Saturday, October 29, 2011

What’s the Matter with American Poetry? Rita Dove’s Revisionist Canon

What’s the matter with American poetry?  Apparently, the problem is Allen Ginsberg.  And Sylvia Plath.  And Susan Howe, and Alice Notley, and James Schuyler.  Also Louise Glück.  Also Louis Zukofsky, and all of the other Objectivists.  That, at least, is the conclusion one might draw from Rita Dove’s new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry, which bills itself as “an unparalleled survey of the best poems of the last century,” and includes none of the poets named above. 

I’ve done just enough editing myself to know that standing up and saying you’re editing an anthology is a bit like standing up and saying you’re a target—and the larger the scope of the anthology, the larger the target.  It’s worse, too, when you’re editing a book that includes living poets: at this point you might as well consider yourself a walking bull's eye, and be prepared to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged poets everywhere.  In any anthology, there will be grounds for disagreement: the poor editor has a limited amount of space, and in the end will find that he or she has to select one poet out of dozens with valid claims for inclusion.

Dove’s anthology does a good job in some respects, especially in being attentive to the claims of poets of color.  In other respects, it takes positions over which reasonable people might disagree.  I’d have argued for Notley and Schuyler, but I can understand that other people might find their work to have been in some way—aesthetically, socially, in terms of influence—less worthy of inclusion than other poets of their respective generations.  Other people will have their own list of poets they’d have wished to see: one friend of mine lists Kenneth Rexroth, Barbara Guest, Robert Kelly, Jerome Rothenberg, Clark Coolidge, Ed Roberson, Bernadette Meyer, John Taggart, and Eileen Myles, among others.  The street runs the other way, too: I imagine most people who thumb through the table of contents will think some of the poets listed ought not to be there, especially if it meant excluding someone else: me, I find it difficult to believe that Laurie Sheck and B.H. Fairchild should have precedence over some of the excluded poets.  But again, I can see that there’d be room to argue, and both Sheck and Fairchild have written fine poems.

When it comes to excluding both Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg from an anthology purporting to represent 20th century American poetry, though, we’re not really in the territory of ordinary disagreement.  We’ve entered a place where some sort of explanation is required, because what’s being proposed is a radical redrawing of the map of American poetry.  I’m open to such a redrawing, but I need to know why it’s being done.

Speculation runs wild.  Some take a fairly charitable view: one reviewer sees the exclusion of Plath and Ginsberg as proof that Dove “is her own woman,” bravely going off in her own direction.  Facebook has lit up with chatter on the anthology, very little of it positive, at least from what I've seen. It’s been noted that many of the excluded poets publish under HarperCollins imprints, and one source claims that HarperCollins wanted some very steep reprint fees.  If this is the case, one wonders whether it might have been a deliberate attempt to torpedo a rival press’ anthology.  Some of these issues are touched on in Dove’s introduction, in which she complains about permissions fees.  One wonders if this can be the whole story: Penguin is by no means an under-capitalized venture, and people at the press must have known that glaring exclusions like this would seriously hurt the academic market for the book.  But what else could explain the exclusions?

I’ve heard from someone in the publishing industry that Dove may harbor some particular animosity for Plath, based on the perception that Plath could be deeply insensitive about other people's suffering (I do not know if this is true).  There's the appropriation of Holocaust imagery to discuss family unhappiness in "Daddy," for example, or the use of Hiroshima imagery, and of course there's 
 the very charged language in one of Plath’s better-known poems, “Ariel.” Here’s a passage:
God’s lioness,  
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to  
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Berries cast dark  

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,  

There’s no denying the presence of unsettling language, and there’s not much in the context to mitigate against a feeling that this is offensive to our 21st century sensibilities.  I am acutely aware that I will never know how it feels to be African-American and come across that offending word in an anthology of poetry.  But I do know that it’s the sort of thing I cringe at reading in a classroom setting, and for which I provide a lot of commentary, without making excuses (the same thing happens when I teach Heart of Darkness, or Hemingway’s “The Battler”).  I’m told—and I want to emphasize that I do not have this at first hand—that this sort of racially charged language, in combination with Plath's cavalier use of imagery drawn from some of the great atrocities of the 20th century, might lie at the root of Dove’s problem with Plath.  It might be a matter of a disdain for Plath's real or perceived insensitivity that led to her exclusion from Penguin's version of "the best poems of the last century."

I wonder, though, if this can be true, because Dove does include John Berryman in her anthology.  I think it’s correct to include his work: to my mind, Berryman is the greatest American poet of his generation, greater than Lowell (in whose shadow he once stood), greater even than Bishop (in whose shadow he stands now).  But if you’re looking for wince-inducing, culturally insensitive language, you’ll find it in Berryman’s Dream Songs, which make extensive use of a blackface minstrel show motif.  I think it was right to include him in the anthology.  But if Berryman’s in, why not Plath?

In the end, I don’t know the reason for the exclusion of Plath.  If (and I emphasize this is an if) it has to do with real or perceived insensitivity in her work, I think Rita Dove is well positioned to make explain the point.  Indeed, I can think of few people who could do it better (how I wish Reginald Shepherd had lived to write about this!).  As my friend in publishing suggests, it would be far better for Dove to provide a full, in-depth explanation for the exclusion than to simply edit Plath out of this representation of American poetry.  One might say Dove owes the world this explanation, not only to defend her editorial choices, but to inform us about how Plath looks from where Dove stands.

