Monday, April 28, 2003

Yesterday I read Charles Altieri's "Afterword" to Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quatermain's book The Objectivist Nexus, in which he talks about how Objectivism represents a road not taken in the innovative poetry that came after—that is, Language poetry. He defines that poetry as having two poles, represented by Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein respectively. As I understand him, Hejinian represents a mode of writing that emphasizes the subjective mind's engagement with its own processes of verbal perception (which Altieri is at pains to distinguish from the narcissistic symbolism of mainstream poetry): "Poetry can only be defined as a process of making and finding gaps and connections charged with the mind's awareness of a life not reducible to any other less intense, combinatory mode" (TON 306). Hejinian's commitment is to a mind forced open and kept open to the contradictions it encounters; to do this she stands at a distance from the representation of things so as to focus on mental processes: it's a phenomenological poetry in which the phenomena are strangely muted so as to focus our attention on the clearing, or openness necessary for the apprehension of those phenomena. Language is the medium for this kind of work because it is endless generative of associations: "Language discovers what one might know, which in turn is always less than language might say" (Hejinian, "The Rejection of Closure" in The Language of Inquiry, 48). By contrast, Altieri seems to see Bernstein as being more strictly obsessed with rhetoricity, with the existing languages that are so to speak already lying around (and to) us, with breaking down the supposed naturalness and authority of any given piece of rhetoric (poetry as it has been traditionally understood is just another rhetorical mode for Bernstein). "And maybe now poetry is more useful if it no longer tries to purify the language of the tribe but teaches us to hear the various tribes whose values the demotic language simultaneously expresses and exposes" (TON 309). Hejinian dreams of forms adequate to openness: "Indeed, the conjunction of form with radical openness may be what can offer a version of the 'paradise' for which writing often yearns—a flowering focus on a distinct infinity" ("Rejection of Closure" 42). Bernstein seems to be more interested in content in the sense of the diverse phenomena of language itself (as opposed to whatever that language may supposedly represent), and content in this sense is the goal of poetry: "Formal dynamics in a poem create content through the shapes, feelings, attitudes, and structures that compose the poem. Content is more an attitude toward the work or toward language or toward the materials of the poem than some kind of subject that is in any way detachable from the handling of the materials. Content emerges from composition and cannot be detached from it; or, to put it another way, what is detachable is expendable to the poetic" ("State of the Art" in A Poetics, 8).

Altieri's objection would then be to an effacement of representation from Language poetry that takes place at both of its poles: the Hejinianesque subjective discovery of forms and the Bernsteinesque objective exposure of contents. Objectivism is the middle road because words are still permitted to represent both the world as the poet finds it and the poet him or herself as they are embedded in a particular historical situation. Furthermore, the politico-ethical valence of Language writing generally seems to be conceptual, extra-poetic: the theory produced by Language writers provides the transcendent horizon within which their practice operates. (Of course Language poetry supposedly problematizes or makes irrelevant the distinction between theory and practice, essay and poem—but Bernstein and Hejinian have both chosen to publish volumes of essays that are materially distinct from their poetry.) Altieri seems to believe that the ethical and aesthetic force in Objectivism is fully immanent to particular poems:
Objectivist poets have to resist Stevens' schema [imagination versus reality] as too abstract: his sense of pressure remains philosophical and therefore invites interpretations of the world rather than acts within it. Objectivism can preserve Stevens' overall model of poetry as counter-pressure, but only by adding a demand that this pressure manifest itself within the concrete situations that specific poems project as underlying the work of poetic composition. Only then will aesthetic choice be inseparable from existential choice, and poetry literally take on immediate ethical force" (TON 311).

I find this to be a very attractive idea, though it seems open to criticism when you start thinking about particulars. It seems to me that "concrete situations" remain largely transcendent to rather than immanent within most Objectivist works; or rather, the reader is required to bring a knowledge of the concrete situation behind a poem like Oppen's "Of Being Numerous" in order to unlock the existential and ethical force immanent to it. Obviously whatever historical context a reader can bring to a poem is useful, but shouldn't a poem be able to achieve some minimal effect without such context? (The lack of immanent context is probably the number one factor behind the perceived "difficulty" of modern poetry—the ideal reader brings the necessary context to the table, while the next-to-ideal reader learns to do without it and even to enjoy the possibilities engendered by its absence.) I also doubt that Altieri's dichotomy would stand up to rigorous scrutiny of the actual work of either Hejinian or Bernstein. But I do think that he has hit upon a useful description of two major tendencies in Language writing that can also be applied to the writers who fall into the otherwise unhelpfully teleological category of "post-Language." He has also made it possible for me to perceive, at least in part, what I find lacking in both of these approaches; which brings me a bit closer to understanding exactly what it is I demand from the poems I consider good, including of course my own.

