Sunday, March 23, 2008

Compromise = order

I just received in the mail "It's go in horizontal" the selected poems by Leslie Scalapino, published by U of CA Press. Of course it looks fantastic.

It has me thinking about a peculiar phenomenon: presses whose vision of contemporary American poetry is a self-conscious compromise. U of CA press is publishing old works by Ron Silliman and Leslie Scalapino side by side with very "lyrical"/Stevensian works by younger poets like Clover, Levine and Geoffrey G. O'Brien.

In a more obvious case, Omnidawn publishes Lyn Hejinian next to ultra-quietist Donald Revell (if we just pay "attention" we won't let social conflict or ideology ruin our work).

Claudia Rankine edited that anthology of women poets called "where lyric meets language" or something like that.

Reginald Shepherd has edited an anthology of "lyric postmodernisms," featuring Revell and others who are still writing lyrical poetry.

This is the description from the Counterpath web site:

"Lyric Postmodernisms gathers many well established poets whose work transcends the boundaries between traditional lyric and avant-garde experimentation. Some have been publishing since the 1960s, some have emerged more recently, but all have been influential on newer generations of American poets. Many of these poets are usually not thought of together, being considered as members of different poetic “camps,” but they nonetheless participate in a common project of expanding the boundaries of what can be said and done in poetry. This anthology sheds new light on their work, creating a new constellation of contemporary American poetry."

There seems to be this trend to establish a canon that holds various "camps" together. And to use langpo as a way of showing that the "lyric" can be "innovative" (whatever that means), as a way of dealing with the anxiety that some kind of "postmodern" poetry (I wonder if this comes from Paul Hoover's usage of this word in his anthology a decade ago) eliminates "the lyric." Or is it an attempt to turn Silliman &Co into formal innovators(something he has on his blog done a pretty good job of himself)? Into lyrical poets?

What does the "lyric" mean in these contexts? It seems seldom to be questioned.

For me, the lyric equals the monoglossic notion of poetry as elevated language.

And that is why I will always have a problme with using the lyric so unquestioningly.

I've also noticed that Reginald often invokes Adorno on his blog - Adorno as an apologist for the autonomous artwork, as a way of bringing a Marxist slant to an otherwise New Critical view of art (and, importantly, opposition to mass culture). Although that may be a somewhat reductive reading of Adorno, I think it's fair enough.

But you also have to take into account that Adorno criticized Heine for writing in impure German. I think that is absolutely key. And for me that brings in Deleuze and Guattari's notion of minor literature. The Lyric as major; the minor as the contaminated ("yiddishized" to invoke D+G's Kafka-book). In Heine (as in Kafka) the foreign intrudes and deforms the heightened language of the lyric.

It should also be noted (Mark, sorry for being a whiner about this!) that these anthologies are anthologies of American poetry (and largely white America). Try to put them in an international context and see what happens. For one, the stable notion of language of the lyric (even with "slippages" as a formalist device) would be undermined by the translated text, the text that is not "there." There is something inherently minor about the translated text, a threat to the autonomous artwork.

In Reginald's "defense", his anthology includes Rosmarie Waldrop, somebody whose work does not fit into this notion of the lyric.

Just some thoughts on a beautiful Easter Sunday in South Bend, Indiana.


Blogger Max said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Max said...

A Swedish gift on this fine holiday.

The Tough Alliance - "Holiday"

10:33 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I love those guys.

Especially "If I could take you to my hood".

Eurotrash galore.

11:23 AM  
Blogger K. Silem Mohammad said...

As much as we're clearly on the same "side" in many ways in terms of your basic position here, Johannes, I think that your attempt to frame the problem with designations like "lyric" in precise terms runs up against the larger problem that such precision will always undermine itself when one is talking about poetry. I say that not from a "quietist" position of faith in poetry's unassailable mystery, etc., but simply from a position of observing that "poetry" is an incredibly vague descriptor to begin with, so it naturally follows that attempts to refine the definition by breaking it down into sub-definitions only propagate the vagueness.

So, although I know exactly what you mean about this trend towards "compromise" in recent publishing, it's very difficult, using any formalistically-derived discourse, to pin down exactly what is being compromised. A party line between "lyric" and ... what? If, as you say, Rosmarie Waldrop doesn't fit the one definition of lyric, which one does she fit? When I look at her poetry, I see lyric poetry. Good lyric poetry. Lyric poetry I like better than lyric poetry by some of the other lyric poets you mention. But why do I like it better? Because it somehow resists "the monoglossic notion of poetry as elevated language"? How? It sounds pretty "elevated" to me. For that matter, in its own way, the work of Scalapino, Hejinian, and even Silliman is "elevated" in the sense that it is instantly recognizable as language being used for "poetic" purposes.

What makes Donald Revell an "ultra-quietist"? Is it an actual quality of his work, or an attitude he displays "outside" the work, in both criticism and casual comments? Is his poetry really that different, in its actual formal and thematic makeup, from that of a score at least of other poets you wouldn't call "ultra-quietist"? Of course, one implication here is that those other poets are "ultra-quietist," but we don't call them that because they don't offend us with their theoretical positions by articulating them explicitly, either because they don't know how, or because they are more invested in the aforementioned "compromise."

Much of the difficulty comes down to subjective judgment on the part of the reader. Does Joshua Clover really share more in common with Levine and O'Brien than with Silliman and Scalapino? Is he really on the "'lyrical'/Stevensian" side of the divide (more to the point, is that a real divide)? Yes, when you first look at Clover's work on the page, it seems to draw more from a Stevens/Ashbery-informed aesthetic than from the more aggressively avant-garde sources whose influence emerges on closer reading. But why should this seem so significant?

I think once we start pursuing the issues you raise here, we run up against something more substantial than any spurious incompatibility between "traditional" and "innovative" form. That is, the wall of production value and the "legitimacy" it confers. The U of California editions, for example, whether of Clover or Silliman or whoever, are gorgeous. They make the work printed on the pages seem important, serious, established. Is this a good or a bad thing? Both, obviously. Same thing with the other recent editions you mention, as well as others like the Legitimate Dangers anthology I reviewed a couple of years ago. Whether the work inside them is "lyric" or something else is relevant only to the extent that one style is presented more extensively and is therefore granted more legitimacy. It doesn't really matter what that style is. It just happens that the style du jour recently has been a certain blend of traditional lyrical rhetoric and fragmented abstraction. That's what has been deemed "marketable," "teachable," etc. This, of course, doesn't mean that everyone who writes in this style is somehow contributing to that monoglossic thing you talk about, except by association. If it does mean that, we have to include Rosmarie Waldrop and others in the accusation.

No, I think it's more about the packaging--the lush and lovely covers, the professionally smooth formatting on crisp acid-free paper, the general complex of imprimaturship. And of course, the blurb-language of benevolent liberal-humanist syncretism that adorns the back covers, flaps, and promotional materials. That "common project of expanding the boundaries" language that promotes the illusion that everyone is equally aware of the conditions of production, and has the same stake in that awareness.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Yeah, they're pretty great/funny.

I think the "Holiday" video draws inspiration from General Public's "Tenderness" video.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Very good response. I'll respond more in detail when I am not watching a baby.

In the meantime I'll say that something very strange happens with Leslie Scalapino and Alice Notley when they are turned into "Selected Poems."

3:52 PM  

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