Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Lots to track in blogland today. Jordan has conducted an astute analysis of what we might call the crisis in poetry reviewing today. I think he's right on and his proposal for a "hypothetical poetry paper of record" that would nurture the kind of reviews that are "amusing to write, and to read" worth strong consideration. And I'm still following the discussion of poetic difficulty that seems to have its center at Say Something Wonderful, where the conversation has split into two conversations: one about difficulty and indeterminacy (Robert Archambeau today asserts their identity at his Samizdat Blog), the other about indeterminacy and spirituality ("the unreadable in pursuit of the ineffable" in Eric's pungent phrase). I think Mark Scroggins has come closest to articulating my own position on that score: opiate as painkiller. But that sort of thinking doesn't disintegrate the spiritual; it compels us to imagine new forms. In a society where no one had to look to some transcendental plane for the imaginary fulfillment of real needs (for justice or love or food or medicine), who knows what new directions the religious impulse might take?

If there's a common thread in all this it might actually be located in Robert's deliberately impertinent obituary for the age of indeterminacy in poetry. Literary techniques evolve as a response, direct or indirect, to social transformation: only when such transformation nears completion (as in Jameson's thesis about how postmodernism fulfills modernism's promise of total technologization, at least in developed countries) does a given technique harden into a style, then soften into a decadence. We are all now it seems casting about for something we can only call the post-postmodern: on the right new fanaticisms join hands with the old feudalisms in a gigantic tidal wave of reaction, while on the left we seem to faced with the untimely choice between the endless ramifications of identity politics or the forging of a new universal class. This doesn't translate directly into poetry, but the aesthetic promulgated by Poetry shows that the basic conditions of Charles Altieri's "scenic mode" still obtain twenty years after he first descried them in Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Altieri stages the conflict out of which the scenic mode ("scenic" refers to the tendency to create little narrative scenes within which is staged either a post-Confessional "intense moment of psychological conflict" or the extension of the "evocative metaphor" of the original set-up or scene, as in the now-proverbial "dead animal poem") emerges as one between "lucidity" and "lyricism." The former stands generally for the empirical rationality derived from the Enlightenment while the latter is "a term applicable to all attempts to use what literature can exemplify as a model for affirming in ostensibly secular forms predicates about the mind, person, and society that were the baic images of dignity and value in religious or 'organic' cultures. The pressure of lucidity drives writers to react by developing psychic economies that can restore a world compatible with our imaginative forms of ideal personal qualities" (13). (Stevens' "reality" and "imagination" could stand in for Altieri's "lucidity" and "lyricism," I think.) All modern poetry participates to some degree in this conflict, I'd wager: the approach of the scenic is that of extreme modesty—I am tempted to call it cowardice. In reaction to the perceived failures of the grand gestures of the modernists, the scenic poets "try more limited, personal ways of resolving or minimizing the conflict." So:
Without hopes for changing society, poets nonetheless try to move and console those who must suffer its contradictions. So the contemporaries tend to develop plain lyric stances capable of satisfying society's empirical standards for explanation and representativeness. This process allows them to treat their lyrical features as continuous with practical experience—six perceptions in search of transcendental vision. When the moments of vision are asserted, the empirical context helps naturalize them. The poet need not argue for any special properties of the mind or nature that might authorize visionary insights, because these sudden moments of illumination can appear self-authoring so long as they occur within anecdotal presentations devoted to a form of dramatic coherence we find in our standard descriptions of action. (14)
I hope this little passage impresses readers with Altieri's own formidable lucidity: I think this book or at any rate its introduction ought to be required innoculatory reading for all new MFA workshop participants. Because if you've taken a poetry workshop in the last fifteen years you know that these are still the predominant and unstated assumptions which it takes a considerable amount of polemic or stubbornness on the part of teacher or student to bring into the light. But even if the scenic mode was in 1984 an understandable response to unsupportable grandiosites, its historical legitimacy as an evasion of "lucidity" is long exhausted. The question Archambeau raises is whether the various forms of indeterminacy that he outlines are now equally exhausted, equally invalid. (I am reminded of Peter Burger's contention that there was, after the avant-garde and under late capitalism, no longer a meaningful political difference between "organic" and "nonorganic" art.) In one respect, I think the answer is no: as I've said many times, I think the fostering of a capacity for negative capability in readers is an absolute good that poetry can produce and still a legitimate mode of resisting almost entirely successfully the reductive intelligence of the ratio. But in another respect yes, because it is has been possible for a while to adapt indeterminacy as a style whose detachment from late-capitalist market logic is no longer a meaningful one.

Whence then the new style? Or rather, precisely that mode of artistic engagement that is not a style, that takes on a public space in which the unimpeded "lucdity"
of the commodity-real is contested only by the apocalyptic "lyricism" of imperial glory and the Christian Right? It will have to go beyond the synthesis of New York School faux-naif lyricism and Language poet hyper-lucidity that so many of my contemporaries are working out in often fascinating ways. I think now of Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, which I've praised before, and Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs: two incredibly moving variations on the elegy which from different angles seem intent on recapturing the possibility of a universal subject—not by pretending to a plain style, but through arias of grief and, in Spahr's case, erotic contact with the fading now of awkwardly pluralized "Beloveds." Among other things, it's a marvelous and much-needed document of the continuity between personal love and political love, rendering permeable the barrier between eros and agape. When I read a book like that and feel its necessity I know I'm onto something new. Not that I want to unnecessarily denigrate the pleasures of style (a good dead-animal poem is not a priori impossible) or the possibilities of decadence: I think of someone like Jeff Clark as a poet who consciously and deliberately chooses decadence, plunges head-first into it, and may yet find another side. Last thought: the category of indeterminacy hardly exhausts difficulty. I don't think that indeterminacy is a primary mode of Jennifer Moxley's, for example: her writing is challenging because it's intensely critical of every one of the poet's traditional tools (a stable and singular speaker, euphony, metaphor, you name it) but it doesn't surrender those tools or camp them up. If she's indeterminate she's indeterminate like that fox Milton, who as Stanley Fish has shown uses the indeterminate play between line and sentence to surprise us by sin. Moxley constructs a supremely ethical and self-correcting persona, the accompanying of which is a painful pleasure for this reader. Maybe it's time to talk about indeterminacy as jouissance. Maybe not.

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