Flowers of Kitsch: on Pound, New Critics and Conceptualisms

by on Oct.09, 2014

I’ve been working on my critical book Atrocity Kitsch so I haven’t had a chance to blog very much recently, but I thought I would add some ideas about kitsch and poetry that won’t be in the book.

In Silver Planet, Daniel Tiffany writes about that incredibly work of atrocity kitsch, Ezra Pound’s Cantos:

“The integrity of the poem’s experiment could be salvaged only by isolating (and purifying) its formalist agenda, which meant that the appeal and function of kitsch in the Cantos could not even begin to be acknowledged, debated, or tested. The emergence of so called late modernism – a mandarin, hyper-formalist variant of the original movement – suppressed any discussion of the possibility that the diction of the Cantos alternated, in fact, between the “silver”y substance of kitsch and the “hard” phrasing of modernism.” (169)

I take by “late modernism” Tiffany means basically the New Critics and associated poets. These “poet-critics” were invested in “rigor” and “objective correlative” and the scientific-ish approach to reading poetry. They wanted to remove all the ludicrous and ridiculous excess of the 1920s avant-garde as well as the soft Victorianisms of the 19th century.
220px-John_Crowe_Ransom_1941
And yet when we read their poems, they feel more 19th than 20th century, full of the “corpse language” of Victorian poetry that Pound had sought to rid modern poetry of. Take a poem like John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” (the very title feels a bit outdated):

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

(whole thing here.)

The New Critics thought they were rigorous but they were in fact trafficking in kitsch. But then any art can turn to kitsch, decay into kitsch.

In the most recent issue of Writers’ Chronicle, Gregory Orr writes that Wordsworth saved English poetry from elitism by rejecting “flowery language” in favor of a democratic “men speaking to men.” One of my favorite parts of Tiffany’s book is when he reads Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads as anti-kitsch rhetoric – rejecting the ornate, aestheticized language of the graveyard poets for being too flowery, for being kitsch.

Orr still harbors the same idea as Wordsworth: that flowery language depends on money and class. When in fact these days to write ornately and flowery shows a lack of taste! Ie a lack of education. An immoderate love of language. Ransom and his southern gentlemen poet-scholar-friends imagined that their class gave them taste; but their taste decayed into kitsch in record time.

When Tony Hoagland (or anybody else really) tries to identify a “period style” for he contemporary (such as his “skittery poem of the moment”) it’s an attempt to wield anti-kitsch rhetoric; by turning the poetry one doesn’t like into a “period style,” one renders it kitsch. If it’s a period style, it will also be outdated, will become as kitsch as the new critics’ poetry – because it’s not the individual’s heroic accomplishment. It’s imitation rather than art; it’s just part of the period; it doesn’t deserve an individual’s entry in the Canon books. At its worst this means that popularity leads to kitsch (whether that popularity comes from people being smitten with your poetry or from the poetic style being enfored in MFA programs as was the case with quietism).

Marjorie Perloff and the language poets really used this formula well in attacking quietist lyrics as kitsch. And she’s really still attacking that poetry with conceptualism. Conceptualism draws some of its strength from the fact that our industrial-capitalist culture had turned ALL poetry into kitsch. So by proclaiming themselves “uncreative” or not poetry, they are benefitting from this state of affairs.
iPrincess_KateDurbin
But what makes kitsch interesting is that decay is not the end of poetry; poetry is often most beautiful or interesting in a state of decay, a state of contamination. So that in Conceptualism you are now getting very impure projects, very poetic conceptualisms, like Kate Durbin’s poems about the luxury of celebrities (a very different elite class than the New Critics imagined, a very much crasser wealth than their southern gentility (and less racist?)) and Joseph Mosconi’s Fright Catalog which traffics in flowers and decorations:

FC_Cov_SmWeb_1024x1024

Lets end with some Coleridge:

That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Joe Milazzo

    Thanks for this reading. It reminds me a bit of Pinsky’s analysis of Berryman’s DREAM SONGS, his claim that “for Berryman the use (however ironic) of the old poetic diction [Romantic; Swinburnian] is not archaizing or momentary. He establishes the context for it and then makes it into a readily available poetic language whose aim is largeness of feeling: to make up in copiousness and range what it may lack in distinction of other kinds. His subjects—disillusion, remorse, yearning, a despairing irritation with boundaries— demanded the somewhat sloppy richness of [what Modernism had declared] the forbidden tongue.” In BERRYMAN’S UNDERSTANDING: REFLECTIONS ON THE POETRY OF JOHN BERRYMAN, edited by Henry Thomas (Northeastern University Press, 1988), p. 188.

  2. Johannes

    Yeah that’s interesting, I was thinking about Berryman when I wrote this – how he came out of the New Critics, his use of blackface and that sense of flowery, out-dated language.

  3. Joe Milazzo

    I need to research this, but I wonder if those qualities of Berrymann’s work you identify here would have been discussed more in terms of a camp aesthetic or kitsch by those who were writing about his work at the time it first appeared. Interesting, too, how the DREAM SONGS become less kitschy and more conventionally confessional after Berryman began collecting his accolades. In the latter poems of that sequence, I miss some that sense that the earlier ones have of intense self-address / self-interpellation. Of being in the grip of vocabularies rather than about-ness, per se.