Monday, February 05, 2007

"A poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."

Secular and divine, history and nature, existence and essence, enlightenment and myth, horizontal and vertical. Reginald Shepherd today on Allen Grossman and his high Modernist "distinction between the 'person' represented and representable in poetry and the 'self' of everyday life, which resists but also demands representation." Connecting this with Jameson's notion of the unrepresentable totality of late capitalism which nonetheless demands our conceptualization. If we could represent it it would already be something else. Adorno's teacher Siegfried Kracauer in an unpublished review of his pupil's first book, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic: "In the view of [Walter Benjamin's studies of the Trauerspiel], the truth-content of a work reveals itself only in its collapse.... The work's claim to totality, its systematic structure, as well as its superficial intentions share the fate of everything transient, but as they pass away with time the work brings characteristics and confiurations to the fore that are actually images of truth" (quoted in Robert Hullot-Kentor's Foreword to Kierkegaard, p. xv). Q: Is the resistance of the "self" similar, so that only through its decay is its truth revealed? (Re the proto-capitalist Croesus: Only after his death do you know if a man was happy.) Q: Is the point of representing the resistant-to-representation self similar to the point of representing totality, e.g., to dissolve both resistance and the resistant object? (Perverse post-humanization of Grossman.) Of course the self doesn't survive the way the artwork can, so we can only be speaking of a poem of self. Grossman's poem wants to do honor to the self through the necessary medium of the representable "person." Maybe that's Romantic vs. modernist representation in a nutshell: the modernist wants to represent a resistant totality, the Romantic wants to represent a resistant self (the Romantic of the egotistical sublime insists on blurring the two categories).

On to Hart Crane in Roger's long poem class, a poet predictably dismissed by William Logan in last week's Times Book Review and explicitly at the origin of the poetics of Modernist passion (is that another phrasing of the Modernist-Romantic synthesis?) that Shepherd cites as part of his long foreground in his essay "One State of the Art" in the latest Pleiades. In his complaint about the territorialization of the American poetry scene I hear another version of the tension between particular and universal: in our urge to carve up the fictional universe of poetry into conceptual categories (post-avant, School of Quietude), individual-existential-actual poems are being lost. Of course you can't actually recognize/represent a post-avant/SoQ poem on its own existential terms: you need the categorical cues most of us are all too eager to provide. Lyricism versus lucidity, says Shepherd, citing Charles Altieri's particular slice-n-dice of the poetry continuum, so he speaks up for a third way: "our best poets...question and even erase the dichotomy between the emotional and the intellectual." But I am more inclined these days to name the dichotomy as existential (preoccupied by the horizon of everyday life) and conceptual (what can be thought). Catching the two up with each other through aesthetic labor is the ambitious poet's task, but you can't simply "achieve" that by idealistic fiat. In fact, it can't be done, and yet it must be done.

Existential poetry: the vast majority of it, preoccupied by the experience of being situated in a particular body at a particular moment. Identity poetry, nature poetry, I-do-this-I-do-that poetry, any poetry that can be predicated. Conceptual poetry: most obvious and readily available in the form of language poetry, which might as well be called out for its redundancy as poetry poetry: putting the means of representation into impossible relation with what cannot be represented and then writing about that, hoping maybe to free representation (and thus enlarge the store of available existence) a little bit from the grip of what can only (and that just barely) thought.

These are not camps, these are not styles. These are approaches and modes and the most interesting poets venture into both. The pure conceptual poem is a starved thing, the pure existential too prone to reproducing what's given. The trouble is that too often aesthetic camps and the social (the poetry social, the ice cream social) are the only zone of mediation between the two modes. How is flarf recognizable as critique without the Flarflist? How does Frankfurt School-type poetry manifest as more than snobbery? Who do we permit to do our thinking for us?

Thinking and representation, calls for more thinking.

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