Saturday, April 22, 2006

I've been thinking about a comment that was posted to the His Speech to the Graduates Post a couple of days from someone calling him or herself "snapshots." Here's the comment:
I’m am neither in academe nor will I ever be; although I do write poetry, or at the very least, like to think I try. I work in mortgage banking as a profession. I am familiar, to a certain extent, with Language Poets and am strangely intrigued by their approach to writing, what constitutes poetry, aesthetics, etc. I’ve read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus multiple times, as well as other texts that may or may not (depending on who you’re talking to) be important to Language Poets. But when I read Language poetry I feel slightly confused. I wonder where the poetry begins and the philosophy ends or vice versa. Call me naïve, and I admit, my question is rather categorical and thus, not leaving much room for the liquidity of Language poetry. Another question I have is, how would a Language Poet (or someone with a more theoretical bent, like yourself) explain poetry to a non-academic who is interested in poetry, but has no interest in writing poetry? Is it important that they (i.e., the non-academic) understand? And if not, how does that effect the purpose and aim or the “theoretical poet”?
This has me thinking about "theoretical poetry" or perhaps "conceptual poetry" (the one term leans more toward literary theory, the other more toward the art world) as perhaps a more useful term for the specific strain of contemporary poetry sometimes referred to as "post-Language poetry" or more broadly and notoriously, the "post-avant." (Though the latter might be more accurately called "post-New American" since it includes the nth generations of the categories Allen devised for his anthology: the Beats, Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, and miscellaneous fellow travelers.) "Theoretical poetry" is as nearly oxymoronic a term as "philosophical poetry" (thinking here of the classical opposition between philosophy and poetry that goes back to Plato and which a great deal of now itself classic literary theory devotes itself to thinking about) and invites attack from those who object to the muddying of the division of labor the term implies. Some of this is plain laziness, I think, or else a sentimental denial of the reality of intellectual labor, driven by nostalgia for the artisanship and unalienated labor (said nostalgia being as it were auratically embodied in the workshop term "craft"—not to mention "workshop"). But savvier anti-theoretical poets may actually be responding to the intensification of the dis-integrating effect of the division of labor that theory makes visible: they object, with some justice, to the imperative to become a specialist with a specialized vocabulary, bringing about a process precisely opposite to the word made flesh: the word that abstracts its writer from world and self. From fear of this it's a short leap to fear of irrelevance, fear of the walls of the ivory tower that these critics believe they can breach or render transparent through appeals to the authenticity of their identity or their affect or "their" literary tradition. To critics like D.W. Fenza, theory is parasitic monster that threatens to eat all of these things, having already devoured the vocabularies of diverse intellectual disciplines (psychoanalysis, economics, sociology, ecology, feminist theory, etc., etc.).

Speaking for myself, I'm attracted to theoretical poetry because of the tension that it articulates between reflective discourse and a discourse that claims to somehow exceed, subvert, undermine, or transcend discourse itself: the word made flesh, or to use a more Jewish metaphor, the word as maker (the kabbalistic power of the letter). Many if not most poets cling to the possibility of a "pure" poetry: language that transforms itself into a kernel of reality, sheerly through the agency of the poet and/or reader's faith in that transformation. If you like, that's the Christian-Protestant notion of poetry: through faith alone in the Word shall I/my poem be saved. Theoretical poets are more like Jews, who believe in the literal unspeakability of the Word (YHVH), and whose horizon of redemption is determined by a messiah who will always only arrive "next year." At the same time, the Word (the discourse that is more than discourse, more than just words) is written into the very fabric of reality, and to employ discourses critically and musically (the emphasis on intellection vs. music as the means of reflection signals one's basic aesthetic orientation: to cite the names of a few well-known theoretical poets, I'd propose this continuum: Watten-Scalapino-Hejinian-Silliman-Armantrout-Palmer-Harryette Mullen) is a means of creating force fields of resonance between discourse and reality: reality becomes visible as the negative space around reflective linguistic artifacts. Of course most theoretical poets conceive of this (directly) unrepresentable Real as social, whereas non-theoretical poets tend to be more openly theological about their quest for contact with the ineffable. Readers may here recognize what I previously categorized as poetries "A" and "C" here—and maybe Fenza adopts something like the "B" position by advocating for the "accurate description of reality," as though description alone can do anything other than reify what's already there, and already ideological. At least the "C" poets believe in some sort of beyond, which opens the possibility for a second-order reflection: in Aodrnian terms, the world revealed as ruined through apprehension of the messianic light. But "C" wants the light to be positive, which looks hopelessly naive from the "A" position.Bad theoretical poetry lets the poetry be swallowed by the theory (though this should not be confused with the poetry that most militantly refuses representation of language's non-discursive possibilities—such sheer negativity is rare and can actually compel through the intensity of its Bartlebyan affect), while the reverse situation leads to grumbling about how theory is just being used as a kind of prestigious spice to flavor the same-old same-old.

