Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Deep Image/Jed

Jed Rasula has an interesting new book out, The Shadowmouth: Modernism and Poetic Inspiration. And that's what it's about... I've just begun to read a little in it, so I won't offer any kind of extensive critique or summary... But I found his chapter on "Deep Image" poetry worthy of note... First because - like Jonathan Mayhew in his Lorca book - Jed offers a good critique of this important poetic moment (Bly, Wright, Strand etc)... The thing that always annoyed me about say Merwin's The Lice was the way "darkness" always just represent mystery... We can't really get into the mystery... It's where the poem ends... Jed does a good job of explaining the reason for this... The Deep Image's belief in the unconscious as a kind of pre-language... The unconscious as a pre-social self... And thus the escapist element of the poetry... And why, as Jed puts it, "darkness" reoccurs in this poetry as a kind of "drawing a blank" - the mind goes out, language goes out...

HOWEVER: I'm becoming more and more intrigued by the reasons why after many of us had to deal with this BS growing up, after this poetics is pretty widely disregarded, why is it that we see these critiques of Bly NOW?... Well it is it seems precisely because they are used by a new ascendant poetics as a strawman... I noticed that already when I got my MFA at Iowa... Everybody disparaged the strawman of the "James Wright poem"... Ron Silliman discards them as "soft surrealists"... On the other hand Tony Hoaglund dismisses "the surrealist excesses of the 1960s"... Well... In American Hybrid (if anything a monument to the current reign) Cole Swensen dismisses this image-based poetry as simplistic in favor of a more fractured, syntactically indeterminate, langpo-influenced (and in some ways just plain langpo) poetry that is more sophisticated... And which Cole connects to the New Critical notion of a heroic high art... Cole also repeats New Criticim's politics... That through this complex experience of poetry protect us agains the onslaught of mass culture...

Bly and Co deserved every bit of criticism... And I'm certainly not eager to return to that kind of poetry... Joyelle's and my manifesto of "Soft Surrealism" was occasionally misinterpreted as this but it was really a critique of Silliman's and this whole trope opposed to softnesse, exess, lack, disability etc... I'm in some ways more interested in the rhetoric used to dismiss it... In this book Jed follows many of the same trope as Cole...Seeing image as low-brow... He compares deep image poetry to the "wow" of an acid trip... and calls Bly's poetry "homespun polaroid surrealism" ... And "deep image pop gun"... Like that guy who called Lara "hot topics" the rhetoric is one of resisting mass culture, the vulgarity of mass culture, cheapness, kitchiness and tackiness... And for Jed (as for Cole) this has to do with resisting the vulgarity of the image... Images are simplistic and vulgar... The way you resist them is through syntactical fracturings (for both COle and Jed)... That's why he thinks Rothenburg and Kelly are better poets than Bly and Co... (they are, but is this why?)... Further, the problem of images is their allure... Jed at one point suggests that a poem by Antin might be seen as slipping up at one point and "indulge in deep image" even after Antin has been "liberated" by McLow's syntactic critique...

... Another problem with the Deep Image is that their embrace of a mysterious "darkness" is an attempt to return to the "womb"... The pre-social self.... Thus politically regressive... Not only does this become problematic becaus Bly in fact did a lot of political protesting and his "teeth mother" book is about the Vietnam war... It's also problematic because of gender... Now there's a chapter on gender in Jed's book so I don't want to talk about it before I've read it... But it should be noted that there are awfully few women in both Bly's and Jed's pantheons... (though this is certainly not true of American Hybrid it should be noted)... And more importantly, pop culture... that seductive, indulgent, excessive force that so scares all these establishment people (from Bly to Silliman to Hoaglund and Jed) is generally portrayed as female... Gothic art and literature has for example traditionally been portrayed in terms of prostitution to mass culture...

... I always saw Deep Image not as some surrealist force meant to unleash our unconscious but rather a way to control the image... Anybody who was in a creative writing class in the 80s-90s (perhaps still) knows that the poet has to "earn" the image... It can only come at the end when the poem has been fundamentally established as real and authentic... If you let the image in earlier you haven't earned it yet baby... You've broken the economics of poetry composition... A very protestant economy... Too much imagery and you're becoming excessive.... ruining the economy... destroying the wealth... You become crass... And that's why I like the term "gurlesque" that so many people seem to dislike... It's crass and excessive...