The two books we're reading for the final session of Jonathan Monroe's class "Contemporary Poetry & Poetics" at Cornell would seem to represent Altieri's dichotomy as it has manifested in the work of a younger generation: Daniel Davidson's Culture and Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary. The intensely abstract language of Davidson is only relieved for me by the context provided in Gary Sullivan's afterword to the book, in which he describes Davidson's art as "in some essential way intended to be a kind of site-specific, confrontational activity" (Davidson 121). Gary's descriptions of Davidson make him sound like an impossible person, pissing off people he met for the sheer hell of it because "Dan simply wanted himself and his art to exist in a state of total confrontation" (`122). He also sounds like a terribly sad person. The affective power of "Bureaucrat, my love" derives from this bit of biography that Gary has provided: "He had been, after all, at the mercy of bureaucrats—who doled out his SSI and Medicaid benefits—the whole time I'd known him. Reading Bureaucrat now, I see the broken man Dan was, sitting endlessly in offices, waiting to resolve this or that red tape issue, simply so he could get medication, food, rent money" (123). Here's a piece of the poem that took on considerable power once I knew this:
Staring outward she approximates a statue that thinking absorbs and
                         disgorges after all the sound of cursing and
                         denial in this interview you have forgotten
                         my eyes.

But there is one name spoken do you harm the talk you call from me?

Opening you a sheepish grin a fair brocade of red write a simple
                         letter a typical object the shape hammers away
and now we are at the center of the world link palms and predict (58).

It's funny, actually: open the book at random and read a few lines or sentences and they all seem pregnant with meaning. From Bureaucrat:
Lack is itself what is used
                         withstands justification
                         superficial definition.
Prudently one is removed from the discussion

Wouldn't want anyone, with one exception.

Shared takes the bounds, enters a distance.
Winsome within the abstract, the procession.

Attracts, handles the transgressive.
That a single body of wants disguises.

A single match is a dangerous thing. Then its light.

In the stadium of hours, the solace of the paralysed
is refreshed. Home occurs with a vengeance,
club of the mind to see.

Stands the accused, the void, the voice (71).
Words revive in union with their object, under ground and semblance.
after a fragment of success, a moment of involvement striking sound,
                                   striking earth.
Elsewhere, the prow allows as if a river of technique, triumph
                                   of assumption.

Foreign, distant, the long version spring of neutrality. Knowledge
                                   which lacks,
unfolding stories of reason and task as talk can aspire to.
To fortune bringing up a show of fingers, against the spine.

To read the book (or books) as a whole is then to follow a restless mind discovering its own experience moment by moment, with the connections to be filled in by the reader. But I for one tend to find this immensely fatiguing. If I can't find some context (and I would hate to suggest that it's only biographical context—not that there isn't an obvious political context to the spectacle of this man's humiliations at the hands of the State) for these kinds of perceptual acrobatics, I tend, literally, to fall asleep. There's nothing there to hang onto at all on a first reading; a second reading will at least take place in the context of the first, so that you might more easily identify recurring words and tropes. Davidson's language is remote from any concrete referent, while being itself abstracted from any concrete sense of the signifier. His language isn't sensuous at all, nor does he offer much in the way of images. The elusive pleasure of this work (and it's a pleasure that still more often eludes me than not) is in the suppleness of Davidson's mind, his transitions. Look at that piece of Image: the way "one is removed from the discussion" (of the "one's" fate?) and becomes an "exception." Next there's the notion that that common space suggested by "the discussion" has become the "shared" which depends upon boundaries and distance, "winsome" in the way it has been rendered into "the abstract, the procession" that the "one" is presumably no longer part of. That hovering "one" is the "single body of wants" that disguises the "transgressive" which could only be transgressive if there is an outside to the "discussion," an outside that was "prudently" created at the beginning of the poem. The "single match" of the next line suggests the lone one whose "body of wants disguises" the transgressive could also light the transgressive and hurl it like an anarchist's bomb; "single match" also implies a dangerous contact between two people. Without this fire, however, there is no light. The passage of public time refreshes "the solace of the paralysed" (the paralysed body politic?) and "home" then occurs: the spatial "home" is transformed into a temporal event which is then likened to a weapon, the "club of the mind to see." They who have the power to declare what is "home" have power with a capital P. But outside still stands "the accused [I almost typed "the accursed"], the void, the voice": the naked Other who has made both stadium and solace possible.

