Flowers of Violence: Atrocity Kitsch and American Poetry

by on Nov.11, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a response to Gregory Orr’s essay in the Writer’s Chronicle, in which he argues that Wordsworth is fundamentally democratic in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads because he argues for a non-flowery, non-poetic language that Orr sees as “open” to the lower classes.

But as I pointed out, this rejection of the “gaudy and inane phraseology” is anti-kitsch rhetoric. Further, Wordsworth was definitely not lower class, though he both used the ballad form (a fake lower class form) for an elite audience.
But I wanted to point out another element of Orr’s essay and that’s his use of a soldier-poet as an example for how poetry should be “emotion recollected in tranquility” (rather than say poems written in the state of disaster). Orr writes that he had read a manuscript by an un-named contemporary US poet about his time as a soldier in Vietnam, and how the two poems he wrote while in Vietnam stuck out from the manuscript, not only as bad poems but as unreal poems (I can’t quite remember the exact word Orr uses). The poet-soldier needed distance to achieve a tranquility in order to really process the poetry.

Orr also gives a moving account of accidentally killing his own brother and how it took him years to process this violence.
Screen shot 2014-05-01 at 1.18.02 PM
As I’ve written before, violence is everwhere. And poetry is not difference. The artistic experience is often a violent one. But contemporary American poetry critics still seems obsessed with distancing poetry from the violence of art and the violence of the world at large. It’s the dangers/fears of “aestheticizing violence” (which according to Benjamin is what the Nazis did, more about the Nazi-art connection some other time). And yet, violence is constantly brought in as a way of understanding poetry. Orr has to bring the war into his essay in order to remove poetry from it.

The thing that interests me about bringing it in is the way he joins the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of flowery language – of poetic language, of kitsch – to violence. Kitsch is violence. The poetic is inhuman.

In Orr’s article, it’s a way to show the importance of achieving distance. I sometimes think about a post I remember reading on John Gallaher’s blog a long time ago, in which he referenced an essay by Hank Lazer about a panel on poetry in the mid 80s. The crux of the discussion between different poets (some language poets and some not) was the prevalence of feeling:

Louis Simpson: I think I’m beginning to see a basic reason we’re disagreeing here. You approach the world as a construct which humanity has made, and therefore language is a construct, so you approach experience through language. I would argue that for poets experience occurs as a primary thing, without language in between. I quoted Dante yesterday to you about visions. We have visions, we have experiences for which there is not language, and our job is to create that into a poem. And that seems to me a radically different point of view.

Gregory Jay: O, yeah, yeah. We do disagree fundamentally because I don’t think that there is any such thing as uninterpreted experience and I don’t think we ever have an experience of anything that isn’t an interpretation when it arrives to our knowledge.

Louis Simpson: I don’t believe that for one second. If you had been in an automobile accident, or I could give you even worse examples – if you’ve ever had somebody shooting at you in a battlefield, where the heck is interpretation coming in there?

Gregory Jay: Well, I have to decide whether the bullet’s going to hit me or not, Louis.

Louis Simpson: But what has that got to do with interpretation?

Denise Levertov: If a child dying of cancer is suffering excruciating pain just as if it were a grown-up person who is able to reflect upon its pain, does that mean that it is not experiencing that excruciating pain? Bullshit!

Again soldiers are brought in to stand in for aesthetic experience. This is what I’ve called ATROCITY KITSCH – this seemingly constant interaction between art and extreme violence. Why is it important to bring in the feelings of the soldier? It seems that we have to invoke this poor guy getting shot at in order to explain art.

Orr does it too, though for different reasons. Simpson brings it in to suggest that Language poetry is decadent, is kitsch, because it is all artifice, not real, all Kublai Kahn’s pleasure dome. Orr brings in the soldier to show that he has to achieve distance from the real in order to be human. Ie not become kitsch. In both cases, the extreme is treated as kitsch.


Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Perhaps the most interesting discussion of atrocity kitsch (though he doesn’t call it that) is Saul Friedlander’s book Reflection on Nazism. I wrote this about his book a year ago:

According to Friedlander, this sensibility survives Nazism and precedes it: Kitsch is a “return to a debased inspiration,” to an undead Romanticism that anachronistically survives through and against modernism, a decadence that endures with its poisonous flowers inside a modern world, to a “pre- and antimodern ambience.” It is an aesthetic that characterizes not just the Nazi sensibility but which survives in novelists and film-makers since:

“Here is the essence of the frisson: an overload of symbols; a baroque setting; an evocation of a mysterious atmosphere, of the myth and of religiosity enveloping a vision of death announced as a revelation opening out into nothing – nothing but frightfulness and the night. Unless… Unless the revelation is that of a mysterious force leading man toward irresistible destruction.”

There is an excess of the art-ness of the art in other words: words repeat over and over (snow, blood, flowers, poison, corpses, soil etc). Or in Swedish, there is too much “konst-igheter” (strangenesses) in the “konst” (art). The art is thickly atmospheric, thickly artish; there is not the proper “religiosity” (or “critique” if you’re a leftist) to redeem the artfulness of this dense baroque atmosphere.

