If you haven't already, be sure to read the contributions re: poetry and history by Brian (Nov 24), Henry (Nov 26) and Samson (Nov 28) - they're good.
Yesterday was the first time in my life I have ever heard my father use the term "African American" without apparent irony or sarcasm.
This was probably for the benefit of my partner, who is from St. Louis, and therefore a "Yankee" (which is analogous to "goyim"). Later, we were at the art museum. He saw the exhibit of historic photos from the Memphis World (African-American newspaper) and said, "I'm not gonna go in there."
I got yer history - right here.
But I'd like the think the Millennium really has arrived.
Perhaps history in poetry (or poetry re: history) at the present time is necessarily a variety of elegy. Or a mementomori.
I am so thankful for blogs, for the way they reaffirm our existence back to us. I am so thankful for the internets, with all their skeins and keens and tangles. I am posting every day to my blog, so I am full of plentitude to bursting. And stuffing. But not like stuffing in a doll. A doll is not a blog. A doll can have a blog, in which case, the doll exists, but that's ALL. I've never claimed to be a doll, and nobody would accuse me of it, I assure you. A blog is not a clone, but is the next best thing. But I am a blog, whatever else I may be. QED.
History is the nightmare from which I try to take a break, every now and then. Poetry, too. So I'll take the occasion of an officially recognized national holiday to note the dramatic geographical feature I experienced yesterday, viz., the drop-off from the Arkansas Ozarks to the alluvial plain of the Mississippi River, in eastern Arkansas. If you've driven from the coastal range of California into the Central Valley, you have some idea of the impact. But this is even more abrupt - the "hills" a little higher, the flatland just as flat. You're up on a high ridge looking out on others one moment; then you go down a hill to the Black River, and bam - nothing but rice fields. The Mississippi Delta may start in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, but the "Arkansas Delta" goes a lot farther north and west.
What I mean is that, while "the stones hold secrets," they don't narrate those secrets. Like on the Antiques Road Show - the people don't know the history of the objects they bring in. It's the appraisers who are the storytellers.
But that begs the question of who cares. Well, the owners of the objects care - usually b/c they think they're worth more than they are, sometimes for sentimental (family) reasons. If history is written by the victors, or by the losers writing against the victors (which is part of the same story), then it's ideology - we're all always already interpellated, etc. - so what's the point? And what difference does it make, even if you feel like you're telling the Truth, if you're not willing to do anything about it - or think that you can't?
I guess that's what I'm sensing at the present moment. Virgil was the child of the empire ascendant - he may have just been kissing ass, but odds are he really believed in Augustus. Catullus, by contrast, was watching the decadence of the Republic. (See, this is what history gets you - cornpone analogies between US and Roman history).
But, like I say, it's a compulsion - a necromantic fascination with past people (personages) - a feeling that somebody ought to write it - a desire that someone will write about us, after our demise(s). It has to break down or break up, too. As in that beautiful, final lyrical section of "Book of the Dead" (the Rukeyser, not the Ani) - we've left the stock reports and committee minutes behind, but the paean or whatever it is would seem unmotivated without it - and, I think, vice versa.
From the sublime to the absurd: i'm off to Memphis . . .
Sure, anything is historical, if it has a carbon-14 reading. But does that mean it engages in an activity called "history"? I'm almost ready to go back and read Hayden White - tho my recollection is that he doesn't really go into what "narrative" means - which begs the question; but I think he was just trying to get those who write history to realize they were writing.
Then there's "historicism" and "historicity." Historicity : history = "governance" : government. Hence, the neoliberal desire for history to "end."
Is there any good history??
Then there's the topic of gender - and why history is his - esp. when you consider who writes it, in prose or verse. Is it that men are pompous weenies, so the Historical Sweep comes naturally? Well, you tell me.
I promise my posts on this topic will become more coherent (and continue) after El DiadelosPavosMuertos. But I shall continue to post daily. Excelsior!
