Saturday, February 22, 2003

Annie Finch wants to reframe my entire discussion with Rodney Koeneke.

 Dear Ron,

In your response to Rodney Koeneke you accept quickly, though provisionally, the equation of spirituality with the unconscious. But consider that that very equation may be making it more difficult to account for the spirituality evident in much experimental poetry. Goddess spirituality offers one useful alternative model; it is immanent and conscious, not transcendent and unconscious. My own essay "Poetry and the Goddess" explores how the model of immanent spirituality, as opposed to transcendent spirituality, frees language from the need to "say the unsaid" and other models that privilege "transcendent" meanings over actual language. Perhaps the Judeo-Christian spiritual model being assumed in the discussion with Koeneke is causing as many problems as the literary model--or more problems, being even more unquestioned than the literary model.


Finch is certainly right that Koeneke posed the issue in Judeo-Christian terms, but I’m not at all sure that a solution lies in an approach that “frees language from the need to ‘say the unsaid.’” The problem of the apophatic is hardly the exclusive property of just one tradition: if I recall correctly, Alan Davies invoked the idea though not the term within a Zen framework in his piece on “Don’t Know Mind” early in the 1970s. Further, from the perspective of poetry, Viktor Shklovsky’s expansionist model of the artistic process – his concept that art as a collective activity proceeds precisely through incorporating phenomena previously not acknowledged or not thought to be appropriately artistic – privileges the “unsaid” as the source of innovation & vitality. Where would women’s poetics be today had it not emerged out of the terrain of the unsaid?


Thursday, February 20, 2003

The discussion of poetry, the unconscious & spirituality continues to generate interesting responses. Today, Michael McColl invokes the work and thinking of Julia Kristeva.


I've often wondered why more poets have not spoken of the work of Julia Kristeva as influencing or validating their practice. Her account of the way the unconscious disrupts the symbolic order and the "transcendent ego" is persuasive theoretically – if you credit the thought of Freud and Lacan – and provides a model for imaginative writing which ties signification to the body, partly through her account of the "chora," a pre-linguistic yet semiotic order of the drive energies of the body (one example of such order would be the family structure).

With entry into the Symbolic Order - the law, the father, the oedipus complex, etc. – most of the drive energy is bound into these structures but traces of the chora remain inscribed in the body.

"Whether in the realm of metalanguage (mathematics, for example) or literature, what remodels ["tears open" she says earlier in the same paragraph] the symbolic order is always the influx of the semiotic." (from Revolution in Poetic Language).

Perhaps a tendency to keep at a distance whatever seems to emphasize the individual rather than the community (the bourgeois self, or bourgeois individualism, has been heavily critiqued) might account for the relative lack of interest in the part of Kristeva's thought which locates de-stabilization of Order in individual bodily energies.

Kristeva says that "the signifying process joins social revolution" in transgressing boundaries of the "thetic" (stage where hypothetical subject splits off in order to be able to denote an object) and the theological. On a certain level of abstraction, might this connection to the social (or political) would resemble what Language influenced poetries often posit as their political dimension?

Michael McColl

This may (or may not) be “persuasive theoretically,” but my own sense is that the argument carries me away from, rather than toward, poetry & poetics. In that sense, my own reaction to Kristeva’s work is (has always been) rather close to what it is when I read Chomsky’s linguistic writings: that they may be addressing topics of great interest to me, but from a perspective that is at all usable from my own position as practicing poet. I don’t want a “chora” reducible to “drives,” but rather to explore the complex social terrain figured there – in social terms.

However, to continue the analogy, I’ve found both pre-Chomsky linguists, such as Jacobson, and post-Chomsky linguists, such as Lakoff & the cognitive folks generally, to be of considerable value from the perspective of poetry. Maybe the question isn’t Chomsky or Kristeva at all, but simply the fact that I have yet to find the text(s) that connect their respective discourses to my own concerns.


