Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Graham and the Garden (Guerdon) of Advancements

I've been listening to the discussion about Graham and the problematic of the rubric avant-garde by Josh Corey, Ange Mlinko and Tim Yu with great interest. I think I agree with Tim particularly, although unlike Tim I'm a big fan of Graham's third and fourth books. As I indicated before, and as Yu points out, I think that often poets qualify or do not qualify as avant-garde because of their associations, their poetic lineage and the way that their work has been contextualized and canonized: Graham's not a-g because Helen Vendler likes her; because she teaches at Iowa, indeed because she made Iowa Iowa. In other words, the author-function. For this reason, I think that Josh, for all his intelligence, seriousness and erudition, has a difficult time defining a-g writing as a function of the text itself, a function of the rather ill-defined term "form" which he deploys. He claims that unlike a-g writers he likes, the negativity of her writing devolves upon its content rather than its form, and I think that a look at the formal innovation in The End of Beauty will controvert this claim. By form, I'm assuming that he means, also, style, and not just the lay of the lines on the page. I'm assuming that he includes in form such things as diction, acoustic effects, syntax, etc. Otherwise, what to do with Stevens' cordwood stanzas? I'm drawing on the fact that I know Corey to be indebted to Stevens in numerous ways. Graham plays with all of these "formal" effects to problematize the reception of her work. You can think, as many do, that her use of the _____ is cheesy, but she's still doing it, and I think that success or failure is not what we're talking about here.

In the end, I think that what Josh dislikes about her poetry is not its discursivity (since he mentions Whitman I'm assuming that a certain type of discursivity is OK), but her sensibility, her tragic and emotionally intense view of the world which doesn't allow for the kind of lightening, deflating play that many value in the work of say, Stein, Zukovsky, Duncan, Ashbery, Hejinian, etc. There is play, in her work, but it always moves toward the tragic, the tragedy of thought. The lack of humor that he mentions is probably her most serious flaw, and I agree that in her later work this allows her to slip into melodrama and bathos and a heightened self-regard. What saves this early on, though, is the way in which she reflects on the problems of such vanity, such fragrant self-creation, and pokes fun at in a witty way--look at "Orpheus and Eurydice." But there are plenty of a-g writers who aren't funny, aren't even witty, and who succeed at it. Unless we're going to define irony and humor as form, further problematizing the binary of form/content, we're going to have a hard time locating such flaws anywhere but the vague rubric of tone, sensibility, world-view.

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