Wednesday, July 23, 2008

O Superwoman

This bit from a Village Voice interview with one of my favorite artists caught my eye:
I’m not messianic about this. I don’t need to bring my message to the world. I’m a classic case of talking, you know, to the people who agree with me in a lot of ways. And it’s also because I’m a snob, you know. I don’t think art’s a very good way to convince people. This material came into my work not because I was trying to deliver a message, but because I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It just became about that. I’m not a missionary. I’m not trying to convert anyone to see things a certain way, at all. I’m really not. Why do I use political content? Because it’s the crossover with journalism, and with anyone who tells a story.
The sentence I've italicized there is really what I believe distinguishes artmaking from rhetoric, and I think one of the most difficult tasks for an artist is trusting the—I don't know, veracity?—of whatever it is you can't get out of your mind. And when I encounter a book of poems these days, I find I'm looking for evidence of that kind of commitment—the commitment of a ghost to its haunted house. So often I read poems or collections of poems whose reason for being seems merely whimsical or merely rhetorical. Whereas what turns my head is committed to the generally unenviable task of articulating something that other people don't necessarily want to hear—hell, that you don't want to hear.

I find it interesting, though, that in spite of Laurie Anderson's self-deprecating frankness, she still represents her work as that of being the kind of storytelling that's meant to call attention to story-making: in other words, there is still a critical task in hand, even if she knows she's preaching to the converted. Here's the rest of what she had to say in response to the interviewer's question about audiences:
You know, when we were invading . . . or saber-rattling last November about invading Iran, Bush’s story was ‘Here’s an evil dictator with weapons of mass destruction.’ Jaw-dropping, you know. Like, we’d all heard that story before. We saw where that went. But, you know, there was still some people who went, ‘Oh, okay.’ Instead of going, ‘What are you telling that story again for?’ So it didn’t matter than it wasn’t a true story. It mattered that it was a good story, with the evil guy and hidden treasure and all the things that people want. It’s not a complicated one, but it’s got a good cast of characters. So it’s a fantastic time to be doing this kind of work because everybody’s got their story about where we are, where we’re going. ‘We’re going to be at war for 100 years.’ You have to say, you know, ‘Why is he telling that story? Why is he smiling when he’s saying that?’ But I don’t think there’s a lot of that real kind of analysis going on, so that also is what Homeland’s about, you know, stories and how you tell them.
What I like about this is how on the one hand Anderson's standing up for the artist's right—her imperative—to follow what compels her, no matter how strange or redundant that thing might be... and on the other hand, her work performs a task of analysis that is at least potentially socially useful (if only in the sense that it's useful to her and makes it possible for her to go on telling these stories, which clearly some few of us need to hear). That said, other remarks she makes in the interview suggest that for Anderson, the socially useful is beside the point:
- ...part of my downfall in a way is I kind of like the world as it is. I don’t really feel like, ‘Wow, I have to change it.’ I don’t. It’s kind of always fascinating.

- I really do think that we’re here to have a really good time, shallow as that may sound.
At the same time, she's an acute observer: "You know, we voted in an anti-war government in ’04, but they didn’t stop the war because, you know, basically the government doesn’t run the war." But these observations are a part of her storytelling in a way that doesn't, or isn't meant to, motivate or rabble-rouse. At most, you hear that sort of thing and you recognize the truth of it. And what you do with that recognition is up to you.