Wednesday, February 19, 2003

“Free association in poetry facilitates connection with others.” So says Nick Piombino. Do Poindexter & Ashcroft know about this?

Dear Ron,

Mrs. Freud, it is said, objected to Sigmund's practice of psychoanalysis and considered it a form of "pornography." A more contemporary form of repugnance – by, say an "innovative" poetry writer – to a psychoanalytic approach finds objections perhaps more to its confessional aspects or focus on the self. In a discussion I had about psychoanalysis with a poet recently she said "Who wouldn't enjoy going to someone just to hear yourself talking about yourself?" The interest on the part of poets in psychoanalysis and related careers appears to be growing. Kimberly Lyons, Joel Lewis and Kim Rosenfield are psychotherapists and John Godfrey is a nurse. There are many others. More than one poet has asked me about the suitability of social work and psychotherapy as careers for a poet and my quick answer is that I feel that it is a very good combination. These professions, like teaching, get you out there working with other people employing language and ideas in a direct fashion which I find helpful in addressing some of the emotional pitfalls of being a poet. But, unlike teaching, you actually have less time to think and worry about whether anyone reads or understands what you are writing or anybody else is writing.

What excited me about the poetry centered around such poets as Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, Ted Berrigan, Frank Kuenstler, Joseph Ceravolo, John Ashbery, John Cage, Alice Notley, David Shapiro, Hannah Weiner, Armand Schwerner, Vito Acconci, and Jackson Mac Low, all of whom I read avidly in the 60's, I found also and more in the circle of poets including you publishing in Barrett Watten's This magazine back in the 70's and a little bit later in the 70's L=A=N=G=U=G=E here. This had everything to do not so much with completely getting away from the personal or confessional in writing but from getting away from doing it in a boring, corny or unproductive way. The central technique Freud advocated in experimenting with the unconscious had to do with free association. Confessional writing per se is not free association but is autobiography which is not at all the same thing. Barrett Watten discusses this in a way that incorporates the associational process itself which may be challenging to some readers but is the most valuable way to discuss this issue, in his book Total Syntax (Southern Illinois, 1985). The typical academic gloss on L=A=N=G=U=G=E writing puts the spotlight on its contribution to social and political philosophy which is apropos, but there is another side that has to do with its origins in German romantic poetics like Novalis and Schlegel, Russian Formalism, psychoanalysis, Dada and surrealism all of which Watten addresses in Total Syntax and elsewhere. In the debate between Andre Breton and Freud, Freud was wrong and probably knew it. Freud was a control freak when it came to his world wide movement, as leaders often are, until they learn it is not that easy or perhaps even possible. Like Breton and others he had his secret committees, etc.

American writing and American politics have been running away from European influences since the ink was drying on the Declaration of Independence. It's this very fleeing that brings on the later relentless obsession we saw, for example, in the 70's and 80's with the work of Derrida and his cohorts. The more academics embrace a philosophical approach the more American poets in the field feel the need to define themselves in contrast to it. Nobody wants to leave school and talk about the same things they did in classes, with the exception of nerdy types who are so immersed in texts they don't feel any need or desire to escape them. This does not characterize your average American poet who is plagued by rock dreams. The first reading I ever gave was with Patti Smith, but I was told when I went to the center for translation in Marseilles not long ago that all she did when she got there was "talk about Rimbaud, Rimbaud, Rimbaud." Not at all to disparage Patti whose contribution to the growing anti-war movement makes her one clear possible replacement for the role the late Allen Ginsberg formerly played. But listening to Ann Lauterbach speaking on WNYC today with Sam Hamill and Andre Gregory it is very clear that Ann L has a lot of strong ideas to contribute in this discussion as well.

