by Johannes Goransson on Dec.06, 2012
Those of you who have read this blog for some time, and/or read my last blog, Exoskeleton, knows that one of my interests is the use of anti-kitsch rhetoric in modern poetry (and by modern I mean from Wordsworth through Pound up to Perloff and beyond). The most dominant strain these days seem to be the “there’s too much” argument: there’s too much poetry being published, and too much bad poetry, so we can’t keep up, we can’t read it all, and most importantly (the subtext sometimes, sometimes just the text) we can’t police what’s good and bad.
Basically, it’s the anti-kitsch critique. Modern technology has brought poetry to the masses, now how do we make sure that they have taste? How do we keep this, what Joyelle has called the “plague ground” of contemporary poetry-writers/readers from forsaking our Taste, our narratives, our ideas about what poetry should be.
I kind of feel like I ‘ve written a lot about this… But this topic keeps popping up. Recently, there was recently a really great discussion over at Boston Review between Jed Rasual (my PhD thesis advisor) and the scholar Mike Chasar. And it’s really in response to that interview that I write this.
In particular, I think Chasar’s statements are some of the most insightful I’ve read (especially coming from an academic). In the discussion Jed, who is generally pretty suspicious of mass culture (his book “American Poetry Wax Museum” is both one of the best books about contemporary American poetry and a massive brick of anti-kitsch rhetoric) keeps expressing doubt about the proliferation of contemporary poetry, making it a symptom of capitalism etc.
I think Jed makes very good observations, but I think Chasar totally re-directs this conversation (by which I mean the larger conversation about “too much-ness”, not just the discussion with Jed) brilliantly:
My gut reaction (you could maybe call it my glut reaction) is to say that questions like “Is it a glut?” or “Is it a problem?” aren’t nearly as interesting as questions like “Who is it a problem for?” and “Why do those people think it’s a problem?” For critics like Burt, it’s a problem because it challenges what it means to be an “expert” in American poetry. Whenever someone’s status as expert is predicated on knowing everything—all the good poems (i.e., a canon), what everyone is saying, etc.—a glut is going to be a problem because, as Burt puts it, “I just can’t keep trying and failing to get myself to read everything,” and thus the governing paradigm for what it means to be a poetry expert is put into crisis; how can you be an arbiter of taste if you can’t read everything to pass judgment on it? Insofar as the centrality of Official Verse Culture is affected by a period of glut—where there is no longer an official center—then Official Verse Culture has a stake in the matter.
Importantly, Chasar does not just use this insight to criticize “Official Verse Culture” but also what I have called “Official Experimental Verse Culture,” the members of which seem as disturbed (if not more) by the anarchic energies of the Internet:
At the same time, so does the avant-garde (a profile you didn’t mention in your question above), since terms of distinction and debate like “Official Verse Culture” and “avant-garde” or “School of Quietude” and “post-Language” are incapable of describing the nature of the glut, which appears to have no inside for the outsider to react to, and no outside to shock the inside; there are more types of poetry than any binary (raw or cooked, high or low, etc.) can fully account for. Finally, a glut is problematic for anyone who benefits from an economy of scarcity—or a perceived economy of scarcity—because that person’s status, prestige, or perceived self importance, is suddenly devalued by the glut, which goes by the name of “surplus” in other conversations. That’s the point at which governments start burning crops and paying farmers to let their land lie fallow.
I think here Chasar also gets at the seeming contradiction of Ron Silliman’s investment in keeping a binary between experimental poets (in a direct lineage from New American Poets) and “quietists”, or the Poetry Foundation’s investment in bolstering Kenny Goldsmith and a lot of “experimental” poets in a binary with its own “accessible” poetry. The binary is oppressive and it benefits both parts.
In the academy in particular, “experimental” or “avant-garde” has been a way of making contemporary manageable. Most scholars these days do not merely study “contemporary American poetry,” they study “experimental American poetry,” a much more manageable field. And “Avant-Garde Studies” is a field complete with its own much more manageable lineage and theories. No need to venture out into the “too much” of contemporary poetry: all you have to do is study the “cutting edge.” Much cleaner! You can still master this field.
