Joshua Corey thinks his way through three types of poetic failure, and we're one of 'em!

by on Jul.03, 2012

Over on the ever-thoughtful Cahiers de Corey, Joshua Corey considers his new book of poems and how it fits into the current contemporary poetics schemata. Montevidayo guest stars, and the sincerity discussion further ravels/unravels:

The drama of the book from a poetics standpoint comes in seeking alternatives to what Jennifer Moore has called “the aesthetics of failure” that she associates with poets like Matt Hart and Tao Lin, which others have begun to refer to as “the new sincerity” (itself hardly a new term or idea). For these poets, Moore claims, “this deliberate embrace of failure is worked out through an explicit departure from an allegedly exhausted aesthetic and a movement toward a renewed emphasis on emotion.”

Meanwhile from another direction you have the conceptualists pursuing, as Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman have put it,“strategies of failure” (Place tries to one-up Beckett in this interview: “fail again, fail worse”). And then in one of the liveliest quarters of the post-post-avant you have the aesthetic of the Montevidayans with their devotion to the political grotesque, to body-centered excess that pursues not “failure,” exactly, but an aggressive interrogation of the political-social structures that undergird the very notion of “success,” embracing poetry specifically (along with video nasties and other modes of marginalized spectacle) precisely for its weakness, its oddity, its place as a kind of malfunctioning prosthetic that calls attention to a profound and irremediable lack.

These three major aesthetics of failure, so predominant in poetry now, are just the latest reactions to (Joyelle McSweeney would say a zombie version of) a barred Romanticism, which I will simply and probably ahistorically define as a stance that assumes the mutual dependence of self and world, or if you prefer, freedom and determination. To continue to speak broadly and crudely, for a long time in American postwar poetry the self bestrode the world like a colossus, in sincere or grotesque manifestations (sincerely grotesque in the case of a Confessionalist like Sylvia Plath). Then as the tide of French theory began to slop against these shores we saw a new predominance of the world in the most interesting poetry, though “the world” appears in different guises: as heavily theorized social text for the Language poets, as gossip and theater for the New York School and its epigones. Now I would say that the self has been fully and completely invaded by the world/the other (on a DNA level, as a prism for the Spectacle, etc.), having been systematically deranged not by and for poetry but by the mediation of systems whose surfaces have never been more accessible (thanks to the Internet) even as their levers (who the boss?) and nodal points (the “tubes” of the real) have never been more obscure. The self wants to make a comeback, but it can only do so through some mode of abjection and surrender. What concerns me, for poetry, is that what’s being surrendered in at least the first two versions of failure before us is poetry itself, or more specifically, two of its three major dimensions.

Let’s all read the post and consider Corey’s formulation! We should probably also read Halberstam’s new The Queer Art of Failure (Duke), and see how it applies. 

He also says of Montevidayans poetry: “I think theirs remains a primarily image-based poetics.” I wonder if this is so. Two thoughts (in which I get oddly troubled by what image means): 1. I’m currently writing a mess of a feminist poetics piece for Evening Will Come. A femimess, where I consider speech as a sense/sensory organ (Embassytown!). Is an image rendered in what we most obviously regard as language a visual element? 2. Corey suggests a preoccupation with the visual image (or image apprehended via the eye first, ear second re: film?). I tend to think of my own work as affect-based, but do I rely primarily on image to produce it? Does the political grotesque demand this? What about Joyelle, whose musicality and soundscape Corey appreciates? Or Johannes, with his pageantry structures? Lara? Carina? Borzutzky? Mary? Lucas? Ji Yoon? Sarah? Dan? Etc.?

I’m also tempted to say that the self can only, could only ever manifest via abjection and surrender, but that’s rather absolute, and probably a formulation I’m drawn to for reasons more macabre than well-considered. I’ll get back to us on this one. Meanwhile, a field of plastic savannah animals are yelling at me can we hide from the street cleaner?!, so in this daycare-free zone, Montevidayans, I can only get the conversation started. Jump off wherever you like!

