Thursday, December 11, 2008

Engdahl etc

I kind of hint at my view in the entry below and Max really wants there to be a bias against America (as in all cases). However, in this case he is somewhat correct. I actually do think there is a bias against US lit AND against Swedish lit AND against poetry in Engdahl's worldview.

(Of course, there will always be biases. That's why discussing "Best new poetry" and such is a waste of time. People who are invested in "the best poetry" are fools at best, footsoldiers at worst.)

Max says that Yes there is an anti-American bias but no not an anti-Swedish bias because Swedes see themselves as part of Europe and has therefore received tons of prizes over the past few years (Gunter!). However, in that very statement Max hits on the very reason that there is an anti-Swedish bias in Engdahl's worldview. His strong emphasis on cosmopolitanism, the great literary debate of Europe forces him to not only disregard a lot of American writing (because it is really not concerned with the great literary discussions of Europe) and Swedish lit (because to go Swedish would be to deny his own cosmopolitanism). This is two sides of the dangers of this kind of cosmopolitanism - it both excludes and swallows up.

The interesting thing is that this is I think a very Swedish concept of both literary greatness and "Europe." So in that sense, it's not anti-Swedish. It is very Swedish to be proud to read works from other countries, it's part of a Swedish ideology. Another sign of this ideology is Swedes' obsession with geographic knowledge (Americans don't know the capitals of Europe they always like to point out) and cosmopolitanism. And knowing what is going on in other literatures. Having read the new Pynchon in English as it's published in the US. I will talk about this more later.

Now Transtromer and Ashbery are up against some other odds as well. In order for poetry these days to be considered Nobel-worthy it has to be written in some kind of politically dire situation (Szymborska for ex), giving it political weight, or be an epic (Walcott). Because this Great European Tradition Engdahl demands a kind of direct political engagement we don't find in a whole lot of lyrical poets. So I think both Transtromer and Ashbery are considered too apolitical (no interested in the Great Debate of Europe in other words) - and both were attacked in the 1960s for being apolitical. Transtromer is also considered a largely national poet - that is, Swedish poets don't really read him but his collected works are bestsellers.He's a people's poet.

Another factor: Not everyone on the academy is a writer. I just checked the list and there is a lawyer, two linguist, one author who was long active in the Social Democratic Party, a historian, an art critic (who made his reputation in the 1960s discussing happenings, Duchamp and such - Swedish art was really cutting-edge in the 60s artworld), a poet who also worked as the editor-in-chief of a newspaper and has been devoted to many political causes, a proust translator, a professor of history (who is also a poet and a literary historian), and some more traditional poets and writers. But this is important. There is a totally different dominant concept of writing in Sweden: the idea that literature should be part of the social/political debates, it should be reviewed and discussed in newspapers, and that it is for a lay audience (as is history, politics etc).

I think some things are good about this model of literature and some things about it are tiresome and stifling. Everybody has to be so responsible and serious. Yawn. That's why for example, Aase Berg's work can both be incredibly popular and accused of elitism/hermeticism (she sells more books in Sweden than "major" american poets sell in the US, a country with some 250 million more people). In some ways it's the "Major" vs "Minor" literature that Deleuze and Guattari talk about; a concept that doesn't entirely fit into America, where - as I think Jasper Bernes pointed out in a previous discussion - literature is not ever really hold a major position. I do think he's right about that, we need something slightly different - major and minor but with the added axis of "high" and "low" - we're still in the 19th century in some ways ("contemplative" poetry etc).


Blogger Max said...

1) I don't want there to be a bias against America, Johannes. I do, however, contend that America is held up to a far different standard than other nations when it comes to what is expected of its literature. American literature is expected to be impossibly open and diverse, and when it doesn't meet this standard, it is called "insular" and accused of only being interested in itself. Of course, when other national literatures are "insular," that is actually a good thing, because that means the literature is "unique," "authentic," "untouched." In fact, this is the double standard for all art, hell, for all culture, it seems.

