Friday, April 03, 2009

Cook Review (1)

OK, here are some thoughts about excess, in part brought on by Juliet Cook's perceptive review of Lara Glenum's brilliant book "Maximum Gaga" (which I published):

I like a lot of what Juliet writes in her review, for example her suggestion about post-human body and so on. I think some of my comments in this post will elaborate on Cook's prompts and some will disagree with her.

In different to Stan Apps, I like the way Cook writes the review. As I noted there is a "confessional," or unauthoritative feel to it that I like. That's why I like to write my ideas on this blog, because I feel I can throw in things even though I haven't standardized them yet etc. In some regard, the form of the review is "excessive" (a term I will come to soon).

One thing Cook doesn't like about the book - or perhaps feels suspicious about - is the "gimicky" quality of some of the writing, elements she doesn't feel are "integral" to the piece. She expounds on this by writing:

"I tend to be interested in poetry … that borders the grotesque. Poetry that borders the pornographic and is visceral with a voluptuous horror. Poetry that experiments with such borders without dissolving into nonsense or total absurdity. Sometimes it’s a very fine line and I tend to be interested in flirting with fine line." Cook's problem is when Lara exceeds that "fine line."

And exceeding that fine line is defined thus: "It is not the over-the-top disgustingness of the content that occasionally seems to have gone too far. When I suggest that it has gone too far in places, I am speaking of a sense that the poet has lost some control of her own content."

What is transgressive is not the meaty imagery but something about the structure that seems out of control, and descend into "nonsense" and this is "gimicky."

I think this actually ties in with our discussion about Decadence a while back, a discussion which was prompted by various people claiming that some stylistic tics of contemporary writing were "decadent" because they were not true or integral to the "meaning" etc. (Or perhaps it's the reverse: form cannot control the content as opposed to being excessive. This also related to our discussion with Corey about Reines and Lara while back.)

These two are of course connected. The grotesque body is an unnatural body, a body that is not integral, a hybrid body, a decadent, artificial body that threatens to undo our very fundamental notion of what is natural and unnatural (the body is of course always the site of the natural - urges, feelings etc). This is why Par Backstrom in his article about Michaux talks about "language grotesque" - how Michaux's bodies and his "nonsensical" language both work like the grotesque.

This is interesting to me because it shows the connection between what Cook likes and doesn't like about Lara's work is very close, perhaps the same thing. That is she likes its formal transgressiveness until this impulse goes "too far" and becomes nonsense, and importantly "grotesque."

In his comment below, Ron K. makes a similar point: "Juliet Cook is, it seems, a fan of excess. But she wants the excess to be orderly, organized, "splayed out for a reason.""

The "reason" is key here. "Excessive" is of course always relative. Excessive to what? To whose standards? And also: when is something nonsense. It is interesting that in the comment field Juliet says she doesn't like "Dadaism." Dadaism for her represents what it represented to people in the 10s and 20s: some kind of state of utter randomness.

In more recent times in America, this is what "language poetry" has come to mean for a lot of people. For example, the entire framework for Cole Swensen's "American Hybrid" is based on the notion that there are simplistic poets who write utterly clearly (Quietists) and hardcore language poets (not Lyn H or Susan Howe etc) who write pure nonsense. But notable the hybrid is here the opposite of the grotesque hybrid - it is not inbred, it is healthy based on its multiplicity ("more is better" as my pal Juan always said at lunchbreak as he loaded on the fixings on his hot dog when we worked as landscapers in NYC.)

A related topic: Marjorie Perloff's high modernist concept of pure "indeterminacy." This is the flipside of the coin and, in its reductivenesss, I think provides Cole with the strawman she needs to make the argument for "the hybrid" (which of course is not grotesque at all - never grotesque - even Alice Notley has been purified in that selection!).

There is of course no Pure Nonsense. Just frameworks where certain things don't make sense. For example Joseph Hutchison apparently didn't know anything about unicorns, so according to his framework, the Blatny poem I discussed below did not make sense. Importantly, he conceived of it as "avant-garde tic" - that is, he's using that same rhetoric of "dadaism" as writing that is nonsense and, importantly, a "tic" - in other words "gimicky" or decadent.

