Against “Macabre Poets”: Phil Hopkin’s Criticism of Rauan Klassnik, Blake Butler and Me

by on Sep.02, 2013

Over at HTMLGiant, this guy Phil Hopkins has been trolling Rauan Klassnik’s posts. Apparently one of the reason why Phil was so angry at Rauan was that he had written a negative review of Klassnik’s second book, Moon’s Jaw, and that none of the Internet journals that he sent it to wanted to publish it.

Hopkins saw this as evidence of conspiracy, but I think really the review just isn’t that thought-out, it’s more like a hatchet-job against some writers that the journals in questions have aesthetic concerns in common with. So it’s really no surprise they didn’t publish it. If Phil had looked around among more conservative journals, I’m sure he could have gotten someone to publish it.

But, I thought what the hell, lets publish it here.In the spirit of engaging with people of different points of view.

Actually the review interests me because it repeats some of the common rhetorical put-down that I’ve described in the past: this poetry is masturbatory, not public, not mature, not grown up (in fact Matthew Cooperman uses some of these in his comment to my post about Brooklyn from earlier today).

In fact, when Hopkins denounces “Elevated emotions, intense passions, extreme susceptibility to formal beauty and ugliness” as immature, it’s like he’s stealing a sentence from the kind of anti-kitsch rhetoric I have been discussing – how anti-kitsch rhetoric is really an issue of controlling the art. What is kitsch (in this case me and Rauan) is not being in control, not showing that you have some human essence (or “conscience”) that controls the intoxication of art. So I guess I agree with him here and take his criticism as a compliment. That is indeed what I want out of art!

And indeed, I do consider myself a slavish discipline of Plath and slasher movies (I’ve written about this extensively!). The “slavish” here again is about being in control: the true poet is in control of the art, the macabre poet is lost to the intoxication of art.

However, where we differ is that he sees this loss of agency, of human interiority as apolitical, while I think it’s very much involved in politics, just not the good old idea of politics of agency. I have written about this quite a bit, especially over the past few weeks on the Harriet blog, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Finally, I find it instructive that he criticize us both for being too affective (too many emotions, stunning etc) and obscurity. This paradox has its roots in the rhetoric of accessibility that I have criticized in the past. It’s true that I am much more interested in having an effect on the reader than conveying some kind of nice “meaning”. That doesn’t make me exactly obscure.

OK, here it is:

A review of Rauan Klassnik’s THE MOON’S JAW
By Phil Hopkins

At forty five years old, I’m starting to believe that I am hardened to new books of lyric poetry. Perhaps that disqualifies me from reviewing them. But I appreciate some of the spiritual, macabre, and onanistic heights of Rauan Klassnik’s latest volume The Moon’s Jaw. I enjoy its beauty and its vigor. The images can be oddly disarming.

failed sparks of blood . . . recited . . . quietly . . . from memory
. . . Like the beads of a prayer. Or the knots in a flagellant’s whip
. . . & then, a great power & calm takes hold of me . . . & I’m like a
God . . . A ball of cells, seething, inside its host . . . A lone source
of light . . .

Of course, one of the foremost obligations of a writer is to make it new, to avoid cliché. Klassnik makes it new on every page, My friend of thirty years writes with scrupulous consciousness of cliché at the level of the phrase. An ally of the avant-novelist Blake Butler and of macabre poet/impresario Johannes Goransson, Klassnik is a poet of distinct and original vision. However, he suffers from the same lyrical delusion as Butler and Goransson. These writers stun and surprise with their phrases, with the elaborate metaphors they employ and the inventiveness of their language. I applaud most of these efforts, but their works have too few ambitions beyond the level of the sentence and phrase, and so become parodies of strident youthful lyricsm.

A glitzed eel: Contorted. Stiffening. Yawned: Thick. Glaring. & red—Peeled,
back. Thru—The mirrors: Thru—The wind. A wide, deep, music,
rising up. Snails, brightening, every tip.

