Friday, January 22, 2010

The Inarticulate: Fashion, Narrative, Poetry and Rodarte

Despite the fact that I'm a balding dude living in Indiana, I am very interested in the way the trope of "Fashion" is used in poetry discussions, as well as the way fashion is discussed (even in conservative NY Times, the fashion articles are far more interesting than the book review).

It seems you can blindly throw a stone into poetry and you're bound to hit an article or blog entry denouncing the fashion or hipsterish quality of contemporary poetry.

In the most recent "Writer's Chronicle," I found an article by a Charles Harper Webb on "narrative poetry" that begins by denouncing fashionability in poetry: "The narrative... still scores low on teh hipness scale." And he then re-hashes Tony Hoaglund's attack on the "Skittery Poem of our Moment."

This of course ignores the fact that the "narrative" poem has far more institutional support than any other "type" of poem. I use quotation marks because, as I've written before, a lot of my favorite writing is engaged with various forms of narrative. In fact, all of my work is narrative (in different ways), except my blackout book but that one I've decided never to publish.


But I'm more interested - as everyone who reads this blog knows by now - in the use of fashion in this rhetoric, to suggest that there's a superficiality in poetry. This came out - as readers of this blog also knows - when Mark Halliday freaked out over Josh Clover's "lettrist jacket." Halliday was upset that Clover's poetry was not engaged in the real/genuine. Grieving one's father's death I think was Halliday's example. Or maybe that was my own wishful thinking because that's too perfect: "fashion" is the death of the father in some way, the end of patriarchy comes from multiplication, exchangeability, shallowness, flimsiness. That is a funny reading of Halliday. I'm pleased as pancakes.


It seems Aesteticism is threatening. And this should explain why people are wrong when they assume aesteticism is apolitical. Or those who equate it with mere formalism.


For the longest times I've been meaning to write about some recent books that embrace this negative "fashion" element: Sandra Simmonds, Kate Durbin, and Dan Hoyt & Jon Leon. And I've arelady discussed Chelsey Minnis (staging a rape as gothic fashion show) and Lara Glenum (Versace violence shows) in these terms.

Of course the opposition between these "fashionable" hipster poets and true, genuine traditionalists is of course ridiculous. Many of the poets held up as "traditional" and genuine are of course straight out of the 1970s workshop playbook, while "fashion" has a very storied tradition - think of Baudelaire writing "in praise of cosmetics" or Mallarme's fake fashion reports.

I also should mention Marianne Moore as probably the best example in American canonical poetry. The way she turns the (lively, energetic) animal into artifice over and over. For example: "An Octopus/of ice." Another example: O'Hara's "A Step Away from Them," in which spontaneity is artifice (or perhaps a comparison of O'Hara's Grand Central Station and Plath's Lady Lazarus). Another: Hannah Wiener.


The Finland-Swedish Modernists always embraced each other's writing except when it came to Dadaists Henry Parland and Gunnar Bjorling. Parland in particular they dissed as being decadent and nihilistic. Here's a piece from Idealrealisation (clearance sale of ideals - a title that encompasses both the fears and promises of "fashion"):

I though:
it was a human being,
but it was her clothes,
and I didn't know
that that's the same thing
and that clothes can be very beautiful.

This turn - where you expect the punch line (and punch-line is a fittingly shallow way of putting it) to be a division between real and artificial but instead turns out to blur this distinction - is repeated in this poem:

what do you know about legs?
you who think about skirts
when you pass the windows of the department store.
Whta do you know
about the legs
of the twentieth century?

Here one might expect it to be a critique of someone who can't appreciate the real legs, but then the "real" legs turn out to be "the legs/of the twentieth century" - mannequin legs cut off from the rest of the body, identified by an advertising-ese jingo.

The sections of "Ideals Clearance" (available in my translation from Ugly Duckling Presse) are also appropriately titled Stains, Socks, Flu and Grimaces - as if the body,clothing and expressions are all part of the same realm. (And disease and facial expressions are part of the same realm).

Insert your favorite Tzara or Picabia or Duchamp reference here.


There is also something of a discomfort with the "visual" in poetry in these critiques: the opposition between narrative and image. Images have to be "earned" according to 1970s workshop protocoll - or they become excessive. The poem becomes fashion. It loses that redeeming protestant work ethic of the "narrative."


