Tuesday, January 11, 2005

I've refrained up to now from commenting on the latest Joan Houlihan essay, this time on Best American Poetry 2004. Partly because I haven't felt moved to defend the latest BAP: it's a series I feel ambivalent about anyway, and the latest issue just demonstrates once again how poor a job most anthologies do at creating the conditions under which they can be successfully read. That is, they need to provide some context, a point of entry, which Houlihan clearly feels frustrated at not finding both there and in general with "post-avant" poetry. Of course by now she's had plenty of people willing to explain it to her, and if they explain it in high, shrill tones it's a consequence of her blinkered, polemical, often ad hominem style, for which she has only herself to blame. I've succumbed to shrillness myself in the past, but I'm older and wiser now and I'm a Libra to boot, so I'm willing to try and take on for a moment the task of village explainer. It seems to me there are two major issues worth addressing in Houlihan's latest essay and in her series in general: the post-avant as church and the (un)nature of writing.

I'll tackle the second question first because I and others have already devoted a lot of virtual ink to it. The overall title for Houlihan's essay series, "How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem," basically contains the key to it, and the simplest rejoinder to it would be, "You say that like it's a bad thing." In that title Houlihan hits upon the whole organic/inorganic debate that I took up in December and which was continued here, here, here, and here. To recap, the argument here stems from my reading of Peter Bürger's book Theory of the Avant-Garde, from which I derived the notions of the organic artwork or poem as that in which all of its parts are subordinated to the whole—to the poem's poemness—while in the nonorganic poem the parts are not so subordinated—the whole, goal, or telos of the poem is exterior to it, located in "reality." From there I suggested that all poems can be located on a scale, Kinsey-style, with 1 being entirely organic and 6 being entirely nonorganic. Not surprisingly, nowadays most poems produced by younger poets fall somewhere in the middle, and you could make a game out of assigning a "Kinsey" number to various magazines and publishing houses (Fence 3, New England Review 2, Aufgabe 4, The New Yorker 1, Syllogism 5, and so on). Pure 6's are very rare, more the domain of individual poets, while 1's are still quite common. Nonorganicism in poetry generally takes the form of a greater or lesser degree of parataxis or montage (often formalized into constructs like the ideogram, the New Sentence, etc.). Its original goal was to put ordinary means of language, and the ideological structures they support, into question; nowadays most people who introduce a nonorganic dimension into their work are after a particular aesthetic effect, but the possibilties for political critique still attract many writers. That slippage from radical attack on poetry-as-given to a style is why Bürger suggests that the nonorganic mode is no longer to be preferred to the organic, which means both can coexist as styles precisely because both are equally inadequate for re-imagining a world that, to paraphrase Richard Hugo, is inadequate as given and will not do. I'm not wholly persuaded by this; my reading of Adorno has suggested to me that there's still something valid, even heroic, about the modernist project of presenting the usual hierarchical means of meaning-production with a sufficiently complex NO. At the same time, I'm a bit of a classicist at heart, addicted to my own aesthetic responses, and that's why I think my own poetry rarely rises above a 4 on the organic-nonorganic scale. One thing I am convinced of is that meaningful critique cannot happen in a totally organic poem, whose materials are so cynically reduced of materiality. That's why I have trouble embracing the notion of someone like Anne Winters as a Marxist in any meaningful sense. She may well be a Marxist outside the poem, but her brand of formalism creates a tight seal around the events and objects (such as terrible labor conditions) inside her poems, rendering them too pretty to have any of the vigor of negativity. If there's one thing we have too much of in this society, it's uncritical affirmation; I want my poetry at least to slow way the fuck down before it says "Yes" to something.