Of course there's a sense in which arguments about anthology contents may soon look a lot like arguments about what channel to watch on television.  Just as the DVR has made it possible for each of us to have things our own way—watching the football game while
recording the movie for later, then getting the reality show on demand— technology promises to make most of the arguments about anthologies disappear.  Limited page space and editorial variance from our own preferences become less and less pressing as more and more American poetry finds its way onto the internet, thanks in no small measure to the Poetry Foundation.  As one Facebook friend of mine put it during a discussing of Dove's exclusion of Ginsberg and Plath:

Howl and Kaddish are both on the Poetry Foundation website, along with 39 poems by Plath. Has anyone tried teaching entirely from their online anthology yet? Glad to let Ruth Lily's endowment pay HarperCollins's fees, rather than my students.... I may have to try this experiment in the spring.
We should all be interested in how that experiment turns out.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Occupy Arcadia: Mythos of an Emerging Movement

“What,” ask the pundits, “do the Occupy Wall Street people want?” When they deign to answer their own question, they tend, if they are uncharitable, to say that the protestors don’t know what they want, that any real message is lost in a miasma of different agendas.  The more charitable type of pundit tends to say something more along the lines of “the protestors know what they’re against — economic inequality and the power of money — but they don’t know what they’re for.”  I’ve spent enough time at the Chicago manifestation of the movement to see the iota of truth in both the charitable and the uncharitable analysis, but in the end both analyses miss the significance of what’s happening.  To get at that significance, it’s important to drop the usual categories of analysis — left and right, cultural and economic, idealist and realist — and come at matters from an angle where things appear less familiar.  Otherwise, we risk reducing something truly new into one or another version of what we find familiar.  So bear with me while I propose a means of analysis that might seem quite strange: it’s the strangeness that we’re after, here, since the familiar categories of understanding have proved remarkably ineffective.

Mythos and Movement

As the scholar Malcolm Bull argued in New Left Review (March-April 2010), Greek mythology presents a coherent typology for understanding the relations of power, production, and knowledge.  In his view, the Greek mythos can be mapped out on a pair of axes thusly:

Olympus is the realm of pure power, in its various manifestations.  It is the dwelling-place of Zeus, the figure of pure executive power, and of Hercules, the figure of physical strength.  It deals with realities, and does so by ruling over them, by authority, by influence and manipulation, or by sheer force.  It is the realm of mastery.

Hades also deals with realities, but does so differently.  It is the realm of production, where Hephaestus works at his forge: his realities are those of existing materials, of the strengths and limits of bronze and silver and gold.  Many people who know their myths have been puzzled about why Aphrodite is married to the lame, ugly, Hephaestus — but at a symbolic level, it makes perfect sense: while he is the figure of artisanal, or even industrial production, she is a figure of sexual reproduction.  Together they cover the realms of inorganic and organic production.  If Olympus is the realm of mastery, Hades is a subordinate realm, the world of labor set against the Olympian world of command.

Parnassus deals less with existing realities than with the free play of speculation: it is the realm of Athena and the life of the mind, and of Apollo and the poetic.  The muses dwell here, and it is to Parnassus that scholars and intellectuals repair.  Like Olympus, it is a privileged realm, but unlike Olympus, it is not a world of power.  To put it in modern terms, one might think of Olympus as the realm of executives, and Parnassus as the world of tenure, think tanks, and foundation grants.

And then there’s Arcadia.  This, too, is a realm of free play rather than of existing realities with all of their limitations.  But unlike Parnassus, this isn’t a world of concepts or philosophies or epic poems: it’s a wild realm, a realm of potential energies.  It’s the world of Pan, who dwells in forests and open meadows that have not been brought under cultivation.  It’s the world of Diana the huntress, another forest-dweller defined in terms of potential: she is, after all, the virgin goddess.  Everything about Arcadia is about the primitive state of things, from which other things might emerge.  

Hermes, the messenger god, is a special case: he inhabits the very center of the map, at the intersection of the axes: this is central to his function as the messenger god, and to his function as the god of boundaries and those who cross them.

Once one grasps the general structure of mythological relations, a lot of things become clear about the significance of the myths: when Apollo and the faun Marysas (a figure of Arcadia) have a musical duel, won by Apollo who then flays Marysas, we have a kind of martyring of naïve or potential artistry by the established forces of Parnassus.  One can see its relevance to, say, aristocratic culture’s disdain for folk culture, or the sophisticated formalist’s soul-crushing dismissal of emergent talent. 

But we’re a long way from talking about Occupy Wall Street.  What happens when we try to view the movement through a conceptual framework as defamiliarizing as the Greek mythos?

Occupying Olympus, Occupying Hades, Occupying Parnassus

The first thing that should be clear about Occupy Wall Street is that it isn’t a movement based in Olympus.  Unlike the Tea Party, which was bankrolled by the enormous fortunes of the Koch Brothers and for which Fox News served as something like an advertising and P.R. firm, Occupy Wall Street has little or no connection with the realm of worldly power.  Even when those in powerful positions, such as President Obama, make gestures of sympathy to the movement, they do so in ways both unconvincing and uncomfortable.  Michael Gerson of the Washington Post put it clearly enough:

President Obama’s awkward, unreturned embrace of Occupy Wall Street is among the strangest developments of the 2012 campaign…. Obama has been the unrivaled leader in fundraising from the financial sector in recent years. Senior staffers with Wall Street connections have occupied the White House for some time now. Banks and financial-service firms have been some of the main direct beneficiaries of Obama’s economic policies.  And Obama himself has often sought to defuse public criticism of Wall Street.… Last year, he went out of his way to defend large bonuses for the chief executives of ­JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs: “I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen. I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth.”

