Thursday, January 25, 2007

 

As you might have gathered from what I wrote Tuesday, reading what William Deresiewicz passed off as literary criticism in The Nation made me furious – if you’re going to be a fraud, at least have style. Fortunately for me, I had an antidote with in my bag on the plane, a copy of a chapbook entitled The Experimental Form and Issues of Accessibility, a series of presentations given at the 2005 AWP conference in Vancouver. Susanne Dyckman moderated the panel, which also included Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover, Rusty Morrison & Jaime Robles, the executive editor of Five Fingers Review, which published the pamphlet under its Woodland Editions imprint. All five contributors get both the tactical and strategic questions at the heart of writing & the result very much feels like down home theory you can use. The contrast with Deresiewicz could not have been greater.

Basically each proceeds by describing a specific project:

Susanne Dyckman combines the work of Kabir, a fifteenth century mystic, with that of Artaud, to identify a third space generated by the juxtaposition

Rusty Morrison writes of grammar sampling techniques that she derives from the work of SF State linguist Francis Christenson & discusses the role of sampling more broadly, and notes the distinction made by philosopher Giorgio Agamben between

1) praxis, from prattein, meaning to do, to masterfully make the thing that one has set out to make by wielding all the skills at one’s disposal, and 2) poesis, from poein, which means to “unveil” the previously unseen, unrealized, and bring it “into presence… from nonbeing into being, thus opening the space for truth.

Morrison writes further that “Central to the exploratory tradition of modernism, now pervasive in our era, is the view that being adept in praxis is indispensable, but it is not enough.” Experimental writing practices empower indeterminacy & even surprise.

Maxine Chernoff contrasts the idea of possibility between one tradition, represented in her talk by Billy Collins, and a second tradition characterized by the work of Lyn Hejinian. She talks at some length about her experience with students at SF State, and then focuses in on, not an experimental work as such, but rather the translations of the work of Frederich Hölderin she is completing with Paul Hoover. The example she gives – it was not presented as such at the panel, but is one of three additions to the printed version here – suggests that what she & Hoover will do for the German poet is not unlike what Clayton Eshleman has accomplished for Vallejo, render him completely accessible in English as a powerful, innovative poet.

Paul Hoover interrogates his techniques and to some degree offers the most historically framed of the pieces here:

Has Charles Bernstein dragged Charles Olson past the tree where Olson dragged Pound?

It’s an interesting question, raising issues that can’t be resolved in the depth of a single panel, and which may, in fact, require a series of responses to more fully explore.

Jaime Robles proceeds from Oulipo, using methods she characterizes as “both an homage and a parody” of the French tricksters. Also looking at the work of Lyn Hejinian – perhaps the single most common thread among these poets – Robles crafts a process which she then uses in collaboration with composer Peter Josheff to create a libretto for female spoken voice, soprano and baritone. The 34-page pamphlet concludes with an excerpt from the score that made me wish (again) that I could read music.

I always try to avoid the term “experimental” when discussing post-avant writing, not just because of implications of the retro scientism in this age of stolen nuclear missiles, genetically modified corn & weaponized anthrax – that by itself is problematic – but because of the insinuation that the writers of an experimental work (e.g., The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, on whose subtitle I was outvoted) don’t really know what they’re doing. That’s the flip side of the same complaint Bob Perelman makes in IFLIFE:

the gestures that Language poetry triumphantly says are still radical are actually super-codified now

which is in fact true (even tho I don’t hear any langpos “triumphantly” making any such claim). With the plausible exception of Rusty Morrison’s grammar sampling, all of the co-authors here are using literary devices that are considerably older than language poetry, some decades older. They aren’t so much “experimental” as they are in the experimental tradition. I know that last phrase will cause a few readers to choke, but since Blake & Baudelaire it is clear that an evolving and expanding community exists, of which these five writers represent certain aspects of the current generation. The value of the devices they employ isn’t that they’re “new,” but rather that they empower indeterminacy and surprise.

In his new commonplace book, Gists, Orts, Shards, Jonathan Greene quotes Ken Kesey on this very point:

The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

Amen to that. This is precisely why pulling words randomly out of a hat, not to mention what Robert Sward once characterized in a review of Clark Coolidge¹ as “verbal hop-scotch,” “a psychedelic outpouring,” and a “trivial piling up of images,” will always have greater immediacy, power and even insight than run-of-the-mill School of Quietude (SoQ) poetry.

Whether you call it mystery, immediacy, ambiguity, surprise or presence, indeterminate immanence serves an important human function. In addition to everything else it does and says, indeterminate immanence always enables us to safely test out our own reactions to the unfamiliar. Unfamiliarity is a major dimension of all important experience – think back to the birth of your first child or losing your virginity (or, for that matter, losing a partner or parent).

The crushing predictability with which the SoQ minimizes ambiguity to sedate experience – complete sentences, conventional narratives, a preference for codified patterns – may make it possible to “discuss” such events, but it does so by sacrificing much capacity to participate in them emotionally. Yet even within the framework of the quietest of the quiet, what makes the writing of one poet – Sylvia Plath, say – more powerful than that of others (say Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton) isn’t that she’s experimental & they’re not, or that she’s a better craftsperson & they’re not. Rather, it’s that she finds ways to say things in terms one had not seen before. What Paul Hoover writes in his piece applies even here:

Innovation prides itself on its strangeness.

Exactly. Now the counter-argument – one that has never persuaded me since it always seems to be a coded defense of conventionality itself, not so much formalist as conformalist – might be that the post-avant tradition trivializes the new by finding it everywhere.

But here, if only the conformalists were legitimate close readers, is the one real weakness in this book. Nowhere is there a proposal that might help explain why some “experiments” work better than others, or to suggest any position other than total acceptance to all modes of the new. It also would not hurt to have included some discussion on the panel of more recent developments in literary form, especially flarf and flash poetics. Certainly, whenever I read the discussion threads of SpiderTangle, Ubuweb or Imitation Poetics, I sense that there must be some perspectives from which my own work might look as sclerotic as that of Edward Hirsch. After all, the contemporary version of Hoover’s assertion just might read

Has Gary Sullivan dragged Charles Bernstein further than Bernstein dragged Charles Olson past the tree where Olson once dragged Ezra Pound?

 

 

¹ In Poetry, March, 1967, p. 410.

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