Kitsch

“… orgiastic barrage of smut”: On Taste, Sensationalism and Haute Surveillance

by on Apr.13, 2015

The other day I discovered an interesting review of Haute Surveillance on Publisher’s Weekly. Often negative reviews are very revealing – especially when it’s such a negative review as this, especially in a magazine that like to present itself as a “journal of record” that is supposed to be a guide to things published with an air of “objectivity.” If an “objective” record has to abject my book in this way, has to warn instead of merely take note of my book, what does it say about my book’s relationship to “objective” American poetry?
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I am particularly interested in the contradictions of this rhetoric: It is both “underwhelming” and “orgiastic,” both “pornography” and “disinteret[ed],” a morass” that “drowns” the reader and “vacuous.” The review repeatedly presents my book as both too much and not enough. This is the hallmark of when people who perceive themselves as having refined taste tries to shield others from work that challenges that taste.

How can a text both be a barrage that drowns the reader and be “exhaustive critique”? The critique suggest a stable place from which to view one’s culture; and that’s a place I’ve never found for myself, and it’s not a stance I’ve found convincing in other writers. (I’ve written quite a bit about my dissatisfaction with this pervasive paradigm of the writer-as-critic, for example here.)
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It seem this person is unable to read the text and has to fall back on a number of cliches (that contradict each other): it’s about “spectatorship” (which it certainly is), so it must be a “critique”. If it’s pornographic and masochism, then it cannot be “boundary-pushing” (ie “experimental”). When you stumble into this many contradictions, I think it’s important to ask oneself as a critic if one is actually reviewing a book or flailing wildly?

The review is correct in many ways (perhaps in spite of itself). I think my book mostly certainly is a “morass” and “masochistic”, and it most certainly doesn’t provide a way out, a way forward, a progressive worldview. It is most certainly meant to be a “barrage.” But again, if I were the critic, I might ask myself: Why is this author creating a barrage, a morass? Why would someone want to subject himself or his reader to such “smut”? Can there be any other way than the “critique” of engaging with US culture (and its splendid images, its barrage, its violence)?

The smut is particularly interesting to me of course. The falling back on the rhetoric of “pornography” is common these days. I have written extensively about this (for example here, about “ruin porn”). At the heart, I think this line of criticism goes back to the fundamental rhetoric of high taste: high taste is anxious about art that traffics in sensational images. I have also written about Jacques Ranciere’s “The Emancipation of the Spectator”:

It was in this context that a rumour began to be heard: too many stimuli have been unleashed on all sides; too many thoughts and images are invading brains that have not been prepared for mastering this abundance; too many images of possible pleasures are held out to the sight of the poor in big towns; too many new pieces of knowledge are being thrust into the feeble skulls of the children of the common people…

This also goes back to my last post, which treated the charges that Action Books represented a “sensationalistic” – and therefore immoral, ignorant – aesthetic.

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Here’s the review:
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“Awash in Mimicry”: The Excess of Translation

by on Feb.05, 2015

[I don’t think I ever got around to announcing that I had an essay, “Awash in Mimicry: On the Deformation Zone of Translation” in the last issue of the fine translation journal Two Lines (highly recommended). So I’ll paste in the first half here and hope that it will want to make you go and buy the journal. Also, I have written a sequel of a sorts that will be in a special translation issue of the Volta, edited by Rosa Alcala.]

“AWASH IN MIMICRY”: ON THE DEFORMATION ZONE OF TRANSLATION

1.
“Poetry is that which is lost in translation”: I am fond of pointing out that the most canonical definition of poetry in American literature depends on translation. This suggests that translation – even if it is through negation – is essential to the American concept of poetry. We know poetry through translation, its opposite. It may seem strange to assert the prominence of translation in an age when we know – thanks to critics and activists like Lawrence Venuti, Chad Post, Don Mee Choi and Lucas Klein – that the translator and her translations are “invisible” in our culture: marginal, infrequent, debased. But somehow the translator and translation is both marginal and central, both invisible and hyper-visible – if only as a threat, a ghost, kitsch.

