Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thick as a Brick

I

Reading one of the thorniest and most interesting exchanges in Firestone and Lomax's Letters to Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community, between Judith Goldman and Leslie Scalapino. (A modified excerpt from the correspondence is available here.) It kicks off with a 2004 letter from Scalapino in which she tries to explain her own poetic practice and how it relates to a subject which has not lost any urgency since that long-ago election year: "the relation of writing to events." That deceptively simple phrase encapsulates the question/declaration perennially phrased as "Poetry makes nothing happen" (Auden) / "No one listens to poetry" (Spicer) / "Can poetry matter?" (Dana Gioia, et al) and two more recent responses to the same anxiety: Stephen Burt's gently deprecating "Art vs. Laundry" and Alan Davies' fiery "The Dea(r)th of Poetry" (it doesn't surprise me to learn that Davies' father was a preacher). I also have in mind my colleague Bob Archambeau's recent
posts on the Cambridge Poets and the exaggerated claims sometimes made for the political efficacy of their work. Elsewhere this anxiety gets expressed in vitriol directed toward MFA programs / Internet culture / youth. But the Goldman/Scalapino dialogue suggests an alternative to codgerish despair on the one hand and triumphant insularism on the other.

In the course of their correspondence, Goldman and Scalapino touch on the infamous remarks on "the reality-based community" that Ron Suskind elicited from an anonymous high official in the second Bush administration, worth requoting here:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

I still get a chill from the barefaced arrogance that radiates from what Goldman calls "the (psychotic) state of self-grounding, unpuncturable, unrevisable self-confidence in Bush's cohort." It's pungent evidence, if more evidence were needed, of the ethical bankruptcy of postmodernism in its purest forms, akin to the news about the Israeli army's incorporation of the theory of Deleuze and Guattari into their urban warfare strategies.* But the response to this is not, cannot be any sort of return to first principles, enlightenment-vintage or otherwise. There is no democratic instrument for the imposition of values; only individuals can be motivated to recall themselves to thinking, and only individuals can choose to enter the bonds of solidarity that can bring about change.

The preoccupation of writers and intellectuals is or ought to be that function that writing is better equipped to perform than any other art form: to recall readers to the act of thinking. Scalapino makes that point in her first letter to Goldman. She first draws a distinction between what she sees herself as doing and what "the poets near to me" (aka the Language poets) were doing: trying "to consider relation of 'being' to history.' On the one hand, events one does (and events in the world) are not the being (are not one). On the other hand, 'to fall out' of these events in the world… is not to be at all, not to have ever been."

"Being," then, stands in history without being of it, yet to step out of that history—to take the observer's position—is to not be at all (one's being may be at its most ideological when one does not act). That's the moment in which poetry becomes the poetry that makes nothing happen: the poet observes, stands outside, and describes:

Descriptive language is an example of "falling out of" (or never having been in, always separate from) one's own motions described there. Such as: to describe events or to reference ideas already in place or to discuss other people's ideas, rather than one's writing being the act of thinking, an action that would also be an invention occurring there. Sometimes poets (I noticed this in the 80s) would reject even writing a thought process (at all), taking this for descriptive rather than the act of thinking.

This is an incisive critique of what Charles Altieri calls "the scenic mode" in American poetry: a poetry that describes the world, however elegantly or with whatever degree of rueful poignancy, does not bring any pressure of thought on the world; it is not "an invention occurring there." For Scalapino this "invention" takes place on the level of syntax, a form of movement different from yet related to—in a non-representational way—the movement of bodies, which is the ground of action and history. "I wanted the writing to be that gap: the writing being life, real-time minute motions (physical movements or events) but being or are these (minute motions) as syntax (not representation of the events)." She defines her poetic syntax alternately as "a sound-shape which is… creating alternate interpretations" and as "memory trace or conceptual shape."

The strangeness of Scalapino's syntax (a brief example) keeps pushing the reader away from representation or narrative and into the multifoliate gap between writing/being/representation/history, a gap which under ideal circumstances we are led to think our way into and through and out of. But here is where I re-encounter Spicer's "No one listens to poetry," because that syntax is under such pressure that it either defies comprehension or becomes purely formal (it's the same thing), so that the truth-content of the poem eludes the reader. This is where, for me, lyric comes back into the equation: beauty or buzz can seduce the distracted reader into entering that gap between word and world—that vibrating force field unique to the poetry that dislocates speech and representation. And yet I'm cognizant of the danger that the field itself, its hum, can become mere sensation—that my default mode for responding to a poem, even a "difficult" poem, is aesthetic delectation. Thought comes later, and—I'll be honest—sometimes doesn't come at all. The poem can resist my intelligence wholly successfully, and I'll still enjoy it, as long as it stimulates me not to thought (hypostasis, noun-state) but to thinking (the only verb that connects being with becoming).

