Friday, January 12, 2007

Arrested Development

In response to some of the comments on my recent posts, I would like to say that I am hardly so naive as to think that it is possible to live without the process of categorization. Thought itself would be impossible without categories, as would language. What, after all, unites this green vertical entity over here and that green vertical entity over there and another green vertical entity in Brazil except our word and our concept "tree"? That word and that concept help us to understand those green vertical entities in ways that treating each in isolation does not. But I am against allowing the category to replace the experience, as when one allows oneself to believe that the word "tree" or the concept of tree fully accounts for or even replaces whatever green vertical entity one encounters at the moment. Categories should remain flexible and contingent, and subject to revision when tested against reality. The test of discourse about poetry is whether it helps us to understand and experience actual poems more fully and deeply. For William Carlos Williams, as for many of the Modernists, and really for all good poets, poetry is a mode of attention. Too often categories are deployed to evade the work of giving things, including poems, their due attention as and in themselves.

I have much more trouble with externally imputed categories than with freely chosen categories, what Goethe called elective affinities. Poets have often affiliated themselves with one another for mutual support and encouragement. The Imagists, for example, saw themselves as a group with shared interests, aims, and methods, as did the Objectivists. In both cases, however, the group identity, useful though it may have been for a time, proved insufficient to contain their individual development as poets. The label or category, though self-applied, became a constraint.

Even if a label or category is not self-ascribed or at least self-accepted, it can be a helpful tool. While the wide and diverse array of poets we now call Modernists undoubtedly saw themselves as modern, indeed strove to be modern, most probably did not imagine themselves to be "Modernists." (Though there was a Latin American and later peninsular Spanish movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century known as Modernismo, which involved the deliberate attempt to will themselves into modernity of a group of writers, foremost among them Ruben Dario, who were acutely aware of their relative backwardness in comparison with metropolitan, northwestern Europe. For the Modernistos, the modern was represented by French symbolism, as against the positivistic, utilitarian strictures of nineteenth-century realism.) Such categories are of interest only because of the poetry produced under their aegis. In the case of a category like "Modern" or "Modernist," the function of the phrase is to illuminate and beter understand the work, to cast a light that reveals features which might not otherwise be apparent. (Put in terms of text and context, context is not irrelevant. A poem can be illuminated by its context. But it is not defined, explained, or fully accounted for by its context.)

Problematic as the categories may be, at least in the ways that they are often used, there are poets who consider themselves "experimental" or "avant-garde" or "post-avant" or what have you. Indeed, there are poets who loudly proclaim themselves as such. It may be that it's useful for their work to think of themselves within such categories. It may also be that it limits their work to do so. I often incline to the latter view. But in any case, these are categories with which poets have chosen to affiliate themselves. No one has ever chosen to be or even assented to being a member of the so-called "School of Quietude."

The phrase and the idea "School of Quietude" is primarily used to dismiss and to denigrate, not to illuminate or to understand. It is an accusation, not a description. The label replaces the experience of the poems of what is a huge number of very various poets. Ron Silliman has written, after all, that avant-garde poets don't read "School of Quietude" poets. So the purpose of the phrase is to fence off an area of experience as insignificant and unworthy of attention or exploration.

Along these lines, I received a very eloquent response to some of my posts from Geoffrey Brock, whose first book, Weighing Light, won the New Criterion Poetry Prize. (I have not read the book, though I intend to look it up.) Geoff tells me that, because he often writes in traditional forms, he has sometimes been accused of being a political conservative, as people so often conflate the political and aesthetic senses of "conservative." He writes that "I’d like to declare a moratorium on the use of words like 'conservative' and 'avant-garde' and 'formal' and 'experimental' in poetic discourse—thanks to people on both the left and the right, they’ve become so overgrown with the weeds of lazy thought that the life has been choked almost entirely out of them." I would add "School of Quietude" to that list, though I think that it should simply be eradicated from the English language.

Geoff also points out that "there’s no inherent conflict between conservatism or traditionalism on the one hand and experimentalism on the other. Indeed, experimentalism is part of our tradition, a part that obviously must be 'conserved' given that much of our best poetry issues from the fruitful marriage of two impulses: the impulse to 'make it new' and the impulse to participate in great traditions. The dichotomy, then, has always been a false one, and those who trade in it are usually selling something I don’t want to buy.... Any serious poet is trying, in his or her own way, to 'make it new'.”

The partisanship and balkanization of the contemporary poetry world, which seems to be magnified in the blogosphere (a hideous word), is very depressing. Like the use of such dead and empty language like "School of Quietude," it's also an active impediment to clear and accurate thought about poetry. It may well serve as an obstacle to the development of newer poets who feel compelled to take sides in a debate that is largely imaginary (that is to say, it deals with entities that have a rhetorical but not a material reality) and shuts down rather than encourages thought. As John Ashbery writes in his essay "The Invisible Avant-Garde, "We feel in America that we have to join something, that our lives are directionless unless we are part of a group, a clan." And of course a group is always defined against those who are not part of the group.

In both its facile yet insistent assignment of whole groups of people to the category of "Them," and in its replacement of considered thought with shibboleths and slogans, such discourse mirrors and echoes the dominant political discourse of our day. I wonder if Silliman and Clover have considered the degree to which the Manichean worldview they express is shaped by the same world of false discourse they claim to set themselves against.

This will be my last post on this topic, as I really don't know what else to say. There's no point in running around in ever-diminishing crop circles while beating a thoroughly deceased horse with a ragged feather-duster.


peN said...


One can write in conventional forms and feel that their politics are progressive, but what Robert Duncan said to Denise Levertov in a letter circa 1958 seems quite appropriate.

the conventional poet = universe and life are chaotic; the natural is formless (chaotic); the poet (the civilized or moral man) is given an order to keep against chaos. Every freedom is a breakdown of form. Freedom = (a) disorder or (b) sin.

free verse = the universe and man are free only in nature which has
been lost in civilized forms. The poet must express his feelings without the trammel of forms. The poem does not find or make but expresses…Free verse just doesn’t
believe in the struggle of rendering in which not only the soul but the world must enter into the conception of the poem. Ginsberg’s Howl is one of Duncan’s examples of free verse.

the organic poet = the universe and man are members of a form. Freedom lies in the apprehension of this underlying form, towards which invention and free thought in sciences alike work. All experience is formal – We feel things in so far as we awake to the form. The form of the poem is the feeling (and where form fails, feeling fails.) (Duncan/Levertov 405, 7, 8)

My essay on the subject has the proper format, which is lost on the blog comment stream.

What one professes to be may not be what one is in real life, but the process a poet develops an affinity for says a lot about that poet. Does this mean Organic is good and Conventional is bad? No, but the School of Quietude moniker refers to a stance-toward-poem-making that extends the British tradition. It may be written in free verse, or may be new formalism, but lacks those qualities Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and many others have outlined quite clearly in the last 60 years.

As William Carlos Williams said in Paterson:

Without invention nothing is well spaced,
unless the mind change, unless
the stars are new measured, according
to their relative positions, the
line will not change, the necessity
will not matriculate: unless there is
a new mind there cannot be a new
line, the old will go on
repeating itself with recurring
deadliness: without invention
nothing lies under the witch-hazel
bush, the alder does not grow from among
the hummocks margining the all
but spent channels of the old swale,
the small foot-prints
of mice under the overhanging
tufts of the bunch-grass will not
appear: without invention the line
will never again take on its ancient
divisions when the word, a supple word,
lived in it, crumbled now to chalk

Paul Nelson

finding said...