Saturday, June 14, 2003
So what do poets from the school of quietude mean when they say that they’re “more traditional,” if in fact their tradition is no longer, & may even be shorter, than that of post-avant poetries? I think that traditional in this sense means this: always already familiar.
What these poetries have in common, with a very few exceptions (virtually all from the vicinity of ellipticism), is consistency of viewpoint, narrative or expository lines that are treated as unproblematic, language that integrates upwards to meta-levels such as character, plot or theme. Most of these poetries are set up to avoid at all costs that which the Russian Formalists called ostranenie & Brecht later characterized as the alienation- or A-effect, the admonition to make it new, make it strange. As Shklovsky put it in Art as Technique back in 1917,
The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
Post-avant poetries, whether happy-go-lucky Actualism, furrowed brow langpo, or the post-Oulipo linguistic pyrotechnics of a Christian Bök, all have this in common. It was true of Emily Dickinson & William Blake & it’s true today of Jim Behrle & Mary Burger. To the school of quietude, however, this approach is virtually the Sign of the Beast.
Thus Daisy Fried characterized post-avant poetics as “anti-coherency” when in fact this tendency has a consistently more rigorous approach to the question of coherence than does its opposite, which simply presumes it.
indicative of a sense that only what is new and experimental (excuse my lack of precision here, but I think the idea is clear enough) can be any good.
Lott’s ability to insert clarity & precision as though they were the opposites of new and experimental is an especially adept touch.
Of Noah Eli Gordon’s exclusion from an anti-war reading in Amherst,
I guess it just comes down to whether or not one is willing to grant that the notion of “difficulty” has any place at all in poetry. That’s an interesting discussion, and one worth having here and elsewhere. But in this particular case, right or wrong, the organizers of that reading in good faith seem to believe in that distinction, and genuinely thought that Noah’s poem was too difficult to work effectively in that situation.
Zapruder’s characterization of the situation is most compelling, precisely because what he finds troubling is exactly that which Shklovsky – whose influence on linguistics through Roman Jacobson &, through Jacobson, the Prague School of Linguistics & later the New School for Social Research, on everything from New Criticism through Structuralism, was profound – identifies as the fundamental dynamic of art. In short, the problem that the organizers’ of that particular reading had with Gordon’s poetry was that it was poetry. They wanted to ensure an experience of something else altogether.
Lott’s conception of poetry as a pure spectrum, with “experimentation” at one end & maybe the old new formalism at the other, is a world without history. His music analogy presumes that one could switch seamlessly between poets the way one might between the jazz of John Zorn, the country music of Dolly Parton, Eminmem’s white boy rap & some arias from Tosca by Placido Domingo. In point of fact, if you really appreciate David Pavelich’s poetry, the verse of Philip Levine is going to appear bloated & full of posturing, brimming with bad faith & false consciousness. Ray Carver won’t fare a whole lot better, though Bob Hass & Marie Ponsot will. I’ve argued before & will happily do so again that the general aesthetics of the school of quietude are so ass backwards that whenever somebody from that context does write well, they virtually have to be a genius. They really are making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear & all the more power to them for that.
But it has been the school of quietude’s near stranglehold on certain economic institutions, particularly of the small press scene that poses as trade publishing in America, secondarily of a number of the awards programs, finally of all too many university curricula, that transforms these antimodernists from merely being the verse equivalent of the Harlequin novel into something more heavy handed & sinister. The requirement of kitsch that is at the heart of the poetry programs of The Atlantic, the New Yorker, The Nation & like-minded organizations is one thing. But the school of quietude’s insistence that this “part of the spectrum” then be taken seriously reminds me of something far more like the garden party scene in The Manchurian Candidate than anything else. Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is not a good model for a critical reader, but he has the school of quietude routine down pat. The behavior that Ange Mlinko complained of on Thursday, which has been documented so many times that it goes beyond the ridiculous – begin with Jed Rasula’s The American Poetry Wax Museum & proceed to Hank Lazer’s Opposing Poetries, especially vol. one – has all the characteristics of cultural genocide. What is curious is that Lott seems surprised that people have emotions about this sort of behavior.
