Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Softness Revisited

Jon Woodward left me the following note:

"Hi Johannes,

Only a month late to the party, that's not too bad. I think the Surrealism that Hoagland dismisses might overlap with my "soft-surrealist cotton candy," but I don't know. The stuff I have a problem with (not a moral problem but a pragmatic one, ie "Good Lord I can't keep reading this") is what lots of young men (myself at one time included) write if they think that James Tate and Dean Young are about as Surrealist as it gets. I got nothing against Surrealism, or softness for that matter. Some of my favorite people are soft. "

I want to make sure that everyone understands: I'm not promoting Dean Young as some kind of ideal. What I am opposing is the rhetoric of hardness/softness, reasonableness vs skitteriness, usefulness vs fashion, able vs disabled, masculine vs feminine, truth vs perversion, simplicity vs ornamentation etc.

It's a way of talking about art that I'm opposed to. A way that leads inevitably to moderation and enforced normalcy.

My problem with Dean Young or whoever is not that they are soft but that they aren't nearly soft enough. It's way too moderate.


Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I agree totally. With regard to Steve Burt's latest (yes, and I'm sick of it too) Nada Gordon said "The key sexist bullshit here for me is that idiotic word, 'unornamented.'" (at Stan Apps place).

I think the same statement could be rephrased to substitute in the word "soft". I love soft, and mushy. THe first poet who comes to mind is Ariana Reines, who I've been writing on (the essay is almost certainly getting published By the way, including my discussion of A New Quarantine).

I had a similar discussion over on Adam Fieled's blog, with regard to his post on the "post avant", privileging ideas of craft etc. Poetry that is "bad", "soft", "undiscipined", "needs more work" etc is often the most powerful - case and point being "In Praise of Virgins".

7:28 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, Ariana has a really interesting essay on Action, Yes that you may find in the archives.


7:42 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Yeah I read it, and cited it quite heavily, along with James Pate's comments on her methodology of pillaging.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I think the problem with reflexively clinging to the "soft" is that it leads to the aestheticizing of what is already an empty criticism.

Why can't we just say that a poem needs what it needs, in the absolute broadest terms, and leave it at that?

10:20 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

What's coming through is a wish to protect poetry from pre- and proscription. Nobody's going to tell poets what to do.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Eli Hemistich said...

What we want is a more immoderate softness, yes.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Frodebart Winslow said...

Any idea why excess & immoderation is a celebrated feature of some of the most renowned novels in Western lit. (e.g. about anything by Dostoevsky, Moby-Dick), but this is not so in poems?

Is it because their excesses are just a silky feminine mask on a hard, erect, masculine Philosophy? Or, you know, what?

11:17 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

There's no general answer to Frodebart's question that could fit everyone, but still, I'd say that in a lot of cases it's because poetry is already considered, in many contexts, the softest kind of language. It's not politics or science. It's not even fiction, which itself has a long history of being maligned as feminine.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I see that C.D. Wright "beat out" Dean Young for the Griffin Prize a couple weeks ago.

Phew. That would have been deeply crazy, otherwise. Not to say embarrassing...

So what would "hard" and "soft" have to do with *her* work? Surely it's hard and soft, ornamented and unaornamented, and most else in between?

Anyone agree with me that Wright may be the most powerfully original poet writing in the U.S. right now? Someone who will very possibly come to be seen, not too long from now, as centripetal as Ashbery to the period?


7:13 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I'm not sure I agree; there are certain people I have my eye on, and she's not one of them - though I have to say I haven't read much.
Tan Lin's BLIPSOAK01 was something that made me just about fall over, and I'm a big fan of Myung Mi Kim - I've already stated my feelings for Ariana Reines and Lara Glenum, and am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Lara's new book.

Regarding the Ashbery comment, I think there are reasons Ashbery became so well loved that have much more to do with his accessibility, and the overt "poetical" nature of his writing, (ie it reads like what people expect poetry to read like) more than the necessarily innovative nature of his work. There are many contemporaries of his whose work i find far more pleasurable, stimulating and interesting - Olson, Duncan, Blaser, Spicer, Mayer, Notley, and some of James Schuyler's work, along with what of Kenward Elmslie I've read.

5:01 AM  
Blogger Jasper Bernes said...


Yes, surely between the hard and the soft, the burning chrome and the eider-down, we must have some interceding terms: memory foam, silly putty, neoplatonic solid, quicksand.


I always thought it was poetry that has been historically feminized, considered ephemeral, too concerned with feelings rather than actions, etc. Isn't this the view most commonly held today? And isn't this why contemporary mainstream fiction remains much more of a sausage party (at least if you consider who gets recognized as important) than poetry?


How can we possibly consider Melville and Dostoevsky as "soft"? They would seem paragons of phallic hardness--Moby-Dick quite literally so. I guess you could make the case for Pierre and its refiguring of the sentimental novel (Hawthone's "damned mob of scribbling women"), depending upon how much you read it as satire.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


The novel was historically seen as women's writing, but that's before Modernism largely.

Melville is full of all the blubbery sperm.

Also he was a "recovery project". Originally dismissed as looney and excessive.

It would be interesting to see in which ways this recovery project involved hardness, phallicity and, most importantly perhaps, nation-building.


7:45 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Jasper: That sounds clever and I know you are clever, but I have no idea what you are talking about, which no doubt proves that I am not as clever as you.

Ross: No disrespect to Lara Glenum and Tao Lin, interesting and energetic young poets, but I feel compelled to say: They are to a poet like Wright something like what a Karl Schmidt-Rottluff is to a Cezanne! We are talking about different categories of gift, vision, and achievement altogether!

