Sunday, December 31, 2006


Philadelphia was nice, if a bit cold. A shame, given that this was one MLA – with Marjorie Perloff as president, much of the big show was geared specifically to poetry – where I would’ve actually liked to have attended things, that I spent most of my time in a hotel room in endless interviews.

USAirways seems to have lost my suitcase, which contained (along with a lot of sentimentally-valuable clothes) copies of Josh Corey’s Compos(t)ition Marble, Michael Heller’s A Look at the Door with the Hinges Off, Lawrence Upton’s Wire Sculptures, and Peter Riley’s Passing Measures. That’s what I get for trying to save weight in the shoulder bag by packing the already-read books in the checked luggage.
Somebody seems to have been giving Bob Archambeau trouble about his Adorno posts, to which Bob responds feistily. My experience is that hardcore Adornauts can indeed be a bit on the Spanish Inquisitorial side (which is why I read a lot of Adorno but don’t write a lot about him, until I’m double-dog sure I’m right) – probably a side effect of having invested so much psychic energy into making out what the Bald & Oracular One’s saying.

But I think Bob’s a trifle off-key in his responses. First, while I see the value of paraphrase, I think I’d be happier comparing it to translation (as Bob does) than to performance, eg of a musical score. Paraphrase is to text not as Michael Tilson Thomas’s conducting of (say) Mahler is to Mahler’s score of the 8th Symphony, but as a piano redaction of the 8th Symphony is to the original score; or as a Muzak adaptation of an Iggy Pop tune is to the original recording. Yes, you can learn something from the redaction & the Muzak, but it’s not the original, no not at all. Richard Thompson’s cover of Britney Spears’s “Oops I Did It Again” teaches us that it’s a pretty damned good pop song – but we could have learned that as readily by reading the sheet music & thereby bypassing the aural and visual distraction of the blonde one.

So it’s a bit unfair to slam Adorno for preferring the sheet music, considering he’s in pretty good company – Beethoven (perforce), George Antheil, Paul Zukofsky – a list of fellows not at all averse to performance, but finding that they grasp the immanent structure of the music much better without the distraction of actual musicians flubbing notes and concert-goers coughing etc.

I don’t remember a passage where Adorno asserts the primacy of German as “a special language, with unique affinities for philosophy” (tho Bob might remind me of one). He did claim the necessity of thinking and moving in a German linguistic environment as one of his reasons for returning to the BRD after the war. And I suspect that he did believe in some ways German was the language in which to do the sort of philosophy he did. An argument can be made that just as English is the language of pragmatism, & French the language of deconstruction, German is the language of Kantian and post-Kantian idealism – that the concepts and key ideas of idealist philosophy (the Kant – Hegel – Marx tradition in which Adorno moves) are absolutely embedded in the German language, & that when we try to translate them to another tongue – with whatever good intentions – they undergo an inevitable transformation, even violence. German is, in that sense, the only language in which to do (the particular) philosophy (that follows from Kant & Hegel). In one sense, it’s no more debateable than arguing that it’s easier to write a canzone in Italian than English, because the former language has lots & lots more rhyming words.

Heidegger, on the other hand, asserts something rather different & rather creepier: that German (along with classical Greek, which he saw as conceptually cognate with German) has some obscure and fundamental connection to the roots of Being (Seyn, as he archaically spelled it). That’s a far more foundationalist argument about language & philosophy.

Just for fun, Adorno on Heidegger, from “The Essay as Form”:
Whenever philosophy imagines that by borrowing from literature it can abolish objectified thought and its history – what is commonly termed the antithesis of subject and object – and even hopes that Being itself will speak, in a poésie concocted of Parmenides and Jungnickel, it starts to turn into a washed-out cultural babble.

I have no New Year's resolutions (tho I'll be trying to live up to my blue china); a happy one to you all.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

out to lunch

I'm off the Philadelphia later today, where I'll be spending most of my time in an overcrowded hotel room talking to people who're doing work more interesting than mine, & trying to decide which one to hire. But it would be nice to run into any of you there – I'm in the Sheraton. Let's have a drink.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Xmas Cheer (?)

