Provincialism at its Limits: On Stephen Burt’s Very US-American “Nearly Baroque”

by on Apr.18, 2014

Leaving aside the poets in Stephen Burt’s article  the “Nearly Baroque” in the Boston Review, I think it’s really interesting how his model is founded on deficiency.  That is, Burt defines his aesthetic category adverbially by its lack, its mere approximation, when the baroque by definition is primarily about fullness.


Mi gente, there is even such a thing as the Ultrabaroque, the supercharged flipside to Burt’s starved oxymoron.

In response to Burt, Joyelle wrote the following in her Poetry Foundation post “I Want to Go All the Way”:

….there is only a glancing mention, a name-checking, of the Latin American category of the Neo-Baroque. Investigation of Latin American authors, many of which have now been translated, could have lead to an interesting conversation regarding what it means that this literary style is emerging from across so many different regions, ethnicities, languages, across economic, historical & political conditions. That feels like a missed opportunity and a false erecting of a boundary. But more pressing to me is Steve’s insistence on “nearly” and “almost” throughout the piece. I counted, VIDA-style: 32 instances of “nearly,” 12 instances of “almost.” Why is it important for Steve to mark the border this way, to locate his poets on just this side of the Baroque? Just North of the Baroque? So far from God, ever-so-close-to-but-still-distinguishable-from the Baroque? Is he holding back, or are they? And why?

After mulling over Joyelle’s questions, I went all the way, adding to them.  Why does Burt bother with the baroque in the first place?  Instead of meeting the baroque halfway, why not come up with a more tailored concept (a la the Montevidayans) like the Gurlesque, the Necropastoral, or Atrocity Kitsch?  Or even Burt’s own “elliptical poetry” or “the New Thing”? Then it occurred to me just how important lack in the “Nearly Baroque” may be.  I think the ‘nearly’ of his taxonomy troubles it in ways that Burt doesn’t actually intend.  In its admission to not quite living up to Severo Sarduy or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the “Nearly Baroque” reads like the ultimate symptom of American literary provincialism.

A provincialism the term itself takes to its limit, nervously marking it.  As if the boundaries that prop up jingoist navel-gazing had to finally dissolve.

Such are the dislocating flows of neoliberal global capital and its digitalized erosion of nationhood and national literature.  Suddenly, it’s the US-American critic who must do the conceptual importing and look south of the border at the same time as he restrains himself, barely registering the possibility of something foreign leaking in:  the baroque, as Joyelle suggests, has long been a central artistic and intellectual tradition across Latin America.

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:

Yet I have also been laying out, almost despite myself, a way to read [these poets] skeptically, as symptoms of a literary culture that has lasted too long, stayed too late. Engagé readers might say that the nearly Baroque celebrates, and invites us to critique, a kind of last-gasp, absurdist humanism. We value what has no immediate use in order to avoid becoming machine parts, or illustrations for radical arguments, or pawns for something larger, whether it is existing institutions or a notional revolution. And we must keep moving, keep making discoveries, as the scenes and lines and similes of the nearly Baroque poem keep moving, because if we stop we will see how bad—how intellectually untenable, how selfish, or how pointless—our position really is.

Replace ‘absurdist humanism’ with its subset–‘ethnocentrism’–and ‘existing institutions’ for ‘American poetry’–and the most provocative contours of Burt’s article become clear.  Ironically, they have less to do with gender, as he argues, than a threat to the nation-state.  By discussing a style but not its staunchly non- and even anti-US-American terrain, Burt perhaps signals the fear that U.S. poetry and poetics in the 21st century–with all its conservative mourners and conceptualist killers–may not be so sexy, supreme and self-sufficient after all.

Shakira’s Baroque Plenitude

14 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Really interesting post, Lucas…your comments on Burt’s “nearly Baroque” reminds me of the ending in Forster’s Passage to India, where one of the British characters (I can’t remember which one, and I don’t have a copy with me) thinks to himself that India is a place of utter aesthetic chaos, a zone that has no sense of proportion, no intuitive feeling for regularity. Self-control, restraint, austerity — that can often turn into the language of empire (much like the ancient Romans).

