Friday, December 18, 2009

Ron Silliman & The Future of Poetry

So quite a few people have written to me and asked what I thought about Ron Silliman's post the other day in which, after dismissing my reading of modernism as "ahistorical" (what could be more ahistorical than Ron's valorization of modernism-as-himself across time periods and cultures?), he conceded that I was right about the obsolesence of his binary of post-avant-vs-quietism.

I have a few things to say about this:

1. I think there's a problem with the "model" of the "model." The sense that this formalist (absolutely ahistorical) reading of poetry is merely descriptive. Criticism has effects. What is the effect of participating in a discussion that sets up American (and absolutely bafflingly, imperialistically, international) poetry according to a formal dichotomy, and then read poetry basically according to how well it fits into your model? What might the effect be? It's a recipe for the status quo.

2. One of the great aspects of language poetry was that they generated new models of reading, institutional critique, etc, and then wrote the poetry and esays and etc to make this model exist. That is, their models weren't descriptive so much as prescriptive-- they envisioned a new literary world they even as they constructed it.

3. Ron's more recent binary model-- quietist vs. post-avant-- I think has been good in some ways. His perspective makes it apparent that our extant institutions (journals, MFA programs, AWP etc) do not run on objective, neutral aesthetics/ideology. One of the reasons that the term "quietism" has upset so many people is that it calls attention to the prevailing standards used in American poetry, which are not at all 'neutral' or 'objective' but which for a lot of people were passed for 'neutral' or merit-based for a long time. I think it's a shame if that is lost in Ron's capitulation. On the other hand, by still giving so much attention to, say, the National Book Award, it seems like Ron recapitulates the quietist perspective-- i.e. that these prizes are indeed about merit, and not just an index of institutional power. So it 'proves' something that Nate Mackey can win the National Book Award, that the NBA is now about merit, that the millenium has arrived.

3. I think Ron should build a more complex model for how these things work. To begin with, it's not as simple as us vs them. Ron often dismisses academic poetries, but his own standing as a poet and critic is largely based on academic poetry (being published by academic presses, being read in academic classes, having studied himself in academic classes etc). So it may be time for a reevaluation of the role of the academy (to begin with, there just isn't one 'academy')in contemporary poetry. While a lot of bogusness is generated at schools and universities, is a university always the normative boogeyman? Can anything good (or interesting) come of the interdisciplinary or interlingual or other exchanges that can happen on campuses? Or is it all simply lockstep under the banner of institutional oppression and exclusion (and aethstic stagnancy)?

4. Ron notes that the American Hybrid anthology is based on the notion of the two-camp system. I made the same point in my review of the anthology. That doesn't show the two-camp-model is a good thing! It shows that it's a very available model. What's, after all, is the point of "hybrid" aesthetics? Like Ron's binary, it's a model that creates a notion of two camps plus the possibility of a compromise-aesthetic. No extremes beyond thsoe two camps; the horizon of aesthtic or political possibility is located between them instead of outside them. Like I said in my review, Robert Lowell was a hybrid poet (he was afterall the one who valorized himself by claiming he was neither raw nor cooked, thus superior). Binaries seem to me to be a way to defend against the disorder of new poetries. Just slot them into the easy three-piece system. Note also, that the anthology was edited by an Iowa prof, and contained all the faculty of Iowa (including many visiting profs). It's easy to say: they're co-opting the avant-garde; but the two-camp model was created out of this co-optation (for example Lowell); it did not come after the model; the two-camp model is already a co-opting, already a stabilizing, conservative model. All various forces are slotted into a static cold war opposition.

5. Going back to Ron's objection to my objection to his treatment of EA Robinson: The reason I objected to his dismissal of Robinson as an anti-modernist was that it allowed Ron to view literary history as an inevitable linear movement (toward Ron himself), a positivistic view that says that Ron's very ahistorical, very Ron-centered idea of "Modernism" is slowly winning the poetry wars, slowly reaping the rewards in terms of prizes etc. Instead, he should think about why Rae Armatrout is winning awards, why Lyn Hejinian has taught at Iowa, why various "post-avant" poets have edited David Lehman's horrific "Best American Poetry" anthology, why Poetry Magazine is so eager not just to publish the old language poets but also the (vaguely) "conceputal" poets and "flarf" poetry. In other words, why might the conservative Poetry Magazine want to publish "radical" poets? This is afterall a journal that is very much invested in maintaining the status quo.

