Monday, February 26, 2007

Most of the energy I usually devote to blogging has been consumed lately by grading and working on my postmodern baroque presentation for AWP in Atlanta this Friday. For those who are curious, here's the panel description that our fearless leader Lara Glenum came up with:
Post-Avant: Strategies of Excess.
(Jed Rasula, Johannes Goransson, Anne Boyer, K. Silem Mohammad, Joshua Corey, Lara Glenum)

Certain contemporary poetry flies in the face on the well-worn strategies of elegance and eloquence. Such poetry is invested in strategies of excess, violence, and aberrance. Opposed to the New Critical "no noise in art" dictum, these poets oppose the functional and the tasteful and revel in extravagance. Six writers inquire into the nature of these post-avant modes, from the grotesque to flarf to the postmodern baroque.
Should be fun, though you'll have to get up early to see us—the panel's at 9 AM.

I'm also excited to announce the players for the next SOON reading: Robert Strong (who was supposed to read for us last month but couldn't due to mountains of snow), editor of Joyful Noise and author of Puritan Spectacle, and Karla Kelsey, author of a beautiful book of poems from Ahsahta, Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary (the title comes from one of Plato's dialogues but it's tempting to remove the commas and turn "forms" into a verb).

I'm also also excited to be able to tell you about a chapbook of my prose poems that will be coming out soon, but I'm not sure the details can be made public yet. So stay tuned.

Finally, I'm in the market for a new laptop computer. Any suggestions? I know I want a PC so I can play the cool games on it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Spent much of the week snowbound and sick, disinclined to do much beyond the necessary. Still cogitating on the baroque as a contemporary mode and what relevance, if any, it might have to the question of theatricality raised by Stan Apps, who has clarified the point that "mysterious theatricality" has less to do with religiosity than "a way of doing business," which can be secular or religious, Stalinist or Christian. I think that still leaves theatricality and ritual squarely within the realm of myth in the sense that Benjamin and Adorno use that word: an instrument for naturalizing domination. Yet there's an appealing side to myth too: myth taken reflexively, stripped of its ideological kernel—I think especially of the European mythic elements that comprise the modern literary genre of fantasy (dragons, knights, fairies, etc.). Myth remains a mode of meaning-making, but no longer demands our consent or forces our perceptions to conform to it. Similarly, "mysterious theatricality" is something with strong appeal, and worth celebrating, if it can somehow be drained of its ideological content. That "somehow" requires strong critical intervention, or at least the passing of time, as I alluded to in an earlier post.

We think of the baroque, of course, as a highly theatrical mode: opera was born in the baroque period, and its excesses of ornamentation, movement, and strong evocations of feeling seem theatrically dynamic: the architecture and sculpture of Bernini evoke the action and movement of the theater. At the same time, though the Baroque movement in history was largely an instrument of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, I still have a sense of its works as being so in excess of the ideological work they were intended to do as to undermine that ideology, or at least render it irrelevant to the aesthetic effects achieved. In other words, the Baroque is an urge of the modern, which is to say a product of the shift in the means of production toward the division of labor and the separation of the premodern Lebenswelt into logical, ethical, and aesthetic spheres. The ideological/ethical component of, say, Bach's B-Minor Mass (which is very much excessive of its ideological birthplace, being too long to perform as part of the liturgy, and being an essentially Catholic form in the hands of a Protestant composer) is still present in the work: but it's like a brain in which the corpus callosum has been severed so that there's no longer organic communication between the speech center (the left brain) and the image center (the right brain). In Lacanian terms, the given Symbolic (the Mass) has become disconnected, though still associated, with the Imaginary of the work. One recognizes in hearing it that the Christian Symbolic no longer provides an adequate representation, and so feels the disquieting/sublime presence of the Real.

I want to say, therefore, that an American baroque in poetry would be that which refuses to surrender the pleasures of mysterious theatricality, high oratory, ornament, and the excessive signifier, but which does not practice this theatricality as "a way of doing business" or accumulating power. The father of this baroque would have to be Wallace Stevens, especially the early Stevens of Harmonium, who is very much preoccupied with the beauty of ritual while foregrounding its emptiness at the same time. (The later Stevens might very well stand accused of trying to ideologize his poetics—I'll reserve judgment on this for the time being.) And so this train of thought has led me back to the American modernist who has meant the most to me as a poet, though not as a critic, strangely or not so strangely. Perhaps I've finally discovered a way to think him critically here.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Noiseless Patient Spider

Looking for clues on the spiritual, I turn to Robert Strong's introduction to the anthology he edited, Joyful Noise in which I have a poem. "All poetry is spiritual," he says, which seems too broad a claim to dispute, and then he refines it: "spiritual things give us templates of extra-ordinary perception that canot be explained, unless by poetry." What does "extra-ordinary perception" refer to as a ground-point for the spiritual? Perception beyond what's empirical and quantifiable? That fits with my intuition that spiritual experience is real, even if the material of so much of that experience is locked up and controlled by arbitrary codes. The Word is dead until animated by that necessarily subjective experience.

