Tuesday, August 16, 2005

“Well, I’m back”

– from New York, and hope to post some notes on the “culture” side of les vacances soon. At the moment, however, I’m prompted by Eric’s uncharacteristically dour response to the last post on Auden, poetic side-taking, and eclecticism – “the critical theory that dare not speak its name”:
I don't think it's a matter of Kierkegaard and Adorno, Mark, that keeps us from embracing eclecticism (or small "c" catholicism) as a critical theory.

If you're eclectic in taste, like my own grad-school masters Cal Bedient & Stephen Yenser, you get no followers, found no school, find your way into fewer and fewer footnotes. You garner far less institutional power this way--make yourself less dramatic, less feisty, less deployable by others; to shift metaphors, you blur your brand identity.

You also blur and hedge and multiply your personal identity--as I like, so I am--in ways that I recall finding very confusing, even scary, in my youth. (How can you I enjoy both The Carpenters and the Sex Pistols, Sondheim and The Ramones? What the hell is wrong with me? I'm not who I want to be? What's my na-a-a-a-me? Etc.)

It's not a theory thing, in short; it's a power thing, both personal and institutional. Auden's modesty--which he adopts precisely because his rhetoric was so powerful early on, in service of the Spanish war--amounts to a shrugging off of just this will to power. (Power over others and power over himself.) No wonder it rankles!

Now who’s being cynical?, I’m tempted to say. It was of course over the top of me to invoke Søren K. & Teddy A. – tho they do stand as useful shorthand for a lot of puritanical thinking out there – but one ought to take apart a few of the nuts & bolts of the “institutional” power thing that Eric proposes here. Last time I checked, both Cal Bedient and Stephen Yenser had positions at UCLA: perhaps not the highest pinnacle of the institutional Barad-Dûr, but none too shabby either – a large university in a major (if somewhat surreal) city, a highly-rated PhD program. Perhaps they don’t have quite the rabid following Big Charles did at Black Mountain, but check out who’s publishing their books – U Chicago, Harvard, etc. One could make an argument that Bedient has far more “institutional” power than any academically institutionalized “post-avant” poet or critic of his generation.

In terms of personal power, however, I can see where the argument tends (and can see how much Emerson is behind it). Rejecting eclecticism of taste on one’s part – consciously rejecting it – gives one access to a purer-than-thou, I ain’t no Laodicean rush, and puts one in a position of what feels precisely like power in relation to those who tastes seem more “slushy,” whose lines are less clearly drawn. The rejection of eclecticism takes various forms, depending on where you’re starting from: the New Formalists had it in for anyone who didn’t write in something evoking traditional forms; the Language Poets in their heyday seemed intent on demonizing anything that didn’t in some way problematize the relationship between language and world (or the personal & the political, etc.).

Eclecticism of taste is a fine thing for critics of poetry, and heaven knows we need more of it – there are far too many pontiffs out there whose blind spots almost overwhelm their moments of insight, and they’re the ones churning out the blurbs, directing the dissertations, and providing the readers of the New Yorker with their idea of what American poetry looks like. (And it goes the other way, I suppose: the duelling assessments of Robert Lowell by Marjorie Perloff and William Logan in a recent Parnassus are worth reading together if you want to get a parallax view of RL that perhaps approaches accuracy.)

But for poets, as opposed to people writing about poetry, I’m not sure eclecticism of taste isn’t just shorthand for an unformed aesthetic. When one is young, one bounces from poet to poet – I remember a period when I was intensely reading J. V. Cunningham, Dickinson, Ronald Johnson, Robert Duncan, and Elizabeth Bishop. At some point, I began winnowing down the sorts of poetry that spoke to me, that stimulated me. It was not a matter of deciding that I had nothing to learn from a certain sort of poet, or that there was nothing worthwhile in a given type of poetry, but that there were certain poets, poems, and general strains in poetry that energized me in ways that the others didn’t, and that I was going to pursue the former. I don’t think that’s so much a matter of “branding” as it is of constructing and growing into a persona – or a person – which is what all of us do.

I’m enchanted with Kasey’s brief and nasty summary of why “bland eclecticism” is such a bad thing for “post-avant” poets:
"bland eclecticism," I posit, is a term used in an attempt by the avant-garde to keep their actual and potential domains of professional activity at a low personnel-density level, thus increasing the margins of mobility and advancement for themselves. This is, of course, the same thing poets in other camps do with terms such as "postmodern nonsense" and "theoretical claptrap" and "intellectual elitism."

(So yes, in some sense it comes down to power, doesn’t it?) And I’m even more enchanted with his brief, peace-pipe finale:
For me, the best reasons for favoring "experimental" poetry, or for resisting what I perceive as "bland eclecticism," are ones that have to do with staying interested and keeping my mind active. If someone likes two different poets with what seems to me like a foggy awareness of the reasons other people would not like those same two poets, I don't feel that that person should stop liking those two poets; I just think that he or she should be aware of those other persons' reasons for thinking the juxtaposition is incoherent. The more aware we are of the stakes in any given situation, the more we are able to form our own opinions with insight and informed confidence--and the more we are able to enter into coherent, constructive conversation with others.

Hard, frankly, to top that. Or perhaps it’s just moved so far into the argumentative center that it’s found a place where Karl Rove and Noam Chomsky can talk.

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