Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Gothic and Hysteria vs Contemporary American Poetry

Here's what I wrote to Mark in the comment section. It's pretty long so I thought it qualified as an entry:

I agree about academics-gothic connection [That there has been a lot of academic interest in the Gothic etc over the past couple of decades.]. It's funny I've been interviewing for jobs and going on campus visits and such, and inevitably I get along really well with the Victorianists and they seem much more able to go along with my aesthetics than the general poetry crowd. On the reverse, a lot of the books I read are in fact studies of sexuality and the gothic and the grotesque. I think a lot of interesting work has been done in this area over the past couple of decades.

HOWEVER (and this is huge), these studies have not seem to filtered into Contemporary American Poetry. Contemporary American Poetry is still hugely invested in poetry as High Art. American Hybrid is a monument to this: it is poetry as high art and that's why the hysteria of poets as varied as Plath, O'Hara and Bruce Andrews (as Konrad notes) are not compatible with this anthology.

As I noted in my post on Iowa, poets like Lyn Hejinian post no threat whatsoever to the current Iowa Aesthetic. But the Gothic does. The grotesque does. Vulgar queerity does. Talk about deviance and sexuality does. It's not Serious Art.

For proof, just go to the most recent edition of Rain Taxi, in which the ad for Andrew Zawacki's new book admires him for his treatment of Poetry as "High Art." Or go to Laura Carter's Facebook page and see her complain that the Gurlesque is "too emotional" and not "Thoughtful" enough. It goes on and on.

I would also add to that that if anybody doubts this: go to the Plath thread on the Harriet Blog. That buffoon "Tomas Brady" for example says that "creeping" people out is not serious poetry. That pretty much encapsulated it for me.

I would also add about the American Hybrid that the very fact that it takes as the central dialogue a formalist discussion between quietude and Perloffian indeterminacy already indicates a suppression of a full range of issues and poetics. Even Notley's Gothic "Descent of Alette" is criminally turned into some high lyrical religious poetry (no mention of the Tyrant or damaged soldiers for example).


Blogger Johannes said...

I should also add that there has been a couple of great books about Plath over the past couple of decades that incorporates Lacan and Gothic studies into the reading. And a lot of work showing how Plath was hugely influenced by the Surrealists and her cinephilia. But that hasn't seemed to filter into Contemporary American Poetry, where Plath seems to have become an emblem of the tasteless and crass emotionalism that should be avoided. Judging from grad students I've encountered over the last few years she is used as a negative example; they are taught, don't be out of control like Plath. And here Surrealism comes back because it seems to be used the same way.


8:06 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Even somebody who seems to share the gurlesque aesthetic (and who will remain anonymous) complained to me in an email that she liked the ideas of the gurlesque but that she objected to the word "gurlesque" because it sounded like "pop culture." Touche.

8:12 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I'm not opposed to your ideas here, Johannes, but I think you need to clarify for me at least what this field of Contemporary American Poetry is, and who/what defines it. Are you talking lower-case poetics primarily as defined by Iowa School writers and their poetic theories and the MFA jobs that their Iowa cred gets them? Are you talking literary criticism as practiced by academic critics of contemporary American poetry, all several of them? Do you lump politically radical schools of poetics (say the Vancouver poets, or the Language School) who want to expose and examine the political ideologies operating in language usage in with this Contemporary American Poetry? Or flarf and its obsession with the excessive/ridiculous/everyday/popular etc. Conceptualism and performance poetries?

I'm not being critical so much as trying to find how you are using the term. What critical or academic or poetic communities are part of this CAP and which are not? I think you may be on to something perhaps which I'd like to know more about, but I'm also suspicious that you may be constructing a Big Brother fantasy so you have something to rail against. As the gothic might suggest, the devil is in the details.

9:26 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think you must mean what I would call the AWP/MFA establishment, which in recent years has been sampling from other, more radical approaches, on the one hand by turning structural/ideological poetry moves into purely aesthetic choices, and on the other hand borrowing a few token experimentalists to incorporate into a new, slightly updated center. Ah, for the good old days when the AWP establishment rejected radical approaches outright, instead of synthesizing and tokenizing a few key elements and writers and continuing down its institutional highway with all the fringes apparently included while the key issues are actually still kicked curbside.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I will try to be more specific but I'm in the middle of writing an essay about Dada and Film (so kind of this issue). But I think of CAP as also including you, me, Ron Silliman and everyone we know. You and I are part of CAP - you're a professor (I was recently offered a couple of professorships), but we're certainly not as influential as Cole Swensen or the Norton Anthology. But I don't want to give a free pass to us either; don't want to create a clean space outside of the system (the heroic myth of the avant-garde). Clearly we are interested in the Gothic but it had to be not only ignored but whitewashed out of American Hybrid. It's a system that includes various often contradictory forces. Your turn.


