Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Round-Up

Off to NYC this afternoon for a weekend celebrating my wife's birthday. We'll see movies, friends, and the revival of Company. I'm especially looking forward to catching up with some old poet friends: Mary Jo Bang from my Montana days and Camille Guthrie and Duncan Dobbelman (and their little son, Pierre!) from my Vassar days. In the meantime, some things that have caught or held my attention lately:

- The conversation on literary pleasure between Eric, Mark, and myself. I don't have very much new to add on this—I was planning on saying something about the difference between the demands and pleasures of anti-absorptive poetry versus the critical practice of approaching an immersive text anti-absorptively, but Mark beat me to it. I'm intrigued by his call for "a more nuanced, more 'thick' description of the experience & the pleasures of anti-absorptive texts," and I'd like to hear/think more about this. Such acts of description might be more compelling, and more ethical, in acquiring more readers for the kinds of writing I love than the tactic of shaming and scolding people. And as Eric points out:
It seems to me that you're not talking about the ethics of a particular pleasure at this point, but rather the pleasure of acting and thinking ethically. Through essays and other para-poetic work, "anti-absorptive" poets have framed their verse as an ethical / political project. The sensory and aesthetic pleasures it offers, and the intellectual pleasures (of "figuring things out," or simply "figuring") thus have added to them a new, third pleasure: that of doing justly, or developing one's moral sense.
(Hey Eric, how do you make your blockquotes so cool-looking?) I think this is an astute rephrasing of what I was trying to say, though I also have to credit Mark's arugula metaphor and wonder if ethical pleasure isn't in fact supererogatory to the pleasure in difficulty for difficulty's sake. I don't believe that it is, but more needs to be done, as Mark says, to qualitatively describe (if not quantify) the pleasures of the anti-absorptive so that we can make the distinction. Otherwise we're left with de gustibus non est disputandum and "Some people just like spinach."

- Tangentially related: as many of you have heard, Simon DeDeo, late of Rhubarb Is Susan, along with Christopher Douglas, Elisa Gabbert, and Joanna Guldi, have launched a new magazine, absent. So far I've only read a few terrific poems and Simon's manifesto, "towards an anarchist poetics::". I love manifestos, I like the way they can stir the pot, and I'm curious to see what response this one will generate. I myself bristled a bit at the first section, because it seemed to me that he was conflating the power of theory (or more specifically, the Foucauldian theory of power as that which surrounds and penetrates all language, like the Force) with the corrupted language of Bush/Cheney, thus drawing no distinctions between their corrosive/coercive speech and that of literary theorists. There is, of course, a kind of violence in disciplinarity, as Foucault would be the first to remind you: certainly I've had to learn to write and speak a certain way to be accepted into the institutional framework of the academy in which I wish to make my living; still, I believe I have far more discursive freedom than the hapless job interviewees Simon describes overhearing at his local Starbucks. But it does not appear on second look that Simon really intends to start his revolution in the English departments: he has bigger fish to fry.

I'm not fully persuaded by the specific critical gestures Simon makes to show how the poetry he wishes to valorize (his example-poets are Mina Loy, Tom Raworth, and Lisa Robertson) functions as anarchist text, because it seems to reduce to the old Language-y argument that anti-absorptive writing (a more general description than "anarchist" that seems to fit the poems he quotes) permits/demands democratic participation from the reader in the creation of its meanings. More compelling to me is Simon's extremely clear explanation of anarchist poetry as that which seeks either a line of flight from power (all "power" being ipso facto bad to an anarchist) in a kind of primitivism (this has implications for my thinking about pastoral that I'm going to have to, er, think more about it) or fights it, attempting "to batter the language into shapes that cannot be conduits of power." This seems like it could be a very productive path toward understanding what flarf is trying to do (flarf is anarchistic, it seems to me, in the old-fashioned bomb-throwing sense), though I don't quite see how flarfists or any group can avoid becoming power-structures in their own right, if only because every group has an inside and an outside. But perhaps that's just why Simon doesn't consider flarf, but rather three poets (he also mentions Julianna Spahr, Laura Glenum, and Frederick Seidel—whatever else I can say about Simon, I certainly approve of his taste) who are outside any groupings less porous than "Modernism" (Loy), "an avant garde body aligned in many ways with American experiments such as Language Poetry" (Raworth—the object of the clause is actually Raworth's work, not his body, but I like the effect produced), or "a kind of nomad" (Robertson). Robertson is recently on record with her rejection of "community" and embracement of "the real texture of friendship," which certainly seems in line with Simon's anarchist reading of her; it may also have the salutary effect of making anarchism seem more homely and indigenous, as it were: an expression of how many people actually live or wish to live, rather than a doxology. Is friendship a form of the "counterpower" that Simon speaks of, tantalizingly, at the end of his essay? Much to ponder and like in the new absent: I'm looking forward to reading the other essays from Thomas Basbøll and Andy Gricevich next.

- Finally, I'm a little surprised by how much I'm enjoying the latest issue of APR. I'm finding things to like about almost all the poetry I've read in it: Yusef Komunyakaa isn't much on my radar these days but there's a lot of heft and moral grandeur to the excerpts here from The Autobiography of My Alter Ego; Cynthia Cruz is sharp and spiky; a resurrected essay on "Poetic Listening" by Merle Brown has interesting things to say about an odd-seeming couple, Wallace Stevens and Frank O'Hara; Mark Doty, another big-deal poet who I don't read very often, blew me away with his beautiful "Theory of the Sublime" (and I enjoyed the essay on its composition that followed it); Sarah Maclay, who I hadn't heard of before, contributes two prose poems whose whirling rhythms will stay with me; David Trinidad has an enjoyably gossipy, almost trashy account of the friendship and rivalry between Sexton and Plath, along with a more thoughtful examination of their work and influence on each other; Anne Carson introduced me to one of the greatest poems of Denmark, Inger Christensen's It, which I'd never heard of; and Robin Becker sheds some light on Virgil's Georgics as a poetry of sustainability, of obvious interest to me (I was also surprised to discover, though she doesn't say this explicitly, that a significant portion of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech might have been lifted from Virgil: Becker quotes David Ferry's translation on those fortunate enough to avoid "experience of the iron / Hard-heartedness of the law, the Forum's madness, / Insolence of bureaucratic office." Doesn't that sound just like "the whips and scorns of time, / The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of the unworthy takes"? Why have I never seen a note on the play calling attention to this?). There's more I haven't gotten to, but I'm impressed with how much better a job APR seems to be doing at being ecumenical than the higher-profile and vastly better-funded Poetry.

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