Monday, September 17, 2007


Ten years ago, after a furious email melodrama, I along with a few others was expelled from the Buffalo Poetics Discussion List (SUNY Buffalo). At the time this was interpreted by Kent Johnson et al. as a free speech/censorship issue (while others debunked it as a ridiculous tempest in a teapot). However, underlying those events, for me, was a kind of agonistic relationship which I was maintaining, against what seemed to be the stance of both the founders & the majority participants of that list. There was a difference of opinion, of approach, of "poetics", if you will.

I had developed a deep suspicion and dislike of the phenomenon known as "language poetry" and related strands of experimental writing. What I sensed was a particular motivation rooted in the language school : an attack on the ontological status of the individual, of the person. This attack included what seemed (and seems) to me a paradoxical consequence - a parallel attack on, or degradation of, poetic language itself. The very term "language poetry" seemed like a frivolous affront to the poetic word. Though the language poets themselves denied originating this label for their movement, they went on to adopt it - which was, in a sense, for them, a validation of its use.

It seemed like the application of ideology to poetics. Now, as everyone knows, the current notion of ideology is that everyone has one (or many). It's inescapable. Nevertheless I want to consider some of its characteristics.

Ideology is like a mental mold or crust, a reification - a hardening of the mind along specific channels of vocabulary, definition, identification. Once this hardening process takes place, the resulting loaf or dry crust can be applied as a kind of template - an overlay for interpreting phenomena. It can also be used as an intellectual club, to force the mind in certain directions. The club or weapon stands outside of the object to be forced. It's a tool - a powerful one, an Archimedean lever, providing a useful alienation from the object under consideration.

Poetry's elusiveness, its waywardness, its ad hoc, improvisatory quality, its ex nihilo creative rawness - all these aspects help protect it (and the other arts) from the automatic or utilitarian, the ideological uses of language. At least this is the wished-for ideal.

As I pointed out in another essay (Integral Poetry), the history of poetry reveals an oscillation around the crucial problem of subjectivity and solipsism. In American poetry, we witnessed one of those watershed shifts, around 1980, when the somewhat standardized "Life Studies" model of the personal, anecdotal lyric was attacked, from two directions : first, by the proponents of "identity literature", for whom the self is fundamentally the product of an embattled socio-cultural group identity, rather than the sum of familial characteristics or universal human qualities; second, by the language school and related postmodern trends, which denied any essential ontological status to the individual self, the person.

As Carol T. Christ makes clear (Victorian & Modernist Poetry), these oscillations were a consequence of the Romantic foregrounding of the unitary subjective self, as source and end of consciousness, perception, art. Here, of course, I am oversimplifying. Coleridge's position, for example, was far more nuanced in this regard. For Coleridge the unity of the self was ultimately rooted in the unitary ground of the Spirit, the Godhead, the great "I Am", with which the creative Imagination fused. But the development, in Western culture (and not just in poetry), of self-reflexive human subjectivity, was the paramount factor in the dilemma (of solipsism) we are considering.

The problem was that the Romantic Self seemed grounded on the void. When the autotelic self came to the fore, in modern, Enlightenment culture, the seeds of its inevitable disintegration were already planted. Wordsworth's Egotistical Sublime prefigured T.S. Eliot's ritualistic religious self-renunciation, his formal (and ceremonial) return to a medieval ideology.

I would locate my own attitude, however, somewhere between these poles - close to Coleridge's dual concept. The person is neither a phantasmal construct of ideological/historical determinisms, nor the embattled tribal-social being of identity politics, nor the imperial Self of modern scepticism. Reality as we know it is fundamentally structured by Personhood; but human personhood is rooted in some utterly mysterious spiritual Personhood. It is essentially relational; it is inter-personal. (Akin to the Byzantine notion of the icon, the Imago Dei.) What for the Language Poets is an obstacle to the abstract and impersonal mechanism of an ideal (Marxist) social justice, is for me the ground of a spiritual life : that is, a moral and political life, devoted (ideally, anyway) to truth and to the common good, rather than to merely materialist and opportunist ends. This is the moral vision underlying our literature, going back to Langland and Chaucer, & probably long before.

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