2) American culture isn't nearly as insular and lacking in diversity as it is accused of. Not even close. I love Korea, but they literally have only had like 3 songs on the radio here for at least the past 3.5 months. It's odd how we tend to forget that America is one country, yet we continue to expect such constant, endless variety from its creative classes. It's no wonder that Europe is, by your standards, more diverse and interesting, since the landmass is not a single unit, but rather a large collection of individual cultures that can more easily nurture distinct cultural productions. Nevertheless, when we consider that America is one country, the range of cultural production that comes out of its diverse population is quite staggering. If American literature is stale, maybe that means "literature" is stale. Why don't we consider this possibility, before making broad declarations about the creative aptitude of an entire population? There may be a reason why very few people want to do anything other than the same 'ol, same 'ol in America. Perhaps it's because "literature" is no longer perceived as a vast horizon. Perhaps other modes of creativity have taken that role. I think we really need to reckon with the possibility that "literature," itself, is no longer as "major" as it once was.

3) I'm not pissed at Engdahl for having an obvious anti-American bias. I couldn't care less about that kind of crap. What I find surprising is how you initially rushed to his defense simply because you seemed to perceive that all criticism of his comments was coming from some anti-Europe, anti-Sweden xenophobia. In other words, you took only the most absurd criticisms of Engdahl and used those as your basis for defending him, even as plenty of cogent arguments questioning the relevance of the Nobel Prize in Literature surfaced. The reason why Engdahl's comments are significant is not because he was getting all anti-American on our asses, but because the brainlessness of his statements should renew criticism of the institution over which he exerts control.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Also, just to extend the argument:

Perhaps we need to reckon with the (in)sanity of the act of giving $1-2 million away to people who may well as well be doing the equivalent of macrame.

Perhaps we need to reckon with the (in)sanity of entire institutions existing whereby these glorified macrame artists can "hone their craft" and learn to be better macrame'ers (or macrame instructors).

8:06 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

One big axis of difference that almost always gets overlooked in discussions like this is urban/rural. The poets who live in the Big Cities tend to be very insular, if insular to their locales rather than to their nations. Criticism and award-giving are ridiculously insular themselves, because they don't regard much of anything not produced in the Big Cities. It's still true that if you want to be famous poet, you must go to New York City. (I can stand NYC for about 4 days at a time, maximum.)

The Nobel committee is not alone in their complete and utter lack of awareness of the good poetry and literature produced by writers who don't live in the Big Cities.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You're not really even responding to my entry.

The response to Engdahl has been full of xenophobia.

You keep saying that I'm holding the US to a different standard. But not only do you not provide any evidence of this except for wild speculation.

Secondly, my post point out that "cosmopolitanism" isn't always that great or inherently great. Though it often is.

I don't know what you're reading but I find a lot of very interesting poetry being written right now.

1:55 PM  
Blogger françois said...


Do you have any example of a non-US national literature that could be characterized as insular? In all seriousness, there is a reason why the only English-language poets I translate in French are Canadian. The majority of US poetry (including a lot of what's considered experimental) strikes me as being too much in conversation with itself. As for the few US poets who are not considered insular, they have either been translated into French or ... I don't have enough time to translate them.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I think I replied to your mischaracterization of my position. That I somehow want there to be a bias against America, because uhhh, I'm a patriot or something, and it gives me something to rail against (I think that maybe was your reasoning?). I do think that Engdahl's statements obviously represent an anti-American bias, but that's not why I think we should find them absurd.

Yes, the rest was just bloviating about stuff from the past, and stuff I've been thinking about lately.

Art -

I think that probably the more important distinction is "educated" vs. "not educated," what with the rise of MFA programs and whatnot.

Francois -

At the end of the day, I don't really care if a "national literature" is "insular" or not. I'm actually far more surprised that it is ever a point of contention in the first place. That said, people talk all the time about how "insular" the US is, but they never really demonstrate that, for example, makes the UK or Sweden or France or whatever else "cosmopolitan," other than the fact that those countries are located in the part of the world that one must ostensibly be near in order to be considered "cosmopolitan." I mean, the reason why cosmopolitanism vs. insularity is such a useless distinction is because what it really means is you're either creating art in the shadow of Europe (cosmopolitanism) or you're a dull bore who refuses to play with us and is only interested in diddling himself (insularity). Those are the real definitions we're working with, when you really remove the euphemism from the picture.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

No, Max, you're vastly simplifying these distinction. There are many other versions of relating to the rest of the world between the bland cosmopolitanism of we all share a common debate and the insularity of being unwilling and/or incapable of exploring other literatures. There is huge reason for such unwillingness, in large part the same unwillingness of Americans to read things in translation.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

What is the reason, then?