Now the above is something reasonable people can disagree on—a true cultural conservative, who thinks the culture we have under capitalism is either just ducky (these folks tend to be populists) or else who think we need to somehow resuscitate old values in spite of the fact that the modes of production that created those values are gone. They're wrong, of course, but a person occupying either of those positions can support organic poetry with a clear conscience. But the second thing that Houlihan brings up in her latest essay in particular is the problem of evem getting to a place where one can agree or disagree. This is not so much the question of "bestness" for me as it is the question once again of how to read this stuff. Houlihan accuses those of us who get pleasure from the nonorganic of belonging to a church or cult that has rendered itself immune to all criticism. One might reply that immunity to nakedly hostile and uninformed criticism is not such a bad thing, but really her complaint should be taken more seriously than that. Whatever the demerits of Houlihan's position as a critic, as a reader we have to take her seriously (it's clear that she represents a large number of angry, befuddled readers). Simply put, she feels excluded from the church, which has set off an understandable Groucho or sour grapes effect in her. Now I hope I make it clear in this blog at least that it is possible to talk intelligently and in more or less plain English about modernist and post-avant poetry, so the whole "immune to criticism" thing is bunk. I could launch into an excursus on any one of the poems in BAP 2004 that frustrate Houlihan's understanding: I could talk about the political-feminist critique attempted by Andrews' masscult montage poem, for example. But I doubt I could persuade anyone to feel pleasure at that or any other single poem, because the pleasures of the nonorganic as practiced in North America since WWII require an education that most people don't bother to seek out. It's an acquired taste and the cultural education that not only constitutes the taste but encourages you to acquire it (no one likes their first sip of beer but there are any number of cultural markers and pressures that persuade us to keep trying it until we do) has been privatized. That is, there is scarcely any form of public education any longer—even at the university level—that makes it possible for the average intelligent person to access the necessary range of reference (the context, the framework) to read even an organic poem with pleasure now. We get a massive and profuse education in "reading" other media like movies (and to a much lesser degree, nowadays, novels) from birth in this culture: nobody you bring into a movie theater will have trouble choosing a good seat, much less be unable to realize that they're supposed to face the screen and turn the images their into representations of human beings like themselves. But that's the level of illiteracy most people bring to poetry now, because poetry on the page (spoken poetry is alive and well in rap and advertising) is no longer taught in any meaningful public way. It's a private acquisition that you might inherit from your parents or else obtain from long labor after fortunate contact with other private individuals who have "got it." Those who get enough of this education by luck or diligence or fortunate class position (a few people are still privileged enough to get genuine liberal arts educations in this country) might then be satisfied with the pleasure they are able to obtain from organic poems whose range of reference (or again context or whatever) they are now equipped to interact with. It's a smaller minority still who continue their education into the greater difficulties (and more sophisticated pleasures) of the nonorganic, and who have the corresponding willingness to "be modern," which means to accede to their limited and limiting position in a culture which marginalizes and represses any practice capable of putting that culture's values into serious question. The more educated you are, the less content you are apt to be with the way things are; the vulgar demonstration of this appears in the statistics showing college-educated people voting overwhelmingly for Kerry in the last election.

The education of one's desire for the pleasures of poetry does indeed resemble a process of initiation, which makes Houlihan's metaphor a reasonably sound one. And it makes sense that she, a practicing poet, a grown-up for heaven's sakes, wouldn't want to assume the posture of submission demanded of initiates. Young people and students are generally more able to muster the necessary humility to receive knowledge from elders and Those In The Know, eventually becoming one of those elders capable of bestowing intitations themselves. The rebellious and those who have already educated their tastes to a considerable degree will balk at this, and it's hard to blame them. But while many poets actively embrace the model of initiation (Robert Duncan is the most famous example) and many more passively practice it, I prefer my own model of public vs. private property. It's more secular, and it also turns the moral equation around—so that avant-garde poets, instead of appearing as a privileged priesthood that anyone with democratic instincts would want to throw rocks at, appear as private citizens seizing the cultural birthright that has been denied them, and all of us. If they keep it for themselves and only grudgingly admit others capable of passing the tests they administer, the situation hasn't really changed and they're a coterie worthy of contempt. But I don't really see this happening; instead I see an incredible and wide-ranging effort from Silliman on down to to disseminate the education of desire, to teach, to turn against all odds their privately obtained education back into the public thing, the res publica, that it was always meant to be. That's why there's such a strong emphasis on community among post-avant writers and that's why poets-as-teachers is a positive good and not something to be lamented. And that's why I celebrate blogging as a means not only of providing more direct access to writers for more people than has ever been possible before, but as means of narrowing the gap between "reader" (one who passively receives) and "writer" (who thinks/creates). As I've said before, my utopia of poetry is a world where EVERYONE is a poet, in which all voluntarily assume the pains and pleasures that come with the highest possible sensitivity to language.

But there's more to teaching than making proclamations, as Eric Liu points out: a great teacher is firstly a great listener and also of necessity a great manipulator, who—if she is genuinely great—is worthy of our trust. That's what makes the promotion and fomenting of avant-garde writing and the pleasures of difficulty so damned, well, difficult. Those of us who believe passionately in this work need to do a better job of listening, and of being worthy of trust.


Laura Carter said...


I'm gonna pick one of my "state-school" bones & ask how you'd define a liberal arts education, & what exactly the necessary frame of reference for an organic poem is. How far does that extend? How is it delineated over 16 weeks? Over 10? I agree with most of your notions here: my education has been somewhat frustrating to me, as I'm now finding out for the first time, almost finished with grad school here, what all I haven't learned.



Maybe those of us who are underprivileged, so to speak, should give up all hope on the quadrivium.

Forgive my ill response here.

Laura Carter said...


And now I've just come from "form & theory" with Paul Fussell & lackluster.

So let's stick together, OK?

Laura :)

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