30 comments for this entry:
  1. Lucas de Lima

    Thanks for this launchpad, Danielle. I’ll just jot down what comes to mind… I for one love imagery and feel like much contemporary poetry is starved of it. Much of the conceptual writing I’ve read feels wary of images, as if they could only ‘fail’ in uninteresting ways. Maybe this is also true of the new sincerests, whoever they are.

    But I would say tonal range is just as important to the Montevidayan grotesque as imagery is. Like the Holocaust beauty pageant, which is as celebratory and disturbing as it is mournful.

    I want to check out the new Halberstam, but I’m finding it less and less helpful these days to latch onto the concept of failure. I like thinking about it in the queer theory way when it tends to be promising rather than limiting–when it invites mutation and transformation rather than resignation. But to me this is the opposite of ascribing to any notion of selfhood, which always has to be stable. I think we mutate with each and through each other and everything else on the planet, like in a Kim Hyesoon poem.

  2. James Pate

    Great post, Danielle.

    To me, Corey’s wholesale focus on self + the American poetry scene seems strangely restrictive. For example, philosophy has been debating about the existence of the self for centuries. Hume said, hundreds of years ago, that there was no self! This is hardly an avant-garde idea at this point.

    And, as I mentioned in an earlier comment today, the history of the Image As Evil and Illusion is a very long and tangled one (we wouldn’t have Platonic thought without it) and yet Corey doesn’t discuss it, and how this notion is clearly influencing both the Language Poets and Conceptualists…

    These debates about the self and image, etc., are not some recent flare-up that only concerns American poets, and yet without a fuller context in Corey’s post, it seems so…

    I’m not saying, of course, this is Corey’s actual stance. I’m just saying the terms of the debate as he sets it up are oddly circumscribed.


  3. James Pate

    Maybe another way of saying it is this: by “fuller” context I mean a more fragmented, less positivistic one. I have to admit, I’m more interested in these debates when they skip around greatly between genres (film, music, philosophy, graffiti, whatnot) and time (otherwise a strange sense of our own historical narcissism settles in). Maybe what I’m talking about is a kind of perpetual anti-context. Which is what we all live in anyway, I think, though we’re always trying to hide it.


  4. Johannes

    im on iphone so i cant write a long reply except to say i found joshs observations very astute. i would agree that we tend to be more image saturative in our aesthetics than is considered moral or tasteful. even in joyelles sounscapes the poems tend to be very intricately and punnily imagistic. i think it also depends on what we mean by the image. i do think the grotesque is inhetently visual. monster means to show. and we do seem to talk about the movies a lot – and drawing connections between movies and poetry. also i agree that my problem with a lot of sincere and conceptual writing is the distrust of artifice. i do agree with danielle, james and lucas in some discomfort in having been turned into a type – part of the aim with montevidayo was to have conversation rather than dogma – but according to his mode i think joshs post good. as both lucas and danielle suggest: kim hyesoons weird “passivity” or radical submission to media seems to be a key to a lot of our thinking and something that flies in the face of so much experimental poetry with its love of the critique, agency, distance.

  5. Johannes

    im aware im being very vague for example artifice which is perhaps more like the poetic. more later. johannes

  6. Kyle Minor

    The primary difference I see with the Montevidayo discussion, as opposed to many of the other named discussions, is that it is a very open discussion. There’s not a single prevailing aesthetic position to which one must conform in order to belong. I think that a stance like this is a much more generative stance, long-term, because it is attuned to possibility rather than no-saying. It’s not “you can’t do that.” It’s: “Why not find an interesting way to do that, if it’s interesting to you.”

    I’m happy to enjoy a space like this one that doesn’t concern itself with the enforcement of weird tacit conformities in the name of nonconformity.

  7. Kyle Minor

    Another observation: For all its ferocity, Montevidayo is not mean.

  8. rawbbie

    Corey, Danielle, and comments are forgetting the performative nature of the ‘montevidayan’ aesthetic. Going to a reading where several writers from this blog are reading (as well as related presses such as Action, BoL, Spork, Apostrophe, etc.) is often seeing the spectacle that appears on the page. There is obviously a visual/performing art to the montevidayan aesthetic; it is beyond the narrow scope of a poetics that Corey gives.

