Friday, February 20, 2009

On Docu-Poetry: A Febrile Meditation

Docu-poetry: I too, no, it isn’t that I
dislike it, but it troubles me. Maybe
I feel threatened by it? I mean, I mean
no proscription or buzzkill or any dis-
respect of those who practice it, just that,
what, I see it… grasping for mimesis
and reportage at the expense of verbal
imagination, I feel in it a kind of
shoehorning of didactic social message
into poetic forms that have no intrinsic
connection to, or maybe add no value to,
the often compelling and important
narratives that are being conveyed in these
pieces. Maybe the added value is entry into
the still privileged aura of the category of
“poetry” and the [sometimes] warm
communities that form within it? Anyway,
the poetic devices in these pieces, it strikes me,
if anything, distract from the reportage, which
in itself is genuinely heroic, making it sound,
to my ear, a bit preciously or artificially heroic.
Poetry, by definition, is precious and artificial.
The preciousness and artifice can be dealt with
in many ways: with an embrace, or with mockery,
or with attempted rejection. Still, the preciousness
and artifice are always there, I mean… here.
Am I just too reactionary? The poetics stances
I have taken in my decades of “practice” and
in the seven years of Ululations certainly
should make it clear I’ve no objection to
artifice. Artifice is the riotous center of my
work, for better or for worse, but then I don’t
aim to be particularly heroic, and my approach
to social message is, like my approach to
everything else, never head-on. So no, it’s not
the artifice per se that I “have issues with”; it’s
the mismatch, maybe, between the flat reportage of the
information and the form of verse itself, whose very
lines serve as little spotlights to the lexis and
the syntax; if they are broken, they should, I guess,
be broken for some reason, as Milton broke his lines
to keep you reading breathlessly throughout
his mighty saga. It’s not, you know, that I believe
information does not belong in poetry; I’m all
for data. I write, a couple posts down from here,
my mantra: “everything is material for
poetry,” and I do quite earnestly believe that.
So what’s my beef exactly? Is it resistance to
didacticism? Because it imparts to docu-verse
what I experience as a kind of deadness of
the already decided, the foregone conclusion,
a kind of “positive capability”? It’s funny,
when I think about what docu-poetry is not,
I think of Keats. When I read Keats, and even,
oddly, when I read about Keats, I feel almost
as if I’m reading porn, except that I don’t really
like porn, so that would mean something much
better and much more effective than porn, if by
effective we mean not perhaps creating ripples
of social change but rather making one’s heart race,
one’s senses stir with transferred longing, with
beautiful “slippery blisses.” Perhaps my pupils
dilate, too? I haven’t checked. How does he do
this to me? Like a lover! The answer is simple:
he does it with form, as any artist does, with form
so organic to the content and content so organic
to the form that really there is no duality.
I don’t mean to wipe the rust off that old
Olsonian saw as there, sure, are plenty of
examples of form and content that very
interestingly conflict, and I don’t like absolutes
of any kind. It’s just that, what, when I come
into contact with, uh, docu-poems, especially
on the page, I ask myself, why are they line-
ated? Just to buy into the impotent validity
of “poetry”? Because the category is hallowed,
somehow? And I ask myself, how does en-
jambment work in the poems, and repetition?
Why so much anaphor? I guess that’s a nod
to Stein, yes, but without her libidinal force,
the sense of words massaged in the brain into
new shapes and other syntaxes, without, so often,
a forward rush of rhythmic necessity. Why, I ask
myself, am I lineating this? should be the question
you are asking of me right now. Do you have any
questions? Anything you would like to ask me now?
If I were you, I would ask, what poems, exactly,
are you talking about, what do you mean, how is it
you have got this far with all these vague cat-
egorizations and no exemplification? Right.
Well, what occasioned me to write this was
Juliana Spahr’s poem, “The Incinerator,” that appeared
today at the top of Ron’s link list. And I am think-
ing of a reading I saw in San Francisco of C. S. Perez,
as well as sections of Stephanie Young’s film narration
she performed here last Saturday. I suppose we can
deduce from this that there’s a kind of coastal split
in operation here, a facile explanation of which may
well be the actual physical environments: here
in the grimness of wintry Brooklyn, sick in my room
(did I mention I’m sick?), I only want the consolation
