Monday, January 8, 2007

Scattered Thoughts on Fracture

Despite its many accomplishments over the past century or more, I grow weary of poetic experimentation for its own sake. By now it has frequently come to seem like a form of keeping up with fashion: never wear the same outfit twice, make sure you’re wearing next season’s clothes. This is part of what Jack Spicer means when he writes to the long dead Federico Garcia Lorca that “Invention is merely the enemy of poetry.” Those trendy outfits also strikingly resemble the clothes they wore in the Nineteen Teens and Twenties (many things new are old), which too many people too often forget. So many of the “experiments” in which our avant-garde engage were performed by Eliot, Pound, Moore, Williams, et alia, long before any of our current practitioners was born. There’s nothing wrong with using techniques that have already been developed (the English language is one of those techniques, after all), but there’s something unseemly about claiming that you invented them yesterday. Contrary to what many believe, forms have no intrinsic values, but they have contextual meanings. As Allen Grossman points out, forms are stained or given meaning by certain performances of them, and the Modernists cannot be merely wished away.

The avant-garde frequently forgets that Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” contains two parts. They concentrate so much on trying to be new (which ends up as a cult of novelty that mirrors the planned obsolescence of the consumer culture it claims to critique, a consumer culture my main criticism of which is that it isn’t in fact available to all) that they neglect the necessity to make something, that newness is not a value in itself (no human being is “new,” though each person is unique) but a means to the rejuvenation of aesthetic experience (and thus, analogously, of our experience of and in the world).

Though it has produced some wonderful works of art, fracture has become too easy, even evasive: it’s become simply another style. Rather than just cutting things up or claiming that they just are cut up (a reductive view of art as a reflection of the world shared by many avant garde writers, at least in America), it’s much more difficult and interesting to put things together despite or in the face of fragmentation, not to create false wholes or a false confidence in wholes, but to see and show that things are related, however random and chaotic their surfaces may appear. That randomness is an ideological illusion, and this is as much the Marx in me as the John Crowe Ransom. Marx wrote of the distinction between the apparently real and the actually real, the chaotic, disconnected surfaces of the world and the interrelated, interconnected whole (however riven and fissured) which that world actually constitutes. Totalities may be (always are) contradictory, but they are totalities, and we live in, among, and with them. Part of the work of thought, and the work of poetry, is to trace out their lineaments: poetry, language, and thought are about producing and revealing relation, about making connections among disparate things often seen as disconnected or even opposed or contradictory: contradiction and opposition are also modes of relation. As Barbara K. Fischer has written of some of the transgressive or subversive claims of “experimental” writing, “From the vantage point of our current historical-political moment, ‘sense, order, and coherence’ don’t seem like such terrible things,” and goes on to warn against “the dangers of enshrining yet another chaos that cannot redeem itself.”

The fragment is the mode of the modern sensibility, which abandons the romance of the infinitely large (the sublime) for that of the infinitely small (the detail). While hierarchy and proportion are the articulations of the sublime, juxtaposition and incommensurability are the fragment’s. The sublime presents a totality beyond the grasp of the individual consciousness (that which can be conceived but not imagined); the detail discovers in each part a totality writ small: the Shema Israel written on two grains of wheat. For Walter Benjamin, “The smaller the object, the more likely it seemed that it could contain in the most concentrated form everything else” (Hannah Arendt). That this essence is unreadable in its existence manifests the absenting of being from form, the “gulf between materiality and meaning” (Terry Eagleton). Emerson wrote that “I am a fragment,” but a fragment is always a fragment of something.

Our experience is (falsely) fractured, atomized, and my self (like my society) is likewise fractured and atomized, in pieces. (“My mind is in pieces, but at least I know what the pieces are,” in the words of my friend Ed Mathews: lucky man). But it is also a whole, of a piece. I don’t want my work merely to mirror my state, or my State (another representational aesthetic), but to do something with it. It’s much more difficult to articulate things together than just to toss out the pieces and say “Nothing can be done with this,” or even, “I have seen the future and it is broken.” I am interested, as a person and as a writer, in how things relate to one another. As Jack Spicer wrote to Robin Blaser, “Things fit together….Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence.” My interest in syntax, the relation of words and phrases to one another, arises from the desire to make or reveal connections among the elements of my poems and my world(s). My questions are always, “How can these things be put together? What constellation do they form?" Which is not to claim that a reconciliation of self and society, or self and self, can be effected in or by means of language.

