Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Estrangement and Comfort

I'm a bit late on the uptake, but I wanted to note how useful I found this post, of Kasey's, about the constitutive tension between, on the hand, the negative, estranging (ostranenie or verfrumdungseffekt) aspects of contemporary poetry and, on the other, its will to presence or immediacy (projective or breath-based poetics, for instance). I do think that, in post-45 American poetry and poetics there is an unexamined conflict between a poetry of immanence and a poetry of artifice. Unexamined because, due to other similarities and values, writers who work one end or the other of this spectrum tend to get run together in the great hagiographical encyclopediae of our day. It's worth saying that an attention to these differences might--like Hejinian's sense of "experiment" as a relation to the real--allow for diagonals and diagnostics that cut across the quietude/new American binary.

But more importantly, the post makes me realize that I might not have expressed as well as I wanted to one of my points vis-a-vis Juliana Spahr's The Transformation. That is, I think that there's a kind of habituation curve to negativity in poetry, a process whereby the initially estranging or alienating technical effect--the fragment, for instance--becomes either strangely comforting or, alternately, gets so subsumed by mass culture, as to become somewhat toothless. The Dadason Avenue problem, we might call it. In such a moment, without an attempt at reinvention or an acknowledgment of the changed conditions, the mechanical continuance of such techniques becomes either amnesiac or cynical.

My sense is that Spahr understands her post-New American audience well enough, and is at least partly directed to that audience enough, that she realizes that a poetics of simplicity, referentiality, honesty, that at the same time continues to employ some of the stylistic markers of "fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax," will, in its own way, really fuck with people. She creates an especial estrangement for readers who have become habitutated to estrangement, readers for whom there has been a kind of ostranenie saturation. For example, in the aftermath of 9-11, while the characters in the book are in New York, Spahr notes this curious reversal with a tone of optimism: "And they began at this time to think of the poetry that used fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on not as a radical avant-garde break but as the warm hand of someone they loved stroking their head, helping them to relax the muscles in their head and inviting them to just close their eyes and relax for a a second with words of someone else. This feeling somewhat answered that constant question about the use of the avant-garde in a time like this" (188).

At first glance, I find this formulation completely inadequate, a sentimentalized notion that sells poetry short. And, of course, this is precisely what I'm supposed to feel. Indeed, by feeling that way, by attending to the balance of both estrangement and comfort within the book, I have fallen right into the trap-of-sorts that the book has laid for me. I do not think it is incorrect to assert that this is an extraordinarily strategic book, one that understands its readership well, and one that seeks to work with and against it. And it's precisely Spahr's acknowledgment of the conditions (embarrassing to many, I think) of her readership that allows her to do what she does. Has any poet ever so cannily worked the dialectic of comfort and estrangement? Maybe Stein's deterritorialization of the spaces of comfort and domesticity in Tender Buttons.

I use the word "canny" as my own strategic move, for I think that Spahr's work is quite close to Freud's essay on the uncanny. Both writers have a remarkable sense of the dialectic whereby the familiar (heimlich) is repressed and returns as something uncanny (unheimlich), but uncanny precisely because it retains elements of the familiar. You can see this dialectic at work in the changing political conditions of the move from Hawaii to New York that I mentioned in the earlier post. It's worth saying that this is the kind of effect that those whose accounts of poetry are entirely technical or impressionistic (which is, to say, 4/5 of all poetry reviews) will never take the measure of.

While I do hesitate to open a can of assvagina in a studiedly neutral post, this may be the key to the work that elements of the "cute" do in some Flarf, where, amidst all of the estranging verbiage and allusional range, the cute serves the same purpose as the familiar/comforting does above. For a brilliant reading of this exact issue, check out Sianne Ngai's essay "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde." (If you have no JSTOR access and want to read it, e-mail for a pdf). I love to steal from the institutions of High Theory! Death of the author, put your money where your mouth is!


Dougggggggggg said...

I have no access to jstor. will you email me the PDF? ahhh thank you

Jasper Bernes said...

Sure, but you need to send me your e-mail. bernes [at] berkeley [dot] edu