Finally, the school of quietude claiming any heritage from the likes of Emily Dickinson & Walt Whitman is not merely disingenuous & silly, it raises to the level of consciousness just what these antimodernists would most like to forget – that only period specialists in the academy still read the likes of Whittier, Holmes, Bryant, Sidney Lanier & James Russell Lowell, their real tradition. How exactly do these poets imagine that their fate will be any different?
Labels: School of Quietude
Friday, June 13, 2003
For the past couple of days, ever since I got Chris Lott’s email, I’ve been drafting & redrafting a response. I haven’t been happy with any of them.
I’m not unsympathetic with Lott’s quandary. Certainly not by comparison with Ange Mlinko yesterday. It’s apparent to anybody who reads Lott’s blog that he’s serious, well intentioned & open to a wider than usual range of writing. I believe him completely when he writes that
it is downright disheartening to feel as if that which one loves is not just being supplemented by another kind of beauty, but being downright beset as a relic of tradition that is holding the art back.
Lott’s desire for a
completely ecumenical approach to poetry in which one might read David
Pavelich, then Philip Levine, Raymond Carver, then
Yet, now the note of sadness, what has happened is a
peculiar myopia. I say this over and over, but one of the strangest, saddest?,
things that is the result of this wealth is not that it is hard for readers,
but that so few of these poetries talk to each other. So language poets and
Nation language /
Yet there are two aspects of
Lott’s complaint that strike me as troubling. One is its assumption that one
poetry is “more traditional” than another – Lott’s problem being that this is
taken by some post-avant poets as a pejorative. Rereading the same exchange
I’m more intrigued at the
idea that one often gets from school of quietude poets that their work also
extends back in American letters to Dickinson or Whitman, when their own poetry
so often appears to have been written at least one century earlier than either
of these masters. One way to fully appreciate just how radical Dickinson is as
a poet, even within the post-avant framework, is to read Michael Magee’s
brilliant ongoing work, My Angie Dickinson, which
appropriates Emily’s forms for a contemporary content. The way I read this work
is that Magee is doing the same sort of “parallelogram” with
So I think there are two things occurring when poets claim that one tendency is “more traditional” than another. The first is a certain amount of obfuscation. School of Quietude poetry is not traditional in the sense of fitting into that heritage, but rather extending from a different literary narrative altogether, one that was for so many decades opposed to precisely such writing: Whittier, Holmes, Bryant, Sidney Lanier & James Russell Lowell, for starters.
“Traditional” in the way it’s used by SoQ poets doesn’t in fact mean working within a tradition. Rather, it’s a stance toward the role of change within art that is most often being staked out by such a term. Change is not easy for anyone but in the SoQ world, it’s positively excruciating. Remember how dramatic the writing of the young Brahmins in the 1950s & ‘60s who revolted – Bly, Merwin, Plath, Rich, in particular – was perceived to have been. Adrienne Rich, for example, chose to publish the title poem of her breakthrough Diving into the Wreck in Clayton Eshleman’s journal Caterpillar, not because Eshleman has ever been considered a paragon of feminist politics, but because the alternatives available to her at the time were so very few.
Case in point: David Ossman, better known these days for his work as part of the Firesign Theatre, published a collection of interviews in 1963 entitled The Sullen Art, taken from a series of WBAI radio interviews he had done in 1960-61. In his introduction, Ossman quotes from Gilbert Sorrentino that “the new poets are not a bunch of illiterate, barbaric, slightly criminal types,” & addresses the issue of the two tendencies in American writing:
It would be unfortunate, however, to consider these writers members of a single “avant-garde” clique. They are two individual and independent to be taken for an organized junta in opposition to what has been variously called “The Academy” and “The Establishment.” Not only have many of them been teachers, but their books, published and in preparation, total some 60 volumes. It is too bad that American poetry today appears to fall into two distinct camps.
