Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Terms of Agreement

While I was away reading lots of Milton and Jacques Lacan and Ezra Pound and other things that footnotes are for and that require a certain rare mineral found in the bonedust of zombie scholars, a few blog-versations caught my eye.

It's true, I think, that the terminology for contemporary poetry we have now is inadequate, and that many are forced to rely on school-names (NYS, Language) and loaded binarizations (x vs. y) or binarizations with a mediating third term (the post-avant, the fence) for things that have evolved and proliferated in excess of these terms, and that were perhaps always less clearly marked (inside and outside poems) than people might be led to believe. I find all of these schemes inadequate, and no doubt there's always going to be some remainder in any attempt to map what people are doing. Good that.

But I also don't think it's exactly helpful to forego generalizing distincitions altogether; because what we're left with then is individuals or small groups of poets existing in a vacuum, social relations turned to objects, objects turned to -jects pro- and sub- and ab- and -e. The usefulness of generalizations--despite the violence they do, all categories are violent--is that they continually remind us of the social ground of poetry, at the same time manifesting important difference in the kinds of things that are getting written, and that get obscured by accounts interested in making all of the branches of the barred American tree root arboresce into the yes/no switch of ye olde blog. Good criticism can do this with or without a catchphrase, but not everybody will be able to produce good criticism on the spot (more on this later perhaps). So I think we need TERMS, MaSTERless and MiSTERless, MySTERious terms. What I want is something that is more descriptive than evaluative, that carries the grain and hue of a good, infrequently encountered or repurposedadjective, that don't aim to brick a wall right through the middle of poetry. I'd like clusters of terms like this, shots fired into the crowd, constellations or distillations or exhalations, clusters of terms that, in their proliferates, escape the vicissitudes of mirror-games (2), triangulization (3), gridlock (4), overkill (5) [see Kasey for an excellent discussion of these problems]. Josh's use of "neo-baroque," for instance, and related musings on "strategies of excess" seems likely to be productive--even if there is, or perhaps because there is, strong disagreement about what or who or why and wherefor this means.

Obviously, the more these terms seek to be total rather than to manifest a few neglected features, the more useless and confining and irritating they will be. The totals are elsewhere, like life.

I've said before why I think the term "avant-garde" implies certain notions of futurity, of forwardness, of being ahead-of-one's-time, that don't really match with my reading of the contemporary poetry that gets labeled this way. It also carries, alongside its military origins, connotations of intellectual collectivity, collective means of production and distribution. To be avant-garde, I think, requires existing within a cultural dominant that despises, ignores and continually misunderstands what you do, and that requires, as such, alternative means of making and distributing. That's to say, the term bears on the way poetry is published, read, shared, critiqued, the goals it sets for itself. By these two standards, there are many writers and collections of writers today where this term probably fits, to some degree. But there are many that are not. Get to work: you're falling behind the average person on the Bergdorf alienation scale; you're not pissing enough people off. Even you, Behrle©.

I would be less reluctant to use it in this manner if other people used it this way too. But they don't; it means the same thing that "indie rock" does in music, or "independent film." Very little. So I just can't recommend it as a productive term for contemporary poetry. It's still fine for the most of the stuff it gets applied to historically.

I do, however, really like Lyn Hejinian's very specific definition of experiment and experimental in the first of her "Two Stein Talks" and pretty much throughout her collection The Language of Inquiry, the title of which shows her commitment to epistemological and phenomenological poetic practice. I like the term because it reads literary history and the literary present against the grain, which is pretty much what I want criticism to do, and why I think "avant-garde" is basically a dried shell. By looking at Stein's relationship to scientific method, her early work in experimental science (fascinatingly available here, thanks to Tony Tost, in the new Fascicle), American pragmatist philosophy, and the fiction of Flaubert, Zola and James, Lyn is extraordinarily persuasive about the important links between realism and experimentation in early modernism, where art sets itself to be "simultaneously an analytical tool and a source of perception and to make the real--usually construed as the ordinary--its focus." In Stein and in Lyn's work, this emphasis on a "real" obscured by habitual and commonplace ways of thinking and looking forces an intense phenomenological refashioning of descriptive language by way of the resources of poetry. There is a dialectic at work in her account of Stein--the increasing dominance of science pressures poetry and literature to recast itself, to prove its value as knowledge, just as the advent of the photograph--nature's pencil, an eye without a brain--and of a certain documentary realism, provokes the long joyride from late Courbet/Manet into the splashless colorfield: Cezanne as a realer realism, the real of seeing (Merleau-Ponty's "palpation with the look"), not the real of the seen.*

