Reading some of the responses to my comments and others on your web log reminds me that I really should use the internet only for email and buying things. The misreading of my comments is impressive and depressing. But then, in general it seems difficult these days to make a nuanced argument--people see things only in black and white, and insist on reducing one's arguments to simplistic parody. Tim Yu seems particularly determined to willfully distort everything I wrote, as evidenced by his cheap attempt to smear me with the Billy Collins brush, a strategy to make everyone who might disagree with him equally dismissible.
Simeon Dedeo thinks that I am a categorizer like Ron Silliman when I have been quite vociferously arguing against such fence builders as Silliman. As Tim Yu seems to have completely missed, my point in comparing Marilyn Hacker and Ron Silliman's
poetry was that neither is going to change the world politically or socio-economically, but that Hacker's work provides a more satisfying poetic, aesthetic experience than does Silliman's--and that is, after all, what poems are supposed to do, isn't it? The scare quotes around "mainstream" were precisely and obviously to indicate that it is others, again like Tim Yu, who would so characterize and dismiss me, not that I so characterize myself or my work. I might also add that the word "mainstream" referred to my publisher.
Since I began reading poetry in the 1970s, I have always been opposed to what I saw as contemporary mainstream American poetry, because it was boring and because in its neglect of poetry's verbal resources it was out of the mainstream of English
language poetry from the Elizabethans through the Metaphysicals to Keats and the Modernists. These are the writers who made me want to read and to write poetry in the first place, whose work is still the standard by which I measure my own work and that of others. But historical memory is also something that tends to fall by the wayside.
Also contra Tim Yu, I have indeed read Ron Silliman's blog and his readings of various poets and poems, but have usually found them unconvincing. Silliman has a lot of smart and interesting things to say, but his readings tend to be motivated
more by his agenda than by a close attention to the text. I am sometimes hard pressed to tell the difference between the poems that he praises and those that he dismisses, except, again, on the basis of their context and the poets' affiliations.
And his tendency to give a special pass to poets from approved ethnic minorities (like Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, whose poetry I rather like but don't find to be particularly "avant-garde") is just patronizing and condescending.
Such misreadings as I have responded to above are examples and results of exactly the kind of relentless, dismissive dichotomizing and categorizing that I've been arguing against. I think of Prufrock's complaint about "The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase." As Prufrock plaintively asks, "when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin..../Then how should I begin...?" But even though I would much rather that your various web friends read my poetry than my comments on your web log or even my published essays, I do want to clarify a couple of things before I withdraw from the fray. So please feel free to copy this letter onto your web log.
First, when I wrote of the misplacement of politics onto poetry, I wasn't intending to privilege politics--if anything, the opposite. Though I keep myself more informed than I would like to be, I tend to avoid political involvement, mostly because I see the world and this country in particular as more and more utterly and irredeemably hopeless. My main goal is to survive as long as possible. Poetry can and should, of course, engage politics as it can and should engage any of the material of this world, but poetry's function is, as I've tried to make clear, is not to be either a branch of or a substitute for politics. Picasso said that art is called art because it is not life, and I don't see why politics can't be politics and poetry be poetry--two distinct names for two distinct things. Poetry and politics are related, yes, but no more so (actually, less so, in material terms) than refrigerators and politics. Why can't poetry be allowed to be and do what it is and does? The demand that poetry be something else seems to me a symptom of the pervasive and long-standing denigration and devaluation of art in this country, so that even those who defend art feel that they have to do so in terms of something else more obviously important.
