest guy in a room of hip experimental types (as happened a week or two ago when I read with Adam Fieled, Steve Halle and Laura Goldstein), or the most out-there guy in a room full of respectable types. The Sorbonne event was one of the latter, really: in a room where the most admired poets were clearly Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, and Gerard Manley Hopkins (all of whom I admire) I was there to talk about Jeremy Prynne, and the debate between John Wilkinson and Peter Riley regarding Cambridge School British experimental poetry. But the audience seemed both knowledgeable and receptive, and asked good questions. One of the questions, coming from a Cambridge academic (though not a Cambridge School poetry-type) concerned what she tactfully referred to as "the presumably small, largely academic audience" for the kind of work produced by Prynne, Wilkinson, and company. I muttered something about how the work deliberately set out to demand an active engagement from an audience. But in the second bit of delayed serendipity on this trip, I found a much better articulation of the position I was trying to outline lying in my email inbox on my return. It came from a conversation Cambridge poet Keston Sutherland was having with the publisher Chris Hamilton-Emery on the Britpo discussion list. Replying to Chris' claim that the mystique of the Prynne persona plays into his reception, Keston lays down a pretty radical position about experimental poetry's readership. Check it out:

Hi Chris,

I suppose that's probably true, but before I went along with it I'd want to distinguish between readers and consumers. It must assuredly be true that lots of people have bought Prynne's books because they think he's a weird or fascinating figure, and I'm sure the great majority of those consumers do take a look inside and maybe get to the end once or even twice. I don't think I'm disparaging that use of the object if I say that for Prynne at least it wouldn't amount to "reading" the book, just as it wouldn't amount to knowing, or looking closely at, a painting if I just lingered in front of it at the National Gallery for a minute or two. On Prynne's terms, at least, and perhaps they are not uncommon among members of this list, being a reader of poetry means engaging closely and carefully with it, staking an intimacy on the work of interpretation, in some way perhaps even needing that intimacy or submitting to it as a sort of definition of oneself, or the component of a definition. Some poetry demands and makes possible that sort of intimacy more than other poetry. A lot of poetry would seem hardly to care about it at all, just as a lot of poetry is so infatuated with the rubric of it that it ends up as little besides an advert for the experience it imagines it creates.

Anyhow, I think this consumer/reader distinction is a useful one to keep in mind, though I'm sensible of its liability to be used invidiously and dismissively, because otherwise we might fall to thinking that, simply put, sales = culture. A lot of consumers of books are not readers. Naturally as a bookseller you have to be concerned with consumers, but I imagine most poets (I leave out the Andrew Motions and other ditzy glamour models of Oxford etc) are more interested in readers, even to the no doubt partly pathological extent that they'd prefer three readers to a hundred consumers. For that, they get called "elitist".

As Brecht said, popularity is not very popular any more.


I don't think you could get a clearer statement of the kind of relationship between text and reader that poetry like Prynne's (or, from what I've seen of it, like Sutherland's) solicits. There's a real sense in which these guys are inheritors of the position Milton takes around the middle of Paradise Lost, when he re-invokes his muse, Urania, saying:

I sing with mortal voice, unchanged
To hoarse or mute, though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
Visitest my slumbers nightly, or when morn
Purples the east: still govern thou my song
Urania, and fit audience find, though few...

I mean, the Cambridge crew shares with Milton the sense of opposition to the "evil days" they live in, and the "evil tongues" of public discourse, as well as a commitment to an audience of very devoted readers, rather than a broader, more casually interested readership.

This notion of audience is connected to the two things I like most about Cambridge School poetry: the seriousness of it, and the utter lack of respect for established criteria of success (book sales, awards of big-money prizes, etc). Then again, it's also connected to the thing I've found least appealing in my (mere) year or so of rooting around in Cambridge poetry: the narrowness of it. Don't get me wrong: there's breadth of a meaningful kind — Prynne himself seems to be remarkably polymath. But if a true, meaningful engagement with a book means allowing it to define who you are, then you really are going to have to limit yourself to a very few key books (or you'd end up like a guy who used to come into the old Aspidistra Bookshop where I worked when I was a student in Chicago — he'd come in most weekends, sidle up to an attractive young woman, and, no matter what book she was looking at — Siddhartha or The South Beach Diet — lean over louchely and declare "that book changed my life...").

I don't mean to say that this kind of focus on a few key texts, or on a certain set of concerns, is bad or wrong: just that it doesn't appeal to me as a way of experiencing poetry. I'm not one of those guys "needing that intimacy or submitting to it as a sort of definition of oneself." I'm sure there's a lot to be said for it, and the distinction Sutherland draws between this kind of reader and a "consumer" hints at how being this sort of obsessive can keep one from being blown hither and yon by the winds generated by the infernal machines of marketing and consumption.

But Sutherland's use of the word "submitting" is also important, and it reminds me of something from Alan Shapiro's memoir The Last Happy Occasion, where he describes his own time spent "submitting" to the works of a poet very different from Jeremy Prynne, the formalist Yvor Winters. There was a tendency on the part of some of Winters' students at Stanford to turn to his ethical and formal ideas with something like fanaticism gleaming in their eyes, and they certainly focused on a few key texts as the only tradition worthy of their attention (it was contained in Winters' little anthology Quest for Reality). Alan Shapiro wrote about the prevalence of the phenomenon in the 1970s, after Winters' death, and he makes an explicit comparison with religious extremism. Shapiro recalls one episode from his grad school years in particular, when he was being berated by an old friend who had converted to Hasidism. “I listened with superior, somewhat contemptuous amusement,” he writes, “for I too (though I didn’t recognize it then) was a true believer, and the faith I clung to… had its sacred doctrine, replete with clear and definitive prescriptions.” While Shapiro’s friend had turned to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Lubavitcher movement, as his spiritual leader, “mine,” said Shapiro, “was Yvor Winters.”

I'm sure that from where Sutherland sits my own kind of eclectic reading looks as shallow, magpie-ish, promiscuous and consumeristic as it probably is. And while I enjoy reading Prynne, and have found the time I've spent with his work, and the secondary writing around it, important — sometimes profoundly so — I'm never going to have the focus on him that Sutherland does. I'm not capable, in my intellectual life, of the kind of devoted submission required by a Winters or a Schneerson, and I kind of get the feeling that Keston Sutherland's Menachem Mendel Schneerson is Jeremy Prynne.