Is the “Baroque” Tasteless?

by on Apr.29, 2014

There has been some discussion here and on facebook about Steve Burt’s article on the “Nearly Baroque.” And not surprisingly, there has been a lot of focus on this “nearly,” a word that suggests both an open-ness to this baroque, and a restraint, an an ability to control this (possible dangerous, decadent impulse). It’s “extravagant” but not *that* extravagant.

I agree with Lucas’s (and Joyelle’s) suggestion that it has to do with a defense against the foreign, that the “fully baroque” may not even be a particular foreign poetry, but a more general foreign-ness. Lucas asserts:

“The exacted inexactness of Burt’s ‘nearly baroque,’ his ‘almost rococo,’ thus indexes a certain allergy and attraction to the foreign, a certain anxiety over the loss of canon control.”

I am interested in how Burt’s “nearly” plays into a dynamics of Taste, a sense that I think is enhanced by Burt’s standing as an arbiter of taste. For isn’t the most obvious meaning of baroque in fact “tasteless”? The word was first used as a derogatory term calling attention to an excess of ornamentality (which equals crime, thanks Modernism). And this is largely how Burt uses the terms as well. With this important change: the poets he writes about are “NEARLY” baroque.


One might say: he is writing about poets who flirt with the tasteless, the truly excessive. He appreciates the way they almost go over the top, but show enough restraint to still be good poets.

This “nearly” ties in to a whole lot of contemporary rhetoric of taste. I think for example of “The American Hybrid” anthology, an anthology that proposed a taste-canon not based on rejection of the extreme, but rather based on poetry that included a little of the extreme (ie Alice Notley could be included but only with some highly – for her – atypical short, lyrical pieces.).

I am also reminded of his article about Rachel Zucker from a while back:

“Zucker has written an excessive book, a rude book, and its longer-than-long lines, its bodily fluids (vomit among them) are not the only ways that it flouts decorum…With inferior poets who like to break taboos, the shocks are thematic—not formal—and they get old fast. With Zucker, you never know what the next line will hold. The point, the achievement, is not that she can gross us out, drive us around the bend, report the truth about her body, her husband, her sons, or the profession of poetry. The point is that these long, long lines, these stutters and splutters and blanks and lists, can portray, with more verve than anyone else has brought to such tasks, what it is like to be this person, this mother and teacher, at wit’s end: exhilarated, exhausted, exasperated, and able to show how it feels.”

Here we have the “nearly” again: Zucker “flouts decorum”, but she is not like all of those really “inferior poets” who are just shocking for the sake of being shocking. That is to say, she DOES NOT “flout” BURT’S “decorum” the way these other poets do. And again, as in the nearly baroque article, those excessive poets are un-named, invisible.

But the key here – as in “The American Hybrid” – is that to be tasteful is not to oppose something, but to suggest a kind of inclusivity. In Burt’s reading, Zucker is open to the abject but she’s not totally nutso; the “nearly baroque” are open to the baroque qualities of language, but not so “baroque” that they become tasteless, kitsch.

And as always, these over-the-top tasteless people are not included, merely hinted at. These days of poetry’s near invisiblity, it’s more effective to exclude poets you don’t agree with from the conversation rather than to denounce them (or at least include them and show how they fail.).

I am also reminded of Burt’s essay on “The New Thing” a while back (also in the Boston Review), an essay in which Burt – pretty accurately I think – captures a common rhetoric in contemporary poetry: the rejection of “soft-surrealist cotton candy” and “unaided (or unchecked) imagination—of lamps without mirrors, imagination without constraint” in favor of “objectivity” or “thing-ness.”

I have written several responses to this essay, including a piece for Harriet a while back where I argued that the “thing” rhetoric is concerned with moderation and taste (against “unchecked” poetry).

The important thing about that essay for this post is that in many ways it sets up Burt’s “nearly baroque” essay: the nearly baroque essay is what the “thing” rhetoric rejects. And I agree with a lot of Burt’s observations here (how for example the “baroque” is enagaged with visual fascination), just as I agreed with his description of the “thing” rhetoric and its dominance in contemporary poetry discussions.

But of course Burt does not advocate “going too far”, but “nearly” going too far! The two pieces create a kind of boundary on either side (not too impoverished, not too baroque). Where is the “cotton candy” poetry? The too-grotesque poetry? The poetry that goes too far? The tasteless poetry that doesn’t have enough restraint to stay “nearly” baroque?