The so-called "language" poets had the curious quality of actually being interested in writing about language. Where confessional poets put the focus on being understood or understanding themselves, L=A poets wanted the culture to be understood or to understand itself. But they weren't adverse, in places, to any one technique or set of techniques in achieving that goal. L=A writers often employed and still employ defamliarization techniques. This term, from Russian Formalism, encompasses covertly the idea of getting away from over-focusing on family. When I was judging a couple of poetry awards a few years ago I read hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts. It got to a point when I would intone aloud, "mother, sister, father, brother" and toss the manuscript into the reject box. Americans – specifically psychotherapists, for that matter – are obsessed with talking about family to the point of nausea. This contributes indirectly to some of the destructive forms of xenophobia we are witnessing throughout our country today. Language poets get vilified for resisting this. L=A poets and L=A writing may have been unconsciously bringing poetry closer to music, the universal language of art. The issue is not only about proactively associating with language to become free, but with proactively associating with all kinds of other people to become free, even people who don't happen to live in the USA! Working together closely on so many issues, as well as encouraging each other not only by agreeing with each other but by energetically disagreeing with each other these innovative poets helped move the poetry community towards a new paradigm for poetic group formation, as opposed to poetic style. The core group is still working together closely almost 30 years later. Is there a precedent for this in American poetics culture? This has upset countless writers and has energized countless writers as well.

Free association encourages conscious and unconscious collaboration. L=A poets work as if they were each making music comparable to the sounds of an individual instrument in an orchestra instead of trying to be the whole orchestra. This may be why some readers find it hard to understand how to track the voicing in L=A poetry. The reader has to imagine and supply some of the associations and therefore some of the undertones and overtones. These are often only suggested by consciously or unconsciously associating related texts (which are often the only effective way to interpret complex films, a similar process far more familiar to most people). Free association can be "played" alone but very comfortably can be practiced in overt or covert fashion with any number of other writers. This is one of the reasons why so many American writers employ these techniques so comfortably now, and why the numbers keep growing. As in psychoanalysis, free association in poetry facilitates connection with others by emphasizing shared communicational dynamics including avowing the limitations of language, the surfacing of which might be curtailed, paradoxically, by over-focusing on the specific personal details of one's daily or past life. In the work of other L=A poets what is emphasized is the universal quality of such everyday details, as in much of your own work, Ron. The very term free association has the latent meaning of associating freely with other people. One of the primary goals of psychoanalysis is to enable the analysand to understand the unconscious pull towards interpreting current experience from the point of view of the powerfully deterministic transferential dynamics latent in their early family experiences. This is why one has to work so hard to surface and remember these experiences in psychoanalysis – so these memories will not be so latent in everything we think, say, feel and do. Freud said that "neurotics suffer from reminiscences." So does inept poetry!

International group formation, philosophy, experimenting with language – sounds too French for me – thinks your average American poet or reader. But maybe this is about to change – as an outgrowth of many factors, including desk top publishing, the internet – and a world wide antiwar movement emerging at lightning speed.

With affection,


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Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Consider the first ten sections of Complete Thought by Barrett Watten, first published in 1982, available now in Frame (1971-1990) (Sun & Moon, 1997):

The world is complete.
Books demand limits.

Things fall down to create drama.
The materials are proof.

Daylight accumulates in photos.
Bright hands substitute for sun.

Crumbling supports undermine houses.
Connoisseurs locate stress.

Work breaks down to devices.
All features present.

Necessary commonplaces form a word.
The elements of art are fixed.

A mountain cannot be a picture.
Rapture stands in for style.

Worn-out words are invented.
We read daylight in books.

Construction turns back in on itself.
Dogs have to be whipped.

Eyes open wide to see spots.
Explanations are given on command.

The poem continues this spare, riveting process for a total of 50 sections.

Like all the best works that I’ve quoted in the blog that are already 20 or more years old – Grenier’s Sentences, Faville’s “Aubade,” Stanley’s “Pompeii” – “Complete Thought” is as stunning today as it was when it was first published. For me, reading Watten is a good amount like listening to early Bob Dylan: an experience so powerful that I have to ration it judiciously. Otherwise I’m apt to find myself sounding like a poor imitation days, if not weeks, later. “Complete Thought” is a poem very close to the center of my own experience of what it means to be a poet. I can’t imagine reading it as anything less than a life-changing event.

