Wednesday, April 29, 2009


I want to very briefly return to my post from yesterday: The thing that intrigues/bewilders me the most in both Steven Burt's and American Hybrid's frameworks for reading contemporary poetry is the utter importance of nonsense.

In Burt's book, it's in the very title: for poetry to be good it has to come "close" to "nonsense", but refrain from going all the way into nonsense. And - as you can see in the quote from yesterday - 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."

Likewise in Hybrid, the Editors keep repeating (for pretty much every poet) that it is very fragmented and indeterminate, but still human.

Now the importance of the "human" is I think the same old humanist schtick. And it has the same old problems. To put it in crude terms, (referring to the post two snippets below), Peterson is more "human," more *real* than those "metropolitan" dandies with their cool journals (that's you Jordan Davis!).

But what makes it interesting to me is the opposite pole, nonsense. In both books, "nonsense" is defined as fragmented and - importantly - amnesiac. Is there any poetry that is in no way uses "resources of the past"? But this myth is important it seems to both of these books, since they keep repeating it over and over.

My first knee-jerk reaction was that it was a defensive gesture toward Language Poetry and such. Giving Langpo a human face. But that's of course too reductive. Afterall, if all they wanted was to keep Langpo at bay, all they would have to do would be to set up another pole, another "avant-garde", another non-human. But they are both clearly quite enamored of Langpo and I think it's precisely because Langpo offers this illusory pure nonsense.

Because I think that's ultimately what "nonsense" represents for both of these books, a kind of illusion of formal purity. The idea that there is poetry that is so "pure" that it's not about anything; it's just pure language. I think that's a very important point. Both books pretty much focuses entirely on "formal" analyzes. American Hybrid mentions nothing about politics, except the very retro-New-Critical notion that by purifying the language we resist the contaminating influences of mass culture. Other than that, the book only discusses poets in terms of the relative levels of fragmentation. It mentions that some poets use narrative and/or images, but in those cases such lowbrow techniques are undermined by some kind of fragmentation that gives such poets "high ambiguity" (see my post about the Mark Levine entry a while back).

Burt does do some analysis that includes ideas and politics. For examples, he mentions that for some poets he likes, the self is a work of artifice. But he doesn't delve into these matters; using the "content" merely as a reassurance that beneath the formal play, there is a content. He spends most of his essays analyzing the formal features: Look at the way so and so uses adjectives or question marks.

Both Hybrid and Close Calls emphasize that recent American poetry thinks narrative is too simplistic. They don't explain why. I would like to know because I only write narrative poems with a whole heap of imagery.

But then I am crass.

Both Hybrid and "Close Calls" begin with histories of post-war American poetry. And both histories are almost entirely formal. Poets change positions because they are drawn to new formal qualities. Little mention of gender trouble, Vietnam, etc. People like the Language Poets because they are "difficult."

So "nonsense" seems to be a pole that pushes "innovation" toward greater complexity and "difficulty". Strange thing indeed - as Cole Swensen notes in her intro - that we're back in New Critical land after a detour in simplistic poesy. That simplistic poetry seems to be in part, yes, the quietist workshop, but also the Beats, anti-war poetry and feminism of the 1960s etc. Ie poetry that deals with sexuality, the body, mass culture: a lowbrow political poetry in other words.

In addition to New Criticism, I think we're in Greenberg/Pollock land: a hatred of kitsch, the heroic individual, the beauty of the complex surface. And of course the connection with Marjorie Perloff's language poetry of indeterminacy, in which indeterminacy is a kind of radical formal ambiguity. Perloff in a recent interview (which is somewhere on the web) describes herself as a High Modernist with a hatred for kitsch.

There are many problems with this emphasis on formal qualities: what Jed Rasula has called "The American Poetry Wax Museum." We admire the lifeless things encased and protected from the world. Though we like to pretend that it's a heroic escape from the instrumentality and crassness of mass culture.

And I think both books realize that (to their credit). That is afterall why the poems should be "close" to "nonsense" but not all the way there. Why they should be hybrids of purity and non-purity.

Behind the overt quietism vs langpo model for the hybrid, I think there's a more fundamental idea of the poetics of moderation, of hybrids between crassness and pure formalism.

One of the reasons I like the framework of "gurlesque" is indeed that it moves away from this obsession with formal purity and progressive innovation. I like how it lines up with discussions about sexuality and the body (see Dodie Bellamy's piece on the Gurlesque in Action, Yes) and queerness etc. For the Opposite of the American Hybrid's "high ambiguity" and Perloff's "high modernism", see Lara's article on Aase Berg in last issue of Action, Yes.

One more thing: there is of course no such thing as "pure nonsense". It's the myth of this that matters. That's my point more than anything. No language exists in a beautiful vacuum. Perhaps a more fitting "pure nonsense" than language poetry (which is afterall richly included in American Hybrid, thus not it turns out pure nonsense, but quite human afterall) is foreign poetry.

Or Marxism. Afterall, as anyone who was alive in the US during the 1980s, movies about the Soviet Union was always a struggle against the inhuman other; also why I can't seem to remember which movies were about communists and which ones were about lizards/robots/martians.

One final thing: Jordan is right, there are big differences between Burt and American Hybrid. I'm merely pointing out the similarities. Certainly Burt has a populist streak in him which informs the very concept of the book. Another day for that post.

End of transmission.


Blogger Nada said...

Khlebnikov tried to get to pure nonsense, real pure nonsense, with zaum (transrational sound language).

Language poetry always already had a human face. Example (pulled at random from The Alphabet): "The blood from your period covered my dick like a thick sauce." (might not be verbatim as this is from memory... for who could forget?)

Something about the word "hybrid" nauseates me... like "fusion" (which tends to create nightmares in both music and food). On the other hand, I am totally down with chimeras (a good kind of nightmare!).

