Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Notes on Poetic Ecologies

14 May 2008

Pierre Lambelin: the city is now more biologically diverse and alive than the countryside, which is like a "desert," subjected to intensive agriculture all the way from Brussels to Marseilles.

Susan Moore on Kristeva: poetic language destroys identity or "accompanies crises in social structures." Ecopoetics emphasizes a semiotic boundary moment between nature and culture. Poetry resists the symbolic/culture/nom du pere.

Kristeva, Tales of Love: "[T]he only infinite space where we might unfurl our love, that is, the infinity of the signifier. Love is something spoken, and it is only that: poets have always known it."

Harriet Tarlo gives an engaging talk on the ecology of found text as the equivalent of field work - poetry in the landscape. (See, by the way, the important ecopoetics feature that she curated for the most recent issue of HOW2.)

Tarlo's talk reminds me of my idea of ecolage: decaying text so as to bring out the life of the signifier, "opening the language." Talks of "the spirit of citation" (the poet's reluctance to attribute the texts she palimpsests) as connoting the author's love or hatred for the found text: a mode of affect. (She doesn't mention, but I think immediately of Jed Rasula's This Compost.) Homage vs. satire—confronting an oppressive textual world. Acknowledging the otherness of found text, putting its ownership into question.

Describes work of Janis Butler Holm—a poem called "Seminar" that writes through Emerson and Thoreau as "reverse collage," leaving out the nouns so verbs emphasizing insemination and penetration leap to our attention. Other poets mentioned: Tony Lopez, Rachel Blau du Plessis.

Rich Murphy on Blake: he fully describes his utopia, whereas the modernist only gestures at it. Modernists like Williams and Stein seek to erase connotation. Symbolism no longer possible in a capitalist society of continual change—tradition can't stop time, myth no longer appeals to shared, universal experience.

Cites Richard Rorty: we must redescribe our experience in new ways until the next generation is prepared to embrace contingency and change in language. "We are in an epoch of redescribing." Jorie Graham's "Prayer" as an attempt to redescribe religious symbols in Darwinian language; Charles Bernstein's "In Particular" seeks to leave symbols and symbol-making behind.

Murphy seems to be arguing that we're in a moment of postmodern dissolution of "local" symbolisms prior to some new global culture better adapted to this era of change. But isn't that just capitalism tout court? Or the appeal to science: do scientific/ecological discourses still have more prestige/status/non-symbolic meaning than literary discourse at a time when scientific literacy is rapidly declining?

Creating an enclave separate from commodification ("pastoral") or self-conscious play with one's embedment in commodification. This is the gap of difference—and similarity!—thatI've perceived between post-Baudelairean and pastoral poetics. But there's no reason the Arcadian enclave can't be draw as a site for just such self-conscious play (Baudelaire in Arcadia!). Arcadia is the name we give to the autonomous or disinterested space in which we separate from commodification, but it's always a compromised and provisional space.

15 May

Tired today, a layer of plastic over everything. The poet Judith McCombs is talking about her own work. "Stories are what you do when you're not very good at theory." I find my mind wandering, so that the following meditations depend only tangentially on what she says:

I HATE NATURE WRITING. Yes, I love Thoreau and Aldo Leopold; I like Gary Snyder well enough. But the sentimental piety of so much nature writing—the third-rate uncritical romanticism—makes my skin crawl. Give my a little dyspepsia along with the swooning at least, like Edward Abbey (tossing beer cans into Lake Mead). I get impatient too with description, which is what so much of nature writing seems to amount to.

What I do like: Westerns; the social text of "nature"; lucid images woven into more discursive or palimpsestic texts; the dialectic of economy-ecology; deconstructing myths of individualism; nature as that which underwrites and undermines our mode of production; urban pastoral.

Suspicious of Romanticism (but we need the eggs). Ancient suspicion, even fear, of large-scale structures of feeling: nationalism, Zionism, religious fervor. Because no doubt of my own susceptibility to such things.

McCombs: "There's a wilderness behind me, I know! I paid to get out here. It's chock full of dirt."

"we swim among stones"—is she aware of Olson here? Glacial stones, enspirited—enhumaned?—by their mark of otherness, their unhumanness. Whereas in "The Kingfishers," "I hunt among stones" refers to thoroughly human stones—ruins of culture. I prefer that mode, admire it more, because it's less mystical/mystifying. I don't trust an author to single-handedly, priestlike, invest "stone" with mythic significance—to fetishize it for what always feels like one's own spiritual aggrandizement. I also respect the geologist who turns "stone" into glacial specifics of granite and shale—but this too quickly comes to seem arid and boring—"description" again.