Is it not the case that America already has an incredibly productive culture (in terms of the sheer amount of "stuff" produced)?

Wouldn't it make sense, then, that perhaps Americans don't readily seek things outside their own culture, because domestic production always gives them something to chew on?

We can argue over the quality of the cultural productions all day, as I'm sure you'd like to. But that is really beside the point.

I think the perfect antidote to America's insularity is for there to be a distinct drop-off in domestic cultural production, because then people looking for stuff to chew on would eventually have to look elsewhere.

But how could/should such a drop-off be engineered?

If I remember correctly, you believe that America's insularity has something to do with empire, but I can't remember the exact details of the argument. I don't think you buy the premise I've issued above, but I would be interested in hearing your explanation of the reason why America is so unwilling to go outside of its own culture.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think the MFA educated/uneducated axis plays out in creating poetry (in the US, certainly) that is definitely more self-regarding and more insular. The MFA workshop tends to create sameness—this is not a revelation, it's been pointed out by various poet/critics for decades—and smallness. It is partly responsible for the dominance in lyric poetry of the "I," and/or the post-confessional lyric short poem.

I stand by my urban/rural distinction, and I think it runs deeper than mere education opportunities. Anyone who has lived away from the Big Cities knows full well that smart people are everywhere, as are dumb people, and education can be either formalized or autodidactic. Some of the better poet/critics I know have no formal University education, but they read poetry all the time, they read deeply, and they discuss it wisely. So education/uneducation isn't a convincing axis to me—beyond my agreement that it does affect poetry/criticism in academia itself.

One can find a good argument about how this works in W.H. Auden's book of poetry crticism "The Enchaf'd Flood," in which he even reifies the categories, more than I would.

But no, there are definitely regional differences, in tone as well as in subject matter, between poets from North Dakota and upper Michigan, and New York City. There are definitely regional differences between Washington and Oregon, and San Francisco, although great poets have emerged from both regions.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Art -

I'm not using "educated" and "uneducated" to say that some people are "smart" and some people "stupid." Rather, that American poetry is becoming more and more built around whether you've been through the MFA system or you're coming from outside of it. Obviously, most of the opportunities and resources of the American poetry community at large are only available for those who have formal degrees. Though, at the same time, I think it would be quite easy to lie about having an MFA and really never be caught at it.

About the rural/urban distinction, I think people should be urban anyway, so I have very little sympathy when those in rural areas find themselves with fewer options and less access to the communities in which they hope to take part. I mean, isn't that part of why people choose to be rural in the first place? Because they don't want to be so "in the middle" of it all? Because they want a little peace and quiet, and for the days to really be light and for night to really be dark? Etc.?

5:27 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Not at all. That's a supposition one would expect to come form a urban dweller who has never ventured outside the walls. You've stated your own bias openly, and that's fine. It's good to know where one stands.

Nonetheless, the truth is that not all rural dwellers desire above all things to move to the city; nor do all believe that cities are where people are supposed to be. In truth, the reason many people live rural is because they were born and raised that way; it's what they know and love, and they choose to stay. Another reason, which does happen, is that some folks just don't like the Big Cities, and prefer living rural; that's the other reason you mentioned, but it's anti-city reason rather than a pro-rural reason, and it is incomplete as an explanation of motivation. Your assumption that all poets desire to move to the city is flat-out wrong; although it does reveal a prejudicial bias. There are plenty of folks who don't agree that people "should be urban." Furthermore, your supposition that there are no viable artistic communities outside of the city is also flat-out wrong; and reveals a similar prejudice.

Especially now that the internet collapses geographic distance via cyberspace, there are numerous connection being made at the grass-roots level that do not require the city-based arts-infrastructure to be viable. Sure, there's a lot of arts funding in the city (for now; ask Ottawa artists about what's going on there, right now); but not all arts funding is city-based or even city-biased.

As if arts funding ever really mattered, anyway; or as if academia mattered anyway. One thinks of the rich tradition of poets who write no matter they are, because they must, because they desire to. The truth is that many poets write not because of opportunities but because it's as important to them as breathing. For those whose ambition exceeds their ability; well, that has noted before, as well, as endemic to much academic poetry/criticism. It also speaks to insularity and self-regard.

