Monday, January 29, 2007

Ubu Web

I spend a lot of time looking at and listening to stuff at the Ubu Web and of course I love it, but doesn't it strike anybody as a bit strange that the "historical section" is incredibly international, while the contemporary section is almost exclusively American?

This to me suggests something of the blindness of contemporary American poetry. Even the Ubu-people who have tremendous interest in the historical writings of other countries seem to be pretty much unwilling to engage in contemporary writings from other countries.

The only contemporary Swedish thing I can find there is OEI's forum of American poets writing about American poetry "after language."

10 Comments:

Blogger noah said...

One the other hand, it might say something about the vibrancy of contemporary poetry in America, although I’d suspect it’s a little of both. We Americans are historically often several decades late in coming to international influences.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Do you mean that American poetry is so “vibrant” that it doesn't need to be "supplemented" by other nations' poetry?

Or that we are so un-vibrant that we aren't interested in what is going on elsewhere?

I think most eras have thought themselves very vibrant.

I think the goal should not be to use foreign texts in translation to supplement or enrich our literature, but to undo the sense of our literature as separate from other literatures/languages.

Another way of saying this might be: poetry is vibrant when it is multicultural/multilingual (not because such a movement may make the poetry more vibrant but because such a movement is what is meant by vibrant).

Luckily I do think American poetry is becoming less insular. I would expect a web site like Ubu to take a more active role.

4:00 PM  
Blogger noah said...

>>>Do you mean that American poetry is so “vibrant” that it doesn't need to be "supplemented" by other nations' poetry?

>>>Or that we are so un-vibrant that we aren't interested in what is going on elsewhere?

I suppose one could argue about what constitutes “vibrancy” in literature. I see it as the multiplicity of modes in current practice—by which I mean current American poetries--and, even more so, as the plasticity of such modes, at least in so far as one not having to conform to various received ideas about what a poem is or does. Which is to say that I think American poetry is quite vibrant right now. Of course, this isn’t an excuse to revive and push pre-war isolationist leaning into the cultural realm. And it isn’t to say that we “should” simply be content to watch our own shadows.

>>>I think most eras have thought themselves very vibrant.

Sure. But some were and some weren’t. Depending on one’s own aesthetic leanings and interests, those are definitely going to be different.

>>>I think the goal should not be to use foreign texts in translation to supplement or enrich our literature, but to undo the sense of our literature as separate from other literatures/languages.”

I’m not sure I see these as mutually exclusive. I think there’s an over-determined relationship when it comes to poetry moving between languages and how poetries in those various languages are then altered. If a book from language A is translated into English, read by poet X, who then goes on to write a book under its influence, which is then read by speakers of Languages A, B, and C, and in turn alters their poetry, and several other books appear in various languages, crossing one another again and again, then what we have is, well, I suppose that very same vibrancy, but it’s not one that need center on American poetry as what everyone should be propping up. By this I mean that by using texts to “supplement or enrich our literature” we are simultaneously “undo[ing] the sense of our literature as separate from other literatures/languages.” I just think this process takes a while, maybe a few decades. And I mean this in both directions. There are famous exceptions, like Poe in France, but in most cases (maybe things are changing now with presses like your own!) it seems that there is a lag.


>>> Another way of saying this might be: poetry is vibrant when it is multicultural/multilingual (not because such a movement may make the poetry more vibrant but because such a movement is what is meant by vibrant).

I agree with you. But I think the tenants of “multicultural/multilingual” are debatable, as per my above example.

>>> Luckily I do think American poetry is becoming less insular. I would expect a web site like Ubu to take a more active role.

Me too. If it wasn’t for your own translation work there’s much out there I’d (we’d) have missed.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Noah,

What I'm saying is that - at least to some extent - vibrancy could be measured in the infrastructure (what gets published, what gets written about, what gets taught etc). Ie to what extent Poetry is open to cross-lingual and cross-cultural currents. Though the two are obviously deeply connected.

(I like how "vibrancy" has taken on a strangely terminological status in this exchange. Maybe we should write a book.)

I like your example of cross-lingual influence. However, I would say that it's important to retain the status of the translation, to not forget that it's foreign. It's not just a matter of stylistics crossing national divides, it is also languages intersecting. And reading in an estranged language is a very important experience (According to Raymond Williams, one of the major causes of the historical avant-garde), as it affects one's sense of language.

I dont' think we should wait for a few decades. With today's technology, there is no reason for American poets not to be in contact with poets from the rest of the world.

Of course you have a very engaged idea of literature so I'm obviously just preaching to the choir.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, this is probably the feeling of a majority of American poets: I have nothing against foreign poets, I just don't like their poetry.

American poetry is profoundly monolingually shaped. These things influence the way you read and what your read. I think this has something to do with the deeply prohibitive taste of most journals/departments/presses etc: I get the impression that they look for poetry that does not offend, does not break rules. They're protecting an illusory sense of purity of language and expression.

I read an "Here Comes Everybody" interview a while back in which the person referred to "the excess of Eastern European poetry." Here we clearly have someone incapable of dealing with foreigness. I think there is as similarity in Revell's remark about the "excesses of Dada" (while Stein is not excessive to him).

Benjamin has a paragraph in his famous translation essay where he says that translation is like making the skin on a fruit too big so that it folds. Perhaps this is the excess a lot of American poets feel when dealing with foreign poetry.

I think learning to engage with foreigness more interestingly will have a profound effect on American poetry because the same is true for other "languages" *within* the US - the work of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, immigrants etc.

Clearly this is personal in my case, I'm not a neutral observer. And my views and ways of reading have been largely shaped by being an immigrant.

4:18 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Let me correct that. Not the "majority" of American poets. That's an overstatement. But I think this sense is pervasive, especially in institutional settings. I do think this is changing.

5:27 AM  
Blogger Jim T said...

Might it also have to do with something more basic--that so much contemporary non-anglophone literature has not been translated, owing to the relative hegemony the English language enjoys at the moment?
I'm sure that there are far fewer multilingual people in the U.S. than in Europe, where partially due to sheer proximity and economic necessity, citizens are multilingual.
I don't think it has much to do with the relative "vibrancy" of American poetry vis a vis the poetry of Europe, Latin America, China, Russia, etc. (The Xul anthology, UDP, Johannes' translation work, Circumferences prove that clearly this is not the case.) The world of poetry is certainly not separate from the larger domain of cultural insularity and lack of multilingual readers in the US. For that matter, how many in the US even know much about the current artistic/media landscape of Britain?

If we replace "vibrancy" with "gross oversaturation" we may be getting closer to the truth.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Jim,

What do you mean by "gross oversaturation"? This is actually something I've been thinking about a great deal.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Jim T said...

I mean that there is a tremendous, tremendous amount of American poetry, much of it of quality, though it's difficult to judge because to read it all with any scrutiny takes far more time, energy and $$ than I have available. It's simply overwhelming. If tracking US poetry is a full-time job in itself, it's difficult to make time to read, much less properly contextualize, international poetries...

5:51 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, I know what you mean. I sometimes fall into the liberal-utopian trap of thinking that more is better but that's something that needs to be discussed.

4:56 AM  

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