Scalapino's practice, like almost everything avant-garde, is a mode of collage, which emphasizes the disordering or de-hierarchizing of elements over the magpie bricolage of unlike elements. It's a bit like the difference between atonal music's dethronement of melody—which can sound like the untrained ear like an attack on music itself—and the DJ's mash-up that renders familiar sounds strange (what Danger Mouse did in The Grey Album) and turns unfamiliar unmusical sounds into something you can dance to (D.J. Spooky). It's a mode of what I call intensive collage—it breaks inward—as opposed to extensive collage. To put it another way, collage is a mode of deterritorialization, but whereas extensive collage in the mode of Pound and Olson is often didactic and reterritorializing, intensive collage at its purest maintains multiple possibilities as multiple, so that any strong interpretive move made by the reader toward "meaning" is to miss the point, which is to be in the thinking that makes the poem. Scalapino writes:

It means that anything occurring impinges on and alters everything else—equally effective in the sense of large and small are part of the context. There's no hierarchy (in existence), though it occurs socially created and created by animals, authority does not derive from it. The writing enables one to see that and be 'without' it. A poem can be a terrain where hierarchy can be undone or not occur (in the writing), but obviously the writing does not make it not occur in the world. So, its subject is also the relation of conceptual to phenomena, conceptual being an action also. Yet even proposing conceptual non-hierarchy frequently meets with great resistance (usually).

What has this got to do with the relation of poetry to events? Perhaps only that that relation is thinking, a mode of cognition that, as Heidegger suggests, is very close to the poetic, and fundamentally different from the discursive language that envelops "judicious study of discernible reality." It may be the only hope that people without power—subjects or subalterns of empire—have of anticipating, resisting, and reimagining the violent redescription of the world. Though it should go without saying that this imaginative and de-hierarchizing mode of thought is insufficient without actual political action, actual solidarity, actual resistance. But how can the latter take place without this work of the imagination?

Put another way: only poetry can counter the Big Lie of power. We've lived through a decade in which reasonable and intelligent and empirically acute people—God bless 'em—pointed out as strenuously and as often as possible that the emperor had no clothes. And it seems to have done almost no good at all. All we got were some scathingly accurate and politically ineffectual descriptions of a reality that the empire had already moved on from, just as Bush's Rasputin said.

It may seem that I'm falling into the trap of according an importance to poetry entirely disproportionate to its actual infinitesimal influence in the world. Maybe I am. But it's my hope that the poetry of collage, of deterritorialization, really is in spite of everything capable of becoming an avant-garde in the literal sense: the leading edge of discourse-formation, of new imaginative possibilities for the arrangements of words and—if only by analogy and allegory—social arrangements and structures.

II

And yet I can't content myself with the belief that it's enough that this stuff gets written and that the same people who write the stuff read it. I dream of a wider readership for poetry without compromise with the bugbear of accessibility. Some of the other writers and critics I referenced in my first paragraph have contributions to make to this possibility. I do think that if there were more and better poetry criticism out there it might build a bridge to the many highly literate people out there who read everything but poetry. Alan Davies calls for a rigor and candor in poetry criticism that is undoubtedly lacking at the moment (though I wonder if he's spent much time with The Constant Critic or the wonderfully in-depth reviews published by The Nation. Davies' essay evokes a 2009 discussion at Mayday, "Some Darker Bouquets," in which Kent Johnson and a host of interlocutors debate the role of the negative review in poetry. By far the best solution on offer, I think, is not Kent's proposal of anonymous reviews (who would write them?) but encouraging non-poets to take up the task; poetry needs the robust community of critics that nearly every other art form can claim. But this is a circular argument, for what will induce those non-poets to read poetry intensively and seriously enough to critique it? What will induce them to get some skin in the game?

The title of my post refers of course to one of my guilty pleasures: the eponymous prog-rock concept album released in 1972 by Jethro Tull. Written and performed with tongue firmly in Ian Anderson's cheek, the album features deliberately abstruse, pretentious, quasi-sensical lyrics that were one of my first introductions, as a teenager, to the living possibilities of poetic language. I have always been haunted by the title track, which manages to evoke both of the Lears (the King and Edward):

Really don't mind if you sit this one out.


My words but a whisper -- your deafness a SHOUT.

I may make you feel but I can't make you think.

Your sperm's in the gutter -- your love's in the sink.

So you ride yourselves over the fields and

you make all your animal deals and

your wise men don't know how it feels to be thick as a brick.


I feel this is as eloquent a statement as any of the dilemma of the artist who wants his audience to think, but whose means of doing so—the sensuality of materials like words and narratives and musical notes—are incommensurate with thinking. The energies of the "you" addressed by the singer are dismembered and sterile, and the discursive knowledge of "your wise men" cannot capture how it feels to be thick as a brick—to be in the gap between being and becoming, the gap of not-knowing. How it feels—because this thinking, this conceptual activity that collage writing demands of the reader, is a feeling. The trouble is, to most readers, it feels an awful lot like feeling stupid. Whereas those of us who have habituated ourselves to these forms dare to be stupid (to pull another déclassé musical reference out of my hat) and feel not-knowing as an exhilaration, an ecstasy that returns us, momentarily, to being.

