Monday, March 06, 2006

What with flarfists and anti-flarfists at each other's throats and a stark, team-choosing choice being offered up in Austin between the official (epitomized in this case by the Legitimate Dangers reading) and the officially unofficial, I've never felt wearier of po-biz partisanship. At its best it's a source of the vital energy that comes from self-investment in an aesthetic and community. At its worst it's a thin excuse for narcissism and bullying. Right now more of the latter seems in evidence than the former. A useful tonic for now and the plane-ride to Texas is Adam Zagajewski's book of essays, A Defense of Ardor. I've only read the title essay so far, but Zagajewski's perspective is an immediate and immense relief for the following reasons:

- His "four periscopes" that combined provide him with both a deeper historical and broader geographical perspective than most young American poets can bring to bear: "One, the main one, is turned toward my native tradition [of Polish literature]. The other opens out onto German literature, its poetry, its (bygone) yearning for eternity. The third reveals the landscape of French culture, with its penetrating intelligence and Jansenist moralism. The fourth is aimed at Shakespeare, Keats, and Robert Lowell, the literature of specifics, passion, and conversation."

- His use of the two opposed philosopher-characters of Mann's The Magic Mountain to illustrate the modern schism in "the poetry of the cosmos" that in my view may ultimately provide a more useful and dialectical understanding of the trends in poetry variously described as raw vs. cooked, flarf vs. actual, post-avant vs. SoQ: "Naphta's demonic whisper and the humanitarian discourse of Settembrini." Zagajewski summarizes one of the major arguments from Charles Taylor's book Sources of the Self to illustrate the schism: "in our age, Enlightenment values triumphed in public institutions, at least in the West, whereas in our private lives we abandon ourselves to Romantic insatiability. We go along with rationalism whenever public, social issues are at stake, but at home, in private, we search ceaselessly for the absolute and aren't content with the decisions we accept in the public sphere."

- His advocacy of "Ardor, metaphysical seriousness, the risky voicing of strong opinions"—a standpoint that has been all but abdicated to the political and aesthetic Right.

Zagajewski's essay helps me track a number of trends as well as my own dissatisfactions. It seems to me that the aesthetic Left—most especially Language and post-Language writing—with its affinities for European literary theory, Marxism, and intellectualism generally, represents a surge of public-Enlightenment values into the private-Romantic sphere reserved for poetry, an incursion which causes continual outrage on the private-Romantic side that manifests alternately as poo-poohing, anti-intellectualism, sphincter-tightening, and genuine worry that the private sphere defined by the Romantic poem (often but not necessarily connected at least unconsciously with the values of private property) might vanish or stand revealed as the fragmented nexus of consumerist desires. Poetry, in short, that is explicitly concerned with the social, and which either in itself or in its mode of production represents a challenge to the model of poetry as either a private and ephemeral pleasure or, more seriously, as a genuine, arduous, and singular path toward vision and transcendence. I'm enticed by the idea of a combination of the two modes, dreamed of half-cynically in the full title of Bruce Andrews' I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) or ardently by Adrienne Rich. Anyway, to my mind this sets up a problematic triangle (but hey, at least it has three points!):

A - Social formalism, which tends to be critical, antimetaphysical, constructivist, and politically engaged (both in terms of content and in terms of the scene of production). It can dry, abstruse, with a deliberately repellent surface; it can also often be very funny. Flarf and other forms of the anti-poem serve largely to illuminate the social field of poetry as such, but at their furthest aperture they drench all manner of meaning-making machinery from the puerile to the perverse in pitiless light. Logopoetic practically by definition; friendly to melopoeia, which it finds generative; takes a hostile or ironic stance toward phanopoeia. Negative capability is a prerequisite for further construction. Modernist and postmodernist.

B - The private-romantic: the poem as guarantee of some minimal subjectivity (legroom in coach) through a stage-managed epiphany that claims to stand free of the social largely by virtue of its ragged right margin. Or rather, its authority is derived from some institutional structure whose hegemony it serves to conceal: this is the sort of thing Adam Kirsch and the other Contemporary Poetry Reviewboyslike, a stance toward poetry that always begins with the question, What to make of a diminished thing. Practitioners tend to make a fetish of either accessibility or tastefulness. Phanopoetic image-making is its stock in trade; its melopoeia tends to be either facile or rigid; its logopoeia generally restricts itself to allusions and heavy-handed allegory. Its negative capability derives principally from exhaustion, from indifference, or else it doesn't exist at all and yields happily to dogma. Anti-modernist or symptomatically postmodernist.

