Monday, March 03, 2008

Utopian Poetics

One can like what one has written while feeling dissatisfied with the way one writes.

I am dissatisfied.

Saw the rough draft of a new documentary about artist-mothers last night. The real cost women have always paid to create. But I was distracted by the art itself and how its expressiveness exceeded whatever the artists themselves or the various talking heads had to say about it. That old envy of the visual, coupled with a swelling disgust for discursivity. Talking heads: stop making sense.

And a longing for the spoken, its power to punctuate a narrative. "How's my hair look, Mike?"

The avant-garde impulse gets swallowed in mists of cynicism. Or is it just historicism? Over at Action, Yes, Per Bäckström offers what appears to me to be a faultless analysis of the use and misuse of the term "avant-garde" in the twentieth century, and makes especially valuable distinctions about the changing face of the term depending on which country (or more broadly, which linguistic tradition—Romance, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-American) speaks it. It's an extremely useful and clarifying intervention in the distinctions we must draw between terms like "avant-garde" and "high modernism"; it will help me when I write my pastoral book. But the piece leaves the poet in me feeling dispirited, a marble in a milk carton bobbing in a millpond, because it all adds up to the end of history, again. Or as Modris Eksteins puts it at the end of this review of Peter Gay's new book, "Stunde Null, zero hour, 1945, with its iconography of the end, stacked corpses and mushroom clouds, is a strong candidate for the last act of Modernism. At that point, Adorno said, history had outdistanced any possibility of representation. Art, historiography, indeed any attempt to capture meaning, had been humiliated by events. Perhaps shopping is indeed all that is left."

Strategies of anti-representation followed Adorno's declaration about lyric poetry after Auschwitz, but Eksteins, taking the long view, sees nothing in the postwar avant-garde (which, per Per, seems to be a term he takes as interchangeablewith "modernism") that isn't a retread of the post-WWI period: for John Cage read Malevich, for Jim Dine read Picabia. Bäckström takes a more nuanced view, writing that "the neo-avant-gardes did not react against modernity, as the historical avant-garde did, but against late modernity. Therefore, they could not possibly use the same strategies as the historical avant-garde," the folks who, to paraphrase Peter Bürger's argument, struggled "to include art as a natural component of life (a richer life)."

That has always struck me as the fundamental goal for art: or, I have always demanded of art that it transform my life. If art doesn't intervene in life, it no longer interests me. Which, thanks to the clarification of terms Bäckström provides, leads me to reject postmodernism: it is a purely aestheticized reaction-formation, lacking "the Utopian urge to merge life and art, which is the prime mover for an avant-garde." But does that resuscitate what I do as avant-garde? Or neo-avant-garde? Or (shudder) "post-avant"?

I have a visceral response to Ian Keenan's claims that "the act of traversing new territory of expression is both tied to the spirit of the forms that preceded it to that end, but not dogmatically to the forms themselves"; and, "I believe in the avant-garde both as a matter of faith and as an objective analysis of phenomenon." The first statement is both pragmatic and a covert statement of faith in the spirit of the avant-garde that the second statement makes manifest. But I think I have a more useful term, at least for me, and Bäckström gave me the clue for it: utopian poetics.

Form is one intervention. I tell my students how parataxis can punctuate a text, can let fresh air into writing, can let alternatives to the master narrative filter in. Prosody is everything that diverts, spills, overflows, smothers, trickles around, and shines on that relentless question, "What happens next?" But my students still want to know what happens; they want, themselves, to happen. I too want this, and so we are utopians together. But what's the technique for this? What's its content?

This second singing a mangled medley of Beach Boys tunes to my daughter. "Sloop John B." "Good Vibrations." "Wouldn't It Be Nice."

If the thinker swallows the writer, if the formalist swallows what aches. Discomfort of several skins. Two heads. Then, "other horrible workers will come."

Mon coeur mis à nu. What Poe wanted to write.

We want the poem to be something, to take us somewhere. To have some life beyond both ordinary language and artsy self-awareness. To mean and be, or at least go.

(Is an addiction to generalities my difficulty? People cry, "Enough generalizing, let's talk about poems!" Yes, but there's an obvious hunger for the general, for perspective, for mapping our moment so as to live it/write it better. "The theme is creative and has vista.")

Typing one-handed, my left pinky finger in Sadie's mouth. Bodies in real time.

Utopia is negative and positive at the same time: it's noplace, and it's also always a negative image of whatever it is in our actually existing world that inhibits human flourishing. We write from and toward what we can't inhabit, except retrospectively. Now Sadie's being nursed by her mother, and the moment of misremembered songs and my finger-substitute (dry breast of the father) is in the past. It's got a half-life now, a glow.

How to write my way back toward lived experience, something messy, precious bodily fluids. The Narrativity writers, whose Biting the Error has been the main text in my creative writing seminar, also strive for this. As theoretical essays they show how their lives—often queer lives, or women's lives, or Marxist lives—have changed their writing. Between the lines—and in some of their non- or extra-theoretical texts—we read how their writing changed their lives. Utopians, every one. (Canadians, too, some of them, or denizens of the Bay Area—national and quasi-national spaces that have taken on a utopian luster for me in the past seven years.)

"The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." I love the themselves. I love the are.

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