... Later today I'm going to write a thing about Swedish poetry for John Gallahar (I have to first fill out my immigration forms so I don't get thrown out of here)... And perhaps I'll expound on Aase Berg's second book "Mork Materia" - Dark Matter - then... But for now I will say that it - not Creeley's "imageless image" - provides me with the anti-dote to the "Deep Image"... Not refrain tactfully from the image but go through it... Use syntactic distortions *and* fleeing, movie-montage-like imagery... Not to provide an elevated place for poetry... But to send it straight into the lowest, crassest place... Dark matter here refers to outer space yes but not the mysterious space of the deep imagists... No here it is SHIT... Fecal matter... That's the dark matter in one very primary sense... Berg takes Harry Martinsson's Aniara, an allegory of hovering aimless and melancholically in space, in the mechanical womb of a space ship... and crashes it into the weird world Martinsson only obliquely refers to... Not a pre-social womb but a womb that is very much part of the social... a womb that is not pre-language and natural... but a social critique... a world where women feed their children unnatural black milk... Again we're back to surrealism and how it has come to mean all that is excessive and obscolete (which as Benjamin pointed out decades ago is a central mode of surrealism) and tasteless...

But Jed's book does seem really excellent so I'll try to post more about it... I certainly recognize a lot of it from having been Jed's student and thesis advisee for a few years...


Blogger Ross Brighton said...

"unnatural black milk" - Celan's schwatz Milch der Frühe as sustainance? that is crass. Like Plath's choo-choo trains, or Sabrina Orah Mark's "ha ha holocaust".

4:11 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Rasula's argument in this new book sounds very little different from discussions about deep image of 20 and even thirty years ago. No reason automatically to believe that Rasula should revise this long held set of beliefs among the New Americans and language poets, but I'm wondering whether his argument adds anything new to a longstanding and recognized point of view.

Guess that's why I don't automatically read new critical books anymore; I'm afraid they're going to tell me things I've already been told too many times.

That said, I see big differences between Wright and Bly. I like some Bly poems but often find them sententious and pompous; Wright at his best I think is a much more powerful writer.

And oddly enough maybe, I'm afraid I don't actually think that Rothenberg and, especially, Kelly, are better poets than Wright. I certainly see why others might, but I think in this case ideology too prominently wags the dog. Many of the metaphors and ideas in Wright's poems can be critiqued for their social shortcomings in a greater degree than the work of Rothenberg or Kelly, I would agree, although it should be noted that some of the cultural positions in those other writers have also been questioned.

So I don't deny that some people might be troubled by Wright's poems for some reasons and be justified in doing so. But for me, the poems in his best two books, The Branch Shall Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River, stand as the most powerful poems created by poets related to the Deep Image concept. Not that "power" is the only language one might use in valuing poems, by any means, just that, like Jack Spicer there's something gripping about Wright's poem that I can't quite say about these other writers. And that's not to say that I don't like Rothenberg's or Kelly's poems, because I really do.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, you're right. What I'm trying to figure out is why it's so important to attack this group of poets who are by now fairly much disregarded. And you're right - Wright/Bly wrote some good poems. I didn't mean to be snooty about that. I like Bly's poem about the small bodies. That seems as good a Vietnam poem as any I've read. Though yeah on the whole his poems are probably less than Wright's poems.


7:02 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Well, the reason it used to be important (in, say, 1985) was to use the somewhat mystical/American surrealist/sometimes obfuscated metaphors and images of Deep Image as a contrast to the materialist, often anti-metaphorical New American poetry (Oppen on Yeats "Second Coming": "But what kind of hawks are they? Red hawks?"), taken even further in language poetry with a critique of the politicized dominance of the conventional representational image and conventionally hierarchized sentences and paragraphs. The ideological limitations of Deep Image (and let's face it, there is a fair amount of mumbo jumbo involved with all that) were used in contrast to the more politically conscious analysis of the ideological underpinnings of poetry found in a materialist poetics (and again, with a shift from NAP to language on the basis of whether the material being analyzed is the world or language itself).

I mean, that's all overly general, but it was the basic dichotomy, as you know, obviously.

As to why the story is still being told... maybe just because this is the model that Rasula and others are still committed to, or there doesn't seem to him any new point of view worth taking? I think many writers have the difficulty of continuing to live in the time of their first emergence in poetry. I remember Susan Schultz once saying to me, as we sat on the train going from NYC to DC, "Most people don't change, you know." But it could also be, of course, that Rasula believes that many people still don't understand the value of this particular critique. And there may be truth in that: it's not like anybody actually remembers that much about the poetics of the past. And maybe by saying things over and over, the insistence has some value?

But since I don't know the book, I think my conclusions here are likely premature. Base line value: he's saying it again because it's what he thinks.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

It's just that I'm seeing a lot of articles about this recently. It made more sense in 1980 or even 1990 or 95. But I think you're right... It is perhaps that Jed's New American/Language background is in many ways intertwined with this critique (and this is why he rescues Rothenberg and Kelly from the "deep image" umbrella).

