Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ron & the Brits ii

I’m dying to get back into that Adorno thang, now that Dave and Bob have both weighed in – but I’m off up north tonight for a long weekend among the autumn leaves. We don’t really have deciduous trees down here – there’s the season when the palm trees drop their nuts everwhere, then there’s the season where they shed their fronds and grow cute new baby fronds, there’s the unbearably hot season and then the warm season when the roads and restaurants are clogged with northerners, etc. So I miss autumn – and winter, and spring, for that matter.

But instead of Adorno, I’ll put up what I hope is the blogosphere’s very last post (yeah right) on Ron Silliman’s “Post-avant vs. School of Quietude” business. Here goes. It comes as intercalary comments to the excellent Michael Peverett, commenting transatlantically on my last post:
I consider the post-avant / SoQ distinction a perfectly valid one for alluding to the fact that there are two and only two audiences for US (and British) poetry that are interested in discussing the history and current state of poetry. (In other words, a child enjoying a nursery rhyme is an audience for poetry that I don't convict of being in either camp.)
[I think you overstate; a good counter-example: the critic Thomas Gardner (see the review earlier this week on John Latta’s Dumpster Island), whose latest book examines the Dickinsonian strain in Charles Wright (slighly post-Poundian SoQ, Susan Howe (definitely P-A), and Jorie Graham (???).]
The two disputatious audiences might indeed be better seen as one graded audience, related by a host of intermediaries somewhat like the interbreeding clines that connect species of mouse that are distinct at their extremes.
[Oh indeed, but why then are the “disputacious” extremes necessarily more defining or interesting than the hybridized middles? Yeah, I know what the Lord has to say about Laodiceans…]
KSM [Kasey Mohammad]'s essay didn't attack the binary distinction, only the validity of the suggestion that post-avant somehow maps on to other descriptions, such as politically activist or aggressively loud. An attack on the distinction itself needs to show that there are other coherent, independent, articulate, critical bodies of poetry-lovers who don't fit well into the existing paradigm. And in my opinion those bodies just don't exist right now.
[“coherent, independent, articulate, critical bodies” is a pretty high standard – & frankly, I’m not sure either the loudest advocates of P-A poetries or the blithe reviewers of SoQ works fit that description much of the time – but you’re probably largely right. I think it’s in the nature of those who think about & write about poets from across the spectrum – & I’d cite, in addition to Gardner, Eric Selinger, Norman Finkelstein, Lynn Keller, & others – to be more interested in insightful readings of particular poets, tropes, techniques than in polemics on behalf of large tendencies. It remains to be seen what will be more useful in the long run.]

I can't help thinking that among poetry commentators diversity is to be celebrated. [Hear hear!] Silliman could never have gained his infectious enthusiasm, his immense range of knowledge of the US experimental scene without his strict diet of never on any account reading Spenser, Keats, foreign-language poetry, novels or science (slightly unfair, I know). But don't you need someone who'll tell you - and will make you feel interested in - exactly how a poet fits into the Spicer circle or Bay Area poetics? I know I do.
[Ron is unsurpassed in his own balliwick – but he has such an indefatigable appetite for poetry, & sometimes a wonderfully unsclerotic ability to accept the “new,” that I’m disappointed whenever I run up against one of his blind spots – & Spenser, Keats, Wordsworth, all of British poetry on the 20th c. save his 4 horsemen is a really big blind spot, no?]