A stronger case can be made for Occupy Wall Street as a movement based in Hades, under the protection of Hephastus (if that sentence doesn’t defamiliarize the political categories, I don’t know what will).  Unions, for example, have intermittently swelled the ranks of the protestors in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere.  But the key word here is “intermittently”: the Occupy protests are not union-centered rallies, like those we saw in Wisconsin earlier this year.  Union leaders don’t call the shots.  If they did, we probably wouldn’t hear the punditocracy’s complaints about the lack of a clear message: instead, they’d be writing about how the demands of workers for decent wages and benefits are unreasonable in a globalized economy.

What about Parnassus?  Is this where the real center of the movement rests?  There are certainly plenty of students to be found at the demonstrations, and a few professors (full disclosure: my tenured feet have occupied a few sidewalks and parks in Chicago).  But the disproportionate representation of students is certainly a matter of greater opportunity to show up, rather than of significantly greater motive.  As one man said at a recent demonstration, “you students, you’re my voice: I work 60 hours a week to keep my house, and I look after my kids, and I just can’t get out here often.”  Some polls suggest that the majority of Americans support for the movement: this isn’t an ivory tower thing, not in its essence.  Veterans, working stiffs, union guys, moms with kids in tow, office jockeys, street people, and others are all in evidence, and though they applaud when Cornell West speaks, they’re not lining up behind him: they’re standing beside him.

Et in Arcadia Occupy

This leaves us with Arcadia.  But what exactly is Arcadia, anyway?  In the Greek mythos, it’s all about what might-yet-be.  It’s where Paris stands when he judges who has the greatest beauty: Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite.  This is significant: he’s choosing between representatives of Olympus (power), Parnassus (knowledge) and Hades (production), and as he makes the choice from the only position outside of their realms: in Arcadia, the world of the not-yet, the potential.

This, I think, is the proper location of the Occupy movement in the Greek mythos, at least at the moment. 

A few days ago I was arguing with the historian D.L. LeMahieu about the nature and meaning of the Occupy movement, and I’d begun with the proposition that what we were seeing was a resurgence of the now-old New Left paradigm: the language of class, anti-capitalism, and economic justice returning after a long eclipse.  LeMahieu refuted all that, claiming that what we were seeing wasn’t a return to something old, but the birth of something new.  Sure, there were old left-wing slogans.  But this was part of the mulch out of which something very new was being born.  We weren’t going to see a new socialism, because socialism was the countervailing force that tried to civilize 19th and early 20th century capitalism: it was a response to a kind of economics that doesn’t really exist anymore.  We’re in a new phase of economic development, with transformative technological forces and the entry two billion of new workers into a global marketplace.  We had an unprecedented economics (which developed out of our old economics), and it would create an unprecedented politics (which would also develop out of our old politics).  I’m convinced LeMahieu was right: we’re not going to get a return to something old, even if the new thing we get takes up and transforms the old political paradigms. 

In a way, the very fact that the pundits have had a hard time grasping what the protestors want is a sign that what’s coming together is something truly new.  It doesn’t fit easily into our paradigms.  It’s not a student protest, it’s not a labor protest, it’s not a rally orchestrated by one or another of the political parties.  Slavoj Žižek got at the nature of things in his address to the protestors in Zuccotti Park:

So what are we doing here? Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.” This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom— war on terror and so on—falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here. You are giving all of us red ink.

…. Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.” If the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?….We are not Communists if Communism means a system which collapsed in 1990. Remember that today those Communists are the most efficient, ruthless Capitalists. In China today, we have Capitalism which is even more dynamic than your American Capitalism, but doesn’t need democracy. Which means when you criticize Capitalism, don’t allow yourself to be blackmailed that you are against democracy. The marriage between democracy and Capitalism is over. The change is possible.

I’ve only felt the political ground shift beneath my feet twice in my life.  The first time was in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when one could feel a horrible lurch toward authoritarianism and fear.  The other time is now.  I don’t know where it’s all going any more than you do.  But unlike last time, I have faith that it’s moving in the direction of hope.

Monday, October 17, 2011

So a Poet Walks Into a Bar: The Poetry Reading as Rhetorical Situation

Here’s the full text of  “So a Poet Walks into a Bar: The Poetry Reading as Rhetorical Situation,” my contribution to this year’s ALSCW conference.  If you want to cite it, the format would be:

Archambeau, Robert.  "So a Poet Walks into a Bar: The Poetry Reading as Rhetorical Situation."  Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers Conference.  Boston University, Boston MA.  16 October 2011.  Conference Presentation.