Thus, your point about the MFA system is valid, but it's also valid to say, therefore, that the incestuous and mutually back-scratching networking that goes on between MFA programs and universities only exacerbates the insularity of contemporary US poetry. Again, this has been observed and criticized for some decades by now, so it's not a news flash. I do find it amusing that the political-academic agenda of Ron Silliman and Co. in their attempts to get LangPoets into academia, winning all the prestigious academic awards, etc., is an openly admitted program. They're quite blatant about it, and they've succeeded to some extent with their program. On the other hand, LangPoetry is precisely the kind of disconnected, alienated, academic poetry that is so insular that literally no one gives a damn about except the people who do it. The point about the degree mill of the MFA feeding into this situation is well-taken.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Art -

I was being a tad facetious with the claim that everybody should be urban, but quite honestly, I think the comfy, quiet, rural lifestyle has more to do with American insularity than anything else. The fact that we can get our hands on pretty much anything and extract ourselves at the same time from the burdens of society at large by living in far-flung cow towns is a perfect recipe for insularity.

By the way, I was born in the rural Midwest and lived most of my life in rural northeast Connecticut. I quite like living in small towns, but only because I know they service my basest desire to be an anti-social shut-in, to maintain an absolute, pristine privacy, to interact with society only on my own terms. I like living in the city better because things are happening around me, and the atmosphere is abuzz with organic occurrences, and despite what people say about the supposed "isolation" of city life, I actually feel compelled to go out because everybody else is buzzing too rather than sitting on their porches like vultures surveying you as you walk by (a common practice of Alabama natives, I quickly learned during my time there).

But yeah, I was mostly just being facetious. Let people live as they like. I don't really mind. In fact, I have a sincere respect for people who like the rural lifestyle, because I like it as well. It is very peaceful and soothing and unhectic. I romanticize it much in the way I used to romanticize snow (before I moved to Alabama and was converted to its snow-less climate), but would rather just visit a snowy place on vacation than actually ever live in one again.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You can go back and read my Disabled Text manifesto for more of my views about this.

I've heard this argument in many incarnations before: US literature is so good that it doesn't need other literature.

The problem with this is how does one define good literature. One way to define it is based on a kind of evaluative rule (mostly of negatives: don't do this, don't do that) that is easy to teach. This makes for a very stable criteria of goodness. It also leads to homogenous crap that people don't actually want to read (why would you want to read anything that merely avoids making mistakes).

This is an idea of good totally opposed to translation because foreign literatures naturally reveal how artificial these standards are. This is why the most interesting moments in US literature come out of moments of great translation and interest in other literatures (the 1960s most prominently) and why the most boring moments of literature are eras with little or no interest in foreign lit (the 1980s for example, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets to be more specific, or this new anthology called "Best new poetry" or something like that). Poetry is what is lost in translation in this model.

Another way to state this is: the idea that any poetry is "good" is inherently insular.

I often refer to Raymond Williams' observation that pretty much all of the radical ferment that we now call the historical avant-garde - groups, movements, individuals whose experiment still push and tug at art and literature - was conducted by exiles, immigrants, displaced people, people working in their second and third languages (in the case of Henry Parland, his fourth language) etc. The very experience of translation is incredibly important to this system. One can say that the 1910s and 20s in Europe was an alternative model for art - one created by the fall of empires etc, which created a criss-crossing of languages and ideas.

More about this later. I have baby-sitting duties here in the post-urban, rural midwest of abandoned factories and roaming dogs.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

It's not that "US literature is so good." Whether the cultural production is "good" or not is beside the point. I'm talking about the sheer amount of production. You know, Americans could get really into foreign film, and certainly if they did, much of the film they actually took in would be of undoubtedly higher quality. But the main reason why they don't is because Hollywood is already producing a billion movies every year and it's much more convenient to go down to the cinema and watch cars explode for 2 hours.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, that's probably true. That's where blogs and criticism comes in.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, the problem with "blogs and criticism" is that, most of the time, they really are only talking to a closed group, and then their creators complain about the insularity of the population at large when "blogs and criticism" fail to convince them that they should be doing things like reading poetry in translation and watching old, obscure foreign films put out by Criterion.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

The Internet is not a closed circuit. Take Silliman. I think that his blog has had an enormous effect; for example just by calling attention to "quietism" he has really generated a dialogue much overdue.