At least that's one reading: you can see how it's possible to closely read work like Davidson's. And Culture is short: there are works every bit as abstract whose sheer length completely defeats any desire I might have to read them. The relative brevity of Davidson's work (and the sad fact that there will be no more of it) makes it easier for me to contemplate the labor required to get some kind of context out of it. It's fairly easy for me to forego the concrete, objective, representational and/or narrative dimension in poetry. What I find much harder to do without is the beauty, euphony, wit, and sheer play of the signifier—the signifier made concrete—and this is the bountiful pleasure that makes Sleeping with the Dictionary so much more immediately delightful. Many of the poems do bring a context, a weight of reference, that I can engage with—consider this paraphrase of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130:
Dim Lady

My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon. Today's special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen tablecloths in Shakey's Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such picnic colors do I see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouthwashes there is more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my main squeeze wheezes. I love to hear her rap, yet I'm aware that Muzak has a hipper beat. I don't know any Marilyn Monroes. My ball and chain is plain from head to toe. And yet, by gosh, my scrumptious twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any lanky model or platinum movie idol who's hyped beyond belief.
Mullen's themes—race and sexuality, consumerism, and the value of literature—are all obviously present in this poem, but on the way to those themes it's impossible not to yield to the sheer delight and insouciance of her rhythms, diction, rhymes, and alliteration, all embedded within a fair imitation of Shakespeare's syntax. To put it in Freudian terms, the manifest content here is a genuine carnival. By comparison Davidson's work is Lenten and latent—his carnivalesque isn't intrinsic to his language but lies transcendentally above or beyond or below his text, a source of energy that can't be traced back to its source. Mullen brings in so many things into her work: the cultural detritus of brand names, people's names, cliched phrases (she perhaps inevitably sounds a bit like Ashbery in this mode), and everyday objects. Her energy is rright on the surface, in the way words suggest each other or share letters or belong to overlapping discourses. Even where the cultural or historical context isn't clear, I feel much more permission from Mullen to bring in what pieces of context I can find. What if, for example, the Otis and Will in this poem were Otis Redding and William Shakespeare?
O, 'Tis William

—Is it Otis?
—I'm. . .
—Otis, so it is.
—Am ?
—'Tis Otis.
—I am. . .
—So, it's Otis.
—I am William.
—O, Otis, sit.
—O, I am Will.
—Sit, Otis.
—It's Will.
—Is Otis to sit?
—Is Will, so sit!
—O, will I?
—Will Otis sit?
—I'm William!
—O, will Will sit?
—I will sit.
—So sit, Otis!
—O, I will sit. I am Will.
—So sit, Will.
—I'm William. So I am! I will sit!
—So sit still, William.
—O, I am! I sit.
—Otis, sit still!
—I am still William!
—Otis is William.
—Will is William.
—William is Otis too.
—O, I am William! William is Otis! Otis is William!
I am Will! Otis too! O, William Otis, it is! I am! (55)
God, I love this poem, the sheer exuberance it finds in its carefully impoverished materials. It's very Steinlike, it's even very Will-like—Mullen's affection for Shakespeare is obvious, even as she contests the authorities that have been set up in his name. The thing about her poetry versus Davidson's is that I recognize it more intimately—it's easier to imagine the state of mind in which Mshe wrote her poems than the state of mind in which he wrote his. Maybe this is a failure of empathy on my part. I am certainly not ready to conclude that Davidson has less to offer me; I just think I don't know quite how to read him yet. I lack the impulse to reject what I don't immediately understand; I wonder if I should stop worrying about readers who do have that impulse. It's much easier for me to imagine teaching her book in my creative writing class next year than it is to imagine doing the same with Davidson: partly because I understand what she's up to better, but mostly because I believe the students will have an immediate and visceral response to her book that I can't imagine them having to Culture. Still, I've developed an affection for both books and their very different modes of comedy (their disaparate techniques for ironizing their materials are recognizably comedic). As a poet, I lean more toward Mullen, but I feel I have lots to learn from the kind of subjectivity construction-work that goes on in Davidson (Mullen's subjectivity, or at least a certain recognizable tone, is much more stable than Davidson's). Neither of them of course are working that Objectivist middle ground that continues to attract me even as I puzzle over what it might mean and how it might work. How do you democratize your materials? How do you make it clear to the reader that your words, the things they refer to, your feelings about the words and the things, etc., all exist nonhierarchically on the same playing field? How do you avoid vertical/symbolic arrangement? Is this even desirable? What I'm groping toward, here, is the poetics that explains what the instincts I already follow might lead to. And if I can articulate that poetics, it might become a more flexible instrument. And my poetry will be able to grow in ways I can't yet anticipate, because I can't yet describe them.

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