I am afraid this is not likely to be very illuminating for Snapshot, who quite reasonably asks for some kind of user-friendly introduction to theoretical poetry, while at the same time recognizing that such user-friendliness might be entirely beside the point. (Joshua Clover's Fence article, The Rose of the Name, also declines to be such an introduction, but it's fun to read and provides a number of resources for further investigation.) As for the question of theoretical poetry's relationship to the non-academic, well, as Kent Johnson insists, one need not be an academic to study or write poetry. But it definitely demands a degree of intellectual labor that most readers are simply not willing to peform: most people instinctively reject the theoretical poet's claim to make the reader an equal or at least junior partner in meaning-generation (in Zukofsky's terms, to become "subject of the poem's energy"). This may have something to do with the internalization of the division of labor: a poet is supposed to reveal some aspect of the (domestic or emotional or religious) Real—the someone-supposed-to-know, to toss in another Lacanian term. And yet: a great deal of theoretical poetry offers musical or affective pleasures that can be enjoyed for their own sake, and which ideally serve to seduce the reader into a reflective position. So the best answer to Snapshot might be to point him or her toward theoretical poets on the more overtly playful and musical end of the scale: I've already mentioned Harryette Mullen, and I'm guessing some of my readers might be willing to name more names in the comment boxes below. As Pound said, "Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man." The theoretical poetry I value most proceeds by gladness and delight to produce reflections of what might indeed appear very gloomy—but to seize and win reality, even a dark reality, with that energy seems preferable to me to wearing blinders.


Jasper Bernes said...

Another stunning post, Josh. I'm glad to see you following up on the some of the thinking you've done earlier this spring. I guess that I'm skeptical about some of the claims made here, or instead, interested in troubling them. For one, I'm become increasingly wary of the assignation of religious value to certain discourses (Jews are legalistic or ethico-theological, Christians are about affect and faith) as I've seen how, in Zizek's _The Puppet and the Dwarf_ and Badiou' _St. Paul_, this edges pretty close to anti-semitism. Let us remember that there is a strong tradition of iconoclasm in Protestantism, and among certain sects of Chasidim, a real messianic faith (rather than the virtual messianism of, say, Adorno). Certainly we shouldn't obviate the differences and legacies of these traditions, but I worry, in this particular political moment, about hasty and under-determined distinctions like this.

I also wonder if the eucharistal quality that you assign to non-theoretical poetry, as opposed to un-Kosher mixing of discourse of language/post-language writing, doesn't need to be troubled, too. In an increasingly informational and technological age, I wonder if discursive poetry, especially when musicalized or given a certain form, isn't an attempt to concretize the abstract, to make visible the very real discourses which determine or limit our experiences. As we all know, a certain naive kind of "representational" or literalist poetry is just as based on discourse--just as far from the thunderstorm that it wants to materialize or enflesh--as a poetry like Flarf is. When you mention the christological implications of, say, faith for these processes, I think you are onto something, as affect and tone seem to be the crucial deciding factors here. The skepticism, gloom and isolation of, say, Barett Watten's _Progress_ is pretty different I would say, and this isn't to evaluate it for good or bad, than the materialization of time that you find in, say, _My Life_ or _The Fatalist_.

Since you invoke Adorno, and since I've just been rereading _Dialectic of Enlightenment_, it's worth mentioning that the de-mystification and disenchantment of the world which you associate with type A poetry, is always, in Horkheimer and Adorno's account, bound up with an ineluctable re-mystification. One kind of fate, mythological or whatnot, in the service of social domination gets replaced by another kind of mythology, that of mechanistic and economic determinism. Each of these has their blind theological point. And, as I've been learning through all the kinds of things we've been reading in Chris Nealon's post-secular theory class, it may behoove us to complicate the term theological. If we believe, as say Derrida and others do, that any political project always has its theology, we might need to start qualifiying and articulating precise types of theologicality and secularism.

Just as, in making Hebrew a contemporary language able to refer to things of modern life, Zionists had to secularize religious discourse, so too poetry bears the ineluctable traces of theologies past and present. The point, I suppose, and this is what the mixture of A and C calls for, is to make these dark spots and foundations visible, rather than trying to pass them off as natural or completely rationalistic. And this is what I think naive forms of pure A and pure B do.

Jasper Bernes said...

Of course, it should go without saying that C does this do.

spicergirl said...

Sorry to intrude here, on what seems like a perfectly reasonable discussion among (or at least between) like-minded theorist/poets, but doesn't your response to Snapshots' sincere questions totally disregard everything he asks and instead pummels him into oblivion (his questions at least) with more of what he's questioning? He seems to want to understand (a reasonable request) and you basically throw more of the same (at an even higher level and pitch) as a way of shutting him up/out? If you are the spokesman (gender mark intended!) for poetry, or even a certain kind of poetry, well--let's hope the Messiah comes quick.

