by Johannes Goransson on Oct.23, 2014
There’s an interesting article by Gregory Orr in the latest issue of Writer’s Chronicle called “Foundational Documents and the Nature of Lyric,” which I think (of course) backs up all the arguments I’ve been deriving from reading Wordsworths’ Preface to Lyrical Ballads as a foundational anti-kitsch manifesto.
Orr begins with a relevant reading of Plato’s Republic as an anti-poetry foundational document of western culture: re-hashing Plato’s urge to banish poets from the ideal republic because or their irrational artform and his idea that if they tried to sneak back in they should be killed. To counter this foundational anti-poetic text, Orr brings in various Asian texts, finding in them an understanding and appreciation for the emotional nature of art and lyric poetry.
But what I’m interested in is his use of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.
I’ve discussed this document several times as an anti-kitsch manifesto (taking a cue from Daniel Tiffany’s writing on kitsch). Wordsworth rejects the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of the graveyard poets (derived, importantly, as a kind of translatese from Latin translations) in favor of a model of the poet as “a man speaking to men.” The flowery language is connected to sensationalism of mass media which also “blunts” the reader’s senses. It’s too much. It’s kitsch.
As I’ve argued in the past, kitsch is really at the heart of any art – any art can be turned “gaudy” if you choose to see it that way because art can always be seen as useless and gaudy, as opposed to the real stuff of work and politics.
I realize there’s a bunch of stuff going on in Wordsworth, but this is an important line of discussion issuing from his work to this day and I think Orr’s article really proves this.
For Orr, Wordsworth provides a welcome antidote to Plato’s anti-poetry stance. Most importantly for Orr:
“Wordsworth rescued Western poetry from its capture by the ruling classes. He returned it to ordinary people, understanding that anyone could and maybe should write poems or songs – that lyric poetry isn’t an elite art form, but is a human birthright. A birthright related to its essential function as a survival mode. All of us need poetry and song… Wordsworth rescued lyric from elitism by saying that the language used in poems isn’t a special, flowery language reserved for special people or a special class of people. Instead, he insisted it was “a selection of the real language spoken by men” (and women). Poetry was just us, speaking a little more intensively or rhythmically than we ordinarily speak, but not in some special language only available to social or economic elite. Wordsworth’s return to speech as the model for poetry was a crucial insight, but we in the West are still struggling to take it in and accept its full, democratic implications.”
There’s a lot to be said about Orr’s reading, and to some extent I obviously agree that Wordsworth’s document is revolutionary. But I want to focus on the way Orr sees “flowery language” as inherently elitist and undemocratic.
Flowery language (gaudy and inane phraseology) can afterall be written by anyone, and I would venture that often young poets are taught by their elders to reject flowery, “Romantic” language (I was when I was a teenager). One might say then that plain-spoken diction has become a kind of elitist Taste that we have to learn.
But there is something more important about this passage and that is that it assumes that “speaking a little more intensively” is somehow more human (a word Orr uses throughout to back up his claim).
Moderation is human.
To be human is to write poetry that is *a little more intensive* than ordinary speech.
That is to say that to write *way more intensive poetry* or *totally ordinary* speech would somehow be inhuman. And somehow undemocratic.
Kitsch rhetoric returns to this nexus of ideas over and over: kitsch is somehow inhuman because it’s *too much* or *not enough*.
Why might that be? A couple of years ago, Joyelle wrote “A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, or, Ambient Violence, or, Bringing it All Back Home,” a post about the Coldfront review of my first book, A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, which criticized my book for being “coercive” (ie undemocratic):
It’s relatively easy to process violent poetry when it presents a critique of violence. But what about when ambient violence makes a medium of a body and makes it a perpetrator of violence against itself and others?
Violence runs all over the house of A New Quarantine Will Take My Place. It animates a cavalcade of victims and victors, including the victim/victor I (the conqueror worm!). The violence also extends to the reader, as a recent review in Coldfront noted:
“Two criticisms are that the use and reuse of images can lead to sometimes tiresome redundancies and repetitions, and that the whole book as a continuous poem can lead to a page-turner effect a la The DaVinci Code where the reader is coerced, rather than compelled, to keep reading. Importantly, Johannes Göransson keeps you reading.”[ii]
This quote (correctly, it seems to me, if knicker-twistedly and with a reflex/reflux dig at supposedly degrading mass culture)diagnoses the violence that runs from the book to the reader as redundancy, repetition, and coercion. It courses out of the medium of the book.
If I go back to Joyelle’s post, we might say that a poetry that offers critique (a typically experimentalist take on poetry) is democratic, as is a poem that just does a “little more intensive” than ordinary speech.
It is evil and undemocratic to enter into the “ambient violence” – because, as Wordsworth noted, this sensationalistic overflow of images blunts your senses. (There’s also the connection between mass culture – Davinci Codes – and kitsch.)
I go on about this for some length because I come across this sentiment over and over. People ask me why I’m being so sensationalistic; why in an age of overflow of images of violence, I would choose to enter into this ambient violence, rather than try to find a way out of it. This is a strand of Wordsworth’s poetics that gets re-hashed and re-hashed.
The key is: Either you position yourself outside of this sensationalistic and “ambient violence” (as a critique, as a “human” moderate poetry) or you enter into it. I think you should enter into it.
Or, as Joyelle puts it:
Johannes’s book is to see this convulsive reflectivity repeated to the point of utter-, over-, and supersaturation, as violence is ‘mediated’, that is, reaches the speaker through media, including the media of his own and others’ bodies, as he discharges violence through the person of his own body (and directed against his own body) at objects, persons, places, infants, girlfriends, forms, his thigh and torso, as he thus becomes a medium for violence working in every direction. The provocative potential of this book is the idea that a book is itself a medium for violence and coercion, the Coldfront complaint. This is not a diagnosis I think Johannes would reject, given the totalness with which he commits himself to this total economy of violence, assuming no pose of ‘ethics’ or sham ‘critique’ which would suggest one could remove oneself from this supply-chain, from this fray, by any instrument but death. And even then. Death. The Conqueror Worm. The Emptor (Buyer). (Caveat emptorem, emptor!) The pre-emptor. The bitch to watch, to watch out for (see you in my dreams. Not if I see you first.) The new quarantine that will take your place.
I RITUALIZE MY GRIEF IN GARB AND SCARS.
Orr’s article ends with a moving consideration of Wordsworth’s claim that we should write about emotions “recollected in tranquility,” detailing his own struggle with the traumatic experience of accidentally killing his brother, and how it took him years to write about that event.
Orr also writes about a famous poet who went to Vietnam but how the poems he wrote at the time of this traumatic experience was less “real” than the poems he wrote 25 years later. I don’t know the poems he talks about, but might it be that the poems he wrote originally was “too much,” did not have the proper distance.
Could it be that the veteran poet ritualized his grief in garb and scars? Could it be that he had not yet learned how to write like a human? And could that be because “the human” became a fraud in Vietnam? Could it be that the human has become a fraud in an age of pink fracking symbols? Could it be that it was a fraud all along?