So a Poet Walks into a Bar: The Poetry Reading as Rhetorical Situation

So a poet walks into a bar to read his work to an audience.  But what if it isn't a bar?  What if it's a university auditorium, or a bookshop specializing in, say, works by women writers?  What if it's a conference room at the A.W.P. Convention, where the creative writing professors slap one another on the back and try to 'place' grad students and manuscripts with English departments and their journals?  What if it's the 92nd Street Y, or a presidential inauguration, or a funeral?  What if it's not a bar the poet walks into, but a recording studio, where he'll make a podcast or mp3 for an audience he's unlikely to meet?  What if it isn't a poet who walks into a bar to read poetry to an audience, but a reader who walks into her study to read aloud to herself from a favorite poet's work? 
            Venue matters, when poetry is read aloud: indeed, in few situations does Walter J. Ong's assertion that “a writer's audience is always a fiction,” seem less convincing than in a poetry reading, where the poets stand in the presence of the bodies of their listeners (9).  Who speaks, where, to whom, and to what end? — answering these questions can tell us a great deal about the nature and meaning of performed poetry.  One way to explore these questions is to adapt rhetorical theory—which has long been concerned with the specific relations of speaker, venue, and audience—to the study of poetry readings.  There are obvious limits to such an approach.  For example, it can tell us little of interest, perhaps nothing at all, about reading poetry aloud when one is alone, which may well be the most common form of spoken poetry.  What is more, there are those who would argue that whatever situation a poetry reading creates, it is not in any meaningful sense a rhetorical situation.  I'd disagree with this last criticism, but only because I'm willing to define what counts as a rhetorical situation marginally more broadly than does that most expansive of rhetorical theorists, Lloyd Bitzer.
            Bitzer, an emeritus professor of the University of Wisconsin, is generally regarded as one of the most respected rhetorical theorists of his generation, and is best known for introducing the notion of the "rhetorical situation" in an essay of that name in the inaugural issue of Philosophy and Rhetoric.  For Bitzer, there are several components to a rhetorical situation.  Firstly, and most importantly, there must be “an exigence” — a problem to be solved— “which strongly invites utterance” (5).  Situations are rhetorical when the exigence, or problem calling out to be addressed, can be altered by the “bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged that it becomes mediator of change” (4). The exigence, which may or may not be consciously perceived by the speaker and the audience, is “an imperfection marked by urgency” (6); while an audience, to truly be a rhetorical audience, must consist “of those persons who are capable of being influenced by the discourse” (8): the obdurate and the obtuse alike may be an audience, but stuck in their views, or incapable of growing through engaging with discourse, they aren’t an audience susceptible to change.  As Bitzer puts it, the situation is rhetorical if "an actual or potential exigence… can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence" (6).
            In addition, a rhetorical situation contains two types of constraints.  The first are those inherent in the pre-existing situation, such as the audience’s beliefs and attitudes, as well as pertinent pre-existing “documents, facts, traditions, images, interests” (8).  The second type of constraints originate with the speaker: personal character, established style, and the like.  (Those of you with a background in rhetoric will recognize these as Aristotle’s “inartistic proofs” and “artistic proofs”).  So when a speaker enters a rhetorical situation, he or she enters a situation where some kind of change is wanted, a change that can conceivably be affected by discourse.  The speaker faces people capable of being changed, if their beliefs and ideas, and the character and style of the speaker, come together in some perfect discursive storm.
            Of course rhetoric doesn’t take place under test-lab conditions of purity.  Some rhetorical situations are simple, others much more complicated, even muddy.  There may be multiple exigences in any situation, some incompatible, and an audience may consist of multiple constituencies, concerned with different exigences and with different constraints regarding the kind of discourse that will appeal to them.
            Bitzer allows fairly broad latitude when defining what sort of situations count as rhetorical.  While his examples include political debates and Socrates’ “Apology,” he also includes situations where the simple need for information is rhetorical, if the providing of that information will have an effect in the world: the need for reporters to give details about the assassination of President Kennedy in order to calm a panicked population, for example, counts as a rhetorical situation for Bitzer, one that he seems to have struck him quite powerfully.  The exigence, in this case, is a lack of information that could lead to panic; the audience is capable of receiving information and being calmed by it, if only because they are no longer bewildered.  The speaker, knowing that he faces a worried population, and capable of projecting a certain gravitas in reporting the facts, will be successful in solving the exigence.
            As broad as Bitzer's definition of a rhetorical situation is, it doesn't extend to poetry: in fact, he specifically excludes poetry from his scheme, apparently out of a belief that poetry (as Auden so famously put it) "makes nothing happen."  It's my contention that Bitzer is too modest about the scope of his own theory, and that poetry readings tend to have some sort of raison d'être, that they tend, in one way or another, to ameliorate some kind of situation.  In fact, one way to understand the significance of poetry readings is to look for what sort of exigence a reading seeks to address, what imperfection in the world they seek to remedy through addressing an open-minded audience.
            So a poet walks into a bar. Let's say it's the Green Mill in Chicago, where (according the PBS documentary The United States of Poetry), "a strand of new poetry began… in 1987 when Marc Smith found a home for the poetry slam."  For Smith, there was certainly an exigence behind the slams, with their Dionysian audience participation, ad hoc systems of judging poetic value, liberally-flowing booze, and general informality.  The exigence was the perceived dryness and audience-unfriendliness of more formal poetry readings, and a resulting alienation of poetry from potential enthusiasts.  As Smith put it, the slam was to be an "up yours" to poorly attended, more effete poetry readings.  Smith wanted to change the culture of poetry by holding these readings, "because no one was listening to the poets" (see Wiltz).  In the end, the exigence was the perceived removal of poetry from informal, non-academic contexts, and the resulting marginalization of poetry.  Poetry may or may not make "nothing happen," but the poetry slam certainly attempted to make something happen.  In addressing a perceived exigence, it created a rhetorical situation.  The audience-based constraints (resistance to the idea of spending an evening sitting quietly in an uncomfortable chair listening to someone read) are addressed by physical comfort, alcohol, and a whole series of methods (foot stomping, hissing, woofing, and finger snapping are all encouraged, and have specific meanings) by which the audience is invited to participate in the performances as they happen, and in judging them when they're done.  Certainly poets performing in these circumstances may face certain constraints of their own: in order to succeed they must not consider themselves or their work above spur-of-the-moment criticism, and they tend to need either a quick wit or the ability to emote convincingly in order to ameliorate the exigence.  Poetry slams, of course, have evolved and changed, and can address many different exigences—my point here is simply to assert, contra Bitzer, that the poetry reading can indeed present a rhetorical situation.
            The poetry readings associated with the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s present what may be the clearest case of the poetry reading as a rhetorical situation in modern American literary history. The defining characteristic of the Black Arts Movement was its African-American nationalism, which in the early years manifested as a form of separatism.  Such separatism was spurred on by events of 1965 on the national level—the assassination of Malcom X—as well as on the local level—the destruction of the relative racial harmony of the Lower East Side poetry scene of the sixties through racially-motivated violence at key reading venues (see Kane, 54-55).  Although the movement quickly became national, the founding of the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS) was of central importance, as was the move to Harlem by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka).  Poetry in the Black Arts Movement was linked with, even subordinated to, the large exigence of creating a radical culture for African-Americans outside the institutions and norms of the nation at large.  As Kaluma ya Salaam has argued, the Black Arts Movement is "the only American literary movement to advance social engagement as a sine qua non of its aesthetic…. The two hallmarks of Black Arts activity were the development of Black theater groups and Black poetry performances… and both had close ties to community organizations and issues" (Salaam).  Community formation was a central goal of the movement—its primary exigence—and ideas of individualist art or art for it's own sake were anathema.  "Black art," wrote Ron Karenga in his manifesto "On Black Art," "must be for the people, by the people and from the people. That is to say, it must be functional, collective
 and committing." "All art is collective," he continued, "there is no such thing as art for art's sake" (Karenga).  Larry Neal, another founder of the Black Arts Movement, echoed these sentiments when he proclaimed, in 1968, "the Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept" (28).
            So the exigence of Black Arts poetry readings was radical consciousness-raising and separatist community-creation.  Audiences were potentially resistant for a number of reasons, not the least being that many in the potential audience were white liberals, and others were African-Americans committed to social and cultural integration, like the writer Ishmael Reed, who was never permitted to be a member of the movement for this reason.  One controversial technique to render the crowd a "rhetorical audience" was simply to forbid white people from attending the readings. As the critic Daphne S. Reed points out,
…this very policy was endorsed by both the original Harlem venture and a number of other black arts theatres established later in several major cities. The rationale was that the presence of whites would be potentially inhibitive… and in any case whites should not be permitted to occupy seats needed for black people for whom the performance was intended and, allegedly, exclusively relevant. (54)