And although I'm not nearly as prolific as Ron, this blog is read by tons of people, almost none of whom I know - including you - thus we are not in a closed circuit. I get mail from people all over the place and it seems wherever I go I am met by someone who's read my blog and wants to talk about some topic - often translation - raised on this blog. And I'm far from the most prolific or energetic bloggist. Look at Tao. He has generated a whole rhizomatic reader/writer-ship on the web. So I (still) think the Internet has enormous potential.

You'll also be pleased to know that people always ask me "Who's that guy Max? Why is he so angry?"

9:42 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Sure, Johannes, but at the same time, I think it's kind of a cop-out to claim that "the internet" is automatically the savior of your argument that "blogs and criticism" will save the day for translation, etc. Just because people can view your blog instantaneously, if they so please, does not mean that they please to do so in any way. Perhaps we're talking about different populations here? I would assume that most of the people you're running into are writers or academics, that you're not just running into random people on the street in Indiana who absolutely love your poetics blog. Is that a correct characterization?

2:24 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

No, that's not a correct characterization. I can't remember ever running into an academic who'd even heard of my blog.

But clearly I'm not saying that the Internet will take care of everything. Then why would I even bother.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Okay, then let's say "writers" instead.

I'm talking about cracking the general population here, Johannes. In my mind, it makes no sense to only crack that part of the public which actively writes or avidly reads books, because that will do very little to change America's status as "insular."

I quite honestly do not buy that anybody outside the academic/writer/po-fan base is really a significant part of your readership. I'm coming more and more around to the idea that people have to be engaged on a mainstream pop cultural level in order for the country to cease being "insular" on a larger level. It's like trying to move a glacier, and you're going to do it with "blogs and criticism"? Okay, in theory, I suppose you could be "doing your little part" or something like that, but I highly doubt you or Silliman or anybody else doing similar bloggish stuff can reasonably be said to have cracked that barrier yet.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Back to the point, though:

I'm not really understanding where you think this "insularity" comes from and how "blogs and criticism" fill the role of changing it.

I think it comes from the population having an overwhelming supply of stuff, and I think we can only change it by somehow hacking pop culture and re-inserting poetry, along with an interest in other cultures.

Not such an easy task, and I'm not sure it's even a goal worth accomplishing in the first place.

7:13 PM  
Blogger françois said...


I don't think Johannes is asserting that changing the way you Americans read things is going to save American readers from their insularity and parochialism. Rather, the insular aspect in US publishing is a symptom of a larger problem deeply ingrained within US society, which Johannes ties to empire.

I mean, remember that the majority of Americans, when asked about France, can only tell you about Paris (even if they haven't been there). And how many of them even bother to maintain a foreign language after high school? How many Americans will tell you they don't need to learn a foreign language because everyone speaks English?

I don't think the case of geographic isolation works either, by the way. While France was an empire, only very few people were foreign languages. The same excuses were given as the US ("French is the international language"). And this French exceptionalism is still existent even today (because France still thinks of itself as an empire).

So say what you want about a "bias against America" (which of course is completely silly, since the new Britney Spears album is probably topping the charts in Sweden and France), this insularity in the US is a socio-economic conclusion.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Max said...

francois --

That's what I'm not understanding. What aspect of empire is responsible for this?

It would seem to me that the main reason why most Americans believe that they don't require a second language is because, compared to every other country in the world, America is self-sufficient. We produce our own cultural goods, and if we import them, they are translated for us. I mean, if you buy a CD player in Japan, where it is produced, it is likely to have English button labels on the console. I'm not saying these productions and circumstances are superior, or "the best," or even "good." We produce a lot of crap that is absolutely dreadful, in my opinion. And we import a lot of garbage that we probably don't need.

So are we talking about cultural empire? All I'm asking for is a little precision here, instead of just saying "empire" and leaving it at that. I didn't understand it when Johannes posted his thing about disabled texts, and I still don't understand it.

I mean, I think it's probably a valid question to ask: do Americans really actually "need" second languages? Probably not. Personally, I think people should learn them, because at the very least it requires you to engage in the act of attempting to understand another culture. I think that's an important thing for people to do, whether they "need" a language or not. But at the end of the day, if I'm pressed to understand the mindset of the average American, I've got to say, there really isn't much raw motive for them to aspire to be multi-lingual.

All I'm trying to say is that I can understand why things are the way they are. Before I set about judging a population or a country or whatever, I'd probably do best to figure out, beforehand, whether anything can even be done to change the circumstances about which I'm complaining. Or whether it's even a worthy goal in the first place. I mean, what is wrong with Americans not having a strong interest in translated Swedish poetry? What is the matter with that?