If we want to find out why translation is such a fundamental threat to poetry, we might ask ourselves: What IS this something that is “lost” in translation?

The short answer: the singular text, the singular author, the single lineage. In other words: the illusion of a perfect wellwrought urn of a text that cannot be paraphrased – or rather that is not paraphrased – written by one original author who expresses his or her views in full control of language. And perhaps even worse further: we lose the illusion of a patriarchal lineage, the objectivity of that lineage: What if we don’t know who is influencing who? What if a writer is influenced by a text that is alien to her? Can she really be influenced correctly? Is she misreading it? The threat of translation is the threat of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages. Poetry, it appears, is lost in a noisy, violent excess.

2.
Over the past two hundred years, western (not just American, if I am perfectly honest) theorists have repeatedly discussed the excess produced by translation in terms of a violence. In Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Task of the Translator,” this excess becomes a violent alien-ness within the text itself:

If in the original, content and language constitute a certain unity, like that between a fruit and its skin, a translation surrounds its content, as if with the broad folds of a royal mantle. For translation indicates a higher language than its own and thereby remains inadequate, violent, and alien with respect to its content.

In this metaphor: the act of translation transforms the peel of a fruit into clothes, into excess no longer organically in balance with itself. In that case, it seems to be not a lack (what is lost) but an accumulation, an inflation and an infection of the alien. An alien-ness that is violent in part because it is alien, somewhat like an infection or a disease.

3.
The violence of translation is even more central to George Steiner’s canonical study of translation, After Babel. Steiner portrays the translation itself as a violent act: the translator must, in an act of “aggression” and “penetration,” “extract” the meaning (as if it were gold in some colonial enterprise). However, the translator must take care not to lose his sense of self, before incorporating the new text in the target culture. Steiner warns that translating might – like a sexual intercourse – lead to “infection”: “No language, no traditional symbolic set or cultural ensemble imports without the risk of being transformed.” And this transformative infection may ruin our sense of self: “we may be mastered and made lame by what we have imported.”
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The Sugar Book

by on Feb.03, 2015

Hey, just wanted to mention that you can now “pre-order” my forthcoming book The Sugar Book from Tarpaulin Sky – here.

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This is a book I’ve been writing for years – in South Bend, in Seoul, in Malmö, in Berlin. I wrote this in an interview from 4 years ago when Blake Butler asked me what I was working on:

BB: What are you working on now?

JG: A murder mystery novel/poem/notebook about Images and infection, atrocity kitsch and The Law. A Starlet has been murdered, terrorist attacks happen, children are born and get pregnant in mysterious fashion (constantly multiplying), the son is locked in a tower with his favorite horse toy, the penis is a death prong through which – on the ouiji board – the murdered children of the Vietnam War finally gets to “speak,” they talk about the mall and the law, there are twitter feeds about motorcyclists who come from the castle outside of town, terror suspects who are given rubber gloves and led through the mirror, “Kingdom of Rats” it says above the mirror, it’s all about photography, hares, the body in snow, the body covered by a plastic bag, Art as Death. Etc. It’s always a staging, a pageantry, a b-movie. I hope that gives you some idea. I’m calling it The Sugar Book.

There’s an excerpt from a little essay Kim Hyesoon wrote about my poetry on the Tarpaulin Sky page:

…I that follows the I that observes. I that records and condenses. Johannes Göransson’s poetry is a bang bang – art of these I’s. (continue reading…)

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Wunderkammer: Kitsch and Violence in Cynthia Cruz, Lara Glenum, Plath and Celan

by on Jan.29, 2015

Lately I’ve been reading this new book Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz. The title refers to cabinets of curiosity, or wunderkammers, a subject matter I’m interested in. These chambers (sometimes rooms, sometimes boxes) was how back in pre-modern-science days people collected curiosities, often from other parts of the world, objects not following some kind of scientific classificatory system but rather tied together by their capacity to incite “wonder.”

