Thursday, March 13, 2003

Matthew Zapruder & Noah Eli Gordon both sent in lengthy & thoughtful responses to their exchange previously on this blog. John Erhardt, who calls his own blog The Skeptic with good reason, adds his own perspective, calling me on my use of the University of Massachusetts as a metonym for a larger phenomenon. I’m going to let everyone have their say today. I’ll respond to one key point tomorrow.


First, Matthew Zapruder:


Dear Mr. Silliman,


I'm glad this discussion is happening, I think it's worth talking about on many levels. So this is just to briefly clarify, in order to further focus on what I think are the real issues here.


Calling some poetry "difficult" is NOT necessarily to say that it is "thereby excludable." I think, on the contrary, that granting that some poems are more difficult on their surface than others is to come part way towards a readership, and an audience, with respect and humility. And thereby to help more difficult poetry, and poets, gain a wider appreciation.


Sure, "difficult" CAN mean "excludable," and often does. And that stinks. And we should all struggle against that. But "difficult," or "dense," or "abstract," can also just mean those things. And someone can, in good faith, use those adjectives to describe a poem without inevitably exercising a value judgment. I know I often do.


Are Ashbery's "Leaving Atocha Station," or Mina Loy, or Shakespeare's sonnets for that matter, as easily apprehendible on first reading as let's say Philip Larkin or Charles Simic? I'm not talking about the further and endless levels of complexity in a good poem, regardless of its surface. Just its surface. A poem does have a surface, doesn't it?


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.


By making that distinction, and behaving accordingly, they should not be inevitably tarred with the brush of those who are "dumbing down density," or who "argue always against social change and for a traditionalism whose sole justification is inertia." On the contrary.


One can agree or disagree about the judgment the organizers made about Noah's poem. I guess I just don't think it's true that the only conclusion one can draw from someone who thinks that Noah's poem was too difficult for that situation is that they believe that the audience is "functionally illiterate." That seems too extreme. After all, on first hearing, "Will Sacajawea haul her child/out of the prison of our new coin// Will she still point toward the river" is perfectly clear linguistically, but not necessarily in any way clear thematically. One might, in good faith, say, "huh? Why did he just say that?"


Which is a great thing to ask people to say, really, most of the time. But maybe not all the time, in all situations. It's just a matter of degree. And the organizers were making a good faith judgment, drawing the line in this particular situation where they think it belongs.


However, if you don't think that the distinction between more or less complicated poetry has any meaning, then of course the only possible conclusion is that the organizers are malicious policers of the aesthetics of dissent, or cretinous victims of their own preconceptions about what poetry can do.


My final word is the following: hammering people who are trying to organize a war protest over a borderline judgment call about a poem that, let's face it, is not exactly "The Broken Tower," seems plain old selfish and self-absorbed. All in all, it just seems like the best thing given the horrifying and helpless situation we find ourselves in -- on the verge of being implicated in a totally unjust, hegemonic, and plain old unbearably stupid and risky war, by people whose attitude about human life is hopelessly cavalier, and whose use of language undermines the fabric of our national agreement about who we are when we are at our best -- would be to put aside our own egos, and our own tendencies to obfuscate and divert the issues (which is what the government does so horribly well), and instead to do everything we can to stop it.



From Noah Eli Gordon:


Dear Ron Silliman,


Matthew Zapruder’s recent letter entirely misses the point of my correspondence, and, regretfully, in it’s vehement assertion of my intention as self-promotion and thus self-righteousness, completely recasts the discussion until, as you remarked, his argument “more or less dissolves into smoke.”  Some of that smoke nonetheless needs addressing, if only to insure that it doesn’t mask any still smoldering embers.


I want to briefly address the three parts to Zapruder’s stated motivation behind his letter, which are, in my mind, collectively emblematic of the “erasure” of what you call the “post-avant community”—and all the more problematic as Zapruder is the publisher of Verse Press, which is quickly becoming one of the more important and influential new small press ventures.


