Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ideologues and Hybrids

Mark has a discussion of the charge of "ideologue" that Joseph Hutchison made against me after my discussion about Blatny a few weeks ago. The reasons he felt I was an ideologue was that I liked poetry he didn't like and I read it in a way he didn't agree with. So basically, if you present a different point of view, you might be an ideologue.

I think this charge has everything to do with "American Hybrid" and "third-way-ism" etc. The poetry in "American Hybrid" is actually quite homogeneous/focused. It has a definite aesthetic (which has quite a bit in common with a depoliticized reading of language poetry but very little in common with a lot of contemporary American poetry).

I think that's fine. OK. I don't love the aesthetic of contemplative immersion, but it's certainly one way to go. It's the rhetoric of open-ness and hybridity that I find specious. Throughout American Hybrid, poets are characterized by an openness to a variety of devices, which as a result make their poetry richer, more varied, better - than that of "ideologues" I presume.

The critic Stephen Burt has a new book of reviews out called "Close Call with Nonsense," which seems almost like the Cliff Notes for the American Hybrid. This book is full of the same critiques of "ideologues," people who have different opinions. Burt says he likes poets who are "at once innovative and traditional, alert both to the troubles of modern language, and to the resources of centuries past." Ie the American hybrid. And in fact a number of the American Hybrid poets pop up in this one (Jorie Graham, Rae Armantrout, Haryette Mullen).

This is what Burt writes about one such poet, Allen Peterson:

"If Peterson makes a good example of the difficulty, the indirection, that pervades American poetry now, he also illustrates what we ignore if we look at poetry in terms of cliques and schools: Peterson holds a graduate degree in visual art, taught for decades at a junior college in Florida, and wrote poetry for twenty years before his first collection appeared. Not coincidentally, the poets with the fewest hip connections, farthest from the metropolitan areas, are the likeliest to get overlooked: they can win competitions, as Peterson's volumes did, but aren't likely to sign on to manifestos, found cool magazines, win academic awards, or turn up at glittering po-biz events."

This paragraph made me pretty irritated. To begin with there is the coterie-hatred that Lytle Shaw has dealt with so insightfully in papers and his book about Frank O'Hara. Burt glorifies Peterson as a real person, not one of those cosmopolitan hipsters and their coteries.

OK, that's just old fashioned, moronic caricaturing, but then Burt goes on to somehow fuse the metropolitan hipster with people who write manifestos and win prizes.

Steve, one of these two are not like the other.

The reason people generally write manifestos (ie become "ideologues" in the eyes of people like Burt) is that they don't agree with the prevailing ideas of the poetry institutions. People who get "academic awards" tend to be the very opposite! People Like **Peterson** (who, as Burt notes, did win an award)! The logic here is startling. You don't start journals because you agree with the way things are going.

I also want to emphasize how ridiculously and low these attacks are: "glittering" and "cool" suggest a shallowness to these metropolitan poets, who in difference to the hard-working Peterson, just run around and effortlessly create "cool" (implicitly vacuous) journals. Running a journal is incredibly difficult and time-consuming.

[PS This is the address to Mark's post.]


Blogger mark wallace said...

You might want to make the link at the start of this post go to my one particular post rather than my blog in general, as I've now put up a new post and the old one might get lost.

Re Burt and much of this hybrid and third way and middle ground theory: it is pretty fascinating to read people who try to argue that their interests transcend cliques and camps and contemporary trendiness and, ultimately, all (supposedly limiting) ideology. And it's interesting how quickly what they've done is define a new clique, camp, and trend--not to mention one whose ideological limits are so instantly apparent.

One problem I think is that people still don't often understand the complexity of the concept of ideology: they think that some new set of techniques, or some unarticulated concept of openness, will somehow get them beyond having a limited point of view when all it can really do is simply given them another limited point of view.

The problem of course isn't that it's limited--no way to help that--but that anyone ever imagines to themselves that they don't have to be limited.