And I hope "accessibility," a quality which Wright does indeed (in sui generis manner) somehow combine with large measures of thematic and formal idiosyncracy, is not in your book necessarily a bad thing! Adorno is great, god bless him, but the Negative Dialectic has become a bit of an academic vibrator by now, and its post-avant "leftist" uses as much a part of the Culture Industry as an AWP Cash Bar.

Taht's an awkward trope, but anyway...

Speaking of the Culture Industry, I'm off tomorrow to the Grand Canyon! They say it's harder going down than coming back out.


8:29 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Ross said Tan Lin, not Tao Lin.

Also, before I even begin to address your greatness shtick, I'll say that it's a bit difficult to compare poets that are 30 years apart.

And those kinds of analogies (x is to Wright what y is to a Dinosaur) are just lame-game.


9:05 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Johannes said:

Also, before I even begin to address your greatness shtick, I'll say that it's a bit difficult to compare poets that are 30 years apart.

I agree. Because we're talking (at least in the case of Glenum-- sorry for my confusion on Tan Lin) of about 30 years difference of poetic labor and study. Shock for the young is relatively easy.

Not that labor and study guarantess greatness, of course. But it can help, sometimes.

And Tan Lin would be, to my mind, a fine, but minor, writer in comparison to Wright, yes.


9:13 AM  
Blogger Cathy Park Hong said...

what a burr to the superbly talented Tan Lin that he must be constantly mistaken for the emo, attention grabbing Tao Lin.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I have to say Kent that I'm not particularly interested in questions of "major" or "minor". Many of those poets I mentioned in regard to Ashbery would be considered minor. That's kind of besides the point (Delueze & Guattari's book on Kafka springs to mind).

And to imply that shock is all that is going on in Lara's work is ridiculous.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Of course, what is it to discuss "literary greatness" other than exactly what it is to discuss, say, whether Whitney Houston is better than Mariah Carey? Except the latter debate doesn't have the false scaffolding of academic legitimacy to hold it up.

3:48 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, I agree with Max here: this kind of discussion isn't all that interesting to me.

But I remember a while back I expressed annoyance at Josh Corey for claiming that Dan Beachy-Quick was a "major" poets, claiming I preferred "minor" poets (to use the Deleuzian framework).

It's interesting because something about DBQ's poetics made him seem "major" to Josh. And I've written about Aase Berg in terms of "minor" poetics (Deleuze).

And yet Berg is way way more major according to a lot of categories than DBQ - she's won tons of awards from around Europe, read and been translated all over Europe, sells way more copies of her books than DBQ, and has been much much more influential on other poets.

And yet Aase doesn't strike us a "major" poet. Probably this has to do with the "shocking" factor that Kent raises with his comment about Lara. If something is "shocking" it's flat and shallow.

I think US academy plays into it; poetry being much more of an academic discipline in the US than in Sweden and Europe. And "major" is so caught up with academic notions of what a "major" poet should sound like etc.


7:18 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Of course I should add the most obvious point: Aase's stature is in another country. But I think it does have to do with a certain idea of majorness in addition to country. which is of course also an issue - can foreign poets ever be "major" in America?

Kent has of course translated major Mexican poet, who's not considered major by most Americans.


7:23 AM  
Blogger NEG said...

Remember Bedient’s phallocentric distinction from a few years back:

“Judith Goldman's avant-garde is not the soft kind prevalent in most of the more lively contemporary poetry magazines (among them The Colorado Review, Conduit, Fence, jubilat, New American Writing, Verse, and VOLT); it's the hard kind still associated with Language writing.”


I third Tan Lin’s greatness.

Wright’s greatness is also a safe one, no?

12:00 PM  
Blogger Max said...

At the end of the day, what does it matter if one reads the work of a "major" poet, or if one is "correct" (as "verified" by the academy) in having identified a poet as "major"? It's just another thing to swing your sausage about. That we (by whom I mean Kent Johnson) would pretend it's anything other than that, seems like one of the great absurdities (and putrid time-sinks) of the "great literary debate." It's a classic "which side of the hardboiled egg?" argument, if I've ever seen one.

CD Wright may be "major" compared to Tan Lin or whomever, but Sonic Youth are more "major" than she is. What we should be discussing is the distinct possibility that poetry--perhaps literature in general--has become so marginalized that one would be hard-pressed to call any of it "major," except in relation to other literature, and have it actually bear some significance.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Frodebart Winslow said...


Note I didn't mention softness but rather immoderation. I don't think they're interchangeable. But both tend to get associated with the feminine.

That being said, the interesting thing about Moby-Dick is that it is as Johannes said full of blubbery sperm. I.e. post-erection softness. There is softness and excess all throughout both the surface contents and style of the book. But I suppose this could make Moby-Dick a paragon of phallic softness rather than hardness. Immoderate, soft masculinity? Possible? I guess so, there it is in Moby-Dick.

J.'s also right that Melville and esp. Moby-Dick was a recovery project. Hm, interesting... But anyway this thread is not about Moby-Dick. I just thought I was sensing a difference in the treatment of novels and poetry, and nothing new there.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Good link, I hadn't read that. That seems to be case in point of what I'm talking about.

Yes, maybe we should talk about a phallic softness! I think immediately of all those Kenneth Anger and jack Smith films; how the cocks are always very limp.


7:10 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, wasn't Moby Dick first recovered as a children's book of sorts - not serious literature?

It's one of my favorite books of all time but I've never actually studied its academic history. Probably because I like it so much.


7:14 AM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Max - I hear you re: sonic youth:
And often in these kind of discussions I've brought up the marginality of poetry in general. I'm interested in this phallic softness tangent. More!

5:26 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

Here's an essay on a young poet's journey through craft and the lessons learned along the way. Please read it at

7:40 PM  

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