Okay, I'm ready to inflict my dissertation prospectus on y'all. It has many modifications ahead of it, I'm sure:
Radical Modesty: Modernist Versions of Pastoral
Chapter 1: Introduction
This dissertation will propose new versions of pastoral as it has been practiced by formally innovative writers of the twentieth century. Pastoral as I conceive it is an imaginary poetic site characterized by its substitution of a logic of voluntary aesthetic association for what Peter Bürger has called “the means-end rationality of daily bourgeois existence” and, additionally and especially, the logic of domination and exploitation which attends all known means of organizing production within states and their institutions. By “voluntary aesthetic association” I mean both the representation of a radically democratic or anti-authoritarian ethos within the poems and the communitarian, anti-institutional association of poets themselves. Modernist pastoral is negative in character, but it is not allegorical, monadic, or utopian; that is, it is not a point-by-point negative image of the society it criticizes. Instead, it is a highly self-conscious image of life without domination and exploitation that exists on an ahistorical margin between a nature mediated by myth and a world reified by industrial capitalism; it constitutes an aesthetic space that refuses sovereignty over the nonaesethetic and is in fact constantly threatened by it. Pastoral ideology is easily mistaken for a fantasy of unmediated contact between the subject and nature, but it is more correct to say that it is a fantasy of an ecologically immanent, non-exploitative relation between the subject and the other (whether that other takes the form of exterior nature, other humans, or the unconscious). The mediating agency in pastoral is aesthetic judgment, which amounts to a cognition of Gelassenheit: letting the thing be. By this means aesthetic judgment comes to constitute an ethics, albeit a seriously limited one. The dissertation will explore pastoral as an aesthetic and ethico-political site as it manifests in the work and careers of four major twentieth century movements in Anglo-American poetry.
Chapter 2: Aporias of the Field, or the Pastoral Fragment
For the high modernist writers I will be concerned with, the limitation or weakness of pastoral becomes its strength, for in their work its primary and unintended function is to disrupt and de-center both capitalist modernity and the mythic totalities that these writers have assembled in opposition to that modernity. The pastoral moments in high modernist writing tend to exceed and undermine those writers’ own mythic intentions. In this chapter I will examine one or two major modernist figures (Pound, Williams, Lawrence, Woolf, and Stein are the most prominent potential candidates) whose mythic, often anti-democratic projects are disrupted by shards of pastoral imagery. Insofar as pastoral describes an alternative form of life, writers like Lawrence and Williams use their vision of non-exploitative engagement with nature to attack the social formations derived from capitalism. But in their longest and most ambitious works, the pastoral images fragment and undermine their prescriptions for a new totality. These fragments stand as firmly opposed to bourgeois capitalism as each writer’s larger project of coherence does, but they also resist that project’s authoritarianism, returning the human face at least momentarily to the center of a poetry predominantly concerned with new hierarchies of the exceptional. In the writing of Ezra Pound, for example, the figure of Thomas Jefferson acts as a kind of residual pastoral object, whose resonance as a symbol of rural, small-d democracy becomes the aporia within Pound’s valorization of Mussolini. Later, in the Pisan Cantos, the poet’s wretched condition once he is caught up in history (as opposed to capturing and reshaping history within his poem) makes it possible for him to rediscover compassion for those excluded from his painted Fascist paradise, and that “there / are / no / righteous / wars”. The poet turns to nature for moral relief: “Neither Eos nor Hesperus has suffered wrong at my hands”. (The “Lynx” Pound appeals to throughout Canto LXXIX may be a reference to the lynx in Virgil’s Eclogue VIII, “awestruck” by the songs of the shepherds.) And the famous “What thou lovest well remains” passage in Canto LXXX invokes the pastoral as a rebuke to Pound’s own epic ambitions : “Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down. / Learn of the green world what can be thy place / In scaled invention or true artistry”.
Chapter 3: Being with the Poem: Objectivist Pastoral
Pastoral became increasingly important to the Objectivist generation that followed Pound and Williams; as modernist poets whose leftist political commitments came into direct conflict with their writing practices, they ultimately sought to make their opposition to hierarchy and exploitation manifest itself within their texts themselves. The Objectivists extended Imagist principles to establish the ideal of the poem as an object occurring as naturally (or unnaturally) as any other object in the world, one thing among others, and thus wholly opposed and resistant to both instrumental/discursive and mythic/symbolist deployments of language. The anarchistic tendencies of their pastoral become especially clear here: by rejecting the mythic language as firmly as it rejects the instrumental, Objectivist writing attempts to diminish representation in poetic language (that is, the notion that a poem must symbolize or stand for something) as much as possible. This extends the principle of Gelassenheit to the poetic word itself—yet the results can be quietist, a re-assertion of the poem’s autonomy rendering it as “harmless” as the poetry that reinscribes the dominant ideology. A discussion of the poetry of Oppen and Zukofsky, who often deploy pastoral tropes, will be mingled with a discussion of their changing political commitments.