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In the book Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga traces kitsch back to this “science”, which in its undead state turns into things like the “fern-craze” of Victorian England, when people would get aquariums and put ferns in them. I’m fascinated the wunderkammer’s inevitable connection between collecting, imperialism, decadence/death and of course Art.

I might even say that Surrealism – which so often stands in for “kitsch” in contemporary US poetry discussions – is based on the idea of the wunderkammer – with its collection of strange, useless, outdated objects brought together by occult forces. Benjamin famously called surrealism “dream kitsch”; and Clement Greenberg called Max Ernst “postcard kitsch.” Between those two phrases you get the connection between the wunderkammer and surrealism.

Of course this can be seen most clearly in Joseph Cornell’s boxes:

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These boxes of dream-trash, rescued from the garbage heap of New York City’s dreams.

Cruz’s poems are almost all wunderkammers – some of the poems are actually called wunderkammer, but even the ones that aren’t have the sense of a collection of objects brought together by some strange act:

WUNDERKAMMER

A Greek crime mars the pastoral.
Charts and maps, an atlas of anesthesia-
Laced nostalgia. A long haired, white
Rabbit, muffled, shot, and stuffed.
And old yellow chiffon gown, the ribbon
Hem, ripped and red wine stained.
Curricula of the mundane.
Symptoms of trauma, like ghost
Spots of water on crystal
That will not be washed off.

In many ways this poem seems to straight up describe a Cornell box. Like Cornell, Cruz’s poem is invested in the necroglamorous: the rabbit is stuffed, the chiffon gown old and stained, the crystal has ghost spots. But it is glamorous nonetheless, anesthesized by “nostalgia” and more specifically the nostalgia for glamor. The numbing seems to be physical: the speaker seems stuck like a stuffed rabbed, she cannot “wash off” the atmosphere of the piece, which primarily consists of the “chiffon gown” -its material seems to immobilize her. She cannot really get out of the box so to speak until the negative ending “will not be washed off” which for me works as a relief from the stultifying, stunting but beautiful glamour.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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:

(continue reading…)

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The Flowers of Evil: Gregorry Orr on Wordsworth and Flowery Language

by 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.
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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.
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John Berryman and “Meta-Kitsch” by Joe Milazzo

by on Oct.13, 2014

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Johannes’ recent post re: the New Criticism and its conflation of “period style” with kitsch could not help but make me think of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Specifically, how Robert Pinsky hears these songs singing precisely at the intersection of Romantic / Victorian and Modern discourses. “For Berryman the use (however ironic) of the old poetic diction [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.

As convincing as Pinsky’s analysis is, it does, however, accord little attention to another historical discourse that plays a significant role in The Dream Songs. Berryman’s poems constitute an old-fashioned revue, one featuring actors, gags, melodrama and dance, and one explicitly based upon the minstrel show. (Not the later vaudeville-ification of that distinctly American art form. I mean the real thing, where even African-America performers donned blackface. The stuff of Greil Marcus’ old weird America and Nick Tosches’ investigations in the strange case of Emmett Miller. Worth recalling here that Berryman was born in Oklahoma and lived much of his childhood there and in Florida. Is it not beyond possibility that a young Berryman had poked his head inside this particular tent?)

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It would be intellectually dishonest to ignore the virulent stereotypes evoked by the presence of African-American dialect in The Dream Songs. But is a difficult subject indeed, and there remains some controversy as to whether the voice that speaks in dialect, not Mr. Bones himself but that persona who addresses Henry as Mr. Bones, is a presentation or a representation of racism. That is, is Berryman’s work necessarily expose racist tropes to public view, much in the manner of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” or does it simply reproduce racism by carelessly importing some of it more kitschy aspects for the sake of “complicating” the conventional decorousness of lyric culture? Can a white person, a person of privilege, ever claim to be presenting rather than representing under such circumstances?

It seems to me that further questions rather than additional propositions are in order here. I do hope that the following catalog, troubled and occasionally contradictory as it is, might inspire additional dialogue re: kitsch, kitsch’s performative cousin camp, allusion (candidly representational) vs. appropriation (often hypothesizing itself as presentation), historical atrocity, and the authenticity of any demotic.