I return to Daniel Tiffany’s recent work on kitsch, and his argument that kitsch is always about “excessive beauty.” Beauty that does not show the proper restraint, beauty that intoxicates. Kitsch is more than anything about a kind of “poeticism,” a kind of Romanticism.


We might also return to Joyelle’s great post about Roberto Bolano’s Nazis and the treatment of shell-shocked soldiers like Wilfred Owens:

As Martin summarizes, the goal of Brock’s treatment of Owen and others was “[to force] the patients to actively and metrically order their mental chaos in new contexts of time (the five-beat line of a poem, a first person narrative or short-story, a play) and space(a diagram of the city, a lecture, a description of local museums.)”

Against this regime/n of form and genre, Brock “warned against the dangers of ‘art for art’s sake,’ where art become a kind of drug that separates the patient from the social world, an extreme form of outrance.”. Here is a literalization of Derrida’s modeling of Art as the pharmikon, the drug, the supplement; for Brock, ‘art for art’s Sake’ entailed a counter-therapy, a counter-regime to the ordinating regime of form and genre whose goal was to turn the shell-shocked patients into functioning soldiers and integrate them back into body of civilized temporality—or, actually, the War.

Brock’s prescription of form and genre, his proscription of Art-for-Art’s-Sake as an anti-social drug, prompts me to reassess the thrust of Nazi Literatures in the Americas. These fake authors are not just evil because they are Nazis; they’re evil because they are Artists. Their Nazidom is a kind of metonym for the extremity of their commitment. People who’ve gone off ‘the grid’ actually make their own grid. When you get to the point in which you are so caught up in your frame narrative about Art that you stop making Art, you could also say that everything you make is Art, your whole life is Art, unwholesome Art, out of wack with Society’s temporality, Art for Art’s Sake.

This in turn makes me think of Joseph Beuys, whose personal charisma and motto ‘Every person an artist” is to this day held up by critics as evidence of his inexpungeable Nazi instincts. Viewing this through Bolaño’s Nazi authors and Brock’s notion of Art as both drug and anti-drug, then we can start to see that Beuys’s critics perceived something very apt about him. His charisma is his Art. Art is charisma—a charism, a charm. It is contagious, antisocial, occult. If it begins to leak, unregulated, from diverse cites and bodies, rather than in carefully cultivated forms and doses in approved precincts, it entails a whole new evil regime.

Of course the idea that “every person is an artist” is a horrible idea to a literary culture that is still incredibly invested in creating “true” and “fake” artists, in order to maintain a nice, hierarchical order.

13 comments for this entry:
  1. adam s

    This post–though not directly–constellates to a question I’ve had for a while–why do so many statements regarding poetry/literary production, use the term violence? Unless the metaphysical and the literal, off the page physical are deemed one and the same, this is wonky; art doesn’t beat the shit out of people, electrocute genitals, starve to death through economic sanctions, etc; is invoking violence a way to bolster the aesthetic realm’s importance?–But like does it need bolstering? No matter how much an aesthetic may amp me up in questioning ways, I r(e)ally don’t get how this is even remotely akin lopping off a limb of mine, or that of another body. I guess the flipside to this ostensible stance is to retort that I am suggesting language doesn’t have any force, can do nothing, let alone harm, and I totally could never defend that claim. Are harm and violence synonyms in every case? Am I hopelessly literal and stupidly wedded to Stevens’ phrase “literalist of the imagination” (or is that M Moore?!).

  2. Johannes

    Adam, I think you are taking a too easy stance here between the literal and the figurative. It’s true that violence goes into how we conceive of art – the interesting thing I think about these two examples is that I don’t think Simpson etc would say that art is violence but they are still using that analogy in that discussion.

  3. adam s

    Would definitely caution against instilling an absolute chasm twixt physical and metaphysical: Donne’s “The Flea excitingly suggests how that won’t work; his poem is a “wild” conceit–but I’d argue that the flea bite and blood in that poem are as literal as they are figurative, that the marriage bed and those bloodlets are wholly commensurate. I think Claudia Keelan’s phrase the “physics of the metaphysical” is useful. Nonetheless, I believe I was legit in punching my dear sweet friend Jason Coley in the solar plexus when he tried to claim to me that violent words and violent actions are one and the same (first time I’ve punched someone, and wow was it hilariously awkwardly premeditated despite him saying it was out of last-ditch giving up on worded articulation that spurred my act. Note: he was not injured, and didn’t seem all that disturbed by my aggression; it’s certainly not an event that causes present tension…JC is such an awesome sweetie!

  4. reader

    “These fake authors are not just evil because they are Nazis; they’re evil because they are Artists.”

    It’s amusing you keep going back to Bolano. You are the fake, bad, nazi artists he would have despised, and spend a good part of his literature studying.. Do you understand? I don’t think you do.

    The site should just be called “A Defense of Nazi Kitsch Art”. That’s all you’ve done for years now, over and over and over.

  5. Johannes

    Ms Wolf,
    The poetry world keeps writing things that fit into this paradigm. I just want to make sure everyone is noticing. Thanks for reading for years.


