Thursday, July 05, 2007

New American Writing

There are a lot of things I ought to be doing right now other than curling up with the twenty-fifth issue of New American Writing—a magazine I actually had to pay for at the local Borders rather than part of the mail pile. But I started browsing through it yesterday afternoon before a matinee (the ludicrous, forgettable, rather enjoyable new Die Hard movie—it stirred my nostalgia for big, noisy films that don't overdo the digital effects) and it was too good not to take with me. Maybe I've just been disconnected for a while, but I find it a highly stimulating reintroduction into the energies of the contemporary.

NAW is a centerpiece of what you might call the postmodern establishment of American poetry, as stewarded by Paul Hoover (editor of the still-useful 1994 institutional doorstopper Postmodern American Poetry) and Maxine Chernoff (who has two terrific pieces in this issue, a play of sorts featuring the lovers Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, and a kind of Dickinsonian ballad in twelve quatrains called "The Commons"—a subject near my heart—"No one goes there now / There is not a place— / our commons but a song / lost as it is sung"). Hoover and Chernoff's magazine constitutes an establishment insofar as it palpably conserves the tradition of postmodern lyric that occupies, I think, the capacious middle ground between the austerities of Language poetry and the ironic "personal" characteristic of the New York School(s). It's a mode I often associate with California, perhaps because that's where I first became aware of it in its various manifestations hard (or abstract, or minimalist: Michael Palmer, Elizabeth Robinson, Rae Armantrout) and soft (more narrative, expansive, "hooked": Robert Hass, Donald Revell, Jeff Clark). But I think it's now accurate to characterize such poetry as the new American mainstream, retaining whatever oppositional force it still possesses only through institutional memory—though it still stands strongly enough as a bulwark against the laziness and anti-intellectualism of the genuine mainstream of American cultural life. Or as Brenda Hillman puts it in an essay I comment on below, "Current aesthetic quarrels and conversations between poets are real enough, and the aesthetically abstract or non-referential lyric poetry may have a different readership from poetry that announces its purposes in more narrative styles, but these issues should concern poets far less than keeping poetry alive in a culture of appalling greed, a culture that doesn't read much of anything, a culture that does business as usual in a time of Enron and retributionist wars."

The issue opens with new translations of some haunting sonnets of Borges, includes a telltale poem by Cal Bedient (one of the most passionate advocates of a return to lyric modernism in contemporary poetry), and includes an essay, "On Song, Lyric, and Strings," by Brenda Hillman, who is as close to the center of the postmodern lyric assemblage (I hestitate to call it a "movement") as anyone, as witnessed by the rather remarkable collaborative review of her most recent book, Pieces of Air in the Epic, published in the latest issue of Jacket. In her essay, Hillman makes a case for the lyric as exceeding and preceding whatever aesthetico-ideological program you want to assign to it:
It's hard to know what lyric means for post-romantics, post-symbolists, post-modernists and post-postmodernists. Lyric is an element in poetry, not a type, rendering human emotion in language; attention to subjective experience in a songlike fashion seems to be key in all definitions of lyric, and when "lyric" has been pitted against "epic" and "dramatic" forms, it has mostly been thought of as short, though it isn't always. Once lyric meant unbroken music, but since the nineteenth century, it may be broken. It cries out in singular, dialogic or in polyphonic protest. There is the question of the individual "singer," not to mention the individual lyre or the famous problem of the solitary self—can't live with it and can't live without it. Since the twentieth century unseated all certainty, the lyric is rendered on torn, damaged or twisted strings. A lyric poet sings boldly and bluntly to the general populace or is visited quietly and obliquely by the distressed hero who needs an oracle.
You can hear a bit of Hillman's own post-romantic commitments in that last sentence; elsewhere in the essay she writes, "Robert Duncan uses the word 'romantic' to recall a process-oriented seeking of original song," and then goes on to discuss the quest for originary "poetization" found in modernist commentaries on Romantic poetry (Benjamin on Holderlin being the primary example). She shows her hand further, claiming "almost all lyric poets are beauty-mongers in some way," and I think of my own attachments to and discomfort with beauty. Ultimately the essay makes a stand for the necessary messiness and fragmentation of postmodern beauty, which Hillman deliberately opposes to the newspeak of our time, wondering "how the outlaw poetic sentence can address itself to the meandering sentence of official bad faith, and so makes again the large claim that poetry, audibility, synesthesia, are weapons with which to oppose the culture that our politics produces, if not the politics themselves. It's a claim I subscribe to provided we detach it from grandness and rhetoric: I think poetry does constitute a form of resistance but only on a micro, cellular level, perhaps only on the most basic level by which life opposes death.

I find less beauty in the poetry in this issue of NAW than I do adrenaline, a jazzing and jangling of the nerves, pleasurable but also anxiety-inducing, like a coffee mug filled to the brim with espresso. I get the high of contact with reality as it's being processed through clever, linguistically attuned minds all seeking for it in idiosyncratic ways. Their language vibrates with a dual awareness of history—the history of now, what I think of as "nap of the earth" historicizing, an aerial view necessarily and perilously close to the surface, under the radar of the large dumb arguments that constitute our everyday comportment—and history's impact on that subjective kernel that each writer proudly or shamefacedly or matter-of-factly carries with him- or herself, the energetic and continual collision of the unconscious with our intolerable Real. Some poets, like Andrew Joron, make the collisions and elisions explicit in their play, as words transform themselves to translate their nervous seeking into the reader's own nerve network:
I, my
        being to begin, my die
To decide my deicide, am

Gone again to distance, & sand, & stand
        by fear
Entranced before the door.

Or do I travel as travail of a veil?

(from "I Am the Door")
Flarf is not outside the task of the lyric as Hillman broadly defines it, as demonstrated by the inclusion of two poems by Rodney Koeneke. "A Birthday Poem for Nada Gordon" praises the Bellydancing Queen of Flarf in ludicrously elevated yet utterly sincere terms for her work "water[ing] the meaty blossoms of excess," "generously spiking our brownies with hashish" and otherwise disordering our capital-confiscated senses:
Pack animals drop from exhaustion daily
in the snowy Himalayas of the everyday;
businessmen enjoy their vinaigrette
at busy restaurants where the unconscious scrunches uneasily in booster chairs.
Above them, cool in the mind's high court you sit
invigilating specialness
the non-fun want eclipsed.
These poets are resurrection-men and -women, raiding the graves of "post-romantics, post-symbolists, post-modernists and post-postmodernists" to assemble their ungainly, occasionally gorgeous creatures with their organs on the outside, to remind at any rate this reader that he has a pulse, neurons, hormones, ears, and a tongue. And I'm not sure it's fair to ask more of poetry than that, though we do, of course, we ask the moon, we ask for some sensation, some friction, of what we're pleased to call "the self" rubbing up against "the world," hoping for sparks, or to discover there's no separation, or that there is. Lots more for me to absorb here; I want to close with the first stanza of Lisa Samuels' poem, "Open your eyes to the terrible sculpture of bedclothes," a poem and title representative of the impulses I've tried to describe here:
Kenneth Koch held three oranges, waiting for the bus.
The oranges were self-mesmerized: each was one side of his
four-sided-self. He was taking the bus to present his ideas.
He had to keep his sole awake (fourth side) awake.

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