I do seem to need and want a spiritual investment in nature—an animism—for it to become interesting. But I'm suspicious of the black box of fetishization that tends to accompany such maneuvers. Solution: break open the box, expose the deus inside the machina. Can an ecopoet show as much self-consciousness about her landscapes as the post-Baudelairean shows about her cityscape? Back once again to constructivst pastoral. (Will I ever get my terms straight?)

Olson interests me because he's interested in myth-construction, not myth reconstruction (separating him from Pound, or Duncan). The agon of the dialectic of enlightenment—the push pull between myth and disenchantment—is right there on the surface of his work.

Of course at some point you stop the weathervane and start writiing.

IMPOSSIBLE not to anthropomorphize nature. Even to describe water as "flowing" humanizes it, makes it more like us. Language is always human, even the most Latinate, "cool" language.

"If you want a story you need evil in the plot." Well, that's why narrative's such an undialectical mode.

Arcadia as staging ground for personae, play with masks, recombinations of desire. But what about the big fish? My intuition all along has been that pastoral provides the unstable pivot between myth and enlightenment, that imaginary balance in which the benefits of both can be enjoyed while either's domination is forestalled. Of course such a landscape may be, may even more easily be, Frank O'Hara's subway and record store, "at hand" to the grass.

10:30 AM: African-American (Re)readings of Nature

Evie Shockley on Ed Roberson and Anne Spencer—the latter apparently more famous for her spectacular garden than for her poetry, which "failed" to engage racial themes and so has aroused little critical interest. But Schockley argues that her garden constitutes a site in which to reconstruct a sense of self after withstanding the corroding effects of racism (Spencer very much an activist).

Similarly, Roberson has endured critical neglect because his nature-centered aesthetic and his conceptual, disjunctive poetics do not fit into existing models for African-American poetry. Roberson challenges the Wordsworthian Romantic/ecopoetics dichotomy, neither idealizing nature nor critiquing human impact on the environment. Instead studies diverse landscapes (Alaska, Pittsburgh) as ecosystems. Finding the negative in nature/wilderness and the urban is as important to him as celebrating their beneficient dimensions—Roberson's means of destabilizing nature/culture.

Yuya Kuchi is the next speaker—he happens to have translated Obama's book Dreams from My Father into Japanese. His talk revists Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden and talks about black slaves as both a version of the machine (they "process" nature for their masters) and as victims of a highly rationalized slavery systems that itself constitutes a machine. "Black machinery in the white garden."

For many blacks, then, nature/the countryside has been associated with bondage and mechanization, whereas the city comes to be associated with freedom, economic opportunity, and the organics of authenticity. If you're "really black" you're from the inner city.

I ask Evie: Does poetry like Roberson's put the very concepts of "authenticity" and "blackness" into question, or does it simply redistribute these categories?

Evie: Roberson has been described as "post-black" (Obama again!). She sees him as "troubling" the category of blackness, particularly as it was constructed by the Black Arts movement in the 1970s (Roberson's moment of coming to consciousness as a poet).

Thinking now of Hillary Clinton's comment about "hard-working Americans, white Americans" and the implied disparagement of African-American voters as being somehow less valuable, less authentically American. But it ought to be the Republicans getting tripped up by this. Learned today about the Democratic candidate who won a special election to Congress in Mississippi in spite—because?—of Republican efforts to link him to Obama. Also worth noting: Europeans keep buttonholing me at this conference, asking me if I think Obama can win, as if my mere Americanness were enough to grant me oracle status. In a possible abuse of nonexistent agency, I tell them he can.

Noon Gary Snyder panel. Fredrick Brogger argues that Snyder's prose is riddled with culture-specific references that weaken it, whereas his poetry more closely adheres to a deep ecological decentering of the human. This is unconvincing: how is Snyder's poetry any less culturally specific or located than his prose? The "figurative reticence and restraint" that Brogger praises in the poems is something Snyder learned from studying Asian poetry, which of course was also for Pound a major source for a de-rhetorized American poetics. Brogger's is an Orientalist argument, it seems to me. Restraint and humility may be counter-cultural, but they're not a-cultural!

Robin Cheng-Hsing Tsai's paper is called "Gary Snyder and the Nature of Nature," and he gives a terrifically animated performance. A Lacanian reading: holds up a biscuit tin as a means of demonstrating what Lacan means by petit objet a. "For Snyder, the real cannot be divorced from the virtual." A line of Snyder's from Mountains and Rivers Without End: there can be no true hunger without a painting of hunger.

