"I was kitsch": autobiography of an immigrant and a translator

by on Aug.12, 2013

I wrote an autobiographical account of my interest in translation for the poetry foundation:

I wrote a lot of poetry and I read widely (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Surrealism, Genet, Plath, Ginsberg, etc.). I wrote all the time. Until I got to college. I loved college but I also learned about taste. I learned that my poetry was tasteless. From the quietist workshop I took I learned that I was “Romantic” because I used “too many metaphors,” that I didn’t “earn the images,” that my I wasn’t authentic. I.e. kitsch. We did read language poets in that class. I went out and read more by and about them. And from that reading I learned: I was too “Romantic” because I used an “I,” because I used metaphors, because I was interested in fascination and absorption, not distance and critique.

I stopped writing poetry because I was kitsch. I lacked taste, and poetry was all about having taste. Knowing when to say when. As Daniel Tiffany argues in Silver Planet, his forthcoming book on kitsch, kitsch is mostly not about a lack but about an excess: “excessive beauty.” It’s about not knowing when to stop. I would add, that kitsch brings the violent immersion of art. Art is kitsch in part when it’s so much that you cannot stand back and maintain your critical distance.

But some things brought me back to poetry. I read Vasko Popa in translation, I read Clayton Eshleman’s translations of the late work of Antonin Artaud. A girlfriend who worked for an interior decorating magazine told me that she had seen photos of an artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose canvases of disassembled and re-assembled bodies reminded her of my poems. She showed me the letters from insane people she had collected at work (“Dear Mr. Randolph Hearts, I want to be president of the United States! I just smashes a mosquito!”). Most importantly, I came across the work of the young Swedish poet Aase Berg in a Swedish journal and that immediately inspired me…

Read the whole thing here.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Excellent post, Johannes…

    A pretty common phrase at academic conferences is how this or that is an “institutional critique,” tho. usually it follows along very familiar arguments that wouldn’t have been unusual in a Language writing essay more than a generation ago. But this actually IS an institutional critique, and a very good one too.

    James

  2. rRoss Sélavy

    1) I really like/resonate with your connection of the gothic to excess (that’s the background to the modern usage of the term – first it was an insult to ‘excessive’ archetecture, as the Goths were barbarians; then a commentary of the excesses of gothic literature, and now pop culture compared to the latter) violence and the poetic impulse.
    2) I find it increasingly strange the whole deal with poetic taste being predicated on restriant. The more I think about it the more counter-intuitive it seems to me, and the more I think (via McGann on the romantics, who seems to get a consistently bad rap and consistently mis-represented in these discussions, and the larger discourses around the ‘lyric’) the more it seems self-evident to me that poetry is predicated on linguistic excess, like that’s the foundational thing. It’s always there, as if it wasn’t what you’d have would be transparent journalistic prose.
    I think this comes down to Kantian aesthetics (which I’m translating liberally via Menninghaus’ book on Disgust) – which is related to Kitch – that “beauty” requires a flaw, requires something to not be perfect, or else it is ‘too much’ and thus no longer beautiful. It’s like a kind of Aristotelian regulation thing, policing for moderation – but in a genre that is predicated on a transgression of that. It’s kind of weird. I’m not sure if I’m making any sense, I just woke up.
    3) I’m going to have to think about this some more.