Chapter 4: The New Arcadias
Pastoral inverts the normal hierarchy by which cultural values are assumed to be the ideological superstructure of the economic base, produced by the feudal, capitalist, or communist organization of that base. Instead, Arcadia’s is a gift economy driven by the exchange of cultural products rather than commodities—archetypally, the shepherd’s song. This suggests that the small, extra- or anti-institutional poetry scenes of the twentieth century—Stein’s salon, Black Mountain, the Spicer circle, the New York School—had a strongly pastoral dimension. (The “An ‘Objectivists’ Issue” of Poetry, being an entirely imaginary gathering of poets not otherwise closely associated, might offer us the most genuinely pastoral literary scene of them all.) They also participated in the anti-authoritarian ethic of pastoral, standing opposed to and outside of the prevailing institutions of cultural value that were participants in capitalism and the state—this is nowhere clearer than in the 1950s, when loyalty oaths and the persecution of homosexuals revealed the universities as the ideological state apparatuses that they were. Jack Spicer’s “Pacific Republic” and Black Mountain College under the rectorship of Charles Olson were two pastoral anti-institutions that briefly thrived during this period. While the substitution of aesthetic values for all others and the anti-democratic, authoritarian stances of Spicer and Olson ultimately doomed these Arcadias, they managed to foster the New American Poetry that would eventually pass into and transform “official verse culture.” Perhaps the most purely pastoral poetry of the period—though a distinctly urban pastoral—was being written by Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler of the New York School—this may call for another, separate chapter, however.
Chapter 5: Pastoral Re-Visions
In this chapter, I want to look at the work of postmodernist poets for whom pastoral becomes the site for the re-emergence of visionary subjectivity; Robert Duncan and Ronald Johnson are the most likely candidates here. Duncan, of course, is the poet of The Opening of the Field and is an unapologetically “mythical” writer who appears to subscribe to a notion of sovereign aesthetics: that is, aesthetic knowledge is paramount and supersedes the theoretical and practical logics of modernity. Insofar as pastoral represents a withdrawal from history, Duncan’s work appears to withdraw too far into esoteric traditions that form a kind of alternative or counter-history. Duncan’s position is arguably most pastoral not in his poems but in his correspondence with Denise Levertov, in which he argued for the critical power of the imagination over her insistence on engagement with current historico-political realities. But I believe his poems also enact a dialectical struggle between esoteric vision and a more bodily, earthly vision. Also, his refusal to fetishize originality and his sense of himself as a “derivative” poet continues the Objectivist tendency to view poetic and cultural objects as objects in the world, literally “natural resources” for the poet. Ronald Johnson’s writing extends this tendency of Duncan’s even further and makes the connection between poetry and nature explicit: Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s daffodils are democratized into mosaic fragments that go into the construction of the garden/structure/spaceship that is ARK. Johnson’s notion of epic explicitly excludes history, pace Pound, which returns ARK to the zone of pastoral at, perhaps, the expense of pastoral’s critical power. His revision of the first four books of Milton’s Paradise Lost as RADI OS might offer a more promising version of pastoral, as he exchanges Milton’s authoritarian theodicy for a vision of free imaginative creation and love.
Chapter 6: Soft Architecture
Language writing in some ways extended the textual anarchism of the Objectivists even further: Ron Silliman’s influential book, The New Sentence tacitly equates the hypotactic subordination of sentences with the hierarchical subordination of human beings. The practice of the new sentence, which was meant to bring about an increased awareness of “syllogistic movement,” was further intended to create new and alternative modes of poetic organization (as explicitly advocated in the essay, “The Political Economy of Poetry”). While historically, Language writing was explicitly utopian and doctrinaire in its aims, some of the contemporary poets influenced by that movement have engaged directly with pastoral as a way to critique social and poetic practices: I am thinking especially of the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson and the Australian poet John Kinsella. Both use pastoral to critique contemporary historical realities: Robertson’s Xeclogue takes on the gendering of space, while Kinsella’s work examines environmental devastation and the pollution of both real and imaginative spaces. I will conclude the dissertation with a look at Robertson’s “Office for Soft Architecture,” a mostly imaginary collective that envisions a Ruskinesque “decorating” or “softening” of the hard edges of modernity through a close attention to surfaces: “the chaos of surfaces compels us toward new states of happiness.” “We are the Naturalists of the inessential,” the Office writes—a statement that gestures toward the openness of pastoral and the potential it continues to have for imaginative critique and freedom.
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