But the best thing about this term as Lyn uses it is that it would be impossible to make it mean "all of the poetry that is good," impossible for experimental realism to find itself anything but uncomfortably abutted by friends and neighbors who perform all of the thing it's not: idealism, lyricism, expressivism, constructivism. Indeed, the experimental and non-experimental often coexist in the work of a single poet, and the term cleaves certain certain coteries and schools of poetry in interesting ways. The following is subject to rethinking:

Williams is experimental but Ezra Pound isn't really. Niedecker and Reznikoff are experimental but Oppen isn't really; Zukofsky is sometimes experimental. Jack Spicer is not experimental. Mina Loy is not experimental. Wallace Stevens is experimental, Eliot not, Crane not, Moore is. ("Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination"). Laura Riding was experimental when she stopped writing poems. Everybody who is dead is experimental. Sex is experimental. Disease, pain, mortality, loss of friends, family, and my slack-jawed incapacity to respond to such things: not experimental. Parenting is experimental. Bernadette Mayer is experimental. Ashbery, O'Hara, Schuyler, Koch, Guest: not. Clark Coolidge is experimental but Tom Raworth not (or only sometimes). Charles Bernstein is not really experimental; Ron is sometimes; Bob Perelman not, Barrett Watten not. Susan Howe is experimental on one half of the page; Michael Palmer is not experimental. Archie Ammons is experimental in "Sphere" and in many other works. The labors of the negative in this chapbook by Alyssa Wolf are not experimental, but they may be a reverse hope. Vallejo is totally experimental. Hocquard is experimental. Berryman is not. Is Alice Notley experimental? Am I? Are you?

What happens, I think, is that the term as Lyn employs makes you realize that work that is often termed experimental involves not an experimental disposition toward reality, but an expressive attitude toward self that needs to be distinguished between from confession (self-performance, self as something that is made in the uttering of self, self-transformation, self as the expression of the things in the vicinity of the self) or a constructive or procedural attitude toward social, historical materials.

I realize, though, that the term necessitates serious philosophical and historical thought; we have to make decisions about the philosophical frames possible for poetry, about the nature of the real or reality, and about how and where language mediates what we can say. I don't, for instance, for myself, accept much of the pragmatist and phenomenological underpinnings of Lyn's useful use of the term, how poetry indexes and represents the world. And that's another thing I like about the term, is is forces us to consider the philosophical foundations of the term from the very get-go. This is to say, it's an open question for me what it means to be experimental if one is writing from within a postmarxist, poststructural frame. Lisa Robertson does this, but by way of other kinds of traditions and media--Epicurus and friends, romanticism, architecture, art.

I should acknowledge, as I sign off, that many of these thoughts come from reading not only Lyn's book but James' Agee's and Walker Evans unrelenting, seething experimental realism in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, (why aren't there more books like this?), and thinking about the relationship, by way of Joanna Picciotto's class and scholarship, between Milton's poetry and the experimental, protestant communities (ranters, levellers, diggers, etc.) during the English Civil War. (Note: If you want to see that article and can't get access, e-mail me).

Next time: formalism.

*Bill Berkson (letter to B. Mayer in What's Your Idea of a Good Time pg. 199):

What is realism? I asked my Art Institute students and we didn't get much out of it except looking at a lot of terrific pictures with people and things in them. I remember Lyn Hejinian asking a lot of people, poets, that question a few years ago, and now she gives lectures on the topic but I never have found out what use she found for the term which seemed pretty shady to me. I tried to discourage Lyn about using it; "real,"however, being a very useful word when applied to both poems and poets, horrifying as it seems a poem can be real without being true (isn't that what unhinged Laura Riding at some point?)

Friday, February 02, 2007

I'm taking a short break from blogging. I should be back in a couple of weeks.