What else can I disagree with? Oh Mark - "ceremonial" - cultures do perceptibly differ, even such similar ones as British and US, but I think it's impossible to narrow down those differences to a phrase; people have written whole books about it, and even so the books are full of contentious generalizations about "tendencies" and "for the most part".
[I think I quoted Sean saying “ceremonious” – a minor distinction, but “ceremonious” also invokes simple “politeness,” “formality” in ways that “ceremonial” doesn’t quite.]
I suppose I am a British poetry person and it's true that I can find things in, say, Geraldine Monk that I couldn't expect from any transatlantic poet - bits of mainly demotic, insular culture that only we would know about. But I doubt if these aspects of writing are of outstanding significance and if I listed the English-speaking poets (and poetry-readers) I feel closest to I think there'd be more Americans than Brits. And really, the framework of nationality just doesn't seem helpful here. "Ceremonial" continues to suggest to me things in poetry that I usually don't like (except in Irish Byzantium) and they can be found on both sides of the atlantic but I believe you are tacitly dropping from view such US ceremonialists as Whittier, Longfellow, Allan Tate, and Berryman - and I don't blame you - but in that case it's not fair that British poetry should be characterized by Tomlinson! I don't feel an identification with the kind of poem he writes.
CT is an interesting case: if he were an American publishing with Athenaeum or Ecco, Ron would almost certainly consign him to the SoQ forthwith; but he's a Briton, & one who spent a good deal of early energy promoting WCW, LZ, Oppen & others, so that he gets at least a respectful name-check in Ron's blog. Which simply underlines the fact that the SoQ/PA distinction has every bit as much to do with social factors as it does with aesthetic or political ones. At base (one of its bases) it's all about "us & them," an us & them which tends to map the struggles of various tendencies in US poetry in the mid-1980s, & is of less & less use the further we leave that decade behind. For all the usefulness of naming what gets published in the New Yorker, designating it as a "school" rather than a default definition of what poetry itself is, the entire SoQ/PA thing is just too big & vague in the end to be of much use, especially in an era when the automatic equation of aesthetic innovation & insitutional marginalization simply no longer holds.

With respect to the transatlantic divide, I would speculate that Ron's scunner against a certain traditional voice (call it "ceremonious," call it "formal," call it broccoli) which can be heard in Whittier, Longfellow, & Tate, & which he associates primarily with the English poetic canon & thereby consigns to the dustbin of SoQ, is at least part of what keeps him from "hearing" much of contemporary British poetry*; I still hear that voice, that tone, in much of the most disjunctive work coming out of the British Isles, as part of a rather rich mix that doesn't exclude all of the vernacularisms contemporary American poets are so set on.

*Ron's enthusiasm for the American Jennifer Moxley, whose work openly embraces much of the diction & tropes of the English romantics, is one of those frequent and unapologetic inconsistencies in his program (programme?) that I always value.


Henry Gould said...

I don't think you can analyze the propriety or no of the (SoQ/P-A) theory without considering the issue of tendentiousness.

A self-proclaimed member of one of the "sides" - who claims that the opposing side has not only written bad poetry, but manages a conspiracy to control the channels of publication and prestige - sets out to brand individual poets as part of one camp or the other.

If he is accused of undue "politicizing", he claims that no, the politics of conspiracy and control are a fact -& he his simply witnessing to an empirical reality.

What I have argued for a long time is that these supposed literary categories are actually rhetorical devices, applied as part of a self-interested, polemical campaign of divide & conquer.

There is no avoiding a degree of this sort of thing, among ambitious, rivalrous practitioners of an art form.

Just don't confuse it with scholarship or literary criticism or even aesthetic appreciation, all of which are rooted in a (relatively) free, disinterested response to a new and unique aesthetic work.

Michael Peverett said...

Hi Mark, I appreciate your annotations to my slightly kneejerky response; I readily concede to your more nuanced commentary. However, I cling to my perception, not of two schools of poets nor two schools of scholar-critics, but of two poetry communities that remain largely distinct; in British terms you might characterize one of these communities as having never heard of(nor wishing to hear of) Bob Cobbing, the other as feeling terribly bored by the thought of reading Seamus Heaney's essays. Though poets themselves may defy categorization, it strikes me that these communities go about the business of reading poetry (and discussing what they read) in such different ways that you might almost say it occupies different niches in their cultural existences. Glancing across the boundary, as I and I suppose many other individuals occasionally do, only emphasizes the sense of moving between entirely different conceptual frameworks. That's how it seems to me, anyhow. And yes, this socioliterary perception is historically bounded and will mutate, the edges will erode. It isn't for all time.

Dammit, all I was going to say is "thanks" and I'm getting verbose again.