Beyond such extreme (and short-lived) measures, other steps were taken to overcome audience resistance in pursuit of ameliorating the exigence. These included bringing the readings to places where the communities gathered, as well as adopting a mode of address that evoked the most respected institution of African-American life.  Lorenzo Thomas describes both in a passage from his essay "Neon Griot":

With self-appointed missionary fervor, Black Arts poets extended the venues for their performances beyond storefront theaters to neighborhood community centers, church basements, taverns, and to the streets.  Not surprisingly, the dominant mode of poetry that proved effective in such settings drew upon the rhetorical conventions of the black church, which is the matrix of African-American culture. (312)

The church-based conventions, which work with what Thomas calls "…the speaking voice that trespasses into song; and an antiphonal interaction with the congregation" (314) invoked cultural authority and stressed the link between performer and audience.  So important did the specifics of the speaking voice of the Black Arts poet become that at least two poets of the movement, Sonia Sanchez and Johari Amini, came to see the written text of the poem as a performance score, akin to sheet music, with the printed poem indicating exactly how the poet wanted it to be read (see Kane, 85).
            Nowhere do we see the exigence of separatist community-creation more clearly than in LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's short poem "S.O.S."  Here, in a poem clearly written for oral delivery to a racially specific audience, we begin with a strong sense of the phatic function of language, with the poet seeking, apparently desperately, to connect to his community:

Calling black people

Calling all black people, man woman child

Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in

Black People, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling

You, calling all black people

The voice is like that of a lost radio operator seeking to connect to home base.  But the radio-operator's voice changes, in the final lines, to something else: rather than a voice in the wilderness, trying to find contact, we suddenly get something like a host's voice, or a carnival barker's, welcoming people into whatever desirable location he inhabits:

Calling all black people, come in, black people, come

on in.