This is where Joyelle’s post also comes in: “I want to go all the way.”
Or an early essay by Aase Berg: “The Importance of Going Too Far.” Or “Surrealism in Ulterior Times”: “Surrealism in the ulterior times unreasonable, compromising, conspiratory, confused, singleminded, bloodthirsty. Meet it by the lemurs or on the blood stained back streets or in the parks that still are ugly!”

I am reminded of the post I wrote the other day about Detroit as “baroque” , and also of Daniel Tiffany’s statement that KITSCH is “excessive beauty.” Beauty that goes TOO FAR. That is too visual, too retinal.


I want to go all the way, like Marosa Di Giorgio, Delores Dorantes, Yi Sang, Maria Negroni, Aimé Césaire… All the way and out to the other side, which is this side, but eschatologically inverted, familiar, unrecognizable, there, here, where a vengeful shamanic maidenhood dances her vengeance, issuing in floodtides of unforeseeable retribution. Her name may be Serena yet she is fierce. She comes not with peace but with a sword. She is a sword.

Another thing: It’s important to note that Joyelle’s list of poets going too far is heavy on foreign poets. It’s important not to lose Lucas’s observation that taste is tied to the exclusion of translation. It’s important to note that Haroldo de Campos’s sees the baroque coming out of translation (and cannibalistic translations). (I am currently writing an essay on this topic.)

And finally: I am also interested in how gender intersects with both the baroque the tasteless. Burt asserts that men are almost never nearly-baroque; the exception in his essay being Geoffrey Nutter. Is that true? Or is there something else going on? Is it that when men perform the baroque, they cannot also be ‘nearly’, they are already going ‘too far’?

8 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I think also I should mention the way that various people tried to delegitimize Lucas’s initial response, in large part by attacking it as not “serious” – ie that it didn’t conform to scholarly idea of decorum.

  2. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Somehow this all seems part of the same discussion which took place of FB this a.m. 29 Apr in which Anne Boyer asked, “can someone explain this trend in contemporary poetry criticism/ scholarship which is making the claim (usually about poetry which has some, at least surface level political language/subjects) that the poetry actually has “no politics”?” I’m sure you’ve made the connections somewhere or several somewheres that this baroque of which you speak is not unrelated to politics and this decorum of which you speak if not unrelated to the dream of a poetry with no politics.

  3. Johannes

    Hi JBR, I don’t know about that discussion but I see your point. There’s a strong political implication of the baroque even if that politics does not go through “surface level political language.”

  4. Johannes

    On the other hand I often don’t agree with the political claims made for poetry, claims that often seem to want to make poetry into a moral act. / J

  5. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Hi, Johannes. I’m just suggesting that there’s a whole way of worlding involved in the necropastoral and baroque etc and that there’s a whole other way of worlding in trying to place limits a la Burt etc on all that, and that worlding is also politics, and that it is politics whether or not any “political word” is ever said. As for poetry being a moral act, well, I never think about stuff like that. I usually don’t even understand such discussions.

  6. Kim g

    This has probably nothing to do with anything but lately I’ve been thinking about the smooth transitions in much of contemporary “serious” cinema. Like last night I saw Out of the Furnace, a totally quiet man affair along the familiar script of shit going bad enough so that some guy can finally go on a justified killing revenge spree. But any movie along those lines where the goal is to capture something real by not letting anything, a scene, a piece of dialogue, weird surprising camera work, music, stand out. It’s all about the whole, the balanced whole, or the only entry into the work is through the eyes of of the male main character, the things he feels when he doesn’t say anything.

    This after seeing the delightful 90’s flick Keys to Tulsa with Eric Stoltz and also later Django Unchained with its gallons of splatter romance where people talk too much and have no insides except for way too much blood. Movies that are full of quotable dialogue and stand out music and out of control nudity and scenes that does nothing to further anything but its own attempts at coolness. Which is a kind of baroque, no? Definitely tasteless. And how incredibly rare it is to find now. Not to get all nostalgic but its seems like the puritans are winning!

    And whatever happened to Eric Stoltz?

  7. adam s

    Far from being tasteless, Baroque is delicious!

  8. James Pate

    Both this post and Lucas’ reminds me of what I think of as one of the basic elements of the baroque: a sense of overflow, of borders collapsing, as in Bernini’s St. Teresa where the mystic and sensual interplay…A surprising amount of the rhetoric around contemporary American poetry hovers around the idea of control and containment, either craft-wise or conceptually or both, and it crops up in both mainstream poetry and experimental poetry. The baroque stands in opposition to this, existing in a way that moves beyond any easy conceptual or lyric containment. I can’t help but see a class element in this too: the fully baroque would be too emotional, extravagant, overflowing, not refined, detached, from a privileged POV…