7 comments:

Simon said...

Reginald -- you write:

Rather than just cutting things up or claiming that they just are cut up (a reductive view of art as a reflection of the world shared by many soi disant avant garde writers, at least in America), it’s much more difficult and interesting to put things together despite or in the face of fragmentation, not to create false wholes or a false confidence in wholes, but to see and show that things are related, however random and chaotic their surfaces and appearances may appear.

I feel like you are making a common mistake here, which is to interpret an organizational choice as semantically loaded, disagree with the meaning you discover within, and propose an alternate choice that has -- you believe -- a better "hidden meaning."

Back in poetic reality, a poem does what it does by aid of its structure -- fractured or not -- and what a poem does is not determined by those choices.

To put it another way, I think that your remarks here are very similar to the rather facile things that could be said, about, say, Shelly -- that he has, and cannot have, any authentic presence in the modern mind because the postmodern condition demands a different prosody that answers to -- &c. &c.

John Gallaher said...

Ann Lauterbach attempts to slide past this with her conceptualization of "the whole fragment."

For what it's worth.

Sheryl said...

Thank you for this.

Andrew Shields said...

I think it was Kyle Gann in the Village Voice who wrote an article about John Zorn 15 or so years ago that I happened to read, one point of which has stuck with me ever since. He observed that people interpreted Zorn's music as representing the fractured nature of contemporary life. His counterargument was that the fragmentation and jump-cutting of Naked City and other bands that Zorn led in the eighties and early nineties did not reflect a fragmented reality but instead was intended to run counter to a homogenous reality.

Joan said...

Reginald, thanks for this blog--to read your provocative and interesting ideas, to be able to read them because they are written with care and skill. How refreshing! It inspires me to respond. I certainly agree with what you say here:

"My interest in syntax, the relation of words and phrases to one another, arises from the desire to make or reveal connections among the elements of my poems and my world(s). My questions are always, “How can these things be put together? What constellation do they form?" Which is not to claim that a reconciliation of self and society, or self and self, can be effected in or by means of language."

Aside from not needing that last disclaimer in any other context except one where there actually are poets who make such claims for poetry (as here, in the blogosphere), this succinctly summarizes what drives any poet, this "desire to make or reveal..etc." The ways in which things come together are multiple and fascinating, and making is more interesting than breaking, especially if breaking doesn't lead to new ways of making. Looking at the destroyed thing has inherent interest because of what it was, what it might now become, of how differently it could have been made or could now be made, not simply because it is in pieces. I don't believe readers who say they derive satisfaction from looking at fragments because they are fragments, or because the whole point is in the fragmentation itself (and this is the default position for many readers now). On the other hand, I do think there is satisfaction for the artist from the fragmenting, the breaking itself being a kind of scientific mode of inquiry that opens new modes of creation. Some would counter that there is no such thing as a fragment--in language or in the world--just an inability on the part of the viewer/reader to perceive its connection to an unseen whole. I think this is a poor defense for a failed poem, or any work of art, one that has no life beyond its breakage. It erects even more of a barrier between reader/viewer and the work of art, and allows the maker to disclaim responsibilty for what he/she makes.

Seth Abramson said...

I think it's useful to point out that many of those with an essentially avant-garde mindset are presently hiding in plain sight under the misleading title of "post-avants." This is another example, I think, of how the internet can allow persons and groups to essentially rescript their aesthetics and biases into a form less likely to be assailed (i.e., by stalling: call yourself something you haven't been called before, and you throw your pursuers off the scent); it's puerile, of course, about as much as a sexist, say, trying to hide himself/herself within the folds of the community by self-identifying as "post-sexist." I'm still not at all clear how we are to distinguish between the avant-garde and the self-proclaimed "post-avant," especially when those who've done the most to coin the make-believe, candyland term "post-avant" are the same ones who established the absorptive/anti-absorptive dichotomy as a way to wink-wink nudge-nudge themselves back into avant-garde credibility.
S.

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