Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Daisy Fried writes to challenge my use of the term conservative to characterize members of the broad literary heritage that I’ve generally been calling the “school of quietude” here on the blog:


It's VERY nice of you to mention me on your BLOG as a person you like to read--you're somebody whose good opinion means a lot. And you're one of a number anti-coherent poets I read with pleasure. [Just trying out "anti-coherent" as a general semi-neologism for language poetry, Ashbery poetry and various offspring. Hmmm....]

Now, I assume by conservative you don't mean politically conservative--though I also realize you perhaps you don't separate politics and poetics much, but still--Dugan (my hero!) is a clearly a red, and Hass is or at least used to be left-liberal, as is Annie F., and Muldoon seems to be pretty left...etc...

So do you think it's automatically conservative to value closure, to be generally accessible in traditional (which is different from conservative) ways, or to not be particularly interested in the opaque signifier? Is it automatically liberal on the other hand, to do the kinds of processes/ practices/writings that are lately called experimental? From other remarks you made on the BLOG I think you would say no, so I'm just curious about your use of the word 'conservative'.

Lucien Freud and Alice Neel were painting bodies all during period when abstract expressionism was the last big innovation, and painting even the slightest bit representationally was a big no-no. But now the general consensus is that they were pretty damn good and innovative. And I don't think it's possible to call them conservative...[well, I don't know anything about Freud's politics; Neel was a member of the Communist part--but I mean their aesthetic is no longer thought to be conservative either, right?] Is there an analogy here?

Also, all this experimental poetry, or lang-po/post-lang-po (and you'll forgive me for throwing around terms in this inexact way) seems deeply academic to me. Which is no indication of its quality one way or the other, but most of the so-called experimentalists are middle-class kids who go to grad school and are taught by people of your generation, if not by you, how to be avant whatever, no? Just like the other middle-class kids who go to the other schools where other kinds of poetry are taught by various generations. Nothing against middle class kids who go to grad school (if I'd gone, and I almost did once, that would have described me too) but it sort of seems against the whole idea of being experimental or radical or anti-mainstream in ones work, to learn how to be those things from a university teacher, doesn't it?

All best,
your fan,

I want to respond to two points. One is my use of the term conservative, the other is the concept of anti-coherency, which Daisy concedes is a neologism she’s just trying on, but which is also an idea that I’ve heard enough times before to understand is a conception that might exist in the world.

I wouldn’t characterize what I call the post-avant traditions, even in their most extreme forms such as vizpo & sound poetry, as anti-coherency. If anything, I think that the very opposite is true, that they form a poetics of a greater coherency, precisely because it must be a coherency earned by & within the writing, not something easily assumed. Too often, bad writing within the school of quietude presumes that simply by positing a narrating persona, coherency will follow. That is precisely the same kind of presumption that lies behind the use of family or workplace as the contextual site for almost all television sitcoms, and to parallel result. If anything, poets of the easy coherency tendencies have it harder, because the idea that the work of the poem has already been done for them is so terribly seductive. Those who can write past this do indeed achieve something worth note. But my experience of most poetry of the easy coherency variety is very much like my experience of most television sitcoms – they’re unwatchable. I’d rather have a root canal than read 30 lines by 98 percent of the poets who simply think they’re coherent when they really aren’t. For me as a reader, the far greater problem is how to find that mysterious two percent who consistently do reward my effort.

It is not that bad poetry cannot be written in the post-avant mode – sign on to the Poetics List for awhile – but that almost all practitioners of post-avant writing have had to confront such questions of form, content, coherency, implication, context, responsibility and any other number of qualities of the poem from scratch. On average, they have had to work much harder and far more thoughtfully than their counterparts on the far side of the genre in almost anything they have written. & when they don’t do their homework, it shows immediately. There may be self-delusion, but there is no hiding allowed for post-avant poets.

I would cite the example of my own poetry as a demonstration of this – I was able to publish in such magazines as Poetry, Tri-Quarterly, Southern Review & Poetry Northwest within three years of starting to write poetry seriously. It was not because I was good, but because it was easy. It was much more difficult to appear in publications of the post-avant tendencies of that time, because such writing demanded so much more of me as a poet.

If I were to define poetry, it is that art of language that demands the most of me, both as a reader and as a writer.

And that seems the appropriate segue to Daisy’s core question:

So do you think it's automatically conservative to value closure, to be generally accessible in traditional (which is different from conservative) ways, or to not be particularly interested in the opaque signifier?