Thinking specifically of Rodney Koeneke’s questions Sunday concerning language poetry, the unconscious & the spiritual, “Complete Thought” strikes me as a text aimed almost directly at the unconscious. At one level, Watten is the first poet since Spicer to really get the power of overdetermination & render it not merely palpable, but unmistakable in a text.

Part of this is accomplished through a classic deployment of new sentences – the image schemas enveloping each first sentence is sufficiently remote from any schema surrounding the second sentence in its pair that the structurally implicit “causal” relation between them is felt for what it déjà toujours is: the reader’s superimposition, a form of violence acted on the text by the reading process itself.

By themselves, the sentences of “Complete Thought” are unexceptional – so much so that they stand out with a sheen one associates with neomodern design, a functionalism so bare it almost hurts, casting every individual element into a high-contrast relief. An important part of Watten’s genius here lies in the recognition that the form of the direct sentence, by itself, carries its own psychic & socio-political baggage. The aggressiveness of the piece, indeed its emotional tone, is governed precisely by our experience of syntax as force – in every sense of that word.

Koeneke links language poetry to mysticism through apophasis, a term with both rhetorical & theological meanings. From the Greek for “to speak” (phasis) “away” (apo), the term is a primary device of critical negation – the standard rhetorical example is a single sentence that asserts negativity while claiming not to speak of it, as in “I won’t discuss George W’s incompetence.” The little I know of negative theology* suggests that apophasis proposes the idea that God is “absence,” “difference” or “otherness.” Framed as apophatic discourse, it becomes evident that the privileged moment in the new sentence lies between the period of one sentence and the capital letter that initiates the next – the same terrain rendered so vividly in “Complete Thought.”

Koeneke’s paragraph on the apophatic is worth repeating:

The apophatic tradition in mysticism, however - approaching the divine by what it's not - shares a lot of (perhaps superficial) parallels with Language writing. The subject, or ego, comes into question as an external construct; language is inadequate to apprehend reality; ideas are an arm of the secular, external social institutions that seek to limit freedom. I could imagine an apophatic spiritual poetry that looked very much like Language writing, one that didn't raid the poetics for nifty effects, but took a similar orientation towards writing out of a shared sense of what's at stake with words. I wonder if Spicer was one of them.

It would be possible to pick apart each of these sentences, phrase by phrase: the idea that “language is inadequate to apprehend reality” is a considerable leap, given the diversity of writing that gets typed as langpo**. But it seems evident that what Koeneke most usefully is after is the link here between Spicer’s use of overdetermination in his writing and that gap between sentences at the heart of langpo.

Does this make Barrett Watten a spiritual writer? Only if he wants to be. Rather, I think the question more important to pose here is what really occurs in that gap between sentences that a generation of writers would begin to explore this all-but-invisible terrain in such significant numbers. To frame a response in terms of psychology, spirituality or even linguistics is to freeze the discussion into the constraints of an already existing discipline. Yet it is exactly the inability of any inherited intellectual or social tradition to – and I’m choosing my words deliberately here – “nail down” this space that has given it just such potency for our time.

So in this sense I would agree with one aspect of Koeneke’s initial argument – that there are a lot of relatively younger writers today who adopt some of the surface features of langpo in order to rehabilitate it back into an already canned psychology of the person, say the way Carol Maso’s Ava tames Beckett when what we really need is a writing that explodes & explores that which is most wild there. Watten, in contrast, is not a poet of compromise. Which is precisely a mark of his greatness.

* Cf. Silence and the Word, edited by Oliver Davies & Denys Turner, or Michael Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying.

** Koeneke’s reductive tendency to collapse language writing to a single (if transpersonal) agency – as in “can Language writing address X” type statements – I’ve simply ignored here in order to chase more valuable avenues of response. My usual reply to Can-language-poetry-address type questions is “only if it has an envelope and some stamps.”

