|Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing
Edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith
Northwestern University Press, 2011
|I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women
Edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place
Les Figues Press, 2012
Reviewed by Edgar Garcia
There are said to be certain Mexican shamans whose magic is based on a performance of the crossroads, wherein the act of situating themselves in a crisis of choice between multiple, indeterminate directional possibilities summons an intense cosmic energy with which they can change their identity at will. Personal transformation is brought on through agonistic self-splitting and animistic metamorphosis. Ohmaxac. Yoruba cosmology recognizes a similar energy in the god Eshu. Likewise, the blues musician Robert Johnson fell to his knees at a crossroad, supplicating to his lord after a Faustian pact with the devil. This is precisely analogous to the state in which American poetry finds itself today: squinting to see conclusively in every murky direction. We shall, some think, decide on a way forward for the lyric by chasing an old polemic, then out of this polemic we shall make bait for an old bogey because that, if nothing else, will keep the ink running. But the bogey with two backs is quite tired; its antinomic categories of conceptual and expressivist poetics alike reduce the field of poetry to an inert binary. And when a hybrid of the two was attempted in American Hybrid, David St. John and Cole Swensen’s 2009 anthology of “new poetry,” the gesture was already so institutionalized that its birth seemed attended with death knells (heard in the flurry of critical attacks that accompanied its publication). If Donald Allen’s epochal 1960 New American Poetry was meant to promote new ways of writing by writers who hadn’t yet entered into the mainstream with formal publications, St. John and Swensen’s anthology seems instead to have enshrined a contemporary establishment, emanating a rather tenured sense of the new. Fresh blood and cosmic energy this was not.
What then is to be made of two new anthologies whose mutual premise seems to come back to that old bogey, in which experimentalist conceptual poetry is presented in stark opposition to expressivist subjectivized poetry? Erstwhile immensely popular, the sport of bear baiting has long been considered a bloodthirsty practice—but you can still get a group of people riled and ready to move with a good monster every once in a while. What beast are we told lurks at the fork in this road? The question begged here, of course, is what can be recommended for something like lyric poetry today. Rather than adding another micropositioned groan to the grumbling mob of discontent in the discourse around American poetry today I write this essay on literary purpose and “good seed corn”—somewhat veiled as a review of two anthologies which in parts I admire and in other parts have reservations about—in order to show what bits of inventiveness are out there and, in doing so, to do my part in keeping those bits alive.
The current issue of Contemporary Literature has ten mighty essays on the last decade of American poetry—a decade which left us, we are told, with a “crisis identity.” Literally. Urayoán Noel, quoting Lázaro Lima, uses this phrase to describe a distinct cultural context but it can be stretched out to apply to the larger kulturmorphologie of the circuit of contemporary American poetry, and indeed it has been, with “crisis” becoming a sort of buzzword in poetry today. But, as it is always useful to define a term as a way of forcing a greater discrimination in its use, I’d like to think more carefully on this moment of “crisis.” For it is as if all the old prophecies are coming true (Blakean and Amerindian): that we must reach out to alternative epistemological models if we are to understand anything about the collapse of familiar institutions all around us. Indeed if we are to survive their collapse at all. It was, after all, an anonymous Nahuatl writer who long ago conceptualized an identity of crisis when in the mid-sixteenth century he or she coined the phrase, “nepantlah;” meaning, “to be or feel in between.” In between colliding worlds and divergent possibilities (from the same stem Nahuatl has another word for crossroads, “onepanco”), the phrase is necessarily a “fractured enunciation,” as Walter Mignolo put it. It is surely no coincidence that it would have come from the mouth of the newly dispossessed. This, by the way, is the actual significance of “hybrid,” another kernel of fact kept secret by the earlier mentioned anthology. What we are interested in is therefore culture at a critical and invigorating depth—where language bends, breaks and innovates, where an enunciation of absolute fracture could and should become a “when” for regeneration.
