Archive for the ‘Praise and Polemics’ Category

News that stays news: On the Verbal Art of the Plain-spoken Poem

IMG_2521Recently, I’ve found myself caught up in a couple of on-line discussions where the topic turned to the reception of the “accessible” poem, one whose language is self-effacing and limpid.

One of my interlocutors, Chris Banks, put the matter quite well:

People are either terrified of being accessible, or terrified of meaning itself, leaving nothing for critics to puzzle out, or else are more interested in the surprise, the bizarre, the magic trick ahhhhh….

Problem is we need more perceptive readers of poetry who can establish what a poem is trying to do without equating sincerity with shortcomings, accessibility with simplicity, etc. I long for a day when we don’t have to announce a book has formalist elements on the jacket copy of books in this country. However, if you don’t, no one looks for such elements.

At a time in English-language poetry in North America when the poem that draws attention to its artfulness in various ways for various reasons is arguably in the ascendant, perhaps it’s time reconsider à rebours the innate and intricate artfulness of the poem that doesn’t parade its poeticity in “a coat / Covered with embroideries” but that takes up the challenge that “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.”

To wit, I direct the interested reader to an intentionally perverse close analysis of the prosody of a brief poem by Elaine Equi, “Prescription”.

 

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A Class of One’s Own: an all-too-brief appreciation of the poetry of John Newlove

[Just over five years back, I heard tell that a collection of criticism on the work of John Newlove was in the works. I contacted the editor to offer what I could, as I had first started writing poetry under Newlove’s influence and tutelage. What follows was the result. It seems now that that collection is not forthcoming, so I share these cursory reflections here, now.]

The status of John Newlove’s poetry in Canada is curious. The consistent admiration and acclaim it received over nearly four decades, from even before the publication of his Governor General’s Award winning Lies (1972) up to and including the appearance of his latest volume of selected poems A Long Continual Argument (2007), would seem to suggest that his work would be more widely and closely studied, both by scholars and poets. His publishing only one trade edition after Lies, The Night the Dog Smiled (1986), and that the only one before his death in 2003, is surely in part to blame. Moreover, changes in taste and tendencies in academic criticism during this time, anathema to the singular pathos of his polished and laconic lyrics, surely served to only further marginalize the work of a man already famously a loner. It is perhaps reason for optimism in this regard that Jeff Derksen, a poet associated with Canada’s avant-garde, essays a postmodern sociological reading of Newlove’s poetry in his afterword to A Long Continual Argument (237ff.). As bracing as it would be to make a case for a more sustained and scrupulous critical attention to Newlove’s work, I will here follow Newlove’s own example, the one he provides at the end of Derksen’s afterword, where he invites Derksen in to show him “the careful syllabics of an Irish writer…, literally counting the syllables per line…” (245).

As is probably well-known, Newlove’s poetry first appears on the West Coast during that flowering of Canadian poetry that occurred during the Sixties and Seventies, a milieu famously (or infamously, depending on your critical predilections) in contact with what came to be called the New American Poetry, a relation most dramatically exemplified by the University of British Columbia Poetry Conference (1963) attended by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen. The New American Poetry and its poetics were profoundly influenced by Ezra Pound, whose criticism provides useful, basic concepts for an appreciation of Newlove’s art, as well. Pound distinguishes three “kinds of poetry”: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia (25), or, as Louis Zukofsky was to reword it, the uses poetry makes of sight, sound, and intellection (Test vii). Newlove’s writing excels at all of these. On the back cover of The Fatman (1977), Frank Davey’s blurb stands out bold:  Newlove’s is “[o]ne of the most direct and visually precise styles in twentieth-century poetry.” Among Newlove’s own saws is to “Read with your ears, not just your eyes.” And his enjambments and the sly suggestiveness of his (under)statements take up and hand down powers inherent in English poetry from its beginnings.

However acute a critic Davey is, it is difficult to find many examples of “visually precise” passages, if what he refers to is what Longinus termed phantasia (Russell and Winterbottom 159), that “casting of images upon the visual imagination” (Pound 25). Nevertheless, the first two stanzas of the title poem from Black Night Window (1968) present, arguably, an image, “an intellectual and emotional complex” (Pound 4):

Black night window—

rain running down

the fogged glass,

 

a blanched leaf

hanging outside

on a dead twig (11)

Rigorously and economically phanopoetic, every line but the fifth (“hanging outside”) frames a concrete noun, and all but the last adjective (“dead”) are immediately sensuous. None of the poem’s four tercets comments or states: lacking a verb, each is a phrase whose sense hangs on what each depicts. Taking the poem’s images together, Pound would say the poem is an ideogram, communicating by means of “images juxtaposed” (Ginsberg, Howl 74).

One especially intellectually complex image is found in “The Green Plain”, a long poem first published as a chapbook and later included in The Night the Dog Smiled. At the centre of the poem is the question at the heart of philosophy “Why is there something rather than nothing?” that Newlove reworks, wondering whether there is “reason / in the galaxies—Or is this all glass, / a block bubbled in a fire…?” (21). To expand on the aptness of this metaphor would demand an excursus all its own, involving, among other things, the juxtaposition of the stars and bubbles, the contrast between the solidity of glass and the emptiness of space, the condensation of mythopoetic and cosmological speculation that fuses Fire with the Big Bang, and so forth.

Newlove’s prosodic gift and mastery are discernable throughout his oeuvre. “Public Library” (in Black Night Window) is, for example, an exemplary, inimitable performance. Sitting “half in a dreamed trance  half listening / to the people around” (4-5), the poet hears the library’s forced silence amplify sounds normally unnoticed, shuffling feet, shaken newspapers, and

books crackling as their backs [are] broken

the flick/flick of fingertips

and fingernails on the corners of pages

snap of shutting decisively

or accidentally   plump lackadaisically

muted thump of being tossed on low tables (13-18)

The technique here—onomatopoeia—is familiar enough, but the poem goes on, by means of a deft phonemic mix, to recreate the reading room’s soundscape over an enviably easy sixty-four lines!

More subtle and sophisticated pleasures are to be gleaned between that “Lower limit speech” and “Upper limit music” (Zukofsky, “A”-12 138), where the language as spoken is moved by emotion to a rhythm and dance of the syllables that approaches song. A tender instance is “For Judith, Now About 10 Years Old” from Moving in Alone (1965). The poem edges forward hesitantly, often only three to five syllables at a time, the lines turning from completing the thoughts they would compose, that would remember a niece’s traumatic scalding and wonder about the future of her scarred body,

welt ridges also

on the not even yet

about to be

 

womanly posterior

from where

the failing grafts

were taken… (8-14)

Only in the penultimate stanza can the speaker bring himself to ask “What will [she] do / when [her] breasts come?” (30-31). The poem ends with the uncle remembering “the feel of [her] tough / rubber-laced skin / as [he] spread salve on it” (32-35). The poem’s final two lines are striking in their simple economy of presentation, mimetic to a degree that eludes full, precise explanation: the enjambment that separates the adjective “tough” from “rubber-laced”, the isolation of “rubber-laced skin” on a single line that seems to render its referent palpable to the imagination’s fingertips, the play of sibilants over the last two lines softened by that one labiodental /v/ mimics the sound of the hands salving the girl’s “red / welted scars” (1-2).