Accepting that minstrelsy as highly aestheticized yet morally repugnant impersonation, what if the voice that speaks to and of Henry as Mr. Bones is the authoritative or “original” if not genuine voice of The Dream Songs? What if, contrary to what we understand of minstrelsy, Henry is ventriloquized subject, the dead / insensate dummy sitting on the minstrel’s knee, and thus the more poetic and “sophisticated” voice in the poems is the more constructed, the more perverted, the more American in its denial of its origins?

To evoke the tradition of the minstrel show is to situate Henry’s suffering in the context of absurdity, is it not? Therefore, might Berryman’s minstrel show be more Punch and Judy than Amos and Andy. That is, in the tradition of a mass entertainment meant to outrage rather than charm, that is itself a satire of kitsch sentimentality (e.g., Al Jolson), revealing in its low comedic détournements the structural violence underlying every one of our most banal relations? Is Berryman so pre-kitsch he’s post-kitsch?

Extrapolating from Pinsky’s observations, and noting how American The Dream Songs are in their borrowings from 19th Century idioms, might they be considered an ironic riposte to the song most associated with “authentic” American verse, Whitman’s subsuming Song of Myself? Is it cynical to observe that, as much or even more than Whitman, minstrelsy is the root and spring of virtually all American popular song? What if The Dream Songs argue that Whitmanesque democracy, much like Jeffersonian agrarianism and Emersonian Transcendentalism, is kitsch par excellence? (That this argument emerges from a reliance upon a historical rather than a contemporary discourse appeals as critical.)

From Dream Song 22, “Of 1826”

It is the Fourth of July.
Collect: while the dying man,
forgone by you creator, who forgives,
is gasping “Thomas Jefferson still lives”
in vain, in vain, in vain.
I am Henry Pussy-cat! My whiskers fly.

What if, far from being Berryman’s attempt to code himself as an outsider (as argued by Katherine Davis, among others), as among the oppressed, to frame his poetic persona as a “universal negro” (à la Mailer’s “White Negro,” but not Beat), the minstrel voice is the kitsch element that causes the Songs polyvocality to self-destruct? I.e., that the enactment of this dialect—presupposed to be “authentic” when it is in fact already mediated, both a fiction and a transcription—and, further, execution of this dialect, this camping up of the “human American man” (Dream Song 13) in all his middle-aged existential woe, his imagining of himself “as bad off as the Negro,” is the poems’ own ultimate indictment of their lyrical impulse? The poems unmasking themselves, almost flaunting their self-interpellations?

From Dream Song 50

—Mr Bones, your troubles give me vertigo,
& backache. Somehow, when I make your scene,
I cave to feel as if

de roses of dawns & pearls of dusks, made up
by some ol’ writer-man, got right forgot
& the greennesses of ours.
Springwater grow so thick it gonna clot
and the pleasing ladies cease. I figure, yup,
you is bad powers.

As aesthetics, kitsch and camp inevitably raise issues of appropriation, power and their relationship to taste: what is tasteful, what is tasteless, how each can be mapped onto axes of high and low culture, and who defines the standards operative in each case. But taste never really debates essences, only visibility. Taste begrudges the existence of certain “atrocities,” just so long as it does not have to be exposed to them. Undoubtedly, for Berryman to discuss his father’s suicide in a very public (if aestheticized) way in The Dream Songs is one of the ways in which the poems push at the boundaries of taste. To have survived his father’s suicide… I sometimes I want to believe that he-who-speaks-of-Mr. Bones—Henry’s friend and interlocutor, as Berryman describes that figure—is his dead father. In any event, the non-dialect language of The Dream Songs does labor at exposing the powerlessness exercised by certain traumatic experiences. Because there is no language for them, only a free-floating desire for form / shape, such experience becomes incredibly opportunistic. It latches on to whatever vocabulary and syntax is plentiful and convenient for its expression. Berryman’s Dream Songs are so multitudinous in their desperation both to offend our sensibilities and to win our sympathies. Simultaneously, even, so that the two become confused. But is this leveling of repugnance and “delight” a productive confusion?