Ossman’s gathering of 14 anti-establishmentarians – 13 men
& Denise Levertov – include not only Rexroth, Creeley, Ginsberg, Dorn,
LeRoi Jones, Paul Blackburn,
The idea of
In reality, Bly, Merwin
& the other rebel Brahmins were little more than a reaction formation
created by the excitement of the New American Poetry – their recognition was
that, in order to save the school of quietude, they had to change it. This they
did mostly by importing the verse of the SoQ’s
spiritual & literary cousins from
I said that there were two aspects to Lott’s plahn that bothered me. I’ll get to the other tomorrow.
* Almost as
puzzling today as the presence of Bly, Merwin & Logan in Ossman’s anthology is the absence of any
Labels: School of Quietude
Thursday, June 12, 2003
Ange Mlinko has a response to Chris Lott’s email yesterday.
have often wanted to drop you a note saying how much I liked this or that in
the blog, but the exigencies of new parenthood limit my time on web and email. I
am, however, so outraged by the letter you posted in your blog today that I
have to, well, spew. You know how it is when Republicans maintain a
pseudo-embattled stance in the face of the liberal "elite"? It's not
enough that the school of quietude, the school of
the school of "John
Thanks for letting me rage.
I don’t entirely agree with Ange (maybe it’s because I have appeared in The Paris Review), so I will add my own two cents tomorrow & the next day.
Labels: School of Quietude
Wednesday, June 11, 2003
Chris Lott, who blogs Ruminate, and I traded emails. Here is Chris’ take on things.
Thanks for reminding me. It's been awhile since I looked at your site. I'll post your note on my blog tomorrow. And I may answer that "more traditional" comment later in the week. I actually don't think it's possible for poets to more or less traditional, only to respond to different traditions.
I'd be interested to hear more about being more or less
"traditional." I just posted a note to some friends about your
response to a letter from
I took a pretty typical path for someone my age (early 30's) to learn about reading and writing poetry: introduced to the old masters in high school, immediately took to writing my own poems and stories, went to college and changed majors 100 times on the way to degrees in English Lit and Philosophy, emphasizing "contemporary" poetry in the former and pomo lit theory in the latter. As such, I have had what I guess to be the "school of quietude" inculcated as part of the curriculum.
In this respect, poetry blogs are all that they are supposed to be – were it not for following hints of threads through your site and a number of others in the same constellation, I would remain relatively unaware of a vast swath of poetry and poetics from the last 30 years.
Daisy Fried's letter, and your response, interested me because it seemed to be the clearest articulation yet of where I find myself in relation to a lot of this new work. It also strikes me, reading through a lot of these logs, that there seems to be a lot of vitriol towards that which isn't new and avant-garde. Is this just a natural consequence of feeling slighted by the academy and the teachers who influence so many when it comes to learning what poetry is? Or is it indicative of a sense that only what is new and experimental (excuse my lack of precision here, but I think the idea is clear enough) can be any good? One blogger mentioned Ray Carver and felt compelled to write a parenthetical (get out of my weblog, Raymond Carver) as if he had committed some avant-garde sin by acknowledging someone who simply wrote some good work out of a different tradition.
Whatever club there is that I am catching glimpses of through these weblogs and journals may never want me as a member. I'm not sure I could pass the "anti-tradition" check at the door, as attached as I am to some artists that seem to receive nothing but sneering contempt at the hands of the new elite within. I'm sure there are artists of every stripe who want nothing to do with any work that is outside of their comfort zone – I know I have heard the supposition that some of the poets you write about are willfully obscure, and I have theorized myself about some artists that their finished work is "the beginning of a poem that just needs some time put in to be crafted into something worthwhile" – but then again, I have said the same thing about poems that are as traditional as they come.
I guess it's disconcerting to be jarred out of one's
comfort zone when it comes to the art they love. But it is downright
disheartening to feel as if that which one loves is not just being supplemented
by another kind of beauty, but being downright beset as a relic of tradition
that is holding the art back. I have this same kind of relationship with music.
