Poetry, Genre Problems and Surrealism (I)

by on Aug.31, 2012

[This is the first part of a multiple part post about what I read this summer. This is just the background. More later.]

In Silver Proxy, Daniel Tiffany’s forthcoming book on kitsch, Tiffany traces the concept of kitsch back to the late 18th century and Wordsworth’s attacks on Gray and “poetic diction” – its “gaudy and inane phraseology.” According to Wordsworth, poetry should be “men speaking to men” and all that jive about realness and “rustic life.” (One of his main issues with poetic diction is that it’s impure, that is, that it synthesizes English with foreign languages, relevant I think to my claims that translation is kitsch.)

It’s in this context that Tiffany says that kitsch is about “excessive beauty,” a phrase we’ve been quoting on this blog for a while. Tiffany connects this rejection of poetic diction to the onset of industrialism capitalism and bourgeois culture, and more importantly, the idea of “Literature,” in which prose is considered superior and increasingly central, while poetry is considered increasingly marginal and ornamental (Wordsworth views his poetry as prose with metrics; metrics is not kitsch, but importantly what is left of poetry).

As I’ve often noted on this blog, “Surrealism” has in contemporary US poetry discussions become a new stand-in for this kind of kitsch, the kitsch of the “poetic” and “excessive beauty”: One can hardly read a blurb or a review these days without a disparaging comment about “candy surrealism” or “soft surrealism” – though these nameless mob of poets (or ocean as one blurb metaphorized) cannot be named because to do so would be to grant them individuality, which is exactly what they’re not supposed to have.

More importantly, this “surrealism” is not exactly individual poets, as much as they are kitsch, the poetic, something that is not exactly a different style but something that exists within texts that may not be properly surrealist at all. And here, we might go to Hermann Broch’s famous definition of kitsch: “Kitsch is a foreign body lodged in the overall system of art.”

This is a long way of getting to my main point, which is that it’s interesting that Surrealism which seems to be the code word for kitsch and “poetic diction” has become a “genre” in which the poetic and the prosaic come together, or fail to come together. A lot of the books I read this summer were “surrealist” and failed prose (in the best sense of those words) so to speak. There is of course “prose poetry” which tends to be surrealist (Russel Edson etc), but that term suggests a stability that these texts definitely don’t have.

One thing I read was Joyce Mansour’s Julius Caesar (in two versions: Jonas Ellerström’s Swedish version from Sphingx Förlag and Serge Gavronsky’s English version in Black Widow’s Essential Poems and Writings of Joyce Mansour).This is a “novel” of sorts complete with characters (including the maid Julius Caesar) and plenty of absurd, ridiculous and mind-blowing “narrative” but it’s a narrative without the proper tasteful sense of causality; it’s a narrative as much determined by surfaces as interiorities (which don’t really exist). First paragraph:

They were born together in Sodom of a cow and a gravedigger after two hours of labor welcomed by beer. They found themselves between humid sheets and infrequently washed of the paternal bed and almost immediately regretted the warmth of the uterine hold. They tasted the contious secretions of renal delights, the freedom of the belly button enchanted them and tightly holding onto mammals filled with the honey of their wet nurse Julius Caesar, they swore, with sugared babble to drink all of the world’s blood. They were just normal children.

There is a similar sense of surface-pushing narrativity going on in the contemporary writer Brandi Well’s “Poisonhorse” (from MLP):

I am raising a poisonhorse. I feed him enough rat poison to make him toxic, but not enough to kill him. He has diarrhea and takes long naps in the afternoon, but otherwise he is fine. He is a good horse.

I rub arsenic into my horse’s mane. I stroke his dulled coat and rub powder into it too. It mutes his color, makes him a light tan instead of deep brown. I tie a bandana around my mouth and nose so arsenic won’t blow in my face. Over my eyes, old swimming goggles. My horse is such a good horse.