  9. Kent Johnson

    Kyle Minor wrote:

    >I’m happy to enjoy a space like this one that doesn’t concern itself with the enforcement of weird tacit conformities in the name of nonconformity [….] Another observation: For all its ferocity, Montevidayo is not mean.

    Actually, Johannes Goransson (much as I have a soft spot in my heart for him) can be *completely* mean. I doubt he’d deny it. So can a few other people here, too. Which is perfectly OK, I’d say. Poetic politics is *inherently* mean. It is the exhaust we breathe and it suffuses the Field, here and elsewhere. And it takes many forms, not just open contention or rancor: the most effective meanness is Silence and a refusal to engage those one wishes to keep on the edges (the post-avant has perfected such strategies to esoterically refined levels). True, the early-stage and high-stakes wagers of Montevidayo’s poetics, the fact that the “school” is still in unfolding formation, create a relatively tolerant atmosphere, and that’s to its credit. But it would be naive in the extreme to suggest that there is some kind of purity of “niceness” at Montevidayo!

    Ever onward.

  10. drew

    i like the image a lot, i think about it all the time. there is a lot of talk of costumes/masks/etc here (or maybe that’s just me) which i enjoy. carina’s post in particular i keep coming back to. also her ideas about brattiness which is inherently imagistic. isn’t the brat very concerned with its image? also i like johannes’s use of soundscape to describe joyelle’s poems. the sound is a push/drive forward which makes the images move and slam against each other. the sound makes the motion, like a weird hiphop beat, and brings the images ‘alive’ or whatever. i like when images pile on top of each other and create a huge garbage dump of language.

  11. Danielle Pafunda

    Thanks, all, for unraveling the convo!

    I’ve been participating in a discussion that’ll go up on the Best American Poetry blog soon–about gender, blogging, criticism, etc.–and so have been thinking about comment streams. I’ll say this about Montevidayo: we’ve less troll antics than most other blogs. There’s little ad hominem. As a thinker, and particularly as a woman blogger, I’ve long tired of the churlishness and literacy-resistance that goes on in most grim blog scenes (not to mention the outright stalking/hating/aggro-nonsense). Here, we develop/dismantle/regard/fan out in an exciting way, and a generally YES go-for-it way, as Kyle notes. If not in the most exceedingly polite or 100% inclusive way (though I do think Montevidayo gets more inclusive as it spills out over space/time). & I don’t suppose Kyle meant there was anything pure going on over here, ha!

    I wish we were a school–I wish we had a school building. Summer school. Like Port Townsend for monsters. Who will put us up and bring us muffins in the morning while we study?

    & re: monsters, it’s a good point about monstrosity, Johannes. To show or point. Particularly because an exploration of monstrosity often = interrogation of the gaze. And there’s the way we overprivilege sight in this culture… Me, I’m really just an image junkie. I need a non-stop supply of things disturbing and beautiful to look at / imagine / override the image factory I call a brain. Why I often prefer these images to be rendered in words, I can’t yet fully say…

    D, who just deleted the 3-yr-old’s several line contribution to this comment, so not yet as inclusive as I might be 😉

  12. Johannes

    yes what is the nature of the verbal image, thats an interesting question.

  13. James Pate


    I do wonder, though, if we really do over privilege sight in our culture. For example, films are sometimes seen as a prime culprit of this possible over privilege, but sound is incredibly important in movies too. Not just the music, but the overall soundtrack: how trees might sound, or a passing car. And there’s the importance of dialogue. I just recently re-watched The Big Sleep, one of my favorite films, and what sticks with me most after the movie is the dialogue, and the way it is delivered. Which is blistering and drunkenly brilliant.

    I think the best films even let us see and hear in new ways. At the start of Made in USA, Godard has a dedication to Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, for raising him to appreciate image and sound. That we should all be so raised!

