Reports from the Plague Ground: The Gothic Threat of Art (Surrealism, Kitsch, Blake Butler, Aase Berg, Delillo, Tranströmer)

by on Oct.10, 2011

As readers of this blog know, I’m really interested in the critical frameworks critics/writers (usually in positions of institutional power) use to dismiss some artworks and canonize others. As I’ve pointed out in the past, an incredibly prevalent framework – perhaps *the* framework for judgements in US lit – involves the greatness of the individual who goes against the masses. The authentic genius goes against the zeitgeist, the masses of other poets.

This frameworks is often expressed as some version of an anti-kitsch rhetoric: Ron Silliman’s dismissals of “soft surrealism” or Tony Hoagland’s dismissals of “skittery poets of the moment” are of course prime examples. The kitschy, usually un-named masses of poets tend to be associated with “surrealism” or “postmodernism.” And they tend to be associated with the counterfeit, the fake (“soft surrealism” being a fake, soft version of surrealism), and indeed a softness which Hoagland in his screed against Fence associates with a poisoned form of writing – overly “influenced”, not strong in their own right.

As Hoagland says, they are “degenerate.” That is to say, this is an anti-anachronistic poetics we see in both the Hoaglands and the Sillimans of the world. Both poets who call themselves “innovative” and poets who call themselves traditional afterall depend on an idea of time and linage. The counterfeit pets are those that don’t fit into the future-lineage of “innovative” writing, or the historical lineage of “traditional” poets. They are degenerate poets.

Increasingly, it seems to me that this is all about an idea of being human.

In his screed against Fence, Hoagland won’t name the Fence poets, while he names Matthew Zapruder, whose work he calls “adult.” He’s a more human poet. And how human a writer is is bound up to “proper influence.” Surrealism is anachronistic, tasteless, violent, threatening, tasteless. Literature must be protected against this lowbrow disease/poison.

In one blurb I read the other day on a book of poetry (which I liked), the famous writer praised a younger writer for standing up against the sea of surrealism: she’s the heroic individual (the kind you bring into lineage, canon), while surrealism represents a nameless mass of people, possible inhuman like the sea.

In many ways, “surrealism” seems to represent what Joyelle McSweeney has called “the plague ground” of US poetry:

Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.

Critics need to establish a hierarchy, a canon, a lineage that will take them out of the plague ground, to safe land, to personhoods (individuals) with critical distance. Literature has to be redeemed by becoming “Literature,” a hierarchy with proper influences and lineages. Certainly not “open idea files”. Lineage creates a future for art, makes it “innovative” and “traditional,” redeems it.

It seems to me in the fiction world, the term “postmodern” seems to have a similar function as “surreal” does in poetry. To judge from many book reviews, American literature is overrun by clever postmodernist “ironists” who don’t dare to be sincere, by which is meant “real.” These statements tend to come in reviews precisely of the “sincere” writers, and the ironic writers need not be mentioned. These “ironic” or postmodern writers are icons of a kind of “Romantic Irony” – they are not what they seem. They are fake. Counterfeit.

(But let me remind you: ART is COUNTERFEIT!!)

And the people praised for their sincerity are praised for heroically standing up against this tide of irony. These sincere writers are the few and true; the rest are the many counterfeits. The few are brave, the ironic writers are somehow cowardly. It’s the same paradigm as in Hoagland’s anti-Fence piece. It’s the HUMAN against the TIDE of COUNTERFEITS.

It’s the HUMAN against unredeemed ART.


But sometimes the reviews are about these icons of fakeness, these postmodernists. For example, I remember a book forum review of Don Delilo’s latest, where Alexander Hemon wrote:

It is a fascinating spectacle indeed, if for no other reason than its rarity. But in the end, I’d rather eat a strawberry, smell my daughter’s hair, or read a book that, against all postmodern odds, conjures up the intense experience of human life.

Ie Delillo is inhuman, unreal in his postmodern “oddness”, while Hemon prefers the real “human life” experience of touching his daughter’s hair. And: reproductive futurism. He’s human and “adult” (to go back to Hoagland’s article) because he has offspring.


In his review of Blake Butler’s “There is No Year,” David Haglund (my mother’s maiden name!) gives a different take on this. Here Haglund criticizes Blake for not being “transparent.” But this isn’t exactly tying into the old Langpo pro-opacity, foregrounding the signifer over the signfied (a model that produces, as I’ve noted, its own heap of kitsch), what Haglund means by transparent melds style and character. The characters are not “real” or authentic – they are “stock characters.” They do not have psychological complexity, interiority: they are not “HUMAN.”

The story is “half-realized” (or “degenerate” to go back to Hoagland’s evolutionary view of lineage):

The problem is that the names just sit there: After Butler lists them, the book simply moves on. Together, the names do suggest a mood and milieu: suburban, slightly comic, supernatural, macabre. That mood unquestionably comes across, but once it’s conveyed all that’s left to sustain our interest—in the absence, more or less, of character and story—are the shape and sound of Butler’s prose.

And: “There is too much of this.”

