by Lucas de Lima 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.