We're just back into "high" and "low" now, it seems. Like, if you're not into translated Swedish poetry or you don't feel compelled to learn a second language, you're a boor, or somesuch. What is it that makes these things necessary?

10:16 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Self-sufficiency is an illusion, particularly in manufactured consumer goods, where parts are made all over the world, assembled somewhere else, then marketed. For example, there isn't a car made in the world that isn't at least 40 percent "foreign parts," no matter what company makes and sells it.

The fact that everything is blended economically, because the world is run much more by multi-national interests than strictly by national governments, means that everything is also blended commercially. Because the economics are blended, so are the cultures: cultural contact has followed the trade routes for millenia. Missionary work also follows trade routes, or routes opened up by explorers for conquest and gain.

So, the reason Americans ought to care more about the rest of the world's arts and literature is because it's there. That's not a one-way street either, anymore than car parts are: it flows in all directions. The more you know in the service economy, the better chances you have of success, or survival. The classic example is the ignorant business traveler screwing things by not having done his or her homework about the culture one is meeting to negotiate with.

Interestingly enough, people engaged with the arts already tend to be more interested in the arts of the rest of the world, and generally less insular than the lesser-educated (or lower class, economically; there are correlations). But there is still insularity where there is laziness, laziness about exploring what's out there.

Glass half empty or glass half full?

12:17 AM  
Blogger françois said...


The logic of empire (cultural and otherwise) has nothing to do with "high" or "low" culture. As long as something has value in expanding the empire, it will be used. Which is why I used the Britney Spears example.

The US has the luxury not to have anything imported in a foreign language. It has (or used to have) after all the largest capital in the world. It pretty much has the ability to redirect the market. Other countries do not necessarily have this luxury. Not to mention that the US having a larger spending power has the ability to drown other markets with English-only products (unless local law forces them to do so).

Manufacturing in other countries has the necessity to produce merchandise in English and sell them as such locally. The Canadian law that requires everything marketed there to be bilingual (and that has guaranteed me a job in the video game industry) is only very recent. Before that, everything was in English, even for products sold in Québec. I also had to learn English out of necessity, because the majority of video games sold in France when I was still playing videogames were completely in English, including the packaging and the manual.

As such, I don't quite see how, as you say, the US are self-sufficient. It goes against any economic theory. It's not a matter of self-sufficiency, it's a matter of luxury (afforded by surplus and its export) vs. necessity.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Yes, yes, I know. What I'm saying is that America has an enormous cultural output, and we import whatever else we want/need (in English), so the truly convincing arguments for Americans to embrace other languages are few and far between. Whenever communication is necessary between "us" and "them," middlemen take care of it. We just see the goods on the shelf. Again, I want to reiterate: I think the world is far less interesting this way! I would agree with that, if somebody said it to me at a cocktail party or something. But the world, nonetheless, follows this model pretty consistently, as far as Americans are concerned.

So yes, Francois, America has the luxury. And that's why things are the way they are. What would you propose we do about this? Artificially strip America of the "luxury" (exactly how one might realistically do this, I have no idea), thus making it necessary for Americans to value outside cultures more highly? My argument here is not qualitative. It is purely observational. I understand that America is in a privileged position. The question becomes: what, then, are we supposed to do about it?

1:31 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Max, quickly,

Of course the readers of this blog are interested in poetry, otherwise they wouldn't be here. That's a dumb argument. That means the second someone becomes interested in poetry, they don't become part of "the general population".

I might say, the second someone likes Britney Spears they are not part of the general population.

This doesn't make my readership a closed circuit. I don't know you, we don't have identical views (in fact I'm beginning to suspect you hold no views except the exact opposite of my own). Thus different ideas are exchanged. We're not enclosed, but we must have a place of interaction. This is true of everything. Everything has an enclosure so to speak.

I don't think poetry should appeal to some kind of general population. I don't think the general population exists. The rhetoric does the violence.

If you remember the original argument: it was to change the insularity of american literature. Here I think the proof is in the pudding. The internet and such has actually made american poetry much more international it seems to me in the past few years. Personally the Internet has put me in touch with people all over the world in a way that would not have been possible (or at least it would have been harder) before the Internet.