Johannes, have you read Folly? Because I am inclined to send it to you if you haven't.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

On the contrary, Johannes! The Hat is a *neat* journal, not a cool one. Action Yes is cool.

I didn't take that remark of Steve's personally. As I noted before, Steve was calling attention to Peterson's several levels of eccentricity -- not in the writing industry, not in a big city, not young...

But you've hit on your main point of difference: Steve's close call is redolent of Stevens's "must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully." (Which I'm sure he points out in the book -- haven't had the pleasure of making the book's acquaintance yet.)

I side with you more than with Steve on that point of difference, by the way, even if saying is to flatter myself that I'm a swing vote. Whatever democracy has to do with it.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


That's a good point. Stevens. Key figure.


12:00 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


yes, that's why it's a mythical reading. The specific authors of this mythical pure formalism are never mentioned. But my feelings is of course that it has more to do with Perloff than anybody.

I've been meaning to read your book, ever since I read about it on Mark's blog. Please feel inclined to send it to me:

Johannes Goransson
356 O'Shaughnessy
Notre Dame, IN 46556


12:06 PM  
Blogger fran├žois said...

All I want to say is: what about sound poetry (from Dada's Hugo Ball's Karawane, Schwitters' Ursonate, Henri Chopin, Fran├žois Dusfrenes) or concrete poetry?

12:57 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, that's what Nada also invoked with Khlebnikov. I'm about to go out but I'll write more about that later.


1:31 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

"Likewise in Hybrid, the Editors keep repeating (for pretty much every poet) that it is very fragmented and indeterminate, but still human.

Now the importance of the "human" is I think the same old humanist schtick. And it has the same old problems."

Thank God for Donna Harroway, and Deleuze's "Becoming [insert something Other here]". Hopefully, regardless of what these people might say, we can all move past this humanism and anthropocenticism.

re: "is there any poetry that is in no way uses "resources of the past"?" - the idea of poetry itself is using these resources - ie the very concept of poetry itself, not to mention language - even to opperate in a Zaum/dada/letteriste framework is to make use of the historical.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Hi JOhannes,
This has nothing to do with the post, but are you aware of the new and amazingly prolific McDuff/Dickens blog
- loads of useful material for followers of any modern nordic writing, but combined with aesthetic/political values that are extremely different from yours or mine. It makes for fascinating reading. e.g. Check out one of today's pieces:

3:40 AM  
Blogger Henry Gould said...

Johannes, I like your comment here : "Behind the overt quietism vs langpo model for the hybrid, I think there's a more fundamental idea of the poetics of moderation, of hybrids between crassness and pure formalism."

"Formal purity", proposed as a portable, add-on brand value, is just a cottage-industry form of mass-commercial crassness.

I see moderation as having to do with the relation between style & subject, or theme. Perhaps it can be thought of as part of a larger, quasi-lawful contract between poet & reader.

What if there's a balance between style & subject? So that the more indirect or "elliptical" the style, the greater necessity for an underlying weight or gravity of theme? I sense this in reading the fine poems of Allan Peterson (for the 1st time - thanks, people). There's an emotional undertone which links the vagaries of the slant indirection of the style, with an emotional "transfer", or something like that. So they balance out, pay for each other.

5:59 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I think I like the Gurlesque. Presumably Shanna Compton counts?

The foreword to that book is relatively apolitical because it's formal developments that all these poets have in common (for me): when I write about the individual poets and the poets take an interest in political matters I write about the politics. Or at least I think I do. Of course I admit here that I think there is such a thing as a poem not directly or immediately or first-of-all political, or "public," or part of a political public sphere. Althusserians and others will disagree.

When I am invited to move past, or to move out of, something called humanism I want to know what it is I'm being invited to move to, or to move into. So far they haven't been places I've wanted to stay. (This "humanism" has more room inside it than you might think: room, for example, for Tjanting.)

11:42 AM  
Blogger Stan Apps said...

Good post Johannes.

"Nonsense" certainly has a tradition to it. Victorians like Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear used this idea to write very emotionally resonant works about taboo topics. That their work was described by them as "nonsense" was really a cover--the idea that poems could lack sense meant that their emotional resonance could be experienced in some way more covertly and with less conscious mediation. It was a way to get around the censors and to reach an audience of children which was otherwise fiercely guarded by the censors. Anxieties about sexuality, economy, body image and even colonialism are frequently dramatized in these poems.

The opposition of "nonsense" to emotional resonance or human interest is a false one. Avant garde poetries frequently try to achieve unusual or unexpected emotional resonances by avoiding certain commonplace modes of expression.

Fragmented and indeterminate does not mean lacking in emotional resonance--it might mean the emotional resonance is more covert. I find the work of Language Poets to be, in general, more emotionally charged than the work of confessional poets: Silliman's optimism for example or Andrews' confrontational angst. Or the angst of uncertainty--of thought as uncertainty in motion--in Hejenian.

I wish that conservative critics could stop confusing predictability with emotional resonance, as if the only aspects of a literary work able to evoke emotion were generic features. Powerful emotions can be part of a work even if they are not conventionally signposted. I guess I'll even go so far as to say that the emotional resonance of experimental poetry might require a little sensitivity to the connotation of words to be experienced.

I'll also add that some forms of formalism attempt to maximize the emotional resonance of language. Hugo Ball for example.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

"The opposition of "nonsense" to emotional resonance or human interest is a false one. Avant garde poetries frequently try to achieve unusual or unexpected emotional resonances by avoiding certain commonplace modes of expression."

Take, for example, Kristeva's linguistic stance of symbolic (masculine, representational, repressed, dominant, rational, mind) vs semiotic (feminine, affectual, liberated, minor [as in D&G on Kafka], hysterical, body).

3:53 PM  

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