Susceptibility (as Opposed to Sincerity): Ariel Goldberg on Kay Ryan

by on Jun.13, 2012

Mykki Blanco, back for more beauty.

Since the model of sincerity (Johannes’ redefinition aside) honestly makes me want to crawl back into the closet, I’d like to explore an alternative concept.  If “sincerity” tends to enforce agency and selfhood in a way that many right-wingers might approve of (while we’re tracing this movement back to 9/11, how about the war-mongering cowboy sincerity of Dubya Bush?), I think “susceptibility” does the opposite.  As the “capability of receiving, being affected by, or undergoing something,” susceptibility unravels the harmful ideology of self-determination that promotes values as stifling as enlightenment, individualism, and restraint.  To be susceptible, in this sense, is to risk and even court one’s undoing; it is to sustain a heightened capacity to be split open and transformed by, as well as with, all bodies and things.

Because I think this is a totally queer capacity, it only makes sense for me to pick up where I left off in my thoughts about Beauty-gate.  I was lucky after the discussion to find an interlocutor in Ariel Goldberg, whose chapbook-length essay “The Estrangement Principle” is the smartest thing I’ve read on the supposedly earnest mainstreaming of queer art.  Here’s Ariel on her sense of estrangement in regard to Kay Ryan:

But then a question began to haunt me:  how does a dyke get to be the Poet Laureate?  The obvious answer:  she keeps her mouth shut.  I am confused about Kay Ryan being government funded, in the sense that I feel there are a ton of artists who are queer with supposedly radical work who may be removed from this type of funding.  Her insistence of her personal life’s separateness from her work is too close to a history of antagonizing straight culture discreetly closeting a gay.

I turn to The Library of Congress’ description of Ryan on their profile page:

Unlike many poets writing today, [Kay Ryan] seldom writes in the first person.  Ryan says:  I don’t use ‘I’ because the personal is too hot and sticky for me to work with.  I like the cooling properties of the impersonal.  In her poem “Hide and Seek,” for instance, she describes the feelings of the person hiding without ever saying, “I am hiding.”

After quoting Ryan, who admits that she “never reads poetry” and doesn’t “like to hear other people read theirs,” Ariel links the suppression of Ryan’s personal life to her guarded aesthetics:

It seems you get to be a popular poet by degrading poetry and presenting the most traditional image of it:  a solitary, private figure whose work is compared to that of Emily Dickinson, someone who hid in her poems, whose work was read, mostly, after she died.  Ryan’s work has developed to a voice of wisdom.  Not timeless to me, but stubborn.  Fortune cookie style.  She wants everyone to get the metaphors.  I hear she reads her poems twice at readings.  I get a sense of confidence, omniscience in her work.

Here I think Ariel describes what happens when the logic of “sincerity” gets taken to its ideological consequences, leading to unshakeable mastery and conviction rather than restless exploration.  Stephen Burt, for instance, admires how one of Ryan’s poems manages an “expertly oriented extended metaphor for mental and emotional disorientation.”  We are thus led to believe that Ryan’s perceptual and emotive powers are so acute that she can erase herself from her writing, i.e. her ‘I’ becomes a universal ‘we,’ or worse, an omniscient voice gracing us from up high when she can “describe the feelings of the person hiding” without declaring as much about herself.

In this sense, Ryan’s affect of sincerity is so convincing that she earns the very privilege of shedding her subjectivity.  She appears to her many admirers as ‘unmediated’ and ‘uncensored’ as any of the New Sincerests.  In fact, the poet is elevated to the status of a disembodied feeling that is sincere to a fault, not postmodern in the least:  there is no interest in revealing or recognizing power structures here.  In her rejection of the personal and specific as frames, Ryan ends up siding with heterosexism when she intentionally filters queerness out.

It’s no coincidence, to me, that a distaste for reading poetry accompanies Ryan’s dismissal of her sexual identity as viable subject matter.  She writes contra Foucault, who defined a literary work as “that which is susceptible of introducing a significant difference.”  She does not aim, like Foucault, to “work on” making herself “infinitely more susceptible to pleasure,” whether sexual or artistic.  As Ariel points out, Ryan also makes for an interesting contrast with Eileen Myles, whose passionate and wide-ranging criticism alone suggests a susceptibility to the inextricable forces of art/sex/politics.  In level of a political engagement that seems coextensive with her artistic drive, Myles runs for office while writing poems that are upfront in their queer refusal to separate life and art.

Coming up in part deux:  Mykki Blanco’s octopian militia…

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    The sexuality of “hot and sticky” is pretty funny…

    Also as opposed to the solitary genius, on facebook I posted a link to an explication of Brian Eno’s idea of “scenius” (as opposed to genius, corny but clever):

    Love the idea of susceptibility.


  2. Lucas de Lima

    Haha, yes, such a literal expression. Scenius is genius! I will always love Brian Eno.

