Monday, March 17, 2003

Over the weekend I've had a lively and engaging exchange of e-mails with the poet Reginald Shepherd, who used to teach here at Cornell. With his permission, I'm going to paste the relevant excerpts from the messages here for perusal by you, my gentle readers:

First message, from Shepherd to Corey:
...I am writing because I was quite disturbed by some comments you made regarding the relationship of poetry and politics in your recent entries. I have already written the substance of these comments to a friend who pointed out the comments, so I thought that I might as well share my thoughts with the comments' author.

Your assertion that a conservative poetics leads to a conservative politics shows a simplistic view of the relationship of literature and politics (I
had thought that deconstructing such one-to-one correspondences, art as mirror of the world, was one of the tasks of the avant-garde--certainly the Modernists were hard at work at it) and furthermore ignores the history of Anglo-American modernism. The Anglo-American moderns are notable for their conservative and even reactionary social-political stands: Yeats's contempt for democracy and the mob, Eliot's Anglo-Catholic monarchism and anti-Semitism), Pound's fascism (including massive doses of anti-Semitism). Gertrude Stein's hatred of FDR, socialism, or any egalitarian political programs. There are certainly exceptions, William Carlos Williams most prominent among them (with Stevens occupying a kind of middle ground but still, with regard to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, being in his words on the side of the coons and the snakes versus the Dagoes). It's interesting, because aside from the Italian Futurists, Celine, and some but not all of the German Expressionists, most continental European modernists were socio-political leftists (though often of a rather amorphous variety),
which got them in trouble with Herr Hitler and, earlier, with a Russian Revolution which after some hesitation decided that it liked its art safe,
accessible, and obedient to orders social, cultural, _and_ aesthetic.

In academia today, pseudo-political talk too often substitutes for talk about poetry (and literature in general)--and it's certainly easier than
actually reading and thinking about poems. And of course political talk about culture ('cultural activism') is _much_ easier than political action, which might require _doing_ something in the real and messy world. Though I am no admirer of his poetry (quite the opposite), I actually thought that it was rather brave of Billy Collins to come out publicly against mauling Iraq, given his government sinecure. Since Congress is busily renaming french fries (which are actually Belgian) "freedom fries" and "french toast" "freedom toast," along with enacting various economic measures against France (how dare they have an opinion of their own!), they will no doubt soon get around to abolishing the post of poet laureate as punishment for Mr. Collins' impertinence. Or perhaps, though, they'll just strip him of his laurel crown, like Vanessa Williams deposed as Miss America and sent off in disgrace, though not nearly so attractive...

My point is that such simple and simplistic correspondences between art and society do not exist and never have. It is odd that an
aesthetic-intellectual tendency which insists so on poetry as an autonomous language practice also so often insists on a view of literature as nothing more than an ideological epiphenomenon of society (which, as Marx reminds us and too many soi disant leftists forget, is _not_ a seamless totality, but riven, rifted, and conflicted). Adorno, for one thing, presents a much more nuanced view of the complex and shall we say over-determined nature of the relation between these two entities. Even Althusser's tautologically totalizing system allows for the semi-autonomy of art.
I should point out that Mr. Shepherd's comments were preceded and followed by some complimentary and courteous gestures that I see no need to reprint here. Here is the bulk of my reply:
First of all, I'm not sure I ever conflated conservative poetics with conservative politics in the way that you say. I'm fully prepared to concede that there are poetically conservative poets with impeccable left-wing credentials, who have found the language and the tradition more or less as given adequate to their purposes, and of course the Modernists you mention were no democrats (more on this below). There is of course no one-to-one correspondence between one's aesthetics and one's politics. But I do recognize a continuum between the big-P Political language that is being utterly debased for quasi-fascist purposes ("regime change," "shock and awe," "possible war") and the small-p political or cultural language that may be coming from the East Wing of the same White House ("there's nothing political about American literature") or from the desk of a self-appointed cultural commissar like Joseph Parisi who "sees just about everything" at his $100-million magazine. I think a poet who approaches language with a remaking rigor, with a desire to either show how dirty it's become (what I've elsewhere called "re-representation") or else to break through its clotted surface to express what's been covered over, is better equipped poetically, and _perhaps_ politically, to produce a text adequate to the crisis. I'm glad you mention Marilyn Hacker, whose work I respect a great deal: I'm not sure I would call her poetically conservative because I feel her formalism (aside from having a great ear behind it) has that breaking and resetting rigor that I demand from a poem right now. I am passionately interested in formalism, which is why I once wrote sonnets like "Kimono"; it's just that I became interested in different sources and traditions of formalism (from Baudelaire's prose poem to Pound's poem including history to Olson's projective verse to Language poetry) than those espoused by the New Formalists.