In the meantime, there is this, from Gabe Gudding'sR.I. Notebook:
"The Literary Narcissist begins purposefully to conflate criticism of his social behavior into an indication of his/her literary worth. That is to say, the Narcissist will try to show that the reason others despise or are disgusted by him is in fact because he or she is a 'Rebel,' a true Literary Revolutionist - and that the statements of disgust others publicly make at his behavior is merely an indication of (a) their necessary denial of the work because they are threatened by it, or (b) their jealousy of the work."
Add butt-kissing, and you can see how this might be a problem. However, this passage also describes me and most of my friends (& former friends) at our worst. Let he who is without narcissism cast the first -
One of my students made a poem about a recent historical event. But the poem didn't mention the event. Or the date. If a paleopoetologist found the poem 100 years from now, s/he might not know what it commemorated.
Churchill supposedly read "If We Must Die" on the floor of the Parliament during the Battle of Britain. And why not? But the predicament of the British nation at that point was rather different than that of African America in 1919 in the face of racial violence, which was McKay's occasion for the poem. But you wouldn't necessarily know it, to read it. There's lots of poetry from the 1910s like that, of course (see my chapter on Arturo Giovannitti).
But then there is "occasional" poetry - which is supposed to be fugitive, or ephemeral. To me, the specificity of the historical milieu is precisely what gives poems a punctum for those living in later years - this person, this place. Like me (see time stamp, below - or my chap. on Anna Louise Strong). I just can't get with the platonists.
This is all old hat. But why is it a perennial issue in poetry? It's Romanticism what did it, sez me.
[thanks to Ron S. for posting a link. Please add your 2 cents, y'all. I'm not kidding re: the "throw me a bone" thing - incl. citations, references, quotations, referrals]
On Wed., we go to Memphis, and I am going to try not to gloat. There's no escaping history there . . .
Bill Brown gave an interesting talk here the other day - about things, of course - and objects (and Man in the High Castle). Seems to me he was circling around the general/particular opposition - which is a version of the realist/nominalist opposition. He elided the terms "binary" and "dialectic," which don't hardly seem right to me. But anyway, this issue is a propos to the whole history/theory thing I've been talking about. If you get too hegelian about it, the specifics of history disappear, and it all gets religious (cf Marx on young hegelians). But if you get too specific, then, so what? Brown pointed to W. Benjamin's obsession with examples (particularity) as such - which he characterized as an unwillingness to theorize (not a totally unique reading, but, well, a propos).
There is something utopian re: the Arcades Project - the notion that voices from the past (the Great Beyond?) can "speak for themselves." Or kabbalistic, perhaps. But if you actually read a good chunk of the AP, you fancy you get a feel for the Paris of the 19th c. Self-delusion? Maybe. I guess it's a matter of which side you want to err on - the grand recit or the stuff.
I'm reading Gabriel Gudding's Rhode Island Notebook, which is nothing if not stuff (times, dates, mileages, routes, rest-stop ratings). Interspersed with hip-pocket, driver's-side theorizing. But a torrent of particularity, in any case. And of course there are a lot of books like that. Does the whole add up to more than the sum of its parts, these books seem to dare us. I'm an afficionado of trivia, and naive enough to think that, given a fundamentally sound mind, enough trivia can be processed into something like learning - even partial understanding. And, as a nominalist by disposition, I go in for trivia - or at least, stuff. Inductive, not deductive. I'm awed (and educated) by Arendt's narration of the origins of totalitarianism, but the quotations in Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke convey many (incredilbly surprising) obdurate particulars that no overarching narrative could convey.
Maybe I want the sweep of history to feel like my workaday life.
If you have any thoughts on any of this, pls speak up.
So much History (as in "history books") is paraphrase. If it's done well, it's turned into a gripping (absorptive) tale (I'm finishing up Master of the Senate, Robert Caro's monumental [see?] study of LBJs years as Majority Leader). It's not fictionalizing events, exactly, but it smooths out and sutures over the actors' phenomenological bumps and gaps. That's where I think poetry (or "poetry" as indeterminate, inter-generic space) comes in. Poets don't have to (and can't) get dressed up in a suit to give papers to the AHA.