From "come in" to "come on in" is a big step: the outsider becomes the insider, and the audience, at first sought desperately, is now welcomed warmly.  It is a rhetorical performance of the creation of a specifically African-American community, and when Jones/Baraka read it, he showed that the poetry reading could indeed be a rhetorical situation.
            As Bitzer pointed out, rhetorical situations can be complex things, and may involve multiple exigences, and multiple audiences, in a single occasion.  I'd like to end by gesturing toward one such complex rhetorical situation: the situation of the contemporary African-American poet in the most prominent form of contemporary poetry reading: the academically-sponsored poetry event.
            The exigences of university poetry readings vary considerably, of course; and I've been privy to more than one conversation in which it became clear that the sponsoring poet-academic and the visiting poet saw the main rationale for the reading in terms of personal career logrolling, a matter of "I'll help you put an item on your vita by hosting your reading if you help me in much the same way."  But the more legitimate exigence of the university poetry reading, the reason generally given to the deans and chairs who hold the purse-strings, tends to be pedagogical.  That is, the imperfection the reading seeks to ameliorate is some combination of a lack of student knowledge about poetry, and a lack of student sympathy for poetry, which the presence of a (charismatic, one hopes) poet will change. 
            When an African-American poet walks into a university reading situation, though, we tend to enter one of Bitzer's complex rhetorical situations, with multiple exigences and multiple audiences.  To some degree, the exigence is the same as in most university poetry readings: there's a need for the audience to learn about poetry-as-poetry.  But the complex web of American social history, including one of the main legacies of the Black Arts movement — identity politics — means that there's another exigence, having to do with the politics of representation.  As anyone who has ever tapped an academic cultural diversity fund as a means of bringing an African-American poet to a campus knows, universities tend to recognize two real or perceived exigences related to cultural diversity: the need to show African-American students that their community is represented in university cultural programming, and the need to expose non-African-American students to African-American culture, as part of the mission of spreading appreciation for cultural diversity.  So an African-American poet walks into a university auditorium.  He or she is there for a multiple exigence: to increase knowledge of, and sympathy for, poetry, and to represent African-American culture for African-American students, and to non-African American students.  It's a kind of palimpsest, with a more moderate, pluralist version of the Black Arts exigence of cultural representation overlaid with the discipline-specific logic of the modern university, in which poetry readings are held for the advancement of knowledge of poetry.
            As we've seen with slam poetry and Black Arts poetry, the rhetorical situation of the poetry reading matters for how poetry is performed.  Consider Harryette Mullen, whose success in both academic and identity politics-centered poetic contexts is rarely paralleled (she has won an award from the Black Arts Academy and taught in an ivy league university).  Her work sends out signals to a number of communities, referencing the classical canon, the modernist and avant-garde forebears of contemporary experimental work, and iconic elements of African-American culture: Mullen has described her work as a textual confluence of Gertrude Stein, Sappho, and the blues, in which "Sappho meets the blues at the crossroads" (see Bedient 654).  The work combines these influences in such a way that allows her, in performance, to emphasize any one of these elements in a single poem.  This is accomplished largely through the polyvalent nature of her language.
            The critic Kate Pearcy has described Mullen's poems as involving a great deal of "homophonic punning and word play," and noted that "reading possibilities are therefore highly provisional" (2): one may perform the poems with varying degrees of ambiguity or clarity.  Here, for example, is the prose poem "Of a girl, in white," which I and others experienced, when we heard it performed, as a poem about eros and about word play—a poem, that is, in the traditions of Sappho and of Gertrude Stein:

Of a girl, in white, between the lines, in the spaces where nothing is written. Her starched petticoats, giving him the slip. Loose lips, a telltale spot, where she was kissed, and told. Who would believe her, lying still between the sheets. The pillow cases, the dirty laundry laundered. Pillow talk-show on a leather couch, slips in and out of dreams. Without permission, slips out the door. A name adores a Freudian slip.

Once, after I spoke on Mullen's work, the African-American poet Tyrone Williams approached me to say that he'd attended a reading by Mullen in which the African-American audience, coming with their own expectations and interpretive norms (with, to use Bitzer's terms, different external constraints than I and my group brought when we heard the poem) received the poem as primarily about racial 'passing.'  The fact that Mullen's work admits of such interpretations, and makes itself so readily available to different emphases in performance, gives an indication of one reason why Mullen's work has been so successful in the complex rhetorical situations where it is so often performed.
            We get a clear sense of the possibilities for different emphases in performance in Mullen's work from this stanza of an untitled poem in her 1995 collection Muse & Drudge:

you can sing their songs
with words your way
put it over to the people
know what you are doing

Is singing "their songs" with "words your way" a matter of the contemporary, postmodern poet appropriating tradition (of Stein riffing on Sappho)? Or is it a matter of the African-American poet appropriating white or Eurocentric traditions (the blues meeting Stein and Sappho at the crossroads)?  It's all in how the pronouns (which lack specific referents in the poem) are performed, how the poet chooses to perform them with the audience in the room.  Contrast these lines to Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka's "S.O.S.," and the importance of the rhetorical situation for the poetry and its performance becomes clear: Mullen, who habitually enters complex rhetorical situations with multiple audiences, is ambiguous and flexible, where Jones/Baraka, entering clearly defined rhetorical situations, is emphatic, community-oriented, and identity-group specific.
            I don't mean to suggest that I've done anything like perform a proper taxonomy of types of poetry readings here, nor do I want to claim I've covered all of the possibilities for slam poetry, Black Arts poetry, or the contemporary academic poetry reading (for poets African-American or otherwise).  Rather, I've hoped to indicate, in what can only be a preliminary manner, that we will enrich our interpretations of the performance of poetry by understanding the rhetorical situation of those readings, and that we have much to gain by bringing the tradition of rhetorical theory to bear on poetic performance.

Works Cited

Bedient, Calvin.  "The Solo Mysterioso Blues."  Callaloo 19.3 (Autumn 1996): 651-669.

Bitzer, Lloyd.  “The Rhetorical Situation.”  Philosophy and Rhetoric 1.1 (January 1968): 1-14.

Kane, Daniel.  All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Karenga, Ron.  "On Black Art."  Modern American Poetry, the University of Illinois.  .

Neal, Larry.  "The Black Arts Movement."  The Drama Review.  12.4 (Summer 1968): 28-39).

Ong, Walter J.  “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.”  PMLA  1975 90:1 (1975): 9-21.

Pearcy, Kate.  "A Poetics of Opposition? Race and the Avant-Garde."  Paper read at the Conference on Contemporary Poetry: Poetry and the Public Sphere, Rutgers University: April 24-27, 1997.

Reed, Daphne S.  "LeRoi Jones: High Priest of the Black Arts Movement."  Educational Theater Journal.  22.1 (March 1970): 53-59.

Salaam, Kaluma ya.  "Historical Overview of the Black Arts Movement."  Modern American Poetry, University of Illinois.