6. As my father-in-law likes to say: If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck.

7. In other words, Ron should account for how he and his closest allies are in fact part of a quietist system. And for how his two-camp model supports the quietist system.

8. What's "next?" Ron asks. So I thought I would answer him. Next week I'm going to post in serial form Joyelle McSweeney's answer from a panel called "The Future of Poetry" that was part of the Minnesota Book Fair a few months ago. Then all will be revealed. Hint: It won't be neutral.

9 Comments:

Blogger Kate Durbin said...

Must you wait until next week to post McSweeney's answer? So much anticipation...

12:40 PM  
Blogger sinlechuga said...

Everybody in the future needs to die

5:21 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Sinlechuga,

That's kind of what Joyelle's talk was about.

J

5:30 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

English poet John Wilkinson sent me the following response to this entry:


"yes you're right about Ron, but his views are merely symptomatic of the unquestioned nineteenth-century model of progress afflicting the American so-called avant-garde. This became blinding obvious with Poems for the Millennium, where the combined efforts of the sort-of-progressive-in-some-way poets of the world were merely preparing the ground for Lyn Hejinian. It's a heroic story of progressive throwing over, read across the intertextual notes, all that old stuff, bale after bale, it's so easy to free yourself of history, so easy to rise above the despicable culture in which you find yourself and in which everyone is complicit except you and a few friends!!"

7:42 AM  
Blogger Andy Gricevich said...

Perhaps Wilkinson and I have not read the same anthology. The Language poets are represented there only minimally, and certainly not as the peak of poetic development. I can't think of an anthology of avant-garde poetries that less merits that accusation.

This post does verge, here and there, on the smug. I wonder if anticipation of that kept Ron from publicly caving for as long as he did. Your arguments weren't really different from those of countless others.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Andy,

I personally like the Poems for Millennium but it's very hard to say that anyone is represented "only minimally" - what is the critera? etc - and I think John's criticism suggests not just the actual representation of langpo but also the way the rest of the material is selected. Nobody afterall ever accused PfM of being some kind of "objective" representation of modern poetry. Even in the selections of various groups, a very definite point of view is taken. Clearly, this topic (pfm) demands a longer post in order to make sense of its agenda etc.

As for my arguments not being different from other people's arguments. Great, I love it when people agree with me. Seriously?

Johannes

6:20 PM  
Blogger xenopoeta said...

I don't understand what you're talking about. Can you say it again, to someone who isn't an academic and yet still wants to enjoy poetry?

9:26 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I don't think of myself as an "academic", or my blog posts as "academic," but if there's something you want me to explain, sure, ask me what you want me to explain.

Johannes

8:13 AM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

To jump in far too late - re:
"It's easy to say: they're co-opting the avant-garde; but the two-camp model was created out of this co-optation (for example Lowell); it did not come after the model; the two-camp model is already a co-opting, already a stabilizing, conservative model. All various forces are slotted into a static cold war opposition."
and
"nstead, he should think about why Rae Armatrout is winning awards, why Lyn Hejinian has taught at Iowa, why various "post-avant" poets have edited David Lehman's horrific "Best American Poetry" anthology, why Poetry Magazine is so eager not just to publish the old language poets but also the (vaguely) "conceputal" poets and "flarf" poetry. In other words, why might the conservative Poetry Magazine want to publish "radical" poets? This is afterall a journal that is very much invested in maintaining the status quo."

(aside: Bergval in Poetry seemed so weird - the only "Conceptual" writer who seemed to be *doing* anything)

This is why, I believe, the "Post-Avant" is *post* avant - I linked to one of the only discussions of the term that i've found remotely helpful some months ago (the temporal metaphor grates for me - it should probably be spacial). here's the link again:
http://metaschit.blogspot.com/2009/07/disjunction-andor-displacement-post.html

4:02 PM  

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