Further, nonsense is always part of society; chaoticness doesn't take the text out of the social. For example, this is why Dadaism seemed so threatening to people in the 20s (that and the fact that it had the aura of "Germany" ie communist).

I need to go now but I will pick up on many of these loose threads later or tomorrow and I will also expound on some of Cook's ideas of "post-human" and how it pertains to the grotesque. Stay tuned.


Blogger Kate Durbin said...

It might be interesting to connect this idea of "excessive poetry" that has "gone too far" or become "nonsense" or, literally, makes "no sense" our urges to "make sense of" that which is in fact senseless (in Glenum's case, violence).

This seems tied in as well to our urge to control, or to have control of our own work as art-makers. But I think it's precisely when we are willing to let go of this sort of control (which is actually a form of violence, because it is a lie) that the most profound and interesting work is made. Work that turns the tables on everyone and everything. When a writer is willing to let the work get away from their little realm of control and forced "meaning making," that is often when the work speaks most intrinsically and intuitively to those unanswerable and unutterable groans which are the essence of being human.

I'm wondering if this makes sense to anyone else...

2:54 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Brief point of fact: Cole Swensen has known and interacted with language poets for many years. I doubt very much that she would have a simplistic take suggesting that language poetry is pure nonsense. Does she express such an idea in the American Hybrid anthology? I'd be interested to know, because the characterization doesn't sound like her at all. And if it isn't her, I'd like to know where the idea that it is her is coming from.

It's certainly interesting to see what happens when a reviewer who thinks that writers should "control" poems tries to deal with the issue of the excessive, although I suppose it's not finally that much of a surprise that she would come to the conclusion that there's a "good excessive" and a "bad excessive" when it's precisely the point of the excessive that it overwhelms such distinctions.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Isn't this the kind of aesthetic disintegration that can justify anything, though? I mean, you could defend a greeting a card by saying that they make critics "feel uncomfortable," and that this destabilization of their experience is, in itself, an interesting or good thing. I think it's the easiest critical maneuver to simply take an objection, and then turn around and perform the gymnastics required to wrap it up as part of the project. Oh, it makes you feel that way? Well maybe it was meant to make you feel that way! Under this model, however, criticism is absolutely not possible. Any objection just gets folded back into the project and explained away.

I haven't read "Maximum Gaga" yet, so I don't know if I agree with Cook's take on it or not. But this response to her criticism just feels a little too easy.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Good point about Cole. I think I get this impression from the overall rhetoric of the piece. In the introductory matters to almost all of the writers, it says: x writes fragmented poetry but it's not indeterminacy, it has an emotional core. Or some such. I think that's part of the anthology's rhetoric. But clearly she doesn't mean all (or even most) of the langpos. Since there are quite a few of them. In fact, I think both poles are largely imaginary.


6:38 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


1. The review is almost entirely positive.

2. What I just wrote was not meant to criticize Cook in an "easy" (or hard) way. What I do think her problems with the book bring up are perceptive and interesting moments if you're going to discuss excess. I'm not saying: it's too much therefore it's good. What I'm saying is: lets look at "too much" and see what it is.

3. This might become more apparent in the post I plan to write tomorrow, which actually will probably take up some of Cook's praises for the book and elaborate them.


6:41 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

But on some level, aren't you trying to soften Cook's criticisms (I'm not arguing that her criticisms are many, but she apparently has one or two) by wrapping them in this veil of "interesting moments" in the discussion of "excess"?

It would seem that you're taking her criticisms, and merely using them to fortify this idea of the grotesque that allows for absolutely no criticism. If a work of grotesquerie is criticized for "losing control" or becoming "gimmicky," then the grotesque simply gobbles up those attributes, which then stand as further proof of its success as a grotesque work.

I guess I just have a general problem with that kind of formulation.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Of course you have a problem with that formulation because that is not how you see art (as we have seen again and again on this blog).

I like Kate's formulation (as always) above.

And again, it's really a very positive review, so there's no need for me to say anything, if what I wanted to just let it be positive.

What I'm interested in is this rhetoric of when things go "too far."

I'm not interested in evaluative standards. Boring. Boring.


