Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Ange's first post referencing Fourier Series was answered by Joshua Clover; she responded to him and to Chris Nealon (who's coming soon to a reading series near you) and then Jordan chimed in. Got all that? Hardly seems necessary for me to comment at this point, but I did write an e-mail to Ange the substance of which seems worth reproducing here.

Ange's original post raises a lot of questions for me, like does my being a poet-critic who reads Heidegger and Adorno and talks about it somehow mean I'm held to a higher standard and/or make my poetry more mistakable for "discourse"; in other words, did my personal penchant for philosophy make me liable to Joyelle McSweeney's misreading, or is Ange referring more to a general tendency among poets that led Joyelle down that primrose patht? I suspect the latter; I had taken her weirdly tone-deaf reading of Fourier Series to derive from some kind of blanket political correctness: perhaps my use of Native Americans does have an "Orientalist" tinge, but I was drawing on a mythos of the American West that still has a lot of currency while, I think, opening it to question from unexpected vectors. I also don't think I'm the unambiguous John Wayne booster she makes me out to be, and she's obviously never seen The Searchers, which is a major presence in the book. Perhaps she took Wayne for a George Bush figure, but W's swagger is a poor imitation of the dancer-like grace with which Wayne could move; he also lacks Wayne's surprising capacity for expressing vulnerability (crystalized in the famous Harry Carey gesture he makes in the last momentts of The Searchers. (An important source for my use of Wayne was Garry Wills' book, John Wayne's America.)

None of this has much to do with "philosophy," but it does range the question of "treating poetry other than as a vehicle for argument." And here I don't quite know if I agree with Ange, even if that means I have to endorse Joyelle's review in a backassward sort of way. Poetry is NOT a "vehicle" for argument—I totally agree with that—if that's all it is, it's bound to be lousy poetry OR poetry with an aggressively anti-aesthetic bent (which can be interesting, since poetry simply by laying claim to the name "poetry" can never fully escape the aesthetic). But in addition to being whatever else it is, poetry, by being composed of language, resembles and tends to draw into itself recognizable chunks of other sorts of discourse: argument, philosophy, begging letters, what have you. This creates a confusion that you could lament, or that you could accept as intrinsic to the form and therefore play with as a material for poetry just as you play with rhyme, alliteration, imagery, etc. I don't see anything wrong with poets appropriating theory or any other sort of linguistic material for aesthetic
effects, but they do risk "doing it wrong" from the perspective of the experts who don't know how to read a chunk of theory any way but AS theory. It's akin I think to Ezra Pound's problem with translators of Chinese and Latin poetry who were not themselves poets; people fussed over the anachronisms in his "Homage to Sextus Propertius" without recognizing that this was one of the markers by which Pound intended to mark his poem not as a translation but as a poem. Now, I've written this whole book called "Fourier Series" and I'm hardly a Fourier expert; I'd read a marginal quantity of his enormous oeuvre and not in French, either, plus some secondary literature (Barthes was useful) when I began writing. The idea of him and his work was inspiring enough to become the mainspring of a poem: but the scholar in me worries sometimes over inaccuracies or misunderstandings; now I read about Fourier and sigh with relief when I don't find anything to contradict what's I've already put out there in black and white. But the poet in me isn't worried at all, he just displays his tattered license.

So I'm all for a poetry of impurity, which invites confusion with other sorts of texts, though I'm also often drawn to poems which insist on the purity of their poemness, which wrest their verbal materials so far out of any recognizable context that you'd feel foolish trying to "read" anything "into" them. Generally the more intense a poem's formal qualities—the more abstracted it is from prose—the more counter-intuitive it seems to try and turn it into philosophy or any other sort of non-poetry. I find it telling that most of Joyelle's negatives in her review come from the prose poems in the book.

Ange wants to preserve a space for the "lyrical impulse" as something prior to all this folderol, in the process expressing a surprisingly Poundian sentiment: "the certainty that only the quality of the emotion remains." There's a corresponding anxiety about readers/critics who get it wrong, who override the poet's will toward indeterminacy (somehow it seems linked with the lyrical impulse—because qualities of emotion resist full determination?). I certainly didn't intend anything resembling a straightforward argument when I wrote Fourier Series, but for me the answer for the problem of misreading can only be MORE (mis)reading: let competing interpretations thrive, such is arguably the life and health of a text. At the same time a reading of poetry which wants to disregard its aesthetic intentions and impact in favor of "message" is most definitely missing the boat. What may be most interesting is interpretation that reaches to the level of form: my publisher has expressed surprise that no one has yet commented in any sustained way on the book's formal devices, which are certainly distinctive (contrained literature, anyone?) and uncertainly derived from Fourier's theories. That is, aesthetic effect has its own message to relate, while (hopefully in the case of my work) carrying with it a superabundance of pleasure ("sunstruck supercargo") that is itself the point. And so a kind of Russian doll effect ensues.

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