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.