Friday, March 20, 2009

Meet the Piqueray Twins

I've just fished the April issue of Poetry out of my mailbox, and am stoked to find Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray — Belgian twins, Surrealists, and poets of the mid-twentieth century — quoted on the back. Their lunatic oddball poem "A Pedal-Pusher Said to Me" appears inside, in a translation by me and Jean-Luc Garneau. Jean-Luc and I have translated a bunch of poems by les frères Piqueray over the years, and they've appeared here and there. But this is the most prominent appearance of a poem of theirs in English translation, and I'm glad they made the cover.

The Piqueray twins didn't like the idea of individual authorship (I think they took Roland Barthes' idea of the death of the author seriously — Barthes said it was surrealism that helped kill the author, after all, and the Piquerays published Barthes, along with Beckett and other luminaries, in their journal Phantomas). So they always published their work under their joint signature, and they delighted in creating weird personae for themselves. Here's a series of poems they published under the persona of "Guy Pezasse," along with their brief preface. The series originally appeared in Samizdat, and has a kind of deadpan whacko quality typical of the old Belgian surrealist scene, but not seen often enough elsewhere in poetry.

The Sproks

Guy Pezasse


Guy Pezasse was a very great writer – and poet – of the 1960’s. He had the ability to observe with astonishing clarity his contemporaries’ actions and gestures, and to translate their daily existence into clear language.

Living in the constant company of two relatives and a friend, Guy Pezasse wrote about their daily occupations and worries with great success.

Guy Pezasse gives us the whole world, and nothing else: familiar scenes; remarkable, living situations.
The Sproks, which owes its title to Guy Pezasse’s love of those fish, was written when Guy Pezasse was in his 86th year.

Guy Pezasse was to die a mere ten years later, when his lungs unaccountably stopped working.

The Editors

Tale of an Experiment

He gets a chance
The man
Tears a head of lettuce
Into thousands pieces
And stuffs them into a very strong
Cup of filtered coffee.
And then
He takes
What remains of the lettuce
And dumps it
Into a vat,
Drenching it with coffee.

Example of an Activity

This man’s uncle
Sometimes carries
An immense mattress
On his head.
And he staggers
With this mattress
From the top of the stairs
To the coal bin,
Where he lays it down
And throws himself on it
Pumping his legs in the air
In excitement.

An Action Among Others

The same uncle
Who lives on the seventh floor
In the center of town
Is sometimes
In the habit of filling,
At dawn,
A large pan
With strong black coffee
And balancing it
On the window sill
With the help of his nephew;
Then sending it
Careening into the street,
Not giving a fuck
About anything.

Tale of Another Action

It is this same gentleman
Who, with the help of his uncle,
Fills an immense cast-iron
With gooseberry jam.
When they’ve done this,
The gentleman and his uncle
Throw handfuls of jelly
At each other’s faces
For fun.

An Activity Among Others

What also happens
Is that the gentleman,
His uncle
And his nephew
Tear many heads of lettuce
into thousands of pieces
Then pour strong coffee
On them,
In a vacant lot
On a slope,
Coal heaps
And piles of shattered windowpanes
At the bottom of the slope.
They speed down the slope
On their bicycles
Without braking,
Their legs spread wide,
Feet held away from the pedals;
And then,
At the bottom of this slope,
The tires make a crackling noise
In the coal
And a farting noise
In the shattered windowpanes.
Then the gentleman,
His uncle
And his nephew
Jump off
Their bikes
And pelt each other
With old heads of lettuce,
Very strong coffee,
And shattered windowpanes
Until they grab some shovels
While leaping
On mattresses
Filled with plaster
And pumping
Their legs in the air
In the gooseberry jelly
Of their excitement.

The April Poetry looks to have a lot of good stuff in this special translation issue, including some poets for whom I feel particular affinities, such as Göran Sonnevi (a Swede from Lund, where I used to teach), and Jules Supervielle (on whose poems I riffed in my own Home and Variations).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Adam Lambert and the Erotics of American Idol

Maybe it's because I finally got around to ordering up Milk on the pay-per-view the other day, or maybe it's just because I've got some gay friends, family, and colleagues, but one way or another I actually found myself caring about the fate of an American Idol contestant on last night's results show. Specifically, I became deeply invested in the fate of Adam Lambert. He's a pretty out gay guy, and (more importantly) I think it's fair to say he sang as a gay guy, and the question of whether America would be cool with that mattered to me.