Your point about the generally fascist tendencies of many of the high Modernists is well taken, but relies perhaps on an overly symptomatic
reading of their work. As I initiate myself into Modernism studies, I am continually struck by the connections to be made between the poetry and prose of Stein, Eliot, Lawrence, et al, and the thought of Martin Heidegger, both early and late. The late Heidegger's arguments for aesthetic autonomy, for the world-founding powers of art, resonate with the early Heidegger's insistence on achieving authenticity in one's life through one's Being-towards-death, which is supposed to perform the work of "clearing" that makes it possible for Dasein to shape its individual destiny--a destiny that is most vivid outside of the socio-phenomenological boundaries that form the ordinary distracted person's world. A large part of the Modernist project seems implicated here, and the dissertation I'm working toward formulating will probably be devoted in part to showing how Heideggerian the poetics of the Modernists is. Of course, invoking Heidegger exposes and makes more plain their fascist tendencies, and I do not want to shy from this. Fascism has left an ineradicable stain upon the Modernist project, but I want to argue that there are strains of repressed resistance in Heidegger that manifest similarly in the poets. Just as Levinas' ethics of the face is
impossible without working in, through, and against Heidegger's thought, the poetically and politically radical work of the Objectivists, the Black Mountain poets, and of course the Langpos is inconceivable without the high Modernists. Whatever the political sentiments of Eliot, Pound, and Stein (sentiments that I would concede are not extrinsic from their work), they have opened an aesthetic realm in which the poetical and the political can make contact and influence each other in new ways. Stein may have rejected the New Deal, but her work clears a space for a powerful feminist and lesbian poetry far more radical than anything Roosevelt dreamed of. Pound was a fascist and an anti-Semite but his work makes Charles Olson's rediscovery of lost American histories in his poetry possible. Eliot's politics were stultifyingly conservative and his loathing of the sexual body almost comical, but "The Waste Land" is probably the first and best model in
English of a poem that deconstructs different socio-political registers through an almost Benjaminian dialectical pastiche.

...The poetics/politics or aesthetics/ethics nexus has been troubling my sleep for years, now. The dissertation is one place where I'm hoping to work out some kind of strategy for dealing with the divide, and the blog has become another.
Okay, now here's what he had to say to that:
You have misinterpreted my point about the Anglo-American Modernists, with whom I have lived in a happy agon for quite a long time; my position regarding the relationship of their too-frequently very dubious politics (the conservatism of which often involved a recoil from the unfamiliar and the Other seen as threat to the integrity of the beleaguered self) to the interrogations and explorations of their poetry (which occurred and for readers still occurs in exactly that land of unlikeness) is exactly the opposite of that which you seem to impute to me. I also wish to make it clear that I don't consider conservative or even reactionary positions as equivalent to 'fascism,' a term that is thrown around all too casually as an all-purpose political pejorative. Conservatism, at least in Europe, is often antithetical to fascism, which is after all a phenomenon of modern mass society, exactly the thing that someone like Yeats despised. I call Pound a Fascist because he proclaimed himself one, and did the work for Rome Radio to prove it. I don't think that precise thinking can occur without precise speaking and writing.

Allow me to clarify. I disagree vociferously with those--unfortunately a dominant party in the current academy--who dismiss the work because of the personal or political failings of its author, or at best read the work as a symptom of the author's opinions, feelings, or social position: in fact, regarding literature itself as a social symptom. (As Eliot wrote, poetry is not the expression of personality and emotions but the escape from these things--with the understanding that only having these things, occupying and being occupied by a subject position, could impel one to wish to get out of or out from under them). I would argue strenuously (and in several published essays have done so) against those who read Eliot's poems, say, as symptoms of his politics (or his misogyny or repressed homophobia or what-have-you), or what could be called (borrowing from Dali) the paranoiac-schizophrenic collage method of The Cantos (in which each element automatically calls to mind an association that the poem, whatever the fragmentation of its surface, insists is intrinsic and intrinsically meaningful) to Pound's clear personal need to control everyone and everything around him, which is obviously one source of his attraction to Fascism and its specious claims to order and make meaningful every aspect of life. On the contrary, I consider those aspects of these writers to be the most mundane and _uninteresting_ things about them (as I responded when one of my Cornell students asked whether Yeats was a misogynist, "Yes, and that's the least interesting thing about him").