    Anyway, I bring all this up to say that in some ways Image is often still linked with sin and guilt and error, that old Western theme saying we should beware of the corruptible and anything that might stand in for the corruptible, hence why there is often the claim, I think, that we over indulge in it…

    I too consider myself an image junkie, and it’s an addiction I want to go into the depths of…I don’t ever plan to go into rehab for it, no matter what certain avant-garde circles might say…


  14. Kim

    Though I liked Corey’s post/article I found myself puzzled by the bit about Pound’s three “poeia”s, where Lesky’s and Lin’s poems lack (or are stripped of) both musicality and “the casting of images on the reader’s mind”. A poetry without music, and without image, seems to me absurd, unless we’re talking about a music that adheres to certain rhythms of old and the image as something meditated and carefully selected, crafted. The poetry is not serious or the poetry is not allowed to be read seriously? The poems are not unsatisfactory (subjective) but hardly poems at all, they lack something fundamental to being a poem, instead of being concerned with themselves (seriously) they “mistrust” something or other, outside of themselves.

    Also I agree with James. In most film, or tv, it seems to me, image is barely noticeable, and follow dialogue. For image to become noticeable it must in a way break with the words, the story, and then it is probably considered excessive. Even the popular “collage” scene at the end of most tv-shows aren’t driven by image but by music, music with words. Is the moving, changing image a kind of verbal image? It seems to rather be the long, quiet, unmoving, or slow shots that must be avoided at all cost because they’re uncomfortable. Anti-story. Can an image be consumed? Just thinking out loud. /k

  15. James Pate

    Good points, Kim. This discomfort with the long, slow shot, the image that doesn’t fit snuggly into the story, is why somebody like Antonioni gets called “pretentious” and such things. It also reminds me of Johannes’ comments on this blog about how many workshops warn us against the “unearned” image.

    In contrast to the fear/discomfort of image, there’s all those writers like Robbe-Grillet and some of Beckett (Tom McCarthy would be a contemporary example): writers who try to bring to the foreground that unearned, unmoored image. Such as aesthetic, I think, is in direct contrast to the whole idea of Goldsmith’s “thinkership,” where art is the soiled base material that must be transfigured into the radiant gold of Idea (which all too often is really Cliche).


  16. James Pate

    In other words, in Robbe-Grillet, etc., the image is not allegorical, it doesn’t lend itself to such “thinkership.” The image, the surface, doesn’t stand there waiting for the salvation of the intellect….


  17. Kent Johnson

    I just came across this essay which seems in close connection to a comment I made a couple days back about the ethical-critical-aesthetical tightrope that some of the Montevidayo writers appear to be perhaps too smugly walking (including collectively, like the Flying Wallendas–famously, they didn’t use a net, which led to a terrible family tragedy).

    By Richard Wolin, a well-known critic:
    “Left Fascism: George Bataille and the German Ideology”

    worth a look and balance-check, perhaps.

  18. Kim


    I do not recognize this “proto-fascist” tendency in montevidayo at all. That there is a difference between glorifying (which seems to be a key point in the essay) and engaging. Montevidayo strikes me as surprisingly open in that regard, open to engage anything that comes before its eye, whether it be holocaust parades, film, sincerity. It is also surprisingly open to letting new people express themselves, often very personally. It feels like in branding it a “school” you are looking to root out a specific, non-pluralistic, all-prevailing aesthetics which indeed can be considered fascist. If the darker elements can’t be engaged, or certain voices not heard, wouldn’t that be more disconcerting? I find this engagement, say one would laugh at or turn a war into a spectacle, more life-affirming than adhering to certain prescribed ways of acting in the face of tragedy. Certainly no fascist uprising would stand for such a low and unpredictable morality. /k

  19. Johannes

    yes kim, i agree.

  20. Danielle Pafunda

    Huh, Kent. Seems like there’s a lot of conflating and compression of eras and ideological stances going on in your parallel, and you seem to be disregarding a lot of our discussions about feminist care ethics, disability studies, etc. It’s certainly interesting to revisit France on the verge of postmodernism, but I’m not too worried about the blog inciting a physically violent destruction of persons and property. Plus, Kim is spot-on about our low and unpredictable (not to mention endlessly mutable!) morals. If this were a school, I’m sure we’d all get expelled within the year :).