Then Robert makes another statement: "Across generations and leanings, we discover a constant poetic-spiritual dilema: a central observer overwhelmed by the eternal realization that he or she is not, after all, the center. From our false human centger, poets cast out language, as Walt Whitman's spider-like soul does, 'Ceaselessly musing, venturing... Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere.'" I like this because it demonstrates how the spiritual might actually undermine and oppose religiosity, if by that word we mean the tendency to codify spiritual experience into an Archimedan lever for manipulating the social. Above all this notion captures the radical humility demanded of the spiritual seeker, who acknowledges not merely that one is part of something bigger than oneself (which is sufficient for religious experience, which most often makes you small and insignificant now while promising to enlarge you later into one of the elect), but that one has no firm knowledge of what your relation to that thing is, the thing itself being centerless (but if you give it a center, you fall out of spiritual humility and become the founder of a religion).

In some ways I'm trying to think Stan Apps' claims for a materialist poetry against mystification with Reginald Shepherd's Allen Grossman post. Grossman is about as far from a flarf poet as you can get, given his unembarrassed affinity for what Shepherd calls "the elevated, vatic mode." What preserves Grossman from faux-seriousness or religiosity, however, is his consciousness that, as Shepherd argues, the grand style is an aspiration rather than an achievement on his part. When I read Grossman I perceive this as a kind of glorious awkwardness—so many of his poems seem gawky in their radiance, like a preacher in an ill-fitting suit. He persuades me of his sincerity—or rather, his sincerity shades itself over into action—largely through his persistence, through the large body of work he has built up—and also because he has failed, or perhaps refused, to cultivate a personal mythology: Grossman has built no ministry and has no disciples that I'm aware of (unlike T.S. Eliot, Jorie Graham, or other poets of the grand, vatic mode).

Grossman is easy to criticize or not take seriously because his aspirations are so high, and one Lawrence LaRiviere White has made this acute comment on Shepherd's post: "I know my interest in great voices is in part symptomatic: I hold the prophetic voice, the subject presumed to know, & know profoundly, as an ego ideal. I would like to be the man in the robes. (To whom the proper response would be Bugs Bunny's: 'What a maroon'!)" This precisely and elegantly repeats the criticism that Apps and Gary Sullivan level against poetic religiosity, and there can be no better emblem of flarf's desire to puncture pretentions than Bugs Bunny, preferably dressed as Brunhilde in What's Opera, Doc. White writes, "if one tries to expand the interest in Grossman, it would be important to eschew the vatic mode, to find a lower register in which to present his case, to lure those who only listen to the vernacular & domestic. It's a cannier approach." That would indeed make for cannier marketing, but denies too much of what makes Grossman Grossman. What would a truly vernacular seer look like? Even Whitman, the most democratic prophet I'm aware of, resorts to grand gestures when he's not hinting and whispering.

I've tried to stake out a distinction between the religio-social and the spiritual-individual, which is rather undialectical of me. Mystic experience is forever being recycled into ritual structures, while few mystics have failed to make use of the existing ritual structures their particular historical moment rendered available to them. (The naive artists that so fascinated Ronald Johnson fascinate me in this regard: assembling homemade worlds out of bits and pieces of the quotidian and the sacred alike, so blurring the distinction between them.) More fundamentally, on a gut level we seem to have a powerful desire to communicate and share our spiritual experiences with others, and all of the successful communities and collectives that I can think of arouse a quasi-spiritual camaraderie in their members. And then there's Badiou's notion of the Event that one commits to, which I think could be characterized as a spiritual experience (as I think he puts it, one makes a decision about something undecidable). This commmitment in turn transforms reality either for the individual or collectively, in the four major spheres of truth he recognizes (love, art, politics, science) as being those in which purely subjective commitment is decisive.. That's the lifecycle: spiritual experience makes a commitment possible, which in turn might set up a structure arranging the materials available for future experience.

All of which goes to say that, as admirable as I find the materialist critique of mystified religiosity, it may not be sufficient in itself for demarking the most subjective zones of experience; more significantly, it does not take into account the spiritual commitment that this poetics itself demands to its conception of political truth, since that truth is negatively defined (non-hierarchical, non-mystified, etc.). Its saving grace, its biggest gun, is its historicism, which is another version of the spiritual realization that one is not at the center, and that all the structures that surround you have temporal origins and endings. How curious and yet unsurprising to discover this kernel of spiritual experience in Marxian historicity! And a flarfist is nothing if not radically humble in his or her renunciation of the poetic ego ideal. Though I suppose merry prankster is a much sought-after ego ideal for some. Did Jesus tell jokes?