Other than that, your argument is that I cannot suddenly change the world with a wave of my magic Internet wand. That I don't have enormous efficacy. No shit, Einstein. But give me a billion dollars and we'll see.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

That first part of your post is such a lame argument. What I'm trying to say is that I wouldn't believe it if you told me that non-poetry readers were being converted by your blog, or Silliman's blog, or anybody else's blog. This is, for all intents and purposes, a fairly closed community. What I was criticizing was your idea that "blogs and criticism" somehow by implication are adequate outreach mechanisms, just because the internet is freely and easily available to the general public. That seems to be what you were implying.

The fact that we don't share identical views is beside the point. We are both, to some general extent, "initiated" into this broad community of "blogs and criticism," in part because we're both connected, in one way or another, to MFA programs, the academy, and poetry in general. I defy you to demonstrate exactly how this community can be said to be open to the public at large. I mean, certainly it's "open," since much of it exists on the internet, but is it really open, Johannes? I don't think it is.

Oh wait, but you don't think "the general population" exists. At the end of the day, I just think that's a clever po-mo trick designed to aid in avoidance of the discussion. After all, if we can't describe the gulf that exists between, say, translated poetry and the majority of Americans, then we can't really have this talk at all. You're right, Johannes. There is nothing to discuss. "Americans" are not insular, because there is no such "general population" that we can even reference as such. Each person can only ever be referred to as an individual actor. Duh, I should have known that.

Oh, but now you still want to change the "insularity of American literature"? But if there is no general group to reference, then the "American" distinction kind of fades away. There is no valid target of the "insularity" claim to begin with.

7:24 PM  
Blogger françois said...

Well, since insularity and parochialism were mentioned:

2:51 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Sometimes I live in the country, sometimes I live in the town. Sometimes I get a great notion to jump in the river and drown. Not really. I spent 24 years in Indiana. I've spent 2 in New York. I like it better here. The poetry I've been writing here is the same poetry I was writing in Indiana, though hopefully less sucky.

If I were rich I would visit another country and learn another language. But I'm not, so I can't. I took four years of German and I remember about 20 words of it.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Matt -

You bring up an interesting point about the lives Johannes and others appear to think we should be living, and the privilege required to live them. True bilingualism not borne of circumstance (i.e. growing up in Sweden and then moving to the U.S. with your parents and having to learn English, etc) is unfortunately something generally limited to the privileged. I'm not counting taking a few years of Spanish in K-12 as true bilingualism.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Max said...

What am I talking about? Johannes probably learned English in Sweden, or at least got a good part of the way through it. Maybe the next generation of Americans should sojourn to Sweden in their youths to become bilingual, and then come back and enlighten the rest of us.

2:29 PM  
Blogger françois said...


What about those who are true polyglots because their parents were immigrants/refugees/displaced? I am thinking notably about Vietnamese refugees in France or Iraqi refugees in Sweden. Yes, those same Iraqi refugees who left their home country because a stupid empire decided to invade without a plan.

Or what about the case of one of the people described above who ends up living in a country with a language that is neither the language of his/her parents or the language of his/her birth country.

True bilingualism not borne out of circumstances? I know quite a lot of people who would disagree with this statement.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Max said...


Reread my comment. I'm not saying that bilingualism is never borne out of circumstance. I said that bilingualism not borne out of circumstance is often only the province of the privileged (i.e. sending your kid to private language lessons, etc).

Most Americans don't have circumstance on their side (being born into English and having to move somewhere else, where learning the language would be necessary), just as they more often than not lack the privilege to get special schooling in extra languages. Obviously the public schools aren't cutting it, and won't be any time soon. In order to gain an actual working knowledge of another language via public school teaching, you'd have to either choose or have prescribed one language early on, and be chained to it for the entirety of your time in K-12. And even then, unless schools employ native speakers of these languages (as they do in other countries), children will only ever learn "proper" grammar, which is by no means going to make them more attuned to the nuances of the language in question.

Living a non-"insular" existence in America, unfortunately, takes a lot of resources and privilege. And while the U.S., by relation, is far more "privileged" than other places, it also has a relatively large population, something like 80% of which do not fall into particularly "privileged" territory (the top 20% own something like 90% of the wealth in America). This ideal is incredibly out of reach at the moment, and for the proponents of this ideal not to wrangle with these issues before judging and condemning is pretty absurd.

7:52 PM  

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