Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Writer's Chronicle

Something I find interesting about reading the Writer's Chronicle - in addition to he way they always have to get some digs in at language poetry - is that I really have no idea who these people are. I mean the people interviewed, the people lauded, the people interviewed, the people on faculties advertised, teaching writing camps.

Who are they?

One exception is Reginald Shepherd who has an interesting piece in the latest issue, pointing out the hollowness of the so-called "populist" argument - that poetry is unpopular because it is so complex that "normal" people can't keep up. As if there were these really dull people out there who clamored to read poetry but there just wasn't enough poetry about going fishing with grandpa.

But Reginald makes what I think is a complete misreading of Benjamin:

"Walter Benjamin describes shock and distraction as the modern mode of consciosness (or unconsciousness), in which most of our experience is not really experienced and doesn't actually exist for us at all. Although art should be the antidote to this nonexperience of distraction, most of what we read simply repeats and re-presents what has already been experienced (or nonexperienced). A real work of art makes us stop and pay attention. It breaks through our crust of habbit and routine."

This to me seems like a total and utter misreading of Benjamin. Benjamin appreciated a lot of the historical avant-garde as well as certain cinema precisely because it shook its viewers out of their state of humanist contemplation, that lethargic state of the 19th century bourgeoisie. For example, his appreciate of the profane illumination of Surrealism.

This is a very important topic - one I briefly discussed in conjunction with Revell's dismissal of Dada and call for an art of "attention." As Jonathan Crary has pointed out in his books on the 19th century, "distraction" was pathologized in the 19th century, to a large extent as a reaction to the demystification of experience (vision is just eyesight, physical) - and "attention" became the antidote. "Attention" was seen as a way to keep people functioning within society as nice docile subjects. If we can all just pay attention we'll be good citizens. Therefore "distraction" is not some kind of empty "nonexperience" but a highly politically charged sensibility.

If you reads the reception of Henry Parland's work, this becomes pretty clear. His book Idealrealisation was accused - even by fellow "modernists" - of being 1. "German" (ie the threat of the foreign) and "nihilistic" and 2. pathological ("screaming shards of nothigness" or something like that one person wrote, though clearly there is absolutely nothing "screaming" about Parland's work). That's pretty much the ideology of attention defending itself against distracted subjects (who are frequently foreigners).

Another interesting point about Reginald's article. He quotes Ron in his defense as saying that nothing is as important "the absolute materiality of the signifier, the physicality of sound and the graphic letter is the one secret shared by all poets." This of course goes back to my "compromise" entry awhile back, when I suggested that the space called "the lyric" (for exmaple in Reginald's anthology on so-called "postmodern lyric") is apolitical. In that space, Ron becomes de-Marxist-ified. (Though arguably he's done that to himself with his very conservative, Greenbergian framework used on his blog). He becomes a proponent of pure formalism.


Blogger Max said...

The Writer's Chronicle is the most pathetic excuse for a lifestyle aspirational publication. And this is primarily because (as you mention) nobody has any clue who these people are. I can't imagine that the magazine appeals to anybody other than 40-somethings who have nothing better to do with themselves so figure they'll pay (let themselves be swindled) for writing seminars and low-residency programs and dabble in writing a bit. It seems like every MFA student gets this in his/her department mailbox, but I don't know a single one who reads for its sage advice about the writing or the biz.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Fair enough.

Though I clearly get suckered into reading it.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Same here. For me, reading the Writer's Chronicle is like watching the O'Reilly Factor or Hannity & Colmes. There is a sort of pleasure in getting riled up.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Providence said...

Brilliant gloss of Shephard's position, which I find to be strong on desire but short on direction, nearly escapism, actually, since the only trajectory it sets is one that is (by any means possible) out and away from extant poetics.

I was just at the International Exchange for Poetic Invention, trolling their links. I clicked on the latest "American Life in Poetry" column (for laughs) and then to Exoskeleton.

We all need to treat the "populist" argument seriously, because the Koosers are well paid and amply agitating on its behalf.

It's a really rather complex class issue.

Benjamin is treated as theory-lite. It's atrocious.

Enough soapboxing in your comments field.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Poets who live where religious traditions are centered must have it rough -- all that ambient faith in the power of language, and all of it withheld from the individual speaker...

I haven't read Revell's book on attention in its entirety. The bits I have seen provoke me to jump to the conclusion that he meant to call it The Art of Exclusion. A true Art of Attention would look much more like William Carlos Williams' heroic (cubist) period, or Joseph Ceravolo's first three or four books, or Philip Whalen's Scenes of Life at the Capital. The art would be in registering completely what *attention* wants to do, not what the dear old self dictates. It would be like recording how water rolls down the side of a hill. Phenomenology not soteriology.

7:14 AM  

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