As in Mansour, the poetic infects the prose, becomes like arsenic in the proper narrative. The result is not exactly a poetic novel or a prose poem but an infected prose, prose with a foreign body, prose in drag, a “para-literature.” That poetic “foreign body”, that kitsch infection does not take over the text but it also does not let itself be eradicated (which is what good taste does), rather, like Joyelle’s necropastoral, it makes the membrane spasm.

[To be continued…]

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Super post Joh and an interesting connection to both the necro P. and to the genre hygiene which was an early inquiry right from the start at montevidayo. I’m wondering if the reverse can also be true– if the poetic can infect the prose “like arsenic in the proper narrative”, can we also say that of some works of ‘poetry’ that _narrative_ is the arsenic infecting the poetry through its sweaty hat band, causing the poetry to become uneconomical, unworkmanlike, mad as a ‘hatter’, casting its mad flagrant hats out at the reader rather than guiding the reader towards ethical development?

  2. Johannes

    Yes absolutely. Narrative has in the age of langpo and experimental poetry become its own kitsch! (Sorry, William, it was really nothing!).


  3. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports/Tan Lin’s ambient videos (Artists Space NYC July 24, 2012), Bhanu Kapil, Heather Chrystle’s What is Amazing.

    In a fog of drugs I recently (Aug 5, 2012) posted comments responding to a post by Johannes I now see dates from 2011.

    “Pretty” and “Enchanting” Poetry & Heather Christle
    by Johannes on Sep.21, 2011, under Uncategorized

    Some wack Google override selected just what current events I could view on that day

    Here I enclose a winning take by Bahnu Kapil, followed by a chronologically correct copy of my mislodged comment, so it’s not ghost of past . . .

    Backing Johannes I interject this excerpt from an interview with Bahnu Kapil, obviously if obliquely also opposing [Tony Hoagland’s rejection of “manneristic” and “skittery” poetry “of the moment.”]

    Banhu Kapil: I visited the Berkeley National Lab a couple of years ago, to interview John Dueber, a physicist-biologist working in the field of metagenomics. I loved it. I loved it so much I tried to lick a fridge when no-one was looking. In the lab, I asked questions about failure and experimentation, and wrote my findings up for the journal XCP. In short, when I asked Dr. Dueber to describe the lab process around an error, he replied: “We work in a duration, on multiple projects in parallel, and we push each one very hard. It takes a lot of time to develop a transparent approach to a problem, and in a way, we’re not interested in that. Everything takes so much longer than in other fields, so what we’re trying to do is get a look at something. Once we can see what it will be…once I can see what it will look like, I move on. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In a way, it’s radically different to the handicraft approach…we’re trying to gather information as swiftly as we can, in these intermediate steps, so that we can store it for something else, for the work we really want to do. Which is design.”

    BK: “Design?”

    J.D: “Versioning. Like a tracking effort, so that we can be, like, okay, we want to build that, and we need this, this, this.”

    BK: “So, you’re more interested in selection than in production.”

    J.D: “Exactly. There’s a lot to do. This is the golden age of the experiment. There’s a huge amount of failure in everything we do.”

    BK: “Is that why the counters are so messy?”



    Moral Sex: Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    I’m so with you here Johannes. And I’m not an easy lay. We’re watching a game-changer. Eno wrote pop music doesn’t work on a fine arts model where inspired individual genius presents masterworks to a passive public. Significant shifts in the pop world are created by little scenes of people blindly conspiring with their circumstances to invent something cool that they can’t understand. I have Chrystle’s What is Amazing and have read it many times, cover to cover, then again. It’s probably flawless. Experiential proof: every instinct in me resists her with raw fury! (Maybe it’s that headshot). She’s not my drug of choice. Preference, predilection, prejudice fight her fang and claw. O! I’m just made that way. But I read for quality, not star power in an absence of sway, idiot-ology, poets who write like me (these are “schools”: plankton swim in schools) or Sales Reps “It’s not the product, it’s the story about the product.” I’m such a mental terror I wanna call her Gristle, yet she wins me over ceaselessly.