The drawing out of sense, plying syntax over a number of verses, framing a clause or phrase on a line to focus attention on associations over and above those the completed thought of the sentence demands, is a characteristic power of English blank verse, from Chaucer, through Marlowe, Milton, and Wordsworth, to Wallace Stevens and Newlove. His prosody in this regard, how he harmonizes metre and expression to build up larger musical and syntactic structures, is a study. “Doukhobor” from The Cave (1970) is exemplary, a single, 188-word question articulated over twenty-six lines, asking a farmer, a member of an immigrant Saskatchewan prairie utopian religious community, “who will ever be able to say for” him what he had thought and seen in his life, when he “lies on the chipped kitchen table / … / dumb as an ox, unable to love, / while [his] women sob and offer the visitors tea” (2, 25-26). Despite this hyper-periodic style, the questioner’s wonderings are easy to follow. The poem’s being a question, moreover, secures it from any simple-minded accusation of appropriation. In its imagination, prosodic and syntactical construction, and rhetoric the poem is a tour de force.

Who reads Newlove with an appreciative pleasure will likely agree with Margaret Atwood, too-often quoted out of context (as I quote her, here, too!), who says Newlove “is indeed a master builder”; capable of writing in “something like a grand manner, his work is often a demonstration model of how it should be done” (Second Words, p.?). Newlove’s grand manner not only exhibits stylistic excellence but suits that excellence to the presentation of certain grand themes, what Dante calls those “‘splendidly great things’ which should be written about using the best available means,…which are prowess in arms, the flames of love, and the direction of the will” (Dante 35). In his 1989 Caroline Heath Lecture, Newlove defines his thematic concerns along similar lines. He says, “I write about desire, which often means to think about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. I praise endurance” (2). Though Newlove’s order differs from Dante’s, desire (what Dante elsewhere paraphrases as “the enjoyment of love”), right and wrong (“virtue”), and endurance (“self-preservation”) are his transformation of age-old topoi into present, vital concerns. In a word, Newlove is a classic.

These all-too cursory remarks only begin an attempt at an appreciation that would venture more complex matters, beginning with “the classic”. The literary critical use of this term goes back at least to the third century C.E. and is bound up with the notions of class, “model”, and correctness and clarity. Reflections on clarity play into theoretical concerns at least a century old, ostraneniye (Shklovsky, cf. Lemon and Reis) and the distinctions between the lisible and the scriptible (Barthes) and between the “absorptive” and “anti-absorptive” (Bernstein). To develop these considerations uncovers Newlove’s linguistic rigor: his “baring the device” (Shklovsky) in his “anti-lyrics” (Barbour), his deft and unbalancing deployment of allusion and citation, and his scrutiny of semantic complexity in his fugal poems that play out the possibilities of a set of words or a phrase, as in “The Double-headed Snake” or “The Cave”. The study of Newlove’s oeuvre in this direction would not canonize him among Canada’s post-Tish post-modern poets, as Bowering would in the introduction to his 1984 anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry:  undermining and overturning such an attempted classification, Newlove’s poems elude and encompass such judgements that are at once both too general and too narrow for his world, wherein “one thing is not like another” (“Heath” 6), where “[n]ot to lose the feel of the mountains / while still retaining the prairies / is a difficult thing” (“The Double-headed Snake” 1-3).

Newlove names that “difficult thing” at the heart of his poetic labour. In his Caroline Heath lecture, he goes on to explain, “What I’m trying to be is human, without knowing what the word means” (7). Here is an endlessly open-ended theme, whose horizon swallows polemics against “Humanism”. Here, Newlove takes up a question not a doctrine, and though he may seem, at times, to “say things for the sheer pleasure of the phrase, forgetting that [he is] speaking to humans, with humans, forgetting to be human” (9), who hears or overhears him, by virtue of the dialogue understanding demands, becomes his interlocutor, which is, as it were, the last word:

All writing is saying, even in the choice of word and structure, this is what you need to know, this is what I need to know, this is the way the world is, this is the way the world should be, this is me, urgent and alive. I want to talk to you. (10)

 

 

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, trans. Robert S. Haller, Lincoln:  U of Nebraska, 1973.

Atwood, Margaret. Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

Barbour, Douglas. “Lyric / Anti-lyric:  Some Notes About a Concept” in Line, Vol. I, No. 3, Spring 1984, Burnaby:  Simon Fraser University, 45-63.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York:  Hill and Wang, 1974.

Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption, Philadelphia, Singing Horse, 1987.

Bowering, George, ed. The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology, Toronto: Couch House Press, 1984.

Dyck, Ed, ed. Essays on Saskatchewan Writing, Regina:  SWG, 1986.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl:  original draft facsimile, transcript & variant versions, fully annotated by the author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts & bibliography, ed. Barry Miles, New York:  Harper Perennial, 1986.

Lemon, Lee T. and Ries, Marion J. Russian Formalist Essays, Lincoln:  U of Nebraska, 1965.

Newlove, John. Black Night Window, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1968.

—, ed. Canadian Poetry:  The Modern Era, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

The Cave, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart,1970.

The Fatman: Selected Poems 1962 – 1972, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

The Green Plain, Lantzville:  Oolichan, 1981.

Lies, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Moving in Alone. Lantzville:  Oolichan, 1965.

—“Moving in Alone”, Caroline Heath Lecture, 18 November 1989.

The Night the Dog Smiled, Toronto:  ECW, 1986.

A Long Continual Argument:  The Selected Poems of John Newlove, ed. Robert McTavish, Ottawa:  Chaudiere, 2007.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays, New York:  New Directions, 1968.

Russell, D. A. and Winterbottom, Dr. M., Classical Literary Criticism, Oxford:  OUP, 1989.

Zukofsky, Louis. “A”, Berkeley: UCP, 1978.

—A Test of Poetry, New York:  Jargon / Corinth, 1964.

Nine Provocations to a Sympoetics

The Analytic and Synthetic Writer. “The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.”—Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments 112, (1797-1801).

Christian Wolff, difference, and Saussure. “Wolff’s importance for philosophy generally and for the philosophy of language in particular tends to be underestimated today. For example, staying within the philosophy of language, he seems to have been a prime source, not only for the doctrine in question here [thought’s dependence on language], but also for the revolutionary idea in the Herder-Hegel tradition that language and hence conceptualization and thought are fundamentally social, as well as for the idea, later fundamental to Saussurean linguistics, that difference is at least as important for the constitution of concepts as similarity.”—Michael N Forster, After Herder:  Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, Oxford, 2012, 79.

