Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Yesterday's post by Tim Yu continues the conversation about the relevance of the political/historical to Language poetry and more generally to the old question of what genuinely political possibilities exist for poetry. Tim's explanation of the position held by Watten, Hejinian, Bernstein, et al, is that it's the historical context (i.e. Vietnam, the 60s, Watergate) that its formal devices were deployed in that give Language poetry its political edge. This fascinates me: it's not what you do formally that matters, but when. Given the disaster that is our field of "current events" (as neat an evasion of history as the name they gave history classes when I was in junior high, "social studies"), does a disjunctive or New Sentencey poem that I write today take on a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E luster? What happens to the poems I'm publishing now that were written before 9/11; is their "aestheticism" more or less "mere" because of our new historical circumstances? The title poem of my new book refers to Gulf War I as "the war / that we've forgotten / mostly." How has this poem been revised by the dead hand of history? Can I resist this kind of revision? Should I even try?

We're in history and we can't write it as it happens. Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project is an archaeology of the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, because he knew he could not achieve a sufficiently dialectical perspective on events as they were happening. He hoped that his assemblage of quotations and "dialectical images" from nineteenth century commodity culture would set a stage that would make it possible to more fully understand what was happening now—that's as close as he got to writing a history of the present. Thematizing current events in poetry feels inevitable right now, but it isn't history; we lack the perspective. Barrett Watten's Bad History is as good an example as I can think of of a successful history of the present, but even he had to let a few years slip by between the events (or more properly the language of the events) he deals with and the writing, or at least publishing, of his own text. The curious thing about Watten's book is that I feel it has as much or more to tell me about the world we live in now as it does about the 1990s which are its ostensible scope. Maybe dialectical stage-setting is the best we can hope from from this kind of poetical-critical writing. Thinking about the generational resentment Tim has pointed out, a resentment I sometimes share, I find myself wondering what sufficiently dialectical histories of the 60s have been written (if you can think of some please e-mail me), because that might be a way to understand the monadically bursting NOW a little better. I see no hope for moving beyond the models of 60s-style protest (which seem so unsuccessful at the moment), both in politics and in poetry, without a strongly historical understanding of the circumstances that those models arose from, which might in turn lead to an understanding of how our circumstances differ.

I'd like to defend "mere aestheticism" but I haven't the time right now. I will say that I find Benjamin's unfinished book to be extremely pleasing aesthetically. What fascinates me the most about it is how he managed to turn the moment of sublation, of dialectical turnover, into an aesthetically tangible experience akin to the moment of waking up.

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