    If you smoke boo amongst yo homeys plus adore their work: hooey. Phooey. Moo cow poo. Mayhumps, I wouldn’t get caught dead grazing Heather’s bookish tookus. But, push come to shove, I eat her poems up with great big spoons. “She’s my sister and my daughter!’ (Chinatown) While predisposed to loathe her by that demon in us all, still I’m transfixed whopping stunned by her lilt . . . and steely gaze. Like the snake charmer’s cobra, she has me utterly enthralled.

    Don’t meet the poets. Last month I viewed Tan Lin’s films about footnotes. I’d consumed his books, sat readied to be wowed. Wotta deal-breaker! You can have him now. Hoagland makes me hurl. Two new copies of Silliman’s The Alphabet, big as Cocoa Puffs, sagged & lagged on shelves at 1/2 price in the Strand for months. Ten thousand customers per day, if that don’t say enuff. I once wrote, “I’d tell Silliman to grow up but he already is an old maid.” My editors cut that. Now I’m gonna die, I’m free of their Cordelia Complex.

    I currently undergo treatment for possibly incurable life threatening advanced liver disease, Cirrhosis and Hepatitis C. The same thing killed Ted Berrigan. I take 10 pills daily and give myself two shots per week. For a year. This freights clarity, spontaneity, style, stamina, mood. Caveat: mine is a real rough draft. Alcohol is the primary cause of Cirrhosis, though it aggravates with Hep C. We get Hep C swapping needles. I did heaps of both. And while I stopped 18 years ago, they could kill me. Alice Notley has stated in print she got Hep C shooting Speed. About Ted, you must draw your own conclusions. (I say so in part to expand an inadequate figure on cause of death I employed in an article on the New York School several years ago.) What are the roots that clutch?

    G C-H

  4. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Milk Duds

    I lack time, go power & interest to thrash any of this out. I never went to school so ad hominem means tree shit to me. I read Tan Lin’s Insomnia and the Aunt. He snags a Doctorate from Columbia while she’s living on Devil Dogs. He will snorkel by to chill, hatch a “concept,” catch ambient TV (Conan O’Brien), misunderstand each other; chomp some Ho Ho’s too. Mouth breathers soak it up like information streams. Staring her fate in the face, Lin stays “Undesigned.”

    This shit now is cool. Is this shit now cool? She’s blood! Buy her a head of lettuce. Teach her how to eat.

    Failing Smell-O-Vision ™,Tan Lin’s digiflix at Artists Space Sphagnum peat moss, the perfume Wet Pavement London, Glade air fresheners exude perfumes on AC air.

    I’ve seen more virile Zero bars.

    Lin states, “After, five years in a PHD program at Columbia, footnotes start looking sexy.”

    He needs to take a look at that.


    O since I’m such a sourpuss here’s my summer’s sugar pie: Virgil’s Cow by Frederick Farryl Goodwin, RabbitDuck by Richard Hell & David Shapiro, Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth, 2046 by Wong Kar Wai.

    The last living male member of The Smiths (Kiki Smith, Seton Smith—Tony R.I.P. & me.)

    Signed, dated, pushing the documents toward you . . .

    Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

  5. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    What’s the Use, I’m Uncouth

    I see a comment that I put up 8/2 waits on moderation.

    Poetry, Genre Problems and Surrealism (I)
    by Johannes on Aug.31, 2012, under Uncategorized

    Which might be an oversight. Or overwork—the cost of love’s labor.* Though I’m guessing one objectionable word here now is “virile,” meaning only, having the characteristics of an adult male.

    I applied it to the semblance of a film.

    Uncomfortably aware of its general absence, conspicuous in PoMo poetry, has this term recently been banned?

    G C-H

    * Thanks for all forever, Johannes. I’m a lion—but I couldn’t do your job!

  6. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Yipes stripes! I hate dates. That should read 9/2.

    I thank you for your immaculate solicitude.

    G C-H