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Monday, February 17, 2003

Rodney Koeneke asked a number of pointed & relatively loaded questions yesterday predicated on one key presumption – that there is a critical & deep correlation between the unconscious & what Koeneke calls the spiritual. That’s a presumption I’m willing to grant, at least for the sake of a response today, given my own sense that God, a term Koeneke employs complete with capital G, is a word humans invented to identify something they can apprehend but never articulate. By definition, then, the unconscious & the divine are realms that can never be accessed directly, even if/as they act profoundly on all aspects of our lives.

Beyond this concurrence, however, there are many specific points in Koeneke’s line of questioning that need to be teased out further. Before I proceed, I want to note first that the gist of his thinking has important parallels with the somewhat more contentious editorials that appeared a decade or so ago in Apex of the M. I appreciate Koeneke’s more straightforward approach, frankly, since I think it enables the possibility of a response. On the other hand, it’s also possible that I might be more able to reply today precisely because I’ve had a decade to mull over what lay behind the cattle-prod effect of the Apex gang.

Also before I proceed, I want to set aside what strikes me as the banal, & ultimately evasive, way to respond, which would be to note that many of the individuals associated with language poetry are quite active in various spiritual practices, from Fanny Howe’s very active work with exactly the aspects of Gnostic tradition that Koeneke appears to be most interested in*, to some poets such as Tom Mandel & David Melnick, participating in a study group focusing on the Old Testament, and to several others who pursue specific meditative practices, both through the San Francisco Zen Center community and elsewhere. At one level, this is like noting that both Nick Piombino and Steve Benson are practicing psychotherapists – one could use the fact as a substitute for addressing the question of langpo & unconsciousness directly, but by itself it doesn’t tell you very much. Frederick Feirstein is a practicing psychoanalyst, but that doesn’t make the New Formalists any less clueless about the unconscious in their work, craven & craving though it might be.

A presumption hidden in Koeneke’s questioning suggests that langpo, as a collective endeavor, has not addressed or otherwise visibly engaged the unconscious. That’s one assertion I’m not prepared to grant, even though I wrote that “the unconscious in writing has been given short shrift at best by my own generation of poets.” My very next sentence, after all, read

Most of the effects of a text such as Clark Coolidge’s The Maintains or Polaroid occur at the subconscious level or else can be described in the matter-of-fact language of feature analysis, a close reading of surface devices that never actually gets to what occurs elsewhere when one reads.

The new sentence, after all, becomes new precisely by being positioned so that its effects & implications don’t resolve up into normative structures of narrative & exposition. Those effects & implications don’t dissolve, but rather carry on in new combinations with “inappropriately” juxtaposed materials. If anything, these effects are far more powerful in these new combinations than the predictable linking of figurative or depictive gears. My assertion – or possibly just my assumption, I probably could have been more articulate in this regard – was that the “failure” of psychoanalytic discourse in poetry, its virtual absence as a critical issue during the crucial 1970s & ‘80s, gave poets the freedom to more fully explore this territory without having it déjà toujours mapped out with giant signposts for Mommy, Daddy, the primal scene & other readymade conceptual buckets.

An important part of both the success & problematics of psychoanalytic method in the U.S. in particular is the way in which Freudian training, by virtue of remaining outside of the academy, being conducted through a handful of extra-academic institutes, turned the entire Vienna vocabulary into a free-floating signifier capable of entering into any academic field. This could never have occurred, for example, if Freudian training had been concentrated in medical schools. But without a “home” – by which I mean both a “turf” to be protected & a position of authority from which to contain its application in fields as diverse as comp lit & paleontology – Freudian methodology has had a profoundly curious history across the curricular boundaries. A history of its impact in the English department, beginning with Norman Holland & Fred Crews in the late 1960s, then proceeding through Jameson, de Man & the Lacanians later, reveals the vocabulary & tools of psychoanalysis to have been employed not with any great interest in or concern for poetry, but rather to carve out & then fortify various “positions” within the institution, a political process that is conducted largely through the appropriation & expropriation of “the canon.” The history of psychoanalytic thought in the English department has yet to get around to the bulk of the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Benign or otherwise, that neglect also formed a freedom for those who might otherwise have found their work becoming mere proof points in somebody’s tenure argument. Thus with a handful of exceptions – Piombino, Watten, Perelman, Harryman, Dahlen** – poets tended mostly not to address the psychoanalytic framework altogether.