For those of you who have lives, here's the lowdown: this week was country music week on American Idol, and contestants were coached by country star Randy Travis on how to sing songs from the country music canon. Most chose to give those songs fairly traditional, country-style performances, with mixed results. One excellent R&B singer did so to her detriment: it was like watching Glenn Gould limit himself to picking out the Goldberg Variations with a pair of chopsticks. But Adam Lambert took a bolder approach. He was quite bubbly and excited when meeting Randy Travis, saying that he'd found a wonderful, sitar-laden arrangement of the old Johnny Cash classic "Ring of Fire" (turns out it was the Jeff Buckley version). Randy, who otherwise seems like a decent guy, was visibly creeped out by Adam, saying to the cameras "where I come from we don't see many men with nail polish." Argh! I mean, why not say "I'm from some tight-assed village of homophobes, and I've failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a lifetime traveling the world and working in the music industry to broaden my horizons and become a reasonably tolerant person"? Maybe that was too wordy for the sound-bite format...

Anyway, Adam, who has — no lie — all the technical chops of Freddy Mercury, and a lot of stage presence to boot, went with the arrangement. The performance was overtly eros-infused, both in the vocals (and I regret I don't quite know how to describe the particulars of just how the vocals were eroticized) and in the stage performance (Jim Morrison-style writhing, plus thigh-stroking, butt-wiggling, and the making of eyes at the camera). It kind of freaked out the judges, and there was a lot of speculation among fans that Lambert might be kicked off the show. The speculation was further fueled by pictures from Adam's website (like the one above — that's Lambert on the left) which showed him kissing men, wearing makeup, and cavorting with a bunch of semi-naked guys at Burning Man. Was American Idol — and indeed, America — going to be okay with this?

It's not that American Idol has been unfriendly to mildly eroticized performances in the past. While the majority of the acts have been about as sexy as a slice of Wonder Bread served with a glass of skim milk, there have been exceptions. Idol seems pretty cool with a kind of low-grade female sexiness in performances. This can be overt, as it was with Brenna Gethers, who more-or-less flirted with Simon Cowell onstage during season 5 (Simon, it seems, likes 'em feisty). Or it can be in the slightly hypocritical mode that the great novelist Angela Carter described, in her study The Sadean Woman, as the "the good bad girl" act: the woman who's sexy, but acts like she doesn't know it (I'm thinking here of Kellie Pickler from season six, who spent an entire song crawling around the stage like a cat in heat, but got all doe-eyed and innocent when Simon called her "a little minx," responding "I'm a mink?"). The vast majority of the men who sing on American Idol do so from some kind of neutered, desexualized space (think Elliot Yamin, or the blind guy from the current season, whose music is so utterly bland I can't be bothered to look up his name), but there have been notable exceptions. Bo Bice, for example, would occasionally smolder with good ol' Allman Brothers-style southern heel-stompin' shitkicker heterosexuality.

But what about the gay guys on Idol? Well, Clay Aiken did very well and (I'm told) still sells out a lot of shows. Clay was in the closet, at least as a public figure, but then again so was the great Paul Lynde, officially. I mean, some closets have glass doors, people. But whether the audience knew Clay Aiken was gay or not, he didn't sing in an eroticized fashion: he had all the sexy, steamy drive of, say, Opie. Not so young Mr. Lambert. He comes across as an eroticized performer, and not in the way Bo Bice did. I mean, Bice was all about the straight male gaze: he performed a kind of burning desire for a female erotic object (women can do this too: Melissa Etheridge's "Come to My Window" is a clear case in point, though now that I think about it I don't recall ever seeing anything Etheridge-like on Idol). But Lambert performs differently. He performs as though he's aware of himself not as the desiring subject of eros, but (at least in part) as the desired object of the gaze.