I'm a fan of Laurie Anderson, probably the first contemporary artist I was ever made aware of, thanks to my friend Rachel who I knew when I was in fifteen and who was in love with her. She gave a tremendous performance as part of Ithaca's Light in Winter festival that we saw a couple of years ago. I hope to catch her in Chicago sometime—I understand she's from here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Shaping Up

With some trepidation, I've decided to ditch Whitman and Dickinson from my modern poetry course and to focus on the twentieth century instead. The texts I've ordered for the class are:
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems
William Carlos Williams, Imaginations
Ezra Pound, Selected Poems
Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind
Gertrude Stein, Selections
Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems
Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems
John Ashbery, Selected Poems
Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
Gabriel Gudding, Rhode Island Notebook
I've decided to trust that my students will have at least some familiarity with Whitman and Dickinson (this trust based in part on the fact that at least a couple of students signed up for the fall studied those poets in my Nineteenth-Century American Lit class last year (which I'm also teaching again this fall). Which is not to say I can't start the course off with a little sampler handout, just so they can begin to appreciate and start noticing some of the most elemental modern tactics: whether a poem has short lines and a basically vertical movement on the page, or long lines and a horizontal movement; musical effects in the absence of rhyme; leaving-it-out versus putting-it-in; etc.

Strategy versus tactics: I read with interest the comments of Nada Gordon and others on my original post about the course's composition. I definitely think I've constructed the course less as a theory of influences and more with a pedagogical framework in mind: as Kasey says in his comment, my theory is that "the majority of contemporary practice which might appear strange or challenging to the uninitiated reader has been anticipated in one way or another by the particular methodological and presentational choices made by the [poets] in question." In other words, I'm thinking primarily as a reader, seeking to provide a map (there's navigation again) for less experienced readers. I would never presume to create some kind of schema that looked like (Pound + Stevens)/Stein = Ashbery; I know that influence is a much stranger and more unpredictable beast than that. I doubt I'm even aware of every one of my own poetic influences: any such list is potentially of infinite length, given the fact that other poets are far from the only influence on a poet's writing. (Annette Funicello, anyone?)

I haven't tried to free myself or my students from the canon, because of the shaping force it's had, for better or worse, on my own ideas about poetry. I can conceive a course in reading poetry that ignored all canonical figures and poems and instead focused entirely on the contemporary, and maybe I'll try that next time. But I fear this would only deepen, or rather fill in further, the shallow sense of literary history that most undergraduates have. Which raises an interesting question: how can you teach the history of an art form without resorting to canons (or counter-canons through a feminist approach, a Marxist approach, etc.)? Maybe one of my cleverer readers could enlighten me.

Eliot, Williams, Pound, and Stein remain the core quartet, the poets whom I believe have done the most in terms of innovating and creating the field of modern poetry. Then I decided I couldn't leave out Stevens, if only because he's been the greatest single influence on my own work and I might as well cop to that. After those five we move into the postwar period and a sampler of poets of varying canonicity who all, I believe, adopt tactics the core five would recognize—collage, found texts, parataxis, imagism, association, page-as-field—but with wildly different strategic goals. Ginsberg is someone my students have probably read, but Howl is such an epochal poem and I doubt they've read it very closely. O'Hara's mannerisms are maybe over-influential, but what really interests me about him is how, to use a Heideggerianism, he dwells poetically in New York and New York-ly (queerly, visually, cacophonously) in poetry. Brooks is a very different urban poet and a Chicago poet too; I'm interested in how she uses narrative to reconcile aesthetic and political purposes. Ashbery is Ashbery. Mullen combines playfulness and serious critical intent to a high degree, and students love her. And Gudding's book is almost certainly too long a book to end a semester with, but it was one of the most moving reading experiences I had last year, and I think he'll give my writing students permission to write about dimensions of experience they may not have realized are possible to bring into poetry. Plus one of the other elements I want to weave into the course is the function of long poems versus short poems: to finish with a long poem that calls itself a "notebook" and consists of innumerable fragments should leave us with interesting questions.

