Contamination (#66): More thoughts on Kitsch and "excessive beauty"

by on Jun.21, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write some responses to all the response I received (here, on facebook, in email) to my post analyzing the anti-kitsch rhetoric of Marjorie Perloff, but I’m taking care of my kids alone while Joyelle is off on her literary international tour and I’m trying to finish translating Aase Berg’s Dark Matter and finish my own “novel” The Sugar Book, so I’m a little short on time. As a result I’ll leave a bunch of shorter replies and hopefully they’ll add up to some kind of sense.

In response to the Perloff post, Daniel Tiffany sent me the first chapter of his next book of criticism, Silver Proxy, which is about kitsch, exploring its historical and theoretical dimensions and applications. It’s much better than my fumblings here on the blog, so I’ll reference it quite a bit. I might also reference Cloning Terror, the latest book by Tiffany’s teacher, WJT Mitchell; it’s a book roughly speaking about the reproduction of images and their relations to the “war on terror.”

A lot of people ask me why I care so much about such a trivial subject matter as kitsch (triviliality itself!) when it obviously has very limited applications to poetry. To this I would say that it’s not trivial at all. Kitsch is fundamentally part of the idea of Taste; it’s the opposite of Taste: not the original and pure, but the contaminated and reproduced. So many discussions about poetry – such as Perloff’s writing – is about establishing the boundaries of taste (we thought Merwin was a good poet, but no, he’s as kitschy as “Longfellow” etc).

Tasteless/anti-kitsch criticism is very effective. I remember being in college and reading a lot of language poetry, which led my to Perloff and the result of this is that I stopped writing because I internalized the anti-kitsch critique and thought what I was writing (Surrealist-influenced, Plath-influenced, kind of like what I write now) was in poor taste. Then I thought through the criticism, embracing a certain tastelessness and I started writing again, and that’s also when I started thinking more about the position of the “immigrant,” a trope you may have noticed that I use almost interchangeably with “art.” And “kitsch.” And also “spazzy.”
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Perloff and Critchley

by on Jun.15, 2011

I’m reposting a post I did on Exoskeleton about a year ago that relates (roughly) to the Perloff discussion from a few days back…

I would just add that I think Daniel Tiffany, especially in Toy Medium, strikes me as a critic in the Critchley mode as opposed to the Perloff mode…philosophy and poetry work together in his work, one being a contorted mirror of the other, a baroque interchange between the two…


Recently I found myself rereading parts of Marjorie Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminacy, and once again wishing that she would bring more of a philosophical element into her work. I should make it clear that I think Perloff is an excellent close reader and an exceptionally lucid writer. Like many people, my introduction to experimental poetry was largely through her books. But something that I find frustrating about her work (and also about the work of certain other critics who write about experimental poetry) is her unwillingness to take on the larger philosophical issues that provide the ground of so much contemporary literature — the issues of death, non-being, and “becoming,” that really started in full with Nietzsche and continued through Heidegger, Bataille, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Foucault, Cixous, Derrida, Kristeva, and Deleuze. (Not that there aren’t major differences between all of those people…) This unwillingness to bring a philosophical dimension to her writings sometimes leads to some curious readings. For example, Perloff’s Rimbaud is oddly one-dimensional–as if he had more in common with Saussure than Nietzsche. (I would argue it’s almost impossible to really get a sense of Rimbaud without thinking about Nietzsche. There are passages of Rimbaud–the “Car Je est un autre” phrase, and his letter on the disordering of the senses–that almost sound like they could have been written by Nietzsche.) (continue reading…)

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Atrocity Kitsch: Bill Knott and Daniel Borzutzky

by on May.16, 2011

This will be a short post but I wanted to say something about Bill Knott, not so much because he’s left grumpy comments on this blog but because I think he’s a fantastic poet and I wanted to join Kyle Minor’s Bill Knott Week at Htmlgiant, but I couldn’t because I was bogged down in work.