I suppose I could get off my ass and walk over to the theory shelf, pull down some books, and look up some citations, but I probably don't have to in order to support the point that, generally speaking, most heterosexual guys are less aware of themselves as bodies seen by the desiring gaze of others than are most gay guys. I mean, all you have to do is take a random sampling of, say, a dozen heterosexual men in their forties and a dozen homosexual men of the same age, and you'll get a pretty clear sense of which group has been more body-conscious (I pick that age group because by then the results of how we feel about our bodies start to show. I mean, people in their twenties don't even have to be good looking to be good looking). There are exceptions to all of this (I mentioned Jim Morrison as a straight guy who moved like he was conscious of himself as the object of the erotic gaze), but we're speaking in broad terms here. And the point is this: Adam Lambert, unlike Clay Aiken, came across as both gay and eroticized. He wasn't (like Aiken) a singer who happened to be gay. He was a gay man singing as a gay man.

And the viewers voted to keep him on. We don't know how well he did, but we do know that out of eleven contestants, he wasn't in the bottom three. This is either a testament to the bad gaydar of the American public, or to an ever-increasing level of acceptance. I'm going with the latter, and thanking Harvey Milk.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Aesthetics of the Cute, Continued

About a month ago, in reaction to the bombardment of comments I was getting about how cute my infant daughter was, I posted something about the aesthetics of cuteness. The basic argument was this: to say that a baby is cute is to get it backwards, since babies are, through some deep-seated Darwinian hoodoo, the basis of our ideas of all cuteness. It's not that a baby resembles the Platonic ideal of cuteness: the infant itself is the ideal, and cuteness the shadowy refraction of that ideal. Also, I harped on a bit comparing the sublime (big, awe-inspiring, even terrifying beauty, to which we feel inferior) the beautiful proper (elegant, refined stuff) and the cute (which is non-threatening, and to which we feel superior, even protective). I'm posting the definitions again, below the asterisk in this post, in the event that anyone cares, but not enough to click on the link to the old post.

Now here's some confirmation from what are probably the world's leading experts on the cute, the folks at Disney:

In other cuteness-vs-sublime news, here's an article that demonstrates how, in cartoons, it's always the cute who triumph over the sublime (not all of the villains here are sublime, but some hint in that direction, especially numbers six, three and one in the countdown). You have to read between the lines a bit, since the good people at Cracked magazine don't really foreground aesthetic theory. But it's all there.


The Sublime (from Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful)

-Is vast in scale. (Ever stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon? That sort of thing).
-Appears rugged and negligent. (I think it's the idea of immense force that matters here: again, think of the Grand Canyon).
-"Loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation." Think of the gravitas of Mies van der Rohe's architecture: there's no whimsy here, no Frank Gehry crazy curves.
-Is dark, gloomy, solid and massive. (Again, think Miesian school architecture. All those classic Chicago buildings in the Miesian mode are big, black, imposing things).

The Beautiful (also from Burke)

-Is comparatively small (with reference to the sublime).
-Is smooth and polished.
-"Should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly" (you know, the serpentine curve and all that. The eighteenth century engraver Hogarth actually wrote a slightly nutty treatise on how the serpentine curve was the very essence of beauty).
-Is light and delicate.

If we can generalize about the difference between the sublime and the beautiful, it's that the sublime is in some sense superior to us: it is bigger than us, stronger than us, has more gravitas than we do, and embodies forces that could destroy us, if they bothered to take notice of us. The beautiful, though, we meet on more equal terms. It pleases us, without overwhelming us or trying to be ingratiating. But where would the cute fit in this scheme? On this point Burke is silent. But not me! Here's how I see it:

The Cute (my own speculation)

-Is tiny.
-Is soft and possibly a bit squishy.
-Is rounded or even pudgy, rather than elegantly curving or austerely straight.
-Is vulnerable, or at the very least non-threatening. Even perky.

It's just a step further down the continuum that led us from the sublime to the beautiful: if the sublime is superior to us, and the beautiful our relative equal, the cute is in a meaningful sense inferior to us. It is no threat to us, like the sublime: in fact, it calls out for our protection. Not awe so much as "awwww!"

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Michael Jordans of Philosophy

"John Stuart Mill," Karl Marx is said to have opined, "owes his prominence in English philosophy entirely to the flatness of the surrounding terrain." I've been reading Mill's essays on Coleridge and Bentham, and am inclined to think that Marx was being a little unfair. But only a little, and it's understandable: to someone who rose from the churning depths of nineteenth-century German thought, the little pool of English philosophy must certainly have seemed like a backwater.