Once again I must stop short of announcing my unified field theory of poetry. But there's something happening here.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

"Strategies of Mysterious Theatricality"

Thinking about a recent essay-post by Stan Apps that he dedicates to Gary Sullivan, "The Great Enabler." It's a rich autobiographical accounting of Apps' experiences writing three kinds of poetry: a kind of proto-flarfist, scatological poetry that would "try to describe the gooey mess of myself (my 'actually existing subjectivity,' as it were) as I experienced it all the time like a hot wet ashamed gunk churning in my skull"; a satirical religious poetry that was "messianic, heretical, and passionate" and which engaged a self-critiquing persona that subtly attacked the very notion of sincerity on the rhetorical level; and safe, teacher-approved poems that were "lyrical, emotional, reasonable, and ended with realizations about how to live"—a poetics of reflexive affirmation. You can see how Apps was most engaged by writing from negativity, and how the first two sorts of poem are flip sides of the same coin, devoted as they both are to assaulting and mocking hypocritical social relations from a position of profound alienation. He then goes on to talk about Sullivan's poetics as a practice of radical materialism, working to undermine the mode of alienating hypocrisy peculiar to poetry itself, including most avant-garde poetries, which goes by various names: sincerity, seriousness, religiosity, all of which can be placed under the umbrella of the phrase I've appropriated for the title of this post. "Gary’s poetics consists of decisively rejecting mysterious theatricality, and thereby creating an aesthetic of material accountability." It's one of the most succinct descriptions of the poetics, which is also an ethics, that I've come to associate with the names of Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Rodney Koeneke, Katie Degentesh, Kasey Mohammed, Anne Boyer, Michael Magee, et al.

I'm most provoked by Apps' criticism of the residual religiosity that he locates at the bottom of the various claims various poetries make to authority. Part of my confusion is personal: my upbringing was thoroughly secular, and so my attitude toward religion and religosity tends to vacillate between horrified disbelief and fascination with the profuse evidence of spiritual experience that lies all around us, not least in poems, not least in myself. It seems to me that, as a critique of socio-poetic organization, Apps' attack on quasi-religious strategies of mysterious theatricality is unimpeachable. As he astutely points out, every avant-garde has positioned itself as an attack on mystification, only to deploy mystification itself as a strategy for consolidating its power. I'm reminded of that post of Ron Silliman's where he discusses Duncan and more or less makes the case for literary theory's replacement of mysticism to explain how, in essence, one avant-garde (Language poetry) came to trump another (Duncan's New American romanticism). Ron refers to the rise of theory's relevance to American poetry as precisely a "resecularization" of poetry, and yet it seems obvious now that the strategies of theory can and have been used as rites of initiation into a social practice of writing, another example of what Apps says Sullivan's idea of religion is: "religion is primarily about the obsessive-compulsive element in human nature enacting controlled scenarios that are supposedly the most important and most meaningful parts of life—but finally the defining material element of these scenarios is their empty ritualistic quality, as Gary puts it 'How arbitrary social code is.'"

A couple of thoughts. One is the possibility of poetry's liberation from archaic social codes through the simple passage of time. On a Cantos reading list that I belong to, the point was recently made that both Dante and Pound proceed from what strikes modern readers as outmoded theologies—but our ability to recognize that means that we have become capable of rediscovering what's valuable in their thought, which may very well be modes of critique applicable to our own socio-historic condition. The other is to wonder what possibilities remain for the spiritual in poetry, assuming the spiritual can be permitted to exist as a category separate from social practices of mystified domination. One might try to clear a space for spiritual experience (or, more aptly in the case of poetry, spiritual performance) distinct from the social, but a good materialist will immediately criticize that as another act of mystification, maybe even the primal one. I suppose it's an obvious point: a materialist by definition denies the existence of the spiritual as anything other than a more-or-less mystified social instrument—though he or she might well resort to the language of spirituality as a metaphor, as Marx famously does to describe the behavior of commodities. Marx's take on religion provides the only viable materialist pathway that I can see at the moment: his description of religion as the opiate of the masses refers less to the sense of the opiate as induced ecstasy than it does to painkillers. As Adorno might say (probably does say), the index of the truth-value of religion lies in the imprint it contains of material suffering. A properly materialist "spiritual poetry," then, would somehow undo itself from within, twist itself inside out to reveal its matrix as that of suffering. Which sounds, come to think of it, a great deal how Apps describes his "excretory" poetry.

