Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Bogie has yet another suspicious bump on his hind leg and we're feeling very anxious about him. He'll most likely have to have surgery again and maybe chemotherapy. I hear dogs don't react as badly to that as humans do, but I don't want to put him through it unless absolutely necessary. It's difficult to make decisions for a creature that can't speak, and who seems so healthy to boot.

In an effort to concentrate on work I found myself working on a possible job letter this afternoon—even though I don't think I want to apply for jobs just yet. But I'm happy with this paragraph I came up with to describe my dissertation. See what you think:
My dissertation, currently in progress, is titled “Nothing But Flowers: Pastorals of the Avant-Garde.” In it, I argue that the ancient genre of pastoral is alive and well in the poetry of the Pound-Williams tradition, specifically as a mode of critique in which images of nature and poetic microcommunities are used to negate one or more institutions of modernity (such as industrial capitalism, heterosexual marriage, or the national security state). Pastoral is a more restricted and limited mode than the utopian: rather than attempting to construct a new totality, it creates a palpably imaginary space to which the poet temporarily retreats from a history characterized by domination, patriarchy, and commodity reification. The nature of this imaginary space is both representational and textual. Pastoral images recur in most of the major longpoems of the 20th century (The Cantos, Paterson, “A”, The Maximus Poems, Duncan’s “Structure of Rime” series, and Ronald Johnson’s ARK), serving to negate the logic of capitalistic relations and, in the case of Pound, to undermine the poet’s own totalitarian impulses. But these poets are concerned not only with new relations between people and things, but people and language as a thing (this thinking is at the heart of the Objectivist project). Therefore pastoral also manifests, literally, in the page as field, which makes it possible to imagine new relations between words beyond the syntactic and semantic. Another way to put it is that pastoral constitutes an imaginary economy in which language is equated with the power of the natural world to shoulder the burden of production without either exploitation of that nature/language or the exploitation of labor/meaning-producers. While pastoral has a mostly fragmentary position within modernism, I argue that it increases in importance with the decline of the Left as a mass movement after World War II. Louis Zukofsky’s move from the utopian and Marxist poetics of the first half of “A” to the pastoral and domestic poetics of the second half is paradigmatic of this. In some ways, avant-garde pastoral reaches a culminating point in the work of gay poets like Frank O’Hara and Ronald Johnson, who actually propose to live within their textual gardens (with a subway handy in O’Hara’s case): as Johnson wrote in “Shake, Quoth the Dove House”: “let us call it Arden // & live in it!” I will conclude by examining contemporary work by Lisa Robertson, John Taggart, and others who explicitly engage pastoral as a means of negotiating the divide between the two most influential movements of the postwar period, the New York School and Language Poetry.
Part of the impetus toward doing this was the surprising fact that I'm going to be profiled next week in the local free newspaper, the Ithaca Times. One of the questions is about my dissertation, so I was forced to come up with a few reasonably accessible sentences about it; that in turn helped me to come up with this somewhat more technical version. One happy result of the Zukofsky conference for me is that it immersed me in an absolutely current dialogue about experimental poetics and left me with a new confidence about my ability to say something that would be both interesting and coherent. Of course it's a long way from this paragraph to a finished dissertation—another reason I might shelve this letter for use next year. But you never know; it might be worthwhile to start applying for jobs now, just for the practice.

Working on the long poem a bit tonight, which right now I'm calling "Kiosk/Stylus." Not very graceful, but I often do better with a placeholder title to cathect my energies onto than I do without any title at all.

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