One of the benefits of having a web log is that it puts one in contact with people one would otherwise never interact with. Conversely, one of the drawbacks of having a web log is that it puts one in contact with people one would otherwise never interact with. In some of my recent online interactions, I have been struck by the eagerness of some people to label me and make sweeping assumptions about my tastes, opinions, and positions, often on the basis of a proudly professed ignorance of anything me or my work. They simply decided that, not being a member of their club, I must be one of “Them,” and thus irredeemably worthless if not outright evil. These interactions, in turn, have me thinking again about the will to categorize, label, and pigeonhole both oneself as a writer and other writers that is so prevalent in the online poetry world. Such fixations on labels and side-taking seem more prevalent in the online poetry world (certainly in the world of poetry blogs) than in the print poetry world, where things are much more fluid and flexible, though such compulsive territorializing and fence-building is far from absent there either.
Ann Lauterbach, a brilliant poet and an equally brilliant thinker about poetry, has in various essays made several acute observations on this situation, as well as its larger intellectual and social context, in which poems are defined, judged, and even written (but rarely actually read) in terms of their authors’ social or ideological identities, whether presumed or professed, imposed or embraced. I quote them here for the edification of all interested parties.
“It is no secret that the academy has, over the past several decades, increasingly stressed theoretical and critical reading, promulgating a subtle inversion by which so-called primary texts have become secondary, mere pretexts to argue or ‘prove’ one critical ideology or another. Much that is invigorating and compelling has come of this, providing a hugely expanded vocabulary for discussing aesthetic objects, but there are danger signs, at least in the poetic community, of an increasingly eviscerated and arid landscape. The aspiring young poet begins to write in such a way as to invite a certain critical attention, to ‘fit’ her work into one or another critical category. This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. ‘New York School’ or ‘Language Poetry’ are given brand-name status, commodifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences among and between so-called members of the group. Those not so identified are left out, often understandably embittered or confused, as the idea of an individual iconoclastic poet gives way to collaborative and tribal identities. Thus the marginalized world of poetry begins to imitate other identity formulations which increasingly govern contemporary academic, cultural, and political life. Frightened by exclusionary clubs, the poet ceases to identify herself with the essential margin from which a vital critique must come.”
“In this culture, the choice begins to be either to move into the denuded brilliance of celebrity or become part of a group which knows itself not because its little dog knows it but because it represents the Society of Little Dogs. Thus allegiances are formed not so much by ideological choice but by a priori cultural determinates; one identifies with those who most resemble what one already claims as identification (I am a woman, therefore I must be a feminist). The idea that the act of reading expands and extends knowledge to orders of unfamiliar experience has been replaced by acts of reading in order to substantiate and authorize claims and positions which often mirror the identity bearings of the reader.”
This is a wonderful Gertrude Stein quote that Lauterbach cites: “The manner and habits of Bible times or Greek or Chinese have nothing to do with ours today but the masterpieces exist just the same and they do not exist because of their identity, that is what any one remembering then remembered then, they do not exist by human nature because everybody always knows everything there is to know about human nature, they exist because they come to be as something that is an end in itself and in that respect is opposed to the business of living which is relation and necessity” (Gertrude Stein, “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?”).
“Misquotations from Reality,” Diacritics, 26:3-4, Fall/Winter 1996. pp. 152, 153.
“Among my graduate writing students there was a noticeable deficit of references to sources, literary or otherwise, outside their immediate foreground; among African-American students, I found a tendency to write from the perspective of racial identity that demanded a public stance toward the self, as if the self were a stereotypical example whose voice must uphold, and reflect, the most unnuanced and prolific negative assumptions about black life in America. Individuailty was conflated with identity….”
“The Night Sky II,” The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. New York: Viking, 2005, p. 77.
“[W]e need to question the notion that we can talk with any clarity about the academy when there are so many institutions that now invest in contemporary writing, each of which has a different perspective on, and alignment to, poetic lineage and practice. These perspectives are often directly attributable to the specific poetics of poet/teachers within a given program….