  2. peter richards

    True enough, but the resident foreigner enacts this long before it’s paraphrased, derided, and territorially branded.

  3. Lucas de Lima

    By “this” do you mean the realization of US-American lack? if so, I think so too and often find myself living it

  4. peter richards

    Yes, ‘lack’ in terms of US-American lack, but the same gets enacted as the belligerence that comes with that. It’s as simple as what the players do in Hamlet.

  5. Lucas de Lima

    Not sure I totally follow Peter. Are you talking about the resident foreigner’s belligerence?

  6. peter richards

    Lucas, no, the belligerence of the state, the rotten state(in all its belligerence)enacted by its vagabonds as a means to indict. We are not just visiting what was our land in the first place and so for the time being we pantomime.

  7. Lucas de Lima

    Yes! I think the baroque in Latin America can offer a different kind of belligerence as a reflection of the region’s miscegenation. Indigeneity and its anti-state stance are often part of this baroque discourse.

  8. Lucas de Lima

    Meaning I really am trying to go all the way!

  9. Chris Holdaway

    I wasn’t super keen on the article in question, and while I think you’re onto something down the alleys of ‘lack/deficiency’, I wonder if there’s another way to go here.

    Being perhaps a bit more charitable to Burt, what came first to mind for me with the abundance of ‘almost’ was not lack, but the ‘asymptotic’; an endless sidling up to infinity that must surely be excessive. An asymptote takes the idea of a ‘border/boundary’ and breaks it down to the point of being quaint.

    I haven’t really ‘worked’ any of ‘this’ ‘out’, and I don’t think this is the way Burt meant it, but maybe we can practice a little détournement here to make the vocabulary work to another end.

  10. Brian Stefans

    Loose thoughts on Stephen Burt’s interesting new essay in this month’s Boston Review:
    1) In response to Joyelle McSweeney’s brief consideration, I think the repetition of “nearly” was a really interesting strategy, suggesting a state of approach to me rather than lack (though I couldn’t help but hear a pun on “nearly broke”).
    2) On Lucas de Lima’s follow-up: I agree, that last paragraph was really interesting and gave the essay an additional final contour that most of the rest didn’t possess — it’s really an exercise in attenuated ambivalence, gesturing toward those of “us” who want a poetics more overtly “critical” (as in “a criticism of life” in Arnold’s sense) without quite turning the knife. But I wouldn’t rush to inject words like “ethnocentrism” or “American poetry” in there since it deflates the larger philosophical parameters of the essay. I thought it only glanced at the implications for this “poetics” on how we think of gender and “drag” (loved the “inter alia” bit). I guess I don’t understand what you mean, Lucas, by “provincialism” since if anything what you (or Joyelle?) are calling a “missed opportunity” for something like cross-cultural poetic considerations is only apparent because Burt made visible a possibility — now it’s your, our, turn to build on that.
    3) My own beefs are a little different. One is niggling: Nada Gordon is hardly merely the product of Flarf as she’s been writing poetry of nearly exactly the style Burt quotes from more recent books ever since I’ve known her. I understand it’s much simpler to frame her that way rather than blathering on about how her work (and Jennifer Moxley’s, who could have been mentioned here) are some “lyrical” (and maximalist, “moral exhibitionist”) response to Language poetry. Really minor, but I think there’s a story to be written there.
    4) While I think pointing to Marianne Moore is really interesting (despite the obvious formal differences) I wonder why the entire gay male New York School poets’ influence was elided. I think of “Second Avenue” and “In Memory of My Feelings” as exercises in the Baroque (O’Hara once referred to his “rococo self” in a poem called “To A Poet”), not to mention the long poems of James Schuyler and poems like “The Ice Cream Wars” and the opening of “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” by Ashbery (not to mention “Into the Dusk-Charged Air”). These are the poems I often point my Latin American poet friends who want to see if the United States ever had anything like a “neo-Baroque.” But again, this is just a quibble, and one can only do so much in a short(ish) article.
    Other male poets who strike me as decidedly Baroque are James Merrill (in “Book of Ephraim” especially), Kevin Killian, Wayne Koestenbaum.
    I can’t say in the end that I find these poets he’s writing about all that interesting though I have been reading a bit of Brock-Broido recently. She seems a step above since she’s not what I would call Mannerist (to bring in yet another school) in the ways the others seem to me. She’s has a certain tonal depth, a philosophical outlook (kind of an soulful phenomenology), and nimbleness of line and form, that the more declarative poets (most of whom I’d never heard of) Burt writes about. There’s an adventurousness there that someone like Ange Mlinko, for all her skills, lacks. But some I’d really like to look up, like Robyn Schiff, especially since I have an affection syllabics and complex stanzas (I wonder whether Stephen thinks there is room for the apparently forgotten Amy Clampitt in this article)?
    I’m just much more of a technician: I have little patience for large rhetorical gestures larded with internal rhyme and multiplying references if I lost sight of the integrity of the sound or image patterning, the tone, not to mention integrity of the thinking. I like spectacle in my art as much as anyone but as I don’t like spectacle in my life, the art has got to show me it cares.

