Saturday, December 20, 2008

Quietism: Response to Seth Abrahamson

Seth Abramson post a bunch of ideas over at his Suburban Ecstasy blog, in which he mentions me and Action Books so I thought I would respond to some of his claims. But ultimately I think I will respond mostly to his assumptions. I will also make a few statements about other commonly held assumptions.

1. One problem with the notion of a quietist/post-avant divide is that it is way too simple and binary. There are not two separate modes of writing, but many.

2. The biggest problem (among many) in discussing Quietism is that although Ron's terminology suggests it is a movement, it is not. Rather it is the dominant literary system in the US as it was organized with the creation of Creative Writing Programs in the 1960s and 1970s. This system allows for a certain level of stylistic variation (though really not much). But certain values have remained pretty constant. It is also not without internal conflict, which serves to hide its basic homogeneity.

3. There has been a lot of resistance to Ron Silliman's quietism-vs-post-avant breakdown, and I've taken issue with it as well. To a large extent the resistance comes from the fact that an important marker of Quietism is that it denies that it has a point of view, instead claiming to be neutral or "traditional". I would argue that the Quietist style is not in fact "traditional". Is it in the same lineage as Edgar Allen Poe? Whitman? Etc.

4. Of course the idea that Quietism is style-neutral and traditional is not true. It has a set of aesthetic and social values that largely comes out of a few mid-century sources: New Criticism's emphasis on the autonomy of the artwork and that this autonomy battles the chaos and general fallen-ness of the modern world and mass culture, an emphasis on authenticity that comes out of the New Critics' progenitors 1960s poetry (Donald Hall etc). This poetics of authenticity comes I think out of the institutionalization of this poetic stance - ie that Donald Hall crowd were the people who were hired into the new creative writing programs in the 1970s.

5. They then educated a whole heap of students with similar ideas (and this continues). The important thing to consider here is that this is not a "conspiracy." Not some people saying: Lets get these folks to write the same way. The institution of literature - most notably the hiring of professors who educate new professors, but also prizes and such - rewards complicity and discourages non-complicity. Ie if you don't write using the basic ideas of Quietism don't usually get jobs or win prizes etc.

6. Seth writes: "... a question of identifying and building up from first principles. Grammar. Diction. Considering the texture of words, images, sonics." The idea that poetry is based on a refined consideration of the "texture" is the formalist foundation to Quietist aesthetics: it is the autonomous text not its place in society for example that matters. Somehow being refined enough makes us more authentic than the hasty and distracted aesthetics of mass culture and avant-gardism.

7. One of the big lies of Quietism is that craft is a neutral, objectively apparent *skill*. This emphasis on craft and skill entails a certain idea of what makes certain textures good and bad, a definite aesthetic in other words. Further, it denies the fact that any poem exists in time and place - why is this not the 'basics' of poetry? In sum the craft-based aesthetic represents a hierarchical idea of culture: if you learn enough you will be more refined. And this idea provides for the retrograde philosophies of a lot of workshops: the teacher is more refined so he/she can tell you how to rein in your excesses and make a more refined poem.

8. An important factor: the wellwrought urn. There should be no noise in the poem. Every word should "matter". A reading of a poem entails basically a formal analysis of how refined a text is. This interacts not just with the notion of the autonomous artwork but also with the teachable poem. It is easy to spot how various poems are clumsy or awkward (that is they don't comply with the standard). It is much easier to teach by calling for students to cut those out than it is to try to understand the ideas of the students.

9. Workshop poetics is generally not interested in acknowledging that different poets have different ideas about the world and poetry etc. That's generally what people talk about when they argue about poetry. Removing that, most discussion becomes about whether an artwork has been constructing correctly. That's why workshops often fall back on everybody talking about the poems doing "too much" of this or that, or if it isn't "enough" of something else. That is, the discussion becomes entirely normalizing because workshops don't account for different ideas.

10. The fascinating result: Quietism is more about complying with a series of rules rather than coming up with something interesting. That is also why so much of this poetry is boring and why nobody wants to read it. Why read something only to admire it for not stepping awry.

11. Common illusion: That Quietism is "Traditional" while other poetry is non-traditional. The current Quietist style does not go back very far, possibly the 1970s. Meanwhile Kenny Goldsmith's found texts go way back. Swedish poet Ake Hodell for example was using instruction booklets for sewing machines as books of poetry back in the early 1960s, not to mention "readymades" and such, which of course go back to the 1910s. Goldsmith is such a traditionalist he has made many statements wishing American poetry would return to the 1960s.

12. All statements such as "Best New Poets" etc as well as statements such as "most innovative new poets" cover up the fact that there are many different ideas about poetry, it forecloses a very necessary and interesting debate.