C - The metaphysical-romantic. These are the rare poems that dream big, whose private clearing begets a cosmology, whose withdrawal from the social is truly generative of vision. It enacts what Zagajewski, drawing from Plato, calls "metaxu, being 'in between,' in between our earth, our (so we suppose) comprehensible, concrete, material surroundings, and transcendence, mystery." It's difficult to privilege any one aspect of the three major dimensions of poetry, but I would say it goes primarily by ear, with logopoeia serving to generate an intellectual context (something like a "poetry of ideas") and phanopoeia generally providing relief, a touching place on the earth. Its negative capability most resembles Keats': a mode of attentive listening. In the twentieth century it's best represented by the strain of modernism coming out of Rilke and Stevens.

Whereas the trouble with Poetry B is, for me, self-evident, the trouble with A is that it tends to deny C or else attacks it as bourgeois and complacent about social conditions (including of course the social conditions of poetry). It can be mistaken for B, for its compositional space is generally conceived of as private; at the same time, though, that space is ec-centric, not a stake plunged into the hard turf of tradition but a metaphysical launching pad. It has the highest ambitions for poetry within the private-spiritual sphere to which poetry has traditionally been allocated (whereas Poetry A seeks to explode or implode that sphere). To imagine a blending of A and C is to flirt with theology, or at least the religious: it supposes that poetry could serve to organize a socius aspiring toward a particular transcendent, neither entirely private nor public—a congregation, a "visionary company." But then there's the interesting question of audience: I think most people, when they go looking for a poem, are looking for C. Sometimes they find it, sometimes they settle for B. The average literate person is simply not aware that A exists, and when they stumble across it they are usually repelled. This in no way invalidates A: it stands far more strongly for some kind of alternative to life as sheer exchange value than B does, though such is B's pose. But I do wonder about C and the quasi-religious feelings that attend upon its readers. At its worst it can mirror the cliche: spiritual but not religious. At its best I still think it has vital work to do, and may even be the "soul" of poetry as such (or is A closer to that soul, if the soul of poetry is Talmudically to contest its own boundaries?). It does not lend itself very well to talk of schools and filiations. It can fall into anti-intellectualism almost as easily as B can. But it cannot and should not become the sole property of the Right. I think there must be a place for metaphysics in poetry, even provisional metaphysics. Poetry that proposes meaning. I am becoming more drawn into notions of ecology and panpsychism that would provide an alternative to either sheer constructivism or the mandates of authoritative tradition. Could that happen in a C poem? Or is an A-C really possible, really desirable?

On my way to Austin looking for answers—or at least for better questions.


Anonymous said...

Hey Josh,

I think this is spot on, & very helpful for my own thinking. It strikes me that a marriage of A & C need not figure as explicitly theological--rather, couldn't the impetus be to imbue A-type poetry with truly Critical ambition? I mean, a poetry that functions not as self-absorbed critique of the contemporary poetic institutions, solely of interest to local practictioners, but as therapy for C-ish pretensions? Viewing the hunger for metaphysical grandeur as a positive block obstructing its real thirst to articulate exemplars for a future universality? (As in, what if the visionary company put the accent on company, seeing the visionary as one way, & possibly not the best, to resist the drag of the iron cage?) How's that different from plain old A-ism? Well, say that the problem is too positivistic a sense of the present. Marry C and A to invent a future. Etc. Anyway, this sounds like a program I've already signed up for, except without saying it. Kudos. & have fun in Austin. I'll be there in spirit, at least insofar as I'm reading J. L.

All best,

Paul McCormick said...

Very insightful post, Josh. Thanks for taking the time.


Jim Behrle said...

Why do I think you're doing that foetry thing again, Joshua: Where you put a little space between the last e in LEGITIMATE so as not to raise the ire of Cate or some shit? C' or don't blog.

I don't think the unofficial etc is all that flarfy: and I don't see much of a dynamic being played out at AWP. Like, if you're even *there* you've bought into something most poets I respect haven't. Have fun, tho--


Unknown said...

It's a typo, Jimmy. I fixed it. If I wanted to use asterisks, I'd use 'em.

Jim Behrle said...



Robert said...

Very interesting post. When you say, "I think most people, when they go looking for a poem, are looking for C. Sometimes they find it, sometimes they settle for B," it raises one question for me. Is there really a fundamental difference between B and C, or are B poems really just mediocre attempts at C poems? Granted, no one's going to confuse Rilke with Kooser, but in your description it still sounds as though the difference between them may simply be the difference between "stage-managed" epiphany and the real thing.

Unknown said...

It's a good question, Robert. I think what I'm trying to get at here are different conceptions of the use of the private-Romantic space that has traditionally been reserved for lyric poetry. Poetry B is invested in privacy for its own sake: the self as private property. Poetry C needs a clearing free of social static so as to launch its missions toward the sublime. I suppose you could make the Kantian distinction that suggests: Poetry B is devoted to the private beautiful (but in my opinion usually falls short even of that and becomes "culinary"), Poetry C seeks the sublime. Still and all, that leaves B and C as having more in common with each other than either have with A.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm --- I would place the locus of political engagement somewhere else. I think your thesis is stronger if you don't attach it to A, which to me is epitomized by an approach to the political via some pretty deep stuff, undermining of language not undermining of Bush.

