Thursday, January 07, 2010

Plath, Abjection and Steve Burt (#3)

Steve Burt responded to me in the comment section to the last entry, so I thought I would reply to him here:


You continue to avoid actually engaging in an argument. You say for instance:

"I like poetry that alters the way in which we see those modes, but I very rarely embrace poetry that imagines it can destroy all those modes and then go on constructing a life without them."

Who are these people imagining this destruction? Of what? What would it mean? Crashing the Norton's website? Burning down the Poetry Foundation? It's impossible to evaluate your statement if I don't know what poets you are talking about.

Then you once again resort to the kind of trope I criticized you for:

"This difference isn't just aesthetic: at the very highest levels of generality it is probably ethical and political too: I admire some elected officials, I'm not a big fan of the 1972-style New Left, and I think it's usually a bad idea to try to change the government by using guns."

You're not mentioning names, positions etc, instead falling back on a very strange metaphor. What is it about these (still un-named) poets that you find so threatening you feel like comparing their rhetoric to terrorists (though to be fair, it's also a bit of a slur on the new left)?

The conceit also suggests it's the methodology of change you disagree with, not the goal. Is that true?

It seems to me that perhaps there is nothing about "goals" in your framework, only method as its own goal. To examine your own metaphor, if you prefer the elected official, then you are supporting a kind of mediation between the masses and power-- a kind of institutional gatekeeping. To apply this analogy back to poetry crticism, you believe in gatekeepers, tastemakers, who can keep the (very small) masses from being tasteless, immoderate. The method is the message.

Your implicit identification with yourself as a kind of "elected official" has implications for your own role as a critic. Who elected you? In what way are your representative? It's not that I think people should not have opinions about poetry, it's that I think people should be up front about their own aesthetics. On this blog, I review or discuss some poets and movements because I want people to know about them and to enter a discussion about them--even, yes, to propose sometimes alternative historical lineages for their work. I'm not trying to suggest that there's some first rate and second rate poetry out there that I'm expertly reporting on the first in the light of objective literary history.

I don't claim that you like: "... poetry that pushes or renegotiates or argues with, or picks a fight against, boundaries, limits, institutions, and inherited modes."

To me it seems you are defending hierarchies of tastefulness and refinement (inferior, second-rate etc), New Critical paradigm of form equals function etc. Taste needs tastemakers, hierarchies need gatekeepers. It seems these negotiations are all going on with your *own* taste, your *own* institutional position. That's an admirable attitude to take, but don't pretend that it's some kind of objective taste, some kind of stable Literature.

You ask Kathleen: "would you really prefer it if this essay (and others before it) included list of names of not-very-famous, early-career poets whose work I found derivative, boring, second-rate? Would I be a better person, or a better critic, if I routinely published such lists?" Well, yes.

What I disagree with in your comment(Kathleen has her own response in the comment section below) is the idea that you can call someone a second-rate poet without engaging in an argument about them - without figuring out what they are doing and why. That's just taste-making of the worst kind.

From your review, it seems to me that you're not opposed to people who are boring, but to poets who are too exciting (excessive!). In other words, they are following a different aesthetic than you believe in. But you don't give a name and you don't show their poems, so I don't know. You merely reinforce an unquestioned, prominent critical framework of moderation without any investigation of the assumptions (why are certain things immoderate? to begin with).

Let these immoderate poets in, describe what you think is so excessive about it. Let the reader try to figure out what this excessive poetry is all about. Your unwillingness to do even this (much less try to understand the ideas behind such poetry), makes your essay seem defensive.

Even when you praise Zucker you seem to need to use her as as defense against the dangers of poetry that you see as threatening, you use her as a limit. Don't go any further!

I don't think you see Plath as formless, but what I'm trying to understand is why you repeatedly try to write her out of the conversation. You mention her several times, but always as a negative, to say that she was not an influence. Even in the passages you quote from Zucker she is obviously an influence (the fever quote seems a direct reference). Why does Plath need to be negated? Like I said below, you did the same thing with Mark Levine's first book. What's so scary about Sylvia Plath?

(Though really Sharon Olds and Anne Sexton seem perhaps even bigger influences. I would ask why they have to be negated, but I ask about Plath because that seems like a more prominent trend.)


Blogger Stephanie said...

I think you are trying to goad me into publishing a list of all the semi-eminent, or semi-avant-garde, poets whose uncontrolled, excessive, disorganized or repetitive work I dislike or find formally uninteresting. I started to make such a list-- and then found myself crossing off a few who are personal friends. I don't think I'll continue.

It seems to me that you are defending punk rock, and accusing me of being New Wave. And you are right.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

About the sources for Levine's first book we have a substantive disagreement: I hear more Berryman in there, and you hear more Plath. Good book.

You write: "I review or discuss some poets and movements because I want people to know about them and to enter a discussion about them--even, yes, to propose sometimes alternative historical lineages for their work." Me too.

You also write: "I'm not trying to suggest that there's some first rate and second rate poetry out there that I'm expertly reporting on the first in the light of objective literary history."