First I’m going to make some generalizations about Bill Knott. I think Bill Knott is a great poet, one of my favorite American poets of the second half of the 20th century. I also think he’s incredibly important: important in the sense of very influential. I see his influences on heaps of poets. Yet, Bill Knott is also a poet who’s almost never mentioned as an “important poet.” When people mention their “influences,” he’s very seldom on the list, even when he’s an apparent influence. I don’t think that’s an unimportant point to make about Knott: it’s part of his authorship.

At the Htmlgiant special, there was a lot of comments made about the fact that Knott self-publishes his books and booklets. In fact, I first came across his work when one of my grad school classmates handed me a booklet. Perhaps this method of distribution could be said to be beside the point, but I think it does suggest something like an approach to writing/publishing that has something to do with his work.
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by on Mar.24, 2011

It is amazing to me that almost every time I come across the word “ornamental” it is accompanied by the word “excess” or “excessive.” The one word demands the other.

This can in part be traced to modernism, to the very origins of modernism, for example in Ezra Pound’s various imagist manifesto:

1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.

5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.

6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry…

Of course, Imagism soon became too ornamental for Pound, so he rejected it as Amygism – ie it was too feminine.

But there’s another element to that and that seems to be Modernism’s idea of itself as a muscular, healthy body.

The ornamental is feminine and ornamental, but also an unhealthy and fatty “indefinite.” The fatty, ornamental body is related to the past; the modern body is healthier, more fit, more energetic.
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Annotated Mash-Up Plath, Jones, Necropastoral, WOUND WOUND WOUND

by on Jan.21, 2011

OMGoodness, I’m so glad we’re talking about 1. necropastoral (“this is the light of the mind, cold and planetary”!) and 2. wounding the viewer (“I can stay awake all night, if need be–/Cold as an eel, without eyelids”).  These two tactics combine beautifully in Plath and in other poets who integrate bodies (rather than classic forms) into the lyric.  It’s the colonial paradox: female bodies, bodies of color, bodies with disabilities are simultaneously likened to the Nature, animalistic, earth-bound (minds that cannot transcend!), and marked as unnatural.  Wrong, swampy, complicated, ready to fail, burst, spaz out, etc.

In the early hours of the 1960s (see The Feminine Mystique, see the civil rights movement, etc.), Sylvia Plath and LeRoi Jones, from their disenfranchised desks, write this sociopsychic poem:

I am inside someone

who hates me.

I shall never get out of this!  There are two of me now:[1] (continue reading…)

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Immoral Convulsions: Steven Shaviro, Sara Stridsberg and the Cinematic Body

by on Jan.04, 2011

[In many ways this post is a sequel to an earlier post about Sara Stridsberg, the movie Shutter Island, and the “cinematic body”. That post is here. If you are interested in what her writing is like, you can skip to the bottom of this post, where I hastily translated a bit.]

Here’s a clip of Sara Stridsberg talking about her brilliant novel, Darling River, which tells the story of some young-ish women (it turns out at the end that one is not that young) who are all haunted by the figure of Lolita. (Well, one of the characters is in fact Nabokov’s Lolita going through her fatal miscarriage.)

Here is the relevant quote from near the end:
“There was some expectation that this novel was going to save a kind of Lolita figure, that it would write her story, her answer. If that’s the way people read the novel, it’s a great disappointment because it’s more about the gaze. It may be a critique of the gaze, but it’s also a way of being in the gaze, investigating it by following its cruelty and be in it one self.”

This seems like an interesting approach to the issue of “the gaze”: to inhabit it, to involve oneself, rather than the common way it is applied in poetry discussions: for distance, iconophobia, moralism.

I raised the idea of “the gaze” yesterday not to discard it (which would be pretty hard), but perhaps to call attention to the way it’s commonly applied, and hopefully to get Danielle and Lara and others who have read more about this issue to offer their views.
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Erotic Car-Crashes: Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard

by on Dec.29, 2010

Anybody have any feelings about David Cronenberg’s movie-version of J.G. Ballard’s wound-culture classic, Crash?