Part of my interest in the critique of fashion is the way it neccessarily seems to move out of the kind of narrow poetic lineages to engage with pop culture and other things outside of this. It seems to lead to a kind of social interaction that a lot of folks want to keep poetry away from.

An interesting paradox of this: In his phenomenal history of American poetry, The American Poetry Wax Museum, Jed Rasula criticizes the urge to keep poetry separate from this kind of sociality, but at the same time displays the same fear of aesteticism and kitsch (it's a wax museum! I wish!).


Fashion also has its own writing, and often, curiously, it follows some of the same tropes as poetry discussion. For example, I just read a New Yorker article about the fascinating fashion designing duo Rodarte (Laura and Kate Mulleavy), where the NY Times fashion reporter Cathy Horyn writes the following complaint:

"All those scarred fabrics are essentially ornament; the underlying shapes don't change much, and they're not interesting. Indeed you wonder if they are bored or intimidated by the actual mechanics of design - cutting, setting a sleeve - and that is what their clothes express isn't technical virtuosity but inarticulateness."

Here you have a strangely similar criticism of fashion as is implied in the common poetry criticism of fashionability: it's inarticulate and doesn't know the basics.

The writer of the article (Amanda Fortini)responds to Horyn's criticism like this: "Most of the time, the Mulleavys' dresses hover mysteriously at the point where balanced meets busy, and beautiful meets baroque. But their recent designs, while arresting, do not perform the simple duty of most women's clothing - to make the wearer look either pretty or sexy."

Interesting: that in fashion, the critique is perhaps more honest. It's not the "shallow" prettiness that is the problem, but that this kind of fashion (or art) does not fulfill its function. Why we supposedly buy these garments.

This makes me think of my favorite TV show, Project Runway,where the most interesting designs are often denounces as "costumey" - they foreground their own artifice. And the host will say "No normal woman would wear this thing around town."

It is as if in order to be fashionable it has to have an element of costumeyenss, but it can't have too much, it cannot actually make the judges aware of this.

And that makes me think of Judith Halberstam's queer studies reading of the Gothic, Skin Shows (a title that connects to this blog entry already - visuality, pornography, gothic) where she argues that the Gothic uses costumeness to call attention to the costumeness of all identities etc.

It is no coincidence that the Rodarte clothes are very Gothic.

And here's a quote from the Tom McCarthy essay I linked to yesterday:

"Art’s dirty secret is inauthenticity all the way down, a series of repetitions and reenactments that attempt to cover over the traumatic event of materiality.”


Blogger Danielle said...


Where is your Loy? Lampshade hats, thermometer earrings, auto-facial-construction?

I want to dress like Kate Durbin! Swoon! I show her profile pics to H. for study, as H. also loves project runway & wants to be a fashion artist & a surgeon.

Ping! And that dude last season who made the crazy egg outfit! But, I forget his name, the "hot mess" guy won with that Spanish conquistador inspired collection, which was more costumey than they usually go for. One of my poetry students just asked, "do you really like Project Runway?" Poetry Runway.

Sorry for any disjoint--I'm under miffo-attack.


10:22 AM  
Blogger Nada Gordon: 2 ludic 4 U said...

Hi Johannes,

Interesting: I remember that quote from Horyn and thinking that it could analogize to certain critiques of poetry and other art forms.

Of course I agree with your argument here entirely, as I so often do, and I like this post very much except for one thing. Can you guess?

12:19 PM  
Blogger Kristen Iskandrian said...

Rodarte recently did a line for Target. There is some analogy to be made here--"high" fashion gone mainstream the equivalent of some poetry anthologies?--but I can't quite put my finger on it. Good post, still chewing on it.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Alissa Nutting said...

I have been lost within the gaping womb of Project Runway for seven seasons now. I cannot find my way out amidst all this tulle.

