Saturday, January 6, 2007

Ron Silliman and the Pseudo-Politicization of Poetry

Yesterday on Ron Silliman's blog he called Gjertrud Schackenberg's aesthetic program "fascist," or at least concurred with Bill Knott's characterization of it as such. On his web log, Knott made this characterization in the course of asserting that the claim "that good poetry must be difficult" is fascist. I find it odd that Silliman should agree with such an assertion, since his poetry and that of most of the poets he admires would certainly be considered "difficult" by most standards, and quite deliberately so: he is after all trying to undermine the capitalist economy of reference as a commodity delivered to the reader as consumer. Silliman seems to be saying, "My difficult poetry is progressive and transgressive; your difficult poetry is reactionary and fascist." That Schnackenberg's poetry isn't particularly "difficult" is, I suppose, beside the point, since actual poems don't seem to be up for discussion.

Knott at least is consistent, since he says that "in theory" he supports "accessible" poets like Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, and Ted Kooser. Silliman, however, completely misses, or deliberately ignores, that Knott considers "avant-garde" poets to be "fascist" as well: "What's worse is when fascist poets write verse which is difficult, accessible only to the educated few--and then issue loud manifestos proclaiming the opposite, boasting that their autotelic/ostranenic pomemics will overthrow the hegemony of bourgeois discourse and rouse up revolution (langpo will lead up to utopesville [sic])..." Knott goes on later in the post to explicitly equate his "fascist/populist" dichotomy (is that the only possible choice?) with Charles Bernstein's "anti-absorptive/absorptive" binary. Silliman is very selective in his reading; he chooses simply not to notice that he's being condemned as "fascist" as much as Gjertrud Schnackenberg is.

There may be a place for the phrase "fascist aesthetics," if one is referring to the aesthetics associated with fascism as a political movement. But fascism is a particular thing, a specific if occasionally amorphous phenomenon, not just a catchall pejorative for anything one doesn't like. Specifically, however much it served the interests of the socio-economic elite (the only meaningful sense of the word “elite”), fascism as a mass movement was in fact populist and anti-elitist—certainly its “culture” was anti-elitist. Fascism built much of its appeal on misdirected resentments of elites and elitism.

This is a further example of the conflation/confusion of politics and culture that so many "cultural activists" engage in as an excuse for retreat from real political action or even real political thought. I would think, or at least hope, that a writer would have more care for the meanings of words, especially given the semantic slipperiness and obfuscation of official and commercial discourse in our culture, the cheapening and emptying out of language. Or is such a belief just obeisance to the tyranny of referentiality?

Silliman is clearly a very intelligent man, but he frequently engages in such pseudo-politicization of poetry. In an earlier post on Mayakovsky (I don't recall the exact date), he wrote that Joseph Brodsky, who "abstained from collaborating with the aesthetic bureaucrats of his time, easily fell into the hands of the same sort of apparatchiks once he was able to come west," which shows no sense of proportion whatsoever and is just offensive to those who actually suffered under Soviet repression. The apparatchiks of the Soviet Ministry of Culture had actual, concrete, and unmediated power. They were able to keep those of whom they disapproved from teaching, translating, or working in their field at all; from being published or performed at all, as happened to Anna Akhmatova for many years; from getting decent housing (as also happened to Akhmatova); and of course in the worst cases those they disapproved of were killed or exiled to Siberia or (during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras) sent to mental asylums. To claim that any American cultural gatekeepers--editors, curators, publishers, etc.—have that kind of power is to lose all sense of proportion, engaging in the worst kind of melodrama to inflate one's own sense of victimhood (of what or whom is Ron Silliman the victim?), cheapening the real suffering of others to aggrandize one's own inflated sense of grievance.

No American poet has ever been sent to a Gulag because of his or her writing. The closest we have come to such a thing was the blacklisting of some writers (mostly in Hollywood) during the red scares of the 1950s, and even in that period explicitly oppositional material was openly published, distributed, and read. The editor of Poetry is no "cultural commissar." He has the power to accept or reject poems for the journal. Neglect or rejection is hardly the same thing as repression or oppression. No one has the duty or obligation to read anyone or anything, and though there are many writers I think should be read more widely (and even more I think should be read less widely), no one has a "right" to be read. Not even me.


Lo said...

No American poet has ever been sent to a Gulag because of his or her writing.

I got thrown out of high school and had to spend 2 weeks in my room once for being poetically involved in an unsanctioned newspaper, does that count?

Seriously, welcome to "The Blogsphere" and congratulations, you've already created a good deal of interesting and thought-provoking reading.


Unknown said...

During the early 1980's, I lived in China for several years as a teacher for an American volunteer organization. The structures of Cultural-Revolution totalitarianism were still firmly in place, and I had firsthand experience of the subtle and ruthless ways in which the system infiltrated and ruined lives and stunted talent and opportunity. I am, by any standards (including the Pew Center typology questionnaire), a staunch leftist-liberal-progressive, but I am disturbed sometimes by the provinciality of perspective that you so eloquently and discerningly defended against in your post. I am grateful for your elucidations of what are really commonsensical political, historical, and literary distinctions about "fascism," "elite," and other terms. Your historical defense of Joseph Brodsky was right on target. I look forward to reading your blog.

Mark Granier said...

I remember that post by Silliman, patronising Brodsky for his English connections. Silliman once posted an "interesting link" to another blog, which made a similarly snide comments on Heaney, implying that his membership of Hobsbaum's Group in Belfast was the real reason for his success (rather than any ability as a poet).

Of WBY, Silliman wrote: "Yeats is interesting, tho problematic, operating out of a context that has little to do with U.S., frankly." I LOVE that "frankly", which is anything but.

He also dismissed Auden's imagery as "bland", without giving examples or explaining further. Silliman should read (or reread) Brodsky on Auden. But anyone who has read Auden's best work (e.g. 'In Memory of WBY'', Sept. 1 1939, 'Musée des Beaux-Arts' etc) with a modicum of attention will know that the imagery is anything but "bland". Bland is a term that could be applied with far greater justice to what I've read of Silliman's own work; Langpo, (what little I've read of it, or of the post advance rear guard) isn't much interested in imagery or rhythm or, for that matter, any relishing of language or meaning.

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