The Anglo-American modernist cohort was not and is not distinguished the mass of people of their time or, sadly enough, of ours by their socially normative racism, homophobia (sometimes internalized, and with the conflicted exceptions of figures like HD and Hart Crane), sexism, classism, elitism (which I mean in the social and political sense rather than in the too-loosely tossed around high cultural or artistic sense, in which latter sense, 'cultural elitism', I as a gay black man who grew up in Bronx housing projects and was to a large extent rescued by Eliot, I just don't believe--whatever the frequent and specious assertions to the contrary, poems don't oppress people, though social, political, and economic systems, including other people wielding and/or being the instruments of power, certainly do) (at the risk of being hyper-parenthetical, in this regard I quite object to pseudo-political pejoratives like 'cultural commissar,' as Mr. Parisi has no state-sanctioned or otherwise power to censor or silence, simply because he chooses only to publish certain kinds of work, work in which you might not be interested, in his journal--that is, actually, a part of rather than antithetical to freedom of expression). It's that their work, while rising out of their subject positions as socially situated individuals, also rises above those limitations (while still of course bearing their scars--Adorno calls style in art one of the scars of history), reflecting them in negation. As Adorno says (and I find Adorno a much more salutary thinker on art in itself and on art's relationship to society than Heidegger, who is too often deliberately mystifying and obfuscatory about
frequently banal notions of authenticity and truth, his articulations of which I do often find disturbingly conservative in their social implications), art takes the alienation on which capitalist social relations are based and sublates it, in the Hegelian sense, into the objectification on which aesthetic relations are based--with regard to lyric poetry, it alienates language from its alienation in everyday use, negating exactly that debased use of language (with the emphasis on use, and thus on mis-use) that we both, I believe, despise and fear in its power over our daily lives and the lives of millions of other people who are not lied to on a minute-to-minute basis but cut off from the means of apprehending and articulating their own experience in any terms but those shoved down their throats and ears. Certainly some poets (hello, Billy Collins, and goodbye too) and other 'cultural producers' (a telling term) also participate in that process of debasing language and thus occluding the world and our experience of it, however honorable their political intentions (I would grant no honor to Mr. Collins' poetic intentions).

For William Carlos Williams, poetry was a mode of attention--anything could become not only the subject of a poem but a poem in itself (a note pinned to the icebox, for example) if the proper attention were paid to it, and this is a model of living in the world and actually seeing it (the life springing up along the muddy borders of the road to the contagious hospital that is death), that realm of things existing not as the objects of what Horkheimer and Adorno call instrumental reason and Lyotard calls performativity which Kant calls the kingdom of ends, freedom itself. Whatever Eliot may have "thought" (and his best poems, at least, exhibit a mind too find to be violated by ideas, as he wrote of Henry James, in the sense that they enact the process of feeling/thinking rather than laying out the conclusions to which one comes after one has discarded that process--this latter state of certainty afflicts the Four Quartets, much to their detriment), his poems enact that same exploratory openness to an experience of word and world. Having recently taught "Prufrock," "Preludes," "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," and The Waste Land, I was struck by the way in which the last section of The Waste Land, What the Thunder Said, in contrast to those other poems which are willing to enact their multiple dilemmas--social, historical, psychological (and, yes, spiritual), economic, sexual, aesthetic--without claiming to be able to resolve them, pulls back from the presentation and exploration of situation into the attempt, however tentative or tenuous, to claim possession of A Solution, which turns out to be "Find God": a real let down from the rest of the poem's willingness to explore rather than merely answer questions. As Yeats said, poetry is what we make out of what we _don't_ know. But again, as I tell my students all the time, we only care about any of these author's personal or social opinions (including Eliot's Christianity--even if one were a believer, Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu, to name the three possibilities the end of The Waste Land offers, one wouldn't need to read Eliot's poetry for the sake of faith) because we care about their poems.