What prompted my initial email was the desire to further a dialogue on precisely the phrase which was so troubling to Zapruder, the aesthetics of dissent. The forum section from the latest issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter featured 12 poets responding to the following:


From Ron Silliman’s blog: “There has…been a depoliticization of younger people generally & that has impacted poets…You see the long-term result in a lot of writing these days that is simultaneously politically correct and depoliticized, a politics really of cynicism and disgust. So this also becomes an incentive not to organize, not to write critically.”


From an interview with Lyn Hejinian and Bob Perelman conducted by Eric Lorberer in Rain Taxi: “Lyn Hejinian: What tends now to get identified as Language Writing is identified as such on the basis of surface characteristics, surface features—things that mark the poem as ‘experimental.’ But for us there were broader motivations for using those devices than mere aestheticism… I think poets in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties now do not have a comparable [ to the Vietnam War and the 196os counter culture] historical moment… Also I think younger people are unable to sustain utopian visions—they don’t consider them to be tenable.”


Do you agree with these characterizations? What is your own sense of the writing/situation/outlook of the younger generation(s) vis-à-vis politics?


What followed this was an interesting, albeit somewhat loaded debate, as Hejinian’s comments were made prior to September 11th, and its continued aftermath, which obviously helped to codify a new historical moment, if one frames historical moments as stemming from a locus of opposition. One of the responses that I found most compelling was from Michael Magee who began by evoking Williams’ introduction to The Wedge, published in 1944 (there’s a historical moment for you!) which begins:


The war is the first and only thing in the world today.


The arts generally are not, nor is this writing a diversion from that for relief, a turning away. It is the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field.


Magee goes on to write, “The state has always attempted to co-opt the language of dissent and so de-fang it, and the democratic-capitalist state (yes, I know) does it better than any other because it can couch the very act of co-optation as either ‘dialogue’ or as a marketing of a revolutionary new product (cool).” 


So the idea of what marks dissent as such, of how one is able to articulate dissent was very much on my mind. I attended and participated in a Poets Against the War reading on February 12th in Northampton ( where I DID read someone else’s poem, section 20 of George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” ) and, ironically, left feeling exactly the “one part amazed, and one part appalled” of Zapruder’s reaction to my email. In fact, for pretty much the same reason he brings up as the first example of the impetus behind his email; I found the “hypocrisy and self-righteousness really annoying.” But where Zapruder was referring to the context for my questioning of aesthetics, I merely mean the aesthetic framework within which the majority of the readers for that particular evening were working.


And just as Zapruder writes, “The fact that Noah decided not only not to read another poem, but not even to attend [the March 5th reading], makes his whole motivation more than a little suspect. I don’t want to sound crude, but what’s more important to Noah: Noah’s poem, or protesting the war?” I too felt a similar uncertainty behind the entire event (of February 12th); the utterly solipsistic nature of most of the poetry read that evening was hard for me to stomach, but I realize it’s a question of…(drum roll)…the aesthetics of dissent. I left that evening feeling quite torn, questioning, as Zapruder pointed out, the effectiveness of preaching to the converted here in what some call the Happy Valley.


Personally, I’ve got a lot of unresolved conflicts brewing, not only as to what the merits of political poetry are, but also as to how one defines a poem as political. Not to belabor the point, but the poem of mine included in my original email was written over three years ago, and represents an aesthetic stance I’ve moved away from, which, admittedly, as Zapruder writes, “seems to treat the whole war as a personal problem for the poet,” regardless of the fact that the “war” in that particular poem is the Cold War.


I think Michael Palmer’s comments in a recent interview with Daniel Kane help to clarify the discussion:


DK: …How do you see your writing as a “critique” of power if, as I suspect, poetry in the Untied States appeals to a relatively limited, privileged audience? I ask you this especially because the polyvocal, non-narrative language you employ is not used as a “clear” political rhetoric of a Malcolm X or, from a literary perspective, the Marxist-informed writing of Amiri Baraka.


