“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.
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