It's exactly art's semi-autonomy that allows it to both posit a realm beyond the imperatives of capitalism in particular and social/political/economic power in general and to acknowledge and even insist on that realm's impossibility or at least its present inaccessibility--when it doesn't acknowledge this, when what Adorno calls art's promise of happiness claims that it can be fulfilled in the world as it is, it's not art but mere escapism, a lie that tells a lie rather than a lie that tells the truth. Speaking of Barnes and Noble, to which I myself much prefer Borders, and speaking also of the odd and unexpected circumstances in which one can find a glimpse of truth (and only, as in Frost's poem, a glimpse, and momentary--for once, then, something), last week a banner in the music section of Pensacola's local branch displayed a remarkably and apparently utterly accidentally Adornian quote from someone of whom I've never so much as heard, one Edward H. Howe: "When people hear good music, it makes them homesick for something they never had, and never will have." I would say that thing is freedom, where people and things exist for their own sakes and not for the sake of profit or power or some other end extrinsic to the actual existence of the entities of the world.

So on the issue of the Modernists and their heritage, I believe that we are in agreement. I was simply questioning the implied equation I read in your web log between aesthetic tendency and political tendency.
Still here? Okay, here's the latest and last component of our exchange, sent by me:
It does in fact look like we are in fundamental agreement about the importance of the Modernists and the "happy agon" (a happy phrase) many contemporary poets have with them. I was interested and moved by your statement that you felt yourself to be "rescued" by Eliot--he and Stevens were the two poets who had the most impact on me when I was a teenager and it's a tribute to poetry as an art form that they can and do stimulate and provoke "a gay black man who grew up in Bronx housing projects" as much as they did this straight white Jewish boy from an affluent Jersey suburb.

I've been planning to read Adorno's Aesthetic Theory for some time, and your e-mails only make my encounter with his thought seem that much more urgent. I'm familiar with Adorno--I've slogged my way through Negative Dialectics and Minima Moralia is one of my favorite books of philosophy--but it's becoming clear to me that his contribution to aesthetic theory will be crucial for my understanding of the topic. One reason Heidegger has appealed to me, for all his wilfull obscurantism and Nazi utterances, is that his notion of art is one that builds something (bilds something?) in the world, something that newly arranges human relations both to other humans and to the self, as well as to that vexed and nearly forgotten thing called Nature (this is what he calls somewhat ponderously the "fourfold" of man, the gods, the sky, and the earth). Adorno's essential negativity frustrates me, even as his "corrosive postmodern no" provides a devastating and necessary
critique of the administered world (something nearly equivalent to Heidegger's "world-picture" or technological "enframing"--he has a lot more
in common with Adorno than the latter would like to admit). So I haven't given up on the notion of art's at least having an influence on the actual world (as much, surely, as the actual world has upon it), on its ability to press back on "reality" with all the considerable force of the Stevensian "imagination," and on its role as a vehicle for imagining other possibilities, even if a genuine utopia must always be no place. This is why pastoral interests me and will probably become the organizing trope for my dissertation. I believe that Modernist poetry contains the seeds of both a negative pastoral and an erotic pastoral. "The Waste Land" might be a negative pastoral, in that it suggests an unrecoverable but much-longed-for whole through its mosaic of fragments--a mosaic which as you point out is falsely resolved in the poem's final section. This kind of pastoral is death-haunted, constructing a Being-towards-death for the speaker who arrives at his authenticity at the cost of a sociality which always contains an erotic dimension ("Prufrock" is another good example of this). Erotic pastoral is the strain in Modernism that celebrates rather than recoils at the tropes of the Heideggerian inauthentic (idle chatter, curiosity, ambiguity), that finds new worlds in which the possibility of a heroically "inauthentic" sociality become possible. Stein and Woolf's opening of a field for women, the domestic sphere, and a specifically feminine/lesbian eroticism is a good example of this kind of pastoral. Perhaps the most paradigmatic Modernist for what I'm talking about would be D.H Lawrence: [in Women in Love] Birkin's weird conception of marriage as two stars locked in orbit around each other yet somehow "unaffected" by each other is a tortured attempt at a compromise between a valorization of the authentic self
being-towards-his-death and a valorization of being-with-others, of erotic and ethical engagement with them. Negative pastoral rejects the inauthentic, which means it rejects all possible political spheres except perhaps for a single collective blut-und-boden; erotic pastoral does engender an ethics but it puts an emphasis on privacy that can make the political seem irrelevant. Williams might offer a useful alternative: his Arcady is Paterson, N.J. and grounding erotic pastoral in a particular place with a particular history might open up non-authoritarian political possibilities. I'm still working these ideas out, obviously, and I expect they will change considerably, perhaps beyond recognition, as I continue to research pastoral, aesthetics, Modernism, and Modernism's Romantic/Victorian precursors.

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