7:03 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

So that's how you do see art? As a case of simple functionalism? If a "grotesque" work is adequate to its defined boundaries, then it functions, and is therefore successful?

As far as Kate's comment is concerned, I think it's clearly a fantasy that one could cede "control" over his/her work. To doggedly pursue the cessation of control, in fact, is very much like doggedly pursuing control over every detail in the first place. Which is to say that they're both fantasies. We are both in control, and out of control at the same time. This is a fact that extends beyond art and touches every part of our lives. That art would somehow escape this reality, or that different conditions would apply, is a silly notion.

We can, perhaps, create the effect of "control," or of the "cessation of control." Maybe Cook's point is that, in Maximum Gaga, this "cessation of control" becomes apparent (i.e. gimmicky), that a level of "control" is revealed in the process, and that this revelation contradicts the intended effect.

Of course, at this point, it seems you're likely to argue that these twisting meta layers all must be part of "the point," part of what makes the book "grotesque," and that it therefore only bolsters Maximum Gaga's success at grotesquerie.

This implicit argument, however, that the "grotesque" is to be defined/justified/bolstered by the criticisms lodged against works falling within its general boundaries, just rings kind of hollow with me.


7:54 AM  
Blogger baj salchert said...

Please change "Hutchinson" to

8:00 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


That's not what Cook argues.

Don't be "sorry". I certainly don't care if you keep insisting on finding my arguments "hollow." That seems perfectly expected.


8:43 AM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

Again, I enjoyed Juliet's review very much. And I agree, also, that it's all in all a very positive review and I appreciate that her criticisms are not predatory or mean-spirited.

That being said I would like to have seen more "meat" to her contention that sometimes she felt that the "poet has lost some control of her own content" and that the work "goes too far and plunges over the top."

Juliet is not "a fan of careless blending or flinging." Not a fan of poetry "rather haphazardly flung together." Not a "big fan of artistic improvisation and its resultant occasional happy accidents."

For Juliet when things get loose and sloppy it reminds her of "different kinds of meat pitched into a high-powered blender and then the button held down until the blend becomes tasteless...I don't mean tasteless as in appropriate or offensive. I mean tasteless as in having lost a distinct taste and texture, tasteless as in undifferentiated, tasteless as in imprecise."

Juliet does "like wild imaginativeness but she (likes) it to be contextualized, well-crafted, and catered towards maximum impact."

I'm fine with all the quotes above (all from Juliet's review). A reviewer is entitled of course to his or her own "tastes" and those of course will come through in his or her opinions and judgements. But I'm a bit disappointed that Juliet's review doesn't cite any examples of where she thinks the text of Maximum Gaga does go "too far."

So this discussion now about excess, decadence, too far, not too far, etc, etc, has to be of a general nature.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

She does mention specifically the back-cover excerpt, which perhaps suggests that it's the "Frame"-narrative that this gives the story that is the problem.


9:36 AM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

yes, Johannes, Juliet does give specifics about where she thinks the framing is gimmicky. (another example is the use of "Post" in poem titling.

but she does not give examples of where she thinks things go over the top. excessive. etc.

9:47 AM  
Blogger CandyDishDoom said...

I remember when I was reading 'The Hounds of No', Glenum's first collection, which I loved, I thought each piece had more of a powerful stand-alone feel. I could have gotten excited about the pieces in that book whether within our outside of the context of the book as a whole. Whereas with 'MAXIMUM GAGA', overall, I thought there was more of a collective feel to the collection. Certainly, some of the pieces could stand alone, yet there were quite a few shorter pieces (the piece culled for back cover being just one example) that if presented as stand alone pieces would seem weak or insufficient (or perhaps lacking in context). I can't say there's anything WRONG with that approach, but for me, it led to a certain sense of filler at times and I preferred the meat poems to the filler poems. Or I preferred the more entree-like poems to the little appetizer poems might be another way to put it. In a way, the appetizer-like poems seemed extraneous to me and a few of them even seemed a little bit didactic.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yeah, I really like the frame material. So that's a difference of evaluation. (My own poetry is very frame-ish).

The idea was to go for broke. To go for excess. To go all the way, as my old drug-friend Tom used to say about his endeavors.


10:40 AM  

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