There’s no question of whether, whatever they are doing with the legacy of minstrelsy, The Dream Songs somehow redeem the racism of American culture. The poems do not and cannot, and to claim as much is to promulgate the worst kind of kitsch, i.e., unselfconscious kitsch. Isn’t that racism, that historical violence so often denied via the sentimental pastoralism of the minstrel show, isn’t that a substance so toxic that it can never be handled or instrumentalized in any way? (A professor I once had summarized the totality of American history like so: “Everything slavery touched it turned to shit.”) If racist representations must thus be quarantined, however, how are we ever to confront them?

From Dream Song 199

I dangle on the rungs, an open target.
The world grows more disgusting dawn by dawn.
There is a ‘white backlash.’
When everything else fails on the auto, park it
& move away slowly. Obsolescent, on
the rungs, out of the car, ‘ashes’.

Wait. Benjamin tells us that the kitsch object is defined in part by its utility. If Berryman sacrifices poetry as it was acceptably defined at the time of The Dream Songs’ first publication, has he, even unintentionally, transformed this racism into meta-kitsch? Returned that racism to the realm of the non-gratifying, the worthy-of-intellectualization, yet without decontaminating it or disguising how grotesque and “ornery” (Dream Song 13, again) it is. I hesitate to say yes, but I hesitate to say absolutely not, either. What are we to do with the representational potential of The Dream Songs, untouchable as it often seems? And what are we to make of the fact that Berryman spends much of his time in the later, “mature”* and arguably less arresting Songs muting their American accents?

* Berryman could flirt with camp in his live performances [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBbUjDoV16o] but he’s most often playing “the drunk,” it seems, and in an attempt to disarm his audience. This joke hasn’t a punchline so much as it does a tendency (i.e., a tendentiousness), one I’ll paraphrase in the words of Dream Song 76, ‘Henry’s Confession,’ “life is a handkerchief sandwich.”

– Joe Milazzo

Joe Milazzo is the author of Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Jaded Ibis Productions) and The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books). He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing] [http://www.outofnothing.org/], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy [http://entropymag.org/], and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.slowstudies.net/jmilazzo/.

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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.
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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.
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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:

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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.

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“Jack Nicholson’s mind is possessed. Like my body, my dress.”: on Sara Tuss Efrik’s “Night’s Belly”

by on Jul.23, 2014

Johannes asked me to talk about my translation of Sara Tuss Efrik’s “The Night’s Belly” (Nattens Mage), a hellish three-part fairy tale of wombs and charred rooms that draws on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the story of Sleeping Beauty (or Thorn Rose; Little Briar Rose), Little Red Riding Hood, and possibly even Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). “There are plots against people, aren’t there?” This is the question a frantic, phone booth-encased Rosemary desperately asked after being cruelly deceived by her husband. In “The Night’s Belly,” Efrik’s female protagonist similarly carries a child of unknown origin. A swelling devil-red child—sometimes described as having pincers, or flapping wings. A throbbingly painful monstrosity. Possibly the child of her husband’s “red mistress” (who later evolves into more of a Macbeth-style witch-mistress), Efrik’s protagonist continuously obsesses over the unfaithful husband’s activities:

“The nipples smarted, the pubic hair frizzed up. Paranoia melts and is redistributed, transformed into small graftings of screaming creatures. Girl dolls, logs. Everything gets mixed together. The heat pushes moisture out of the skin, surfaces glow teasingly. The husband finds himself on the African continent, in a city of solidified lava. White jeeps cross paths with starving dogs, gospel music flows out of Pentecostal churches, overcrowded hopsitals have locked their gates. The suicidal husband drives around with a sweet slut. They are going to climb Nyiaragongo. I expand the image, a widening circle, it whirls, a treasonous ring dance around that which burns. More and more sluts. A mass of eggs, explosions, a burning sky, a spray of shrapnel across our bodies.”

