Rats in the Fence: "Influence" and Bataille Boully, Feng Sun Chen, Aase Berg and HP Lovecraft

by on Aug.29, 2011

Due to a lot of back-channel emails about the Tony Hoagland essay about the “strange influence” of the New York School and my response to it, I went back and re-read both, and I have a few more thoughts about these matters and how they relate to my posts about “plague stages.” Those of you who complain that I go over the same ground, criticize the same folks, over and over, will just have to skip this post. I write about Hoagland not only because he’s got one of those “bully pits” but because I think his rhetoric is rather pervasive.

One notable thing about Hoagland’s attacks on Fence is his attack on “haplessness.” He even calls it “dangerous” because “it fatally softens and disempowers the self of the poet or the speaker.” And this I think is key in a lot of poetry discussions: it’s the SELF that is at issue. Hoagland thinks some poetry is dangerous because the self becomes softer, more porous, and loses its “power.” You may recognize this rhetoric from Ron Silliman’s dismissals of “soft surrealism” – the poet loses the ability to be “authentically” avant-garde, the ability to offer a critique. Both Hoagland and Silliman seem concerned with a loss of a true self capable of standing outside of culture issuing sovereign critiques.

For Hoagland melancholy, or “ambience of sensitivity,” is dangerous because of this loss of true, strong self. Affecting an ambience or “tone” instead of making an “argument” or “plot” can be “habit-forming”: ie it’s like a drug, it’s decadent, the self is lost to the ambience. And here we’re back to Steve Evans’ anti-Fence article that Kent Johnson brought up, where Evans claims that Fence and The Germ are “decadent” and not truly avant-garde. What is it about “Fence” and its improperly influenced poets that is so worthy of condemnation? It’s a giving up of a certain notion of personhood – empowered, critical, distant – for an unhealthy “influence” (not truly avant-garde, ambient, possibly influenced by DRUGS or DDT!).

The proof of this danger for Hoagland: There are no “major figures” from the 2nd New York School. They have not been able to establish a hierarchy (the way language poets have and thus now meet his approval): they have not been able to establish a rule of the “truly greats.”

Lets go back to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “minor literature”; they believe that the minor literature is in fact a kind of non-subjective, collective literature. But to me I find their concept most important in that minor literature doesn’t establish cultural hierarchies and how this connects to minority culture and foreign languages/literatures. An anxiety about “minor literature” is not just connected to an anxiety about the loss of Great Authors and Correct Ways of Doing Things, but it’s also connected to a loss of a centralist idea of language itself, and of the SELF. Things becomes too “soft.” But the minor is also the only truly revolutionary mode according to D+G.

Back to ambience. On the recommendation of James, I’ve started to watch True Blood, and here’s the opening credits:

In this ambient space, different categories and images get defamiliarized and refamiliarized, disconnected and reconnected with other images and scenes. For example, women’s bodies become connected to slaughtered animals and eating, but eating becomes also connected to death and decay. Following images of women’s bodies and slaughtered animals, the image of children with smudged faces are changed. Seen alone this image might represent a kind of dull innocence – children with ketchup-smeared faces. But following the images of sex, violence, nudity etc, the children become vampirical-seeming; innocence, art, violence, sexuality become intertwined. Perhaps most importantly, the Christian images become connected to the vampirism and vice versa.

Rather than the more vertical reading direction of “plot” or an “argument” or even a “metaphor” – the ambient space moves horizontally, attaching and unattaching. Actually, metaphor moves like this quite a bit as well (With “My American, My New Found Land,” Donne doesn’t just geographize woman’s body, but he also sexualized America). This is in part the “dangerous” “softness” that Hoagland opposes: it challenges sovereignty, autonomy, individuality.

But that’s the power – not the powerlessness – or art. Art is a vehicle of Influence.

Fence makes such a dangerous case for Hoagland (and it seems for Evans) precisely because it’s poets “under the influence.” Influence ruins our ideas of individual autonomy: it infects, it poisons (as Hoagland points out).

Here’s the trailer for “Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” which someone recommended in the comment section to James’s post about True Blood:

“Do you think this place is on a map?… There’s been a murder here today… They called it the Anthology of American Folk Music… Them birds…”

Basically: the plague stage.

Hoagland likes Zapruder because Zapruder seems “adult” – by which he means that Zapruder speaks “clearly”. And to be an “clear-spoken” adult poet means that you oppose the excess that supposedly mass culture generates.

