Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Another Joshua writes in:
Dear Josh,

Just some comments about two passages I noted on your blog recently:

"I tend to value community the same way I value use of constraint in my actual writing: if you are active and conscious in choosing your constraints and limitations, I believe you are less likely to be conditioned and determined in ways you are unconscious of: constraint can be an effective weapon against ideology. The artists I admire most keep moving without getting permanently lodged in any one formation, stylistic or otherwise—every "yes" with a "but" after it."

How does consciously choosing constraints or limitations inoculate one against ideology? Do not the constraints chosen and the limitations praised themselves constitute an ideological approach to the text -- a virtuous, or sophisticated one, perhaps, but nonetheless a product of the material conditions and personal circumstances of the poet him/herself, in this case, a combination of the cultural cachet of "post-avant" poetry and the author's own taste? One way you could answer this would be to suggest, following Michel Léris, that constraints (in the Oulipian mode) offer up the fastest, most effective route to the unconscious -- but that answer doesn't break any new ground, formally speaking. We've been after the unconscious since the Surrealists, perhaps before. Moreover, substituting the poem as a product of the unconscious for the poem as product of ideology does not necessarily bring us to a more intimately ethical relationship with the poem, unless we're prepared to suggest that every reader is a potential analyst, with the tools for
decoding the transmission of the unconscious into consciousness, etc.

"I still have hopes for my poetry that it will be able to break out of overly restrictive categorizations and make that ethical appeal to the largest possible audience. But I can't achieve that by pandering; I can only write what my impulses,
and my sense of my historical moment, seem to demand."

I'm detecting here, behind the impulse to make it new, another force: that of the market. Would it be fair to say that, behind the lip service paid to a left-Hegelian critique of social consciousness by the "post-avant" poetic culture (if we can speak of one), we can find a real engagement with market forces as determining factors in the creation and dissemination of works of art? Hence, for example, the proliferation of blogs among poets in the recent issue of Hat, as noticed by Silliman in a recent post. Post-avant poetry may be best understood as a sub-category of the poetic market, rather than a sub-category of poetic practice, (since all practices, even artistic practices, even innovative or subversive artistic practices, become commodities in their own way).

Also, regarding the poem as an address to the beloved (mentioned in a previous post) see Allen Grossman in The Sighted Singer.

Anyway, I enjoy the blog. Keep it up.

All best,
Joshua Adams
Right. I will address these issues in reverse order. Re Grossman, I have been fascinated and half-persuaded by his arguments for some time, even as I find his over-the-top Romanticism makes for an inadequate account of poetic possibility. I do find the idea of writing for a Beloved a powerful one, and perhaps the necessary completion of the circuit in lyric poetry. In more discursive or meditative poetry the Beloved might be conceived in a more public way: hearing rather than overhearing.

The "lip service to a left Hegelian critique of social consciousness" suggests the same skepticism that a number of the Language poets have expressed regarding the work of younger poets who they perceive as having adopted the techniques of Language poetry while discarding its political formations. I think a number of post-avants, though by no means all, have a much more "activated" political consciousness now than they did in the 1990s, and that consciousness sometimes emerges directly in their poems. At the same time, the new consciousness about markets (and/or "the context of production") does strike me as having continuity with Language poetry and the NY School (the "last avant-gardes"), both of whom were very active in creating the necessary conditions for their own reception by starting magazines, presses, reading series, etc. It's easy to be cynical about what you might call the "market exceptionalism" of the post-avants, who in various ways seek to subvert or overcome the institutionalized poetic economy, especially when these poets end up participating in that economy (by winning prizes, taking academic jobs, publishing with commercial presses, etc.). But I don't think we can discard the question of poetic practice so quickly—or rather, practices, since once of the manifest pleasures of post-avant writing is the incredible diversity of styles and subjects it manages to incorporate. It's true that any kind of style of writing can be commodified: it's the interaction between text and praxis (as apparent in the DIY ethic of many post-avants, in their critical maneuvers, in their teaching) that keeps alive the dream of use-value, aura, the poem as good and not commodity. This is admittedly regressive in comparison to radical avant-garde practice, which seeks to destroy art in its artness; but this strategy has been for the moment set aside in favor of a cautious humanism and respect for the contingencies of daily life—with actual poems (as opposed to theory) being one of those contingencies. The poem that helps you live another day, without acting as a narcotic—that's what I sense many of the poems in The Hat (the post-avant magazine of the hour) are trying to be.

Finally, "innoculate" is a stronger word that I'd use: no technique, poetic or otherwise, will protect you from ideology. My logic is simply that if you don't choose your constraints, your constraints will choose you. Choosing constraints can be a first step toward becoming conscious of the context of production and its manifold determinations: it can be the opposite of a sleeping pill. I would agree that simply invoking the power of the unconscious as the Surrealists did is an insufficient response to ideology: if you follow Freud and Lacan, the unconscious is created by the pressures of the Real that can never fully come to (Symbolic) consciousness. In other words, your unconscious is full of junk that the overdetermining world was dumping in there long before you had anything like an "I." Still, it's a source of energy, and its paths of emergence are complex and unpredictable enough so as to be a partial shield against overdetermination. Rigorous critical thinking is the most reliable weapon against the dominant ideology, but as Pound remarked, you can't move 'em with a cold thing like economics. One of poetry's primary functions is to re-open closed paths of affect: the best post-avant poems help me feel both the bite of the iron cage and the breezes between the bars. Of course community, or "cachet," can be its own cage—but perhaps the tradition of the post-avant is more flexible than our habitual ways of thinking about it. Maybe it is just the Romantics all over again—look at that quiz that's going around—only with groups and subgroups taking on the glamor that once belonged to the singular author's name. But we're still looking for contact with another's consciousness when we read. We're preparing to meet the stranger. We yield the floor to another I. Yes, every reader a potential analyst, but better, as I've claimed and will claim again: every reader a potential poet. Pick up the pen of yourself. Make a mark.

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