MP: A poetry of instrumental rhetoric, such as some of Baraka’s, or some of Neruda’s, or some of Hikmet’s and Cesaire’s, or some of Mayakovsky’s, or some of Ginsberg’s and Rich’s, aims to incite action. It is directed outward, and is direct rather than indirect (though exactly how direct might be worth exploring in detail). It speaks for an imagined many, with whom the author identifies in terms of utopian aspirations. It is the poetry we properly think of first when considering explicitly political verse. However, poetry of critique, and critique of power, exits in many forms. Anna Akhmatova refusal to efface her erotic subjectivity was a real enough critique to draw significant attention and concern from Stalin, in a nation where poetry was known very much to matter. The complexly visceral lyric experiments of Vallejo must be read within the tumultuous field of his political consciousness. When Robert Creeley read his intensely personal and innovative lyrics at large political demonstrations against the Vietnam War, we felt their appropriateness alongside more public verse.


To understand the resistant effects of poetry, it is probably most convenient to consider those totalitarian societies where it is prohibited or strictly controlled, and many have done so. Yet we must look inward too, toward the censorship of the marketplace, fully supported by our supine media, for regulation and surveillance of poetry within our culture. To cite a ludicrously blatant example, we have only to turn to The New York Times Book Review where, on the rare occasions it does review poetry, only the blandest of pap receives a “safe for consumption” label. It  is not really so far from the robotic and shamelessly simplistic speech of our 43rd President, the one who was not elected, the one who is a poetry-free zone unto himself, and who would seem, at least initially, to have a free hand to direct our response to the monstrous crimes of the 11th. I fear that no terrorist could wish for more, but I deeply hope I will be proven wrong, just as I hope that the flag will not be manipulated as it has been in the past to sanction anti-constitutional measures and the murderous abuse of force.


Poetry in the United States, as in many cultures, does have a limited audience, but it is not exclusively a privileged one. I recently read, for example, that per capita reading and purchase of poetry books is highest in the African-American community. My own certain experience is that, while the majority of critical writing about poetry comes as you would expect from academically trained individuals, the actual audience is considerably more diverse than that would imply. I think that an audience is drawn to the space of poetry for the way in which words may operate, and images circulate, so as to offer an alternative to discourse as usual and to thought as usual, an alternative to the learned logic of our daily duties and negotiations. That role for poetry, and it is one of critique among many other things, is as old as the art and the polis both; yet it is only sustainable through the radical renewal of that art. If poetry too tests the limits of the imagination or the imaginable, it is in service to the expansion of thought, rather than its annihilation. It is that place where plain speech and strange speech intermingle, in order to exact a question.


And it is precisely in the opportunity (or lack thereof) to “offer an alternative to discourse as usual” where I felt taken aback by the organizers’ aesthetic stance, as the alternative to said discourse covered the narrow range you pointed out between “formalists, slam poets, and everyone in between,” a kind of “discourse as usual” in regards to the public expectation of poetry of dissent. Zapruder rhetorically inverts my original correspondence when he mentions his second reason for writing, “Also, when I see a poet self-righteously complain in a public forum about whether his poem was suppressed or not [funny, I thought I was “complaining” about the clarity of what constitutes dissent], under the guise of defending the right of poetry to be able to do whatever it is that he thinks his poems is doing, while bombs are about to fall on Iraq, as a poet I feel embarrassed.” Well, let me return to Williams: “It is the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field.”


I too feel embarrassed, I feel embarrassed that I’m unsure where I stand as a poet, that I’m reluctant to merge the articulation my political beliefs and my current poetic practices, embarrassed that I’m putting time into the writing of this email rather than shouting in the middle of Main Street. But this is what I do. Tinker in the dark.


The third reason Zapruder supplies is where I see the problem of erasure cropping up.