That's in a "best case scenario of good intentions" of course. The worst case: claiming to be beyond ideology as a power move that allows you to control major publishing and institutional mechanisms. It's amazing how often this is precisely the move that literary power brokers engage in.

One reason it works, perhaps, is because so many people with a struggling, less central stake in the system like to fantasize that they too are above it all. It invokes a fantasy about inclusion that's appealing to the revenge fantasies that arise from feeling left out. I'm not saying that the condition of being left out isn't real. I'm saying that the feelings that arise from it have long since been factored into institutional maneuvers.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Peterson's a pretty great poet, actually, and Steve's comments bear on his work -- his concerns are not prototypical Am. hyb. concerns, and his methods are not Am. hyb. methods. (It's as if Ashbery had preferred WCW to Auden.)

If you choose to read him (I didn't get the sense you have), the difficult-to-find Anonymous Or is a better introduction than All the Lavish in Common.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You're right, Peterson's poetry does not really fit with the rather specific aesthetic of the American Hybrid (I talk a great deal about this in my forthcoming Raintaxi review).

And that is actually true of quite a few of the poets Burt describes.

However, I think his rhetoric of measured/moderate mixing and anti-hard-liner rhetoric has a lot in common with Cole's. They also stress the "human" throughout both books, which makes me cringe.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

if everything is political, nothing is political

8:01 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Thanks for the attention! I won't apologize for preferring the human to the inhuman, and I will point out (thanks, Jordan!) that I wrote about Allan Peterson (not Allen) before he had won the Juniper Prize (I was writing about Anonymous Or, the book Jordan prefers to All the Lavish etc.-- I like them equally). If I have more to say in response to that attention (from Johannes and from Mark Wallace and from others, about ideology, limits and institutions, among other topics) would this comment stream be an appropriate place, or would that just be hogging the mic?

7:33 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Hey Steve,

I think it would be great if you would hog the mic.


8:04 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

OK, I'll borrow the mic for a minute. Mark points out that everybody has an ideology, by which he means a consistent set of assumptions and ideas that add up to a "limited point of view": nobody can get beyond their own point of view, exit the hermeneutic circle, occupy Rawls' original position, etc. And Mark is correct-- although I suspect that we differ about the value of experience, of implicit as against explicit principles, of inductive, as it were, reasoning (rather than the deductive reasoning that comes from applied manifestos) as a producer of what we see in what we read. (See, here, Christopher Ricks's "Literary Principles as Against Theory," and then see almost anything by William Carlos Williams written between 1920 and 1950-- on this point, and on few others, WIlliams and Ricks seem to me to be on the same side.) If you don't think there is such a thing as experience-- not "prior to" but capable of interacting with and modifying ideology-- I don't know what you can think literature might do.

I never claim to be beyond having ideas. ("'No ideas but in things' doesn't mean 'no ideas.'") I do claim to like poets who don't have much in common (which doesn't mean I like all poets, or even all kinds of poets).

I also think that we critics ought to go out of our way to find poets (whether or not those poets have ideologies, and whether or not they run journals) not already famous, not likely to become famous, not located (geographically or aesthetically) at any of the cultural centers, not people we are likely to physically meet (at parties, for example) and not especially in sync with the times.

Allan Peterson is a real person. So is Ange Mlinko, also a very good poet with two books out-- they serve as foils to each other in that essay; at the time of that essay it seemed to me that Mlinko's poetic persona oriented itself towards, and Peterson's persona away from, cultural centers and prevailing (hip) tastes. I hope it's clear from the essay that I like them both. I also write admiringly about cosmopolitan hipsters. O'Hara included.

I would never claim that running a magazine wasn't hard work. It does have rewards, though; if you do it well, other readers will become more likely to recognize your name. Same with running a reading series, or writing lots of reviews. Like me.

Lots of people start journals because they agree with the way things are going-- but those aren't the journals we remember later on.