  3. adam strauss

    I can’t help but grinning at the position that KR gets kudos precisely because she massively downplays her lesbian body, in other words feeling a big heck-yah of course a closeting tactic works; but then another part of me, and not less so, does, on an intuitive level, believe Ryan’s work is arguably markedly lesbian; if for nothing else, wisdom and omnisciency may be of interest and, even, be seen as exploratory, in a queer context because lesbians, ostensibly, aren’t supposed to be the universal. Or, too, I could be dancing amongst nonsense and what I really mean is–I often enjoy her poems, and sometimes find them quite terrific. For me the even more problemastic figure may be Mary Oliver, who I believe is a lesbian as well. Ultimately, tho, yes, AG’s point makes a ton of sense: the less the non-heterosexual position shows itself, or the more obliquely, the better in terms of official reward. I definitely wld love to see more hyper explicit lesbian poetry emerge; more along the line of Gottlieb’s Final Girl etc. I need to read Tisa Bryant!

    I hope all’s well for all of ya’ll!

  4. Jason Lester

    I like how Ryan’s stuff gets a little playful and ambiguous when it’s not so entirely steeped in fortune cookie moralizing – “After Zeno” and “The Niagara River,” for example — but I caught a reading of hers two years ago in a library in Southern California, and since then she’s pretty much epitomized for me the boring academic poetry performance.

    Ryan says that she reads her poems twice because (and here I’m paraphrasing), “the first time you read a poem what you’re really doing is deciding whether or not you want to read that poem.” And sure, yeah, that’s pretty much true — just like how the first time you see a magician’s trick you’re not really watching the trick but rather watching to see if you’re going to get fooled by it. But the reason a magician doesn’t repeat the trick again is that it’s a motherfucking trick. Deception, illusion, rapture and dysphoric confusion is the whole point of performance. It’s particularly telling how she conflates reading a poem and listening to someone else read a poem into the same experience. Like so many writers, she doesn’t seem to realize that choosing to not “perform” her work and instead lecture it at the audience is still a performance — it’s just an exceptionally boring one, and one that denies her own performative body and its un/conscious relationship to the audience and space unfolding at that particular moment.

  5. Lucas de Lima

    Adam, I too try to think about how queerness shouldn’t need to announce itself in the most legible ways all the time. So does Ariel in her essay. Maybe in some other context wisdom and omniscience (Whitman? but he doesn’t strike me as omniscient at all) could be “queered”?


  6. Johannes

    What do you guys think about Steve Burt’s new essay on DA Powell:

    “Many GLBT poets (as we say now) write about sex; many seek not just libidinal celebration, not only attentive mimesis, but also ethical stances against prejudice and denial, disease and death. Even among those peers, though, Powell’s puns and his ironies, his command of genuinely elevated along with grinningly rueful tones, his refusal to simplify the life he depicts, and his sense of the shape of a line set him apart.”

    Here’s the link:


  7. Johannes

    And this: “And sex as such—gay and straight, vanilla and kinky—makes a notorious, often insurmountable challenge for literary writing, since it depends so deeply on idiosyncratic and instinctive response: what turns you on may repel me, or leave me cold.”


  8. Lucas de Lima

    One thing I like about the first quote is that it champions DA Powell’s artfulness over the quietism of poets like Mark Doty. But I would’ve preferred if Burt had mentioned other queer poets whose work is also tonally dynamic and intricate. Otherwise we are once again left with the aftertaste of the genius. I think it’s especially bad to risk the genius claim when it comes to identity-based writing since it tends to just make tokens of everyone, i.e. Powell is the only gay poet worth reading today, Bolaño the only worthwhile Latin American writer, etc.

    I don’t get the sex quote at all. To stress sexual idiosyncracy so much sounds like a very neoliberal gesture that would want to categorize and contain sex in private space. Like hello meatpacking district! Also, why does sexual writing have to be sexy? That assumption also gives me a very capitalist/neoliberal vibe. Sometimes sexual writing aims to leave you cold, repelled, or disturbed.

  9. Lucas de Lima

    Oh god, and then we have “literary writing”–a label which I think Eileen Myles’ “Everyday Barf” offers the best response.

  10. Johannes

    Yes, the idea of sex as a private matter – but other things as more potentially public – is really interesting. Sex opposes communication in some way.


  11. adam strauss

    I think I may read KR as not devoid of the queer, the lesbian, the non-heterosexed, is due to her insistent use of a kind of aphoristic form which, for me, suggests looking at something from a distance and then reformulating, and for me the un-named dynamic looked at and then skewed or poked fun at could be heterosexual culture or, rather, normativity at-large. Too, she seems to do a decent amount with the importance of distance, how it is that and not proximity or intimacy which is often crucial or, at-least, as much of the world as being close; and this, too, strikes me as a stance which, potentially, can be seen in alignment with an other than heterosexual position. But nothing I just wrote is meant to imply there’s not other ways of being lesbian via the written. I don’t have this “fleshed out,” but I can’t help feeling that Ryan and Armantrout are some kind of kin: perhaps it’s the aphoristic form, the interest in cliches, in the ways language has been locutionized. Ok, slight leaap–is it just me or was Doty engaging in the 90s with his poems centered on beautiful objects and really animated description, as in his book “Sweet Machine.” But then along came the new millenia and things, for me, get snoozy.