Poetry must be in a desperate situation indeed if I'm turning to Jethro Tull, right? But my point is that people want to feel something when they read, and that poetic thinking is a feeling—is an aesthetic experience in its own right, akin to the sublime. One is in the presence of the ungraspable, your deepest imaginative powers—the Romantics called it Reason—stretched and exercised by the experience. The extensive poem—remnant epic—puts us in contact with the terror of connection—makes perceptible the logic of the world (of capital) that our media are designed to distract us from, without necessarily succumbing to the logic of paranoia and the conspiracy theory. The intensive poem, whose logic is fundamentally lyric, connects us with something more elusive; like Eliot's shred of platinum it catalyzies a reaction between body and soul, feeling and thinking, being and becoming.

And yeah, parts of that album are frigging sublime, and I stand by that.


* For a poetic reflection on this phenomenon see Rachel Zolf's new book Neighbour Procedure, the title of which, I learn from Vanessa Place's review, "refers to an entry technique deployed by Israeli soldiers in which Palestinians are forced to break the walls inside their neighbor's houses, allowing the soldiers to move laterally between houses." Among other things, this concept puts a new and chilling spin on the title of one of my favorite Kevin Davies' poems, Lateral Argument.

7 comments:

eric said...

All of your political poetry concerns are answered or illustrated in Yakich's THE IMPORTANCE OF PEELING POTATOES IN UKRAINE, published, I think, in 2008. ED

Archambeau said...

Hey Josh,

Interesting stuff. But this is a hell of a big claim:

"only poetry can counter the Big Lie of power"

Do you really mean -only- poetry? If so, why does nothing else at all do?

Best,

Bob

Ray Davis said...

A pleasure to listen to your thinking in this post. Some prodded thoughts in return:

Both Spicer and Auden tend to get quoted as if they were tsk-ing over their own futility, but I think they're close to where your post ends. Spicer implied that no one listens to poetry in the same way that no one listens to the ocean; the ocean may be many things, but a feckless liberal it's not. (Viz Bunting on the The Cantos: "These are the Alps, fool!") And Auden was eulogizing a reactionary aesthete who'd joined a civil war; to quote myself (since I'm conveniently at hand), "Auden's statement meant not that poetry doesn't act, but that poetry specifically acts to make nothing happen. 'It survives in the valley of its making,' far from the motivating-somethings busily thrown and stacked up and knocked to the ground by executives and politicians and armies and army corps; 'it survives, a way of happening, a mouth.'"

"Politics" can't be kept out of poetry any more than "history," "class," or "lovers" can. But just as reading Merrill and Berkson didn't make me rich, and reading Swinburne and Spicer didn't turn around my libido, reading Tennyson and Mac Low didn't sway my voting. I think that's just as well -- would we really have wanted to give Bush a Kipling as well as a FOX? -- but then I'm preaching from the choir.

Oh, and I sadly agree with Bob: most big sentences that start with "Only poetry can..." end up having to be revised. A couple of paragraphs later you yourself bring in Jethro Tull.

Archambeau said...

All honor to Jethro Tull.

Josh said...

Hey, if I can't make grandiose statements on a blog, where can I make 'em?

I suppose my statement requires me to separate the poetic - the capacity for dematerialized poiesis in language - from poetry per se. A cop-out, perhaps. But I am currently digesting another essay of Scalapino's on "Eco-Language" that might help me make this more convincing.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must return to playing with my new iPad - which so far has done a dandy job of blog-commenting.

Christopher said...

Interesting post I suppose.

Speaking as a poet, I don't think there is any grand great way poetry can change the larger world. I can't see anything inherent in poetry that makes it superior to sculpture, painting, chess or any artistic medium - if an artist has a strong mind he will be able to make and find meaning in whatever medium he works

Very abstract article you've written there, I have trouble finding much use for the ideas in it. I think great poetry can be made from simple delight in the sound of language, yet it makes sense to me that a great poem might as well also include content of semantic and literary meaning. Anyway, best wishes, nice to "meet" you.

Don Share said...

I figgered someone else would come along and say so, but... for the record, TSE's chemistry was faulty. A catalyst changes the rate, i.e., speed up or or slow down a reaction, but it doesn't create or cause one.

Also, the reaction he describes produces sulfuric acid, not sulphurous acid.

I don't suppose this changes the point much, or maybe it even helps it out, but still... I welcome corrections to my own understanding of Eliot's use of this figure, natch.

Cheers, & thanx for this!

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