Friday, May 09, 2014

New Notes on the New Gnosticism

"The infinite starry realm of scribbing, scrambling poets every now and then produces a new galaxy, that is a new movement or school"— so writes Henry Gould in an excellent essay on the New Gnosticism in poetry up at Coldfront.  It's a great introduction for anyone who hasn't been following this intriguing bunch of poets, a group in which we might number the great Nathaniel Mackey (recently-honored by the Poetry Foundation), Pam Rehm, Peter O'Leary, Norman Finkelstein, Joseph Donahue, Mark Scroggins, Ed Roberson, Ed Foster, and Alice Notley.  John Matthias has similar concerns, and I have been described as the materialist among all these mystics, a kind of pickle fork in the silverware set of Gnosticism.

Gould characterizes the New Gnosticism as a rejection of Language Poetry poetics.  His description, necessarily compressed and simplified, goes like this:

In sum, the Language movement can be characterized as : 1) analytical — a critique of styles it aimed to challenge (mainstream, NY School); 2) materialist — a (post)rationalist approach which subsumes the spiritual or psychological to “objective” historical forces; and 3) relativist — suspicious of claims of individualism or textual autonomy, of any absolute which might deny the inherent mutuality of writer/reader, the collective “production of meaning.”
This is the constellation, in my reductive sketch, with which the New Gnostics find themselves at odds.  Joseph Donahue offers his own take on that incipient event at the Poetry Project, when Ed Foster was called out by Charles Bernstein: "Foster’s dispute is not with an emerging theological orthodoxy, but an academic one."  The critics, a triumvirate composed of Stanley Fish, Cary Nelson and the Russian theorist V.N. Volosinov, who himself may have been a disguised Mikhail Bakhtin, and appear here to be a covert Charles Bernstein, argue that the text is nothing, the critical community decides what the poem is and what it means.  Foster counters: critics are nothing.  Not even readers are needed.  Readers die, but the text lives on.  "The poem is an otherworldly presence, an icon, discernible to the senses but ultimately unknowable.  In encountering this unknowability, we experience our true origin." 
One way to think of the New Gnosticism, then, might be as the overturning of an analytical negation (Language Poetry).  It includes, also, a reversal of the “old” Gnosticism : which was itself a sort of skeptical deconstruction of canonical Biblical texts.

There's a lot more in the article itself, available here.   Talisman has a special issue on the New Gnostics, and here's a little something from the Poetry Foundation's Harriet Blog.