"Healing" vs. "saving"—Snyder rejects the Christian notion of salvation. Contending perhaps with Pound's claim that "when the mind hangs by a grass blade / an ant's forefoot will save you"?

Lacan's Real versus Snyder's.

Josh Weinstein, a sweet guy who I'll hang out with quite a bit, talks about Snyder's poetry as an "ecotone" between the human and nonhuman worlds.

(Arcadia ecotoned in the sense that its shepherds are cultivated verse-speakers embedded in nature. Song resolves or through jouissance relieves the human/non-human tension. But jouissance of course can never be fully contained or controlled! Et in Arcadia ego....)

I get very nervous when people try to extract the human or turn aside toward silence. "Nature communicates itself"? Heidegger again.

Afternoon panel on "urban ecologies" chaired by Jno. Skinner.

W. Mark Giles's talk: "Into the Wild / Into the Crosswalk." An ingenious reading of Kracauer's book vis-a-vis Roland Barthes' death-by-laundry truck on the streets of Paris. Inspired bv a comment posted on the ASLE listserv: if Christopher McCandless had forgotten his wallet and run into a crosswalk and gotten himself run over, Kracauer could have written a book called Into the Crosswalk but no one would have bought it.

Barthes: "There is nothing natural any more—everything is historic." Giles adviser remarked to him that if anyone other than an academic had said that he would have been immediately institutionalized.

Mark hates nature writing too: "I believe society is constructed and nature is not something numinous and other."

Traffic produces risk in urban environments but not the "escape from history" (William Cronon) that wilderness offers. Does Benjamin's flaneur escape from history the same way McCandless tried to? Both responses to alienation. The pastoral of jaywalking? Mark doesn't mention the possibility, but was Barthes perhaps cruising when he died?

Flanerie does seem in some ways to be a pastoral mode—but Olson doesn't fit this model the way O'Hara or Snyder even might. He's not an alienated man of the crowd, but a would-be founding citizen.

Christophe den tandt gives a talk on "urban vitalism." From a vitalist/Whitmanian "web of life" ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry") to the necropolis "City of Dreadful Night" of Thomson. Proposes vitalism as "A mapping device for a world of diminishing resources vs. postructuralist/postmodernist theories of infinite expansion and diversifaction.

What's "natural" about the crowd? Its sublimity? But then we're confined to discussing aesthetic effects.

"the utopian pole of description"—Whitman overcomes disconnected, depressed, or alienated moments—"disintegrated yet part of the scheme."

Does the phrase "death in life" sum up the Gothic? I rather think it does. Paris Spleen: "Horrible life! Horrible city!"

Uncanny vitality of the not alive: of course that's just another incarnation of the uncanny life of the commodity. Its flip side: the paradise of shoppers. A pastoral reaction to this would restore the categories of seeming and being: what's alive seems alive, what seems unalive is that way.

Ma Huaqui is next; his paper and presentation were stolen. "I'll be presenting my paper in absentia—my paper is in absentia." He does a remarkable job.

City as organism but Singapore, as 25 x 40 km. island, is "100 percent urbanized," no open space anywhere.

Singaporean poet Alfian bin la'at's "Autobiography" describes the poet as lacking both a childhood and any contact with nature.

If there's no countryside in Singapore I'd think people would turn to the sea as open space—no?

The human body is the only natural element in the hyperurbanized space.

Jason Wiens is last with a paper on Lisa Robertson's Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Wish I'd written this one. Robertson inverts Empson, he claims, by putting the simple into the complex. Robertson: "The Office for Soft Architecture came into being as I watched the city of Vancouver dissolve in a substance called money."

Cites Timothy G. Gray's article, which I've also recently read, on urban pastoral (Snyder and O'Hara, role-playing).

"Under the pavement, pavement." Robertson's irony is difficult to track. Wiens: "An inverted dystopia is not necessarily a dystopia."

It's the urban space that's mutable in Robertson, that plays roles, not the people in that space. But he's reading her more affirmatively than I do. It's true her book ends with a hyperbolic scene of sexual gratification.


That was Thursday—my fullest day at the conference, which set my mind afire. I woke up at 3 AM and wrote down what I believe to be the seeds of my pastoral book—something that will bear at best a family resemblance to the dissertation. But I won't record it here.

More notes will follow.

No comments:

Popular Posts