10:11 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Seconding Mark's nod to JW.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Phanero Noemikon said...

the problem is, there really isn't such a thing as surrealism, kitchiness, pop,

there is just substance
and the dumb irony or words.

it's a shit sun.

indexicality and the grotesque.

indexicality as a model
of syntaxis ie

in alchemical terms

the body is a map of the universe


when you hear or think something
there is a specific physio-neuro event process which you are going to have to characterize via indexicality of "some kind"

now in the larger molar aggregates
of thinking

you have to move or go somewhere
or send materials

this is syntaxis

just like a bug
or thermal updrafts
its all a metaphor

but in the end
there is just

mass flow control
and its opposite

that's all/

literature, art, all of culture
is simply

entertainment / entrainment

since death
is more than likely
and since word
forms mostly a matrix of luring and desiring instead of informing

the grotesque reality
is that in a freudian sense
there is nothing but a kind
tired masturbation of labels
and a process of technical articulation

as the labels become more inbred
the actual technicity of the event

which really just ends up making our junkyards more toxic

which is probably good in a way
because since its obvious intelligence is a bad idea


intelligence itself IS stupid

we will eventually kill ourselves with it

ending the whole

semantic conflict of

excess / lack

lack is negative excess
and excess is negative lack

until we are singulairity beings

"cascading organ events"

instead of ideo-logos-victims
or whatever entrainment soap is playing that decade

we will remained trapped in the puzzle wa{o}r[l]d


unconscious contentionism

and everything
can be made contentious

and this is exactly
the root of all method
with regards to the social

4:19 PM  
Blogger Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

Lanny's right, as usual.

And they were falcons, right? Not hawks.

6:50 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

No, it's hawks that Oppen complains about. But I see now it's not from "The Second Coming." Which Yeats' poems has the hawks wheeling... I believe in the western skies?

7:49 AM  
Blogger Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

It is my belief that Oppen was a tyrant.

8:47 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Interesting. I've never heard that. What do you base it on?

9:13 AM  
Blogger Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

I'm good friends with his niece. She wrote some poems when she was very young, a pre-teen, and he was rather harsh about them: "You have to stand by your every word."

I find that a ridiculous directive aimed at anyone, and to an eleven-year-old girl [I am emphasizing girl here in my mind] especially so.

Oppen was a moral poet. It may be a false syllogism to say that "All moral poets are tyrants, therefore..." and yet, I feel there's some truth to it.

9:52 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

That's a good story, Nada. I'm really glad to know about it.

What's funny to me is how it strikes me as standard "great male poet" advice anywhere from the 20s through the 50s and even after. Allen Tate could have said it, T.S. Eliot, John Berryman, name it.

Which isn't to say that it's not tyrannical, just that it's a remarkably standardized and shared tyranny.

When constructing alternative canons, I guess it's easy to forget that no matter how far apart they were in their own time, the poets of 50-100 years ago probably have much more in common with each other than we do with any of them.

Sorry for continuing this on your blog, Johannes. If you're tired of it, just say so. But Nada's story was so great I just had to say something.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Of course I don't mind. All the comments have been good.


4:23 PM  
Blogger JforJames said...

An eleven year old is young. But as soon as one shows one poems to another one becomes vulnerable. Oppen's advice to the young poet doesn't seem overly harsh to me. It seems more like 'a charge'.

And I don't equate moral with bad.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Sorry, but Oppen a "tyrant"? Based on one anecdote, a piece of advice he spoke to his niece? And a perfectly honest, non-patronizing piece of advice at that? I'm sure Oppen had his annoying quirks and his dark side(s), as we all do. But *this* to justify such a slur? Please.

No pun intended by "dark," by the way.

A question: Does anyone here think that the kind of writing featured in "American Hybrid" will be any less out of fashion in 30-40 years (likely less, and let's hope, no?) than Deep Image is now? Does anyone doubt that avant poets in 2039 will be condescendingly snickering, as they look back? I mean, we're already starting to snicker at Language poetry now, and it hasn't been twenty years since the tail-end of the heroic years...

So watch the smugness, I say!


11:16 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Who's smug? Both Mark and I were critical about piling up on the Deep Image poets. And I have been very critical of teh American Hybrid anthology. So I don't know what you are referring to.


4:19 PM  
Blogger Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

Kent is saying I'm smug. He doesn't like me or my opinions.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Phanero Noemikon said...

Do the hammer-lock
you turkey-necks
everybody's doin' it..

10:33 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

No Nada, that's not true. I was commenting only on your remark about Oppen. I didn't characterize that as "smug." I was saying it was dumb. Just that particular comment.

Johannes, "Smug" I applied to the notion that somehow the new "Hybridity" (our academic period style, as Deep Image-y stuff was once the academic period style) is more "advanced," or something, than Deep Image. As sub-cultural phenomenon, sociologically speaking, the similarities this fashionable "Hybridity" shares with the latter are more marked and important than the "stylistic" differences.