“semiotics cannot generate semantics” and related matters. “…there is a crucial homology in modern European philosophy between the constitution of metaphysical systems in ‘Spinozist’ terms via the principle of determination as negation, the structuralist idea of language as a system of differences with no positive terms, and the commodity-based economy of negatively related exchange values. In all these cases the question arises as to the ground upon which the differentially constituted system relies:  the system of ‘conditioned conditions’ leads in Jacobi’s terms to the question of being; meaning cannot be explained in differential terms because mere differentiality requires a ground of identity (semiotics cannot generate semantics); and the notion of value itself makes no sense in purely relational terms because exchange values are grounded in use values.” —Andrew Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory:  The Philosophy of German Literary Theory (New York:  Routledge, 1997), p. 169.

Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) on speech as writing. “Tell me, how do we transform the thought, the idea, into the word; and do we ever have a thought or an idea without its hieroglyph, its letter, its script? Truly, it is so:  but we do not usually think of it. But once, when human nature was more powerful, it really was more extensively thought about; and this is proved by the existence of word and script. The original, and absolute, simultaneity was rooted in the fact that the organ of speech itself writes in order to speak. The letter alone speaks, or rather; word and script are, at source, one, and neither is possible without the other…”—in Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (New York:  Verso, 1977), pp. 213-14.

Duncan on Language. “‘What was it like in the late 1940s if you were concerned about language?’ And then you found that language itself was a process, in Whorf and Sapir. And along with this, Olson wanted to reject the symbolic role of language. I was also interested in Cassirer’s approach to language as a total system of symbols. But it’s a process, you see; it’s not a system.” —Robert Duncan, 1983 interview, in A Poet’s Mind:  collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 2012, 89-90.

On Poetic Form.

“Form is never more than an extension of content”—Robert Creeley, quoted by Charles Olson in “Projective Verse” (1950).

“[Ron] Silliman wrote Revelator according to a simple procedural concept: a long poem with exactly five words per line, and exactly enough lines to fill one notebook.”—Sam Rowe’s review of Revelator (2013) at Full Stop.

“…there is a ‘fluid’ as well as a ‘solid’ content, that some poems may have form as a tree has a form, some as water poured into a vase.”—Ezra Pound, “Credo” (1912), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (9).

Against Expression. “…it’s meanings I’m after, not expression. I’m anti-expressionist. But I don’t think expressionism is disorder. I’m anti-expressionist because I dislike personality and I dislike integration. And in general, I have a double play between meaning and feeling, which keeps me quite busy.”—Robert Duncan, in an interview with David Ossman, 1960, in A Poet’s Mind:  collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 2012.

The Reader as Producer. The thesis of Benjamin’s “The Writer as Producer” might be cast as “the reader should not be a consumer but a producer alongside the writer.” This demand echoes later formulations that turn on oppositions analogous to consumer/producer:  Bernstein’s absorptive/anti-absorptive or Goldsmith’s readership/thinkership. However, such demands that the reader labour along with the writer are already met in the the Jena Romantics’ opposition of the analytic/synthetic writer and their practice of the fragment that require of the reader active collaboration in a “sympoetry”. Theoretically, the opposition between the passive reader and active writer collapses in Barthes’ work/text, which he thoroughly deconstructs in S/Z:  reading is a kind of writing. What power, then, can Benjamin’s demand have if in practice it was met a century before he made it and in theory it is always already met?

On our “romantic” unconscious.  “A veritable romantic unconscious is discernible today, in most of the central motifs of our ‘modernity’ [or ‘postmodernity’]. Not the least result of romanticism’s indefinable character is the way it has allowed this so-called modernity [or postmodernity] to use romanticism as a foil, without ever recognizing–or in order not to recognize–that it has done little more than rehash romanticism’s discoveries.

…it is not difficult to arrive at the derivatives of these romantic texts, which still delimit our horizon. From the idea of a possible formalization of literature (or of cultural production in general) to the use of linguistic models (and a model based on the principle of auto-structuration of language); from an analytic approach to works based on the hypothesis of auto-engendering to the aggravation of the problematic of a subject permanently rejecting subjectivism (that of inspiration, for example, or the ineffable, or the function of the author, etc.); from this problematic of the (speaking or writing) subject to a general theory of the historical or social subject; from a belief that the work’s conditions of production or fabrication are inscribed within it to the thesis of a dissolution of all processes of production in the abyss of the subject. In short, we ourselves are implicated in all that determines both literature as auto-critique and criticism as literature. Our own image comes back to us from the mirror of the literary absolute. And the massive truth flung back at us is that we have not left the era of the Subject.”—Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute (trans. Barnard and Lester), Albany:  SUNY, 1988 (original French, 1978), 15-16.

Concerning Instant Delight

Maybe I’m just irritable, but Craig Raine’s recent review of Seamus Heaney’s two-volume selected poems rubs me the wrong way. It’s hardly that I take exception to Raine’s high estimation of Heaney’s poetry. My concern is with the aesthetic doctrine that underwrites Raine’s laudation and its overbearing triumphal tone.

Raine holds up what might be termed Heaney’s gift for mimesis as the poet’s singular virtue:  “He can describe things.” The “ready pleasure” and “obvious likeness” of  “A rowan like a lipsticked girl” is one example of the poet’s deft descriptions “pleasurable because they are accurate and irrefutable.” Heaney’s work displays other achievements—”an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music”—but, “[u]nless a poet can produce this ungainsayable instant delight …, the poetry is automatically of the second order.”

short ciliary nerveRaine opens his review remarking how one kind of latter-day mime, “the impersonator — Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan — speaks, in different voices, to a single primitive pleasure centre in his audience” that results in a “release of neurotransmitters, the flood of endorphins,” of a kind with that “drench of dopamine” produced by the “ungainsayable instant delight” that is the sine qua non of poetry.

However rhetorical the appeal to the brain’s  “primitive pleasure centre” might be here, it is one with Raine’s consistent affirmation of the immediacy of the well-wrought poetic image: where the description is “obvious” the delight is “ready,” “instant,” and “ungainsayable.” Happily, one need not right away allude to two centuries or so of philosophical reflection on the untenability of Raine’s assumptions here as the review itself can’t toe the line it draws.