MAKE IT NEW… MAKE IT NEW… MAKE IT NEW… Ezra Pound wrote it large like that because it loomed large in the mind of King Cheng Tang of Shang, from whom he got it (Canto LIII, 1940). Tang wrote it on his bathtub to remind himself that everyday his kingdom’s problems required fresh solutions; that the state must remain open and fluid for it to avoid atrophy and failure. Pound applied it to poetry where it has remained the cri de coeur ever since. This sensibility has most recently manifested itself in Marjorie Perloff’s essay in the current issue of the Boston Review, “Poetry on the Brink.” In her essay, Perloff champions serious commitment to craft, but it is a specific kind of craft: craft that challenges and invigorates the discourse of poetry with groundbreaking works and techniques. “A cheerful pluralism animated by noisy critical debate about the nature of lyric” is what she hopes for—or, rather, having hoped and found such hope rather isolating in today’s dominant poetic discourse, she laments the “polite respect” that the poetry establishment commands and the “enthusiasm and excitement” that she concludes it lacks. The worn lyric paradigm of “observation-triggering memory-insight” is a main target and, as an alternative, she advocates for techniques of appropriation. “Uncreative writing,” as Kenneth Goldsmith has called it, is seen as a means to challenge assumptions about the “essence of lyric poetry.” But, as Perloff’s essay demonstrates, “recycling, reframing, grafting, mistranslating, and mashing” do not foreclose the possibility of “a true voice of feeling.” Susan Howe’s That This, one of the works Perloff discusses, is an especially salient example here, a profound meditation upon Howe’s husband’s death composed entirely with appropriated text. It is a stunning demonstration of the possibility of voicing the unspeakable.
It is interesting that “Poetry on the Brink” has sparked such an uproar. By 2012 Jerome Rothenberg is sufficiently digested for us to know that opposing systems of poetic sensibility go back to the opposed temperaments of those who thought memory and custom good for the poetic crop, and the opposed faction who thought it better to look forward and outward with experiment and invention (the technicians of the sacred of pre-history). That ought to simplify a good deal of argument. The experimentalist, in their experimentalism, might at least decide whether he or she is for the crop and the community, or whether he or she is just a technologist. The exact use of focusing the discourse of innovation on technologies that are in certain respects purposeless is however in some reaches obscure. Surely what Tang intended with his injunction to “MAKE IT NEW… MAKE IT NEW… MAKE IT NEW…” was no empty innovation for its own sake, but rather a sense of memory and praxis energized by vision—an innovation that would animate how we imagine and carve out the material and social world around us. There is such a thing as dull conceptual writing—Perloff acknowledges this. By the same token, there are innovative poems of expressivity.
The terms “crisis” and “critic” share a common etymology: κρίσις, a split or effect of disarticulation and/or discernment; an act thereof. That is, a fork in the road. The more dogmatic frenzies of the conceptualist cult seem unadapted to the pleasanter and, arguably, more praxis oriented prerogatives of poetry as spelled out in days of yore: ut doceat, ut moveat, ut delectat; that it teach, that it move, that it delight. Providing an alternative axis by which to think about these things outside of the inert binary—to see the open field poetry in its teeming variety—is perhaps the best that I can do to convince a reader that there is a way forward in the reinvention of the lyric that is not taken by bogey or evasion.
In the hefty introduction to his and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Against Expression, Craig Dworkin suggests it may be useful to think of their anthology as “a litmus test for the reader’s sense of where the demarcations between creative and uncreative writing lie.” Placing the hinge of that demarcation between words and ideas, the suggestion seems to be that there can be as much if not more originality in a word-for-word retyping of the New York Times (e.g. Goldsmith’s Day) as there can be in “a [stock] story in which one generation must come to terms with a secret family history.” In other words, he flips the binary: a new idea counts for more than an old one even if decently rendered with “words.” Intellectual inertia is the bogey—and, since that is the case, intellectual inertia is collapsed here with expressivity (thus the anthology’s title: Against Expressivity). That “poetry might be reclaimed as a venue for intellect” is a reasonable proposition but, in exploring the poems a bit more closely, their anthologist finds he has slipped into a directive he can’t quite see all the way through:
Despite conceptualism’s more hyperbolic efforts, it seems always to bear the residues of its bogey, the expressive. And why? Because in poetry it is that which survives this anthologist’s litmus test. Although a definitive ideology of conceptualism over expressivism can be stated, it doesn’t really speak for the kind of poetry that is actually found in the anthology—nor does it articulate a clear purpose for conceptual poetry. As in all the arts, there are both “viable strategies” and strategies that do not demonstrate “viability.” That said, the question remains as to what sort of creature the “viability” of a given conceptual strategy keeps alive. Dworkin tells us he prefers the mountain nymph Echo over the hunter Narcissus as model of poetic ingenuity (i.e. the echo chamber over the mirror). But, as a far greater challenge, it seems a writer might still choose Ovid, progenitor of both. In choosing Ovid we could at least get closer to a poetic model attentive to the rapid processes of mutability, conflict, dialectic, choice and change.