The first section, “Red Mistresses (Retreat),” poises readers to flow “valve after valve” through a paranoid pipeline of lava-like sewage. A montage of excrement. A language of shit. An age of drug-induced decay. The protagonist’s womb is volcano-like. Logs of “girl dolls” burn up on the fire. Her unborn child appears to be violently attached to her like ropes of pahoehoe.

“The Shining played on a television as we fucked. Because Nyiaragongo burned my husband’s body. From beneath the eggshell roars a burning river. My body is not a knife. Or an alternative. My only choice is exorcism. Anything to avoid melting.”

The notion of the child in “The Night’s Belly” appears to be something more akin to Cronenberg’s “psychoplasmic” children of The Brood (1979) or the supernatural occurences in The Exorcist (1973). Efrik’s body of text gradually begins to resemble the hauntings of Kubrick’s own labyrinthine mise-en-scene. The protagonist’s swollen belly ambushes the reader with appropriations of Kubrick’s occult hotel, which include the trance-like repeat of the Grady twins as well as moments of repetition reminiscent of Jack’s typewriter antics. (“i am no one / it’s not a secret anymore / not a chore anymore / not a secret chore anymore / i do not know who i am anymore”) Author Robert Luckhurst has noted the ways in which Kubrick embedded violent pieces of his own troubled self (i.e. his maddening need for multiple takes, the inclusion of his personal typewriter, his habit of tossing a baseball against a wall) into The Shining. Efrik’s protagonist appears to be wrestling with a similar blurring of identity:

“I am a creature’s surrogate mother. I fertilize it with female twin filled hallways. Fertilization, an infinite hotel. And everything is there. The child’s red mothers. The child’s father. I am also there. There is also a nursery. I hide myself beneath a blanket of solidified lava. I hide there among animal limbs and sawn off pipes of bone. My twin filled stomach valves (a goosefoot valve, a pizzeria valve, a vulgar valve), perfected overnight. Cavities enable my ascent. Mistresses! Come and save me, pull me out of myself!”

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Gurlesque-ing Bergman: More on “Persona Peep Show”

by on Jun.16, 2014

I want to follow up on James’s great post about Persona Peep Show with a post about the most obvious topic relating to the film: that is “fan-fictions” or “kitsches” Ingmar Bergman’s supposed Masterpiece Persona (a lot of the text is in fact from Bergman’s movie). What Mark Efrik Hammarberg and Sara Tuss Efrik picks up on in their remake of Bergman’s movie as “peepshow” is exactly the scandal of the image that James talks about in his post, the “peep-show-ness” of Bergman’s movie. And like many fan fictions (this is why I’m drawn to this para-genre) it takes this elements and blows it up, pushes it out of balance, find the excess, the ghosts, the pornography in the masterpiece.

Their peepshow fan fiction was first shown as part of the gurlesque-themed 2013 Stockholm Poetry Festival, and it revels exactly in the kind of mask-playing, superficiality and viscerality that has caused so many people to be troubled by the gurlesque.

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Like James, I think Steven Shaviro’s a wonderful reveling in cinematic fascination. Shaviro points out that what troubles people about cinema is often this flatness of the image, which has no interiority but which nevertheless is tend to cause fascination, a strong bodily response (which as he points out is often seen as apolitical but which can be highly political).

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“The Malmö Gang”: An Interview with Clemens Altgård (Part 1)

by on May.22, 2014

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[I met Clemens Altgård at a reading I gave in Malmö with the Iranian-Swedish poet Azita Ghahreman last fall. We got to talking about Malmöligan, the 80s, and a bunch of other stuff. I thought it would be interesting not just to Swedes but perhaps to others as well if I asked him a few questions about these matters. This is the first of a series of questions I’ll ask him. Please feel free to join in and ask your own questions of him. Here are three of his poems (in my translation) from the most recent issue of Action, Yes.]