This stance reminds me of an article in The New York Times, that beacon of high culture, about three movies that supposedly caused a lot of controversy this year: The Tree of Life, The Future and The Help. These were all apparently criticized for being too weird, for not being “realist” enough. But as the author (AO Scott) notes this is largely a genre requirement of middle-brow, art-house movies. Other movies can show robots and time travel, but art-house movies have to be “realistic.” It is, a genre requirement that opposes the conventions of other genres (sci-fi, fantasias, the gothic etc). The problem is that in the name of seriousness, the genre conventions of the middle-brow “realism” actually excludes some very challenging ideas, perhaps the most challenging ideas.

(I think we can see this in how articles about Lady Gaga are mostly more interesting than articles about poetry.)


A story that reveals the possibilities of life is not necessarily an appeal; but it does appeal to a moment of fury without which its author would remain blind to these possibilities, which are those of *excess*. Of this I am sure: only an intolerable, impossible ordeal can give an author the means of achieving that wide-ranging vision that readers weary of the narrow limitations imposed by convention are waiting for. How can we linger over books to which their authors have manifestly not been *driven*? [Bataille]

Often when I write these kinds of posts, people assume I’m in favor of some kind of random writing, but that’s absolutely not what I’m talking about. When you’re “driven” under the drug-ish influence of art to write something, the results are in fact very particular. I’m just reading Jenny Boully’s wonderful new book, not merely because the unknown was stalking toward them:

The Home Under Ground

The Wendy girl will live longer than you; the Never bird will live longer than you; the wayward thing will be taken to wife (unlike you, who will never be taken to wife), and she too will live longer than you. Shoot her down, shoot her down, you say. And down comes the Wendy bird, and down comes the Peter bird to say who has done this? And you’re shut up in your little house again, and all around you, the various fairy birds a-dying, a-falling away from the Neverland, hanging cocoon corpses in Never trees for the Never worm, for the Never bees.

The way this relates: It’s a rewrite of the Peter Pan story, it’s highly ornate, beautifullly exact language, but it’s most certainly written “under the influence” in a lot of ways. I read Boully as “driven” (or “stalked toward”) to the work rather than issuing an adult statement of clarity (it’s about Peter Pan!).

One more thing, in Feng Sun Chen’s chapbook “Ugly Fish,” her “ugly feelings” create a kind of black hole of an ambience, through which the speaker moves moebius-like; she begins with Plath’s dead woman but supersaturates this image, burning a hole in the image so to speak:

The poet does not survive
Now she is already dead
Born for the crate.
Pure fat being with mammary and simulatenous craters.

The overkill of Plath, of deathiness creates a “fatness” of writing, an ambience of influence like True Blood’s opening credits – she moves through the hole and comes out as Chilean poet Zurita writing like a pregnant woman. She becomes a man-writing-as-pregnant-woman, a woman with her child “rattling” in her womb like death:

The pig can hear the dripping of the deep subterrenean caves.

Zurita said of the pig
offer up your body to be occupied by other bodies.

He carried the bodies of Chile like a rattle I could hear the sands of bodies snaking through him and out of the eyes.

The little piggy went to the market.

The non-result is “the pregnancy of decadence, which is full of fetuses.”

The non-result is proliferation: “Pigs are everywhere.” (final line of the book)

I also think of the Aase Berg essay “Språk och Vansinne,” in which language precedes human beings, hovers around in space trying to parasite its way into various specie (such as dinosaurs, which unfortunately prove too stupid), but then the human come into existence and they can be inhabited and used by language. Unfortunately, humans invent patriarchy and such to keep language in check. For language, I might substitute art.

HP Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Wall”:

On July 16, 1923, I moved into Exham Priory after the last workman had finished his labours. The restoration had been a stupendous task, for little had remained of the deserted pile but a shell-like ruin; yet because it had been the seat of my ancestors I let no expense deter me. The place had not been inhabited since the reign of James the First, when a tragedy of intensely hideous, though largely unexplained, nature had struck down the master, five of his children, and several servants; and driven forth under a cloud of suspicion and terror the third son, my lineal progenitor and the only survivor of the abhorred line. With this sole heir denounced as a murderer, the estate had reverted to the crown, nor had the accused man made any attempt to exculpate himself or regain his property. Shaken by some horror greater than that of conscience or the law, and expressing only a frantic wish to exclude the ancient edifice from his sight and memory, Walter de la Poer, eleventh Baron Exham, fled to Virginia and there founded the family which by the next century had become known as Delapore.