13. Seth writes: "The poets in that anthology are aware of, and likely feel a similar warmth toward, the aesthetic traditions Johannes and his Action Books hold dear." Then why is their poetry so different? When I read the anthology of the "New Best Poets" I was rather struck by how totally opposite their very concept of poetry is from mine. My guess is that they do not at all share the same sources as Joyelle or I do. Who are these?

14. In addition: Part of the way Quietism is to acknowledge the mad genius but then don't let that writing guide their own writing or teaching of students. For example, strawman A might say, that Alice Notley is a genius! She needs a little editing and she's totally off her rockers, but she's a wonderful and very strange poet! But if any student started writing poems channeling Eluard or Mitch-Ham, they would say, this poem is too hasty, you need to put more pressure on the words. Or perhaps more effectively: praise the student as well, but not give them good fellowships, not pick such poets as winners in contests etc.

15.Seth's conclusion: "At base, we're all in this together." This piece of rhetoric flames up all the time in poetry discussions: the desire to make it all the same. Or the need to argue "This is not new". I tend to think there are many different opinions out there and many of them are very different. Arguing that we don't hold different opinions is the same rhetoric as "Best of" etc: another way of not actually acknowledging that there is an institutional aesthetic that is simply not traditional or neutral.

16. Seth argues that the reason that "avant-garde" writing doesn't ever get prices because there is so much more Quietist writing. Not true. Prizes and money and professorhips are the main way Quietism retains its importance. There are not more Quietists than non-Quietists. There is no fact to back this up. But part of getting an MFA - becoming a legitimate poet - and getting one's work published has come to mean writing in a sanctioned way. Thus in order to be a poet one must to some degree learn to comply with Quietism or not count as a poet.

17. There is a common assumption that Quietist poetry is more populist. Totally untrue: it's highly elitist and also boring. Written largely by white folks who went to fine schools. And the proof is in the pudding: After all the money and all the educational centrality of quietism, poetry is totally unpopular. I think "elitist" Flarfist books on the whole sell many more copies than your average Quietist book for example.

18. Seth: "How urgent is it that a writer in the first two years of a sixty year long writing career jump straight into the aesthetic cloister of fifty-something post-avants? Isn't it reasonable--in fact, helpful--to ramp up to that first? It's become trite to say one can't subvert the tradition until one understands it, but surely there's some truth to that; I'm not at all certain reading Lorine Niedecker without reading (to pick a random "foundational" poet) Walt Whitman is fair to Niedecker, let alone to the young reader of Niedecker. I tend to think most deceased postmoderns would themselves say, "Look, take two years--a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things--to read up on Whitman, Dickinson, Crane, Stevens, Eliot, whoever, and then come to me.""

Problems with this very common argument: the quietist style is not traditional; it frequently has very little to do with Whitman; and absolutely most importantly: people don't all start out with a Quietist taste and then move on the avant-gardist-influenced work. This is one of the foundational lies of Quietism. People have very different points of entry. I imagine for example that it is *way* more common that people come to poetry through Allen Ginsberg than through Donald Hall and all the rest of that crew combined. I came to poetry through Ginsberg among others and I have consistently felt that my schooling has been focused on delegitimizing many of those original sources of inspiration and of getting me to stop writing poetry. I have largely felt Quietism to be a way to discourage me from writing, to get me to abandon my interests in poetry.

Moreover this argument recapitulates the whole 'tradititional' quagmire associated with Quietism. It's just not the case that quietism was the tradition and that recently 'post-' anything messed with it. Instead, we can find the lineages of what we now consider 'avant-garde' writing right there at the beginning of writing itself, as Rothenberg etc has shown, with runes, hexes, spells, numerical writing, curses, prayers, etc.

19. Important: I think it's important to move away from Quietists vs Post-Avants. It's rather that we all interact with the Quietist System in different ways.

20. I'm actually quite optimistic about the future of poetry. But more about that later.

21. I appreciate both Ron's and Seth's grappling with these issues.


Blogger Seth Abramson said...


First, I want to thank you for your temperance in this discussion; it's exceeded mine by a lot, and I respect that about you tremendously.

Second, I agree with way, way, way more of this than you might expect. The problem, I think, is with the framing, which to an extent owes to the fact that you're using Ron's terms to argue against them--a structural deficiency in your method of argument that has a measurable negative effect.

