Contamination (#66): More thoughts on Kitsch and "excessive beauty"

by on Jun.21, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write some responses to all the response I received (here, on facebook, in email) to my post analyzing the anti-kitsch rhetoric of Marjorie Perloff, but I’m taking care of my kids alone while Joyelle is off on her literary international tour and I’m trying to finish translating Aase Berg’s Dark Matter and finish my own “novel” The Sugar Book, so I’m a little short on time. As a result I’ll leave a bunch of shorter replies and hopefully they’ll add up to some kind of sense.

In response to the Perloff post, Daniel Tiffany sent me the first chapter of his next book of criticism, Silver Proxy, which is about kitsch, exploring its historical and theoretical dimensions and applications. It’s much better than my fumblings here on the blog, so I’ll reference it quite a bit. I might also reference Cloning Terror, the latest book by Tiffany’s teacher, WJT Mitchell; it’s a book roughly speaking about the reproduction of images and their relations to the “war on terror.”

A lot of people ask me why I care so much about such a trivial subject matter as kitsch (triviliality itself!) when it obviously has very limited applications to poetry. To this I would say that it’s not trivial at all. Kitsch is fundamentally part of the idea of Taste; it’s the opposite of Taste: not the original and pure, but the contaminated and reproduced. So many discussions about poetry – such as Perloff’s writing – is about establishing the boundaries of taste (we thought Merwin was a good poet, but no, he’s as kitschy as “Longfellow” etc).

Tasteless/anti-kitsch criticism is very effective. I remember being in college and reading a lot of language poetry, which led my to Perloff and the result of this is that I stopped writing because I internalized the anti-kitsch critique and thought what I was writing (Surrealist-influenced, Plath-influenced, kind of like what I write now) was in poor taste. Then I thought through the criticism, embracing a certain tastelessness and I started writing again, and that’s also when I started thinking more about the position of the “immigrant,” a trope you may have noticed that I use almost interchangeably with “art.” And “kitsch.” And also “spazzy.”

Art is fundamentally tasteless, and yet people who articulate various Taste(s) are always using it to suggest their own Taste. That may seem counterintuitive, but that’s because Taste, Kitsch and Art are all very closely related. What is Tasteful one minute (Merwin for example) may be tomorrow’s kitsch. In fact it’s easily done.

But what does kitsch have to do with poetry? Isn’t kitsch just mass-produced chotckies?

To begin with, I don’t see kitsch as a stable entity (chotchkies); it can be moved around and applied to a variety of stuff (political candidates, poetry, wars can all become kitsch).

And the idea of “kitsch” when it was established as an important critical term in the 1920s and 30s (by people like Adorno and Clement Greenberg), immediately had to do with poetry, specifically Romantic Poetry. Tiffany brings up this point at the start of the new book. All these “great” essays uses poetry (as well as mass-produced items) as examples of kitsch. More specifically Romantic poetry, the poetry of Keats, Expressionist poetry, gothic poetry.

In other words: over-poetic poetry!

(I’ll get to Tiffany’s reasons for this seemingly odd convergence of tchotchkies and Poesy later.)

Anti-kitsch critiques can be applied to any number of art works, but it does lend itself to certain kinds of art. Contrary to common perception that equates the tasteless with Bukowski and un-artistic art, the kitsch label usually applies to art that is too artful, poetry that is too “poetic.” As I stated in the comment section to Josef’s post, Surrealism is high on that list. Benjamin immediately coined the term “dream kitsch” to discuss Surrealism, Ron Silliman’s ultimate put down is “soft surrealism” (undisciplined, unrigorous, cheap imitation of “real surrealism,” possibly immoral).

(Though it should be noted that Benjamin had a more nuanced take on both kitsch and Surrealism than Perloff and Silliman. And interestingly, though Benjamin thought Surrealism and kitsch was the end of poetry, he also saw it as the the rise of the avant-garde (in Surrealism), a movement that destabilized the common divide between “high” and “low” culture (a divide Greenberg strangely sets up between “avant-garde” and “kitsch,” a binary Perloff and Silliman follow).)

