Friday, June 29, 2012

Poetics of the Multiple

Midway through my life's journey comes a long moment of reflection and redefinition regarding poetics (this comes in place of the conversations I might have were I able to attend the Orono conference this weekend). The past several years have been devoted to a number of poetry-related projects: to The Arcadia Project (look for it this August), to assorted Black Mountain poets (my article "Robert Duncan's Visionary Ecology" will appear in issue 40 of Paideuma), and to the newer poems of my manuscript The Barons (which I'm trying to publish outside the contest system for a change; contests have been good to me but I long for a more authentic relation between writer and editor). A great deal of activity, but the novel has been a giant distraction from all that: a distraction that I craved, wanting and needing without quite being conscious of it a kind of breathing space or sabbath not from poetry exactly but from "being a poet," defining and defined by my esoteric art. Now that the novel is done, and wending its slow way into the hands of potential publishers, I am wondering what to do with all the fresh air the novel has left in its wake for considering poetry and its centrality to my life, and the possibility of writing it again.

If the novel opened up an interval in poetry for me, the door to that interval was opened or closed by my completion of my most recent manuscript of poems, The Barons, some poems from which, along with an interview, appear in the latest issue of Spoon River Poetry Review. My previous books were all "projects"; The Barons is a collection in the old-fashioned sense, really a collection of collections, that together constitute a sort of narrative of my activity in poetry since 2004, when most of the poems in Severance Songs were completed. It's a book that engages more directly than the others with my diminished faith in Romanticism: it even scorns and heaps abuse on Romanticism without ever giving up on it entirely.

The drama of the book from a poetics standpoint comes in seeking alternatives to what Jennifer Moore has called "the aesthetics of failure" that she associates with poets like Matt Hart and Tao Lin, which others have begun to refer to as "the new sincerity" (itself hardly a new term or idea). For these poets, Moore claims, "this deliberate embrace of failure is worked out through an explicit departure from an allegedly exhausted aesthetic and a movement toward a renewed emphasis on emotion."

Meanwhile from another direction you have the conceptualists pursuing, as Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman have put it, "strategies of failure" (Place tries to one-up Beckett in this interview: "fail again, fail worse"). And then in one of the liveliest quarters of the post-post-avant you have the aesthetic of the Montevidayans with their devotion to the political grotesque, to body-centered excess that pursues not "failure," exactly, but an aggressive interrogation of the political-social structures that undergird the very notion of "success," embracing poetry specifically (along with video nasties and other modes of marginalized spectacle) precisely for its weakness, its oddity, its place as a kind of malfunctioning prosthetic that calls attention to a profound and irremediable lack.

These three major aesthetics of failure, so predominant in poetry now, are just the latest reactions to (Joyelle McSweeney would say a zombie version of) a barred Romanticism, which I will simply and probably ahistorically define as a stance that assumes the mutual dependence of self and world, or if you prefer, freedom and determination. To continue to speak broadly and crudely, for a long time in American postwar poetry the self bestrode the world like a colossus, in sincere or grotesque manifestations (sincerely grotesque in the case of a Confessionalist like Sylvia Plath). Then as the tide of French theory began to slop against these shores we saw a new predominance of the world in the most interesting poetry, though "the world" appears in different guises: as heavily theorized social text for the Language poets, as gossip and theater for the New York School and its epigones. Now I would say that the self has been fully and completely invaded by the world/the other (on a DNA level, as a prism for the Spectacle, etc.), having been systematically deranged not by and for poetry but by the mediation of systems whose surfaces have never been more accessible (thanks to the Internet) even as their levers (who the boss?) and nodal points (the "tubes" of the real) have never been more obscure. The self wants to make a comeback, but it can only do so through some mode of abjection and surrender. What concerns me, for poetry, is that what's being surrendered in at least the first two versions of failure before us is poetry itself, or more specifically, two of its three major dimensions. 

These three dimensions, of course, are described by Ezra Pound as melopoeia (the music of language), phanopoeia (the casting of images on the reader's mind), and logopoeia ("the dance of the intellect among words"). In essence, the new sincerity and conceptualism have abandoned where they haven't mocked the first two elements and try to persist almost entirely in the third. It is, quite literally, thin stuff: deliberately impoverished, emaciated, Musselman-poetry. Here is a reasonably typical example, from Dorothea Lasky:

Toast to my friend or why Friendship is the best kind of Love  

Laura, Laura I am sad for you
But more than you I am sad for me 
And when I make a toast to you 
I make a toast to me, my friend. 
Here on the front porches of our lives, 
I toast to you, with goblet raised. 
And the house of our lives too, glittering 
With decay. And the fatish ghost 
Of losing and the sun and moon 
Being the same thing outside our house, O! 
That in decay we could find that losing 
Is truly beautiful. I love you and what's so wrong 
With that? Life is before us, so let us live! 
In friendship we are one together and in friendship 
I am all soul. No that’s wrong, too. 
What is a soul all aflame? 
If it’s a bird in snow, 
Then that’s what I am.