Obviously I've left out many, many poets who are important to American poetry and to me personally: Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, H.D., all the Objectivists, Charles Olson, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, etc., etc. We only have fifteen weeks. But if I get to teach this course on a recurring basis, I'll mix up the reading list, and I might even specialize in a given school or movement to further test my theory about teaching transferable reading strategies. It would be amazing to teach a "modern poetry" class that focused exclusively on the Objectivists, for example: Williams, Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker, Reznikoff, Rakosi. A course in the generations of the New York School would also be a no-brainer, or a course in Language poetry. I hope this time around to learn a great deal from my students: what they already know or think they know, what their expectations for poetry might be, who or what they see in their mind's eye when they hear the word "poet." We shall see.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Poetry as Navigation

In some ways what preoccupies me most in poetry is navigation: the poem as cognitive map; the poem as an imaginative attempt at orientation, in and through language. Jameson’s Postmodernism appeals to me most of all for its notion of cognitive mappig and what it suggests for postmodern poetry as a series of attempts to navigate and make palpable the capitalist world-system that is rarely if ever visible to the naked eye. In this respect for me poetry is no different from criticism and theory, as discourses which illuminate invisible connections both vertically (the modernist "depth model" of what’s beneath the surface: Freud and the unconscious. Marx and the mode of production, Darwin and natural selection) and horizontally (the postmodernist network of metonyms: Derrida’s chain of signifiers, Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomes, Lyotard’s implosion of master narratives).

What draws me to the great modernist long poems—The Waste Land, The Cantos, Trilogy, Paterson, “A”, ARK—is their epic-scale attempt by an individual to situate him or herself in relation to a culture or cultures dynamically conceived. Even their most conservative attempts to arrest that dynamism—to save a tradition from decay, dissolution, or outright destruction (Pound, Eliot, H.D.), or to preserve a place, a family, or their own imaginations (Williams, Zukofsky, Ronald Johnson) from the pressures of capital—manage to include that dynamic through the fundamental modernist technique of collage, so that each poem is, in Stevens’ terms, a pitched battle between "reality" and imagination. A battle which can never be won; yet merely to locate the enemy’s ground and engage him is a tremendous victory of perception, given the pressure we all are under to submit to the most expedient narrative frames for our lives—frames that omit reality and imagination in almost equal measure.

I'm drawn to pastoral as one of the oldest literary modes of mapping, which is simultaneously a troubling of the territory: where does nature end and culture begin? And as I immerse myself more deeply in ecocriticism I recognize its attempts to think space, place, and history in a fresh way. Struck by the mutual hostility and incomprehension of mainstream ecocritics and postmodernists, and by the similarity of their projects: deep ecology, which seems to be the most influential ecocritical impulse (versus the shallowness of "environmentalism" as just another attempt to manage nature), takes a post- or anti-humanist stance that Foucault might recognize in its decentering of the human subject. The difference is that Foucault, et al, would say that there is only discourse (il n'y a pas hors de texte) and the power relations that generate and situate subjects, whereas the deep ecologists privilege the nonhuman and in their more enthusiastic moments claim the nonhuman as a kind of ur-discourse (mystical, scientific, or both) through which we can access reality directly. I'm too far gone in postmodernism to go there: I think all our claims about nature are saturated in ideology, even and especially when they're made in scientific language. The virtue of pastoral is the transparency of its relation to ideology, and a properly postmodern pastoral will deconstruct its own claims about nature while its powerful affect remains intact.