A colleague of mine holds that "information is the death of art" (or was it "enemy" of art - implying a struggle, which would be more interesting?). Is evidence the same thing as information? Can something be evidence of itself? I should have this figured out by now . . . or do like the Pragmatists and just declare epistemology irrelevant. But evidence alone becomes pure context - in which case, we're back in the Giscombe, Rumble (and Robbe-Grillet) landscape.
I want to resume the question of poetry and history that I discussed in my post re: Cecil Giscombeand my review of Ken Rumble’s Key Bridge. I would argue that, in both of those books, the absence of detailed history signals an unwillingness to “depict,” due to a suspicion the slipperiness of narrative or representation and the tendentious (even authoritarian) closure those activities often provoke.
The flip side – that which is renounced in such a decision – is any responsibility (epistemological and ethical) for writing history – or at least responsibility for doing so on the part of poets. If there is no “subject of history,” does that take us off the hook of history? By us, I mean people who write and read literature (writing for art’s sake). This could turn into a very old, tedious, and unresolvable debate, which is what I don’t want it to do. But I do detect a couple of tendencies (unscientific perceptions, these) in recent poetics that beg the question.
The first is the apparent resurgence of lyric. In the 80s and early 90s, lyric came into disrepute, esp. amongst feminist critics – esp. those influenced by continental philosophy – suspicion of the unified speaking subject (read: Law of the Father) and of the “lyric complex” of love, beauty, and femininity. However, in the last (what?) ten years or so, a new generation of lyric poetry has emerged that presents us with a more diffused subject, in which lyric gesture, while moving and sincere and all that, is also be self-conscious about The Lyric Tradition. This development has made lyric more palatable to more people - and, perhaps, made narrative less so, especially to those with an avant-gardie self-image.
The other tendency is towards what might best be described as neodada, absurdism, scramble-systems and word-salads. I guess one could say Langpo is (was?) a manifestation of this – due to post-Althusserian suspicions of syntax and semantics per se. But today it seems less a result of political commitment than of (political, social) despair. I’m thinking of the kind of jokey, aloof, poppy irony (sorry, *post*-irony) on the part of many younger poets who are still immortal (or not yet destitute). They often hit the zeitgeist smartly on the head, but I’m left wondering So What. I wonder that after I read some of my own stuff, in fact, and I’m not even young. If you accept any version of the category "history" as valid, do you have to at least flirt with representation? Or does history represent all that passe Olson stuff?
I have to wonder to what extent it's a matter of being willing to present primary texts - to let the texts "speak for themselves," rather than the speaking persona of the poem. Reznikoff tried to do that in his Testimony poems. Flarf is an interesting contemporary example of the poetics of the primary text - of nailing the zeitgeist using other people's words. But what's the shelf life, absent the paratext - that is, the historical context - if it's not obvious from the text itself? And if the answer is "None - that's the point," then where does that leave "history"?
“I’ve been remiss in blogging.” “You've been remiss in getting a life.”
But really, if these things are to work, you have to keep posting. So I’ve decided I’m going to post every day, even if it’s only one or two lines at a time. It may be a quote; it may be “how I am feeling about my writing today”; or it may be a question that I toss out to you, the Reader. You can regard these as food for thought or as actual queries, and actually answer them, under “Comments.”
For instance: "True or false? Most contemporary academic literary criticism is mostly composed of paraphrase."
"the bales of cotton the lamps cisterns the trees the barrels weight of a package pearly buttons (count) counting bricks (count) pearly buttons the books the soldiers (count) counting the bricks (accounting) length of a wall weight of a package (count) counting contacts."
