Saturday, May 09, 2009

Still Ignorant

Just some brief points:

* John Gallaher makes some more in-depth analysis of the Wojahn interview here.

* I would say this about his post: I don't think Action Books is what Hoagland has primarily in mind with his "skittery poets." I think he means something more "elusive" and "oblique," perhaps what Steve Burt called "elliptical." The books we publish/write are often "narrative" (though lets face it, that term has become almost worthless, since so called "narrative poetry" often isn't narrative at all, but a lyrical epiphany) and it's not elusive. In fact, Hoagland criticizes a lot of the same poetry I have criticized on this blog - "high ambiguity" - just from a totally different perspective.

* But these folks are not really criticizing one style or tendency so much as a power dynamic, a shift in which they see themselves struggling to retain power (funny because they obviously have much more institutional power than their skittery students). Part of this is the proliferation of small presses. In that way, yes, sure, we're skittery.

* My comment about "jouissance" was half in jest. I think Jordan's comments does a good job of defining this term and its problems. I would add to this, that I see in it also Lacan's pal Bataille's notion of useless "expenditure." Poetry is not progressive, useful. This makes it paradoxically powerful. This is in part why it needs to be reigned in and be craft-ified.

* It's absolutely important to me that I draw this connection: H/W's criticism of Skitterism as a "fashion," facile and useless (as opposed to "wise"? Hoagland give me a break nobody reads your poetry for wisdom! Don't make me laugh!) is repeated in all kinds of context. Most recently I saw it in Steve Burt's article "The New Thing" in the Boston Review: "... their bad poems were bad surrealism, random-seeming improvisations, or comic turns hoping only to hold an audience, whether or not they had something to say." This great concern with "something to say" - which is strange coming from Burt, since in his essays (as I wrote a few days ago), he focuses almost exclusively on formal elements - is echoes throughout this article.

* In fact it's at the essence it seems of "the new thing"-poetry (thus in many ways echoing the concerns of authenticity-obsessed workshop poetry of the 1970s, striving as it did to rid itself of the excesses of the 1960s and its "Surrealism" (which Hoagland has another essay about). It's in for example Jon Woodward's quote about "soft-surrealist cotton candy" for example [Jon reads this blog, so perhaps he can shed some light on this quote?]. You can see the same sentiments expressed in Hoagland's critique of "aestheticism" in the quote I quoted below. Again, what troubles people most about poetry is its extravagance, its excess, its uselessness - its decadence. The weird part is that this suggests a totally under-theorized notion of excess.

* I am actually pretty interested in the rhetoric of insubstaniality - or "soft" in Silliman's terms, "skittery" in Hoagland's, or the frequent critique of "fashionable" ("poetry of the moment"), or "inauthentic" in quietist lingo ("You haven't *earned* this image, Johannes."). It is an interesting piece of rhetoric that cuts to the core of a lot of poetics: the fear of the uselessness of poetry. And also: it's femininity, softness, queerness, unproductiveness, non-progressiveness, excessiveness. I'm also interested in the way that "surrealism" becomes this huge umbrella term for all things useless and extravagant.

* Finally, there's always somebody repeating the mantra: "These are old guys, their day is over, what are you whining about?" Totally totally false idea of how change is caused in literature. These guys are still incredibly powerful. And they play a huge role in defining who in the next generation will have power (ie folks who go along with their tired old schtick).


Blogger Stephanie said...

Quickly: all the poets I like have something to say: part of the job of a critic (my job as a critic, at least) is to talk about how it gets said, and how the "how" interacts with the "what." So I don't think I'm any more, or less, interested in "formal concerns" than I was in 2005 or 1995 or whatever baseline you like. And you can have "something to say" while being as extravagant, baroque, Baroque or filigree'd, or aestheticist, as you like: that's the difference between Swinburne's "Hymn to Prosperpine" (which I love) and the Swinburne poems we are probably right to ignore. More later, I hope.

9:23 PM  
Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yeah, you're right. Wojahn's critique here doesn't go after the tradition that brings one to Action Books, so much as the one that brings one to Wave and Fence and Black Ocean (maybe Zachary Schomburg could be a poster child for this mode), etc. I do think, though, on a different day, he would go after Action Books, but who knows. These abstract critiques evaporate when one adds a list of examples.

The Roethke bit is a good addition. I remember reading something similar once that turned out to be from Catallus or some such.

6:56 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Ultimately I think it's not really meant to identify an opposing poetry so much as set up a conflict (using I think Steve's "elliptical poetry" as a strawman) in which Hoagland is for wisdom and substance and if you're not for him, you're against him: that is to say, he's opposed to a lot of poets of a wide range of aesthetics!


7:07 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I'm certainly interested in poetry that says stuff.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

"what troubles people most about poetry is its extravagance, its excess, its uselessness - its decadence." I'm not sure it's fair to lump all of those terms in together...

10:38 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I think it totally is "fair." But perhaps you can be more specific.


10:46 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

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.

12:28 PM  

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