Third, I hope you'll take a look again at the thread on my blog about Semiotics, as I've added to my remarks in the "comments" section. I think it might be a fruitful way to frame the discussion (or perhaps just an interesting lens, to mix metaphors). But fundamentally, since I don't believe such a thing as Quietism exists--because the lingo is absolutely meaningless--I think it'd be difficult for me to respond to your comments above. Like when you say, "Quietism" isn't the "tradition"--I agree, in no small part because Quietism doesn't exist in the first place. Anyway, a quick paragraph-by-paragraph response, attempting as best I can to navigate around useless terminology by inserting semiotic theory:

1. Agree.

2. Agree that Pragmatics and, to a lesser extent, Cognitive-Semantic Poetry finds a better home in MFA programs, and Syntactic Poetry less of one because it's more reliant on pre-knowledge of post-structuralist theory to critique--and most 21 year-olds don't have a background in post-structuralist theory, so they balk at Syntactic Poetry (same with some faculty). Agree that Pragmatics particularly is limiting, as the semiotic concept of Pragmatics pushes one to see acceptable distinctions in poetry as a matter of topicality, not semiotics, aesthetics, theories, or even surface effects (though these are more accepted).

3. Agree.

4. Disagree with the simplistic link between Pragmatic Poetics and The New Criticism--The New Criticism is supportive of one branch of Pragmatics, neo-classicism, and absolutely dismissive of others (like "identity-based" poetry). This is, however, an example of an internal conflict which does mask the fact that Pragmatics is a single strain of semiotics.

5. Agree somewhat. Hiring in the Academy is not just aesthetic-political, but political-political. I actually think you're making it our to be nobler than it is by not conceding the even seedier side of it.

6. Agreed. As "texture" takes us to "tone," and "tone" is most relevant to Pragmatics, the basics of craft I described--if never deviated from--would indeed put one squarely in the Pragmatic Poetry camp.

7. Agreed. "Craft" as it is usually discussed in MFAs is an aesthetic-political term, and carries presumptions.

8. Noise = Syntatic moves in a poem (not used as a pejorative here, on either end). I think MFA students these days are more receptive to noise than you're suggesting, but they often lack the language to defend it to those who have a ready language (the language of "craft") to denigrate it.

9. Depends on the workshop. This is too much of a generalization.

10. Disagree, because what you're calling Quietism includes Cognitive-Semantic Poetics, which are often designed to surprise the reader while also rewarding multiple reads of the poem with additional connotational/cognitive (and associational) content.

11. Agree. What you're calling Quietism had its heyday in the 80s and is now everywhere in decline, though it is a damn slow decline. The resurgence of Spicer, Creeley, Coolidge, Taggart, and others among younger writers is a sign of how the next generation of writers will look when they're in the "mid-career" generation (ages 40-60).

12. I think you have to remember that so-called "post-avants" boycott all of these anthologies, which--it must be allowed--has some effect on how they come out. It's not all editorial bias.

13. Disagree. They're not necessarily different semiotically--in their theory of semiotics (mixed Pragmatic/CogSem)--based on the work I've heard you read. Their surface effects are very, very different. Oddly enough, many of those "surface effects" are matters of craft (e.g.: the rhythm of your poems is nothing like the rhythm of the BNP poets, by and large; but that's a surface-effect, not semiotic distinction).

14. Disagree, as I think you're contradicting yourself. You're saying sometimes students get praised for writing the very same work you say they're being denigrated for. Saying they don't get the top fellowships is not the same as saying that they're being blocked or discouraged; it's more that, because fellowships are decided based on consensus, it's that consensus process which drowns out the many professors who would indeed praise and encourage that work.

15. Disagree, because you misread me. I was speaking sociologically, not aesthetically. We're all in this together because we're all poets, which means (often) a whole host of things about our psyches, our wallets, our lifestyles, our reception from the dominant culture, and so on. We all know, fundamentally, something about what it's like to try to be a poet in America. That's all I meant. Aesthetically, we are not all in this together, agreed.

16. Disagree. You again contradict yourself: you've said the system is hellishly successful in making young poets Quietists; then you're saying that there aren't more Quietists than non-Quietists (again, the terms mean absolutely nothing anyway). The two assertions seem to contradict one another.

17. Agree. But I also think flarf is elitist. Performance poetry may be the only populist poetry out there--though some "identity-based" poetry is populist within the communities which engender it. Stan Apps' wonderful poem about Elmo is populist, but that's because it's essentially performance poetry, albeit the extremely heady, metaphysical wing of Pragmatics (where one is using thoughts on a metaphysical topic; the speech will often be conceptual because the aim is conceptual, but I don't know that that puts the poem out of Pragmatics and into Syntactic Poetry, because words are not actually be divorced from meanings, it's just that the poem is Pragmatic-discursive-philosophical rather than Pragmatic-lyric-emotional).

