I can help feeling there’s been a certain slippage in the recent discussion of pleasure among Josh Corey, Eric Selinger, & YVT, attributable perhaps to a too rigid dichotomy (damn those Manicheans!) between the “immersive” experience of popular/genre/middlebrow fiction and the “anti-absorptive” rigors of contemporary alt-poetry. A couple of thoughts, mostly in response to Eric’s recent posts:
1) Josh is right when he reads Eric as saying, in essence, that “all pleasure is equally valid and anyone who says otherwise is deluded or a snob” – in arguing for the equal validity of all readerly pleasure. But I suspect he’s just as irritated as I am when Eric starts playing the old anti-elitist class card – “culinary” or “cultural-positioning” responses “don't let you feel smug or self-approving in your scorn for NASCAR and McRib sandwiches” – accusing us of being somehow insensitive to the pleasures of watching powerful cars go in circles or savoring boneless gestures towards American vernacular cuisine. Yes indeed, M. Bourdieu is right when he shows that a preference for Beckett plays & pad thai over NASCAR & the McRib is pretty inevitably aligned with a particular class distinction – but so what? If one values cultural productions – & I’d like to think that as poets & university teachers of poetry we do – that we’ve got to make some choices about what we pay attention to, what we take pleasure from. I know how much pleasure you take in deflating the pretensions of your friends & colleagues, Eric (& G-d knows that I don’t wanna deprive anyone of pleasure), but until you send me the poetry syllabus that focuses entirely on amateur slams, hip-hop records, prison workshops, and Hallmark greeting cards, I wish you’d stop pretending to be Mike Gold. More heat than light. (“That shirt cost more than my mother makes in a year.”)
2) When Eric talks about the “moral” pleasure of tackling difficult poetry as being a kind of ex post facto figleaf we lay over the naughty bits of our more basic pleasures – & this bears more discussion – I think he’s rightly pointing to what Bob Archambeau has written about on a number of occasions as the “aesthetic anxiety” of late Victorian to contemporary poets. But – & this is the crucial point – it still begs the question of whether those ethical effects actually exist. EG: I love arugula for its bitter taste and wonderful texture; I rationalize to myself that I eat arugula because it’s good for me, tho I don’t have any hard evidence one way or another; but it’s good for me anyway, objectively. (This is a counterfactual supposition – me, I hate arugula.)
Josh & I say the ethical element of “hard” poetry is there: we feel it in our bones, tho we can’t argue it in a universally convincing fashion. (We need to try harder…) Eric says “show me the money, & until then I’ll just consider the pleasures of ‘hard’ poetry as one choice on the menu, not necessarily to be preferred to the McTaco.” (Yummy poem, by the way.)
But those were preliminaries: What I really meant to write about was the “slippages” in discourse that seems to be happening here. This will sound like a laundry list:
•I think we need a more nuanced, more “thick” description of the experience & the pleasures of anti-absorptive texts than just a foregrounding of language or “speed bumps” in the way of immersion. Those things indeed happen, but a great deal else – varying widely from text to text – happens as well. Josh gestures towards this – & I image he’s doing a lot more than gesturing in his dissertation – but before we can talk intelligently about anti-absorptional writings as being somehow more valuable than something else, we need some sort of encyclopedic tracing of the pleasures of bafflement, allusion both external and internal, dictional shifts, fragmentation, indeterminacy, polysemy, and so forth. (This has probably been written, but hey, I’ve been in a cave writing a biography for last 7 years.)
•No, it’s not just a contrast between ways of reading: there are fundamental differences between mass market immersive fiction and “difficult” poetry. Yes, we can bring to bear on the former some of the tools useful for the latter, and to interesting effect. But that’s a matter I think of more general literary-critical methodology, rather than things specifically crafted for the sort of poetry Josh is talking about. There are skill sets and there are skill sets, & some of them overlap, & some of them don’t. I may read a romance novel thru the lens of Northrop Frye & Patricia Parker on the classic romance, thru Mulveyan notions of the gaze, & thru various post-Freudian theorizations of the “other” – all ways of resisting “immersion” – but how do those skill sets help me with Susan Howe’s “Bibliography of the King’s Book”?
•I don’t think the pleasure Josh & I (& you too, EMS) take in an anti-absorptive poem really bears much resemblance, aside from the fact that it’s work rewarded – which applies just as well to a crossword puzzle, building a sukkah, or washing the car – to what undergrads in an intro to poetry class feel in working thru the “‘immersive’ first person lyric.” Some of the same elements are there (pleasure in the sound of language, pleasure in “decoding” what seems initially unclear, etc.), but there are other faculties being drawn upon, other muscles exercised. (Maybe we should shift governing metaphors from cuisine to exercise: immersive work as a morning jog; anti-absorptive work as yoga?) And here one needs to go two bullets back up, which takes us back to the big unwritten – the Geertzean description of alt-poetry reading that will in turn perhaps (?) facilitate the convincing ethical description that will convert the reprobate Selinger to the True Church of Painful Difficulty.