Thomas, Lorenzo.  "Neon Griot: The Functional Role of Poetry Readings in the Black Arts Movement."  In Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998: 300-324.

The United States of Poetry.  Dir. Joshua Blum and Bob Holman.  Washington Square Films/PBS, 1995.

Wiltz, Teresa.  "Slam Dunked: Poets Duke it Out in Chicago."  The Washington Post (August 18, 1999): C1.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The English Opium Eater and Others

Here's the beginning of a longish review I wrote of Robert Morrison's The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey (by Robert Morrison) and Susan Wolfson's Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action.  It appears in the latest issue of Essays in Criticism:

The Romantics were famous inventors of themselves: a hosier's son could become a prophet dreaming up his own mythology and marrying Heaven to Hell; a club-footed boy from Aberdeenshire could turn himself into the mad, bad heart-throb of Europe; and the provincial son of an obscure lawyer could proclaim himself the universal ‘man speaking to men’ in a new kind of poetry. None of this invention, of course, was ex nihilo, and in different ways two new studies, Robert Morrison's The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey and Susan J. Wolfson's Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action, trace the manner in which Romantics wove their identities out of the cultural strands around them.For the young Thomas De Quincey, out to invent himself, almost any social milieu would do so long as it wasn't the one he knew growing up in the house of a bullying older brother and a mother whose friendship with the Evangelical writer Hannah More drove her ever deeper into an austere and censorious piety. De Quincey's father, who died when De Quincey was quite young, had been a prosperous merchant in Manchester, but the worlds that attracted De Quincey lay both above and below a merchant's station. He was taken up as a protégé by Lady Carbery, who sought to turn the talkative lad into a proper country gentleman who could ride and shoot with the best of them. The diminutive De Quincey didn't excel in gentlemanly acts of physical prowess, but he did enjoy the idea of aristocracy: the ‘De’ was something his mother tacked on to the family name one season at Bath, an affectation of Norman lineage the son kept long after the mother abandoned it. He kept, too, an aristocratic disdain for mercantile Manchester. ‘In this place trade is the religion, and money is the god’, De Quincey wrote in a letter to his mother, ‘Every object I see reminds me of those occupations which run counter to the bent of my own nature … I cannot stir out of doors but I am nosed by a factory, a cotton-bag, a cotton-dealer, or something else allied to that most detestable commerce’. His escape from the mercantile world took him to London, where he pioneered the role that would be played so well by such luminaries as Poe and Baudelaire: the drug-addled, convention-flaunting literary bohemian. He became a kind of low-rent flâneur, falling in with dodgy characters and taking up with prostitutes. De Quincey claimed that one of these, a timid girl of 15 he calls ‘Ann of Oxford Street’, saved his life. He writes that he wanted to save her too, but missed a crucial rendezvous and lost track of her for ever. Morrison makes a good case that we may doubt the veracity of the whole episode. Indeed, Ann seems very much an amalgam of Mary Magdalene and the female vagrants from the pages of Lyrical Ballads: it is probable that De Quincey not only invented a bohemian role for himself, but created his own supporting cast.London life also led De Quincey deep into the arms of that deadliest species of false friend, the moneylender. It was a fatal moment...

The rest of the article is available here.

Friday, October 07, 2011

After Miłosz: Simic, Levine, and Zagajewski Talk Poetry in Chicago

So two American poets laureate, a Polish poet, and a Harvard professor walk into an emergency room. It sounds like the set-up for some kind of literary joke, but in actuality it was how things began last weekend when Philip Levine, Charles Simic, and Adam Zagajewski sat down for a discussion moderated by Steve Burt downstairs at Chicago's Chopin Theater (for reasons I never discovered, the downstairs part of the Chopin is called "The Emergency Room," and looks the part: painted bright white with teal accents, it features a harshly-lit stage with a gurney in the background). I wanted to make some joke about the gurney and the advanced age of the laureates, but would have had to tear Chicu Reddy, who was seated next to me, away from his discussion with Oren Izenberg and others from the University of Chicago English department, so I let it pass.

The gathering was part of a two-day event called "After Miłosz," one of about 200 celebrations of the Miłosz centenary worldwide—Adam Zagajewski mentioned that this was the tenth such event at which he had spoken this year. There were three parts to the evening's events: readings of Miłosz's works by the participants, an open discussion among the panelists, and then a brief period in which Simic, Levine, and Zagajewski reading from their own works. Here's what I took note of in my battered Moleskine (direct quotes are approximate, from memory and quickly-taken notes—I regret any inaccuracies).

The Priest and the Jester

Philip Levine began by speaking of Miłosz as a great lyric poet of landscapes, and of water, reading poems that demonstrated this. Charles Simic then read Miłosz's poem "Encounter":

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

One of the great achievements of Miłosz, said Simic, was to make us more conscious of the world around us, this being "the essence of the lyric poem," which comes to us trying to be disinterested, hoping (perhaps impossibly) to gaze at the world as it really is, making us see it again as if for the first time. This was not the Miłosz of The Captive Mind, the anti-communist writer welcomed by Americans during the Cold War. This was Miłosz as a someone both simpler and more profound than the writer of ideological works.

Adam Zagajewski's recollections of how he first came to Miłosz soon complicated the emerging picture of the Miłosz the lyricist. Zagajewski read the first stanza of "Throughout Our Land," which he'd had been very hard to find when he was a student in Poland. He'd had to lie to a Dean about being a graduate student writing a thesis on Miłosz to be admitted to a special reading room where he was allowed to see the poem: whatever the lyrical qualities of the poems may have been, they didn't prevent the Polish authorities from seeing them as potentially ideological, and they were kept out of general circulation.