In my view this poem practices a sort of deliberate badness, a vacancy in terms of music and image, that by surrendering aesthetic power while telegraphing a naked longing for Romantic plenitude ("a soul all aflame") asks the reader to, in effect, lend it that plenitude, which it cannot itself repay. It's a subprime poem. Tao Lin goes even farther in this direction:

Poems that look weird 

One time I wrote a poem that looked really weird 
It looked like a scrabble board would 
If I were playing against you and losing by three hundred or something 
Because I'd just mix up all the tiles then, and 
You'd be angry but you'd laugh and that would be fun 

This other time you had The Paris Review anthology 
And you were looking for a poem about boats to show me 
And I pointed at a poem that looked weird 
And I said, I hate it when they do that 
And you said, I don't, I think it's pretty 

Another time I was thinking about you 
And I was thinking that you think that weird poems are pretty 
And I think that you are pretty 
I was thinking that there was something there, in that thought 
Some sort of connection that was completely free of bullshit, finally

That last line is where the "new sincerity" comes in: a mistrust of music and eloquence coupled with an ingenuous faith in a weirdly hypostasized "poetry" ("poems that look weird") will somehow cut through the bullshit and establish "connection." It's just conceptualism by another name, since conceptualism almost always relies on some manifestation of the faux-naif voice that colors these poems. It's just that, with a conceptualist poem, the no-bullshit connection on offer is with the world, not the self: a connection that promises to cut through prevailing ideologies and meet the reader (or "thinker," as Place prefers) on the ethically queasy ground s/he already occupies (viz. any performance of Place's ongoing grisly project "Statements of Fact").

The Montevidayans are the most attractive to me of the three modes under discussion, for the simple reason that theirs remains primarily an aesthetic in the primary sense of that word: a mode of feeling. There is nothing unmusical about a poem like McSweeney's "King Prion," especially if you are lucky enough to hear her perform those marvelous "Hoooooooos," a kind of non-linguistic vocalization that clears the ground for the ecstatic, abyssal somersaults performed by each poem (or "possession," as her husband Johannes Göransson prefers to term it). In terms of subject matter, too, the Montevidayans have internalized more successfully than any other tendency I can think of that weird prismatic fracturing, that dissolved boundary between self and world (a boundary named the body), which I think represents the most acute representation and critique of the Romantic legacy for our time.

Install the Flash plugin to watch this video.

Go to minute 33 to hear Joyelle read from "King Prion."

Yet I do not count myself in their number because I think theirs remains a primarily image-based poetics, as partly demonstrated by the group's ongoing fascination with film. (I should make it plain here that I am not speaking as a critic or as someone who seeks to be definitive: this is personal: I am groping toward the poetics that is mine: any prescriptions straying into this text are for myself alone.) Instead I am drawn back again and again to the poets of the 1960s associated with Black Mountain and San Francisco: Duncan, Spicer, Blaser, Olson (to a lesser extent Levertov, to a much lesser extent Creeley). Because that is the moment, I think, when the emphasis shifted, when the self was no longer an adequate platform for Romantic poetics but the world had not yet been theorized so lucidly (or as glibly) as it would be in the wake of "theory." The esoteric dimension in a poet like Duncan, which I once found so frustrating, now fascinates because it represents the attempt of a poet both fully intellectualized and fully alive to the ear to find a means of negotiating the boundary between self and world, means alive to the sensory-perceptual but not sufficing in them.

I want a poetics that takes self and world seriously, even as it struggles against hierarchy: the self is just one more object (or constellation of objects) in the sea of the world, yes--and yet. I am unwilling to surrender a fundamental pragmatism if not a humanism: a desire that poetry be placed at the root of life's flourishing: my life, other lives. The Barons, in its five sections, marks waypoints on the path toward such a poetics, as it slowly sheds the lightly ironized Transcendentalism I learned from Wallace Stevens and sets aside my equally naive, grad student's faith in cognitive mapping and ideology critique. It rediscovers narrative as a kind of alternative furthering of the goals of lyric poetry, since narrative of structural necessity believes in a sort of progress. There are also here hints, I think, of an intensified rather than deflected struggle with the confinement imposed by the lyric "I." The progress of the book tracks my increasing dissatisfaction with the lyric as I had conceptualized it: a vehicle for the single voice. There is for me a natural progression, even if no one else can see it, from the convulsions of these poems and the breakout toward a more genuinely polyvocal and heteroglossic mode of writing. A discovery, incidentally, that made fiction possible for me again after twenty years not writing it or even reading it much.

The last poems in the book try, in an almost Blakean way, to recycle the despair that has dominated much of the book without purifying it or leaving it behind; they push toward a sense of renewal that comes, at least in theory, from uniting with the multiple, in the form of the tropes of the city and the law that end the last poem, "Saeglopur," in a less confident echo of the conclusion of Compostition Marble. The multiple is the governing figure of the new poetics: the multiple within and the multiple without, and of course the multiple within each word, negotiated first and last by music, which happens to/with/in bodies. Which always precedes and predominates over meaning and image, containing within itself the affect that the reader interprets, always after the fact, as logopoeia.

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