In overreaction of the drab, prosaic poetry and fiction of the commercial marketplace (Billy Collins, Jodi Picoult) the New Lyricists give us works victimized by the most profound clichés of the lyrical avant-garde. Elevated emotions, intense passions, extreme susceptibility to formal beauty and ugliness are the mark of what Milan Kundera termed the lyrical delusion. As the briefest reading makes clear, collections of lyric poems that have had the greatest impact in the West, whether Sappho’s fragments, or Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Flowers of Evil, or Ariel, have all captured the overheated climate of youth. One things that makes Wallace Stevens so enjoyable is that he achieves his cold heights in response to the scorched earth of lyrical desolation. Even The Waste Land, for all its contention with that tradition of passionate youthful lyricism, succumbs to it despite a struggle.

When we grow older, life becomes prosaic. We realize that our emotions are not actually earth-scorching, that our lives are small and comically repetitive, and we become aware of the narrative of human maturity. We lose our sense that we are special, and we become more concerned with clarity and universality, and less amazed by opacity and uniqueness. Per Kundera in his 2007 book of essays The Curtain, mature writers in the Cervantean tradition tear at the curtain of lyricism to get to the prosaic reality. But the medieval era’s romances of chivalry have been replaced for the New Lyricists by the opaque verse of Ashbery and his kin.

Klassnik and comrades often focus heavily on the macabre, like slavish disciples of Sylvia Plath who have taken up the imagery of slasher flicks.

—A Corpse Or A Gun—Her Bra’s—Half Off Face—
—Glowing—& Frozen—Like She’s Sliced—
—Her Throat—

Nice gore, but why? I found myself asking the same question of Blake Butler’s 2011 novel There Is No Year. From that book, what follows is among the least macabre of the loosely constructed images the author offers us.

And now the son’s flesh could not contain his girth. And now the son was more than tired and the son coughed up an enormous log of chalk and the son coughed up a pane of glass, a set of keys, and a door without a knob, and now the son’s mouth sprayed out graffiti, the son gushed gold and gray and green, the son gushed glue and blue.

I know Butler worships Cormac McCarthy, whose masterpiece Blood Meridian solders its shocking imagery to a compelling narrative of moral consequence. But Butler acts like Blood Meridian has no story, and needs none. He acts like Don DeLillo built Underworld in the dark, without the light of our daily, prosaic surface lives. When Klassnik addresses himself directly to Whitman he achieves his most effective poem, a passage that in Rauan’s shaking, incarnadine hands comes to resemble an excerpt from Heiner Muller.

Again, & again: Out of the cradle endlessly rocking. Again, & again:
The great poet strides on to a headland—Red petals falling—
& hangs himself in a tree. As bright as the 4th of July: A girl’s
voice—In leaves of fire: Arced overhead: From sea—To sea.
Dribbling, down, on us all. Sunsets. & all that trash.

If the formal self-regard of Butler and Klassnik is part of the New Lyricists’ misreading of their heroes, their contentment with that misreading was well defined by Adam Kirsh. In his 2008 book of essays The Modern Element, attacks Ashbery and C.D. Wright for their willful obscurity. Exploring the bounds of opacity is a safe ritual followed by writers to whom the appearance of profundity is paramount, and who believe their remoteness enhances that appearance. But like gourmands who thrill to the most arcane variations of olive oil, the New Lyricists indulge in surprising phrases in isolation from the nourishing essential food groups.

Klassnik’s dashes are reminders of the impotence of many of his phrases.

Deformed w/ light—& slick w/ milk: Suicide’s cunning, tragic,
& warm. A Baby—Or a Dog. It leaps up at you: & licks at yr face.
Its face is scarred. Teeth broken. & bruises—Like sunshine—All
down its back. You hold it up—Again & again: & slice its throat.