I will talk more about this interview in later posts, but for now I’ll put in one of Chasar’s key insight about the “floating” nature of the word “poetry” (much like the word “surreal” but more about that later):
I have a private theory—a feeling, rather—that the term “poetry” has become, in the age of capitalism, a discursive category into which all things that in one way or another resist or escape complete regulation, rationalization, instrumentalizaton, description, or measure by the logic of the commodity are projected: emotion, magic, uselessness, intimacy, hopes, dreams, love, utopian urges of all sort, beauties, elegances, difficulties, nonsense, mysteries, etc. Thus, the category of poetry is not a continuum from bad to good or amateur to pro like baseball is (where players move from little league to college to the majors) but profoundly heteroglossic—something of a Lower East Side, perhaps, where the value of sentimental worthlessness (cast as “it’s only poetry”) and the value of what you call “the glamour and power of the exception, the unique instance” (cast as “it’s sheer poetry”) both reside.
For now, I’ll end with two of the best responses to this discussion – Joyelle’s talks “Bug-Time” and “The “Future” of “Poetry.”
Joyelle delivered “The Future” speech as part of the Twin Cities Lit Fest (arranged by Raintaxi) a few years ago as part of the same panel as Steve Burt gave his talk about the future of American poetry. Steve’s talk was very well-thought out and organized: it divided America into certain groups and predicted that there would be a hybridizing of these different groups in the future. My problem with Steve’s talk is that I don’t recognize most of the poetry I read in this very American, very academically oriented group (language and post-langpo, slam poetry, quietist poetry, and Cole Swensen), but more importantly I don’t think poetry functions this clearly and cleanly, and it certainly takes its influences from other places: pop culture, wars, personal visions, foreign literature, visual art etc. Joyelle accounts for some of that in her talk, beginning by pointing out that giving birth – and nearly dying in the process – made her “goth.” But she points out one of the issues unaddressed by Steve’s talk: the huge proliferation of poetry, what she calls the “plague ground” of contemporary poetry (Of course Steve – I think humorously, but also maybe bravely – approached this dynamic in his Harriet post later):
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.
That is, her talk not only rejects the linearity of literary history, it also rejects the model of the empirical critic who can neatly divide the poetry world into categories. You have to wade through the shit like some sick, gothic Whitman.
Joyelle delivered “Bug-Time” as part of the &Now Conference in San Diego, thus the explicit rejection of a lot of contemporary experimental poetry progress-based models and anti-kitsch rhetoric:
2. What model of literary time is provided by this mutating field time, this bug time, this spasming, chemically induced, methed up mutating, death time, this model of proliferant, buggered, buggy, moist, mutating, selecting, chitinous, gooey, bloated, dying time, a time defined by a spasming change of forms, by generational die-offs, by mutation, by poisoning, a dynamic challenge to continuity, and by sheer proliferation of alternatives, rather than linear succession? How would T.S. Eliot’s golden lineup of genius allstars, constantly reordering itself but still male- and human- and capital-assets- shaped, be affected by this swarm of ravening pissed-off mutant bugs out-futuring them by dying six times a summer, by having no human-shaped future at all?
3. I’ve given a name to this flexing, death defined, mutating anachronistic field-time: the necropastoral. It does not in fact depend on classically pastoral settings, as, as any resident of New York will tell you, bugs are perfectly capable of shitting generations of themselves, of shitting explosive non- or multi-linear or mutant-time, in an apartment block. Instead, my term ‘necropastoral’ is a reworking of classical notions of the separation of the rural and the urban, the idyllic and the worldly. Instead, I acknowledge that the most famous celebrity resident of Arcadia is death; my necropastoral suggests that there is no wall between ‘nature’ and ‘manmade’ but only a membrane, that each element can bore through this membrane to spread its poisons, its death to the other.
It’s interesting that anti-kitsch rhetoric is so prominent in contemporary poetry. For example, Marjorie Perloff famously claimed that Merwin writes like Longfellow. That’s a real stretch but her point being that Merwin was kitsch, of the past, not tastefully modern. It’s interesting because Joyelle really does write in some pre-modernist ways, influenced in large part by her parents’ corny immigrant’s kitsch anthologies of popular verse from the 19th century. These collections are of course the coming together of so many tropes of kitschiness – the foreigner (inauthentic), the collection (bourgeois, inauthentic), poetry (tacky, poetic, foreign).
OK, more later…