Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Grand Piano, part 1

I’ve survived J’s 5-day absence at the Shakespeare Association, & mirabile dictu I’m some 230 pages into reading proofs. So I need a break, & writing a bit about The Grand Piano Part 1 seems just the thing, tho I doubt I’ll be able to add much to John Latta’s wonderfully detailed notes (not to mention the fact that he’s a whole volume ahead of me now!). John’s done the heavy lifting of close reading & scornful pomposity-lancing, so I can stick my forte, which is hazy generalities.

Norman, it seems, is expecting me to be winding up for a big attack. He writes, in response to my previous wool-gathering,
At last! Scroggins is really going to give us his take on langpo. He's going to survey its strengths and weaknesses, the sociology of its avant-garde position, the implications of its successful bid for academic hegemony, and the ensuing marginalization of other formations equally entitled to being regarded as worthy successors to high modernism. He's going to point out the risks when previously marginalized poets attempt to write their own literary histories, not the least of which is a self-regard bordering on narcissism. Lay on, Scroggins!
Scroggins suppose he should leave all that stuff to folks more comfortable with various -ologies, -isms, & -ations, being himself a bear of very little brain. It’s hard, however, to resist quoting Joe Strummer: “Ev’ry gimmick-hungry yob digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll / Grabs the mike to tell us that he’ll die before he’s sold / But I believe in this and it’s been proven by research / He who fucks nuns will one day join the church.” That, of course, is a pretty much unanswerable summary of the institutional absorption of the subversive margins. (Adorno could probably say something much more lapidary about how the cultural industry can swallow up whatever threatens it, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to skank to.)

It’s of course an old move to point to how many prominent Language Poets (hereafter LPs) have moved into the academy, & how the publishers of choice for their theoretical statements are no longer Roof or Sun & Moon, but U of California P, Northwestern, U of Alabama P, & U of Chicago P (note snazzy MLA-style abbreviations). Or how Wesleyan UP, back in the 70s & 80s neck in neck with Pitt for the title of most tepid poetry series, has become almost a house press for various LP types. Those data in themselves mean very little in a grander scheme of cultural capital – that is, we’re still talking about print runs in the neighborhood of 1000 copies or fewer. And it assumes that there’s an identity between the academy – as in ‘academic hegemony’ – and the ‘inside’ from which the LPs were in those heady days of the 80s considered themselves ‘outside.’ I don’t think that’s the case: what the LPs attacked with some regularity (despite occasional sallies like Ron Silliman’s review of Barry Ahearn’s book on “A”, “Why the MLA Can’t Read”) was not the academy per se, but MFA programs, the culture of MFA poetry, & the poetry published by trade houses & large-circulation periodicals.

The “self-regard bordering on narcissism” Norman identifies (an identification which I’m not sure I entirely endorse) might be more closely defined as a desire, even as the group has moved closer to certain sources of power & influence (& let’s be realistic here: the big money & big circulation firesources – the NEA, the Guggenheim foundation, the Poetry foundation – are still entirely closed off to alt-poetry), to retain a stance of opposition & subversion. True enough, but it’s a trifle too facile to attack the LPs for this. While a rigid purist might attack Derrida, Foucault, Jameson, Said, or Spivak for holding faculty positions at elite institutions, one can’t deny that they were/are able to exercise considerable subversive force from those bully pulpits. Would Foucault have accomplished more by throwing over teaching & writing altogether & taking up leaflet-distributing?

What I sense irks Norman is that many of the LPs most definitely do not promote a “big tent” picture of the avant-garde – that there are sheep & goats in the pastures they survey, & it’s not just “School of Quietude” that gets goatishly dismissed, but alternative varieties of alt-poetry – the visionary works of Ron Johnson & Robert Duncan, the so-called “analytic lyric” of Aaron Shurin, Benjamin Hollander, Norma Cole, etc., the short-lived “Apex of the M” phenomenon. One can, I suppose, fault the LPs for a certain puritanism, a sense that theirs is the only alt-poetry that matters, & that certainly shades into a kind of self-group-centeredness. (I recently heard a couple of prominents LPs dismissing “analytic lyric” – which a more accurate genealogy of alt-poetry would classify as a particular development of the poetics of Duncan, Spicer, & others – as a reaction-formation against 1980s Bay Area Language.)

