Monday, July 20, 2009

"It's simply too much..."

I'm writing an essay that connects the Gurlesque, trash aesthetics, homosexuality and b-movies. Aase Berg, Chelsey Minnis, Dodie Bellamy, B-movies, gay porn, Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Walter Benjamin, Bataille and Godard's "Le Weekend" star in it. I was surfing around on the Internet and I found this mini review by somebody named "Logan Ryan Smith" of Lara Glenum's "The Hounds of No" on "Goodreads." It's perfect, and I think I will start out my essay by talking about it.

Here's it is:

"Recommends it for: HOT TOPIC SHOPPERS
If Marilyn Manson was a slightly more sophisticated writer, I imagine this book represents what he'd turn out. It's simply too much affectation, and I didn't buy it. It felt forced and faked."

I like this review in large part because we can in this little throwaway piece of policing snobbery see not only the prevailing conservative aesthetics of the American poetry establishment, but also, interestingly, an intuitive grasp of the aesthetics and politics of the sensibility of “the Gurlesque.”

We see, the ideal of poetry as elevated above American consumerism and mass culture; the illusion that poetry offers a refinement that allows poets and readers of poetry a way out of the tasteless machinery of the culture industry. We also find the common rhetorical trope (found most recently in Both Steven Burt's book "Close Calls with Nonsensense" and The American Hybrid - as well as in the lurid coverage of the Michael Jackson death) that "too much" is “affectation” and unnatural ("forced"); and with it the valorization of a moderate poetry that is somehow not fake but natural. This is part of an prevailing idea that true poetry cares for an interiority, protecting it against the onslaught of crass modern mass culture (Marilyn Manson, Hot Topics). And finally we see a very insightful comparison to Marilyn Manson, a gender-bending, gothic, low-culture performer who was the famous scapegoat of the all-American violence of the Columbine Shootings.

The fact of the matter is that Smith gives a pretty good encapsulation of the tendency or sensibility in contemporary poetry that Arielle Greenberg has identified as “gurlesque,” a wide-ranging group of poets who tends to be “veering away from traditional narrative, and each employed a postmodern sense of humor, invoking brand names and cultural ephemera.” In an interview with Danielle Pafunda, Greenberg describes this cultural ephemera as

… the super-saccharine romance iconography of a 70s girlhood; unicorns and rainbows socks and sunsets painted on vans, and then don’t forget the popular culture whispers of sexual “swinging,” or the trickle-down androgyny chic of glam and disco…”

That is to say, a sensibility which in spite of the established “rules” of poetry embraced the “forced and faked” nature of the crass and tasteless (Marilyn Manson for example), engaging with – rather than controlling – the “contamination of affect” that we find in a lot of mass culture, especially film.

This recycling of the tasteless has taken place before, most notably perhaps, in the Surrealism of France in the 1920s and 30s. As Walter Benjamin writes in his essay on Surrealism:

"[Breton] was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the “outmoded,” in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them… No one before these visionaries and augurs perceived how destitution – not only social but architectonic, the poverty of interiors, enslaved and enslaving objects – can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism… The bring the immense forces of “atmosphere” concealed in these things to the point of explosion."

As Benjamin recognized early on (and theorists like Andreas Huyssen has expanded on since then) was the way the historical avant-garde opposed the disinterested art of introspection of the bourgeoisie by engaging with the burgeoning mass culture. What made Surrealism particularly interesting here is their use of the crassly out of style and lowbrow.

I think it's interesting that the wildness of the Internet tends to be seen as a way for anarchic forces to be brought into poetry, but mostly it has given platforms for conservative voices to police police police.

By the way: "Hot Topics" connotes un-stylish, slightly out of date right? There's a store in our mall.


Blogger Matt Walker said...

It's pretty funny that you think Logan Ryan Smith represents the "prevailing conservative aesthetics of the American poetry establishment". At least do a little research before you start trashing people. Here's his blog:

(I don't know why you put his name in quotes, but hey, at least you spelled it right.)

9:05 AM  
Blogger Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

Hot Topics is a chain store for suburban gothwear. Total recuperation.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Logan Ryan Smith edited (edits?) the excellent journal small town. You can call him part of the conservative poetry establishment but people who know the CPE and who have read LRS's publications will think you're going overboard. Sounds to me like he just didn't care much for Lara's book. His loss, imho, but hardly grounds for tarring him with the CPE brush.

Also, is there really a CPE?

9:56 AM  
Blogger AB said...

I think hot topic means "mall goth," or a kind of commercialized counter-culture. American Apparel is the new Hot Topic.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Iain said...

I love this post, especially the calling out of poetry that sees itself as removed from "mass culture".

Not sure about Hot Topic representing an "un-stylish" aesthetic though. I remember when Hot Topic first started coming to malls around 10 years ago when I was in high school. My goth friends all saw Hot Topic goths as "poser". The store was seen as too stylish, and the total adoption of the goth aesthetic into the "mainstream".

On the other hand, I'm not sure "Logan Ryan Smith" thinks of it that way.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I'm not saying he is part of the establishment, I'm saying the views expressed in that little snooty put-down review reflects perfectly the kind of rhetoric that I find unbearable about a certain very dominant strain of american poetry. I'm not trashing him as a person. I'm sure he's very nice.