I just watched it last night and I didn’t entirely like it. I haven’t really made up my mind about it. Ballard’s original is of course already over the top and ridiculous and beautiful (sometimes the beautiful, baroque prose is the most ridiculous thing about it!). But the movie seemed less interesting, more just simply ridiculous in its softcore-ness.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the omission of Elizabeth Taylor, that icon of vulnerable (and wound-able, kill-able) celebrity power, the whole object of Vaughn’s sexual/technological/death fantasies. I have no idea why Cronenberg just omitted her. Without her, the ending just kind of peters outs with some more ridiculous sex.
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Wounded Translations: Christian Hawkey, Aase Berg, Pilot etc

by on Nov.02, 2010

On HTMLGiant, James McGirk writes the following about translation:

“I am quite suspicious of translations. The ones that wash ashore in the U.S. are tend too often to be finger wagging nuggets of exoticism. The last I remember actually enjoying was Michel Houellebecq. And I should have hated this excerpt of Bombardier — it begins with a trickle of semen dribbling down some poor girl’s thigh, then the camera yanks around to see two planes cross in the sky…”

There is a fundamental suspicion about foreign texts. Always this sense that we have to be on guard against these exotic trinkets because they don’t follow the necessary rigor of American writing. How do we know it’s quality, when it doesn’t come with the stamped approval of our hierarchical structure? Translation generates excess – too many authors, too many texts, too many interpretations, too many readers etc. (continue reading…)

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My Favorite Detritus: 2

by on Sep.14, 2010

Body in the Bog

“divine materials” (Whitman)

“I am going toward a future that does not exist / leaving every instant a new corpse behind me”—René Daumal, Le Contre-Ciel

memento mori

* * *

“Colour differs from substance. Is colour always lyric? We are not sure. It seems to consist of the detritus from natural history stuck into sentiment. For example, it is said that among humans, women are colourful. Nothing more needs to be said on this theme.” —Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture

(e.g. Cecilia Vicuña, precarios):

El Quipo Menstrual

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Genre’s for Fascists (or “Eating the Placenta”)

by on Aug.12, 2010

(The following originated as a fanciful, off-the-cuff comment to Joyelle’s post. . .Near future posts will more directly address placentophagia, sorcery, entheogenic incantations, and sitting with Marina.)

* * *

I dwell in Possibility (Emily Dickinson, #657)


Unscrew the locks from the doors!

Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!    ….

I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy. (Walt Whitman, SOM, XXIV)

* * *

Artaud—that mystical fore[mother] of post-historical artistic anarchy & transcendence—can surely guide us on our adventure to go genreless, for example in his First Manifesto of the Theater of Cruelty: “…one sees that, by its proximity to principles which transfer their energy to it poetically, this naked language…(not a virtual but a real language) must permit, by its use of man’s nervous magnetism, the transgression of the ordinary limits of art and speech, in order to realize actively, that is to say magically, in real terms, a kind of total creation in which man must reassume his place between dream and events.”

Genre: taxonomy, classification, diagnosis…

Artaud, like the beatific Hannah Weiner and so many others living and dead, just couldn’t get with a genre. And so Artaud was removed to a sanatorium where the chaos of his ungenred imagination could be, if not embraced, at least disappeared from the logos of good cultural hygiene.

According to Clayton Eshleman (no stranger to genre transgression), “Artaud is a shaman in a nightmare in which all the supporting input from a community that appreciates the shaman’s death and transformation as an aspect of its own wholeness is, instead, handed over to mockers who revile the novice at each stage of his initiation.”

* * *

Maybe genre’s a little like religion. (Do people still write jeremiads?)

“I can do nothing without this culture of the void inside me.” (Artaud)

Zen mind.

“Jon-Jo said ‘the perfect person employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing, it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep’… it is called ‘the void’ in Buddhism; it doesn’t mean ‘void’ in the ordinary sense of emptiness. It means void in that it is the most real thing there is…” (Alan Watts).

* * *

Walt Whitman, buoyantly transposing his utopic prescription on the New World’s post-war void, envisioned a future America revolutionized by literature, “not merely the pedagogue-forms, correct, regular, familiar with precedents, made for matters of outside propriety, fine words, thoughts definitely told out—but a language fann’d by the breath of Nature…” Democracy entailed “displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences.” Leaves of Grass is the always-destabilized cosmic mirror of his democratic vista.