I'm a lover of a certain era of jazz. But I find myself enamored of many kinds
of music. There are some listeners who are able to cope with that,
and others that feel the same way. But there are some for whom it is not enough
to know what they love, they feel a need to degrade all that which is outside
of that set and in the process denigrate the people who believe otherwise. I
think it should be just fine to love David Pavelich and Philip Levine, or be
moved by the frustration and tension in a Carver poem one minute and admire the
subtle craftsmanship of
If kinds of poetry form a spectrum, I'd like to think that ideally we don't have to fall in any one place. Instead we should be visible as an absorption spectrum is in the physical world – with affinities that can and should fall in many different areas, some singly and delicate, others clustered and strong, but not limited to any one place, time, or type.
Labels: School of Quietude
Tuesday, June 10, 2003
Sometimes a new book, or a book by a new poet, raises all kinds of interesting questions. Even when it’s not a book, but a pack of cards in a translucent envelope.
From Aeschylus to Eugene
O’Neill, the Eumenides, better known as the Furies,
& Lavinia are characters that have turned up again & again. In Michael
Cross’s lime green chap envelope from
A second device carried it even further. Cross physically marks the caesura in each line with a slash (/), creating a subtler version of the disruptive typography that cleaves the seen from the heard than, say, Alice Notley’s use of scare quotes throughout her 1996 The Descent of Alette, but still functions in that same general terrain. Thus, the first card of text in my stack, under the heading of “lavinia,” reads
I still / my hologram
and sheen skin / my caustic
shining / I am miniature
in sun / covered in little
bulbs / a moment
on this bed / of leaves
we are outside / the warmed dark
inside my thighs / is warmth
One of the things the slash does for/to me as a reader is to accentuate the connection of the latter portion of line A with the first segment of line B. Thus at some level my mind hears the text something more like this:
my hologram and sheen skin
my caustic shining
I am miniature in sun
covered in little bulbs
a moment on this bed
of leaves we are outside
the warmed dark inside my thighs
Or possibly with each segment as its own set:
and sheen skin
I am miniature
covered in little
on this bed
we are outside
the warmed dark
inside my thighs
Prosodically at least, it’s a very different poem depending on how you interpret the impact of these marks. This last version is almost Creeley-esque in its enjambments whereas, in the second version,” a unit like “the warmed dark inside my thighs” runs fairly smoothly.
Yet it is clear that the first version, the one on the card itself, is the version Cross intends/intended. So what does it mean to set up some many visual (if not also aural) barriers in the text?
One trend in poetry that has
followed the evolution of free verse has been, at least in English (at least in
American English), a general
shortening of the line. Part of this is
the caesurae starting to blend in with the linebreak, their various effects
conjoining & becoming more supple. You see it
first in Zukofsky & others of his generation who often would read their
works aloud pausing at the end of every second line (whereas Williams’ readings,
like Marianne Moore’s, never reflected any audible correlation to his
linebreaks at all). Creeley really marks the sense of the line break
determining all else more than anyone, even Olson who was more doctrinaire (and
whose poems often sound as tho they’re picking up momentum as the lines get
shorter & shorter – his longest lines are often at the very beginning of
Conversely, I can’t think of any new formalist who is “doing something interesting” with caesurae. Maybe that’s my general lack of reading of the new formalists, but it might also be new formalism’s general disinterest in (gasp!) form. Cross clearly is doing something interesting here. Kasey Mohammad, who reviewed in felt treeling first, calls it “the question of syntactic instability,” but that’s not how I read it. Multiplicity is more like it.
