Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Dialectic of Expression and Construction

A dichotomy is commonly made between aesthetic expression and aesthetic construction, in which the two terms are set in opposition as ways of proceeding in art. One is either exploring the possibilities of one’s medium or one is expressing one’s emotional and psychological state. One is either following formal necessities or emotional necessities. I find this dichotomy to be false. As I am noticing more and more, musicians seem to be far ahead of writers in breaking down such false oppositions.

The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera contains an excellent chapter by musicologist Alan Street on Schoenberg and Berg, who along with Webern comprised what has been called the Second Viennese School in music (the first being that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—a loosely defined “school” indeed), that talks very intelligently about the dialectic of construction and expression, pointing out that in the best twentieth century operas (from Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Berg’s Wozzeck onward) the two have worked together, expression through construction, construction through expression: “Schoenberg was at pains to emphasize the impossibility of distinguishing between artistic acts of spontaneous expression and deliberate construction” (89). Street quotes fellow musicologist Douglas Jarman’s description of “the seemingly paradoxical fusion of technical calculation and emotional spontaneity that gives Berg’s music its particular fascination” (94-95).

Much contemporary American poetry is stuck setting the two against one another, and tends (probably in reaction to the still-prevalent aesthetic of personal authenticity) to privilege construction over expression. Again, I feel that in other areas of artistic endeavor this dichotomy has been put to rest, at least among practitioners. (Though self-appointed music critics are still fond of dismissing or denigrating Webern’s—nonexistent—“snarling dissonance” on the basis of an utter ignorance of his crystalline work.). For that matter, I think of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley’s complementary statements on the relationship of form and content—each is only an extension of the other.

For example, Christian Bök is clearly a very intelligent and talented writer, but when I read his book Eunoia, I see all construction and no expression: it’s a clever idea, but it doesn’t go any further than that. If Bök were to attempt to do something more with the technique of using only one vowel per section, that would be more interesting and engaging. But as it is, the book is not only a one-trick pony, but its trick has been done before, by Georges Perec and Harry Mathews and the Oulipo school in general. I’m reminded of another quote from Alan Street's chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera, again about Schoenberg and his circle: “for a group of composers compelled, like so many of their creative contemporaries, to withdraw from the commitment to a consensual form of expression, linguistic reinvention of the medium was never allowed to become the abstract end in itself that subsequent theoretical codification might suppose” (86). They never fell into the trap of valorizing technique for its own sake.

In the words of Pierre Boulez, a doyen of the musical avant-garde, “You are not modern—you are merely expressing yourself according to the coordinates of your time, and that’s not being modern, that’s being what you are” (quoted in Arnold Whittall, Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century, 9).

Friday, April 4, 2008

Narcissus as Narcissus

I take my title from Allen Tate's well-known essay discussing his poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead," in which he professes himself to be far from an expert on the poem just because he happened to have written it. As I'm sure it was for him, my use of this title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since there's always something self-regarding about publicly discussing one's own work. But I hope that there may be something of interest and even use in my discussion beyond mere amour propre. My work, after all, is not me, nor are the ideas which inform that work. I hope that the discussion is at least true to the work.

My poetry operates within a literary tradition and a literary language to which I owe my formation as a writer, yet which is not “mine” (as a black gay man raised in Bronx housing projects): I wrestle with this necessary angel and rise renamed, blessed but also lamed. This language, the language of Yeats and Stevens, Eliot and Hart Crane, has both made me possible as a writer and made being a writer an asymptote. It is a language to which I aspire in the act of writing it and being written by it (every writer is as much the tool of language as its wielder). Thus my relationship to my own language (simultaneously mine and not mine at all) is ambivalent, constantly haunted by the questions, “Can I truly speak this language? Can this language speak through me?” Eliot wrote that the poet must always mistrust words, but the problem of language is foregrounded for me in ways it needn’t be for writers with a more settled, if illusory, sense that language is “theirs.”

It’s my intention to inscribe my presence into that language and that tradition, not to “subvert” it but to produce a place of possibility within it. I wish to make Sappho and the South Bronx, the myth of Hyacinth and the homeless black men ubiquitous in the cities of the decaying American empire, AIDS and all the beautiful, dead cultures, speak to and acknowledge one another, in order to discover what, if anything, can be made of a diminished thing (in Robert Frost’s phrase).

I am constantly working toward a poetic mode in which the lyric (a lyric I wish neither to destroy nor to consign to the trash heap of history) confronts its others, both the historical experience of abjection it has traditionally erased and the abjection of language itself that lyric “mastery” attempts to alibi and cover over. I am willing to give up none of the transformative possibilities of lyric, possibilities which have been at worst foreclosed (as pretention, presumption, or prevarication) and at best permitted to lapse in most contemporary American poetry, both the MFA mainstream practicing, ever-unobtrusively, the aesthetics of transparency, sincerity, and personal authenticity, and the Language poets so busy exposing the lying babble of media-speak that they forget the positive, creative possibilities of poetry. Nor am I willing to surrender the necessary and enabling critical-utopian distance of lyric from the society that both produces it and repudiates it, that cannot live up to its own promises. On this uncertain ground, lyric communes with the social text, while historical circumstance is refracted through the redemptive lens of a revised lyricism.

My work surrenders neither lyricism nor lucidity (in critic Charles Altieri’s terms), charting a liminal space of the coincidence of song and thought, enchantment and disenchantment, the somatic and the cerebral. I hope to uncouple what Russell Berman has called the proximity of form and domination, and thereby to salvage what Adorno (following Stendhal) called the promise of happiness (promesse du bonheur) that the lyric has embodied historically and in my own life.

In the tension or dialectic between enchantment and disenchantment, Language poetry falls squarely on the side of disenchantment. It is a negative project of unmasking, unveiling, and undoing. Language poetry is wholly critical, exposing the ideological mystifications and fracture lines of discourse. But I have not given up on poetry as a practice of creation and not just critique, on the productive possibilities of enchantment and lyricism. Thus my commitment to the lyric and the traditional resources it deploys and makes available to the poet. Both Michael Palmer and Ann Lauterbach have said that their commitment to the lyric, to the possibilities of lyricism and enchantment, prevents them from being Language poets, however experimental and interrogatory their work remains.

My relationship to the Western literary canon (which is no single and singular thing) has always been paradoxical: there is both no place already assigned me and more of a possibility of creating a place for myself than the world at large has offered. I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by literature, which represents and enacts potential rather than closure. It’s been the fashion for some time to see literature as a social symptom, to think that social conditions and social identity completely determine the nature and value of a piece of writing. But art’s utopian potential lies exactly in the degree to which it exceeds social determinations and definitions, bringing together the strange and the familiar, combining otherness and brotherhood.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Good News From My World

Now that it's official, I can finally tell the world that I have, on my fifteenth try (yes, I've been applying since 1993), been awarded a 2008 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. While I would certainly have liked to have received one earlier, this fellowship could not have come at a time when I needed it more, as my medical bills for my cancer treatments and surgeries have been mounting at a frightening rate.

I keep looking at the list of Fellows on the Guggenheim Foundation web site to confirm that my name is still there. Sometimes the world does give one what one needs when one needs it. Just not very often...