I thought that was just what you were suggesting, though without the "objective" tag. How can you describe your own judgments, or even your own tastes, without sounding like you mean it, like you believe what you're saying? Or are you saying I haven't been sufficiently clear (sufficiently autobiographical) about my own background and my own assumptions when I describe what poems I like or dislike? Or that I haven't been sufficiently apologetic about my status as someone who gets paid to teach poetry and to write book reviews? In a just world I would probably get paid somewhat less than I do get paid for the job I have, and kindergarten teachers would get paid more.But I'm not sure what that has to do with the tone of my work-- or with the tone of yours.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Once again you create these metaphorical binaries. I don't understand the punk-new-wave metaphor. Are we too political? Do we have spikey hair? I always thought of myself as Bruce Springsteen... And I always thought of Joyelle as Beyonce.

Look, what I'm saying is that instead of erecting these unqualified taste statements to dismiss poets you don't get, I want you to talk about the poems. Explain what's so threatening. And if you actually engaged with these crazy yo-gabba-gabba poets I think your criticism would benefit.

One more thing: The use of "semi" is another way of trying to avoid the argument - it's not that you disagree with these avant-garde poets, it's that they're not really truly avant-garde, and not really famous (thus not worthy of your criticism?). Calling someone fake is simply not good enough. That's just name-calling.


10:50 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Response to the second letter (I missed it at first):

I'm not sure what you're talking about. What I'm reacting to is your attempt to police and taste-make, to dismiss poetries without having to engage with them.

For example, if you said who you were talking about (these ghostly excessive poets who haunt your article)and what you thought was excessive about them, I could say well here's what I find interesting about them (formally or otherwise, we could even talk about different ideas of "formal"). You unwillingness to allow such argument makes your argument seem defensive.

I appreciate what you're doing and I'm certainly not professor-bashing.


11:13 AM  
Blogger John Gallaher said...

“would you really prefer it if this essay (and others before it) included list of names of not-very-famous, early-career poets whose work I found derivative, boring, second-rate? Would I be a better person, or a better critic, if I routinely published such lists?”

OK, so you write “yes” as the answer, and I’m tempted to agree . . . but there is a way that such lists—especially when of early-career poets—could be unhelpful to the conversation. What would it change Burt’s essay if the sentence was simply not there? Must there always be this contextualizing by negation? This “not like them” move?

But maybe it is necessary. I’m ambivalent. I can see that moving essays and reviews into the sphere of “others” is a way to build a larger point, and larger points are nice things to have. OK, maybe he should have had a longer list. But then, couldn’t the whole essay have been made stronger if he chose the Zucker book and one by ________ that doesn’t work, to place next to each other? I’d like very much to read that appendix.

6:41 AM  
Blogger John Gallaher said...


I liked punk rock and new wave very much at the time. But now, looking back, neither were as interesting as late-70s Neil Young.

I've made many lists of poets who I think do this thing or that thing well or not well, and yeah, those lists fall apart for many reasons, only one of which is friendship (I don't really know many poets). I think that is a good reason for being careful about category generalizations. They are an over-wide net. Dolphins get killed that way. is always trying to sell me things that it thinks are like the things I've bought in the past. They are rarely interesting.

I really dislike The Eagles, let's just say.

6:50 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I don't want to put words in Steve's mouth, but my guess is that he's using the new wave/punk distinction as a metaphor for what a writer I know calls "craft" and "edge," with Steve in the role of preferring the well-crafted and Johannes being interested in a poetic chaos not contained by craft.

Of course the distinction isn't really a good description of the actual practice of punk and new wave musics as such (and the division between the two isn't all that well marked either necessarily), but taken simply as metaphor in the way I am, it's not automatically a bad descriptor of the difference between the two of you.

So I guess, Johannes, that one way to respond to Steve's binary would be by discussing what role you think "well-craftedness," or even form/structure, plays in the poems you're most interested in. To what extent does craft matter to you, if at all?

And remember (I say jokingly, quoting this other writer): "craft riddles edge with bullets" but also that "craft retreats after suffering losses at home."

3:30 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think the poetry I like/write/publish/translate has just as much craft (in a general sense) as the ones Steve promotes; it's just that it's a different craft. And that's precisely the problem with someone bringing in "craft." It's always 'my craft' not some kind of transcendent craft.

Also, the new wave binary doesn't seem right on so many different levels. Steve just needs to come up with a solid argument instead of these metaphors - metaphors that just obfuscate his position and mine.


7:44 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

You know, it probably is time for me to write at some length about something new that I dislike because it's uncontrolled or anti-intellectual or too focused on innovation as against craft. But I don't want to do that in the comments section of a blog, not even this blog. We'll see whether and whether I do. (Mark, you are about right.)

12:31 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Well Steve, you entered this discussion; you didn't have to but you did and all you've done since you stepped into it is evade and provide strange metaphors (we're not armed, I promise). All I'm saying is lets have a discussion.

It's anti-intellectual to claim that someone is anti-intellectual or anti-craft merely because you don't like their aesthetics.

All I'm saying is: You've got an aesthetic agenda, own up to it. Then we can have a discussion.

The New Wave metaphor is weird to me because what I associate with New Wave is intermedia experimentation and a kind of cosmopolitanism that I don't associate with you.


2:34 PM  

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