The question of accessibility is a potential problem here. What makes poetry of the schools of quietude “accessible” is only that they have been institutionally ingrained for a century (or, in some ways, far longer), mostly in high school & undergraduate curricula. Having given readings in such venues as streetcorners or the Maximum Security Library at Folsom State Prison, I don’t think there’s anything “inaccessible” about my poetry, even when the audience has had little in the way of formal education or the context of a rich literary heritage. If anything, it is educational malpractice that may make post-avant poetics sometimes seem difficult, not the poetry itself. There is a qualitative difference between asking the reader to use all of their senses to read and being deliberately obscure.

As to the question of tradition, my one response would be whose tradition? It is post-avant writing, I would argue, that more accurately represents the tradition not just of Pound & Williams, Stein & Zukofsky, Stevens & Crane, but also Whitman & Dickinson, Blake, Wordsworth & Coleridge. The schools of quietude represent exactly those counter tendencies within Anglo heritage with whom those poets invariably had to contend. And while there are some important writers who arose out of that other poetics, such as my distant in-law, Mr. Tennyson, I would happily put up my tradition against any other over time.

Ultimately, I use the term conservative as a literal description – not, for example, the way I would describe George W., who would have to move well to the left to become a conservative. I always pick Wendell Berry as my demonstration for what I mean, because in his work conservative & conservation are wedded seamlessly as values – and it is in this sense that he strikes me as a very great poet. Berry is quite conscious – and unapologetic – about his premodernist position and its anti-modern implications. What separates him from approximately 99 percent of his peers along the side of quietude is not only his talent, but also his self-understanding.

Different genres of art respond to changes in time & history in different ways. When Pound, Joyce & Stein were first demonstrating how a poetics might respond to the modern world prior to World War I, Bing Crosby had yet to discover the ways in which the microphone could be used to transform the public art of song. Poetry since that time has changed less than has popular music, in part because the latter, not unlike painting, is artificially accelerated through the influx of capital and the need to continually generate new markets. Lisa Jarnot, Jena Osman & Christian Bök are closer to Pound & Stein, for example, than Marshall Mathers is to Bing Crosby. But the idea of a poetry that characterizes as traditional the idea of writing as if Pound, Stein et al were still 100 years yet into the future cries out for examination. Such a poetics is understandable as a political position – the way Berry treats it – but not really on any other terms. If I try to analyze why poets would thus want to write conservatively, terms like denial and avoidance immediately come to mind.

If I continue my comparison with popular music a little further, I can of course find people who still sing, & even compose, opera. Michael Feinstein & Harry Connick, Jr. continue to perform as though Frank Sinatra & Sammy Davis, Jr. will be sitting at the front table. Every major mode of rock that has come into existence still has some manifestation in the current culture. So forms continue, but as they do their meaning alters profoundly. One could argue, for example, that Eminem is a natural descendent of 1950’s doo-wop culture, given a heavy political twist. But a completely traditional doo-wop group would have a hard time getting a record deal from a major label. Doo-wop, it is worth noting, is historically parallel with Allen Ginsberg & Frank O’Hara – it comes after Robert Lowell.

If there is a counter argument to be made along the lines of my music analogy, it would be constructed around that tradition that used to be called folk music but that now more often goes under the heading of the “singer-songwriter” tradition, a creation not so much of Appalachia as of the Popular Front of the 1930s. Here also, as with Wendell Berry, the music is constructed around a complex of political ideas that are not accidental. I happen to like a number of these ideas*, frankly, which may explain why I do listen to folk music, along with avant-garde jazz, rock, world music & even occasionally opera. But I would note that the folk tradition has changed considerably over the decades and that the Kingston Trio-Limelighter 1950s is a far cry from the O Brother Wherefore Art Thou 2000s. Anybody who proposes to play acoustic Delta blues today is understood exactly as an historic re-enactor of a tradition, not an actual participant. That is exactly the position into which most “traditional” poetry falls, with the notable exception that blues literally began after World War I with the work of people like Charlie Patton. What we are really talking about in the case of poetry is more like Stephen Foster imitations presented as images of contemporary life. Just the sort of thing that Jeff Koons loves to make fun of.

So yes, I would call what you term “traditional” poetry conservative – that’s the positive term, when such poetry & its practitioners understand what they’re about. More of it I fear is simply pathological, which I find the much more disturbing aspect of the troubled school of quietude.

* The commitment to community & human scale in particular. Interestingly, I find these same values in contemporary post-avant jazz, such as in the Rova Saxophone Quartet or the work of Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton et al, but not in commercialized smooth jazz.