Archive for the ‘experimental poetry’ Tag

Two (more) solitudes

Anyone acquainted with English-language Canadian poetry will know that it’s divided into a variety of mutually uncomprehending schools, a staid-of-affairs most recently borne out in a discussion thread concerning a recent review of Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the the Present in the National Post.

The thread’s originator first took up three strands, more-or-less:  the review is “jargon crusted”, often nonsensical and stylistically repulsive. The review, however, employs little jargon: “identity formation,” “deixis,” and “deictic shifters” are the only offenders, and the last two are explained, if a little clumsily; the accusation of nonsense, meanwhile, was quickly downgraded to the charge that the review’s style would fail to excite the “intelligent yet non-specialist reader” to rush out and buy the book.

What strikes me as more curious though is what the review’s “style” indicates about the reception of avant-garde poetry. As one acute interlocutor observed “a poem whose second line is ‘You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol’ might be asking for this sort of review,” a remark that might be taken to mean that “experimental” poetry demands a particular response, in this case, one couched in the discourse developed over the past century precisely in answer to new art forms for which no existing critical vocabulary seemed fit. Indeed, ‘shifter’ is a most appropriate term in this respect, introduced by Otto Jespersen in 1923, taken up by Roman Jakobson in 1956 and, most tellingly, by Emile Benveniste, a linguist whose work deeply informs Robertson’s.

In one respect, then, the review might be said to possess a pedagogical purpose, attempting to orient the “ordinary reader” to be better able to approach a work that might otherwise seem outlandish and perplexing. Regardless of its purpose, however, the review’s “content” and “form” should be less disconcerting than its spontaneously possessing a ready fluency to articulate and appreciate an “experimental” work. How “experimental” can a work be, after all, when it is composed and readily appreciated within an already existing set of institutional, artistic-critical conventions? It would seem “experimental” only to those offended by there being more things in the heaven and earth of poetry than they read in their English classes. The review and discussion thread, then, are less indices of the alienation of the “specialist” from the “non-specialist” than of the fractious relativity of two equally well-established schools.

A number of curious implications unfold from this reconfiguration of the issue. Those defenders of the “intelligent yet non-specialist reader” come to appear disingenuous:  the criticism of poetry, already a very specific concern, is never merely a matter of intelligence, Eliot’s famous dictum notwithstanding, but is inescapably rooted in education. As Paul de Man observed (in his essay “The Resistance to Theory”):  “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.” To pretend that the understanding and appreciation of poetry is not enabled and cultured by a particular schooling hides the social specificity of the language(s) of criticism, which is to pretend the language of one group is that common to all, which is to assume a commonality whose universality is merely a repression of difference. The specialized, literary critical vocabulary that sticks out as it does, however, ironically gambles an initial, potentially-alienating difference in the hopes of cashing in on the winnings of a wider understanding, all for the sake of rendering the unfamiliar familiar.

Where it appears perverse to restrict poetry reviewing to a non-technical language (even when it is explained in “layman’s terms”), while terms such as “lipids,” “stem cells,” or even “molecule” for that matter can be found in the same newspaper as the review in question, it seems equally, ironically counterproductive to anaesthetize what is uniquely lively in a work. The criticism that restricts itself to recognizable formulae reinforces the illusion that all is already right with the world and that there is nothing new under the sun that would require an effort at cognition, as true for the resolutely plain-spoken journalist-critic as for the reviewer in question, for whom Robertson’s book can hold no surprises nor upend his critico-theoretical status quo, understanding the work as he does in advance thanks to the conceptual schemata that enable his understanding and appreciation in the first place.

Robertson’s—anyone’s—poetry is surely better served by a—dare I say—”dialectical” criticism, that introduces the work without interrupting the ensuing, hopefully unending and open-ended, conversation that is the life of art and of the mind.

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.