However much “Heaney records things as they come, democratically, unaware of hierarchy” not all such things are democratically given. Raine has to expend over a quarter of the review glossing Heaney’s poems that deal with Irish or Greek myth in order to make clear how they expose what is “immovably rooted in us.” This example of overt intertextuality reveals that Heaney not so much “gives us ‘The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark / As he pulls it to’”—how could I appreciate the description if I hadn’t already heard such a gate being opened or closed?—but rather represents things whose representation is striking only if I’m already acquainted with them. Raine himself refers to how Heaney’s poetry “can describe things in a phrase…the sound a football makes when kicked — ‘it thumped / but it sang too, / a kind of dry, ringing / foreclosure of sound.’ Remember?”

It’s not just that the instant delight of poetry’s descriptions arrives only by means of a detour through other texts or experiences. Raine calls the endorphins unconsciously released by our perception of imitation “brandies of the brain,” a variety of spirit, like any, whose appreciation is hardly reflexive but must be conscientiously cultured, unless Raine is likening the pleasures of poetry to sheer inebriation. Indeed, our brains are “flooded with endorphins” only through our “connivance,” imaginably what Coleridge termed the suspension of disbelief, the mental process that mediates the seemingly natural, reflexive immediacy of the kind of poetic mimesis Raine values so highly.

It’s a moribund, simplistic empiricism that underwrites Raine’s aesthetics here and that leads him to disparage so roundly the kind of poetry that to his mind is only

an endless marathon of ambiguity, a joyless game of patience for adepts. The Cambridge School of Poetry, in fact, turning its back on pleasure, snubbing the audience, withholding the endorphins, proffering perpetual difficulty, disparaging ‘descriptive decadence’.

His own review bears witness to the schooling, shared experience, and connivance that admit one to a cognoscenti, that club of connoisseurs capable of appreciating the refined delicacy of Heaney’s phanopoeia. Indeed, this sneering dismissal of others’ pleasures tears the mask from the undisputed naturalness of his own and shows the logic of his review to be little more than an argumentum ad nauseum.

One could continue the dispute, along various lines. Leaving aside for the moment the reflections that might imaginably be offered in support or explanation of the poetic pleasures of the Cambridge School and its audience, one might wonder what value Raine’s aesthetic would place on the “endless marathon of ambiguity, [and] joyless game of patience for adepts” that is Geoffrey Hill’s poetry. (The briefest research turns up Raine’s high regard for Hill’s poetry, too). More pointedly:  is one to infer from Raine’s assumptions that the much more discursive and clearly less musically sophisticated poetry of Emily Dickinson is “second order”?

There remains, nevertheless, as there must be, an arguably truer value remarked in Raine’s review, albeit the one he esteems lower than imagery, “an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music.” The irrefutable charm of poetry’s music transcends even understanding a poem’s words. Another poet whose work can often seem a game for adepts is Dante, whose Canzone “Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete” testifies to the eminence of sound over sense, concluding famously

Canzone, io credo che saranno radi
color che tua ragione intendan bene,
tanto la parli faticosa e forte.
Onde, se per ventura elli adivene
che tu dinanzi da persone vadi
che non ti paian d’essa bene acorte,
allor ti priego che ti riconforte,
dicendo lor, diletta mia novella:
“Ponete mente almen com’io son bella!”

My song, I think they will be few indeed
Who’ll rightly understand your sense,
So difficult and complex is your speech.
So if by chance it comes to pass
That you should find yourself with some
Who do not grasp it well at all,
I pray you then, dear newborn song,
Take courage again and say to them:
“Consider at least how fair I am!”

Here, Dante, the learned poet he is, knows what the ancient Greeks meant by mimesis: “not only the portrayal or description of visible and tangible things, but more especially the expression of a mood or feeling, hence the (to a modern) paradox that music is the most imitative of the arts.”

The Persistence of the Resistance to Theory

Readying the week’s classes, the radio in the background, I overheard a snippet of an interview with Clive James that gave me pause for thought. Around the 18 minute mark he observes—prompted by the interviewer’s interest in James’ “scathing” judgement of contemporary academe—that “encouraged by European theorists usually French or German” the university sought “to raise or supposedly raise the study of culture to the level of philosophy” at the expense of  “plain spoken good sense.” Of course, he is referring to the advent of Literary Theory in the 1970s, but the way he words his opinion brings to mind a much older dispute whose roots still cause rifts in contemporary Anglo-Saxon poetic culture, especially in Canada.

That older dispute is the debate between René Wellek and F. R. Leavis.  Wellek had reviewed Leavis’ Revaluation in the March, 1937 number of Scrutiny, a review which prompted Leavis’ “Literary Criticism and Philosophy”, a title which, here, speaks for itself. Wellek, no slouch of a literary scholar (perhaps, tellingly, later the founder of the comparative literature department at Yale) wishes in his review that Leavis “had stated [his] assumptions more explicitly and defended them systematically.” Leavis, in his reply, suggests that Wellek makes this wish “because Dr Wellek is a philosopher” and that he himself is no philosopher but a literary critic, “[l]iterary criticism and philosophy [being] quite distinct and different kinds of discipline.” The virulence of Leavis’ distinction is summed up in the title of a later collection of essays The Critic as Anti-Philosopher. It may well be James’ opinion was formed during his studies at Cambridge, as his deployment of ‘philosophy’ to denote abstract or conceptual thought in general would suggest.

Such a distaste for or distrust of Theory, philosophy, or conceptual labour persists in certain poets and critics in Canada, the United States, and abroad. I would argue, however, that if ‘philosophy’ is used in the way I take it be used here, then James, Leavis, and the like-minded are guilty of a wilful blindness or disingenuousness. Paul de Man was hardly the first or last to observe (in his essay “The Resistance to Theory”) that “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import,” this list of concepts varying from writer to writer. That is, there is no reading of or reflecting on literature that is not more or less explicitly guided by and expressed in concepts and conceptual ratiocination. It does not follow, mind you, that every reader methodically follows a fully-articulated system of said concepts or that he or she need develop such a system; indeed, whether such a system can in fact be developed and applied consistently is an open question. As early as 1798 Friedrich Schlegel remarked that “it is equally fatal to have a system or not to have one at all. It will therefore be necessary to join the two” (Athenäum fragment 53).