In a recent interview with Ben Lerner posted on the Poetry Foundation’s web site, Peter Gizzi framed what Perloff calls a “brink” as a “threshold.” On the threshold of musical address, the boundary between singer and audience, the haunted crossroad of the lyric, Gizzi remarks, “singing is a perilous business.” There is, he means, a gulf between the writer and the reader into which the writer, in writing, throws something—a song, a voice, a dramatization or expression which he or she no longer can control. “Threshold” here is the abstraction of the crossroad, where “brink” is for Perloff the abstraction of a limit point, a reason for turning back. But, although Gizzi encourages daring journeys out and into a somewhat affective interpretation of the crossroad for new “modes of expression,” he doesn’t get around to giving a reason why—or even very much of a how. Discrimination of one way from another, our “Make-It-New” Mencius said, must precede a vigorous pursuit. And so:
Originally a poetic mode associated with the lyre and therefore musical arrangement, the lyric’s test is not necessarily the viability or visibility of its speaker but the viability and presence of a certain sonic element. The lyric does of course have a subject—it is, by its very form, addressed to another—but it is only in thinking past this “subject” that we can clarify how lyric poetry makes declarative statements. The content of these declarations is a tone or atmosphere, necessarily supported by musical structure—even when the music might be a kind of seemingly unmusical arrangement, it could be expanding what we know in sound (see, for example, John Coltrane’s 1962 “Out of this World” for a testing of—and turning back from!—the boundaries). Vision here is emergent from the sound; in poetry, content emanates from a poetic form’s statement. If a poet gets that right, they can do whatever they’d like, with the speaker revealed or evaporative, appropriative or appropriated. And this is because they are already committed to a deeper understanding of poetry as metamorphosis—sound become sight, light come forth from fire, the poem attaining an embodied personhood. The Nahuatl language assigns grammatical levels of animacy to different categories of things, with a stone having less animacy than a human and a human less animacy than a mountain or god. A poem, sent wandering into the limitless “threshold” on its own to speak for itself and perform as it will, would have a very high level of animacy. “Verbi-voco-visual” as Joyce or the Noigandres group might have called it—I call it “alive.” The trouble is that in both the experimental and the non-experimental factions, even so basic an understanding is not always reached. Expression is secondary to metamorphic processes, and so is conceptuality.
Expressivity then is not the problem. Certain constructs which are actually just poor technology sold at premium are. There’s plenty in Goldsmith and Dworkin’s anthology that might leave one unimpressed and uninspired—that offers me no point of passage. But there is much in it, nevertheless, that opens up the field of poetic discourse (the lengthiness of this review should be interpreted as testament to that). Certain inert selections could have benefitted from a more satisfying apparatus of commentary. Conceptual writing is not self-evident; greater explanation of works included would perhaps better habilitate and empower a reader and student. That is, content cannot emanate from a form, if the form itself is not grasped. Even a glyphic script as opaque as rongorongo retains certain points of intelligibility which many conceptual texts intentionally lack.
Providing lengthy writers’ statements after each selected text, I’ll Drown My Book—an anthology of conceptual writing by women—is better equipped to release what Caroline Bergvall in the Foreword calls “new significatory forms.” Throughout the text the editors of this anthology encourage a critical self-estimation of each writer’s sense and purpose. Bergvall writes that “the conceptual poetics collated in this collection are filled with the meandering troubles of the term itself.” That kind of skepticism is conducive to a healthy atmosphere of openness and productivity. Avenues of legibility are made available, the reader is enabled to participate in these “critical poetics.” Such responsibility on the part of the writers, furthermore, elicits a baseline recognition that not all that is neoteric is nacre. What, the book asks, are these writers trying to do—and how, and why? Such questions also generate a more political footing, as the writers are compelled to account for a real world significance for their experiments.