Johannes: I’ll begin with a broad question. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, you were a part of Malmöligan (“The Malmö Gang”), a group of writers in Malmö (a major industrial city in Skåne, southern Sweden, also my dad’s hometown) which also included Kristian Lundberg, Lukas Moodysson and Håkan Sandell. One of my first encounters with the group was Sandell’s collection Flickor (Girls) and another was Kristallskeppet, your translation of the Danish poet Michael Strunge. In many ways these two books color my impression of Malmöligan – as a decadent/Romantic aesthetic that is also deeply engaged with pop culture (Sandell’s book samples Iggy Pop and Strunge’s includes references to Joy Division and David Bowie) [I wrote a post about the 1980s and Strunge and “visionary kitsch” a while ago]. I also get the impression that an important part of the group dynamic was the emphasis on readings. You have also mentioned an interest in Latin American poetry. And another part – as the name suggests – is the location (Malmö, hardly the most poetic place in the world). What do you see as the guiding aesthetics of the group? Did the group have a guiding aesthetic? How important was the fact that you guys were from Malmö (as opposed to Stockholm, the capital and cultural center)? [Och kanske jag oversatter en Sandell dikt och en Strunge dikt och länkar till dina dikter i ActionYes]

Clemens: I must also mention the other two members, Martti Soutkari and Per Linde. Both Martti and Per were also musicians and played in post-punk bands. Martti was the singer in Blago Bung (that took its name from a poem by the dadaist Hugo Ball) and Per was a drummer in Kabinett Död.

When it comes to the question of guiding aesthetics of the group I’m sure that you would get different answers depending on who you’re asking. But we all met in that strange subcultural melting pot that existed in Malmö/Lund at the time. There was an underground scene that consisted of different elements, for example: punk, postpunk, psychedelia and avantgarde aestethics. In the beginning it was me, Håkan and Per. Then we got to know Kristian and Lukas. We all knew who Martti was but he was not in the group to begin with. He joined the group in -87, if I remember correctly.

At first we were much into the early modernists like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. And the surrealists and dadaists of course. I must also mention the beat literature. We all read those American writers when we were still very young. There was a Latin American community i Malmö consisting of political refugees and soon enough we got to know some of the artists, writers and poets.

We did readings together and there was a great cultural exchange. Then we discovered the baroque qualities in the poetry of our friends from Latin America. This also influenced our own writing, I think.
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“Visual Fascination”: More Thoughts on the “Nearly Baroque” and the “Baroque”

by on May.08, 2014

We have had some discussion of Steve Burt’s “Nearly Baroque” article here on Montevidayo. Mostly we have been critical of the article, but I wonder if we cannot use it as a starting point for some more discussions of taste, translation and excess.
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I certainly still believe that excluding any discussion of translation, especially translation of Latin American poetry, is at best what Joyelle called “a missed opportunity” and what Lucas said indexed “a certain allergy and attraction to the foreign, a certain anxiety over the loss of canon control.”

As I noted, this is an article that is very much trying to come to terms with a notion of taste, of the value of restraint as a model of taste. I wrote about this matter a few days ago. What is the pedagogical value to warn against “going too far”? Or using a “nearly baroque” to set up against an over-the-top baroque? (continue reading…)

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Is the “Baroque” Tasteless?

by on Apr.29, 2014

There has been some discussion here and on facebook about Steve Burt’s article on the “Nearly Baroque.” And not surprisingly, there has been a lot of focus on this “nearly,” a word that suggests both an open-ness to this baroque, and a restraint, an an ability to control this (possible dangerous, decadent impulse). It’s “extravagant” but not *that* extravagant.

I agree with Lucas’s (and Joyelle’s) suggestion that it has to do with a defense against the foreign, that the “fully baroque” may not even be a particular foreign poetry, but a more general foreign-ness. Lucas asserts:

“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.”

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I am interested in how Burt’s “nearly” plays into a dynamics of Taste, a sense that I think is enhanced by Burt’s standing as an arbiter of taste. For isn’t the most obvious meaning of baroque in fact “tasteless”? The word was first used as a derogatory term calling attention to an excess of ornamentality (which equals crime, thanks Modernism). And this is largely how Burt uses the terms as well. With this important change: the poets he writes about are “NEARLY” baroque.

Or: NEARLY TASTELESS.
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