In the original post, I included pictures of Alexander McQueen outfits; and fashion seems the ultimate idea of kitsch-able items. In many ways it’s the model for the kind of artifice-y art that becomes kitsch. A large part of McQueen’s brilliance has to do with his anachronistic, gothic idea of “taste” – going back to “national romanticism” and The Shining and gothic art for his inspiration. The fact that such “tasteless” art could become “tasteful” to me suggests that fashion actually has a more adventurous sense of aesthetics than the poetry world. (Is this why the posts about Lady Gaga are so much more interesting than posts about poetry?)

Like Pop Art, Kitsch art makes the inside the outside and the outside the inside. Like Sontag notes about “camp,” kitschy art tends to be the baroque, the art that emphasizes “style” over content or “meaning.” Tiffany picks up on this, arguing that kitsch in poetry moves away from “form” (modernist ideal, Perloff’s and Silliman’s ideals) toward the “effects of poetic diction.” Kitschy poetry is poetry that overemphasizes poetic devices (Keats alert) at the expense of “meaning” and morality (the two often overlap). It’s the emphasis on style.

Tiffany: “… kitsch involves not merely the purification of beauty (i.e. the suppression of all qualities other than beauty), butexaggerated and even delusional regard for beauty. The banality of kitsch must therefore be reconciled with excessive beauty…”

I think one of the most interesting contemporary poets to discuss in terms of “excessive beauty” is obviously Chelsea Minnis:

People say “nothing new” or “the death of the author” but, I am new and I am not dead.

Intellectual, anachronistic, superserious: I am not going to start crying because “experimental” and I’m not going to start crying because “not experimental”… I just want to piss down my own leg…

And should everyone be bored like narcosis?…

Poetry should be “uh huh” like… baby has to have it…”

“Experimental” of course has become a key word for “high taste.” Is it truly experimental or is it experimental for the sake of being weird, for the sake of the effect rather than the morality. This is totally unredeemable. “Savage beauty.”

Kill the genius child orchestra.

(John Woods’ portrait of me)

I just wanted to note that sometimes my hasty posts seem a little snarky. Obviously Marjorie Perloff is someone whose work I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about, so I’m by no means trying to attack her. I am merely trying to point out differences in her and mine thinking (about high modernist taste, kitsch, the gothic etc). My depiction of Perloff’s view of Eliot may be a little flat, since she seems to have some ambivalent feelings about him. It’s possible that the more overt rejection of Eliot in The Poetics of Indeterminacy has colored my reading of Unoriginal Genius, which does begin by talking about The Wasteland.

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    One more thing: the quotation marks in Minnis’s poem suggest something about “sampling” that is key to Tiffany’s idea of kitsch, something that is obviously part of “conceptual poetry” as well. Tiffany notes that Perloff doesn’t see the connection here between her modernist ideal of “conceptual poetry” and what in many ways connects to kitsch.


  2. Johannes

    Also, just got an email from Marjorie Perloff that I had misread her book, so I’m going to have to find it (my house is a mess) and I’ll write an update when I do.


  3. Josef Horáček

    This is good, Johannes. Let me just point out a few things that you might need to address.

    You seem to place kitsch and taste in a binary opposition. This could be confusing, given your obvious preference for kitsch. Isn’t the statement that “art is tasteless” an expression of your taste? Maybe you should better explain what you mean by taste.

    How do you or I differ from the so-called Gatekeepers of Taste? Are we more inclusive? Less divisive? Is it because we spend more time championing the work we love rather than denouncing the work we hate? Or is it because we don’t have as much power and influence?

    As you’ve shown with the example of Merwin, neither kitsch nor taste are inherent in art but are rather superimposed on art by the readers and critics of a particular time. You’ve also said (with Tiffany) that kitschy poetry emphasizes style and poetic devices over form and meaning. (This is a reduction of your already reduced account, but bear with me.) With all that in mind, let me propose the following thought experiment.

    I want to argue that Language poetry is kitsch, and here’s why. Zukofsky was preoccupied with
    form (Bach was one of his heroes). Language poets, on the other hand (those imposters!), borrowed from Zukofsky a range of verbal tricks (style, poetic devices) that allow them to produce non-referential writing (the absence of meaning) without much regard for form. Non-referentiality is the product of an excess (I’m carefully using all the right buzzwords, as you may have noticed) of meaning. Language is turned inside out – instead of serving as a vehicle for meaning, it is choked with too much meaning, compelling the reader to consider its materiality (from a functional vehicle to an empty object: an ornament).

