Thursday, May 16, 2013
I have this animus against the "Conceptual Poetry" phenomenon. It's not reasonable, it's not informed, it's just a visceral dislike. My attitude reminds me of my attitude back in the '90s toward Language Poetry. It's not fair, it's just there. So, being so terminally bored by the ponderous pronouncements of Kenneth Goldsmith & Vanessa Place - bored enough not to read much of it at all - I probably have little light to shed on this matter. But I just thought I'd vent a little.
The whole movement seems to stem genetically from philosophical discourse. The attitude of amused contempt displayed by the Conceptuals toward ordinary "poems" seems similar to that of Plato. Plato's worldview was fundamentally binary and divided. Mind was separate from Body; the material Cosmos is an imperfect reflection of the perfect, immaterial, transcendent, shaping Ideas which formed it. Poetry, that unaccountable verbal what-not, that irrational chaos, that disturber of Plato's perfect (authoritarian) Philosopher's State, was to be dismissed, shunned, outlawed.
The Conceptuals don't want to outlaw poetry. But they seem to have a parallel bias toward intellectual constructs over actual works of art. Their progress through the authorizing institutions of Poetryland resembles Plato's dream of a philosophical coup, a take-over of ordinary this-world governance. King Kenny & Queen Vanessa, the Conceptual Royals, institute their theoretical reign over the last tattered vestiges of the post-Romantic "lyric I".
Plato considered art to be fundamentally a matter of imitation, a mirror (a tarnished mirror). But it's possible to conceive of other framing analogies. One does not have to accept Plato's dualistic cosmos, split between matter and mind. Instead, one can imagine a more holistic universe, an "incarnational" cosmos, in which mind and body, spirit and matter, may indeed be valid ontological distinctions - but not irreconcilable divisions. Reality may be less like a system, and more like a story. Poetry may be less like a mirror, a reflection, and more like a building - a construct rising out of the primal process of naming. The act of giving a name to something involves more than reflection, mirroring. Wallace Stevens called poetry "the sanction of life". I think this gets closer to essence of the process of verbal shaping and ordering, its final purpose, than Plato's formulae.
The Conceptuals would like us to believe they have a special theoretical angle on poetry. They apply a pseudo-radical tactic : debunk the hoary Romantic concept of poetry, as subjective, lyric expression, by attacking the notion of personal identity itself. Replace composition with the functionalism of meaningless, evacuated "text". They might do better by recognizing that poetry is an integral activity which surpasses its own (or the philosophers') theoretical abstractions. The Romantic theory that lyric expression is the essence of poetry - a theory which also stems from philosophical speculations, in this case those of J.S. Mill - may be long out of date. But their attempt to replace poetic "substance" by theoretical concept, combined with an attack on personal subjectivity itself, seems more like a promotional gimmick than a real change in poetry or poetics.
It's fun to think about poetry, which presents a lot of mysteries, conundrums. It's fun to talk about it. But making it is something else. The activity of making poems resists theoretical frames & boxes. Take, for example, the postmodern thesis that the lyric Subject is an illusion, a mirage of false consciousness driven by repressed class-historical-material forces, or by a mis-perception of the de-centered insubstantiality of the Real. Yet, au contraire, what the actual labor of making poems reveals to the maker, is that the poem is the outcome of a personal struggle with an unaccountable something or someone other than the "lyric I". And the very process of dialectical making - this struggle - tends to carve both poet and "other" into high relief - to bring on a greater intensity of conscious presence or being. The process itself becomes primary : a process which involves the shedding or transformation of abstract preconceptions of every kind.
Poetry is conceptual by the very nature of its medium, language - so the phrase "conceptual poetry" is redundant. But the "concepts" in poetry are secondary. The primary power of poetry resides in names : the originary soundings of enunciation, evocation, expression. The words, that is, the beginning and end of the poem, do not "represent" things : they establish things. The dualisms of mind and body, thought and action, spirit and matter are transmuted within a sort of explanatory harmonics : earth is (figuratively speaking) transported to heaven. Prose and poetry, innocence and experience, are not divided, but implicated with each other, woven together in unbreakable knots.
There are a lot of anti-poetic forces at work within American Poetryland. There have been for a while. Groups with agendas to promote at the expense of actual poetry. But poetry is a stubborn, resistant, ineradicable thicket of laborious making. It will not be undone by superficial theoretical make-overs. Notions like the "obsolescent lyric Subject" are glib reductions from a much more complex actuality. Strong poetry actually builds on the "I" of the solitary lyric - branches out from this seed into more expansive forms - dialogue, satire, narrative, epic, drama... The whole ancient "wheel of Virgil" (eclogue/georgic/epic) still awaits contemporary fulfillments.