  21. Kent Johnson

    Kim and Danielle,

    I am not saying Montevidayo actually *is* “proto-fascist”! Rather, my remark under Corey’s post, which emphasized that much of the work of the tendency “bears the condition of unusual poetic courage,” pointed, and in a spirit of comradely worry, to the *potential* political and moral complications latent in a poetics that so aggressively–and for the most part, so far as I can see, unreflectively–pursues an unleashed “Sadean/Bataillean/Artaudian” excess that can be quickly recuperated (as we know from history) by darker energies that most non-nihilistic or non-psychopathic souls would consider highly undesirable. I hope you can follow that sentence, sorry.

    Here’s some of what I said to Lucas under that other post, and I thought it was fairly reasonable. So in case you didn’t see this, I wanted to copy it here, hoping it might clarify my sympathetic ambivalence. I did think, at least, that the comparison between Deep Image and Montevidayo poetics was kind of charming:

    >But in terms of Habermas, etc, I understand that you and other Montevidayo writers probably wouldn’t want to call your aesthetic “postmodernist”… You maybe see it, even, as something drilling into pre-Modern sources? I assume so. A tapping of atavistic, ancient, submerged, repressed currents present through all history? Bully for that, I say, as poetry flows there, no one can argue otherwise. Then again, Heidegger thought that, too, as have many right-wing thinkers, at various articulations. The Nazis loved the irrational…
    My point, a fairly banal one, I guess, is that when you take the deep plunge (and Montevidayo writers seem engaged in taking a deeper psychic plunge than any American poetics of late–Deep Image would be like snorkeling in comparison), darker energies can handily be of double use. Or, better said, those energies can also handily make use of *you*. And without the “you” necessarily realizing it.

  22. Johannes

    i am off computer but i quickly what i want to say is that kents point are well taken. i think art should engage with dark energies. but i think one key point of dofference might have to do with kents (and joshs) privileging of a kind of critical distance (reflexion) and agency that i tend to not agree with. ie im not horrified by art connecting “uncritically” to violence etc. so i can see where theyre coming from. as for schools, im not worried about it, and im not worried about scholars writing about us. we are with the plague ground. good conversations! johannes

  23. Kent Johnson

    Oh, and the other thing I meant to say, on this “school” thing: It’s true I was the first person to use the term Montevidayan as a descriptor, to best of my knowledge. But it doesn’t make any difference if *I* refer to you all as a “school” of poetry. Why? Because the critics and dissertation writers of the future will be turning Montevidayo into one, whether you like it or not. Sorry, but that’s something that will surely happen.

  24. Lucas de Lima

    But Kent, I don’t think the conversations on Montevidayo are “unreflective”… I think we’re very concerned with finding more productive, and more ethical, ways of talking about poetry and what it is to be a writer today. And we sometimes disagree with each other on this, and have interesting discussions because of our discord. If the ethical commitment of the blog is not immediately legible, I think that’s because we’re interested in exploration first and foremost. Almost always, though, I’d say that this exploration comes out of an ethical and political imperative.

    So Kim and Danielle are right to point out the specificity and plurality of the conversations–for example, we talk about identity endlessly. Whether immigrant, gendered, racialized, etc. the body here is specific. If we’re interested in the irrational, it’s because rationalism is all too often a tool used to erase or marginalize these kinds of differences.

  25. Kent Johnson

    I assume some of you have seen this, but forwarding at request of the Editors for readers who haven’t. Some great stuff in here, including amazements from Montevidayoans Joyelle McSweeney (the excerpts from Glock Chorus some of the most high-velocity U.S. “political” poetry I’ve seen), Corina Copp, and Ariana Reines. A strange entry related to me, as well, and much other stuff, including some testy takes on both Ben Lerner and a sample “New Sincerity” poem. CA is hands-down one of the most exciting online-mag developments in poetry since the launch of John Tranter’s Jacket. Click on the lighght and go in:

    Dear Contributors,

    Thank you so much for your work. Claudius III is now live. Please forward the below release widely.