I considered naming individual poets who seemed to me beneficiaries of metropolitan glitter, turning up at the right parties, etc. and overrated/ too often noticed in consequence (they are not the same as the editors of magazines, and they are NOT the people named in that essay). I thought discretion more appropriate than a series of attacks on my exact contemporaries in the course of an overview. I still think so.

I don't mind manifestos. I do mind poets whose poems can be predicted, page by page and almost line by line, from the contents of their manifestos. But I can't imagine that Mark enjoys such poems either.

I hope that helps. I'll check back again soon. (Maybe I still don't understand the concept of ideology?)

3:38 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think my reason for bringing in that paragraph from your book is because it, despite seeming to be a kind of transition paragraph, exhibits a lot of the values exhibited in the anti-ideologue discussions: the ideologue must be strangely both shallow and too opinionated, must be somehow akin to "fashion" (a term I've seen bantered about a lot by people in fact trying to dismiss the American Hybrid poets, and which makes me ambivalent about criticizing the anthology), rather that "real" human endeavor.

Many months ago now I read Mark Halliday's article about Josh Clover that used exactly the same rhetoric. In particular what caught my eye in that review was his irritation at Clover using the phrase "lettist jacket" - an inhuman, fashion-based moment according to Halliday with none of the depth of real human emotion. But of course this is part of a kind of postmodern aestheticism that is opposed to Halliday's worldview.

I wonder how often you find manifestos and how often you find people follow them completely - usually manifestos are not the kind of thing that one can follow, they are not definitions but calls for movement in various directions (Can one write an orthodox Dadaist poem - even when Tzara claims to write such a manifesto? Etc).

It makes me wonder: why this strawman?

The interesting thing about this anxiety about orthodoxy is that it somewhat disproves my argument about "the american hybrid" poem - that it's concerned with indeterminacy. Perhaps it's concerned with *over*-determinacy. And I think that's something Language Poets can occasionally be guilty of - contrary to Perloff's poetics of indeterminacy.

This post is getting long but let me also say this, Steve: I like the fact that you picked up on Berryman's influence in your book. I was really into Berryman as an undergrad, though nobody else seemed to care, but then I got a bit sick of him, but then I showed up at Iowa and everybody loved him.

However, this had nothing to do with Mark Levine, whom you position as a central poet of the Berrymania. None of the people I went to MFA school with had read Debt (and very few people still have read it), but many wrote with Berryman's influence. Most noticeably Ben Doyle (now Doller) and Spencer Short (now a lawyer). But in their case it was more the jazzy style than the "I am" metaphors.

So I think you overestimate the influence of Debt. If Levine has had any influence it's as a teacher and opinionator at the Workshop.

Finally: Two of the more interesting recent books of Berrymania is Jasper Bernes's book and Danielle Pafunda's books.


9:44 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Hey! The first person I knew who actually attended Iowa earned his MFA in 1994 or 1995, and he told me that at that time EVERYBODY was reading Debt. It's also the second or third book, as far as I know, that sounds like the kind of thing half the ("serious"/ "literary") young poets in Brooklyn would be writing in 1999. And the first is Liam Rector's first book, which sounds very little like his later books, and which I know very few people read. So I do think DEBT itself mattered, though it would have mattered less had he not taught there. I think you were at Iowa slightly later, no?

I reviewed the Jasper Bernes book. I like it a great deal. I have tried Pafunda, too. Maybe I should try again.

Finally: I suppose I do have a temperamental suspicion of manifestos, for reasons that have to do with humanism and with my sense of why we have lyric, or perhaps with my sense that we have inner lives. But obviously poets fond of manifestos can write splendid, durable poems. Williams, for example. If you want to write manifestos don't let me stop you-- but don't repeat yourself in your poems (as, Johannes, I know that you do not).

8:52 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Who are these young poets in Brooklyn? Can you name some names?

I like Debt. I think it's a good book. I haven't read it since I was in Iowa, but I remember liking it. It struck me because he really goes all out with his aesthetic and I think that's all one can ask of a poet. I think since then Mark has really lost his nerve.


6:52 AM  

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