Now, before I get automatically placed on team “Theory” let me register my agreement that much of what came to be termed Theory was and remains nonsense. The reception of especially structuralist discourse in the English-speaking world, from Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics (1975) onwards is a study in perverse misunderstanding. Despite Saussure’s emphasis that language is not a lexicon, for example, many continued to assume that language is essentially a wordhoard of names. It is hardly surprising that the attempt to assimilate technical vocabularies as diverse as those of structuralist linguistics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, hermeneutics, and, yes, even philosophy, especially while these discourses were in the process of articulating new insights, essaying new methods, and undergoing constant revision, all in questionable translation where the articulation of this new thinking was even translatable, should have led to a garbled articulation and application. The conflation of “word” and “sign” or “signifier/signified” with “word/meaning,” monstrous expressions, such as “chain of signifiers” or “deconstructionist poetry,” or the perversely Idealistic misunderstandings of Derrida’s maxim “Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte” are cases in point. The on-going controversy about “the subject” inspires winces among those whose reading is a little broader than the run-of-the-mill  grad school syllabus. The problem was compounded by the dilution and further distortion of these discourses as they were passed down by successive generations of professors and teaching assistants, few of whom seemed motivated to search out the primary texts and the context of their initial articulation and to come to terms with them for themselves. In the case of structuralism, semiology or semiotics, the problem was compounded by the incoherence of the movement’s founding text, Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, an incoherence hardly lost on the master himself or diligent scholars of Saussure, such as Boris Gasparov.  Little wonder then that intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature or even those critics who became embroiled in the the Theory Wars from the beginning, such as Harold Bloom or Christopher Norris, should express virulent impatience with the nonsense of the Schools of Resentment or certain strains of Postmodernism.

However, to dismiss conceptual reflections on poetry, recent or not-so recent, because of the muddle that most scholars make of it is analogous to dismissing poetry because of the legions of tepid versifiers whose work floods the publishers’ lists, periodicals, and internet. On the one hand, Theory (here understood as a conceptually articulated reflection on poetry, whether informed by philosophy or other disciplines), if pursued with curiosity, some solid background, and no little brow furrowing is bracing, eye-opening, and vitalizing. One quickly learns, for example, that American Deconstruction is the logical outcome of New Critical close reading, stripped of certain of its ideological underpinnings, as the critical practice of William Empson demonstrated. Less well-known is that Literature as we know it and Theory as a kind of philosophical reflection upon it are twins born at the end of the Eighteenth Century. The proof of this birth certificate and its consequences for criticism have been matters of serious research and speculation for over a generation, as the work of Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in French, Dieter Henrich or Manfred Frank in German, or that of Andrew Bowie and others in English attests.

Anyone who would sneer at such reflection on poetry as a waste of time would do well to hunker down with the work of Friedrich Hölderlin for while and see how far their “plain spoken good sense” gets them with a poet whose deserved canonicity is beyond question and a philosopher whose thinking arguably surpasses at points that of his two room mates at the Tübingen Stift, Hegel and Schelling. And just here is no little irony. One of James’s great achievements is his translating Dante’s Commedia, but anyone with even a passing familiarity with The Divine Comedy or Dante’s corpus will know the absolutely essential importance Lady Philosophy had for Dante, how the soaring, Gothic, and technical complexities of Scholastic philosophy were his sole study for years and how that philosophy both underwrites and appears on the pages of his great poem and others of his works. With the undoubted achievements of Dante and Hölderlin testifying to the relevance and value of philosophical reflection on and for poetry how one could use ‘philosophy’ so disparagingly is difficult to understand.

Of course the accusation of Theory’s being “nonsense” springs from its breaching the decorum of  “plain spoken good sense.” The absolute value accorded “plain spoken good sense” is, as those on the Continent would say, a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon tic. This staid dogma that identifies what Wittgenstein writes in his Tractatus, that “what can be said can be said clearly,” with “plain spoken good sense” would appear blind to the fact that clarity is always contextual (think of jokes that depend upon a knowledge of chemistry or binary code for their humour) and that to obfuscate this radical contingency of clarity is also an ideological gesture that reserves “good sense” and its attendant clear-eyed perception of truth and value to one group that is then justified in ignoring all competing claims as nonsense. This division of “plain spoken good sense” from “nonsense” is the intralinguistic version of the ancient Athenians’ characterizing speakers of foreign languages as sounding like dogs barking, hoi barbaroi. Indeed, one can hardly miss the xenophobia that accents suspicious dismissals of those “European theorists usually French or German.” Such foreigners, such as Roland Barthes (in Writing Degree Zero) or Theodor Adorno (in many places), have written most trenchantly on just such “plain spoken good sense.”

Transparency occurs where understanding has become reflexive, where questions are cut and dried and the dust of controversy or that raised in the trail of exploration has long since settled. New thoughts and the process of thinking that leads to their initial expression is necessarily only ever semi-articulate. What’s new, even when it appears fully formed, is strange. The task then is perhaps to eschew the settled clarities of all existing schools and their varieties of moribund, perspicacious nonsense, to risk the anxious uncertainty that always accompanies learning or, for that matter, creating, to enter on a nomadic way whereon one is always a foreigner, never quite understanding or being understood, living by one’s wits, alive to what the next, new moment brings.

Critical Issues: an essay on the work of Robert Bringhurst

In what follows I want to attempt, from the point of view of a poeta doctus, a learned poet, to critically assess the achievements Paris, May 1994and what I discern as some of the limitations of Robert Bringhurst’s poetry, translations, essays, and talks. Such an attempt must mix humility with hubris. Bringhurst is rightly a highly-regarded creative mind, but one I’d like to argue not taken seriously enough. His admirers seem to me too easily impressed and dazzled by what they correctly perceive as a tremendous poetic talent and wide-ranging, profound intelligence. What is required, especially for those of us who share his poetic and more general cultural concerns, is to dare to submit his works to a kind of acid test, charitable and respectful at every point, but no less stringent in its aesthetic and intellectual demands. To do less would be to do a disservice to both the man and those cultural activities he has devoted his life to, poetry and thought.

It would be too easy to present a strictly personal appreciation of Robert Bringhurst’s oeuvre. I fell under the spell of his poetry when he recited “Bone Flute Breathing” at my high school. My neophyte poetic fumblings from the time found guidance in his own engagements with the tradition, Hellenic, Biblical, European, and Asian. During my graduate studies, which wrestled with the fraternal strife between poetry and philosophy, his versions of the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers The Old in Their Knowing provided both a model and matter for thought. In fact, for a time, I read his rendering of Sophocles, “Of the Snaring of Birds,” to open readings of my own poems. His monumental translations from the Haida appeared just at the time my own pedagogical activities involved themselves with the more general movement of ethnopoetics. And which poet, critic, or scholar, awake to the centrality of the ecological crisis, cannot help but participate with him in his own ecopoetic labours?

These individual experiences that left their impress on my poetry and thinking arguably possess a more public, objective significance and worth. From his first poem, “The Beauty of the Weapons,” Bringhurst’s innate musical gift and artistic, technical conscientiousness, coupled with his insistence on reciting rather than reading his work, have been exemplary. Consistent with the mainstream of poetic modernism and postmodernism in the Twentieth century, Bringhurst’s poems and translations “paw over the ancients” and “make new” voices from the inherited European canon and expand this tradition globally. This contribution to what Goethe was the first to call Weltliteratur along with its attunement to the philosophical tradition line his poetry, essays, and talks up with that vital and on-going dialogue between poetry and philosophy inaugurated in the modern period by the Jena Romantics, a dialogue of continuing pertinence, if the conclusions of philosophers such as Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, Andrew Bowie, and Jason Wirth are anything to go by, not to mention those of a more widely-renowned figure, Theodor Adorno. The pertinence of Bringhurst’s ecopoetic concerns demands no justification.