What I wonder about is what possibilities may exist for the social organization of the poetic field (which is really what we're talking about here: not poems per se but the ways in which they organize and are organized into a social field which for most of history has been hierarchical and mystified) beyond the essentially anarchist strategy of the flarfists. Or maybe I'm not even looking for an alterantive to anarchism—yay, anarchism!—but rather some strategy to deal with my own semi-choate yearnings for seriousness, mystery, and ritual. Without trying to think myself out of the social, I guess I want to recognize that there are conditions of human being that are not primarily conditioned by it: mortality, personal limitation, what Empson in Some Versions of Pastoral refers to as the enormous waste in even the most fortunate of lives. Maybe this is simply the empty-seeming category of "spiritual but not religious," which seems to express a yearning to engage with these questions without having to participate in a mode of social organization that inevitably strategizes mystery rather than dwelling with or in it. And finally there's the argument from hedonism: attacking social mystification is one thing, but theatricality? The pleasures of a quasi-theatrical representation through the animation of appropriated multiple voices (Googled or otherwise) are certainly active in the best flarf poems, albeit in a campy, over-the-top, deliberately "inappropriate" way. (As a negative category I have some trouble understanding "the inappropriate," and I would suggest to flarfists that that's the dimension of their practice itself most prone to becoming the center of a new strategy of mysterious theatricality, a means of initiation and exclusion.)

The implications of all this for my thinking about the baroque as an alternative strategy of excessive representation have yet to become clear.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Reading around in the new EOAGH, a special issue subtitled "Queering Language," dedicated to the late Kari Edwards—and realizing something head-slappingly basic: the modern computer screen is wider than it is tall (like a movie screen, like a #10 envelope, like the lenses of my glasses). A simply profound re-orientation from that of the 8 1/2 x 11 page or the 6 x 9 book, which is taller than it is wide. Is this not a fundamental re-orientation of writing's consciousness?

Cases in point: Jen Hofer's stunning tightrope of a war/culture-of-war poem, "no fiction no belief" ("air grinding in sixes" is a remarkable synthesis of the brute conceptual apparatus that makes "armchair war" possible while also evoking the physical image of a helicopter); Chris Nealon's campy, defiant "(I know prose... )"; David Cameron's witty post-Charlie Chan "The Lemonade Man", which only unfurls horizontally in its last stanzas (I love the title of the manuscript it comes from: Flowers of Bad); and Joe Elliot's long prose poem "An Instruction Manual for Kim Lyons". That last is particularly interesting: the widescreen presentation blurs the boundary between prose and verse. Narrower margins would produce a more ordinary looking prose poems, but the super-wide margins it actually has means that a block of long lines don't really register as paragraphs.

Most of the poems are vertical, as most verse tends to be: isn't that what verse is, the visible tension of the vertical against the horizontal where usually (prose) the vertical is almost totally sublimated? On a computer monitor that means a vast margin of white space on the right side of the screen. The wide screen changes the temporality of reading: it takes longer to read across a wide screen than it does to absorb the relative narrowness of the page. (Actual books wider than they are tall are also slow to read, and I halt and staggers when I encounter poems in books and journals that require you to turn the book on its side. The seeming happy medium, the square page, is unsurprisingly inert.) The almost ideogrammic effect of a short line that can be taken in at a glance is short-circuited by the long strokes from left-to-right required of screen reading. Q: The relation between the change of axis and the queering of language? Thinking of D.A. Powell's poems which tend to emphasize the horizontal, most spectacularly in the case of the gorgeous (yet undeniably awkward to shelve, read, and handle) physical object that is his first book, Tea. The wide page, a derivation of the widescreen experience that in our culture connotes totally immersive virtuality.

Wondering about the availability/desirability of "widescreen" pen-and-paper notebooks. And the end of the screened word as merely transitional toward the printed word. If we can no longer fetishize the book as object, what will we fetishize? Eyeballs and hit counters, probably. In that respect the book as nostalgic object has some dialectical critique value: it is actually less of a commodity, less reducible to pure exchange, than a web link.

Screened experience is first-world experience and is certainly, as Anne Boyer grimly notes a historical and temporary phenomenon (though the fugee landscape poetry she imagines marks no return to the vertical). As she suggests, representations of futurity are invariably nostalgic (Q: is representation itself invariably nostalgic?) and presume the endless extension of what already is. She derails that with the dystopian, but a utopian interface with the new is also desirable and necessary. We are passing through the screened toward the we-know-not-what. To interface representation with the thinkable. To pass through representation into the not-yet-thinkable.

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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