This annoyance with Conceptual Poetics... could it be because I'm jealous? Doubt it. Because I'm secretly one of them? Possible, I guess. I certainly like to speculate & natter on endlessly about "poetry", as every reader of this blog already knows.
Walking along Morris Ave. on my way to the library on a brilliant mid-May morning, I asked myself what is my concept of poetry? And I thought, I conceive of poetry, and art generally, as a sort of disk, or circle. A circle, in turn, can be conceived as an infinite series of congruent half-circles, each bounded or held together by an invisible straight line (its diameter), the center point of which is also the center of the circle as a whole.
Follow that? The half-moon shape of a semi-circle resembles a bridge, or a bow held taut by a bow-string. This circle, then, is a round of infinite half-moons or bridges.
The bow held by the string is an ancient metaphor for metaphor. For Metaphysical "wit" : the yoking-together of contraries (night and day) in harmony (think of Hart Crane's symbol of his Bridge : "power in repose"). Harmony is the mean between extremes : the force that makes peace between warring opposites, the magic alchemy which transmutes difference into complementarity.
Of course this is a fundamental aesthetic concept, underlying some of the great monuments of Modernist poetry (Crane's Bridge; Eliot's Chinese vase, in Four Quartets, still moving in its stillness, "at the still point of the turning world").
But then of course the time of modernism has passed, and postmodernity is here. The atrocious 20th century has eroded modernism's idealizations, its heroic icons of order and power. We recognize the irrational violence, the sense of global/cosmic displacement, the total futility of human grandeur as never before. Violent History (gloomy Spengler's metier) is the master frame - bracketing all our rusty icons, our ideals, of what is good and pleasant to behold.
But I'm not surrendering my magic circle, my secret totem, my spell. We only need to expand the two prongs of these moon-calipers, to enclose a wider, deeper spectrum of opposing forces. Art is meshed in a circle with Life - the circle of human seasons, of birth and death, weakness and strength, suffering and joy. We try to remember and seek to re-establish that Golden Age which lingers somewhere in the heart of a happy child - out of an equilibrium of natural life, the shelter of the family house, the "dwelling", the tent, the dome (a circle of circles). These speculations are only another illustration of the worldview of Russian Acmeism - Mandelstam's notion that poetry is fundamentally a form of "domestic hellenism", a means by which mortal Man on earth surrounds herself with "teleological warmth"- makes himself at home. It lingers in Joseph Brodsky : "Man was put on this Earth for one purpose : to make civilization." Art sinks back, sinks its foundations, into the deeper circle of normative life, the most basic "golden mean", our shared well-being. And a metaphysical hope remains in the poetic work of "naming" : the nominative, inventive, perspicuous, originary act of joining word and thing. Adam, in the beginning, gave names to every creature. The poet, in the end, brings this process to fulfillment, a flower in bloom - its rose window, circling in stone... the Word does not merely represent : the Word establishes (anew).
So I recall Emily Dickinson's aphorism for her poetic work : "my Circuit is Circumference".
Blah, blah, blah... not sure how much longer I can yoke these contraries (Concept & Blah) without giving us all the blahs. But I think of things, walking to work, so I'll try to note it down.
Taking a long (wide?) view, Conceptual Poetics, Uncreative Writing, etc. may be irremediably trivial : yet it's curious how the concept, in connection with poetry, necessarily leads to the nearby endeavors of Literary Criticism. What is poetry? has been the question. As it happens I've been wading through a magisterial tome which used to be required reading for every English major, M.H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp. A historical study of critical theories of poetry, focused on the Romantic era, but analyzing it as one phase in a development stretching back to Plato and forward (for him) to the New Criticism of the 20th century (his own era). And maybe beyond (I'm less than half way through).
For Abrams, the interesting thing is how the history of critical theories about poetry (in the West, anyway) reveals a procession of world-views, of philosophical eras, of chapters in the "Western mind", which determine in every way the specific aesthetic notions - about poetry and art in general - of each era. Abrams develops a simple diagram, with "the Work" (the poem) at the center, from which arrows extend in 3 directions - "World", "Audience", "Poet" - which correspond, respectively, to 3 succeeding approaches to poetry : Mimetic, Pragmatic, Expressive. (These in turn correspond to particular leading theorists : Plato/Aristotle for the mimetic; Horace and the neo-classical authors of the 18th century for the pragmatic; and the Romantics for the expressive.) A fourth theoretical mode, which corresponds to the "Work" alone, Abrams calls "Objective". I haven't gotten to those chapters yet, but I think he's referring to 20th-century Modernist and New Critical approaches, which highlight the integral, autotelic, self-contained "objectivity" of the work-in-itself.
Still awake, dear blahdom companions?