But I’m inclined to allow a measure of narcissism to The Grand Piano. After all, to write autobiography, even “collective” autobiography, one needs a healthy dose of self-regard. And frankly I’m rather intrigued by the notion of these 10 poets chronicling their early years in this shifting, polyvocal fashion. They’ve repeatedly argued for collectivity in creative endeavors, and they’re putting their money where their (collective) mouths have been.

What surprised me most reading the first installment of The Grand Piano, however, was precisely how little space was given over to assertions of the innovativeness, the subversiveness, the sheer importance of Language writing. Perhaps one can credit Bob Perelman, who has always struck me – & everyone else who’s known him whom I’ve spoken to – as a singularly sweet human being. Perelman, by some roll of the dice or a cutting of the deck or whatever aleatorical means, got to write the tone-setting first segment of this installment, and he chose to write about of all things love.

That I suspect went a long way towards defusing the Mr Roboto theory-massage to which many of his coauthors have subjected their readers in the past. They can react against Perelman’s speculation about how the “desire” texts of his youth have given way to the “love” texts of his fatherhood – “Love, as the end of a poetic tradition at least in America,” Barrett Watten writes, “is authoritarian”; Carla Harryman claims that “The theme of love is subject to proprietary claims within poetry’s patrimony”; Ron Silliman begins his entry to detailing his father’s infidelities; Kit Robinson tells us that “According to Viktor Shklovsky, in order to write about love one must write about everything not about love” (& proceeds to do so) – or they play other, more positive variations on the theme: Lyn Hejinian tells us with admirable straightforwardness that “we were undertaking it for love” ; and Ted Pearson tells us, with Jamesian convolutions, that poetry is an “art, without embarassment or equivocation, I love, and loved then, as I also love, without conflation, its makers as makers of this art I love, that is, in the absence of any dispositive claims of filiation.” (Okay, read that one again, a trifle more slowly…) One contemplates with a shudder what the first segment of The Grand Piano might have read like if its opening had fallen to someone who chose to write about revolution, or disjunction.

The poets of The Grand Piano – and let’s name them, just for the record: Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, & Ted Pearson – write indeed with a sense of self-importance and historical moment, a sense that’s liable to rub one the wrong way. But I’d note a couple of things:

•For the most part these poets – as one would hope – write rather well here; there is little in the way of what Bunting called the “see-here,” the theoretico-parodoxial flourish or the obdurately unreadable but achingly important. Instead, by whatever collective process they’ve managed to produce a various & actually pretty obsessively readable set of meditations on what they were up to 30 years ago. It’s doesn’t have a hell of a lot in the way of lightness or wit or literary anecdote – cf. Lewis’s Blasting & Bombardiering for that – but then again it’s nowhere near as ponderous as Biographia Literaria.

•And self-importance is an index, in the end, of ambition; & I for one prefer the writing of poets of high ambition (whether misplaced or not) to that of those who’ll settle for a workmanlike minority. Philip Larkin, I’m convinced, never thought of himself as anything more than a minor poet, & he succeeded brilliantly in never becoming more than that. (Bunting, despite bestowing upon himself one of the best epitaphs ever – “minor poet, not conspicuously dishonest” – was just kidding: he knew how good he was.) If these 10 poets write with an air of self-importance, it’s at least in part justified: all 10 of them, 3 decades later, are still active & evolving writers. I’ve read work by all of these poets that I’ve found compelling; at least half of them have written books very important to me.

Whether we take the “Language” movement as a moment in these poets’ collective past or a still-active tendency in contemporary writing, the proof of the pudding is after all in the reading, & I for one am hankering for the next installment of The Grand Piano.


Norman Finkelstein said...