Despite the allure inherent in all things forbidden, Zagajewski confessed to not having much liked Miłosz, at least initially. "There was an essay by Leszek Kolakowski, quite famous in Poland," said Zagajewski, "called 'The Priest and the Jester.'" In this essay, he went on to say, Kolakowski distinguishes between two different types of writer: the priest, who is a guardian of tradition and absolutes, and the jester, who doubts all things. "It was then not popular to be a priest in Poland," said Zagajewski. "We liked Zbigniew Herbert, who was a jester. I wanted to be a jester. Wisława Szymborska was a jester. To us, Miłosz seemed like a priest. But we were wrong." Instead of a priest, Miłosz was a poet in which the priest and the jester wrestled. There was a constant dialogue, sometimes a war, between the two, and this made for a rich and complex body of work. It also made Miłosz a more difficult poet to love than most others. “We love a poet for his voice,” said Zagajewski, “but Miłosz had two voices, always.” After a brief scuffle among the poets on stage about whether Miłosz had two voices, or one voice with different modes, or simply offered different points of view, things settled down. The room, I thought, had taken Zagajewski’s point.

Truth, Beauty, and Exile

After the initial readings, Steve Burt led a wide-ranging conversation, which kept circling back to the question of the poet as craftsman (Levine’s statement that “craft may not be enough, but it’s presumptuous to say that it’s somehow secondary” drew a great deal of applause). At one point Burt began to reframe the question by saying “there’s a difference between being a bricklayer, which is an applied art, and being an arranger of Japanese cherry blossoms…” but before he could finish, someone (I think it was Simic) was quoting Miłosz’s poem “What Once Was Great”:

What once was great, now appeared small.
Kingdoms were fading like snow-covered bronze.

What once could smite, now smites no more.
Celestial earths roll on and shine.

Streched on the grass by the bank of a river,
As long, long ago, I launch my boats of bark.

I’m not sure where Simic was going to go with this, because Zagajewski jumped in, sparks flying in his mind between “What Once Was Great” and the image of the Japanese cherry blossoms. “Once Miłosz chose exile,” said Zagajewski, “he became a Japanese poet, an arranger of cherry blossoms, because exile was so different from the environment in which he read his poems in Poland under the Nazis, and then under Stalin.” There was an underground poetry scene even under Hitler, he explained, and people gathered, at some risk, in private apartments to hear Miłosz read. His poems spoke to their condition as occupied and oppressed people, offering a truth not available in public places. “His poems helped people to live under Stalinism,” said Zagajewski, “they needed and adored him, and he liked it, because, like all poets, he was a little vain.” When he read in Poland there was an echo, a resonance of the poem with the needs of the broad public. “But in exile, that echo went away. Now in exile there was silence, and he became increasingly a self-deprecating craftsman.” Where he had written poems devoted to speaking truths that people needed to hear (“What Once Was Great” to be a poem in this mode), he became more a poet of beauty and spiritual yearning (I take “Encounter” to be closer to this sort of thing).

I see what Zagajewski means.  It’s common for people in oppressive situations to turn to poetry as a source for the articulation of values and needs that go unarticulated elsewhere. And in most contemporary Western societies, much of poetry’s marginality relative to other modes of expression has to do with our good fortune in having a great deal of freedom to express our views and needs through other means. A recent article in the satirical newspaper The Onion made some comic mileage out of the notion that Americans were turning to the works of one of the panel’s participants, Philip Levine, to see them through our current economic crisis: there was no similar opportunity for humor when Miłosz read in occupied Poland. And if Americans truly hungered for poetry en masse, would a reading in which a current laureate, a former laureate, and one of Europe’s most prominent poets, draw a crowd of about 75, the number present in the Chopin theater? 

American History, American Landscapes

Toward the end of the evening’s events, readings and discussions flowed into one another more-or-less seamlessly, and the readings of works by Simic, Levine, and Zagajewski turned into something of a discussion of the role of history and landscape for American poets. “History,” Levine remarked, “should only be read in a funeral home, next to a coffin, preferably the poet’s own,” since the nature of the material is so very often dire. But still, one ought not to write without a sense of history, he maintained. “I was just talking to Robert Hass and Jane Hirschfield, and they told me American poets have no sense of history. Well: Simic was born in Belgrade, my parents fled from Europe: we know history.” As, of course, did Miłosz—how could it be otherwise for him, the Polish twentieth century being what it was?

Talk then ranged to the topic of landscape, particularly the Californian landscapes of Miłosz’s poetry. “You can love California landscapes, and be ecstatic in them” said Simic, “but I’ve lived in New Hampshire for decades, which is more of a Robert Frost country—dark, cold, suspicious, miserable: of course Miłosz hated Robert Frost.” Levine chimed in to say that he, too, had become a Californian poet, but his California was the inland valley, not a wild landscape, nor even an agricultural landscape. “It’s an agribusiness landscape, in which whole classes of people are sub-people, and the few have got everything sewn up so tight they’ll never share.” In this, it reminded him of the Detroit of his youth, he said. “But don’t get me wrong—I loved Detroit. I’d probably still love it… if it were still there.”

As the things wound down, I noticed they’d run longer than I expected, and I was unable to stick around and see if I could drag Steve Burt or any of the poets a few blocks uptown to the tiny upstairs room at Myopic Books, where Larry Sawyer was hosting readings by Ann Shaw and Roger Reeves. I’m sure those reading went well, though: if there’s one thing the current American poetry scene makes clear, it’s that you don’t need huge crowds to have an excellent event.