It is interesting how both "no real woman would ever wear this" and "this is too unimagined" get equal play within the judges' circular critiques. The outfit must be able to look fabulous on a hanger, yet must transcend the hanger and make shoppers forget it is a garment on a hanger. The perfect outfit will be unique enough to be adequately appropriated into the average consumer's 'quirky' identity, yet stock enough to fit the 'quirky' identity of several thousand women throughout the country. Outfits that seem to have their own identity (The swan dress created for Bjork that was critiqued on every red-carpet obsessed magazine comes to mind) take all the safety out of fashion, the safety that says, "This will enhance my personhood without overtaking me." Fashion and technology become "dangerous" at the same point, when they move from passive assistance to independent existence. How many people saw her swan dress yet had no idea who she was, and didn't care to find out? The dress had swallowed the human. I find delight in this. I love to be eaten by costume.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I can't wait for your writeup on Kate - I'm falling more and more in love with all this stuff, and the blurring of lines - Had many arguements with people recently about Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson, and trying to get people to explain what's wrong with the performative in music, and why it's supposedly so much worse than poeple 'performing the authentic' and dressing like pearl jam because that's expected, and functions as a symbol of their authenticity.

Hopefully going to be writing a paper on Ariana Reines' weoponised redeployment of Plath-esque confessionalism first semester (Down here the accademic year and chronological year are in sync, so that's starting soon). Cant' wait. Hopefully faculty won't get up in arms about citing blog posts....

7:43 PM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

First of all, Johannes, a bald head–or balding head—is ripe with fashion potential. Check out Leigh Bowery. In fact, I am sometimes tempted to go bald so I can cover my head in sequins when I feel like it, and write rude messages on it that only tall people can read.

Danielle, I am so flattered that you show my picture to your daughter. I hope to meet her one day. We can talk surgical fashions!

I find that dressing in costume at readings adds a really interesting and even uncomfortable dimension to a poetry reading. I love this and exploit it. Costume is “distracting” and makes the “poet” appear less serious and genuine and also less “academic.” Of course, the audience loves it, but they cannot trust their love for it (and if it’s truly grotesque then you have that nice attraction/repulsion going on as well). It all seems so unnecessarily artificial and shallow, like a teenage girl. I think this falls nicely in line with what you were talking about, J, with the way that “fashion poetry” (for lack of a better term—that could be costume combined with poetry or poetry about fashion or image obsessed poetry or whatever other categories you’re using) engages with popular culture and “leads to a type of social interaction that a lot of folks want to keep poetry away from.”

Also, I am glad you said that fashion is not apolitical. If it were truly apolitical, people would not get so bent out of shape about it. There are a million real life examples for this: the burqa being one of the most obvious real life ones, Marie Antoinette, Bette Davis in that red dress at the southern ball in Jezebel where all the other women are wearing white and her whole life is destroyed because she wore that red dress, Lady Godiva, etc. etc. etc.

Lastly, I like what Alissa has to say about Bjork and fashion and how in that world there is a similar fear/policing of fashion that “goes too far” (post-human?) and starts to draw too much attention to itself, and therefore draw too much attention to the fact that all fashion, or as you said in your post quoting Halberstam, all costumes and all identities are a construction.

And the potentials for disruption are endless…

11:02 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, if I were to write something about Ariana R I would probably involve the recent "controversy" about what took place at her reading. And I would probably refer to Dan Hoyt's response to Craig Perez's entry on the Harriet blog where he talks about her performances. You can alsosee some readings on youtube.


7:17 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, if I were to write something about Ariana R I would probably involve the recent "controversy" about what took place at her reading. And I would probably refer to Dan Hoyt's response to Craig Perez's entry on the Harriet blog where he talks about her performances. You can alsosee some readings on youtube.


7:17 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...


You have Dan's name as "Hoyt" in both your post and in the comment above. It's "Hoy."

"Hoyt" was the well-liked U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay, before the military coup there, who died of a heart attack while playing softball at a General Motors picnic outside Montevideo, as my father was giving him mouth to mouth resuscitation.

Typos dive into the unconscious.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Sorry Dan!

Several people have already alerted me to this misspelling.

Of course I manage to misspell just about every name I encounter.


10:22 AM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Dan Hoy said...

Hey no worries Johannes. I had a boss once who called me Don-er-Dan every day. I think the Jean-Jacques Schuhl piece about Marie-France and the boots of the gardes mobiles that immediately precedes Jon Leon and Ariana Reines in the second issue of SOFT TARGETS is apropos here (the fact that they're grouped together), as is the actual presentation of the piece (its original Gallimard look-and-feel appropriated, including cover and copyright page).

- Dan

3:37 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Yay! I do that as well! what else are you meant to do if you're not reading from a book?

5:47 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home