  11. Lucas de Lima

    1) Brian, its the state of approach that is the lack! There is no “nearly baroque,” no standard baroque proportion a text can only verge on, especially insofar as the style inherently aims for transculturation. The baroque thwarts precisely the logic that Stephen’s bordered framework insists on.

    2) Actually–and I realize you wouldn’t know this as a newcomer on the blog–Montevidayo has been queering and cross-pollinating US and international poetry since its inception like 4 years ago. Me, Johannes, Joyelle, James Pate and others have written constantly about gender, drag, the immigrant, the baroque, the grotesque, the fake, the ornamental, excess, you name it. At AWP several of us spoke at a panel Joyelle organized called QUeer Translation (the talks will be up soon on Jacket). And I don’t even need to mention the indefatigable work of Action Books. So, as Joyelle hints at in her post, surely the folks here have anticipated many of Stephen’s points. I’m happy he brought more attnetion to the baroque, though you’ll hotice how he makes an all-too-passing mention of the Gurlesque. Our collective thinking, writing, and translating, in my opinion, does indeed make his article look provincial. Anyway, one point of my post is that Burt presents provincialism at its LIMIT, so the foreign trace he (reluctantly?) lets in is actually key for me. Because of the anxiety I sensed around this contamination, the gender aspect struck me as a false path as well as a familiar take. But also, in poetry the privileging of gender critique often ends up eliding issues that are just as pressing like ethnocentrism, as my run-in with the VIDA board member illustrates.

  12. Lucas de Lima

    In other words deflating parameters was totally my point! Although you hesitate to take me seriously–a very familiar reaction for an immigrant!!!–I’m deflating American poetry.

  13. Johannes

    The thing I wanted to emphasize on facebook is that we have already written things of “substance” and Lucas and Joyelle have written “substantial” rejoinders to Steve’s article. But somehow these appear to be invisible, not “substantial” (to you for example). Why?

    That’s not a rhetorical question.

    One thing that has really upset me in this whole thing is the constant attempt of people (on facebook) of dismissing Lucas’s and Joyelle’s critiques. They are not “legit” (ie, they don’t understand Steve’s position, they’re crazy etc). This is how you make someone invisible. Which one does when that someone challenges your “field” of expertise.


  14. Danielle Pafunda

    Yes. I’d have preferred a better frame on the Burt piece. Had he noted that he was considering this *nearly-baroque* out of interest in *only* that which verges, resists, approaches, etc. I have been contented and intrigued. As it stands, the article seems to suggest that nearly-baroque is *all* that exists, and that strikes me not so much a conscious overwriting, as a product of the literacy-resistance that serves one’s ability to make broad nationalistic statements.I do like many of things SB was doing in the article. I don’t like frame. I don’t like the sense that he hasn’t dug or looked around for the actual baroque, or the overly baroque, or how Latin American and other baroques inform US American ba-roke! Plus the article was thoroughly misinterpreted by mansplaining blowhards on Facebook.

    Nada’s baroque enough for me. Now I must consider: am *I* baroque? Are *you*? Who wears enough irregular pearls & poorly cured hides? Etc!

    As to erasure: we got a lotta work left to do getting de-invisibilized. Ugh, y’all.