Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Nick Twemlow (I love his name, it's so Dickensian) has a nice little interview with Brian Henry up at the Poets & Writers website. He says a lot of smart, generalizing things about poetry today and what young poets are doing in particular. I'm a sucker for generalizing statements about poetry in general and young poets in particular—is this narcissism? Probably—Henry talks about that, too. He does make one statement which I want to interrogate a little bit when he starts talking about the influence of the Language poets on the younger generations; the paragraph in question is worth quoting in full:
Many emerging poets ... distrust the hierarchies of the poetry world and address that world itself in their writing. Mark Wallace, Anselm Berrigan, Lee Ann Brown, Heather Fuller, and Jennifer Moxley come to mind. Mentioning them reminds me of Wallace's piece—a self-interview, I think—on what he calls Postlanguage poetry, which he defines in relation to Language poetry. In some ways, Language poetry arose out of a similar distrust, and I think Language poetry has been hugely influential—far more influential than its supposed arch-rival, the New Formalism—as a model of behavior for younger poets. Without the same context—historical impetus, geography, individuals—younger poets just can't become Language poets; it doesn't come down to aesthetic decisions. But a lot of these poets have adopted some of the original Language poets as unofficial mentors, so their work reflects the style, political beliefs, and/or content of one or more Language poets. Some Language poets have complained that their work should not be boiled down to the level of style or aesthetics, which is true, but no one can control how their work affects others. Admittedly, no one wants to see their work diluted to the point that it is read, and used, in ways antithetical to the original impulse, but that has always happened. See the recent aestheticization of Paul Celan.
What precisely does Henry mean by "aestheticization," and why does it preclude what he implies is the surplus content of Language poetry? These things are obviously related, as becomes clear when you realize that he hasn't actually defined "politics" as the surplus that gets "boiled down." Earlier in the essay, he argues that to pursue poetry as a career (he doesn't actually use the word "career," which in its "-ist" form has become the n-word of po-biz) is inherently political: "Well, writing poetry itself is a political act, even if very few people notice it or care. The fact of caring about language enough not to abuse it is political, as is the pursuit of such a materially unrewarding vocation." If I ungenerously hold Henry's feet to the fire and assume a self-consistence to his argument that is not necessarily natural to the interview format, the implication has been made that the thing that resists boiling down in Language poets and Celan is not politics as such but some kernel (I'm tempted to say kernel of the Real—I spent part of this morning reading a rather brilliant attack on Slavoj Zizek by Claudia Berger in the latest Diacritics) that is capable of being boiled down, "aestheticized," and surgically removed (without an-aesthetic?) leaving something that looks like Language poetry and quacks like Language poetry but isn't. This kernel is difficult to define, but without getting too Lacanian about it I'd say that it has something to do with that which anchors a text within its historical framework—the concept that makes "conceptual art" intelligible—in other words, the new context that Henry claims makes it impossible for new Language poets to appear today (we lack the same "historical impetus, geography, individuals"). A young poet can therefore either try to be "truer to the original spirit than" his or her fellows (which means what? pretending the original context and historical impetus still exists?) or else fall into the trap of "aestheticization."

I'm probably making way too much out of this, but I guess what I object to here is the simplistic way in which Henry throws around the term "aesthetic." What he calls the aestheticization of a poet like Celan I call the inevitable movement through time and space of a text whose readers come at it from another context (in this case 21st century America) and who cannot recreate the original context of the work's reception (postwar Europe) no matter how hard they try to be "true to the spirit" of that original context. Attempts to police interpretation—to impose a text's historical context on readers—are heavy-handed at best. For example, John Felstiner's biography of Celan is an admirable work in many ways, but it becomes a martyrography as it labors to repress those aspects of Celan's life and personality which don't arrange themselves neatly along the teleogically tragic arc lent to his life by his suicide. One reason I admire Glottal Stop (translations of Celan by Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov) is its baggier sense of interpretation: in place of the strict, nigh-fetishitic accuracy of Pierre Joris' translations or even the supple English of Felstiner's, Popov and McHugh work to get across Celan's full range at the expense of literal translation. In addition to that play of the signifier which is really the suffering of the signifier (for which Celan is justly known) we get play that is play: fiercely humorous and often erotic. Perhaps this is what irritates Silliman and others when they look at what they see as their epigones: the suffering of the signifier (an estrangement from natural language forced upon the Language poets by what they saw as a crisis of that language, a language irredeemably corrupted by the powers that had spoken Vietnam, that had spoken Watergate) has become a game. But the original historical context of suffering—the surplus—is not suppressed by this play.

The risk a poetry like Celan's runs is not that of aestheticization (where else but in the realm of the aesthetic are you able to encounter the signifier qua signifier, estranged from notions of the "natural" as well as the realm of "freedom," the overdetermining network of relationships every signifier is otherwise caught in?) but reification: we can gesture at Celan and the Language poets up there on the wall without reading them—they've become cultural capital to be spent in cementing our own careers. I just glanced back at the last paragraph of the interview and misread Henry's "create your own community" for "create your own commodity." This is the problem in a nutshell and a fair one to task us young turks with—we children of the Seventies and Eighties whose entire dreamlife was so thoroughly commodified (even would-be cultural gatekeeper Ray McDaniel makes references to Hasbro and Kenner in his crucifixion of Cal Bedient, discussed yesterday) that it's difficult or impossible to imagine producing texts which don't somehow replicate an interior which is only the exterior world we bought and paid for. Does this mean farewell to the interior, farewell to the subject, farewell to the career? Maybe it does. Or maybe it means an ambivalent embrace of our commodified dreamlife—a project foretold by Benjamin's Arcades Project. Or maybe it means a return to the communitarian Language model—but if so we'll do it our way, okay? Despite certain superficial resemblances, George W. Bush is not Lyndon B. Johnson. Saddam Hussein is no Ho Chi Minh. And Bill (or even Hillary) Clinton is no Jack Kennedy. Heck, from my point of view, even Jack Kennedy was no Jack Kennedy. The San Francisco of the 21st century is not gonna be the San Francisco of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. It probably won't even be San Francisco.

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