Given the controversy currently raging around the "other" Norman Finkelstein (see this morning's NY Times for the latest), I probably shouldn't be posting or showing my digital face at all for awhile. But I did want to say that I may have gone off half-cocked in response to your last post, Mark, and I apologize for any crankiness. Then again, it did elicit your splendid and nuanced response, so I am grateful for that and maybe glad I gave you a little nudge.

A few considerations: "What I sense irks Norman is that many of the LPs most definitely do not promote a “big tent” picture of the avant-garde – that there are sheep & goats in the pastures they survey, & it’s not just “School of Quietude” that gets goatishly dismissed, but alternative varieties of alt-poetry..." Yes, absolutely. One case in point, since his work is much on my mind lately: Michael Heller, with his deep roots in Objectivism and contemporary philosophy, his remarkable critical instincts, his thoughtful, supple, passionate poetry, which seems to obviate the klutzy distinctions we tend to make when issues of affiliation and style get addressed. Or consider how William Bronk continually falls throught the canonical cracks.

Yes, it's true, alt-poetry however defined is still not getting the grants and "mainstream" plaudits, with rare exceptions (like Nate Mackey's recent win). And yes, narcissism or self-regard is perhaps a necessary corollary to high ambition, having a cultural impact, etc., and I can't argue with that. Besides, in the interest of full disclosure, I have written autobiographically about my literary past on a number of occasions (and since I mentioned Mike Heller, consider his splendid memoir Living Root). We all try to shape history, however portentous that sounds. But as you imply, in the end, it's the poetry that counts.

Curtis Faville said...

I think I'll take the opportunity here to post my position regarding the Grand Piano's grand pretentions. I hope it doesn't seem too out of place.

The fundamental fallacy of the Grand Piano's primary thesis--which I take to be the purpose of a "joint autobiography" about an artistic movement--is that autobiography is by its very nature a complex set of deceptions (some of them unconscious, some deliberate and self-serving). Therefore, each "take" on a vague "event" or "period" based on the presumed value of that enterprise will be in effect a necessary justification, not just of individual ego, but of the enterprise whole.

Must we accept a priori the literary importance of the "Language" phenomenon in order to appreciate what Grand Piano purports to be? Certainly there have been other movements and other manifestoes and other witnesses. Why, for instance, don't we have autobiographical excursions from Black Mountain? Or the "New York School"? With a few notable exceptions--i.e., Dawson's Black Mountain Book, which is clearly no more than a kind of tone poem evocation of the "spirit" of a place and time--none of the participants--Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Dorn, Oppenheimer, Jonathan Williams--ever felt compelled to chronicle in detail the magic of the original convocation. Could it be that they understood that such autobiographical excursions violate a primary tenet of literary taste? That such indulgence cannot justify itself except as fictionalized narcissism? Hard to say.

The unstated implication, of course, is that the synergistic value of "social" interaction now justifies what it produced, or, conversely, we are (expected) to be fascinated to find out how such important texts were facilitated in the first place.

The individual pieces--taken singly and without the pretention of their inclusion--have interest despite whatever purpose they're intended to serve. They are individual history, they are homages to friends and memory, they are formal reflections. As such, their "exclusivity" falls apart, since it only stands if the premise is accepted: I.e., what we did was important because of who we are NOW. We couldn't care less what two poets of small matter said or did to or with each other 40 or 80 or 150 years ago, unless the texts support such curiosity. It's an arrogant presumption to believe that what happened to you should be of general interest, unless your experience was in itself salutary or exotic, i.e., an adventure, an illumination, a powerful event.

Straight autobiography offered as a criticism of conduct is a well-established tradition. Autobiography offered as high adventure or witness also has a colorful history. "Joint" autobiography is a much greater gamble, since it risks disjunction, lack of verifiability, inconsistency, uncoordination, and sheer ennui.

As readers, we have every right to inquire as to the potential fruits of such an endeavor. Are we to entertain a vicarious curiosity, as with celebrity? Are we to be on the look-out for correspondences between life and art? Are we to be instructed on the formation of a successful literary coterie? Or all of these?

I submit that none of the values inherent in autobiography, as a literary form, can be shown to support a collective end. It's a fallacy.

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