Reflecting on poetry as that which necessarily emits significance, Charles Bernstein writes on meaning and value:
He is correct: poetry necessarily emits significance and thus inheres value of some general kind. But it is important, especially in today’s economic, political and intellectual climate, to stress that value is not a general or static category: not all value is equally material—a hard lesson people are forced to relearn every time banks are asked in vain to answer for fictitious capital, “money” created by the practice and packages of speculation. A pair of essays by Christopher Nealon and Joshua Clover in the January 2012 issue of PMLA, both titled “Value | Theory | Crisis,” flesh out a historical entanglement between the logics of financialization and theories of post-structuralism (indeed Clover is currently braving the institutional ire of entangled educational and financial interests at UC Davis). Poetry’s “crisis identity,” in their estimation, is related to the financial crises of recent history. No poem, it is certain, is without its close real world context. In the recently released special summer issue of the publication Damn the Caesars, titled “Crisis Inquiry,” the larger imbrications and decussations of today’s political economy with the poetic forms of our time are explored—with a particular focus on the poetry of Rob Halpern and Keston Sutherland. See, for example, Halpern’s use of appropriated and incorporated text in the selection of astonishing war lyrics from his Music For Porn. Experimentalism with the lyric here is at least decidedly for the crop and the community.
In his collection of essays, A Dialectic of Centuries: Notes Towards a Theory of the New Arts, Dick Higgins coins the phrase “neoteric fallacy” to index the fallacious notion that “artistic innovation works in a way akin to scientific innovation—that each new discovery or tendency makes what came before it obsolete, or at least obsolescent…” The analogy is slightly misguided: scientific innovation doesn’t entirely proceed by trends. But the point is still worthwhile. Unless one’s purpose is merely to attract attention, to generate immediate profit blind to the necessity of keeping alive just enough good seed corn for new crop, newness itself won’t cut it. One can neither affirm nor deny the new, except insofar as its value is measured by something else. I have put forward as this “something else” an aptitude or capacity for animacy, the extraperception of poetry as a living thing. In the realm of critical poetics, this living thing is necessarily unstable, constantly contesting entrenched hierarchies and calcified identity positions. The bane of totalitarian structures has always been metamorphosis, quick and unpredictable. Where the sky and earth commix as sprouted creature in the world, the divine is neither delimited from the human, nor is the universe anything but radically subjectified. The poem is a life on its own, a personhood, an animating touch of craft. “The poem that moves me when I write,” wrote Robert Duncan, “is an active presence in which I work.” That presence is forked, a crossroad today—ohmaxac. A living entity. If experimentalists today want a solid injunction, I think the most meaningful would be that they familiarize themselves with alternative forms of literacy—how poetry lives in other environments. Not toward the asemic but toward semantic noisiness. Higgins happens to have an essay in his book titled “Conceptual Forks,” which asks: “does the wood want to become log or fish? … is the idea of the fish in the wood?” The question is not whether the wood is able to become something else (it eminently is), but whether it desires to and how that desire might manifest as a vibrant moment of indecision. Each crisis in a tree’s life reveals itself as a forking—each forking a growth. A “fork” in the road is the abstraction of directional possibility in an indeterminate world, where the crisis of choice itself provides us with an immense possibility for radical transformation. In xochitl in cuicatl ipan in ohmaxac: Poetry is at a fork.
Edgar Garcia’s poetry, translations and essays have appeared in a number of publications, including Damn the Caesars, Jacket2, Mandorla and Sous les Pavés. Author of Mayan Texts: A Galactic Birth Canal (Burnt Water Press) and Boundary Loot (forthcoming, Punch Press), he is also an editor of Hydra Magazine and co-curates the blog nagualli.blogspot.com. He is completing a PhD in American Literature at Yale University