“We need to think about how so-called ‘schools’ come into being, through what agencies they disseminate and become part of an historical narrative. I am thinking, for instance, of the poet in and around Black Mountain, the New York School, the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, each of which represents a particular extension and hybridization of a recognizable poetics. At what point does a group of poets with a loose configuration of affinities and concerns become a school or movement, and at what point does this named entity become the property of literary history, a commodity?” [RS: I question in what way a literary movement, however reified, can become a commodity in any but the loosest metaphorical sense.]
“The Night Sky IV,” op. cit., p. 102, 103.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Ann Lauterbach on Schools, Movements, and Poetic Identities
Posted by Reginald Shepherd at 7:11 AM
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A literary movement can become a commodity, or at least a brand, to the extent that what its members produce is purchased by a definable group of people. In the case of poetry production, that group may well be each other, within or hovering on the fringes of that movement.
But what a horrible idea, "poetry production." I suppose in today's literary climate in which being a successful poet means being employed primarily because one is a poet-that is, paid to be an academic poet instead of having an ordinary life and writing from that experience-it's a natural term.
As for writing from a group identity rather than an individual identity, doing so generates a certain level of safety, protection, and what I am fond of calling an uncompromising commitment to adequacy. This is hivewriting: the hum is constant and the result a good nap.
What it never does is produce excellence. However, in that it matches our American society. We live in an age that is threatened by excellence, resists it, especially in education, and thinks any kind of clear statement of position contrary to the way the bulls are running is socially damaging (to the speaker) and unprofessional.
The great American essayist John Jay Chapman, who always knew bull on sight and which way it was running, wrote of the "general cowardice" of the age (this in 1900) and recommended a dose of truth thus:
"Everybody in America is soft, and hates conflict. The cure for this, both in politics and social life, is the same, hardihood. Give them raw truth. They think they will die. ... The whole problem...is to get people to stop simpering and saying "After You" to cant."
Chapman was writing mainly of how people interact in society and government, but the same problem - and the same solution - applies in the fine arts. An astonishing number of poetry's royalty are parading about unclothed but for their crowns. Let us say so instead of mounting up behind them.
I posted a brief response to this post over at my blog.
Just wanted to say how absolutely delighted I am to have found this blog...
Though I am not a "Language" poet,
there is at Buffalo's EPC an essay
by Marjorie Perloff wherein she
does "contend with the
specific differences" evident in
locality-based works written by
two so-called "Language" poets. A
Language Poetry Lyric Subject
search brings back a link to it.
I too am delighted to have found this intelligent blog. I've been blogging for over four years at various sites and have my own blog, but this promises to stimulate my intellect (and creative juices) more than most.
I appreciate what you're saying here. The energy expended to sustain such exclusionary clubs must be exhausting. I agree with your views here & with most of Lauterbach's as well, except for her statement that those who are excluded are "often...embittered or confused," which places the 'excluded' in the passive & dependent role, which often is not the case. Frequently, that person is neither bitter or confused, but rather, pleasantly enjoying his or her own position (whatever it may be) outside of such groupings ---a very conscious decision--- & he or she is perhaps thinking about art or poetry (imagine that!), having little interest in territory wars or the posturing that occupies so many folks' energies. Yes, one should stand up for himself or herself, but often the "discussions" become much too personal, much too quickly, with (as you've mentioned) very little knowledge of the person's work who is being rolled through the muck. who needs it? (& yes, I agree that it's more pronounced in the blogs).
by the way, I bought Otherhood. I'm enjoying it very much.
I'm not sure that a literary community can be a commodity, but I definitely see how it can become a brand, marketing a trademark style to an audience expecting a certain kind of poetic "product." Obviously this phenomenon occurs with both "mainstream" poets and with "avant-garde" poets. Critic Vernon Shetley has written in the Irish journal Metre of "a poetry world where each poet seems compelled to enhance his or her brand recognition with an easily recognizable gimmick."
Thanks for your comment, and thanks as well for your kind words about Othehood. I think that Lauterbach was primarily referring to younger or beginning poets who feel compelled to take a side, to position themselves, in a poetry world that can appear to be solely made up of mutually exclusive, not to say antagonistic, camps or clubs. And there are of course practical consequences in terms of recognition for not fitting into a category or a group, as those are so often used as a convenient shorthand method for bestowing attention on writers. Writers who are not so easily labeled tend too often to be ignored or at least under-read.
Take good care, and thanks for reading.
peace and poetry,
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