I've done a lot of research about this. Who he is the reset of the time is inconsequential.

There are many people who don't like The Hounds of No etc, but that doesn't matter; it's the rhetoric he uses that I see as emblematic.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, Matt, I hardly "trashed" the guy. Your total inability to understand arguments beyond "trashing" is bewildering.

Also, Jordan, your attempt to act above it all irritates me because *clearly* this guy is not interested in merely expressing a dislike of the book, he's trying to insult it using name-calling. Seriously. And now he's some kind of victim?

As for the store, yes, I think what it's supposed to connote is mass-produced, crass/mall sell-out of alterna culture.



1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

matt's mommy & daddy must not have paid him much attention as a kid. . .

1:19 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Johannes, I don't use Goodreads so I have no idea what the standards are there. For all I know that post could have been a kind of mating call.

I don't really know you, but all the same, I'm surprised that my remarks irritated you. It seemed to me that I was saying your essay on the overboard quality you like in literature was causing you to go overboard.

If I were writing this comment to myself here is where I'd say I had better hurry and write an essay on being above it all.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


It's true that I don't know much about goodreads, so it might have been a mating call, but in that case a very strange one.


5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to get on here and say this whole "movement" sucks.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

You seem to be arguing that Smith criticizes the trendy, consumerist, teeny-bopperish aspects of Lara's book, when in fact the "gurlesque" is (in part) dedicated to embracing these things. So because the "gurlesque" means to draw on these things, because it's intentional, it's somehow above reproach. But I'm not sure how that really responds to Smith's argument (well, to be fair, it's a rant). It seems that the postmodern tip we're talking about here might be slightly difficult for the reader to ever "be in on" if it's still being created in vague essays and blogged declarations.

1:21 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


It's not that it's beyond reproach, it's that in his little name-calling rant, he exhibits a lot of status quo ideas about refinement in American poetry. But I also thought it was perfect because he both gets and absolutely does not get the book - since it's a book that's totally affected. To say that it's affected is like saying Kenneth Anger is affected or that a pavement is hard. What becomes the issue is then why write such affected poetry? Why use such uncool/debased materials? Such trash. That's really what i want to consider. It's not meant to be an attack on this guy or a defense, that was just the perfect opening.


3:40 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yeah, Black Economy, I realize how upset you guys are. But you have to come up with something a little more interesting before I feel your pain.


3:43 AM  
Blogger Max said...

"Why write such affected poetry?" Because it's another thing to do.

I'm not so sure there's enough in that quote to pin Smith with all the freight of these conservative poetry police you talk about. An opinion about one book doesn't automatically constitute a declaration of what all poetry should or should not be.

I think many of us want to feel as though the things we read come from a "real" place and that the authors aren't just secretly sitting there LOL'ing at us for taking seriously the work that they wrote as total irony. I really like "The Hounds of No," so I'm not accusing Lara of doing that with her book. All I'm saying is that, if a person does have that reaction to a book, it's not necessarily coming from some hyper-conservative poetry "police" position.

Yes, we know that "honesty" in writing is a sham. Nothing is honest. It's all just artful lies. But that doesn't mean we should be content with po-mo winks and nudges for the rest of our lives, or that if we're not content with this, we must be complete and absolute philistines promoting the most conservative, damaging principles in poetry.

3:59 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


That piece of rhetoric "too" etc is a perfect emblem of a certain status quo strain of american poetry. No doubt about it. The Marilyn Manson, the Hot Topics. It's all there, buddy.

I'm not in favor of pomo winks. Never said that. Pomo winks I'd say is a pretty acceptable route to take. And generally uninteresting.


4:03 AM  
Blogger Max said...


"Emblematic," yes, if you want it to be.

But I think that, underlying a lot of poorly worded, poorly argued criticisms (I'll admit Smith's is that), there is a good point about the desire to experience something "real." And by that I don't mean "realistic" or "conventional," but again, the feeling that the author has put the words there in order to transmit some kind of passion, some kind of positive (not happy- or life-affirming-positive, but simple void-filling-positive) statement.

Of course, this often comes out as "it felt forced and fake" or "it was totally affected," which then invites the easy and totally justified counter-criticism of the terms "forced," "fake," and "affected." I would make that counter-criticism, too. But I think it's terribly uncharitable to not even attempt to see the argument as something more complex than "an emblem of a certain status quo strain of American poetry."

4:16 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


No, really, that piece of rhetoric is exactly a part of conservative american poetics. It's exactly what Mark Halliday for example attacked Josh Clover for in that essay we discussed a few months ago - it wasn't real, human etc. This guy is aping a very conservative piece of rhetoric to dismiss the book; it's not more complex than that.

As far as policing - I use that word for people who troll the Internet and instead of engaging with a piece of writing shallowly censure writing that is "too much" of whatever. Really, Max, I understand what you're saying, but this isn't that kind of argument. This is just plain old conservatism.


7:15 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Really, Max, I understand what you're saying, but this isn't that kind of argument

But I'm afraid you'd never allow yourself to see such an argument in the first place. One thing I've noticed about you is that you're very quick to dismiss arguments as "conservative" when they exist even marginally outside the general bounds of postmodern idealism.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Boo said...

hooray for heated debate. J-gor, can't wait to read this essay,


8:48 PM  

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