One of the welcome gifts to cross my threshold this holiday was this, the 4-volume Grove Press Centenary edition of Samuel Beckett. I've been thinking some about Beckett lately, & over the past couple of years reading some of the works I hadn't yet ventured on. It's been hard to avoid SB this year, of course, given that it's the centenary of his birth year & so forth – a new story in the Times every few weeks, the TLS running an ongoing "translate Beckett's untranslatable French poems" contest. Not to mention Marjorie Perloff, whom every time I've seen her (in print or in person) the last few years has been grousing about some group of young people or other: "They haven't even read Beckett!"

Well, dammit, I've read Beckett – or a decent chunk of him: 4 of the 7 novels, maybe 2/3 of the plays, all the poems, & a substantial portion of the short fiction. It's awfully satisfying to have pretty much all of it together in the 4 solid volumes of the Centenary edition, tho at the same time it's kind of shocking to realize how compact the corpus actually is, given SB's larger-than-life reputation. I suspect that's the effect of having read so much of it over the years in 12 or 15 slim separate collections.

Textual Note: This really is the place to start with Beckett, & for most of us the place to end as well. Watt, most importantly, is presented in a significantly cleaned-up text. There's very little missing: the suppressed early novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women & B's first French play Eleutheria (both in print from other publishers than Grove, or I imagine they'd be here as well), a few short prose pieces, & the French poems. The box retails for $100, but you can save about a third of that at; it'll probably be hitting for less than its current $75 soon.

I'm most struck re-reading the poems, which made a huge impact on me when I was a grimly self-pitying undergraduate aesthete. I haven't picked them up in 15 years or so, but looking over them today I found them strikingly familiar, even companionate.


on all that strand
at end of day
steps sole sound
long sole sound
until unbidden stay
then no sound
on all that strand
long no sound
until unbidden go
steps sole sound
long sole sound
on all that strand
at end of day

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Richard Thompson Starring as Henry the Human Fly

One of the great watersheds of late 20th-century pop music, so far as I’m concerned, came in 1970 or so, when Richard Thompson sold his goldtop Gibson Les Paul (1955? 1956?) to John Martyn and switched to playing a Fender Stratocaster more or less exclusively.

Thompson’s first band, Fairport Convention, had begun as a quasi-folkish outfit playing covers of Dylan and Joni Mitchell and doing nice Hollies-esque harmonies. Under the influence of their trad-obsessed bassist Ashley (Tyger) Hutchings, Fairport had taken a decisive turn towards indigenous British folk – Child Ballads, morris dances, etc. Thompson had set himself down and learned his way thru books & books of jigs, reels, strathspeys, etc. – all on that goldtop Les Paul.

The Les Paul, however, even the single-coil pickup version RT was playing, is a rather blunt instrument for traditional dance tunes, as you can hear on Fairport’s otherwise sublime Liege & Lief (1969). I’d compare RT’s switching to the Strat to the moment when the medieval/renaissance revivalist Phil Pickett laid down his modern oboe and picked up his first crumhorn. Finally: the right tool for the job.

RT had been two years out of Fairport, living on session work, before he released his 1st solo record, Henry the Human Fly (1972), and a strange and wonderful record it is. Oft-repeated legend has it that Henry is the worst-selling album Warner-Reprise ever released in the United States. The dire cover design – RT, in all his gangly mid-20s-ness, a halo of flyaway curls projecting from behind a half-face fly mask, posed with his guitar in quintessentially English, über-panelled Jacobean interior – certainly seems designed to drive away casual browsers.

But Henry, 34 years after its release, and maybe 2 decades since I bought my first vinyl copy, remains one of my favorite records: in part perhaps because of its sheer awkwardness. There’s only one song in here that “rocks” in anything like a conventional manner: “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away,” which begins with utterly sublime sounds of an English country dance on accordian & fiddle, over which RT proceeds to play a note-perfect Chuck Berry solo. (The album’s opening track is another Berry allusion: “Roll Over Vaughn Williams.”)

The other songs are for the most part experiments in what RT was calling “British rock music,” electro-acoustic music that would marry the energy of American rock ‘n’ roll with the melodic and lyrical traditions of the British Isles. Thompson’s BRM isn’t just a matter of electrifying traditional songs & tunes, as Fairport had done & as Hutchings was doing with his new bands Steeleye Span and the Albion Country Band, but a matter of writing original songs that melded the contemporary & the traditional, that would reinvigorate the emotion & forms of centuries-old “folk” music with new instrumentation and the savvy songwriting that Dylan had set as a benchmark in popular music.