I mean, German philosophers, from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, were the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls of philosophy: dominant, confident, and effortlessly superior to the competition. I imagine a sense of this proud tradition informed Heidegger's infamous fulminations about how Frenchmen could only think seriously if they switched languages, true philosophy only being possible in Ancient Greek and in German (there is, said Heidegger in a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, a "special inner relationship between the German language and the language and thinking of the Greeks. This has been confirmed to me again and again today by the French. When they begin to think they speak German. They insist that they could not get through with their own language." He says more about the alleged special philosophical nature of Greek and German in Introduction to Metaphysics, and in his Rector's address — sorry to belabor the bibliography, but a gentleman in a little newsgroup discussion of this post has alleged that this claim about Heidegger's views is "crap," and I wish to prove otherwise). Anyway, it's an odd, and kind of bigoted way of explaining the very real phenomenon of the comparative German excellence in philosophy. It's kind of like explaining the dominance of the Jordan-era Bulls as product of Chicago's superior hot dogs and deep dish pizza. But if we discard this kind of chauvinism, in which a rich tradition is explained with reference to some kind of bullshitty essential local superiority, how can we explain the tremendous power and depth of the German philosophical tradition? Why did the German-speaking parts of Europe give us Kant, Hegel, Schlegel, Schiller, Schelling, Schleirmacher, Schopenhauer, Herder, Fichte, Lessing, Feuerbach, Frege, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Dilthey, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Adorno, Jaspers, Popper, Benjamin, Arendt, Habermas, etc., while England gave us Bentham, Mill, Bertrand Russell, and, uh... Alfred North Whitehead? I mean, you have to go to the B-list pretty quickly when naming English philosophers. And it goes for the whole continent: while there are individual stars (Kierkegaard, say), no national tradition racks up the points like the Germans. Why?

I think I've got this.

I mean, when we consider the different historical origins and institutional contexts of the French, English, and German Enlightenments, the differences in the character of the different national philosophical traditions becomes clear.

The French Enlightenment was famously anti-clerical. "Écrasez l'infâme!" shouted Voltaire, and the infamy he wished to see crushed was that of the Catholic church. Voltaire's slogan is not, I think, unconnected with another remark of his, about how he found himself spending his time traveling from one chateau to another. That is: I don't think it's coincidental that Voltaire, who spoke against the church, was sponsored by aristocratic patrons (most notably the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatelet). Sure, Voltaire had his run-ins with aristos (especially that odious knucklehead, the Chevalier de Rohan), but by and large it was they who buttered his toast, and one understands why: the French aristocratic and clerical powers were constantly at one another's throats. And this held true for the French Enlightenment in general: it was a culture sponsored by aristocrats, and it took place in their salons. It owed little or nothing to the church, and directed much of its energy into anti-clericism. (I'm sure the style of French philosophy, so prone to the cutting remark and startling observation, owes much to its origin in the witty salons — I mean, a guy like Roland Barthes is all glitter and quick-jab, whereas a guy like Habermas is all earnest thoroughness — this has got to be connected to the aristocratic salon origins of French philosophy and the earnest, bourgeois scholarly origins of the German tradition).

Then there's the Enlightenment in England. Which is really as Scottish as it is English, since so many of the big-league players hailed from Scotland (David Hume being the real marquee name). The Enlightenment here was notably less anti-clerical than the movement in France, and one understands why: church and state, like bourgeois and aristocrat, had found ways to get along in England, largely by not talking about the things they disagreed on (it's true! Addison's imaginary Spectator Club, for example, served as a model for how members of different kinds of elites could work together by leaving one another alone much of the time, and sticking to topics of common interest, or to what were seen as disinterested matters like taste. Don't get me started on this, or I'll cut-and-paste fifteen pages from the manuscript of the book I'm working on into this blog post and we'll never get to the Germans...). The English system had, and maybe still has, a tremendous capacity for getting along and letting-things-be. A big part of it seems to involve not talking about anything more interesting or controversial than terriers and the weather.