America as hybrid, experiment, empty. Empire.

What is “hybrid” if not reproduction? As well as tenuous & transient? Hybrid’s a placeholder, possibly a smokescreen. Euphemism. Handy moniker for a culture at war with the Imagination.

generic genera genetic general genial generalization gentleman                        [en]gender

The first work is visionary, freeing the imagination. Just envisioning freedom, knowing where we want to go, and questioning the basic tenet that says ‘coercive authority is necessary,’ is a big and necessary first step.” (Dale Pendell, interviewed—by me—in Conduit)

* * *

Norman O. Brown famously concludes Love’s Body: “Everything is metaphor; there is only poetry.”

Poetic does seem a lot more accommodating than prosaic, or dramatic, or fictive, or _______. Poetry is elastic, not even remotely confined to literature. Because just about anything can be poetic: a tree’s shape, the texture of a placenta, quantum physics, justice, monsters, dreams, death. Might we entertain the proposition that poetry transcends genre and/or engulfs it? (Baudrillard: “theory could even be poetry.”) Is there, on the one hand, poetry-as-genre, and on the other a more Orphic, or gnostic, or even primordial poetic function originating in Cro-Magnon’s first metaphoric projections on cave walls—”oceanic feeling,” e.g.—that is, terminologically, a kind of universal principle?

That’s easy for you to say, you might say, a person officially branded “poet.” But how do you brand a book like this?

The publisher genre-lizes it as “Alternative Health/Literature,” but I’ve only ever heard Dale call it poetry (“entheogenic poetry” was Terence McKenna’s clarification). Dale’s former teacher N.O. Brown (“NOB”) was surprisingly baffled by Pharmako/Poeia‘s anarchic style: “The problem is that there’s no separation between the science and the non-science. You can’t tell when it is science or a flight of fantasy. . . maybe you need an epistemological preface. . . . The problem is that you present poetry as literal truth.”

Presenting poetry as literal truth is, no doubt, a pretty big problem—I can hardly imagine a bigger one. But I think that’s precisely Dale’s point (and one recognizes NOB’s nostalgia—he seems to have pathologized intensive states of consciousness.) Poetry is never literal truth, (“everything is metaphor”). And that’s the thing about genre—it’s so literal. As Dale suggests, “In a dark age such as our own, it is difficult to find the true poison path.”

Genre as false poison, transitional object, rubric, teleology & tautology, sanity (sanitation). True poison: Dionysian flux, chaos, eschatology, the exuberant & plutonic dance of Kali Ma, dreamtime.

Genre as ego                                   (?)

* * *

“I understood that the mushrooms were speaking to me: ‘These are the Principal Ones.’ I felt infinite happiness. On the Principal Ones’ table a book appeared, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person…One of the Principal Ones spoke to me and said: ‘María Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that is written in it is for you”…I cure with Language, the Language of the saint children.” (María Sabina)

“It is language that speaks.” (Mallarmé)

* * *

Like María Sabina, the Mayan authors collected in this book are, for the most part, what we would call “illiterate.” These Tzotzil women in the Highlands of Chiapas “claim their spells and songs were given to them by the ancestors, the First Fathermothers, who keep the Great Book in which all words are written down.” They learn their incantations by dreaming them, or from cave ghosts whispering in their ears, and regard them as sacred, magical, and above all utilitarian. The original version of this book was handbound at the Taller Leñateros, a collective facilitated by the ex-pat Ámbar Past, using paper and ink made from a poetic cornucopia of local ingredients: corn husks, heart of maguey, recycled women’s cotton huipiles, bridal veil fern, “beating the fibers in a mill which spins by bicycle power,” and while the paper dries they “print poems on oak leaves and pansy petals.” Ámbar Past calls this process “something between a performance piece and an act of witchcraft.” (The book’s back cover tags it “Indigenous Literature.”)

“Poetry is called nichimal k’op, ‘the word in flower.'”