Second, I do understand that objectivity isn't possible, and that defining oneself against things that one isn't (or perceives or conceives of oneself as not being) is an important way in which identity is produced both as a person and as an artist. I certainly did a lot of it when deciding I wanted to be a poet in the late Seventies, aligning myself with Modernism as against the then-utterly-inescapable aesthetic of transparency, what Charles Altieri calls the scenic mode. But I also think, in
literature as in life, that it's important to at least make the attempt to be objective, because even if it's not achievable it can be approached in a meaningful way (as you can probably tell, I'm also not a relativist), and again, literature, and art in general, to me is about expanding the realms of the possible, not shutting them down, and I've often been surprised by what I've found in a piece of literature about which I'd had preconceived notions. And even though texts can't escape their contexts, they can transcend them (in the Hegelian sense of sublation); if they can't, I honestly don't see what the point of art is at all, or how it could communicate anything to anyone. I don't remember the exact phrasing, but Allen Tate wrote once of literature as a realm in which two contradictory things can both be true at the same time.
Third, when Tim Yu says, and you concur, that we are all post-avant-garde, what he means is that we are all post Modernist, in the strict chronological sense: we are all in the wake of the Modernists, of Modernism, especially when seen as an international phenomenon. All the poetic avant-gardening in the past thirty years or longer has basically been a process of people rediscovering the Moderns, turning over the soil, if you will, and rediscovering things that had been buried or at least lost sight of. (I include in that process re-seeing a figure hiding in plain sight like Eliot, who in his poetry and in much of his critical prose is far from the conservative curmudgeon he's made out to be or that he later made himself out to be.) I don't see anything--and I do mean anything--in so-called avant-garde work that wasn't done by the Modernists: collage, montage, pastiche, quotation, parody, juxtaposition ironic and non-ironic, fracture and fragmentation, ungrammaticalities and syntactic deformation, decentered subjectivity, non-referentiality (whatever that can mean as applied to language, which only exists as such as the nexus of concept, sound, and physical mark), critical or celebratory incorporation of popular culture, critique of mass society and capitalism, critique of art as a social institution, etc. There is nothing in the so-called avant-garde, from the New Americans to the Language poets to whatever the contemporary crew wants to call themselves besides "too good for everyone else," that wasn't done by the Modernists. There's nothing wrong with this per se (as someone said once, there is nothing new under the sun)--after all, none of us invented the English language either, or the
Roman alphabet, which doesn't mean that we don't have the right to use them or the potential to do interesting things with them. But as I said in one of my previous emails, there is a lot wrong with pretending that one came up with these techniques and approaches oneself, especially when one then goes on to congratulate oneself for one's daring and perspicacity.
If one is in the "avant-garde," then one is part of the leading formation of some army or another. Besides questioning at the teleological nature of such a conception (toward what goal is one moving? what exactly is the goal of poetry in this progressivist conception? I feel a grand narrative coming on), I also wonder just what one imagines oneself to be in the vanguard of? Why, to mention two of my favorite poets, is the work of Jorie Graham, whose work at its best is as complex
and challenging as anyone's, not "avant-garde," while the work of Ann Lauterbach is? (Or is Lauterbach not because she is published by Penguin?) I am asking about the work, not the people (though at this point Lauterbach is only barely less
established than fellow MacArthur Award winner Graham). And why, for that matter must interesting, challenging, difficult poetry be labeled or accountable as "avant-garde" in order really to be taken seriously? You've acknowledged the danger
that the term "avant-garde" turn into a synonym for "what I like" or even just "good poetry," but too often that's exactly how it's used. Perhaps you're right that it's time to retire the term.
And now I think that I will turn my energies to more fruitful endeavors, like reading some actual poems. The Canadian poet Tim Lilburn is quite amazing, if you've not encountered his work--I highly recommend Kill-site and To the River. I've been a bit disappointed in Christopher Dewdney's The Natural History, which I bought on the basis of your praise on your web log. It has many lush and lovely passages, but: besides being a bit repetitive and having a few too many big empty words like "mysterious," "profound," "vast," "unearthly," "eternal," and "infinite" (all this from one section of "The Cenozoic Asylum"), it plays a bit too fast and loose with natural fact for my taste. I'm a stickler for accuracy.
peace and poetry,
Thursday, May 05, 2005
Here's another e-mail from Reginald Shepherd, which I will post without additional comment for now:
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