And then there's Germany, or, more accurately (since we're talking for the most part about the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries), the German-speaking lands. There were plenty of courts, but they were small compared to the French court, and historically the church had provided a high proportion of the administrative brain-power (and, along the way, accumulated much wealth, autonomy, and political power). The university system had developed in no small measure as a system for generating all this ecclesiastical administrative human capital, and it was here, rather than in the little courts, that the German Enlightenment's most important developments took place (eventually the university in Jena alone ended up contributing more to philosophy in the nineteenth century than, say, Spain) (please don't send me hate mail from Spain — I mean, I like Miguel de Unamuno, too, but that guy was totally channelling the Germans). So while philosophy in England during the period we're discussing often developed without too much of an orientation toward the church (positive or negative), and the French were generally anti-clerical, the Germans found themselves in an interesting position. They took up enlightenment philosophy in an overtly religious institutional context, and had a strong incentive to find some way of reconciling the old traditions of religious thought with the emerging forms of knowledge.

The challenge proved fruitful. For one thing, it led the Germans to develop historicism and hermeneutics and all the other things you need when you want to take a set of texts and understand them as true, but not literally true, or at any rate as having had a kind of truth in their time but not the kind of truth we have today. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is probably the most obvious case in point. But it's not just that the Germans had a particularly difficult task, and built up their muscles to handle it: they had the university-bred culture of thoroughness and systematic thought behind them (and this makes all the difference: Hume is much, much more readable than Kant, but Kant's systematic method gives his work a power that Hume, every bit Kant's mental equal, can't match). Also, the Germans were able to draw on two traditions: secular Enlightenment thought and the long tradition of Judeo-Christian thinking. This is probably why a guy like Bertrand Russell is constantly dismissing the German philosophers as "mystics." I suppose many people will think Russell's got a point, but I always feel this lack of sympathy for half of what the Germans are up to is one of Russell's main limitations.

Anyway. If you want to get pseudo-Hegelian here, you could say that it was in Germany that the synthesis of Judeo-Christian traditions and Enlightenment secular thought came about. And this had everything to do with the institutional context in which the modern German philosophical tradition emerged.

As to how the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls came to be such a dominant force — well, that much simpler: Jordan was a basketball-optimized android, Scotty Pippin was a robot, and Dennis Rodman was clearly from another planet.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Jorie Graham's Disease: A Second Opinion ... and a Note on Belgian Surrealism

Stand down with the defibrilator! Put that syringe away! Dr. Mike Theune has arrived in the E.R. and tells me I made a misdiagnosis in labeling the seven poetic sins of our moment "Jorie Graham's Disease." One major symptom of the disease is a distrust of order, and Mike got in touch to tell me I've made a serious medical misjudgment. He drew my attention to a letter about Graham he wrote to Poetry a few months ago, a letter I really have no excuse for missing, since it appeared right after my own response to an irate letter about an article I'd written for the magazine. "My response ... isn't any sort of fully articulated response to your notion that so much poetry has caught Jorie Graham's disease. (Indeed, in broad strokes, I agree with your take on some of the major trends in contemporary poetry)," says Theune, "but it is an effort to say that Graham is not to blame for the disease that's been named after her."

Here's Mike's letter in it's full length (the one in the magazine had been edited to fit available space). Maybe he's right, and I'm due for a critical malpractice suit. Call my phalanx of lawyers! Ready my escape copter!

The letter:

I agree almost completely with Jason Guriel’s assessment (in “Not Just Poetry,” October 2008) that “what our era is lacking” is a focus on the, in Camille Paglia’s words, “‘production of the powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem.’” Such—dare we call them “great”?—poems, of course, are being written today, but an increased focus on the book, the project, and/or process does tend to override the centrality of the single poem.

That being said, I disagree almost completely with Guriel’s assessment of the poems in Jorie Graham’s Sea Change. Guriel claims “there are no poems,” that is, distinct poems, in Graham’s latest book. Guriel’s reasoning for this claim seems to be, in large part, formal; put off by Graham’s use of a combination of Whitmanesque long lines and Williamsesque short lines, he states that “[t]he ambition to create individually realized poems has been washed away by [this] tidal form….”

