I jumped into Seth Abramson’s attempt to formulate new terms for what he sees as distinct types of poetry in the current American litscape—alternatives to “School of Quietude” and “Post-Avant,” the numbing dualism favored by so-called language poet Ron Silliman. Here’s what I wrote to Seth, which will make little sense unless you read his original post:
I applaud the impulse to the jettison “SoQ” and “Post-Avant” because, as you say, they describe nothing in particular except the prejudices of the writer who uses them. That said, I’m confused a bit by your own terms.
“Pragmatics,” as I understand it, studies how the relationship between utterance and context creates meanings for the speaker and listener that do not exist strictly in the utterance itself. “Syntactics” is (according to Merriam-Webster) “a branch of semiotics that deals with the formal relations between signs or expressions in abstraction from their signification and their interpreters.” “Cognitive semantics” is the broadest of the three, and simply (!?) assumes that speech arises from cognition but also influences the nature of cognition [imagine here pages of illustration]. If any of this is in the ballpark, I have to wonder how in the world you intend to use these terms descriptively of particular kinds of poetry, or certain poets, or individual poems. And even if you could—so what?
My personal objection to SoQ, Post-Avant, Conceptualism, Flarf and all the rest is that they are distinctions driven by theory, and that experience always, always, always trumps theory. The infantile attachment to theory that drives people like Silliman to count not only how many poets can dance on the head of a pin but to assert which poets and which pins are legitimate to dance on is a form of mania. Who does it serve? Not poets, and certainly not normal (that is, non-theory-obsessed) readers.
In fact, the mania seems to exist for no other reason than to make the maniacs feel good about their asylum, where they get three squares a day, soothing music in the game room, and a periodic injections of theory to keep them from addressing the raging, very real world outside the asylum walls. You know—that place where all the readers live.
I realize it’s contradictory to engage in a discussion only to dismiss the value of that discussion, and a self-inquiry into my own motives leads me to wonder why I don’t just avoid these debates altogether. Am I really opposed to Theory itself? Or am I opposed to the theories abroad at the moment? After all, whenever Bill Knott holds forth on kinds of poetry (see examples here and here), I read him excitedly—whether or not I agree with his terms.
What’s the difference?
I stumbled on the answer to that question in Lewis Mumford‘s study of Herman Melville’s life and thought. In considering the negative critical reception of Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick, Mumford observes:
[T]his book is a challenge and affront to all the habits of mind that typically prevailed in the nineteenth century, and still remain, almost unabated, among us: it comes out of a different world, and presupposes, for its acceptance, a more integrated life and consciousness than we have known or experienced, for the most part, these last three centuries. Moby-Dick is not Victorian; it is not Elizabethan; it is, rather, prophetic of another quality of life which Melville had experienced and had a fuller vision of in his own time—a quality that may again come into the world, when we seek to pass beyond the harassed specialisms which still hold and preoccupy so many of us [italics mine].
Mumford’s book was published in 1929, and 80 years later our preoccupation with “harrassed specialisms” is deeper and more entrenched than ever. We see this in the faux scholasticism of Silliman’s post concerning his choice of Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems for the 2008 William Carlos Williams Award; we see it in this interview with the leadingtheoretician of Conceptual Poetry; and we see it in Seth Abramson’s evident desire to anchor his categories of poetry in linguistic theory.
Mumford’s observation—and the salutary experience of rereading Moby-Dick over the past few weeks—has made me realize that American poetry isn’t being vitiated by Theory per se, but by the meanness of the theories that dominate the intellectual lives of poets—the majority of whom, let’s be honest, begin reaching an audience only after their sensibilities have been sieved through the trivializing ideas of the French mafia (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault), the dubious “discoveries” of Wittgenstein and McLuhan, and the pseudo-intellectualism of UbuWeb founding editor Kenneth Goldsmith, whose Wizard of Oz phoniness even the credulous Silliman has managed to avoid being conned by.
Where are the large younger poets (under 40, let’s say)? The ones whose work thrives not on harrassed specialisms but on the deeper currents of contemporary experience? I’ll float some ideas on this subject in future posts—but I’m sure readers of this blog have suggestions of their own. If you do, please share—with links, as available.
Let’s consider this sharing to be one productive way of dissenting from “the debate”….