I can make connections between the images in this and the rest of The Moon’s Jaw, but the book’s tone is so much the same, and the poet’s means are so obviously withholding, that I will only open my friend’s collection when I’m seeking a phrase or surreal image. Klassnik is a stronger, more compelling writer than most of those who have taken up New Lyricism as a shield from the prosaic core of life. Goransson, too, shows real power and control in his antic games with association. This, from his poems in Octupus Magazine ( cultivates interest through its atmospherics and direct, almost offhand phrasing.

I’m baptized in ants. The commission has studied my squirrels and my utterly mixed metaphors. The chairman suspects my letters are ransom notes. My premises have been vacated.

But when I read the New Lyricists, I wonder why so few writing today seem to want to know how the greatest writers accomplished their best work. Dante shocks us at a sensory level, and at our cores, in our souls. He dares a structure, a theology, a journey, a narrative. Walt Whitman shows us in the pages of Leaves of Grass and in the progressive editions of it a maturing vision, a cosmically vast voice, a changing character. The New Lyricists masquerade concern with their own problems as concern for the world’s.

In fact, what I disliked about Rauan Klassnik’s second book of poems was similar to what I liked about his first. As in 2008’s Holy Land also from Black Ocean Press, Klassnik’s new poems describe horrors with a candor and elegance that are impressive. But he settles for that effect too completely here. I enjoy surrealist films, but the movies that stick with me offer images tied to the prosaic machinery of narrative, character, of life.

Writers, I beg you to terrify me deeply. Don’t settle for disturbing me briefly.

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Kyle

    Aside from the points Johannes touched on, I am interested in his bringing up the issue of having “too few ambitions beyond the level of the sentence and phrase”. It feels like a valid criticism to a certain extent, though I don’t understand his choice to associate it specifically with youth, especially when the same tendencies have obsessed writers like Ashberry and Pound throughout their entire careers. It seems like a strangely conservative direction to take things, and not necessarily a very productive one.

  2. rRoss Sélavy

    “Nice gore, but why?” Is a really beautiful sentence

  3. rRoss Sélavy

    I’m slightly confused, is there a discourse that I’m missing out on? I’m not sure where the term “New Lyricists” comes from

  4. Reb

    Reading this review reminded me of something my uncle loved to say to me when I was in college, “A conservative at 20 doesn’t have a heart, a liberal at 40 doesn’t have a brain.” Maybe that rings true for some, but I’m 40 and it just seems like a really sad, limited view on how we’re supposed to age. This review makes assumptions on what the progression of an artist is supposed to be, as if there’s only one way to grow, perceive, explore. I feel like reviews that criticize what they consider to be navel gazing tend to lack self-awareness of where their opinions are rooted in. The sentence, “When we grow older, life becomes prosaic.” is such a curious and problematic statement. I don’t doubt that for some (possibly many) this is the case, but it’s an awfully confining way to approach just about anything.

  5. Philip Hopkins

    Hey Johannes
    Thanks for publishing this. Yes, I was pissed nobody I sent it to published it, and I respect your disagreement with my statements. Thanks for giving it some space.
    Hope you’re doing well,

  6. Michael Peverett

    That’s a pretty good review, it at least gives me a solid vision of what’s good about the kind of things he likes. The trope about “no ambitions beyond the sentence” has often come up before, e.g. about surrealist poetry and deep image poetry, too. I think there’s a variety of ways in which art can “add up” without necessarily having the spine of naturalism that Phil is looking for.

  7. Tim Jones-Yelvington

    I like what Reb said. Narrow definitions and visions of maturity and what it means to be “human” foreclose so many potential readings and experiences of texts… I keep being struck by how much anti-excess rhetoric is profoundly adultist — emotions deemed as juvenile are not to be taken seriously… and adultist discourses shape our view of pretty much every other subaltern/oppressed/marginalized, etc. group, not just children and youth — women are children, disabled people are as helpless as children, queer people have peter pan complexes, etc. I’m also struck by his repeated appeals to his friendship with Rauan, it’s so “Some of my best friends are ‘new lyricists.'” ~ tim