Friday, October 30, 2015

Rhyme, Rimbaud, Harvard, and the Future of Poetry: An Interview with Ben Mazer

In a couple of weeks I'll be reading at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Ben Mazer and Stephen Sturgeon, at the launch for the fall list of books from MadHat Press.  I interviewed Ben, and the results, which will appear as the afterword to his book The Glass Piano, have been posted at Todd Swift's site Eyewear.  Mazer talks about the writing process, the little-known works of Landis Everson, the meaning of rhyme in contemporary poetry, Rimbaud, Harvard outsiders, and the future of poetry.  Check it out here!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Downfall of Kenneth Goldsmith: One Final Speculation

I’m no better at predicting the future than you are (a fact which hasn’t stopped me from trying to do so in public) but let’s, for the sake or argument, pretend that I am, that I have a secret crystal ball and I’ve been using it to peer into the Kenneth Goldsmith’s life in the year 2021.  Let’s pretend that what I saw in that crystal ball confirms Goldsmith’s speculation, at the end of Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker article “The Poet Who Went Too Far,” that he will leave the poetry world and return to the art world, where he will be accepted.  What would such an acceptance signify? What would it tell us about the differences between the poetry and art worlds?

One wonders, immediately, about he question of race.  It was, after all, outrage over race—specifically Goldsmith’s appropriation of the autopsy of Ferguson police shooting victim Michael Brown’s autopsy—that ignited a firestorm of criticism and, in our speculative future history, drove Goldsmith out of the poetry world and back to the art world.  Could it really be the case that the art world cares less about race and racism than the poetry world? It seems unlikely. One imagines both worlds embody roughly the same level of institutionalized racism: the subtle but nevertheless significant kind one comes across in predominantly white, progressive circles.

Alec Wilkinson reports that Goldsmith feels the art world is simply more “accustomed to outrage and turmoil” than the poetry world, and this, I think, is significant, but in a subtler way than we might expect. It’s not that the art world would shrug off a controversial performance about race.  It’s that the art world does not contain many people alienated by Goldsmith’s posturing about the importance of Conceptualism, and the poetry world does. This alienation seems to have played a role in the way justifiable criticism of Goldsmith caught on so quickly and traveled so far.

I want to be careful here, so let me be clear: I think that the most charitable thing one could say Goldsmith’s autopsy reading is that it was a monumental act of insensitivity on a topic where sensitivity is needed—and many have argued for saying things far sharper-edged than that.  I think critics of the performance have generally been in the right, and I recommend Cathy Park Hong’s essay in The New Republic as a good place to see many of these criticisms articulated (along with criticisms of how Wilkinson’s New Yorker represents the controversy). But I think that Goldsmith’s earlier posturings in the poetry world quite probably magnified the impact of his actions.  After all, other recent race-based controversies in poetry—the Tony Hoagland/Claudia Rankine affair, for example—resulted in less widespread criticism.  We didn’t find Hoagland thinking of abandoning poetry for some other, more welcoming realm.

I think the kind of controversy the art world has seen much more of than the poetry world is the controversy over new movements and the claims made on behalf of them. “The art world’s been through counter-movements, counter-revolutions, and then counter-counter-movements” says Goldsmith in Wilkinson’s article, “people’s idea of art is infinite… Poetry is such an easy place to go in and break up the house.” But Goldsmith may have underestimated how angry he would make people in the poetry world when he attempted to break up the house with notions of unoriginality. And that anger, while not the source of the criticism he received about the autopsy reading, created a very fertile ground for the reception of that criticism.

It’s not that there haven’t been new movements and controversies in poetry, but compared to the art world since, say, the days of Impressionism, we’ve seen very few. We’re less used to them, and have fewer antibodies with which to handle the overblown, partisan rhetoric that accompanies them.  At the very least, we’d have to go back a generation in the art world to find people as alienated by the claims that a new style has rendered old styles irrelevant as people in the poetry world were by Goldsmith’s claims for Conceptualism.  What Leo Steinberg said of the art world in his 1972 book Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art seems to me entirely true of the poetry world in 2015.  When we are asked to “discard visual [read “literary” or “interpretive”] habits which have been acquired in the contemplation of real masterpieces,” wrote Steinberg, we may find ourselves experiencing “a feeling that one’s accumulated culture or experience is hopelessly devalued.”  And this will lead us either to despair or smoldering rage. “Who,” we might ask, “is this interloper who tells us the ways we’ve learned to read don’t matter? They goddamn well do matter! Fuck that guy!” And when the interloper commits an actual, and very public, act of monumental insensitivity, his critics will find that the flames of their anger meeting with plenty of dry kindling. The fire will be bigger and hotter than it would have been if more people in the field were inclined to view the person favorably, the outrage spreading to those who might otherwise have shrugged it all off.