What “British rock music” amounts to on Henry the Human Fly is a series of mordant, witty, highly literate, and generally quite depressing songs which seem to hover somewhere between the 17th & 19th centuries. “Roll Over Vaughn Williams” and “The New St. George” feel like marching songs for a new Levellers movement, tho without the millennial optimism of those early proto-communists. “Twisted,” “Nobody’s Wedding,” & “Cold Feet” are drinking songs whose Python-like humor conceals a pathos as dark as that of any George Jones tune.

Most memorable of all, perhaps, are a quartet of ballads: “The Poor Ditching Boy” is echt 19th-century self-pity, while “Shaky Nancy” – as TS Eliot said of Guido the younger in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood – haunts one’s imagination. “Painted Ladies” is one of the great sex songs of RT’s considerable sex song repertoire: “Those film stars and beauties may please you tonight / If you go to bed with a book / But they can’t hold a candle to something that trembles / When you need to do more than look.” Best of all is “The Old Changing Way,” its stair-stepping trad chord progression dusted with an incongruously lovely harp; it’s the first (& for my money the best) of Thompson’s string of narrative ballads (cf. “Beeswing” & the crowdpleasing “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”). It’s the story of the itinerant Darby the tinker & his brother Tam, whose fraternal partnership – described in terms that would place them anywhere between the 17th and 19th century (“We’ll fix up your kettles / Please dear Missus / We’ll sharpen your knives”) – is broken by the forces of economic change, precipitating them into the “spikes and brothels” of the 20th century.

RT’s Strat is at times scarcely audible on Henry the Human Fly – the only points where he really stretches out are the traditional tunes in “Roll Over Vaughn Williams” & the stinging solo of “The Angels Took My Racehorse Away.” The big workouts like the modal intro to “Calvary Cross” and the long ending of “Night Comes In” would come later. But in Henry, one sees all the elements in place that would distinguish Thompson as the single greatest figure on the folk-rock scene for at least the next 3 decades.
The doctor gave me a cleanish bill of health yesterday, so I suppose I’m recovered just in time for the maelstrom of activity that surrounds the holidays. We’re Florida-bound this time around – bound to stay in Florida, not bound for Florida – except for a flying visit on my part to Philadelphia for the MLA. Not a prospect I’m looking forward to.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Light Reading

I’m by no means on my deathbed, but I’ve been operating at a lot less than 100%, that’s for sure. Reading, as I noted, has become somewhat spotty, less directed: while I had in mind a goodly chunk of Milton & Joyce criticism to down over the past week, instead I lazed my way thru pages of Ron Johnson, Alan Halsey, WS Graham, Dhalgren, Claire Tomalin’s Pepys, & a big sheaf of children’s (“young person’s”) books. J, mind you, is something of a connoisseur of the stuff, & even if we didn’t have kids she’d still own every single book she ever acquired during her childhood, & be adding to her collection continually. (Having kids just gives her the excuse to get it all out of boxes & up on shelves.)

[I have to put in a plug here: we all know that Maurice Sendak is a major American artist & that Richard Scarry is a genius – tho I’m inclined to view Dr. Seuss as somewhat overrated, the Max Ernst of children’s draughtsmen – wonderful ideas, but never executed with quite enough care to make them convincing. But what about PD Eastman? I’m not sure I’ve ever met an Eastman book that I didn’t love – Go, Dog, Go!, Are You My Mother?, Sam and the Firefly, Fish Out of Water. Anyway – enough of the stuff that one reads to please the under-5 crowd…]

PL Travers’s Mary Poppins, I can report, is so much better than the Disney film (& this coming from someone who’s only in the last decade gotten over a certifiable Julie Andrews crush) that it’s not funny. Ms P herself is sterner, stranger – less a nanny that a force of nature, an elemental. Much overlap in some of the episodes here with the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in Wind in the Willows.

The 3 Natalie Babbitt books I read – The Search for Delicious, Kneeknock Rise, & Tuck Everlasting – are all beautifully written, fitting subjects for some non-Derridean project on “hauntology” – that is, I find them very hard to get out of my head now that they’ve worked their way in. Not so much the characters, which seem little more than sturdy stock figures, but the situations: the family confronted with the equivocal gift of immortality in Tuck; the village with the secret in Kneeknock; the kingdom disintegrating over semantics in Delicious.