To focus so centrally on form in Sea Change, or in any of Graham’s books or poems, is to miss a truly vital aspect of Graham’s poetics: poetic structure, the crafting of turns. In “Something of Moment,” her introduction to the issue of Ploughshares she edited (in Winter 2001-02), Graham argues that “[i]n a poem, one is always given…a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion… ‘takes place,’” thus offering the poem an opportunity to “break.” According to Graham, “All such moments—where we are taken by surprise and asked to react—are marked places in consciousness, places where a ‘turn’ is required.” In “At the Border,” the poetic statement she published as a part of American Women Poets in the 21st Century (Wesleyan, 2002), Graham speaks of the importance of “the many hinge actions in poems (turns, leaps, associations, lacunae),” and she connects such actions with, among other kinds of poems, “haiku image-clusters.”

Graham refers (in Poetry, March 2008) to the poems in Sea Change as “exploded haikus.” But, however exploded they may be, the poems in Sea Change very often retain their commitment to making vital, dramatic, surprising turns. (A number of references to turns in the poems emphasize this continuing commitment.) Though they do not look like poems by Coleridge, Keats, or Frost, particular poems in Sea Change in fact turn, enacting movements of mind, in ways similar to the descriptive-meditative “Frost at Midnight,” the dialectical “Ode to a Nightingale,” and the ironic “The Most of It.” And their endings clearly attempt to (and sometimes, as in “Futures” and “Undated Lullaby,” perhaps do) achieve the shockingly singular kinds of arrivals one finds in these great poems.

The fault for this oversight is not all Guriel’s. Though the turn is everywhere in poetry (including in Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn, which features a number of sonnets, and in Sarah Hannah’s “The Riddle of the Sphinx Moth,” the only poem Guriel’s review quotes in full), the turn has received very little of the sustained critical attention it so deserves. However, we—poets, critics, and readers—must pay more attention to turns. This way, we might see more clearly what is lacking from so many weak poems, and what is essential in what moves us.


Meanwhile, in news from the Belgian Surrealist desk, there's a new translation of one of Louis Scutenaire's essays up at Will Ashon's Vernaland blog. Called "Putting a Foot in It," it's a great piece of provincial resentment against the cultural establishment in Paris. Originally written to accompany a 1948 show in which Scutenaire's pal, fellow Belgian, and creative collaborator Magritte attacked the norms of Parisian artistic taste, it appears in what I think is its first ever English translation. I could be wrong about that, but I don't think so: if I could have found a translation, I wouldn't have had to recruit my pal, fellow Canadian, and creative collaborator Jean-Luc Garneau to help me cook up the current translation. It wasn't as easy as I'd thought: the thing is full of idiomatic expressions and plays on words. I tried to be more true to the spirit than the letter, when I had to choose one over the other. Anyway: if you want to see someone from the margins of Surrealism tee off on the central artistic powers of the day, check it out.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

What Decadence Means to Me

When I recently posted a few comments complaining about the clichés of contemporary poetry and calling the poetry that uses them decadent, I thought I might catch some flack. But I thought the flack from people who admire the qualities I (following — indeed, quoting from — Jason Guriel in a recent article in Poetry) saw as clichéd: "reliance on buzzwords"; "distrust of order"; "distrust of linearity and having a point"; "anxiety over what words mean"; "romantic bluster"; "imprecision"; "sympathy for small critters." Instead, I caught flack from a different direction: a couple guys whose opinions carry a lot of weight chéz Archambeau (Johannes Göransson and Gabriel Alexander) objected to the use of the term decadent. They've got a point.

Johannes reacted, I think, primarily to a passage where, after listing the clichéd qualities, I said that "the point isn't that these are bad things, just that they've become a kind of decadent tradition in poetry, a set of gestures often made less because they have importance but because they are taken to signal 'poeticness.'" Here's Johannes, from his blog Exoskeleton:

I've seen this term [decadence] used very strangely around the Internet as of late. Here is Archambeau using it to mean the use of empty manners. So does CK Williams in the little article that made me so irate the other day.

This seems like a strange use of the term.

I'm totally for Decadence.

(But I think Archambeau is largely right about "poeticky" features.)