I've also been thinking about why I reacted so adversely to "ceremonious". It's a perception that I recognize as by no means irrelevant (tho in different ways) to Monk, Halsey, Prynne, Riley, all of whom I'd unhesitatingly place in my British top ten. But I suppose it's something that worries me. These are our best poets, but I'm convinced that this isn't an aspect of their work that I want to go along with. Of course a brilliant poet can do amazingly creative things with the rich, the ceremonious deposits of seventeenth-century spelling and forms - for example. It's just too tempting! That's why the Geraldine Monk that I really want to learn from is e.g. the streetsound montage in Manufractured Moon, not the lacework in Escafeld Hangings.

I suppose I think of Scott's antiquarian parodies, which of course I am a huge fan of; and then of Whitman's lifelong favourite poetry book, Scott's Poetical Works; and then of the staggeringly different poetry that Whitman actually wrote... Whitman's transatlantic perception that the past is, in fact, the past, is something that's still difficult to realize here, our ears are troubled with an old passion.

Norman Finkelstein said...

I would like pose a simple question to the readers of this blog, including the admirable contributors to the present discussion: Does any poet ever really think, as he or she is writing a poem, "Now I am making a contribution to [insert a particular school or tendency here]"? Isn't it always after the fact of the poem that the critical assessments are made, the literary mafias take form, the can(n)ons are loaded? Mark, since you've mentioned me as a critic whose practice you approve (thank you), let me say again that I write criticism to explain to myself and others why I like a poem I like, and why others might take pleasure in it as well. A great deal follows from this, and we often find ourselves in a political or sociological morass, but however useful the historical distinctions may be, however overheated the rhetoric becomes, however the gang wars are conducted, in the end it has little to do with poets writing their poems, and readers enjoying them.

z. barocas said...

Just in case anyone is looking for British poets &/or, I think relevantly, poems published in England (Sam Ward contributed a selection of such stuff to the last update of Cultural Society picks. They can be found at, click on 'picks' when you get there.

Michael Peverett said...

Norman, I feel I really should shut up now but I don't want to ignore youre polite request. Though probably you're not going to get a poet admitting that they'd think about such reductive categories while in the throes of creation (a passage traditionally cloaked in mystery, perhaps to mimic birth-throes), I've actually no doubt that there is a feedback mechanism by which the divided audiences are something that poets are importantly influenced by. Poets are not so unworldly as not to have any awareness of receptivity!

To defend this: for example, I think of a couple of UK-based poets whose PR material I've noted recently, who I would basically regard as having SoQ visibility (Carrie Etter, Mario Petrucci) but who are making noises about an experimental second-string to their work. Whether such claims do ever reach or impress PA audiences I'm not sure, but it's evidence that sometimes poets do self-consciously think "I'm going to do a bit of P-A today" - though not in such blunt terms. And Peter Finch is a UK poet from the remote other wing who writes in a whole spectrum of kinds, some of which verge on traditional; his PA credentials so impeccable that he's quite happy to say as much!

Jessica Smith is a young P-A who has had the courage recently to describe her juvenilia as SoQ, and considering the kind of poems that students are usually exposed to at school I would think her development as a writer isn't by any means unusual. Admittedly discovering that you've changed the kind of poetry you write isn't the same thing as deciding to change it; but I believe the general tendency (especially on the PA side) is to understate the element of conscious decision; poets would rather give the impression that they're just naturally so out there that they can't help being wildly innovative. But whether jessica "decided" to write experimental poetry or not, the really significant thing is that she comprehends the shape of her own work so far in those binary terms -well of course she does! and I think you'd have to be a long way from the scene not to. That's what I mean by a feedback mechanism.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Well, I guess I can't argue with Michael's notion of feedback, and perhaps poets do look over their shoulders at readers, critics, and even their earlier selves more than I care to admit. What I perceive as a problem, however, is the way that some poets' feelings of group affiliation can get in the way of their making connections that could benefit their work. This is especially true of young poets who, on the other hand, often develop a sense of themselves precisely through such group affiliations. Then there's the related and equally vexed matter of influence from one individual to another. There were certainly times in my work where I've done a turn a la, say Ashbery, or Susan Howe. Which is only to say, perhaps, that I've learned from my elders. In any case, matters of reception, audience and influence are unavoidable. Exclusionary practices and willful blindness--well, that's something else again.