Travers & Babbitt are able, within the compass of books that are at least ostensibly pitched at young readers, to get at some of the deepest things that trouble the reflections of middle-aged readers: aging, death, the ultimate evanescence of human life; the foundations of human community and love; faith and its grounds or lack thereof. They’re doing the sorts of things Phillip Pullman does in His Dark Materials, & which JK Rowling fails so miserably at in Harry Potter.

Absolutely immersive books, tho, that gave me that classic old experience of reading straight thru, losing all track of time, being irritated when I got to the end. Which casts my mind back to that 3- or 4-way discussion bouncing among blogs last week – what seems the dim, pre-penicillin past – over the strenuous pleasures of anti-absorptive poetry. What’s so misguided about setting the energetic pleasure of reading Lyn Hejinian against the rather “easier” pleasure of reading classic fiction – Travers, Babbitt, Pullman, Dickens, Austen, whoever – is that is really is comparing two very different experiences. And without trying to rewrite Wayne Booth & a zillion other fiction critics on how some of the most interesting fiction puts us thru moral & ethical paces in the very process of immersing us in a “vivid, continuous dream,” I’d submit that poetry, by its very formality, by the fact that it’s written in lines (or ostentatiously written not in lines) or in even more complex forms, has already renounced the “suck you in” immersivity that prose fiction can command. So the discussion on pleasure & difficulty we might want to have – & which I might want to contribute to, if I ever reclaim enough lung capacity to think straight – ought to take place on the ground of poetry alone. Fiction (thanks heavens for it!) only muddies the water.
Next time: Deathbed Reading: What to Read in Denver When You’re Almost Dead.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

& the diagnosis is

(drumroll...) the Illness Formerly Known As Walking [or in this case pretty much lying down all the time & shuffling around a little bit] Pneumonia.

Getting lots of unfocussed reading done betweeen bouts of coughing and bouts of napping: Claire Tomalin's splendid Pepys biography; Delany's Dhalgren; everything by Ron Johnson.

Monday, December 11, 2006

And here's

[Man Ray, Marcel Proust on his Deathbed]

how I'm feeling right now, in the grips of some flu-like something or other.

Friday, December 08, 2006

but wait...

Okay, I really should be finishing grading a stack of finals on the synoptic gospels & John – but I can't resist drawing the interested thousands' (or the interested five's) attention to two contributions to this pleasure/difficultly discussion. First, a beautifully-turned paragraph from Eric in re/ the notion of an "ethical" element to anti-absorptive writing:
Do we really mean, perhaps, that certain kinds of literature invite the exercise of certain moral qualities or habits of character, as though we were acting towards something or in a context that really mattered, morally speaking? They allow or invite us to cultivate patience, curiosity, a taste for ambiguity, all the values of what used to be called a "liberal" education? They beseech us, in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible we may be mistaken? (To quote the butcher Cromwell, whose cannon, Joyce reminds me, were embellished with the slogan "God Is Love.") Mark, Josh, is that what you're getting at, finally?
Then from Robert at a groovy collaborative blog called "Of Looking at a Blackbird":
I can’t help feeling that criticism of immersion conceals a fear of immersing oneself in life itself, a fear of commitment. Not to mention fear of sexuality, fear of eros, fear of romance, Harlequin or not. Sure, when you take your kids to the park to play on the swings, it’s good to be meta-aware of all the sociological and class implications of what you’re doing. On the other hand, at a certain point doesn’t all that awareness become an excuse to maintain a safe and ironic distance from your own children?
Mark et al. talk about Roland Barthes’ distinction between the “readerly” and the “writerly,” and that seems exactly to the point: immersive literature is readerly and anti-absorptive is writerly. I wish I could remember what poet I was reading recently who talked about the crucial turning point in his writing that came when he realized he was not even writing the sort of poems he wanted to read. Isn't there something very curious about this fear of the terrible bourgeois corruption that will result if the writer ever dares to get into bed with the reader and share some pleasure? It seems to hide a writer’s contempt for the reader within himself, or within herself, as well as for the readers in the world.
If Eric doesn't make something of this I'll eat my rive-gauche-issue avant-garde beret.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Finally, some pleasure