7:09 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yeah, but who on this blog has made the argument that the hybridity was more advanced? If anything, I think most people who write and comment on this blog have rejected that notion.

In my review I said I preferred the idea of the hybrid to the desperate adherents of "traditional" poetry (ie a style developed in the 1970s), but that's hardly a ringing endorsement.


9:13 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

OK, Johannes, fair enough. Sorry to have read too quickly and made some assumptions about widely held "post-avant"... assumptions.

Glad to see that others here hold Wright in respectful esteem. There was a fraught discussion over at the Harriet blog some months ago on one of Wright's most famous poems-- Mark Nowak and and a few others were arguing the poem was racist and sexist and pretty much reason to dismiss JW's work in general. From what I recall.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I hope this is OK to mention here: I've started to blog with Digital Emunction, a collective operation mainly staffed by U of Chicago and Chicago Review folks. The site is devoted to a mix of political/economic commentary and literary discussion: kind of like a Boston Review of blogosphere. It's a sharp and smart place.

I've got three posts so far: One on the Chicago poetry scene, wihch has generated lots of controversy and discussion; one which is a three-part conversation with poet John Bradley on satire and poetry; and a third which is an on-the-ground report of the latest Extreme Makeover Edition, just filmed in my small hometown. I'll have a new post up this week on "Poetic Plagiarism" and another that announces, with discussion from others, my brand new book, which weighs in at over 800 pages.

I'm making the notice here because I think this is one of the smartest and most interesting poetry blogs, and I don't know how one announces these things unless one is running one's own site and can do RSS feeds and all that, whatever those are. Anyway, here is the link to Digital Emunction. Lots of superb stuff to be found there. Jordan, I know, reads it, and I think he would agree it's a terrific place. http://www.digitalemunction.com/



4:44 PM  
Blogger Delia Psyche said...


Why do you punctuate with paint-drips, dot dot dot? What's wrong with periods?

6:17 AM  
Blogger Michael Theune said...

Great post, and great comments. Thanks!

7:48 AM  
Blogger WAS said...

Images loosen the control of the word over thought, so poets have always lived or died by them. Bly’s interest was in stretching the limits of the image into the psychic states where he imagined the real action was. Thus the notion of image to him (as opposed to the so-called “deep image” poets) was really more like form, anything that could contain the psychic energy that populated the universe. He tried to create with his poems a language of emotionally charged symbols appropriate to his mystical and metaphorical concerns, but I imagine for people who only see images, they look pretty lame. A poet like, say, Jackson MacLow, uses a lot more imagery in the conventional sense, but it never serves as a form for something else, because it stays resolutely on the surface of things, subversively away from thought and feeling. While Merwin can say, for example, “the darkness thinking the light” and recreate a whole cosmology, MacLow can write a series of particular poems about light and never once go below surface description.

A poem like Kelly’s “Cloudherd’s Song,” with its commitment to using words to capture the unnamable and even unreachable, does so much to take the reader away from the dominant materialist culture, I fail to see how the “deep image” approach he espoused could ever be considered “vulgar,” especially in light of the limited and conservative aims of modern academic poetry, whether langpo or American Hybrid.

6:20 PM  
Blogger Delia Psyche said...

I think--and probably I'm echoing someone in this long comment queue--that we shouldn't take the vicissitudes of literary fashion too seriously. And that if we see Bly's oeuvre not as a pretext for displaying erudition but as manifestations of a spiritual life, as emanations from an essential self--bearing in mind that the certainty-undermining malaise of the 60's conduced to oblique, imagistic expression--then we'll realize that it hasn't been "discredited" at all. If we read Bly humbly, with an open heart and a desire to enter into another person's mind and feelings, we'll be galvanized by the psychic energy in the images--which aren't "lame" at all; on the contrary, they leap. We won't dismiss the trippiness as a cheap 60's "wow" aberration; rather, we'll sympathize with the longing for transcendence it expresses. We'll catch fleeting, intutitive glimpses of an alternative reality. I mean, let's be fair: Bly's poetry is, on the whole, nice stuff, to put it down-homely, and we should encourage people to read it, not coldly spurn it as ideologically retrogade or something and sweep it into the dustbin of literary history.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Hear hear! for Sigler and Grove.

The logic of images, pictorial symbolism, and manner of things critical to cognition and spirituality doesn't enter enough, for my taste, into langpo hybrid etc dicussions of poetry.

Good to see it here -- but I also wish the tone of dismissal were absent(especially as it seems to stem from the poets' unpopularity? and are they even so unpopular?).

10:22 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think that's just my tone in general... And I think I apologized for it in response to Mark.


10:37 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

... dude...what's with...all the elipses...? it seems like they serve you for every other form of punctuation...a little distracting..........

7:54 PM  

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