I do think that one feature of modernism that we have not gone beyond is its impersonism. Whether it's the diffused, contingent subject of much recent lyric, the nouveau-cutup (camp) of flarf, or various aleatory practices, it does seem that we're still keen on proving our skepticism about subjectivity. (implications for representing history/agency - subject for future post). But is that just boring repetition, or a pose, or simply the continuation of a fundamental shift dating from c. Dec. 1910 through the present? In any case, obviously a lot of people haven't got the message and are still writing soulful memoirsitic narratives about returning to the small towns where they grew up, etc. - so naturally that creates an equal and opposite reaction. And vice versa. Hence red poets/blue poets.
Impersonism is also an impersonation. But only those with impersonalities know what it means to do a good impersonation, as Eliot once said, in the voice of Rich Little.
Really, it may be that blogs will become the new (acceptable) "personal" genre for Poets who Think. That is, even those who gravitate towards snickering weltschmerzy pop-po write very personal (self-representational, ex-pressive) things on their blogs. So, blogging is the new Romanticism. You heard it here first.
Of course, snippets of your blog might end up in someone else's arch & ironical poem . . .
I think at some level I still take for granted the notion that one's writing is an expression of one's personality. Hence, I've been writing jokey, somewhat cynical/ironical/satirical lyrical poems (see below). But it occurs to me that those things are also distancing devices. So, either (a.) these poems in fact hide my True Self, or (b.) my True Personality is really a distancing device. Or "Personality" is a distancing device. Or something.
What the hell! - let's take a vote! Are you for (a.) or (b.)?
I heard an interview the other day with a woman who had been obsessively checking election web sites for the last year. "What will you do when it's over?" the interviewer asked. Answer: "Well, I guess I'll go back to my reality TV shows."
“People are exasperated by poetry which they do not understand, and contemptuous of poetry which they understand without effort. (Eliot)” (Markson). Whoever said it, it’s true for most Americans, anyway. If you teach poetry in a public educational institution in the US, you probably know what I mean. Give students challenging poetry, and they glower (“What the hell is that?”). If you give them “accessible” or popular poetry, they roll their eyes (“Oh, please – why are you making us read this trash?”). At the height of the 80s Culture Wars, the right embodied this split in an extreme form. If you taught difficult material (like, oh, say, Homer, Milton, John Donne), and you expected your students to actually read it (if they wanted a good grade), you were an elitist. If you taught pop culture, then you were a radical who was intent on dumbing down the curriculum and destroying western civilization.
The quotation is true of people who don’t read much literature. But even people who do so embody this dichotomy. For all the talk of post-avant, it seems to me that, when push comes to shove, people fall back on either the “post” (as in “thank god all that elitist jerking off is over with”) or the “avant” (as in “oh, my god – who reads this [tired, stupid, corny] shit??”). That is another instantiation the Coke/Pepsi, GOP/Dem, black/white mentality that characterizes American life.
I’ve held forth on this theme before, and, yes, as a matter of fact, I do have an axe to grind. See, I have this manuscript ("quick! hide!") . . . Well, it’s part biography, part history, with a little memoir thrown in for bad measure. That means that it’s representing things, events, people, even emotions (hurrah! go the posties, literature is supposed to be mimetic and expressive; undertheorized and tepid, go the avantes). But, formally, it’s a scrapped-up, fragmentary, montage/bricolage that relies heavily on problematic "evidence" (now we’re talking, go the avantes; WTF?? go the posties).
So – is it possible to be both heavy-handed and coldly detached? To be both schmaltzy and cryptic? Well, it’s certainly possible to press on (and maybe disrupt) the marketing and institutional categories we rely upon to navigate texts (incl. genre). But maybe one can narrate and represent without being overly naive or smug about subjectivity and language. We'll see.
Author of Things Come On: (an amneoir) (Wesleyan University Press’ poetry series, 2011), earth day suite (Beard of Bees Press, Dec. 2010), Of Some Sky (Bedouin, forthcoming), and Poetry and the Public (Wesleyan 2002).