Sometimes blogging encourages a shoot-from-the-hip mentality that doesn’t serve anyone well. But sometimes the rapid response reflex opens a door — which is what happened for me when I posted a reply to Ron Silliman’s post (do read it: it’s quite entertaining) praising a new anthology edited by Jeff Hilson, entitled The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. Here is my comment:
A friend of mine, an artist, many years ago asserted that anything an artist calls art IS art. (Our wrangling over this, of course, came down to deciding what an “artist” is. We never did untangle that knot.) Now Tim Atkins and Jeff Hilson and Ron Silliman want us to believe that “Sonnet 20” is a sonnet because Atkins calls it one. (Or is it only a “possible sonnet”? Ron’s first comment after quoting the poem isn’t clear on that question. He merely—and hilariously—praise “the text”* because it “stands mute, ironic, self-amused all at once. Its use of reiteration & of slang, the mystery of the capital at the left-hand margin.” Nobody can tart up a pig like Ron can!) There is room for skepticism, I think, and depression, too. It’s disheartening to think that what the post-avant offers vis-à-vis the sonnet is, according to Ron, “84 brilliant physicists attack[ing] the same theoretical problem.” It’s that theory-driven, self-aggrandizing attitude (“brilliant”? give me a break) that makes the post-avant a continual disappointment, and more: a force as effective as right-wing anti-intellectualism in furthering the marginalization poetry in America.
*Chris Offut accurately defines “text” as Ron uses it in the latest issue of Harper’s: “TEXT: A term used by critics to conceal ignorance of precise definitions.”
A couple of days later I received an email from a reader of Ron’s blog who asked a fair question: “Just curious. How do you justify Wittgenstein’s Philosophy as ‘prissy brain-surgeon parsings’?”
Well, I had to reply: the door was open and I walked on through. Here’s what I wrote:
I wish I could claim to be an expert in modern philosophy, but I’m certainly not, though I’ve engaged various writers on what is probably too superficial a level. My interest in philosophy extends only to ideas that seem to illuminate my brief span of life on this planet. I believe I’m alive and on this planet! So when someone like Wittgenstein comes along and tells me I can’t speak about that experience, or that I can but that my doing so is really nothing more than a linguistic game (because language doesn’t refer to anything in the world), I have the urge to tell him Get a life. By that I mean: a) stop confusing your internal thought-experience with your sensual experience of the world, and b) stop deracinating language with the shiny spade of analysis. This is pointless, of course: old Ludwig is dust and his damage has been done.
What is the damage? The author as scriptor. Poetry without readers. Crossword puzzle art. Overly refined wit on shore leave! If I had to name names they’d include Jorie Graham, Charles Bernstein, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, and our beloved Ron Silliman. (Are these names not referential? Come on….) And I can’t resist slipping in an anecdote. Jorie Graham a few months back read in Denver from her dramatically bad new book, and during the question and answer session was asked by an audience member why she had called her selected poems Dream of the Unified Field. The questioner had read the book and could find nothing in it that remotely related to The Unified Field Theory. Her reply was curt: “I don’t remember.” Well, of course. Language is a game; it refers to nothing real in the world of facts, and certainly nothing unreal in the world of theory. One can forget why one borrowed an idea from modern physics because it doesn’t really matter. Thanks, Ludwig!
Let me add that I may well be misreading Wittgenstein, and I know there’s more to him than his linguistic parsings. I just don’t care enough about his work to waste more time with it.
I should also admit that I stole the “prissy brain surgeon” phrase from a review, published many years ago, of John Barth‘s novel Letters. I don’t remember who wrote the review, but I know it wasn’t Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Pace, my children. The curmudgeon hath spoken!