of fantasy. There, where iceplants cover sandy slopes
and pop out bright pink blossoms, where rosemary
bushes bloom all year round, where the very breezes
smell sweetly of peppery nasturtium or the most
girlish alyssum, perhaps there’s nothing to do but
“take the beauty down a notch,” inject some flat
realism into all that sea air and florabunda. OK,
I’m doing here what I said I wouldn’t do maybe
five posts down, I’m not describing, I’m eval-
uating, I’m conjecturing, I’m being categorical,
and that’s a problem. That is not a good way
to proceed. So here, more or less, is my experience
of reading Juliana’s poem, “The Incinerator.”
In the first section, a narrator describes a sex
scene in a garden. Naturally, I liked this part,
and I liked it even more as I continued reading
and discovered that her sex partner was in fact
either her Appalachian hometown or a namesake
of her Appalachian hometown. It was her TOWN
upon whose face she seemed to be rather enjoyably
writhing. A metaphor! Cool! I thought they were taboo!
Really an engaging start to the poem, I felt. From there
it moves into data that piles up to form the narrator’s
(clearly, at this point, Juliana), self-awareness with
regard to class, race, gender, Appalachia, and global
politics. All of this information interests me. As an
essay, it’s brilliant, and as a memoir, too, but there’s
something about its sheer factuality that, to me,
rejects “poetry” even while inhabiting it as a mode.
In fact, the piece is mostly not lineated, (so much
for my objection above) except in its epilogue,
and mainly is composed in sentences. There is,
however, a lot of repetition. I could just as well
call it prose. Do I care about genre? It seems here
that maybe I do. How backward of me. Why?
I guess I want to preserve poetry as some kind
of autonomous extra-rational struggling space? Why?
And what IS docu-poetry, anyway? I throw this open
as a question, as I’m beginning to confuse myself.
Mayer’s Moving? Kenny’s Fidget? Maybe even
Swoon is docu-poetry; I don’t know. What about
Ed Sanders? I have to admit that most of his work
bores me, except when it’s sung, and I love “Yiddish
Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side,” not least
because it’s an operetta. Can I even say that any of
these pieces are not didactic, or that they are didactic
in a different way than Juliana’s poem? Is her
political materialism incompatible with my aesthetic
materialism? Is that a twain that rarely if ever meets?
Oh god, my fever’s going up again, 101.4. Did I mention
I’m sick? And writing this in bed, Dante curled beside
me satisfyingly fleshy like a big raccoon, cherry Ricola
on the night table. I really do want the information
these writers impart: whether it’s C.S. Perez’ family
history during the Japanese invasion of Guam or the scary
data on BART tunnel construction and disaster scenarios
that Stephanie included in her film narration last weekend.
And I want also the sharp, smart lens of Juliana turned
in this way onto her own life and onto the world. It’s
just that, it’s just that, there’s something else I want
from poems, something not so controlled by the superego
(thanks, Toni) or by external conditions, something that rolls
about in language and gets covered with its secretions,
something undeliberate, unrefined, unplanned, something
that foils the message instead of making it more
transparent, something that forefronts cadence.
Think of cadence as a kind of skipping through
a little bit of time, just that much duration and the
sound and meaning and syncopation in it. Material.
I mean I think my poems have themes and motivations,
too, they are not “just cadence,” but I don’t think
that in any discernible way they have lessons. Are people
longing for lessons? Grasping at them? It struck me
reading the new magazine that Andy Gricevich kindly gave me
last Saturday, Cannot Exist, that every poem in it seemed
to include some sort of heavy-handed socio-critique.
Isn’t, um, aren’t the lessons already in the fabric
of the language? Can’t we just assume that, and write
inductively, forefronting the senses? Or am I just clinging
desperately to my schtick? I don’t know. Look, I’m not
proposing something so simple, despite all the Keats
and porn stuff that precedes this, that we should only
write “for pleasure.” That would be boring, finally. Just
like Juliana, and C.S., and Stephanie, and Bernadette,
and Kenny, and Ed, and all the rest, I write to navigate
my existence, to explore my mental contours and the
nuances of language and experience. But the poetry I see
coming out of this west coast tendency is so different
from the poetry I am moved to make that I can only
stop and ask myself, What’s going on here? Why
so different? And what’s next?

