Thursday, July 24, 2008

Poetics of Overdeterminacy

[Some of these ideas about "indeterminacy" I may have taken from a conversation I had with Patrick Durgin a few months ago.]

On the back of Dear Ra, it says that it is an "indeterminate text." By this Ted Pelton, the editor, probably meant that it is hard to say if it's a novel or a poem etc. And that definitely makes sense.

But really, overall my writing is incredibly overdeterminate.

As is Ariana Reines's and Chelsey Minnis's books for that matter. Perhaps it's another characteristic of grotesque writing. (I think "didactic" - as in the previous thread - is not exactly the same thing.)

In "Quarantine" inter-titles (inspired by Godard's Weekend) and pa-announcements interrupt the poems to beat the reader over the head. It couldn't be more overdetermined!

I think the concept of "indeterminacy" has been very bad for poetry; in many ways a kind of recuperation of avant-garde energies as updated versions of Empson's new critical "ambiguity".

Seems like the concept of "indeterminacy" plays into Max's caricature of the avant-garde as writing that willfully merely "breaks the rules" without offering anything of its own. If this was true we wouldn't still be all be obsessed with ideas and techniques from the 1910s and 20s.

The problem is that "breaking" is defined too reductively in this scenario.

When I was in Iowa, a lot of people would congratulate each other on not using the word "I" in a poem, or not having any "images" etc.

It was a kind of rule-based take on poetry that in many ways felt exactly like the Quietist graduate workshop I was in as an undergraduate at the U of Minnesota - "you haven't earned this image," "this poem is self-obsessed," "there are too many images in this poem," etc.

In fact it was a simplistic idea of "breaking" that merely produced a negative (as in photography) of the very thing people so hated (James Wright was everyone's strawman in Iowa, in Minnesota he was everyone's favorite, my U of M teacher had graduated from Iowa in the 70s).

Another thing about Iowa: There was a lot of talk about "complexity." Poetry that was complex was seen as more "true" because the human psychology is so complex. It was mimesis all over again.

There was a real cult of the complex psychology. I think that must have come from Jorie Graham. You can see how this cult of refinement is a direct inheritor of New Critical ideas of refinement: "We live in a fallen world of vulgar mass culture, where poetry saves us through its complexity." To put it crudely.

Perhaps the biggest problem with indeterminacy is that it lends itself to the old "negative capability," the glorification of dreaminess and doubt. Exactly the kind of contemplative space that the historical avant-garde sought to do away with (as Benjamin so astutely pointed out over and over).

I suddenly realize I have written an entire post under a title that refers to Marjorie Perloff's "Poetics of Indeterminacy" without mentioning that book. That's because I'm not sure how it fits in, other than that it was probably an ushering in of the concept of "indeterminacy." Of course the hero of that book is Ashbery, and it was precisely Ashbery - "the Romantic Ashbery" as Mark Levine emphasized in his introduction to Ashbery's reading - that was the key figure, by far the most worshipped poet when I was in Iowa. He was seen as very complex.

I suppose the thing to avoid is exactly what I do with the ironic title of this post - create a poetics of overdeterminacy...


Blogger Jordan said...

Declining issues led advancing 2-1 in slow trading.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Providence said...

Johannes, didn't we talk about my book (nearing completion) on this subject? Because the crux of your argument is what I recall relaying to you about it. As you say, "I think the concept of 'indeterminacy' has been very bad for poetry; in many ways a kind of recuperation of avant-garde energies as updated versions of Empson's new critical 'ambiguity.'" Small world.


7:51 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Actually, I do remember us talking about this. I don't remember it being you "relaying" these ideas to me, but I will give you credit.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

By the way, how is the book coming?

8:12 AM  
Blogger Providence said...

I guess I meant describing rather than relaying? Anyway, the book comes better now that my summer course is over. How one juggles both teaching and research as a faceless member of a contingent faculty "pool" is less clear every day.

Do you expect overdetermination as you conceive it to get into the Marxian definition thereof? That'd be a fun riposte to the Langpo portmanteau. It was a challenge I gave up on early in my own project, but I think it could be closer to your concerns than the concerns of my book.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, I mean, "indeterminacy" is an illusion.

My stance on illusion is basically, hey, if you can do it convincingly, and it produces something like a beneficial effect (i.e. you like it, others like it, it's "interesting," you know, all that purely subjective shit), then go ahead.

But anybody who believes that a text can be genuinely "indeterminate" is a crazy person.

Oh, and there's nothing inherently beneficial about producing this illusion, either.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Sian Griffiths said...


Heads up: I was looking for blog models, and you got me thinking with this post, and I wrote about it on my spanking new blog (crediting you, of course).

PS Now reading Tin Drum, which you recommended to me years ago. Thanks for the tip.

1:19 PM  

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