None of this is to say that there shouldn’t have been a fire, that the criticism was at all unfounded—quite the opposite.  I’m just wondering if it would have burned brightly enough to melt the wax from Goldsmith’s Icarian wings.

Friday, October 02, 2015

The End of An Era: Cathy Park Hong and Kenneth Goldsmith

If you're inclined to think that active controversy about poetry in the mainstream media is a sign that things are going well for the art, then we're living in a very auspicious moment indeed. Poetry isn't just being tepidly reviewed in magazines whose pages aren't filled primarily with poems: it's being debated with considerable heat. Take, for example, the current issues of The New Yorker and The New Republic: if you'd told me in, say, 2009, that these journals would not only be covering, but participating in, serious debate about Conceptualist poetry, I'd have replied by saying "sure, sure: when pigs fly and a socialist is leading in the Iowa primaries."

In The New Yorker we find Alec Wilkinson saying "Kenneth Goldsmith's poetry elevates copying to an art—but did he go too far?" while in The New Republic Cathy Park Hong takes issue not only with Goldsmith but with Wilkinson's representation of the controversy surrounding Goldsmith's reading, as a poem, of a modified autopsy of the slain Michael Brown.

For the record, I'm inclined to sympathize with Cathy Park Hong's largest point—that the American poetry world, including the avant-garde, is no more immune to institutionalized racism, subtle or otherwise, than any other part of American society. I think she's right, too, about how Wilkinson's essay, despite gestures toward objectivity (such as including parts of an interview with her) presents Goldsmith in a far more sympathetic light than it does his critics. And while I have no x-ray vision to see into Goldsmith's soul, I suspect she's on to something when she says that Goldsmith's reading of the Brown autopsy had something to do with a desire to keep such spotlights as shine on poetry pointed at him. Some time ago, long before the Michael Brown controversy, I wrote about the desire for fame being likely to bring unhappiness to Goldsmith, and that unhappiness seems to have come to pass, at least for the moment.

But I'm not writing to weigh in on the controversy about race and Conceptualism. I'm writing to point out something that most people interested in the controversy will think of as a very minor point indeed: a point of apparent agreement between Cathy Park Hong and Kenneth Goldsmith.  They seem to agree, in a broad way, about the dynamics of literary history. That is: each is willing to present claims about the end of one era and the beginning of another—a view that implies a clear progression in literary history.

Here, for example, is a passage from Kenneth Goldsmith's essay "Flarf is Dionysus, Conceptual Writing is Apollo":
Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry.
He's declaring the death of the Language movement and Elliptical poetry, and the birth of a new, Conceptual era. Co-existence and overlap? Forget about it. Your game is over, Charles Bernstein. Step aside, C.D. Wright.  It's all about Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place now—or so we are meant to believe.

And here's the ending of Cathy Park Hong's essay in The New Republic:
The era of Conceptual Poetry’s ahistorical nihilism is over and we have entered a new era, the poetry of social engagement.
However vast the gulf may be between the two poets on a variety of issues, they both seem quite sanguine about the rhetoric of historical division, about obsolescence and relevance, about the beginning and ending of eras. As rhetoric, it's stirring stuff. It certainly got Goldsmith a lot of attention—although one wonders if some small portion of the criticism he's been subjected to has been reinforced by schadenfreude from those whose work he so cavalierly dismissed.

If Cathy Park Hong's closing words draw attention to the BreakBeat poets and the people published by Action Books (to name just a few of the groups she mentions), I'll be grateful for the result.  But as literary history, I can't get behind the concept of clearly demarcated eras, no matter where it comes from. I'm with Theodor Adorno when he says "the concept of progress is less directly applicable to art than it is to technical forces of production." Which, unlike the declaration of a new era, isn't a particularly rousing way to end an essay.