Bringhurst’s prosody is remarkable on several counts. Since High Modernism “broke the pentameter,” poetry might be said to have lost its metrical bearings, resulting in a continuing if perverse struggle between traditionally-minded formalists, Neo- and otherwise, and practitioners of a wide range of free verse. Tone deafness is detectable at both extremes: practitioners of (what they see as) traditional metrics too often produce lines that are “rhythmic” in purely numeric terms, the count of syllables and their barely discernible relative stresses, while the garden-variety writer of free verse does in fact too often produce little more than the proverbial “prose chopped into lines.” Poetry composed by someone with an ear is well-defined by Louis Zukofksy’s famous function: lower limit speech, upper limit music. Anyone with ears to hear will affirm that often Bringhurst’s poems are scored to a marked, often easily-definable rhythm. The index of his natural talent and assiduous practice is readable in the way his poems’ speech-based syntax easily steps up to and in time with their more artificially musical rhythms. Indeed, Bringhurst’s achievement in this respect is so consistently polished it must surely surprise anyone familiar with currents in contemporary North American English-language poetry that those self-professed tyros of Formalism (whose manner August Kleinzahler has deliciously christened “Nobelese”) haven’t lionized Bringhurst’s obvious metrical prowess. Where Bringhurst’s prosodic gift might be said to have led him astray is in his polyphonic works, beginning with The Blue Roofs of Japan. If anything, these compositions for multiple voices make the difference between language or speech and music loud and clear: the former possesses an essential semantic dimension that the latter does not, at least not in the same way. Where the voices of a fugue complement each other, simultaneous speeches create a frustrating cacophony precisely because the listener has to attend to and untwine two or more semantic chains that interfere with each other’s reception in way that concurrent instrumental or even singing voices do not. Ironically, these polyphonic works are easier to read than hear. Although a much more extended study is necessary to come to any conclusions concerning the manner and success of these compositions, one might argue that it is precisely the power and achievement of Bringhurst’s poetic-musical abilities that suggest and tempt him to experiment in this way and contribute to the repertoire of poetic forms.

A more successful if more ordinary kind of polyphony is found in Bringhurst’s engagement with world literature. Bringhurst’s oeuvre emerges from the matrix of the Twentieth century’s dilation of tradition. Where Pound went back to Homer, the Troubadours, and (as T. S. Eliot at least would have it) invented Chinese poetry for English, Charles Olson went back to the earliest literature, that of Sumer, a limit overstepped by Gary Snyder, who has described the roots of his poetry as extending back to the Paleolithic, a temporal limit expanded spatially to include the poetries of all the peoples on the surface of the globe in Jerome Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics, a project pursued in his many anthologies or assemblages over many decades, commencing with the first edition of Technicians of the Sacred in 1967. Beginning with Deuteronomy, Bringhurst’s poetry adopts personae from the Bible, ancient Greece, India, China, and relates myths of his own making that echo those of Turtle Island. A quick survey of Selected Poems (2009) turns up translations from or references to Egyptian, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese, Danish, German,  French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Russian. The most concentrated and monumental of his efforts in this regard is his translations of the classical Haida mythtellers, primarily Ghandl and Skaay. One would be hard-pressed to name a Canadian poet whose corpus incarnates that imagining of Goethe’s whose reality blossomed this past century. On the one hand Bringhurst’s efforts have introduced or “made new” or conversed with an impressively vast amount of non-English-language material. On the other, a working poet might be tempted to reflect on the promise of this contribution: what of it lends new potentialities to poetic composition rather than merely adding another exhibit or further commentary to the museum of Weltliteratur? Of more promise than his retelling a myth, for example, in his “Leda and the Swan,” is what he seems to discover in the compositions of Ghandl and Skaay, the most condensed statement of which is perhaps at the beginning of the fifth chapter of A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Bringhurst writes that he calls Skaay’s stories poetry

because they are dense, crisp and full of lucid images whose power is not confined by cultural fences—and because they are richly patterned. But the patterns are syntactic and thematic more than rhythmical or phonemic. For all the acoustic beauty of these poems, that is not where there obvious formal order resides. They are distinguishable by a thinkable prosody of meaning more than by an audible prosody of sound. (111)

That Bringhurst often places such great emphasis and value on such syntactic and thematic patterning in his appreciations of the verbal art of Skaay and Ghandl and often that of other art, as well, must strike anyone acquainted with the tradition of Structuralist literary analysis as a little de trop. The studies of Roman Jakobson and Michel Riffaterre, for example, are characterized by their detailed and exhaustive analyses of just such syntactic and thematic symmetries as well as phonemic and prosodic patterning. Indeed, given the inescapability of just such a “prosody of meaning” in a literary text one can’t help but wonder how any poet or story teller worth study can not produce texts possessed of just such structures. One is left wondering, then, how to put to use what Bringhurst’s tremendous labours have imported into the English language. The profound and prevalent influence of Pound’s “invention of Chinese poetry” and his ideogrammic method or the way many Twentieth century avant garde poets have turned the poetics of the Western hemisphere’s autochthonous cultures to their own absolutely modern ends (e.g., Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman” based on the syntactic symmetries of the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina’s chants) exemplify how the work of translation can vitalize a target culture’s language. Nevertheless, regardless of what Bringhurst himself or other poets have been able to make of his vast importations, the cosmopolitanism of his oeuvre remains unquestionably impressive.

Bringhurst’s translations also feed that aspect of his work that touches on and converses with thinking, a thinking that increasingly mulls over matters of ecological urgency. The philosophical content of his writings calls for and could doubtlessly sustain a painstaking study, but I want to reflect on an essential theme of that thinking, language. As a polyglot, translator, and recognized and respected authority on typography, Bringhurst in his poems, essays, and talks returns endlessly to the nature and function of language. In this fascination, his ruminations chew over a matter central to Western thought since the Eighteenth century and one painfully familiar to any graduate student in the humanities. Bringhurst’s theses on language demand a scrutiny both because of their centrality to his own work and to that of the culture at large. Bringhurst, like the post-structuralist postmodernists he disdains, participates in the general inflation of language characteristic of much of the humanities in the Twentieth century in the wake of Structuralism. In The Solid Form of Language, consistent with archaic wisdom and contemporary zoosemiotics, he first reminds us of those other, nonhuman languages, “the calls of leopard frogs and whales, the rituals of mating sandhill cranes” (11). Then, in A Story as Sharp as a Knife, he expands the linguistic beyond the communicative circuit, writing

