"Accessibility" vs Riddles

by on Apr.30, 2011

Here’s the conclusion of the New York Times review of Blake Butler’s There is No Year:

More scourges and mysteries arrive: ant infestations, the mailbox crawling with caterpillars, boxes full of photos of the dead, secret tunnels. What is the meaning of this family’s haunted house? Are we to interpret it all metaphorically? After being tortured by a talking egg, the mother, we are told, “weighed nine pounds lighter than that morning.” What of that? Butler makes us work for our answers, and I won’t spoil the experience by suggesting preformed conclusions. This novel is a thing of such strange beauty that digging for answers of your own will yield the rewards that only well-made art can provide.

In difference to the great accessibility rhetoric of Kirby, Collins and Orr, this review posits that the pleasure of Blake’s novel – like The Sound and The Fury and “Bartleby the Scrivener” – comes exactly from the riddles it poses.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Corey Wakeling

    I can’t speak for the book, but, and I wonder whether you Johannes share a similar sentiment, the problem with the reading of riddles here is that the reader is endowed with some purportedly auspicious, rarefied interpretive space.

    “Strange beauty”, if one esteems the concept beauty to the degree Kant does, its sublimity and beyond-the-codes-so-far-ness, is precisely the opportunity to revive the a priori faculty of judgement and reiterate it through one’s own immediate application. Thus, hermeneutics is rarefied.

    But, the riddle I believe must be seen entirely differently. The riddle is a maze. The maze as such is anaesthetic: your judgement is silenced by submission to the riddle. Even the koan, a kind of impetus for self-truth-making, must be encountered with a question or another koan. I believe we must be convinced hell or chaos is within Pandora’s box. Our criticisms must therefore be myth, our craftsmanship must substantiate the myth. This is not at all to say the passenger of the maze or the apprentice of Zen brings nothing with her, the maze is not a puzzle but an arabesque without her. On finishing the maze, I imagine the passenger has learnt more of the maze, and begins to speak in its tongues. Considering your mention of Cage in the previous post, you leave the maze of Cage and discover mazes in the Rocky Mountains, and in the words of your wife. Quoting more exactly, Cage wants us to emerge from one of his pieces not with developed sensibility, but developed sensitivity: hopefully, you will emerge hearing more. Mayakovsky boxes my ears and I don’t wonder, “what did all that mean?”, I wonder, “what do I do now?” slapped pink and antsy. I believe this is the difference in Deleuze between the phantasm “strange beauty” and the monad “the riddle”. I wonder if you agree the New York Times would do better to heed this distinction. Great posts by the way, Johannes.

  2. Kent Johnson

    Why is it “accessible” vs. “difficult,” though? I haven’t been following the whole discussion, so it’s possible I’m missing some more subtle points of definition. I see what JG says about the Poetry Foundation, for example, though worth noting they’ve also been championing the “difficult” of late, an indication, I suppose, how the mainstream is radically and rapidly shifting, no matter what Ron Silliman might think. However, I’m not sure what this “accessible” category is supposed to mean: there is lots of work (think the old Greeks and Romans, for starters) that could be regarded as accessible, at least on the first layer or two (sometimes linguistic clarity *does* allow deeper seeing). Cavafy can be wonderfully direct and limpid, Hikmet, Lorca, Neruda, some of Vallejo, all those Eastern Europeans, very accessible in language, much of Williams, Rukeyser. Three Norton anthologies more, obviously… Much of this is great poetry. You can say you have a preference or taste for “difficulty,” whatever exactly that is, but “Difficulty” carries no more inherent value than does “accessibility” (this is why Collins is so obnoxious, his bland verse aside–because he tries to make a value case for particular discursive frames and affects; oddly, or maybe not so oddly, this is the same exact obnoxious error of the Language poets and their direct offspring). There is strong poetry and weak poetry and “keys” of grammar and syntax *in the abstract* have little, if anything, to do with it. After all, much of the “difficult” poetry inundating the current field (especially the kind getting prized and published by leading academic and mid-commercial presses) is rehearsed and derivative in embarrassing ways, beyond any redemption that linguistic turbulence would bring, even if it could, which as I said it can’t. Same goes for the loads of crap in plain-speech stuff, the Iowa-like poem they used to write there before they all started to write the more abstract “difficult” poems of our climate…

    So I’m wondering what the fight is about. I’m not quite seeing the point.

  3. Johannes

    if you wld bother to go back and read the posts you wld find that i am indeed trying to undo these simplistic rhetorics.

  4. Kent Johnson

    Just read the below from you, Johannes, in your exchange with Bill Knott a number of posts back. Glad to see you make the good point there, a key issue which I do think might have been brought out earlier and directly, since generally for us English-speaking types the default-set for the “difficult” (after Modernism, anyway, and especially since Language) is some measure of linguistic-formal torque and torsion. And in the current situation there is a kind of reification of such predisposition that’s developed, the experimental surface taken for granted as mark and prerequisite of advance.

    Knott mentioned Parra and I’m glad he did. Another example of a perfectly accessible poet (at least in a great deal of his prolific work) is the late Dmitri Prigov, the central figure in late and post Soviet avant-garde Conceptualism. He wrote whole books in folks forms, about as “accessible” as one can get, I guess. He was for a long time under close surveillance by the KGB.

    It occurs to me that this matter of accessible genre and language has a lot to do not just with the attitude or ideas the poet brings to the work (which is never done in the abstract, of course), but also very importantly with sub-culture context: the shifting pressures and positions of group allegiances and conflicts in the literary field. What can seem accessible and banal and bland at one moment can be positioned in radical ways in others. At least at local levels.

    >In my own poetry I use many of the same devices and sentence structures and word choices that Collins does, and yet I get accused of being an obscure or “coercive.” That’s because “accessibility” doesn’t just have to do with your formal devices. And that’s in large part what I want to get at. That certain ideas/feelings (about art, gender etc) are more accessible to me is the crux.

  5. Johannes Göransson

    I love your description of the riddle, particularly the “arabesque” bit. Which reminds me of my post about wallpaper (the yellow wallpaper, the Poe). Which makes me think that you don’t always even need the answer to the riddle. It seems what made the reviewer like Blake’s book was the atmosphere of riddle-ness. Which makes me think about why I love detective books – or I love the first 40 pages when all the mysteries are set in motion and the book is full of riddles. Then they solve it and i’m inevitably disappointed. I’ll think some more about your distinctions and post about t next week.