And: “The house of There Is No Year may, in some sense, be haunted, but the souls inside it remain frustratingly opaque.”

So many of the tropes I’m talking about comes through here: it’s surreal, its theatrical, it doesn’t give us a pay off, it’s thus stunted, childish, anachronistic; it evokes the “haunted houses” of Poe and like the common view of these kinds of gothic tales, the “souls” are “opaque.” They are perhaps ghosts. And it’s interesting how the style melds with the souls of the characters: the characters, like the prose, are too gothic, too theatrical, not real or “human” enough, not authentic.

I’m beginning to feel that this charge – as with the charge against the supposed proliferation of surrealists and Fence writers/readers – displays a fundamental discomfort with art itself – counterfeit, affective, proliferative, influenced/influencing. The sincere text reveals itself through epiphanies; it does not keep secrets. These surreal/postmodern/gothic texts are counterfeit, ie too much art (kitsch is not, as Daniel Tiffany writes, about a lack of beauty but “excessive beauty”), ie NOT HUMAN.

The Art has to be redeemed.

I’m thinking a lot about HP Lovecraft these days and will give some analyzes of his work in the days go come. For right now, I want to leave you with a quote from a manifesto written by Lovecraft-translator Aase Berg and Matthias Forshage, when both were members of the notorious group The Stockholm Surrealists in the mid-90s:

Surrealism on the outer edge of time: irrational, compromising, conspiratorial, confused, monotonous, bloodthirsty. Find it with the lemurs, on the bloodstained backstreets or in the parks that are still ugly

[Also, Joyelle and I quoted this in our manifesto on “soft surrealism” a while back.]

Oh, one more thing, about Aase Berg calling Transtromer “kitsch”: I think this makes sense in terms of this discussion. On the day he wins the Big Award, becomes most Human, when most people discuss the humanity and accessibility of his poetry, Berg wants to make him kitschy, or, to bring in my initial reaction to the news of his award, turn him into orthoceras, something anachronistic, inhuman, but also something that, like kitsch, has ability to infect and be infected by contemporeity.

Not “watertight.” Not wellwrought urn. Or, yes, wellwrought urn, that tacky thing, that trilobite (ie bad translation).

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Borzutzky

    “As readers of this blog know, I’m really interested in the critical frameworks critics/writers (usually in positions of institutional power) use to dismiss some artworks and canonize others. As I’ve pointed out in the past, an incredibly prevalent framework – perhaps *the* framework for judgements in US lit – involves the greatness of the individual who goes against the masses. The authentic genius goes against the zeitgeist, the masses of other poets.”

    Maybe I’m missing the point:

    But just to play the devil’s advocate here, I wonder if there’s not an analogous framework used by ‘outside’ writers to dismiss ‘inside’ writers as well.

    These discussions always seem to hinge on: X critic not accepting as legitimate the basic moves that Y writer takes for granted. Or, in your words, what X critic sees as ‘human’ Y writer sees as ‘inhuman.’

    I was kinda struck by this notion in Gordon Massman’s take-down review of Kay Ryan that you linked to the other day. To be fair, he does foreground his own aesthetic preferences and then state how Ryan doesn’t meet them. He writes: “I believe poems to be effective must work both on literal and metaphorical levels.” So thus having articulated what basic moves he thinks a poem should make, it seems like any poem that doesn’t meet this criteria (of working both literally and metaphorically) will in his eyes be doomed.

    Massman later draws attention to he and Ryan’s lack of shared understanding about the meaning of life itself. He trashes her for ending a poem with: “It/isn’t ever/delicate/to live,” by saying that “sometimes it is {delicate to live} and sometimes it’s not delicate to live.”

    I have no take on the issue of delicate-ness here, but it seems fair to suggest that Massman is, in your words, disagreeing with Ryan’s definition about what it means to live, what it means to be human, etc…She thinks it’s never delicate, he thinks it’s sometimes delicate…

    Or in the review of Blake’s book: you talk about how the reviewer falls back on certain expected tropes: “surreal, its theatrical, it doesn’t give us a pay off, it’s thus stunted, childish, anachronistic…”

    But doesn’t Massman offer, and thus exemplify, the type of expected tropes that ‘outsiders’ might levy against insider. He faults her for writing: “short compressed economical axioms, syllogisms, dictums, truisms, all in the same disembodied voice and tone. For me the poems have no life; no arms to open in warmth to another, no fragrance, no irregularity or risk.”

    Again, notice the reference to “life.” And again, it seems that he’s offering us what he believes a poem must do in order to meet his basic expectations for human-ness: they need arms to open in warmth, fragrance, irregularity, risk…

    Part of my question here might be about what motivates reviewers to take on work that offends their basic sensibilities about what writing should and should not do. By which I mean to say that if I already knew in advance that I didn’t buy the basic moves the writer was making, why would I want to spend any time with his/her work/; and if I did choose to review the book, wouldn’t I at least want to make sure I did consciously address the question of how his/her understanding of the basic moves (life itself, what it means to be human, etc…) clashed with my own….