18. I think you're reading more into what I said than it warrants.

19. Agree.

20. Agree.


2:25 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The biggest issue I have with the binary sorting of All Poetry into Us vs. Them, which is largely what the argument about post-avant vs. SoQ reduces to, is that poetry was never this sorted. This is basically political rhetoric. I hear lots of cheering every time a LangPoet wins a "Quietest" award or faculty position—which basically reduces to the politics of coup d'etat, and says nothing about the quality of anybody's writing. It becomes hard to take ANY of it seriously.

I've frequently argued for alternative streams, third streams—only to have one camp or the other come along and re-sort all my examples into one of the two camps.

It's no wonder your average folks out there don't really care about poetry anymore. It's ALL elitist, because it's all academy-based. And the stuff that isn't remains largely ignored or dismissed by most of the participants of this argument. Not to mention that many of the poets out there aren't writing poetry that sits easily in either camp. Which is why the Urge To Sort becomes quite absurd at times.

I very much agree with Seth's response no. 17 in his comments here. I think that pretty much the post-avant is *at least as* elitist as the non-existent Quietists, if not more so. It's very hard for someone out here sitting on the sidelines to tell the difference, frankly.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Seth Abramson said...

P.S. Johannes, FWIW, it's "Abramson." No "h" or extra "a."

3:54 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I think it's also important to consider the possibility that non-Quietists, when they do achieve the benchmark successes of the po-biz (book publication, prizes, professorships, starting and maintaining indie presses), also become part of the gatekeeping/genre-rewarding community that the Quietists are so smugly accused of monopolizing. I think people who are part of this community need to stop spending time examining how others fit into it, and maybe take a few seconds to examine how they, themselves, fit into it, and whether their own actions can ever really be ethical, when all is said and done (and if so, how such an ethics might emerge in a community so dominated by politics and favoritism).

4:00 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Not that I think Quietists/non-Quietists (post-avant, whatever) actually even exist.

7:32 PM  
Blogger matthew said...

i am so confused

4:54 AM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

"At base, we're all in this together."----

A good friend of mine at Vermont College used this sort of argument when he begged, at some point in a heated (and probably alcoholic) discussion that must have had negative overtones, that we should try to be positive and appreciate all sorts of poetry because it's all still poetry, we're all poets, etc,..

But, how "at base" are we "in this together?" Yoking a certain pair of "poets" could be like yoking a man who owns a Rottweiler with a man who owns a Pomeranian (my wife calls Pomeranians Pomegranates....)

Actually, that's not a good comparison. A man who owns a Rottweiler, with a man who owns a Goldfish. Or maybe a quiet Pomeranian with a loud shark. Or a kayak with a cello. Or the sea with a rock. Cleopatra with my cock. (couldn't resist the rhyme.)

At base it's just not healthy to always make love not war--- Pomeranians, Goldfish, Kayaks, etc, etc, are all in their hearts just scratching to leap up into bugling battle,....

(hung over with a sinus infection....)

7:05 AM  
Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Hi Rauan,

I've decided to start counting how many times I've written this on my blog or in blog comments over the last five days (this is #12; which isn't your fault, it just goes to show how widespread these conversations can become on the blogosphere): when I said what you quoted me above as saying, I was not talking about aesthetics. I was talking about esprit de corps, the notion that, sociologically, all of us as poets have certain commonalities in our experience of being poets in America. Poetry has a particular cultural place in the current iteration of American society, and as poets in that iteration we all have some small stock of shared experience which allows us to think of who/how we are "as poets" (again, as a matter of sociology, not aesthetics). Aesthetically, needless to say, we are not all in this together, in the sense that we have differing views on aesthetics. My purpose in asking whether we aren't all, in some small sense, "in this together" was actually just to ask if there aren't certain fora--say, discussions of the sociological value of the MFA degree--where we can stop speaking in terms of aesthetics and start thinking of ourselves "as poets." Again, sociologically. I hope that makes sense. There are only certain contexts in which I'm saying thinking of ourselves "as poets" is helpful or even possible. Best,

Be well,

8:56 AM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

Hey Seth,...

i'm proud to be number 12!!....

and of course at some point we have to be counted in the same grouping(s), like casualties or tombstones. or blades of grass.

and i'm happy to drink with anyone at AWP but honestly i couldn't give a rat's ass about
"certain commonalities in our experience of being poets in America"

but, of course, that's not right either....

and easy for me to shit and spit in other people's drinks when i'm down in Mexico wallowing in the lights and darknesses of my own mortality.... a million miles away from MFA programs....

anyways, i appreciate your friendly and well-meaning response.. and hope you will take mine in good spirit too...

and if you're at AWP and we cross paths at the right time i'd be happy to buy you a drink,...

Rauan (Ron)

9:12 AM  

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