You get a sense, reading Abrams, of poetry as an ongoing, curious phenomenon, a puzzle, a conundrum, around which thinkers down the centuries have tried to attach their conceptual pincers. With only partial success ; the thing remains a riddle, and what critics say about it often says more about assumptions and enthusiasms of their own era, than about this elusive what-not itself. And the pattern of Abrams' argument seems to be leading toward some kind of crux, or cul-de-sac, since if you walk through his historical chart geometrically, you see a kind of swirl or spiral, of theories - absorbing the outer three in succession (imitative, pragmatic, expressive) and then turning inward to the center, to the last element, the Work itself (objective theories). Where do we go from here?
Should we ask Helen Vendler? Harold Bloom? The Academy of American Poets? A.W.P., maybe? or the Poetry Foundation? I asserted previously in this little series that poetry does more than represent reality - it (somehow) establishes same. But I want to distinguish this phenomenon itself from its professional American expert establishers of literary establishments. Poetry tends to get buried under the eager thundering of its mobs of advocates, all trained in their various ways to integrate literature into society, to promote the arts, to laud, praise and p.r. its established practitioners under compost piles of laurels and mountains of award grants. It's a gradual smothering process out of which swarms of compost-insects rise and dance and do battle (winners & losers & bettors & publicists & kibbitzers). Bye-bye, poetry. Hello, symposia, festivals & funeral orations.
Much has changed in the 70 years or so since M.H. Abrams composed his subtle summa of Romantic poetics. The critical ground has shifted, or given way completely. Postmodernity rejects the unproblematic essentialism of all critical terms. History and cultural identity are relativistic, contested fields of competing discourses. The New Critical icon of the "poem itself" shattered and crumbled quite a while ago. Ron Silliman, the Language Poet, for example, pronounced that "there is no such thing as poetry - only poetries." So-called avant-garde programs (Flarf, the Charles Bernstein Unit, Uncreative Writing, etc.) are structurally self-corroding, designed and promoted through tongue-in-cheek technique. Sincerity is for simpletons. In a sense, these theory-driven or concept-based movements (arm-in-arm with most of the sub-critical poetries at which they poke fun) dramatize the hollowing-out of traditional literary criticism - dancing on its grave.
So... ? Abrams' spiraling template ends (I'm guessing) at the summit of the "Work". The poet's job used to be to imitate Nature in a wise & pleasing way (Mimetic). Then it evolved into an Horatian mode of rhetorical suasion - leading readers to Goodness by way of Charm (Pragmatic). Then the Romantics came along - resurrecting a neo-Platonic (Plotinian) spirituality, replacing the attenuated Deism of the rationalist Enlightenment with a new enthusiasm, grounded in the lamp of divine Imagination (Expressive). Finally, once the ruinations of industrialism and war put paid to Romantic ideals, new forces of reactionary/revolutionary Modernism arose, grounded in the autotelic power of the Work itself (Objective). Then at last came the great deconstructive fibrillations of the late 20th century. & here we are.
Versions of all five of these approaches are still with us. The whole Coliseum of professional American literary praxis continually justifies itself through apologetics based on some or all of these critical angles. (Mimetic : " Poet X provides an excruciating but finally enthralling account of what it's like to live in Y." Pragmatic : "Poet J reminds us, with moving memories of home, that we need to return to our roots." Expressive : "Poet Q is a magician, an alchemiste du Verbe - revealing a wonderworld of fantastic visions." Objective : "Poet Z is an uncompromising formalist, who cannot be tagged with any of the current labels. Neither traditionalist nor experimental, her austere, formidable style is literally incomparable." Postmodern : "Poet M. unravels poetry from his shoelaces down, and builds it up again - as video.")
Yet poetry, the thing itself, slithers along like Montale's eel, some subterranean life-force, beneath the flimsy fabrications, the droning roar of the pros of the status quo. Some of the most gifted 20th-century poets, including Stevens, Crane and Berryman, struggled against the complacent New Critical dicta regarding the autotelic "poem itself". They were searching for some firmer sanction. Stevens, often portrayed as the paragon of a neo-Romantic sublime (Bloom) or as a master of the self-pleasing, self-sufficient work of art (Vendler), might instead be understood as someone engaged in a relentless, rather tense intellectual struggle to find a justification for his work, for the making of poems.
Poetry and worldview : I think we can say these depend on each other. But maybe the poet doesn't so much articulate or express a worldview, as respond, obliquely, to the existent worldview, the reigning zeitgeist. And maybe within this response are encrypted some intimations of futurity - of a future human ambience, or common sense of things, which hasn't happened yet. Thus when I proposed that the poetic Word not only represents, but establishes, maybe this could be understood in this kind of future tense. Here I'm reminded once more of Emily Dickinson....
I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--
Of Visitors--the fairest--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--