    Where does this line of reasoning fail? A more genuine connection with low forms of popular culture is needed, maybe? Is the Language poets’ preoccupation with the mundane enough?

    All this is meant constructively. I’m sincerely interested in your response.

    (Oh, and I’m not saying that all language writing can be traced back to Zukofsky, by the way.)

  4. Johannes

    I’m not saying that kitsch and taste are binary opposites; they are much closer than that.

    Your langpo comment is interesting, though what one might say is that Langpo has produced a truckload of critical commentary about the moral/political implications of their “style,” suggesting perhaps that this is an axiety (that they should be perceived as style). But if you look at a lot of the negative responses to langpo – “it’s a bunch of nonsense” etc – it does seem like anti-kitsch rhetoric.

    More later,


  5. David

    I agree with Josef up there that Language Poetry can (should?) be read as kitsch. I’m reminded of the post here re: Stephen Burt and his experience of poetry as an ever-multiplying invading force which in turn calls to mind O. Izenberg’s comments on Language writing jumping off from a passage of Silliman’s “Tjanting”:


    But imagine for a moment that Tjanting goes on for more than one hundred pages in the same deliberately hobbled mode (because it does). And now imagine that there are thousands upon thousands of poems bearing more than a passing resemblance to it, not in diction or sensibility, but in paratactic structure, low affect, quizzical tone, and theoretical orientation (because there are). Consider them together as a whole, as “Language poetry”—one vast, overwhelming corpus whose internal logic (like that of Tjanting itself) is the open‐ended algorithm of addition. Soon the rising tally of similarities places impossible demands on our attention and will to articulate and catalogue the manifest differences between one poem and another until the effort to immerse oneself in Language poetry produces the sensation that language as Language poetry imagines and manifests it has neither affect nor tone.


    Language poetry here oversteps all bounds of taste in favor of a massive drive toward self-replication which precludes the possibility of its being recuperated as an articulation of taste.

    The rest of the essay (“Language Poetry and Collective Life”) is really interesting too and reaches the conclusion that the consequence of Language poetry’s general theory & practice is the transformation of all persons into poets. I can’t quite reach how that relates to contamination / kitsch but feel like there might be something there.



  6. Johannes


    Very briefly. Thanks for this comment. Very interesting. I like the impulse to “kitsch” langpo (just as Tiffany kitsches Pound’s Cantos, and as I think it’s useful to kitsch any dominant insitution). And there does seem to be quite a bit of overlap betwween Izenberg’s and mine thinking. However, there are several fundamental differences in Izenberg’s and mine thinking here (based on your quote, I haven’t read the essay, though I obviously should): the primary one is that he imagines this proliferative theoretical langpo as not have “affect” or “tone” – that’s exactly the “Taste” I’ve been discussing. Kitsch actually has a lot to do with affect and tone. Also the important point that Langpo’s rhetoric is highly anti-kitsch; just look at Silliman’s own criticism. Highly anti-kitsch, highly hierarchichal. Plus the fact of langpo’s association with academic studies and the fact that those million “too much” poets are more likely to be emulating Zach Schomberg than Ron Silliman. But this does seem like an interesting essay. Just cooking right now for my kids must go. Hope I didn’t misread your comment.

  7. Johannes

    Though obviously there are other langpoets not Silliman who might lend themselves to the everyone’s a poet paradigm more but then he’ talking about Silliman./J

  8. Josef Horáček

    I like where all this is going. I also haven’t read the essay David mentions, but let me suggest that Izenberg made the wrong conclusion about the lack of affect and tone. Let’s say instead that the affect is flattened. Artificial. In other words, inauthentic. Getting warmer?

    Johannes has a good point about the massive body of critical commentary that Langpo has produced. They obviously don’t want to be read as kitsch, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility.

  9. Johannes Göransson


    Definitely getting warmer. I would also add that one text to take into consideration is Charles Bernstein’s “The Artifice of Absorption,” a text I really love which calls attention to the dynamics of works that emphasize their own artificiality.


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