by Johannes Goransson 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.
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.