But I love tripods, and this one is a very interesting structure. I am glad there is a place for someone like Zagajewski (and, indeed, some of the other Poles.) Pure C is just not something that you see a lot of in the States, if only because B is such a force that anyone with any sense runs North to A, although a lot of the truly great stuff is IMO poetry that gets to A via C.

(Reminds me of a friend who referred to Derrida on his death in explicitly religious terms -- I mean, there is a way in which Derrida functions for some people like a late Saint Augustine.)

Have fun at AWP! While you're boozing it up, I'll be defending my dissertation (9 AM EST, Thursday.)

bjanepr said...

not to sound like a cop-out but i am inclined to agree with simon, that "a lot of the truly great stuff is IMO poetry that gets to A via C..." or at least i find this statement quite resonant.

good post. thank you.

Curt Stump said...

I'm not crazy about categories, but I think that's part of falling into category C, if you know what I mean. How should we categorize the sky for example.

I'd agree that what you've defined as C is nearly non-existent these days, and it is what I crave as both a reader and writer. Funny you mentioned it, but I'm already reading Rilke as an antidote to the AWP networking session this week. And I think I'll re-read The Panther each time I hear the term flarf. The poetry institution is each of those thousand bars Rilke mentioned - keeping poets from the real world (and the real world includes notions of the soul, the ineffable, the night sky we can't touch - not just the hard cold steel around us).

I'm posting anti-AWP coverage all this week at my website. That is, I'm defiantly outside the institution. No offense, but poetry as a career is part of the problem. When poetry is a job or an opportunity for advancement, how can the metaphysical enter?

Topic A has a place in resistance, in pushing boundaries, that type of thing. In that way it's valuable. Experimentation is almost always valuable. But people at some point need to look up from the petri dish of words.

I think you are right that A as you've defined it is not what most people really get "moved" by - and that's what you're talking about in C whether you've named it or not - being moved.

I see so few contemporary poets even willing to consider that there may be a reason for poetry outside A and B that it's laughable. It's a lot like the emperor's new clothes if you know what I mean. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind A and B existing (I even read and write in those places at times) but I think it's obscene how many A and B poets cannot see category C - or worse, try to invalidate it.

Dare I say that a huge number of academics are so turned off by religion (and things that can't be quantified) that they can't stomach any poems that even remotely have some sentiment or hints of the soul? It sure can feel that way when I have discussions with people about this topic. The scientific method has its place. How it has gotten tangled up in poetry is beyond me. I don't think poetry needs the scientific method at all. In fact, I think it severely and unnecessarily restricts poetry.

Thanks for mentioning the elephant in the room - i.e. that poetry with meaning (or that strives to speak with the soul) is not only poetry, but damned good poetry. Now, if only I could open up some contemporary poetry journals and find some of this poetry.

Lee Herrick said...

i enjoyed this post

[and the subsequent discussion]. i surfed over from c dale young's.


Peli Grietzer said...

But how many examples of A are there, really?
I can only think of Perelman and Zukofsky as examples of A without an underlying C (Most Langpo heavy on the underlying C), and not mixed with B (Beats, probably most Objectivist, have a strong presence of a subject considering the social view).

The claim that most Langpo has an underlying C is disputable, but which Modernists count as A?

Ray Davis said...

Man, if Zukofsky and Niedecker (and Susan Howe) aren't C, I don't know who is. The trouble with your identities is that they're reader defined.

Well, that's not trouble except that you're trying to apply them to poetry wars, and poetry wars ignore any possibility of a reader.

But any "school" has examples of all three types, no matter what rhetoric they deploy on their jacket blurbs to make themselves seem like one big bobbing unit.

I believe Silliman when he says the "post-avant" community is essential to his writing, but he's dead-of-the-author wrong if he thinks it's essential to reading his writing.

John said...

Pound's Big 3 of poetry -- wordplay, sound (or melody), and image, if I understand correctly -- leaves out narrative. Which is fine for lyric, and which gets at my problem with a lot of your B: too often it's anecdote whose status as poetry is opaque to me -- why don't they just prose it?

I'm hesitant to diss private property. Call me bourgie, but I'm attached to mine, and I've known exceedingly few people who aren't attached to theirs. Marx's analysis of the exploitation of the non-owning class rocks, but positing a post-property mass-culture state is like positing the Messiah (as Benjamin intimated and Northrop Frye explicitly said; I'm sure others have too).

Don't just flirt with the religious. Ask it out on a date. Just make sure it's an unaffiliated religion. With an affiliated religion, you invariably end up dating a whole huge messed-up family.

Great post. Thanks.

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