So as I kinda expected, Bob Archambeau has weighed in on pleasure & difficulty, with a rather detailed (& illustrated) “story thus far” post. Only niggling corrections I’d add would be that the business about anti-absorptive work enabling us better to see the “Other” is Josh, not me – me, I stuck with the “feeling in the bones” business without putting any chips down – yet – on a particular politico-ethical mechanism. And I’m not exactly full-throttledly endorsing the “Difficult = Anti-Absorptive [Chas Bernstein / Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s term, by the way, not Silliman’s] = Ethical.” And while I entirely agree with Bob’s call for “data” – something like the “thick description” I hankered for last post – I think one of the crucial disagreements we might have is over this the business of “difficult for whom.” Bob sez, in response to Eric’s point about his students’ struggles with what seem to us like “immersive” texts, that
something like Language Poetry isn't necessarily "difficult" to its primary readership: other language poets and the profs who swarm around them.
And again, in response to something of Eric’s:
there's the point (implicit, I think, in Eric's piece) that difficulty is something experienced by the reading subject, rather than inherent in the textual object. What's difficult for me may be easy for you, and vice-versa. This goes for all schools of "difficult" poetry. I mean, the formidably difficult works of Modernism have become pretty straightforward to thousands and thousands of readers over time, as we (I fear that is the professorial "we") have internalized the linguistic conventions with which they were written.
I think we're dealing with another slippage in terms here. In re the 1st quotation: Sure, Langpo isn't "difficult" to its primary readership in one sense – that is, we (speaking as someone who's taught Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, John Wilkinson, & Tony Lopez to just deliriously enthusiastic students over the past couple years [irony alert]) may have a few more readerly tricks up our sleeves than readers more accustomed to straightforwardly "immersive" texts, but really the big difference is that LangPo's primary readership just isn't as concerned with issues of coherence & meaning – that it has a certain "negative capability" about the kinds of thematic, narrative, argumentative closure that one encounters in the average New Yorker lyric. We've learned to stop worrying and love the bomb of disjunctive polysemic indeterminacy – but that doesn't make the work itself less disjunctively polysemically indeterminate.

2ndly, in re the longer passage: I think this's true of much modernist writing as well – yes, two generations later. It's just that we've gotten used to the demands of modernist writing, not that it's gotten any simpler or any less "difficult." Try this on your own pulses: Do you honestly feel that "Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose" or The Anathemata have become easy poems? We know a lot more about how to read them, thanks to people like Keith Tuma, Maeera Shreiber, & Thomas Dilworth, but they still require an expenditure of effort that marks them as – well – difficult.
Eric is also back at bat, throwing out ideas like Stephen Hawking with an injection of monkey glands. And I'd respond, but I've got a big stack o' tests a-gradin' like everybody else; what I really wanted to do today was to draw your attention to something that gave me a big burst of pleasure last night – my first dip (ashes on my head!) into W.S. Graham. I have no idea, given my own semi-sentimental-semi-scholarly interest in Scottish lit, and given Tony Lopez (from whom I'd buy a used car any day)'s enthusiastic endorsement, why I haven't gotten around to reading Graham before. This, for instance:

What Is The Language Using Us For? (first poem)

What is the language using us for?
Said Malcom Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

Certain experiences seem to not
Want to go in to language maybe
Because of shame or the reader's shame.
Let us observe Malcolm Mooney.

Let us get through the suburbs and drive
Out further just for fun to see
What he will do. Reader, it does
Not matter. He is only going to be

Myself and for you slightly you
Wanting to be another. He fell
He falls (tenses are everywhere.)
Deep down into a glass jail.

I am in a telephoneless, blue
Green crevasse and I can't get out.
I pay well for my messages
Being hoisted up when you are about.

I suppose you open them under the light
Of midnight of The Dancing Men.
The point is would you ever want
To be down here on the freezing line

Reading the words that steam out
Against the ice? Anyhow draw
This folded message up between
The leaning prisms from me below.

Slowly over the white language
Comes Malcolm Mooney the saviour.
My left leg has no feeling.
What is the language using us for?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Adam’s McRib

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.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Make Mine Spicy, Please