I say that navigation is what I go to poetry for—Pound’s periplum, Olson’s 'istorin—but it’s more atavistic than that. Reading in Lawrence Buell’s Writiing for an Endangered World an observation of Leslie Marmon Silko’s that "particularity of environmental detail may actually betoken lack of connectedness," I immediately think of my own childhood and my sense of being trapped in a world I never made. The social relations that others seemed to swim in like fish in water were at once visible and opaque: I saw clearly the power struggles that governed relationships, but my vision seemingly disqualified me from joining the struggle in a meaningful way. I suspect this experience is typical of many intellectuals, or at least it’s typical of nerds as they’re described in a useful taxonomy I read recently. I wrote and later read poetry (that’s the usual order, no?) because it promised to reintegrate what I saw and what I felt: as a cognitive mode that involves the body (by ear, he sd) it creates danceable maps of experience. Later on I became more interested in collective modes of experience, in more layered and detailed maps (whereas the lyrical-confessional mode of poetry that I was originally attracted to was more concerned with points than lines: for such poetry YOU ARE is more important than YOU ARE HERE), and I was also not coincidentally discovering the great theoretical maps of psychological and social and historical being (I’m a latecomer to the biological via my new interest in ecopoetics). For a long while the more abstract something was—the more of a God’s eye view it promised of the territory—the more seductive I found it. Only recently has this tendency been counterbalanced back toward a concern with more local and particular details, and in my rewrite of Severance Songs I'm trying to rediscover the unabandonable "I." Because creating a map, however variegated and gorgeous, may be less important now than the act of tracking and orienteering, of living off the unstable postmodern "land" without accepting it as the only possible reality. (I find I am incorrigibly diasporic in my thinking, a sojourner, most un-at-home when at home. But maybe this feeling has been intensified by moving twice in two years.) Another way of saying that I want to preserve something of the modernist preoccupation with history—the absolute present of the postmodern nullifies the very notion of a future that doesn’t look like the present, but more so.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Signs of Life

Which has basically been topsy-turvy since early May. In that time, I've gone to Europe, spent a few weeks hanging out in Ithaca, changed apartments here in Evanston, spent a week in Arizona with the in-laws, and now slowly unpacking, reading Plonsker applications, and ruminating over how best to spend the precious few weeks remaining before classes start again. Of course as I ruminate, the time goes by! I have a number of projects on the fire but they're all in early, creative stages—this is a great place to be except when I start worrying about summer's end and what I might tangibly have to show for them.

Severance Songs has gone through a full revision and I'm waiting for a little feedback from friends before I send it on its rounds again. I've got a big stack of books on the subject of ecocriticism and I'm slowly looking through them with an eye toward launching my pastoral book from the ashes of my dissertation. I'm working on my syllabi, most intently right now on a modern poetry course: after some dithering I've decided to emphasize teaching the students to fish rather than filling their creels for them. That means less of a survey and more of an intensive study of a handful of the greats, followed by their seizing the initiative and writing about a poet of their choosing. "Modern poetry" is a vast acreage and if I had world enough and time I'd make the mix of poets more international, but for the first time I teach a course like this I think it's wiser to stay closer to my own areas of expertise, which means American modernism. So we'll start out with Whitman and Dickinson, ancestors of us all, then read healthy chunks of Williams, Eliot, Pound, and Stein. After that I'd like to shift the emphasis to the contemporary, and to get a little more diverse vis-a-vis race, politics, and gender. My pedagogical theory here is, familiarize yourself with the strategies of these six poets and there's no poem whose tactics you won't be able to figure out.

Still and all, what I'd really rather be doing is continue to read George Oppen, whose complete published oeuvre is now at my fingertips, having picked up a probably mispriced copy of the Selected Letters for a song online. I'm not uncritical of Oppen's ascetism, his underdeveloped feminism (at times in the Daybooks he sounds just like D.H. Lawrence), or his ontological one-mindedness (what he refers to in the letters as his "metaphysical vertigo"). But I find him to be an excellent, sober, keen-sighted and dry-witted companion on what I can only describe as a search for the roots of my own poetic impulses—a quest for renewal, to see clearly what it is I'm about, as I shake free of the chatter and clutter of a childless life when there was more time, or so it seems now, to dawdle in cul-de-sacs or to give basically uninteresting work second and third chances. Besides, I love reading letters (alas for the dead art! there's only blogs now), especially letters like these in which the poet himself is in pursuit of fundamentals and there's only small leaven of gossip and publishing chit-chat to wade through.

All this, plus Sadie, plus my lingering wish to get a good D&D game or something like it going again. When I haven't even seen a movie in ages. (Except for WALL-E, in Arizona while my aunt was babysitting—excellent.)

Popular Posts