    Maybe we might simply say that there’s a style of reviewing whose basic moves are about asserting the illegitimacy of the basic moves/humanity of others.

    Not that I’m opposed to negative reviews…But maybe I’m opposed to negative reviews which don’t grapple with these questions of the reviewer’s subjectivity, and the reviewers understanding of their own subjectivity in relationship to the work they’re writing about.

    The end.

    P.S. But I guess my basic point here is that I think that outsiders (experimentalists, whatever) probably dismiss insiders (traditionalists, whatever) in similar ways.

    You think?

  2. Johannes

    Absolutely, that’s what makes it so prevailing. Tony Hoagland and Ron Silliman, both very institutionally accepted figures, use this rhetoric all the time to dismiss “soft surrealism” or “skittery poets of the moment.” That’s why insider/outsider rhetoric is so reductive. In particular (and I’ll post more about this tomorrow), I’m interested in how th term “surrealism” has come to mean this gothic threat of inhumanity. /Johannes

  3. Johannes

    Also, I certainly made no case for or against Massman’s review. I just posted a link to it for some interesting reading. Your analysis of it is good, it does give good evidence for my argument.


  4. Johannes

    Another way of saying this is that both Tony Hoagland and Ron Silliman are incredibly “insidery” but they both use the rhetoric of outsiders, yet at the same time talk about lineage and proper influence. One would think that these things would be contraditory, but in fact proper influence, proper lineage seems to demand an kind of heroic outsider type (thisis of course also true in Bloom’s “anxiety of influence”).


  5. Ryan Sanford Smith

    It’s more fun on the outside! If one already knows that I think they’ve ‘won’. If the ‘insiders’ / ‘accepted ones’ want to masturbate with the rhetoric of the outsider and feel better about themselves it indeed takes skin off my nose, but it’s just not skin I care that much about. The convenience of dinosaurs is that they’re fading right out, choking on meteor dust.

  6. Jared

    I like this, Ryan:

    “The convenience of dinosaurs is that they’re fading right out, choking on meteor dust.”

    All the while denying it: denying their mortality, pretending that their hoped-for inclusion in the canon means immortality, believing that Shakespeare was serious and not hyperbolic to claim the immortality of love embodied by/in a poem, believing that all poets/dinosaurs go to heaven, denying that to write a poem is to let a part of oneself detach and die and dessicate, that to write a poem is to become a moldering object to be dug up (or not) by wandering animals or maybe (hopefully?) handled by the archeologist, to embalm oneself for burial after arranging the house gods around one’s coffin, to preview oneself as one is not but would like to be known, as a corpse or dead subject (as concsiousness is only graspable after the fact, when life has already passed, and is then carried forward, ashes in an urn).

    To write poetry is to anticipate afterlives and to admit death’s inevitability in spite of life’s appearance. To write a poem is to prepare a grave to lie down in; to read a poem is to act the zombie, the undead walking, to eat what life is left to hand and digest it not for health or growth but for the purpose of energizing that gimpy zombie walk, to bite and produce more zombies, to make more death happen, to activate life’s realization of death through the eye and ear and maybe other orifices.

    Would Raul Zurita say that the zombie bites, the zombie groans, the zombie limps because it feels pain and must express it? It feels alive but is dead and must therefore mimic life, alive-ness, by the process of disfiguration? Does the zombie look up at the stars and finally wonder what they are when its body of death runs down and collapses, after it has eaten and horrified itself?

    Whereas the dinosaur eats in order to fill the pit of its stomach and to grow ever larger and does not care for the stars even when it sees them…

  7. Lara Glenum

    Fantastic, Jared!

    Might be interesting to think of realism, in particular, as zombie art, with its penchant for mimicry. Fun to think of mimesis as a process of disfiguration, which it is, though it always hides its hand, naturalizes its own power/terms/aesthetic moves. All the while denying the viability/possibility of other modes of representation (the grotesque, the non-representational, kitsch, etc.). Realism must eat their brains so that it can keep trundling along!

    It’s funny/disturbing how *so much* discourse around poetry is still so invested in the “real” and the “true,” in sincerity and authenticity. Ack. How oppressive/policing these terms are. When really we are all in Zombietown.

    Now whenever someone praises a poem as authentic and real (i.e. its humanness), I’ll just note their penchant for zombies. Aloud.

    All this being said, Jared, I much prefer your more totalizing vision in which we are all half-decayed counterfeits. I’m energizing my gimpy zombie walk right now. There seem to be countless body collapses & black-outs.

    Also, Johannka, you’re exactly right about the “more human” thing. Which of course leads us right back to Apollinaire’s claim that artists are fundamentally interested in the inhuman, which is why we have to chuck the traditional values of Western Art (symmetry, balance, proportion, etc). To privilege vision over seeing, as Cezanne said. It also leads us to Lyotard’s _The Inhuman_ in which he theorizes art/the sublime in direct relation to the terror of death and total privation. Art is death at one remove.

    I would say more, but I haven’t eaten breakfast. I need more brains. I need to go eat & horrify myself.

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