So in part Johannes and I are on the same page: we both think some elements of poetry are used more to declare poeticality than for any other reason. But he dislikes the use of the word "decadence" here, because it refers (with a capital "D") to the artistic and literary movement of the late 19th century that stressed a dissent from banal bourgeois ideas of 'progress,' that reveled in l'art pour l'art, that celebrated sexual and moral actions and positions beyond the accepted norms, etc. (you know: Gustave Mirbeau, Huysmans, Nerval, Beardsley, Rops, Symons — those guys). Johannes, with whom I share a distrust of anyone who uses "avant-garde" as a transhistorical term, rather than with reference to a particular moment, objects to my ham-handed abduction of the term from its context. Fair enough.

Gabriel Alexanderg, whom Johannes quotes in another post over at Exoskeleton, makes the criticism more explicit:

>I'm interested in the decadent, too. But, I think, less as an adjective that implies self-indulgence or as a platitude. I believe I bristle at its invocation in the same way I do when "avant-garde" is dehistoricized and implemented as a place-holder for any number of aesthetic possibilities. I'm all for the transformation of meaning and the mutation of words, so I'm not generally frustrated with [sic] But I do think that to use *decadent* as an indictment actually mirrors much of the Victorian backlash against the French Decadents and their off-spring (and predecessors) [*Note from Archambeau: I don't entirely buy the chronology of backlash here, but I also don't think that's too important for the present context]. It's much more fruitful for me to think of the decadent as deeply involved, as décéder implies, in death, disintegration, and the dissolution of boundaries. More provocative to think of the decadent as a coda with a Hydra head.

To which Johannes adds this comment: "I think the critique reflects a similar notion: the idea that there is a natural, strong poetry and a weak, artificial poetry."

In response, all I can say is "this isn't what I meant!" I don't think there is a single, transhistorically valid style, one that is naturally good and strong and that we fall away from at our peril. But I can see, given what I said, why Gabriel and Johannes would think that's what I was on about.

So, that mea culpa behind me, I suppose I should address the question of just what I did mean.

I suppose what I wanted to say was this: there are good things that can be done in any style, but style is at its best when it comes out of a deeply-felt engagement with current norms of thought, feeling, and art-making. This engagement may take the form of an affirmation of the current, a criticism of it, or even a total negation of it. It may even be an attempt at a negation of all norms. But a style tends to be less interesting when it is accepted uncritically, when it is taken up simply because it seems to be the way things are done. If we accept a style or a tradition because it is there, it's being taught, it's being published, not because it speaks to some more fundamental need, I think there's a strong chance that we'll produce work that's clichéd. The clichés may be those of clarity (think Augustan poetry), or they may be clichés of (to quote Gabriel) "disintegration, and the dissolution of boundaries." For me, it's not a matter of one style being the transhistorically good, and deviations being degenerations. It's a matter of a style being taken up uncritically and unimaginatively.

I'm not sure which C.K. Williams article Johannes was frustrated with, but it might have been the one in the same issue of Poetry that contained the article where Guriel listed his seven clichés. If so, it's an article in which Williams proposes that styles have an instrinsic entropy to them. He also makes sloppy use of the term "decadence," saying:

Another characteristic of creative systems, what is usually called style, is that they have a terrifically conservative tendency. Styles are always striving to perfect themselves, by which I mean that styles have inherent in them the potential for enactments that no longer depend on anything but the demands of the style itself: neither matter, content, nor, in other words, world. Stylistically, art is always moving from the transparent to the opaque, from trying to make encompassing and as comprehensive as possible its relations with reality, to a state in which its formal dexterity comes to be its most essential requirement. When this happens, usually during the late moments of an artistic era, the execution of style becomes an end in itself, the end in itself: art becomes style displaying itself, preening, showing off.

This is when an artistic style becomes decadent. Decadence in itself isn’t intrinsically bad, it’s unavoidable, and some of the very greatest art is created at the end of the innovation-decadence cycle. What happens then, though, is that some subtle line is crossed, and the gloriously decadent becomes the offensively empty, sterile, and, with no longer any portion of the quest of the artist’s blundering soul a part of it, produces work that is lifeless, stillborn.