Two of my favorite blogspherians, Josh Corey & Eric Selinger, have started a discussion on an old subject – pleasure & difficulty in one’s reading material. (So open a new browser window here and here.) Josh contrasts the “absorptive” or “immersive” pleasure of your average well-written novel (the “vivid continuous dream” evoked by John Gardner) with the more thorny pleasures offered by “anti-absorptive” poetry – writing in which the language does not “disappear” from the page, to be replaced by an evoked or described world – writing, in short, that foregrounds its own materiality as language, that won’t let us forget that we’re after all reading. Josh:
All this is antithetical to the pleasures I seek from poetry, or from fiction that foregrounds the language through the beauty or ugliness of its sentences. Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state, and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both. But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens. I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.
Now Eric has much to say in response to this, only some of it scoldy, but all of it sharp. For one thing, he’s anxious to argue (rightly I think) that an “immersive” reading experience by no means precludes being aware of, & paying careful attention to, the texture of the language one’s reading. Maybe one’s toggling back & forth between thinking of Stephen Dedalus as an incorrigible ass & marv’ling at the balance of the periods in which his asininity is presented, but both of those moments are present for me in the same reading experience. And Eric’s also concerned about the notion – which I hear all too often as well – that “immersive” reading is somehow “passive”: “it only feels that way because the skills it takes come so easily to you, have been so naturalized, that you no longer notice you're deploying them!”

This all seems like an old argument to me, if only because I feel like I’ve been batting around some version of it with Eric for 15 years or so now, ever since we were in junior high together (er, well, maybe we were a bit older than that…). It all comes back around to pleasure, it seems, & pleasure gets figured in no more than a couple of ways: as sex (vide Josh’s active/passive & “masochism” business) or as eating (“Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens”). Of course, according to Freud, the latter resolves into the former as one sort of arrested sexual development. But I very much want, following Eric, to call at least a temporary halt to the Freudianizing of readerly pleasure “in order to draw the sort of precise, useful distinctions Josh (and I) are looking for. Any other vocabularies out there for us to draw on?”

Josh, it seems to me, is preaching from the same set of sacred texts that have been batted around in the alt-poetry world for three decades now: the Russian Formalists on poetic language as “defamiliarizing”; Roland Barthes on the distinction between the “readerly” and the “writerly”; Veronica Forrest-Thomson on poetic artifice; and the various LangPo redactions of these scriptures, most notably Ron Silliman’s “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World” and various essays by Chas: Bernstein. Interestingly enough, all of these texts are written by figures who have a state in the success of particular avant-garde literary formations (which is also true of Alban Berg’s student Adorno; why, as a dissenting voice, don’t we hear from Georg Lukacs on realism?).

But what I love about Josh’s post is his sensitivity to the “moral content” of his distinction between the immersive and the anti-absorptive, what I like to think of as the “scold factor” in alt-poetics (cf. “School of Quietude,” passim). It’s understandable why Silliman mercilessly flogs the reader of Peter Benchley in “Disappearance of the Word” – after all, he’s got his own anti-absorptive poetic movement to promote. Now, 30 years after the lean years of LangPo, it’s hard to hear the same rhetoric being deployed – in a poetic landscape where Michael Palmer’s just won a 100K prize and Nate Mackey’s gotten the National Book Award – without sensing some puritanical defensiveness – of which Josh is keenly aware.

The question, that is, is why ought I to prefer "anti-absorptive" texts to "immersive" ones? It's in the "ought" that the rub resides, no? for the question of why do I prefer such texts to other sorts of texts ends up boiling down to either a question of biographical taste (Adorno's dreaded "culinary" approach to art) (eg I like late modernist poetry because I have a disposition, nurtured on bales of densely detailed Richard Scarry books and crossword puzzles and so forth, towards the complex and open-ended), or to a Bourdieuesquely-mapped position within the field of production, consumption, & distinction (which, if you're deeply committed to poetry, is a pretty depressing perspective from which to view matters).

The deus ex machina here is to invoke a political or (which often boils down to the same thing) moral argument: that anti-absorptive work is somehow better for you, or that it somehow works to change the world (not immediately, not directly, not vulgar-Marxistly) by altering the way you or your readers conceive the world.

In my bones I believe that these arguments are more or less right, tho I have yet to see them stated in a way that I find more than temporarily convincing. I want to believe wholeheartedly, but I'm still skeptical. And it does ultimately come around to the issue of pleasure: what I want is a convincing account of the pleasure of what's difficult – perhaps analogous to the pleasure I take in a 100-proof habañero sauce on top of a plate of black beans & rice, a pleasure that involves two minutes of searing pain & buckets of sweat – an account that won't (disregard that last analogy) fall back upon the culinary, try to convince me that reading My Life is like a good bout of S/M, or preach to me about the virtues of asceticism like the aged Scottish Covenanter penguin in Happy Feet.