    Eric and Jeff

    The third issue of The Claudius App: a journal of fast poetry is now online at

    Contributors in the new issue include Nikki-Lee Birdsey, Brice Bogher, Macgregor Card, Lisa Cattrone, Corina Copp, Brandon Downing, Craig Dworkin, Judith Goldman, Diana Hamilton, Uyen Hua, Kent Johnson, Josef Kaplan, Joyelle McSweeney, Nour Mobarak, Jeff Nagy, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Ariana Reines, Robert Sheppard, Daniel Tiffany, Alex Walton, Tomas Weber, and Simone White, with a splash by Emily Dorman and Ian Hatcher.

    AMERICAN HANGOVER EDITION // Drive your great big Cadillac, gangsta whitewalls, with a diamond in the back to the editors at


    Save your life. Last night in the kingdom of ends and it IS ALL A HOT BECOMING medium anthemic hoping for it, love. Recollection’s yellow diamonds in the light is the only happy one, yellow DIAMONDS REPEATING, your recollecting that and loving it and willing to love it. Pill sex clockwork montage montage. Or at least, standing side by side the possible kind of love-repeater that is semiautomatic trigger shift and back from tragedy to farce, all new unhappy cases, hopeless in being not like some primary-hapax love loop infinity pool with piped-in chorus as your shadow crosses mine. What it takes to love is not disturbed by hope, but is it disturbed by love even. NO EXPRESS NO EXPRESS NO EXPRESS what it takes to come alive disturbed by hope is impossible, so how can we hope for the love it holds for us on a priori file in amber ice

    SHOULD A SUITABLE position become available, returning all the bad stuff don’t recoup it. When we find love in a hopeless place, do we find it there ALL HALF-UNWILLINGLY like Childe Roland who didn’t sleep long enough for content to rearm an eponymous repetition or in spite of the going. Is there something in the ontological terroir or the Terror of the love that we find in a hopeless place that renders even it ineluctably hopeless. And then do we know when we find the love that we are in have gone to a hopeless place or is finding the love there that sign, lasciate is the love portable, can we take it with us is the question repeating it above THE CHORUS, NOW SCREAMING it but no one can hear. What hope is there for a love so found when commitment in contingency is the sawbuck where we love to work our hope, where hopefully thinking as far as possible to what extent I can from the impossible position one-step removed from my own life which is hopeless is love which is hopeless my heart leaping out of its chest


    Tout Merci Gaspille Un Coup De Fil

  26. Lucas de Lima

    Yeah, I was talking about our discussions, not art per se. I always want to live and die through art. But Kent’s words made me think of the discussion between me, Lara, and Joyelle about Hilda Hilst, and how something like her child porn actually does obliterate and reset waht it is to write ‘ethically’.

  27. Lucas de Lima

    I guess I was talking about both actually. Because I’m reading Lispector’s cockroach book now, and she’s totally reflective and critical without allowing any distance. Will write something about it.

  28. Kent Johnson

    Lucas, the Hilst thing would be an example. Another would be the work of Johannes’s ND student, featured here some months ago, I cannot now find the posts. I recall that I seemed to be the only person expressing concern about the Nazi-troped erotics and such, and that when I questioned it, and raised reservations similar to the ones I express in comment above, the young poet responded indignantly that he had a right to explore any kind of fucking attraction he wanted to, etc. I said Sure, but… Or something along those lines. Correct me if my memory is failing me.

  29. Johannes

    thats a very. simplistic revisiting of seths post. (here i took out some stuff about how there was ver violent rhetoric directed against seth) also is a guest post
    is the best example of this tendency the i think your argument is a bit shaky.

  30. Kent Johnson

    Um, Johannes, this: “you may also recall how happy you were about the professor who wrote in threatening violence against seth.”

    Is simply not true and is something approaching a libel, I’m afraid. I have gone through that incredibly long discussion thread (I’d forgotten that there were a couple of people who took my side, John Beer and YMSF) and there is nothing there I can see of that nature on my part. And if there is anything that gives such an impression I would like to see it so I could apologize for it!