I remember being frustrated with this article, not because I thought it was entirely wrong, but because I thought it presented a half-truth. I mean, obviously I agree that styles can become clichéd, but I disagree that self-reference necessarily pairs up with lifelessness, and (more importantly) I disagree about changes of the sort Williams describes being an intrinsic quality of any style. I think that when a style becomes a cliché, it usually has to do with particular historical conditions, rather than being simply something that happens when a style ages. I don't think there's a cycle to styles, separate from their intersection with events, institutions, and the like.

In our current moment, I rather imagine that the increasingly clichéd status (and I agree that cliché is the better word, not decadence) of the qualities Guriel names is connected with what Ron Silliman once called the 400-pound gorilla of our poetic scene: the academy. I mean, if Victorian doggerel came about because the book market of the time called for easy moralism and stylistic clarity, our own kind of institutional conditions influence what becomes clichéd in our own time. In fact, it was a post Johannes put up on Exoskeleton about his experiences in the Iowa MFA program that got me thinking about this some months ago. He described his fellow classmates thusly:

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...

The conformism was striking: everyone wanted to do what the charismatic, professionally successful teacher had done. It had the sheen of sophistication (academe loves this), it had pedigree (academe loves this), it seemed current (academe loves this). It wasn't for the casually-interested and uninitiated (acadme loves this). It's not that the style these guys were turning to was in any sense intrinsically 'decadent' — it's that the style was being adapted in what seems like a kind of herd-move, for what seem like professional reasons more than anything else (and for reasons very different from those that led to the genesis of langpo, from which much of the style derives). This is the sort of thing that leads to cliché, which is what I was trying to get at when I talked too loosely about decadence. Maybe a better way to discuss it is as suboptimal centrality, but that was a different blog post.


In news from the stuff-I-wrote-now-in-print desk, I've got a very short piece on Bonnie Costello's Poetry, Still Life, and the Turning World in the latest Boston Review.

{Errata: in an earlier version of this post, I said "Gabriel Gudding" when I meant "Gabriel Alexander." More mea culpas!}

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Seven Poetic Sins, or: Jorie Graham's Disease

Jason Guriel defends the negative review in the latest issue of Poetry, and for readily apparent reasons. Right after the defense ("for the love of poetry, be skeptical," etc.) he lays down some stern judgments on Jane Mead, D.A. Powell, and John Poch. Toward the end of the bit on Powell he lists seven clichés of contemporary poetry, and I hereby make a modest proposal: all reviewers should print them out, make laminated cards, and hang said cards from lanyards around their necks. I mean, I'll do it if you will.

Here are the seven "fashionable gestures" that have become the clichés of the moment:

1. "reliance on buzzwords" (think: absence, abjection, the body, ellipsis, etc.)
2. "distrust of order" (as both theme and compositional principle)
3. "distrust of linearity and having a point" (call it Ashberying)
4. "anxiety over what words mean" (or, I'd add, the pose of anxiety)
5. "romantic bluster" (think Hart Crane on a bad day)
6. "imprecision" (I bet a comparison of contemporary poetic syntax and that of Swinburne would be instructive)
7. "sympathy for small critters" (I think this one's pretty self-explanatory)

"But," you object, "some of my favorite poets do this stuff!" Well, sure. Some of mine do, too. And, for the record, I admire the Ashbery poems that appeared in the same issue as Guriel's essay. But the point isn't that these are bad things, just that they've become a kind of decadent tradition in poetry, a set of gestures often made less because they have importance but because they are taken to signal "poeticness." My touchstone for this sort of decadence has been Andy Warhol's very early soup can pictures, which were spattered-and-dripped-over in the manner of Pollock. A gallery owner asked Andy why he did that, and the still-young artist said "I thought that's what you did to make it art." It's not that the abstract-expressionist drip is a bad thing (and I'd take a Pollock over a Warhol any time, if I found both in a yardsale and only had the pocket change for one). But by the time Warhol was starting out, the drip gesture had become fashionable, and was too-often taken up by those who didn't really have any deep need for it, or understanding of it. Warhol became Warhol by breaking away from all that.

I'm sure there's life in an aesthetic of imprecision and distrust of order. And some of my best friends write in rhizomes. But I'm even more sure that too many of the poems I've seen in the past decade fall into the techniques Guriel describes out of an uncritical acceptance of the aesthetic predicated on those techniques. Call it Jorie Graham's Disease.