Reading Sherry Weber Nicholsen's Exact Imagination, Late Work: On Adorno's Aesthetics. There's a very useful discussion in the first chapter on how the "loss of the language of tonality" that occurs in twentieth-century classical music puts a tremendous burden on both composer and listener. Substitute perhaps "traditional forms" or "living poetic tradition" for the "language of tonality" and I think it works as a description of the difficulties faced by modernist and late-modernist poetry. The loss of a common language or usable cultural context results in some composers/poets to resort to extremes of systematization or aleatory technique: the paradigmatic example, riding the slash, is John Cage. Here's Nicholsen:
In this situation, the subjective consciousness of the contemporary composer cries out for relief from the tremendous burden of being alone and unsupported in the task of grappling with the historical situation. In support of this notion of the overwhelming burden of authentic composition for the contemporary composer, Adorno cites Webern's very short pieces and Berg's very limited outpout, as well as Schoenberg's long silence after the intense short period in which he composed the Erwartung. In this light, systematization and rationalization along the lines of serial music become a form of relief for the composer, as does aleatory music with its randomization. In both cases, the moment of subjective grappling with the material is liquidated, which achieves the same result as the assimilation of the dead totemic "classics" to the prestige circuits or the culture industry. Music becomes what Adorno calls ichfremd"ego-alien." But given that the compositorial subject must still have some intention of creating something coherent, even if it is the coherence of fragments, something that the responding subject can "follow along" with, it is not clear what is possible (45-46).Of course even in aleatory or highly rationalized works there remains a residue of subjective investment and intervention. Our best chance for mining the elusive intention behind a difficult fragmentary yet highly rationalized work like "A or aleatory work like that of Jackson Mac Low might be to imitate it, to follow along with its construction: as active readers or co-creators we perhaps supply the subjective element repressed in the work itself. Or as Adorno remarks in Aesthetic Theory, "If works of art imitate nothing but themselves then the only person who can understand them is the one who imitates them" (quoted in Nicholsen 17). But that of course demands a great deal more of most readers than they're willing to provide, as Nicholsen goes on to point out:
Similarly, the listener, who must be able to follow the particular in its quasi-logical relationship to the whole at any point, likewise without the support of tonality, must have a degree of concentration that will be as overwhelming a burden on him as it is on the composer. There is no longer any preestablished harmony between the general and the particular such as tonality afforded: "The perceiving ear, attuned to that harmony, feels itself overwhelmed when it has to follow unaided the specific processes in the individual composition in which the relationship of the general and the particular at any particular point" ([Adorno's essay] "Difficulties," 283). This demand for increased concentration comes at a point and in a cultural system in which there is an increasing demand for sameness and repetition and a correlated hatred of otherness and difference. In this context, Adorno notes that the demand for "feeling" in music, which sees as, in reality, a demand not for feeling but for sameness, is a version of the anti-intellectual ressentiment that is both the expression of the individual's leveling and a response to the individual's being overwhelmed. In this situation, then, as the demands and difficulties entailed by enlightenment in the sense of increasing freedom from convention and the past become apparent, there is an increasing temptation to regress and to retreat to some kind of apparent security (46-47).I find this accurate and useful when transferred to the scene of experimental poetry today, if by "experimental poetry" we mean that poetry which feels "constrained by history to deal with the most advanced musical [poetic] material available. The 'musical material' does not mean the state of musical technology [that is, the most advanced techniques, borrowed from the Language poets or whomever], although that is not irrelevant to it, but rather was has alraedy been created for musical experience that is not eroded. In other words, it is what provides the experience of increasing freedom, openness, newnesswhat most demythologizes musical [poetic] conventions that were formally accepted without question" (33). While I feel sympathetic to those who demand more emotion from contemporary poetry, for some sort of newly sincere lyricism, I can't help but wonder if what's really being asked for is the familiar: emotion recognizable as such because it's delivered in a package whose novelty is entirely and deliberately superficial. Maybe it would be useful at this point to distinguish between emotion and affect: I can't pick up a magazine right now without reading poems clearly inscribed by or triggered by some sort of emotion, but what's comparatively rare are poems that register a palpable affect of fear, delight, affection, etc. What I'd like to see more of is a poetry based on the twin value-streams of obligation to its historical moment and the pursuit of increased freedom, but whose urgency and reason for being or reason for address (its occasion) carries an affective whallop. I want to be moved, but not necessarily in a familiar or comfortable direction. Kent Johnson's Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz is affective in this way (and let me also parenthetically point toward this excellent review of the book); other recent affective books that come to mind include Ben Lerner's justly praised The Lichtenberg Figures, Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, Jennifer Moxley's technically unrecent Often Capitalpoets whose ambition is underwritten by urgency and who actually succeed in transmitting that urgency, moving at least this reader.