I should note that there are 12 cards in Cross’ set, eight of which have two such sets or poems. Whenever they are paired, eumenides speaks first, lavinia after & the sections appear one atop the other on the card, literally paired. There are, I believe, only two lines in the entire work that do not carry slashes, one from each “speaker.” A number, however, appear to be “half-lines,” with a slash either at the beginning or end – &, when at the beginning, invariably starting well to the right of the margin. Mohammad terms the slash a “virgule,” as it would be if it appeared in a phrase such as either/or, but I don’t this being how the mark operates here, so will stick the more generic slash. After rejecting more pomo alternatives, e.g. wound, barrier, wall, spike.
Since at least
Cross runs the New Brutalism
reading series in
Monday, June 09, 2003
School is out and this blog’s daily hit rate has dropped somewhere around five percent. There went the people who read this because their professor told them they needed to do so. Given that this is the point in the calendar when academics are least likely to think seriously about anything, the Chronicle of Higher Medication certainly chose an inauspicious moment to publish an article on “Scholars Who Blog.” The article in & of itself is predictable enough – it warrants skimming more than a deep read – but it offers some links to critically minded bloggers, as well as interesting statistics on some of the sites it does cover. Of the two sites it points to with scholarly blogrolls, Rhetorica appears to have the most diverse & inclusive list.
Two of the academic blogs in particular caught my eye, in part because both are from Penn, one of the “home” teams here in the Philadelphia region & a school that has treated me well since I moved east in 1995. One of these blogs is Critical Mass by Erin O’Conner, a Victorianist (if that’s a word) in the English Department, while the other is anonymously penned under the title The Invisible Adjunct. Both are exceptionally intelligent & well written, and both spend a lot of energy chronicling & analyzing all the ways in which the feudal institution that is Higher Education is destructive to the lives of the people who try to live & work there. Given the degree to which many of this blog’s readers – & poets generally – live in & around the academy, these blogs & some of their recent links are worth considering.
Two articles worth reading are “So You Want to Go to Grad School?” by Thomas. H. Benton, which also ran in the Chronicle, and John Sutherland’s, “The Silent Scandal” which appeared in The Guardian (which may just well be the finest newspaper in the English language*). Both articles focus on the same general problem – that graduate schools turn out far more “product” than the market can bear. There are today over 300 creative writing programs in the United States, but you know perfectly well that there will not be 300 jobs waiting for creative writing faculty at December’s MLA meat market. And that would still be just one job per school. A study reported on by the BBC even concludes that “Arts Degrees ‘Reduce Earnings’”:
Graduates in these
subjects - including history and English - could expect to make between 2% and
10% less than those who quit education at 18, researchers at
That’s right. A degree in
English or the arts is worth less in
Some other blogs are devoted to tenure track horror stories, such as “My Brooklyn College Tenure Battle” by K.C. Johnson & Bob Uttl’s aptly named “The Worst Years of My Life.” Kevin Walzer is both a new formalist poet as well as a disappointed Ph.D. Only slightly more hopeful is Scott Smallwood’s “The Path to a Ph.D. – and Beyond,” but Smallwood focuses on a top-tier school & virtually every study notes that the difference between the results of the few elite schools and the vast majority is profound. Just to make the point that these issues are not simply the whining of a few malcontents wedded to the culture of victimization, you can find a link to the AAUP’s 2001 study, “Does Collegiality Count?” Which focuses on what may be considered in the tenure decision, although it doesn’t explore fully just how far “collegiality,” which can mean everything from “plays well with others” to brown-nosing to submitting silently to all manner of sexual harassment, might extend. A 1988 article in the Chronicle noted that even then, “Embittered by a Bleak Job Market, Graduate Students Take on the MLA.” Not with much success, however. Finally, if one makes it all the way to tenure track at an elite institution, Stanley Fish – who certainly should know – advises everyone to “Aim Low.” That’s sort of the ultimate commencement address realpolitik.
* Consider The Guardian’s decision to chronicle the
lives of those who died during the war on
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On a happier blogging note,
the story of Salam Pax has taken a
few new unusual turns. First, the semi-anonymous gay architecture student in
Also worth checking out is Radio Sawa, the U.S. propaganda radio network in Iraq.