Saturday, July 16, 2005

It's all Harry Potter all the time here at The Bookery, where I'm filling in for someone who was up late running the Harry Potter Party. I've resisted this phenomenon for a long time—I read the first book and found it derivative and a little dull. But now the second book is sucking me in and I've decided I don't want to miss out on one of the defining literary events of our times—the last ride, perhaps, of the 19th-century novel as we've known it.

Following the discussion of what we might call the spiritual turn in American poetry from Jane and Jordan and Jasper. The notion of ethics-as-transcendent strikes me, as it strikes Jordan, as Levinasian—Levinas' radical ethics seems to offer something like an experience of the sublime through the abasement of the self before the other (which in turn makes me think of Kristeva). But abjection isn't quite the right way to describe the posture of vibrating "I" that's always an other to itself in the poems of the camp messianists. Certainly they resist the enforcement of abjection, the mandatory modernist melancholia, even in the face of tetchy serotonin receptors. I'm suspicious of the conflation of ethics and transcendence, ethics as pathway oceanic feeling: maybe that's my latent Judaism coming to the fore, feeling ethics is more negative (Thou shalt not) than positive (the experience of contact with the divine). Or at least more a matter of behavior than spiritual posture. Like Jordan, I often read theological gestures in contemporary poetry in a materialist or semi-materialist fashion, and overtly Christian poetry is a turn-off. But like Jasper I can be fascinated by someone who really plumbs the depths of Christian experience, or fascinated/repelled. It's easier for me to take George Herbert's faith over that of a contemporary. Not sure what the role of the spiritual is in my own poetry; obviously I take a certain amount of language from the Bible, and I'm heavily influenced by the messianic strain in the great modernist Jewish writers: Benjamin, Kafka, Adorno, Jabes. (I have special affection for Benjamin for his this-worldliness, his uneasy affection for consumer culture—Benjamin is the major player in the "camp" side of camp messianism prior to the coming of the gay devotees of the New York School.) I've never set out to write a "spiritual" poem, not one that was any good, anyway; yet my poems are riddled with metaphysical speculation, gestures toward the invisible, and the like. I'm often uncomfortable with how much Christianity has infiltrated my thinking: it's so much the water you swim in as a Westerner that it's nigh-unavoidable, especially in this country where the supposed secularism of our postmodern age is far less visible than the innumerable emblems of the "Buddy Christ." You can't be an assimilated Jew without, well, assimilating. There are specifically Christian notions—that of being born again, for example—whose emotional power is difficult to deny, even though I'd rather affirm the sentiment on a bumper-sticker I've seen, "Born O.K. the first time." Stories of resurrection and redemption are endemic in our culture, and they reach you when you're young: the fantasy narratives that have meant the most to me are strongly, if latently, Christian (and I'm shivered with ambivalence over the new Narnia movie—it looks fantastic and the books meant a lot to me as a kid, but they're now being celebrated by the same people who made Passion of the Christ a hit). Whereas the ecstatic side of Judaism is only available to initiates and I don't speak a word of Hebrew. Yiddish has always held more appeal for me as the living language of my actual flesh and blood, and for its own remarkable, often deprectaory flavors: schmaltz, schmendrick, schmuck. I loved Leo Rosten's books when I was a kid, and I still remember most of the dumb jokes in The Joys of Yiddish. But see, I'm already straying back across the blurry line between Judaism and Jewishness, between religion and culture. Where I live, more or less, when I'm not just inhabiting the skin of another blundering American.

Via The Reading Experience I've read Timothy Burke's intelligent discussion of the infamous anti-blogging article at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Naturally I'm a little nervous about the negative impact Cahiers might have on my professorial prospects, though I think most readers would agree that it has more of an academic than a diaristic tone (not necessarily a strength qua blogging, but oh well). But the point about "guild controls" is what interests me the most, and gets more directly at what I was saying the other day about literary journals with what we might call "guild apparatus" versus those that don't (not that a journal like The Hat doesn't have an apparatus—it's just a more casual one, implicit in the particular social and aesthetic networks whose intersection it is, mostly invisible to those not in the know). The uproar about poetry contests tends to envelop those who have a stake in the guild authorization being selected by Judge X provides; it has little or nothing to do with publication for the sake of being read. Though it may also have something to do with wanting to be guild-affiliated for its own sake: for those without adequate social skills or opportunities it may seem like the only path. Naturally this produces a divide between academic poets and non- or anti-academic poets, them as has a c.v. and them as has a resume or a head-shot or who are without portfolio entirely. I'm firmly esconced in academia, obviously, and I think the college classroom has an important and necessary role to play in the dissemination of poetry; but I have a strong dislike for any sort of restriction on the flow of poetry and its social energies (I'm reminded of Ezra Pound's hatred of passports). So I will continue to operate in the twilight zone between professional necessity and the socio-aesthetic imperatives of blogging, small presses, independent reading series, etc., hoping that no one I respect or would want to work with will hold it against me.


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