What with flarfists and anti-flarfists at each other's throats and a stark, team-choosing choice being offered up in Austin between the official (epitomized in this case by the Legitimate Dangers reading) and the officially unofficial, I've never felt wearier of po-biz partisanship. At its best it's a source of the vital energy that comes from self-investment in an aesthetic and community. At its worst it's a thin excuse for narcissism and bullying. Right now more of the latter seems in evidence than the former. A useful tonic for now and the plane-ride to Texas is Adam Zagajewski's book of essays, A Defense of Ardor. I've only read the title essay so far, but Zagajewski's perspective is an immediate and immense relief for the following reasons:
- His "four periscopes" that combined provide him with both a deeper historical and broader geographical perspective than most young American poets can bring to bear: "One, the main one, is turned toward my native tradition [of Polish literature]. The other opens out onto German literature, its poetry, its (bygone) yearning for eternity. The third reveals the landscape of French culture, with its penetrating intelligence and Jansenist moralism. The fourth is aimed at Shakespeare, Keats, and Robert Lowell, the literature of specifics, passion, and conversation."
- His use of the two opposed philosopher-characters of Mann's The Magic Mountain to illustrate the modern schism in "the poetry of the cosmos" that in my view may ultimately provide a more useful and dialectical understanding of the trends in poetry variously described as raw vs. cooked, flarf vs. actual, post-avant vs. SoQ: "Naphta's demonic whisper and the humanitarian discourse of Settembrini." Zagajewski summarizes one of the major arguments from Charles Taylor's book Sources of the Self to illustrate the schism: "in our age, Enlightenment values triumphed in public institutions, at least in the West, whereas in our private lives we abandon ourselves to Romantic insatiability. We go along with rationalism whenever public, social issues are at stake, but at home, in private, we search ceaselessly for the absolute and aren't content with the decisions we accept in the public sphere."
- His advocacy of "Ardor, metaphysical seriousness, the risky voicing of strong opinions"a standpoint that has been all but abdicated to the political and aesthetic Right.
Zagajewski's essay helps me track a number of trends as well as my own dissatisfactions. It seems to me that the aesthetic Leftmost especially Language and post-Language writingwith its affinities for European literary theory, Marxism, and intellectualism generally, represents a surge of public-Enlightenment values into the private-Romantic sphere reserved for poetry, an incursion which causes continual outrage on the private-Romantic side that manifests alternately as poo-poohing, anti-intellectualism, sphincter-tightening, and genuine worry that the private sphere defined by the Romantic poem (often but not necessarily connected at least unconsciously with the values of private property) might vanish or stand revealed as the fragmented nexus of consumerist desires. Poetry, in short, that is explicitly concerned with the social, and which either in itself or in its mode of production represents a challenge to the model of poetry as either a private and ephemeral pleasure or, more seriously, as a genuine, arduous, and singular path toward vision and transcendence. I'm enticed by the idea of a combination of the two modes, dreamed of half-cynically in the full title of Bruce Andrews' I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) or ardently by Adrienne Rich. Anyway, to my mind this sets up a problematic triangle (but hey, at least it has three points!):
A - Social formalism, which tends to be critical, antimetaphysical, constructivist, and politically engaged (both in terms of content and in terms of the scene of production). It can dry, abstruse, with a deliberately repellent surface; it can also often be very funny. Flarf and other forms of the anti-poem serve largely to illuminate the social field of poetry as such, but at their furthest aperture they drench all manner of meaning-making machinery from the puerile to the perverse in pitiless light. Logopoetic practically by definition; friendly to melopoeia, which it finds generative; takes a hostile or ironic stance toward phanopoeia. Negative capability is a prerequisite for further construction. Modernist and postmodernist.
B - The private-romantic: the poem as guarantee of some minimal subjectivity (legroom in coach) through a stage-managed epiphany that claims to stand free of the social largely by virtue of its ragged right margin. Or rather, its authority is derived from some institutional structure whose hegemony it serves to conceal: this is the sort of thing Adam Kirsch and the other Contemporary Poetry Reviewboyslike, a stance toward poetry that always begins with the question, What to make of a diminished thing. Practitioners tend to make a fetish of either accessibility or tastefulness. Phanopoetic image-making is its stock in trade; its melopoeia tends to be either facile or rigid; its logopoeia generally restricts itself to allusions and heavy-handed allegory. Its negative capability derives principally from exhaustion, from indifference, or else it doesn't exist at all and yields happily to dogma. Anti-modernist or symptomatically postmodernist.
C - The metaphysical-romantic. These are the rare poems that dream big, whose private clearing begets a cosmology, whose withdrawal from the social is truly generative of vision. It enacts what Zagajewski, drawing from Plato, calls "metaxu, being 'in between,' in between our earth, our (so we suppose) comprehensible, concrete, material surroundings, and transcendence, mystery." It's difficult to privilege any one aspect of the three major dimensions of poetry, but I would say it goes primarily by ear, with logopoeia serving to generate an intellectual context (something like a "poetry of ideas") and phanopoeia generally providing relief, a touching place on the earth. Its negative capability most resembles Keats': a mode of attentive listening. In the twentieth century it's best represented by the strain of modernism coming out of Rilke and Stevens.
Whereas the trouble with Poetry B is, for me, self-evident, the trouble with A is that it tends to deny C or else attacks it as bourgeois and complacent about social conditions (including of course the social conditions of poetry). It can be mistaken for B, for its compositional space is generally conceived of as private; at the same time, though, that space is ec-centric, not a stake plunged into the hard turf of tradition but a metaphysical launching pad. It has the highest ambitions for poetry within the private-spiritual sphere to which poetry has traditionally been allocated (whereas Poetry A seeks to explode or implode that sphere). To imagine a blending of A and C is to flirt with theology, or at least the religious: it supposes that poetry could serve to organize a socius aspiring toward a particular transcendent, neither entirely private nor publica congregation, a "visionary company." But then there's the interesting question of audience: I think most people, when they go looking for a poem, are looking for C. Sometimes they find it, sometimes they settle for B. The average literate person is simply not aware that A exists, and when they stumble across it they are usually repelled. This in no way invalidates A: it stands far more strongly for some kind of alternative to life as sheer exchange value than B does, though such is B's pose. But I do wonder about C and the quasi-religious feelings that attend upon its readers. At its worst it can mirror the cliche: spiritual but not religious. At its best I still think it has vital work to do, and may even be the "soul" of poetry as such (or is A closer to that soul, if the soul of poetry is Talmudically to contest its own boundaries?). It does not lend itself very well to talk of schools and filiations. It can fall into anti-intellectualism almost as easily as B can. But it cannot and should not become the sole property of the Right. I think there must be a place for metaphysics in poetry, even provisional metaphysics. Poetry that proposes meaning. I am becoming more drawn into notions of ecology and panpsychism that would provide an alternative to either sheer constructivism or the mandates of authoritative tradition. Could that happen in a C poem? Or is an A-C really possible, really desirable?
On my way to Austin looking for answersor at least for better questions.
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