E. M. Selinger said...

Josh! I love it when you talk that Jewish talk, but you're playing fast and loose with theology here. To equate He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named with "the Word" isn't terribly Jewish--it's in John, and may have BEEN Jewish at some point, as Daniel Boyarin argues in "Border Lines," but it isn't Rabbinic, I believe. As for the "Christian-Protestant" poetics you cite, if you're talking about transformations of the Word into flesh, that doesn't happen by the faith of the believer, and isn't actually the vehicle of salvation. (That is, the incarnation may set the salvation plot in motion, but it doesn't itself accomplish our salvation; if it did, there'd be no need for the Cross.)

I think what you're actually up to here is an effort to cast your own poetics (and the poetics of many you like) as Jewish, by finding a Jewish theoretical vocabulary to describe it. Not a bad project, but one that may be less descriptive than introspective or self-defining: a portrait of the secular Jew as radical poet.


Josh said...

Yes, my theological slips are showing: having received no religious education to speak of growing up, my knowledge of Jewish and Christian theologies is mostly a second-order autodidactical patchwork derived from Levinas, a little Rosenzweig, the Frankfurt School, and what I've been able to make of Scripture itself (Torah and the Gospels). I wish I could take that course that Jasper's taking with Chris Nealon, it might put me on firmer ground. My speculations probably do say a lot more about me and my poetics than they do about theology, that's for sure.

I don't want to play into the hands of anti-Semitic narratives, so I do appreciate Jasper's complication of the ethical vs. affective stance that I so cavalierly assigned to Jew & Christian, respectively. (On the other hand, what to make of the fact that the two poetical theorists that Fenza singled out in his speech happen to be Jews? Seems to me he comes very close to accusing the theoretically inclined of being rootless cosmopolitans.) But I would like to learn more about the affective dimension of Judaism—I do think I scratched the surface of this when referring to what I've heard about kabbalah and the divine creative power it assigns to language, even to letters. Anyway. Emily and I are meeting with the rabbi who's going to marry us later in the week, and maybe she can put me in the way of some texts that will put a dent or two into my ignorance.

E. M. Selinger said...


Others (Norman F. among them) will disagree, but my hunch is that if you want a taste of the "affective dimension" of Judaism, texts are not the way to go. I mean, I can think of some good ones--maybe more suited to you than those the rabbi would have in mind, having been through this myself--but in my own experience the affect is found in practice (however disbelieving or heterodox) rather than in text study.

More on this on my own BJB (big Jewish blog), but probably not until tomorrow. Good luck w/ the rabbi!


Peter said...

Thanks for the Clover/Fence essay link.

Anonymous Brigham Young said...

"If we believe, as say Derrida and others do, that any political project always has its theology..."

This may be too late and irrelevant to the discussion, but I wonder if this system of classification excludes something that might be a variant of A+C: an irreligious hermeticism; a poetry that is neither explicitly interested in the social value of the word or attempts to reach an 'actual' beyond, but presents an artifice of resistance, a simulacra of spirit, a fantastic world of deranged patterns. A poetry partially, but not exclusively of madness and disgust that has strains in Artaud, Lautreamont, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Mina Loy, Else von Freytag-Loringhoven, and shows up in what one might call the 'post-language irreal,' perhaps in writers like Lanny Quarles or Kenji Siratori. One might call this poetry purely aesthetic, but also a poetry deeply carved out of the loss of the spiritual--desperately wanting to believe, but without a worthy object of belief.

Josh said...

That's an interesting category, ABY—one that obviously has deep roots in High Romanticism's encounter with European industrial modernity in the late nineteenth century. In some ways it's a negative theology, no? With the "negative" in this case having the positive meaning we sometimes assign negativity—what Baudelaire calls spleen. This reminds me that I've long wanted to read Sianne Ngai's essay "Raw Matter: An Aesthetics of Disgust" and her book Ugly Feelings as well (which deals with "minor" affects such as envy and irritation and—this is my favorite—"a paradoxical synthesis of shock and boredom called 'stuplimity.'"

Anyway the poetics you describe seems a likely mode of the Baroque, and has curious implications for the postmodern as well—since it seems to constitute a kind of totalizing "irreal" (a modernist "grand narrative") that is nonetheless patently artificial, redolent with an affect of disgust that conceals longing for a lost transcendent. A cousin to Menippean satire, maybe? Hm.

Anonymous Brigham Young said...

Yes, I was also thinking that this category was related to Romanticism, though more to Coleridge and Blake. A negative theology? Perhaps true of some of the writers I mentioned, particularly those with more eschatalogical tendencies.
This mode, poorly defined as it is, has been absent in American poetry for quite awhile, maybe partially surfacing in Duncan and Spicer? Maybe Plath too, though I hate to admit it. In the U.S. the aesthetics of unreality, disgust, crisis, black humor, mayhemic play, "magic" etc. seem to be routed into other mediums, esp. music and non-filmic visual art. But I'd say it's resurfacing in some of the work of J. McSweeney, D. Pafunda, Lara Glenum and co. (I think the south certainly nurtures this aesthetic) and in Alice Notley's turn toward the visionary in the 90's. All of their work is, to varying degrees, political on the surface, but i don't think would neatly fit into the social formalist category, and certainly not B.

I found the Ngai book in the UA library. Apparently Alabama's good for something.
Need to look up Menippean satire.

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