He writes, “And third, because poets ought not sit with our arms folded pretending that all poetry is equally apprehendable (regardless of difficulty of syntax, or unfamiliarity of imagery, etc.), and that anyone who can’t see that is a cretin. On the contrary it’s our job to try to help educate and prepare our readers for the next new thing.” Holy hyperbole Batman! I was absolutely polite in my email to Sean. In hindsight, yes, it was somewhat condescending of me to refer to him as a “student.” But I hardly implied that he, or anyone else, was a cretin. I’m glad that he and others put in the effort to organize the reading and I think I made that clear in my email. But what I find most problematic about Zapruder’s comment here is the subtle way in which he argues for the oracular role of the poet. If, as Zapruder states, “it’s our job to try to help educate and prepare our readers for the next new thing,” then I am wholly outside of his choice of “our” as the operative pronoun. I don’t feel it’s my job to do anything but write as best as I can, without making hierarchical judgments of my readers, as I’m infinitely more interested in asking questions. 




Noah Eli Gordon 


 Finally, John Erhardt:




<<I’m happy to report that the poem didn’t prove at all difficult for fifth or seventh graders, which only reinforces my thesis about the community at UMass being crippled as literates by the university itself.>>


Your body of evidence for this statement is exactly two emails. Allow me to reciprocate. I've seen a picture of you, and I know that you are bald. I've seen Charles Bernstein read, and I know that he is bald, too. Does that mean I can say, with any certainty, that "all Language poets are bald?" or that "Language poetry makes people bald?" Of course not. You can literally go in any direction if your data consists of only two examples.


You disprove an entire University's literacy by appealing to a single day's visit to your son's junior high. Why such sweeping generalizations? I've gotten used to your version of inductive reasoning and am somewhat prepared for it now, but this is simply foolish. I'm happy that your day of instruction went well, and I'm pleased that the students were able to perform. Maybe "perform" isn't the best word, since that implies they were acting. I'm pleased the students were able to suspend their educations and actually experience poetry. But what does that mean? Nothing. Nothing at all. You admit that you haven't been in a school for 20 years, and so your one example is rather isolated. It's also a tainted sample set since your son attended the school; I think the likelihood that the students WERE "performing" increased when that variable was introduced. I can remember one career day where we hung on every word of a speaker, not because we were interested in sewage treatment and civil engineering, but because the speaker was a friend's father.


<<Considering the disputations here of late concerning poetic difficulty & ant-war readings, it’s worth noting here that I built my own little 30-minute presentation around a reading of the opening section of Ketjak, a text significantly more difficult than anything Noah Eli Gordon was proposing for the UMass reading.>>


Why is this worth noting? Any time one makes a comparison like this, a hierarchy gets created. Here, you are on top and Noah is on the bottom. But since I've been reading your blog since shortly after it appeared, I know that I don't expect you to put yourself anywhere but at the top. Whenever an intellectual discusses intellectualism, they will always place themselves within the circle of acceptability. But as long as we're noting things, I think it's worth noting that this reading wasn't a Umass reading at all; it was at Hampshire College.


If you were a lousy poet this email would have been a lot more fun to write. But I don't think that at all. I know that you are intelligent, and so this post strikes me as particularly curious. I simply cannot see how you would arrive at the conclusion that Umass is populated by "crippled literates." It can't be political, since Umass (and the community) is pretty close to Socialist, and I know of your ties to Radical Society. So I can only conclude that you've GOT to be withholding something, though what that something is, I don't know. I'm guessing you have strong feelings toward workshops in general (as I do), and that Umass proved to be a convenient punching bag at the moment. Whatever this additional evidence is, I would assume it's highly limited. I happen to know both Matthew Zapruder and Noah Gordon, and they are both very intelligent people who love poetry. Your comments make them sound like poetry clowns, which simply isn't the case.


I don't expect you to respond. You must get a hundred emails a day that talk about your blog, and I don't expect special treatment. But I did want to voice my disappointment with today's post. If you've made it this far, I thank you.


John Erhardt