“The word comes from the mouth of the seer. It lives a life of its own in the body of a snake. The word is larva that penetrates the Earth, emerges from the caves, flies through the air… Words take the forms of stars, of circles, of glyphs drawn on the face of the blood.”

Subcomandante Marcos sent a handwritten note of congratulations to his Zapatista sisters upon the publication of their Incantations.

* * *

Other works seemingly unmoored from genre: Theresa Cha’s Dictee (“Literature, Art”), Clayton’s Juniper Fuse (“saturation job”), Paul Metcalf. Susan Howe

After helping her perform this script, Anne Carson mailed me a copy:

(“star map”)

* * *

Does silence have genre?  Chance?

Let us take for example the hexagram K’un, THE RECEPTIVE, earth:

Yoko’s ecstatic and vertiginous scream?

* * *

My friend S texted me the other day that she wanted to hang hundreds of dolls from the tree in front of her house. It reminded me of The Island of Dolls.

(I doula’d S’s two girls.)

Perhaps the hanging dolls—as on Isla de la Munecas—will appease hungry ghosts, while also normalizing magical gesture as an aspect of feminine agency. S fantasized about how the hanging dolls would “tear a little crack in the sidewalk that bursts open to reveal a whole army of succubi waiting beneath the surface of the earth to join forces in annihilating the patriarchy.”

In addition to practical magic, a creative jouissance infuses her vision. Perhaps here too, in the synthesis of sorcery and art, one might recognize a poetic act. An act informed and inspired by, among other things, theories about abjection and the grotesque which currently preoccupy S, yet a gesture also entirely committed to somatic expression & connection, to the visceral potential of her performance as catalyst for (communal) transformation / (public art).

* * *

Joseph Beuys, poet-shaman, practiced unsafe art—he didn’t wear a genre. “Only on condition of a radical widening of definition will it be possible for art and activities related to art to provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system to build a SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART.”

Maria Abramovic precludes genre through the exploitation of her body as both source and screen for her art. Her most recent MoMA performance, applyng the metaphor of a cell (both biological and political), engaged the core energy (placental?) where merger and separateness co-exist within the nucleic, midline fuse of the gaze: formless, wordless, invisible, intertransferential creation. Here subject and object exchange celestial fluids—become each other—through a ritual process of pure communication. “There are no firmly established religious structures any longer, the old structures have all been destroyed and new ones have not yet emerged. Artists accompany us on our search for a new order.”

(“somatic exercise“)

Niki de Saint-Phalle took a rifle to genre and shot the fuck out of it. “I shot against men. I shot against myself. . .I shot because it was fun, and it made me feel great.”

(My life had stood a loaded gun)

* * *

Genre-resistance. Communal, immediate, healing, transcendent? (“The future of poetry”?)

* * *

Genre is a product and problem of patriarchal economy. Genre = the DNA of the book, its certain paternity, distinction, the disavowal of chaos, “the author.” It’s where the money is (or isn’t). The vessel for both genre and authorship is the book. Which, among other things, is, in a very important sense, a “waste product.” The jouissance and potential “insignificance” for one traveling in the rectal cauldron meet a grave with a trapdoor—just a “little death,” and afterward no toxic trace on the planet (a planet tumored and asphyxiating from all our death drive hyper-reproductivity.) The book—embalmed by genre and the petrified death cries of the forest, metonymous for (reproducing) the person of the author herself—is a burial vault.

So when Joyelle asks us to think about what it really means to go genreless, to essentially speculate about the future of our enterprise, I find myself pondering questions like these: If forced to describe “what you write” without naming genre or any terminology related to the notion of genre, how would you do it? Is genre democratic? Manipulative? Are the constraints of genre part of your process? Are you addicted to genre? In what ways is your identity, your image, significant to the readers of your work? How come nobody but us gives a shit about our genre?  Is permanence, and/or “legacy,” crucial to your creative investments? Do you know who you are without genre? Can there be books, or even authors, in a genreless culture?

Paradigm is our enemy.       Everything is malleable.      There’s only poetry.

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