10:17 AM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

---That buffoon "Tomas Brady" for example says that "creeping" people out is not serious poetry----

and, again, I'm breaking out into gorgeous goosebumps. why am i so damned flammable?

10:46 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Okay, yeah, I can buy that. CAP as the Total Industry of Contemporary American Poetry.

Thing is, people tend to talk about it as a Monolithic Interest when it tends actually to be an Interlocking Group of Competitive Interests. There's AWP/MFA, MLA/Ph.D, various interrelated poetics movements (language, flarf, third-way, and now--watch for it--gurlesque) operating both inside and outside those more definitive institutions (and whether they want to or not, gaining more "legitimacy" any time anybody in the system begins to like them better--and that's one reason for the quickness of absorption of new approaches).

So there's no transparent acceptance of any approach; everybody's establishing their enemies and their supporters, and often whether they want to or not.

I an convinced and am certainly correct that the only reason I am a professor of creative writing is that no major player in the AWP/MFA industry was on the committee that hired me. If they had been, I would not have been hired, as had happened to me repeatedly before that. However, I could talk MLA/Ph.D. style cultural studies and link it to experimental poetic approaches, and the cultural studies-oriented department I work with thought that was intriguing.

In your case, interest in gothic/gurlesque/excessive/historical avant gardes gets most doors slammed in your face, but (and this is the killer) not every door. And just like with me, that's what it means to be Included: only 95-98% of the Total Industry rejects you.

One reason you piss me off is that I think you have 3 or 4% more acceptance by the Total System than I do (just kidding!).

Still, I do think it's mainly AWP/MFA/Iowa that has been constructing this New Version of Poetry as High Literature. Constraint, moderation, removal from the rabble and the crass. Actually it may very similar to what happened in 1940s American poetry--the one in which the condensed, distant, Modernist early Robert Lowell became Champion of the System because of his conservative use of the experimental--an approach of which the ultimate paradigm is that great Countermodernist Modernist T. S. Eliot.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

yes I think you're very correct. I see New Criticism all over this moment. Including of course their aversion to mass culture and the "excess" of the historical avant-garde (they too saw themselves as an avant-garde).

But I would add this: Perloff and her version of Langpo is - along with Jorie G and Helen Vendler - a huge factor in the return of High Art in poetry. I think Cole very insightfully makes this point in her introduction. And though I know you don't want to accept Perloff's importance to Langpo, I would say her version has both allowed langpo to be institutionalized and easily demonized (as "indeterminacy"); and to a lot of people langpo is Perloff's langpo. Her name is absent but she haunts the entire Hybrid anthology.

Perloff is also very open about her alligience to high modernism and her opposition to kitsch/mass culture.

About Elliot: I think he's a great case because he makes these things very complicated. I would say even with The Wasteland there are conservative and radical forces at play. And in its reception and spread as well.


11:09 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Actually, I think your description of Perloff's role in helping langpo get an academic foothold (and also therefore develop a certain kind of academic reputation) is correct. I just usually contest that her ideas were importantly formative for what the langpo crowd themselves thought they were doing, especially initially; they were in various degrees distant from and/or critical of her, and of course befriended her more to the extent that the academic context was of interest to them.

"Indeterminacy" tends to avoid the most overtly ideological and political elements of langpo work and its critique of other poetries--"indeterminacy" creeps awfully close to the "ambiguity" of which Empson traced seven kinds. I think they're a little different; "indeterminacy" tends to emphasize more the uninterpretable rather than the multiply interpretable. But both suggest no too direct politics.

That said, I'm a fan of no-too-direct politics as long as one distinguishes it from no politics, a problem which I think haunts some of the most purely aesthetic uses of experimentalism.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I agree totaly with you folks on Perloff. Though "Radical Artifice" was a formative text in my early encounters with Langpo, the more i read of folks like McCaffery, Rasula, Le Brun etc the more suspicious i become. The introduction of 21st Century Modernism is essentially a "how to" on New Criticism & Langpo, there is no discussion of new critical approaches (see Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann here http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/~jjm2f/old/deform.html ). Her Approach could be cited as an example of what Deleuze and Guattari call "Interperetosis". I suppose, if you'll forgive my creation of a dichotomy, it's the difference between the theoretical schools of people like Deleuze et al, and that of Derrida.

2:44 PM  

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