  6. a strauss

    Maybe–though my example if anything gets equivocal before it gets tidy, with the punch not clearly being violent, though certainly of a different affect than worded expression. But your second part seems To Match a point/querry of mine, and this does interest me: why use a lexicon/rhetoric of violence, even as most artists are very aware that many understandings of violence do not gel with artistic process/production. What is this lexicon–or figuration or what have you–achieving; what are some reasons for its deployment–is it as “simple” as the very fact that I just used millitary vocabulary to make a point which is not having to do with battlefields and nonetheless this is there and does this point to osmosis, to inevitability, or lack of imagination on my part an unimaginative reliance on pre-fab formulation? What does it do that other approaches could not? Why is it a popular figuration compared to other ones? What, to sum it up, makes this line of inflection appealing for discoursing? And yes, it’s true not everyone works this register, but it’s not rare, and ranges quite a bit: I would not necessarily identify Rosmarie Waldrop as an obvious afiliate to some discussion at Montevidayo, for example, but she invokes this figuration–to just give a fraction of an example. And I guess maybe she’s a bad example, having grown up in Nazi germany, but then again that gets into an authentic rhetroc versus a fake one, and I’m not interested in identifying some uses of this figuration as totally sensible, and others not. Surely that would be a biographical simplifification!

  7. Johannes

    Does Nazi Germany make Rosmarie Waldrop fake or authentic?

  8. a strauss

    Neither–I want to avoid identifying some uses as fake, or less genuine–or maybe superficial is a better word choice–and others not. I definitely want to ask questions of this lexicon to all users, not only some. I can easily imagine a writer or artist living in a very violent millieu and not using the vocabulatry of violence to discuss artistic production, or frame theories of language as violence, and one who lives in a state that is far less overtly violent using tropes of violence. I do wonder what would happen if terror and its grammatical variants is substituted for violence; is it just me or are these terms interestingly not always synonyms. I feel like I’m making more muck than “rock-crystal thing to see” but no one I know of is working to account for these lexical choices in any thorough way which doesn’t already assume the mode makes maximal sense.

  9. Johannes

    I think we live in a state of violence, so I can’t see the fake here. Though I understand your point – how often extremist poetry is excused by it being from a place of genocide/dictatorship etc.
    I do think art is a kind of violence; the violence is not just a metaphor (though other kinds of violence are used to think about art’s violence). Though I’m intrigued by your use of horror too.
    And anyways, I’d like to hear what you think about that article I linked to in today’s post so read that. / Johannes

  10. astrauss

    I’m confused where you’re getting that I’m reiterating fakeness–for the third time, authentic versus not is not my point: I am interested in questioning the rhetoric regardless of subject position. I will read the post! And I find the subsitution of horror for terror interesting: for me they do not have the same valences. I think a major difference between our approaches to violence is I don’t think the word makes a good catch-all term. Love, for me, works far better as an umbrella: love is anything but totally roses; its factes are amazingly multiple and often frightening.

  11. reader

    Oh, Johannes, you’ve unmasked me! Really I’m not hard to mistake, I’m one of the few American poets who don’t pretend sophist detachment (which more often actually reads as consent) towards bad, crypto or blatant fascist literature.

    Yes, there is certainly a lot of it in America right now. So, yes, it should be “noticed”. I’ve certainly taken “notice” since becoming a public voice…But you seem to be trying to distance yourself as if you’re just studying it, without consent. It’s as if you’ve forgotten all of the hundreds of breathless, excited posts written here about this “new avant-garde literature” of blatant fascism/wasp death cult culture/internalised misogyny. I haven’t.

  12. reader

    PS-Let me give you some help here. What is kitsch? Kitsch is pornographic sentimentality and infantilism in the service of nationalism/statism/imperialism to produce readers uncritical of the state and all of its products. Those who oppose kitsch in general are not all stuffy Englishmen in ascots. All writing about war/atrocity/violence is not kitsch. Not all writing which employs sentiment is kitsch. Is Celan kitsch? Is Notley kitsch? Is Rimbaud kitsch? Is Aragon kitsch? Is my own writing kitsch? (though I have definitely employed it for effect in the terms of the age “for study”, with kid gloves, as perhaps other anarchist writers have), etc etc, etc. You have done little to no “study” of the relationship of kitsch to nationalism, which is its primary function.

  13. Johannes

    Yes yes, I know I’m immoral etc. But if you read all the things I’ve written it about kitsch, you’ll see that, yes, I’ve thought about these things. THere is most definitely an element of kitsch – and about kitsch – in the writers you name. They’re all in my book, Atrocity kitsch, that I’m working on. But you have to forsake the idea that kitsch is a certain thing. Any art can be kitsch-ed; and this pervasive kitschability of art does reveal something about the role of art in society (ie nation etc). I’ve also written about the connection to pornography; but that term is also not as simple as all that. Also I don’t think Wordsworth as stuffy. He was in many regards a revolutionary and many people who use anti-kitsch rhetoric are very perceptive, much of what they criticize is bad. That doesn’t matter to me. A lot of anti-kitsch rhetoric most definitely serve a status quo, and much of it is used to control art. But whatever, you choose to see what you want to see./ J