by Johannes Goransson 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…]