Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Much admiration here for the sensitive, nuanced and generous response to Houlihan's review of BAP 2004 over at Josh's Calle de Corey. I agree with his sense that, to a certain point, such dismissals must be reckoned with, responded to with an intelligence and energy equal to or greater than that put into them. Houlihan is witty, and intelligent, and a pretty good poet, despite her cramped and anxious aesthetic--a series of dont's and prohibitions, an aesthetic without a sufficiently positive description. I guess I'm not as kind and sensitive of a person as Josh, or I enjoy word-as-weapon too much. Sorry: growing up, I had no other way of defending myself. But I feel that my response to Danielle Chapman's review of The Iowa Anthology could stand as a response to Houlihan.

I am not sure that avant or post-avant (or whatever name you want to give them) poetries, or those that assimilate such practices to a greater or lesser degree, are really that inaccessible to the common reader; when they are good, as they often are, they will have immediately apprehensible pleasures to them. I think that the problem (as Josh has himself indicated) is one of expectations: if you expect a poem to have a message, to mean in a certain kind of way, or if you expect it to deliver up pleasures of a certain variety, then you will be disappointed. And I'm not sure if it's the common or general reader that needs responding to, as much as the university- educated critic and poet who feels threatened by a certain poetic. Joan Houlihan has obviously read quite a bit, and it's admirable that she at least sits down and reads things that she doesn't expect to like. Most don't. But, semester after semester, my students (who often have had very little exposure to poetry, let alone experimental poetry) demonstrate their ability to enjoy something which they don't understand (despite what Marianne Moore says). They are fine once they understand that their first task is to experience Paul Celan's poem, or Brenda Shaughnessy's, or whatever it is I'm teaching, rather than understand or reduce it to some crystalline message or point. They may, at first, ask "what's the point?"But there are good answers to this question, good ways of returning the question by addressing their experience of the poem's difficulty. These students need to be told that the writer's goal is not to establish some intelligence differential between writer and reader, but to adjust the way that we experience, perceive and read the world. They need to know that the answer to the poem's multiple choice question is close to "all of the above" or "all of the above except c." As a colleague of mine often says there are an infinite number of values between 0 and 1, an infinite number of valid responses to a particular poem, although four isn't one of these values, and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" probably doesn't have anything to do with the Napoleonic Wars (although I might be wrong).

I'm intrigued by the organic-inorganic continuum that Josh gives, but I'm not sure I get it. I haven't read Burger's book, but the system confuses me because so much of the poetry that one might call "organic"--say confessional poetry of the bad, derivative and misunderstood variety, the Anne Sexton rather than Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell variety-- takes as its justification a grounding in something exterior to the poem--a historical personage, the life of the author, a historical event, etc. We may, for instance, like a poem about a suicide attempt because of what it's about not what it is. This was, as I understand it, the point of the Yasusada hoax, to catch people liking poems not because of what they were but because of who wrote them. And much of the project of Romantic poetry and American trascendentalism, as I see it, and as Paul DeMan suggests, involves the author foisting off creative agency onto the world, a way of deemphasizing artifice and naturalizing the creative process. Wordsworth "discovers" in the daily life of ordinary people a poetry of radical promise; Whitman discovers in the grass "a uniform hieroglyphic, "a transcendental writing that he need not create, only receive. The working of tropes in these poems claims its validity from contiguity--the grass is the "beautiful uncut hair of the graves" because people are actually buried under it--not from the creative and active crafting process of the poet's mind, which is content to employ artificial conceits and metaphorical transformations. Of course, we all know that Whitman and Wordsworth are creating rather than discovering. It's the basis of all magic tricks--you put something there so that you can then pretend to find it. They are planting evidence.

And I get doubly confused because much of the poetry that I consider "non-organic" seems to purposely avoid a grounding in the extra-textual or representational, to have the associational and paranomastic action of the poem not one between signifier and signified but between signifier and signifier (as impossible as this is, of course). I'm not sure, then, that poetry like Tender Buttons (which must certainly earn a "6" on Josh's scale) refers to an extratextual telos or "reality." In fact, I think Stein endeavors to avoid such externalizing of language effects, to strip language of its representative functions--even if some of the portraits work as portraits that's a secondary effect of her project. The fun is in the chafing of words against each other, the grinding gears of grammars, the pure rhythms unattached to a world they might be called upon to imitate.

Certainly the organic-inorganic distinction works very well for discussing the poetry's level of internal cohesion, whether it's composed of fragments that fail to cohere or whether the writer presents a seamless wholeness or unity. Perhaps, though, I'm not understanding and someone would like to explain it to me. I do so love talking and thinking about this stuff.

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