We read the tracks and scat of animals, the depth and lustre of their coats, the set of their ears and the gait of their limbs. We read the horns of sheep, the teeth of horses. We read the weights and measures of the wind, the flight of birds, the surface of the sea, snow, fossils, broken rocks, the growth of shrubs and trees and lichens…We read the speech of jays, ravens, hawks, frogs, wolves, and in infinite detail, the voices, faces, gestures, coughs and postures of other human beings. (14)

To which we might add (as Bringhurst does) that language includes even “the chemical messages coming and going day and night within the brain” and all that is “chemically written into our genes.” As remarked, Bringhurst is hardly the first to be inspired by the compelling charm of this vision of universal semiosis. Hölderlin famously writes “Ein Zeichen sind wir” (we are a sign) in harmony with Novalis’ thoughts on the hieroglyphs of The Book of Nature, a metaphor that itself originates in the Latin Middle Ages and that Bringhurst himself affirms in his talk “The Voice in the Mirror” collected in The Tree of Meaning (2008): “The original book is, of course, the world itself” (132). However imaginatively appealing and prima facie ecologically sane this positing of nature as a book, the inflation of the linguistic that underwrites it also conflates certain conceptual distinctions whose erasure is fateful. Among others, what is lost is the genus-species distinction between understanding in general and understanding language. Whenever I perceive something as something, I understand, I interpret, as would happen whenever I “read” an ecosystem or “the tracks and scats of animals”. However, specifically linguistic understanding necessarily involves an address, a conversation. What happens when I take a non-linguistic (albeit interpretable) phenomenon as a linguistic address? I must posit a speaker, an interlocutor. In the world order that originally imagined the Book of Nature, that speaker or writer is God. But who, in the absence of God, writes what is “chemically written into our genes” for instance? The metaphor of the genetic code was criticized at the moment of its inception precisely on these grounds, that it was an inappropriate application of linguistic or information theoretical concepts. Lily E. Kay sums up these criticisms nicely in her Who Wrote the Book of Life? (2000):

Information theorists, cryptologists, linguists, and life scientists criticized the difficulties (some would say inappropriateness) of these borrowings in molecular biology, arguing that the genome’s information content cannot be assessed since the key parameters (e.g., signal, noise, message channel) cannot be properly quantified. DNA is not a natural language: it lacks phonemic features, semantics, punctuation marks, and intersymbol restrictions. So unlike any language, “letter” frequency analyses of amino acids yield only random statistical distributions. Furthermore, no natural language consists solely of three-letter words. Finally, if it were purely a formal language, then it would possess syntax only but no semantics. Thus the informational representations of the genome do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. (2)

However much “reading” natural phenomena does “not stand up to rigorous scrutiny,” it enables a grasp of what is read that empowers the reader, as present-day genetic technology undeniably demonstrates. Attributing a message or intentionality to non-linguistic, spontaneous things is an extension of the Platonic metaphysics that conceived of all things as if they were products made according to a plan or Form. This productionist metaphysics is the first chapter of the story that leads to our present technological society. The presupposition that Nature possesses a plan, whether written out in hieroglyphs or mathematics, enables us to articulate that plan and thereby order Nature to our own ends. The disastrous consequences of this instrumentalization of Nature are too-well known. Even and especially those “hunter-gatherers, who study the great book day after day, night after night (Tree, 132) do so for the sake of their own survival and flourishing, to bring the natural world under enough of their own control so they may, at least, feed themselves. The contemporary, ecologically-motivated desire to transcend the Adamic monologue that imperiously names natural things, to imagine instead what it would mean to hear, understand, and converse with Nature, gets caught up in a dialectic that reveals the character such well-intentioned listening shares with the worst excesses of scientific-technological interrogation and literally murderous exploitation.

In the preceding, I have tried to come to terms with Bringhurst’s impressive oeuvre from a “dialectical” perspective, registering only a very few of its undeniable accomplishments while simultaneously probing what I perceive to be some of their inescapable limitations. Admittedly, I have proceeded at neither the length nor detail the work calls for. Nor has the approach been sufficiently immanent, applying standards that might arguably find their orientation outside Bringhurst’s own. But what I do want to argue, finally, is for the pertinence and profound challenge of the work, one that calls upon lay readers, poets, thinkers, and scholars—citizens of the earth, all—to enter into all that Bringhurst lays before us, to take up the challenges of the work and to at the same time challenge it for the sake of those values it has sought to speak to and at best sing.

 

Works Cited
Bringhurst, Robert. A Story Sharp as a Knife. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
The Solid Form of Language. Kentville: Gaspereau, 2004.
The Tree of Meaning. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008.
Selected Poems. Kentville: Gaspereau, 2009.
Kay, Lily. Who Wrote the Book of Life? Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Technicians of the Sacred. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

 

An irritable gloss on the nearly Baroque

I’d been eavesdropping on the recent kerfuffle around Stephen Burt’s “Nearly Baroque” mainly via the Montevidayo blog and had been provoked to compose a far-reaching, involved, learned response, but then I read the definition that opens Burt’s essay:

The twenty-first-century poets of the nearly Baroque want art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first. It is art that cannot be reduced to its own explanation, that shows off its material textures, its artificiality, its descent from prior art, its location in history. These poets want an art that can always give, or could always show, more.

That “art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first” is the point of contention engaged at Montevidayo, not impertinently. But the points that follow strike me as stale and suffocating (an impression that could be articulated and defended at tiresome length).

First, no poem, no matter how close to pedestrian speech, no matter how prosaic, no matter how close to “writing degree zero” it may be is ever reducible “to its own explanation”: no discourse is even reducible to its own repetition, since no word let alone any utterance is ever reducible to a single meaning.

The concerns over the fore- or backgrounding of material texture, artificiality, descent from prior art, or location in history are much more complex and interesting and would lend themselves to lengthy excursus were I tempted to be more self-indulgent and less respectful of my reader’s learning and patience. Briefly, all poems possess a graphic or phonic dimension, an artificiality (being an artefact), a relation to if not descent from prior art (poetry or otherwise), and relation to a given constellation of historical conditions, the visibility of which is dependent on the perceiver’s sensibilities. The poem by itself cannot flaunt or foreground any of its possible aesthetic dimensions because their perceptibility is itself contingent. (This play of presence and absence and its historical contingency became the principle of late Formalist literary history, as in the work of Mukarovsky.)

At work here is a reified opposition variously expressed by pairs such as work/text, symbolic/semiotic, word/world, absorptive/antiabsorptive, readership/thinkership, etc, which are all arguably subsumable under the opposition between the Classic and Mannered (an opposition not itself undeconstructable…)—but that was the topic of the aforementioned long-winded response I here eschew for the sake of the sanity of all concerned.

In brief, every poem always gives more and can be made to show more because of the very nature of the poem as a linguistic artefact. As an example I offer a brief study of the sonic qualities of a most non-Baroque poem, here.