10 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    There’s also a long blog post by John Gallaher on the Hoagland article (Monday 22nd) and an extensive debate beneath it (the topic evolves into a discussion about American Hybrid, the “post-avant,” the Academy, and the notion of an avant-garde). I think portions of that discussion, including some of my own comments there, may move a bit towards disagreement with aspects of JG’s comments above (though not with all of them!). For example: I think there is some contradiction here that needs to be worked out (in *both* Hoagland and Goransson’s positions, interestingly enough), in regards Fence and the example of Matt Zapruder: I *would*, myself, see MZ as a representative figure of a certain avant current–representative, that is (not so much for the weight of the verse, though it is obviously skillful, as for its type), of the kind of poetry *one can readily expect to find in Fence Magazine.* If MZ’s poetics could be seen as typical in many ways of a “Fence aesthetic” (I can offer a broad definition if needed, though I think Evans’s suffices for the purposes), then Hoagland’s praise of MZ vis a vis his lambasting of Fence is pretty ironic; conversely, Goransson’s defense of Fence (in previous posts he seemed to be advocating for the book series, now he seems to be rallying to the whole big Enterprise) would stand as equally ironic, given his dismissal of MZ’s Self-based abstract poetics. So just to point that odd problem out, which might be interesting to explore in interests of focusing the terms of debate.

  2. Johannes

    I’m not attacking Zapruder! I’m criticizing the framework Hoagland uses to praise Zapruder. I really haven’t read enough of Zapruder to offer anything worthwhile about his poems. Part of my argument is in fact that Hoagland is in need of making hierarchies, of getting rid of the “plague ground” of contemporary poetry so that there can be winners and losers. The fact that he would attack Fence while praising a Fence-like author is of course inherent in such a situation. /Johannes

  3. James Pate

    Great post…I really like the entwinement here of the Self with the notion of critique. I think you’re right: “critique” implies a purified position, which is another way of mapping out a fairly Cartesian self (“I is I” as opposed to “I is another”). The emphasis so much American experimental poetry in the past twenty or so years has placed on “critique” is a covert way of holding on to the Self.

    Also: great use of the True Blood intro. which is, as I wrote in a comment before, a work of art on its own. This is Nature and Eros and Thantos as Art, the intersection of the spectral with intensity, vibration, and all those other terms Deleuze uses when discussing post-humanist subjectivity….

  4. Johannes

    Also, if you want to buy Boully’s book you better get it from SPD because Christian just iphoned me that his house and operations were hit hard by Irene, and he’s evacuated the premises./Johannes

  5. adam strauss


    Also, if you want to buy Boully’s book you better get it from SPD because Christian just iphoned me that his house and operations were hit hard by Irene, and he’s evacuated the premises

    I send my love to those who may be in the midst of the eastcoast wrackings and hope they’re safe!

  6. Johannes

    One more thing: the ambient, minor poets are “neutered” according to Hoagland, suggesting something about gender as well.


  7. Pure Fat Being: The Untitled, Unnamable Poem in Feng Sun Chen’s Ugly Fish - Montevidayo

    […] decided to discuss a poem in our colleague Feng Sun Chen's Ugly Fish chapbook, which Johannes also just wrote about.  I ended up acting more like the grease under Sarah's pork chops than a full collaborator, but […]

  8. The Corrupted Poet: Feng Sun Chen, Stina Kajaso, Uljana Wolf and Aase Berg - Montevidayo

    […] And that’s why I brought in Feng Sun Chen’s book, Ugly Fish in my past post. Chen is the posterchild of melancholia. Her poetry is “the pregnancy of decadence, which is full of fetuses.” In the moebius movement of her poems, decadence – a term which is supposed to mean the end of pregnancies, the end of the line, the term both Steve Evans and Tony Hoagland uses to denounce Fence – becomes a kind of pregnancy. But this is not merely an easy reversal because it’s a pregnancy of “fetuses,” a word which ambiently associates not only with a baby in the womb but also with the pro-life movement’s death obsession (and its promotion of that strange liminal American Citizen, “the fetus” with its “rights”) and a kind of constant in-between, birth-death zone. Which is the zone of Art. Which is not the zones of “mastery” or “adults” speaking “clearly.” It does not have a vertical reading, but generates a zone where things come together and fall apart. […]

  9. Plagues and Carnivals in Delany’s “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” - Montevidayo

    […] NYC. It’s been interesting reading it in the context of recent posts by Joyelle and Johannes on plagues, plague states, and the notion of infectious […]

  10. Hysterical Pregnancies: Feng Sun Chen and Jenny Boully - Montevidayo

    […] pregnancy is not just a counterfeit pregnancy, but it’s a pregnancy of counterfeiture. Or as I wrote about her poetry book Ugly Fish: The non-result is “the pregnancy of decadence, which is full of fetuses.” The non-result is […]