But, as Jack Spicer demonstrated quite manifestly a generation earlier, not addressing a professional dialog is hardly the same as not engaging the dynamics of the terrain that this dialog professes to discuss. Coolidge, Grenier, Armantrout, Hejinian, Mullen, Andrews, Bernstein, Scalapino, Hunt & others all manifestly engage aspects of language & experience that exist beyond the superficially rational. That, more than any specific use of literary devices, seems to be what joins them as a community of poets.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at a specific text.

* Rae Armantrout, reading Koeneke’s letter in the blog yesterday, noted that “Fanny Howe's work is explicitly ‘apophatic.’ She even uses that word.”

** A really interesting list of poets, it should be noted.


Sunday, February 16, 2003

An email takes the question of poetry and the unconscious further, to poetry (especially langpo) and the spiritual.

Dear Ron,

Rodney Koeneke here. I'm a San Francisco poet and a steady reader of your blog, which is one the best uses of public space I can think of since Socrates hit the agora. It's a generous endeavor and I learn a lot from it.

Your recent discussion with Rachel Blau DuPlessis prompted me to write. You both offered compelling reasons to explain why Language poets tend to steer clear of the unconscious as a subject. I agree with you, too, that Spicer probably explored this area more acutely than any writer of his generation. He's also the poet whose interest in the spiritual affects the way he actually uses language most concretely. In fact, it's his interest in those areas - the unconscious and let's call it the spiritual - that marks him off most starkly for me from the following poetic generation, who often draw inspiration from his more explicitly language-y concerns while leaving the ghosts and Mars and radios to one side.

My question is whether Language writing really CAN address these subjects, or if that's exactly the point at which it parts company with the New Americans and the current mainstream. This seems especially urgent to me with so many younger poets sounding like Language, displaying a sense of disjunctive cool while holding onto content that Blyowa can staunchly approve of. In your view, can Language poetry address areas of human experience like the unconscious and the spiritual? Or does the theory which explains and extends the practice of Language writing somehow by its nature mitigate against this kind of subject matter? To borrow Rachel's phrase, can you really be a spiritual girl living in a material world? Or do you have to let the Language drop to go into the mystic?

Part of my interest in the question comes from some of the parallels I've noticed between experimental poetics and certain branches of mystical theology. Psychology, especially with Freud but even in Jung, emphasizes models of depth vs. surface, enlightenment (illuminating the absent), analysis and expressive creativity that run afoul of a lot of the basic presuppositions of current experimental writing. The unconscious as it's constructed by psychology is an absent presence, hovering behind the language, which can ultimately be seen and shown. I can see why writers of a poststructural bent rejected this and left the subject largely to the mainstream.

The apophatic tradition in mysticism, however - approaching the divine by what it's not - shares a lot of (perhaps superficial) parallels with Language writing. The subject, or ego, comes into question as an external construct; language is inadequate to apprehend reality; ideas are an arm of the secular, external social institutions that seek to limit freedom. I could imagine an apophatic spiritual poetry that looked very much like Language writing, one that didn't raid the poetics for nifty effects, but took a similar orientation towards writing out of a shared sense of what's at stake with words. I wonder if Spicer was one of them.

In short, do you think Language writing (broadly speaking) can address a subject matter that isn't primarily social? Or does the mainstream alone get to Hoover up subjects like the unconscious and (gasp...I'll say it) God (or Buddha or the Tao or Allah)? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Thanks for your work on the blog. It turns me on to many things.




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