Carmina non grata & divination

What prompts this post is a long-simmering irritation brought to a boil that prompts me to splash the following scalding aspersions on the naked Emperors and Empresses who preside as comptrollers of the means of literary (re)production.

What dialed up the heat was actually the lucky and all-too-rare chance of having been provided some insight into the responses of a publisher’s editorial board to a manuscript I submitted and that in the end it chose to refuse. Just to be clear that the spleen I’m venting here isn’t a dyspeptic symptom brought on by chewing on a bunch of bitterly sour grapes, I hold absolutely no resentment against the editors:  they’re liking or disliking the manuscript, their electing to accept or reject it is their prerogative and theirs alone. Rather, this occasion provides me with the opportunity to call out and call up a dogmatic, blinkered, squinting aesthetic that strikes me as being at odds with (in this case) the editors’ presiding over a press explicitly devoted to what today gets called innovative poetry, an attitude, if not universal, then met with more often than not, among members of the self-styled avant-garde. I find myself, therefore, weirdly, in the position of too many other “innovative” artists, who have had to don the pedagogue’s mortarboard and undertake to educate their potential audience. Happily, a quick survey reveals my fellow faculty members include William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and John Cage, among many, many others, living and dead.

The manuscript in question was composed of two texts, Swim or Sear and Seventh Column, samples of the first being readable here. In Summer 2001, a friend made me a gift of an anarchic text,  FEHHLEHHE (Magyar Műhely, 2001) by the Hungarian musician, archivist, editor, writer, and cultural worker Zsolt Sőrés. FEHHLEHHE deploys a wide, wild range of linguistic disruption: disjunctive syntax, polyglottism, collage, sampling, homophony, and a delirious lexicon of portmanteau words, among other means. I began writing what eventually became Swim or Sear in an attempt to engage Sőrés’ text in kind, wrighting an English that would imaginably answer his Hungarian, what Erin Moure might term a gesture of echolation.

I am told the board found, essentially, that these texts repulsed more than invited the reader. Serendipitously, earning, as I do, my bread as an English instructor at a Quebec Cegep, tomorrow I am teaching a class on structuralism; our text is the most basic and introductory, Raman Selden’s Practicing Theory and Reading Literature, and what do I read on page 50?

…throughout literary history … writers have produced works which have been regarded as nonsense by readers unfamiliar with the developed reading practices demanded by innovative texts. However, the assumption remains that all literary works should be readable in principle, and that, if a work resists the reader’s efforts to make sense of it, the writer is at fault. A more sophisticated response to this problem is to say that the readers have to be patient with innovative writings and try to discover the mode of reading which the texts demand.

Now, I’d hazard a guess that my imagined interlocutors are familiar with the more canonical engagements with the hermeneutic challenges posed by the modernist or innovative work, Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language, Roland Barthes’ “From Work to Text,” The Pleasure of the Text, or S/Z, or even Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption” or Steve McCaffrey’s “Diminished Reference and the Model Reader” among many other possibilities. All these works might be said to argue that those works that resist “the reader’s efforts to make sense of” them do so, paradoxically, as a way to invite or require the reader’s active participation in the production of sense rather than a passive reception along lines so well-known as to be subliminal or reflexive. What is required of the reader is what the German Romantic philosopher and theologian Schleiermacher called (in English translation) “divination,” that positing of meaning that is a kind of educated guess or salto mortale, precisely the playful risk the infant takes to learn its mother tongue or that conversation partners take constantly in the fluid, open-ended back-and-forth of their dialogue.

But, in all seriousness, how could anyone oriented in the tradition of literary innovation be stumped by the compositional gestures of Swim or Sear? Admittedly, the waters of the text are choppy, moving between crests of writerly opacity and troughs of readerly transparency. Compositional attention varies in focus, from the word to the sentence to the passage, these units joined along a paratactic vector, arguably an archaic mode of composition (c.f. many examples in Jerome Rothenberg’s assemblage Technicians of the Sacred). In other words, the reader is asked to “swim in language” (c.f. the imperative in the text’s title) as Kerouac so famously advised the writer of spontaneous prose to do, an image played on, often, metapoetically, throughout Swim or Sear. Does the reader get out of breath, fear drowning? A distorted echo of Beethoven answers this anxiety:  “You think I care about your lousy hermeneutic when the language is speaking to me?!” But Swim or Sear is no mere paddling on the surface of textual semiosis, but, like the sea or ocean constantly evoked, it possesses a depth—of reference, to both a personal and world history, overflowing the word into the world in a gambit to overwhelm the necessary but too-often perversely scrupulous vigilance of language characteristic of much innovative poetry of the past four decades for the sake of a poetry that without a loss of reflection comes to grip with, for lack of a better word, life, the dizzying maelstrom of experience where there is no bottom to plant our feet, where “All answers will be questioned…”.

That a reader might not find this writing to his or her taste is understandable and allowed for:  perhaps the reflexive acceptance or rejection of a piece of writing based in the first instance on taste is a reflex the very compositional gestures of the text might imaginably challenge. But that a text should be rejected by “the present knowers” because it indulges, explores, retools, and complicates, if not exceeds and escapes, precisely the compositional means developed since the early, heady days of literary Modernism (among others), means whose end is to challenge,  and demand the collaborative labour of, the reader out of  social, political, and, yes, even aesthetic concerns is, frankly, jaw-dropping.

Everything you already know about poetry

A Canadian poet, whose disdain for Slam Poetry and Spoken Word is well-known, recently posted this clip on his blog under the title “‘Slam Poetry’ explained”:

Regardless whether you agree or disagree with the “pointlessness” of Slam Poetry, the clip does express a truth, but one more general, I think, than what the blogger or the clip’s writers had in mind. For what, exactly, is the clip mocking? One way of putting it would be that Spoken Word is a generic manner, one so stereotypical it is of no more importance to what is said than an accent.

However, it doesn’t take too much familiarity with contemporary poetry to realize that the same holds true for wide swaths of every school of poetic composition, whether “Official Verse Culture”, the present-day institutionalized Avant Garde, Neoformalism, or what have you. Indeed, it is precisely these characteristic, generic mannerisms around which their respective appreciative readers, reviewers, editors, publishers, and practitioners hover.

The problem is not any one empty manner but schematized production—and consumption—as such, whether of poems or Big Macs. What is rightly slammed in the clip is the vapidity cultured by the need to ingratiate oneself or one’s product, cultural or otherwise.

Maybe that’s why I HATE POETRY.

Twin Takes on Twin Takes on Canada’s Poetic Renaissance

My post on Russell Smith’s article on recent Canadian poetry seems to have a struck a nerve with Michael Lista (see his comment on the original post) and Carmine Starnino, whose remarks can be read here. I leave it to discerning readers to come to their own conclusions.