31 comments:

Jordan said...

And what's for dinner?

I'd forgotten this Antinesque strain of your work -- clearly time for me to work my way back through, from Rodomontade on.

In Chicago James and I watched a documentary on the National Geographic channel about tigerfish in the Congo. Apparently the river is so deep and the current so strong that entirely different species of the same genus have are evolving on either side of the slipstream.

I don't know why poetries are still responding to conditions imposed by geography when we all have phones, e-mail, etc.. except that that Sidney Lanier thing Pinsky likes to quote about poetry being an embodied art, literally of the body of the person reading the poem aloud... that might be tree. I mean true. And that the psychic-acoustics are only part of what goes into it, only part of what gets taken up.

I'll say this, though -- suddenly everybody on the subway is reading a book.

phaneronoemikon said...

Didactic sounds like

'died acting'

but if you reverse it

my feeling is something more like

cities of katydids..

now:

The family Tettigoniidae, known in American English as katydids and in British English as bush-crickets, contains more than 6,400 species.

okay, that's a small town
of the little folk all looking a little different,

and on difference and like this

Heraclitan Pi thing I've been on

look at Tettigonidae

and i'll just skip the actual latin etymology

you ever notice how the pi symbol
looks like two small t's put together like

tt

i find it weird that a non-repeating value is represented
by a kind of self-echoing icon

wouldn't it have been more like
'motivated' if it was just a squiggle


at any rate

tt (pi_
is gets me back to Tetti(gonidae

which gets me to

first

Tete-y
and then titty
that's flarfic sort of

titty gonads

okay not so good
on the surface

well, now there is that whole
logos spermatikos
that Pynchon is always on about
or whatever

so that's like

Tete a gonad y day
and even what's his face
the really famous poet

Paul Celan has his

Sprachgitter ("Speech-grille", 1959)

now a Gryllus is a grasshopper
but its also an ancient roman fertility chimera thing

like a wind chime with balls

but if we update
the chimera to the modernist
grid
we get a

grille

or complexity
as represented
as a self-cross-referencing
matrix

there's probably a cool buddhist or sanskrit word for that

the matrix of representation

those old hindu cats were like
gone
they were so

chillum, chillum
(shakes head that way)
'i'm writing on a leaf'

and isn't that just perfectly apt
and isn't Diophantine
a cool word?

I guess I could go one more step
and just say something like

all representation
is of the same
'order of things'
but that's probably not quite right
but i think there is a grain of truth to it

i guess that's why i never get too caught up in what any given poet or artist is trying to convey
aside from the surface

because in the end
the surface is all there is
all that stays, or mostly what stays

and as a grasshopper
there just no telling where
i'm likely to light
on any

sprachgitter
or what color
sprachjuicen
i'm likely to spit out

i'm mean it's fairly limited
but there is some natural
variation and such


get well soon!

Nada said...

Wikipedia says, about "diophantine":

The questions asked in Diophantine analysis include:

1. Are there any solutions?
2. Are there any solutions beyond some that are easily found by inspection?
3. Are there finitely or infinitely many solutions?
4. Can all solutions be found, in theory?
5. Can one in practice compute a full list of solutions?



Lanny, I always learn something new from you!

knott said...

your lineated ruminations even from a sickbed are certainly intelligent

and well phrased / / /

i like that poem "Ding" you posted a couple days ago——
very impressive . . .

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Nada -- this is a wonderful & thought-provoking post. And Bill is right ---you really do think well when you're fevered.

Does Juliana refer to her own work as 'docu-poetry'? Because even if she does, I don't view it that way. I love her writing, a lot, and would call it ...maybe...witness poetry before I'd label it docu-poetry. Her litanies of data don't strike me as lesson-like at all. The crashing of data against lush descriptives seems to me like an attempt to figure out how to incorporate the ugliest facts, & how & when to make sense or not make sense of them and how to not give up.

When I read her work and sense a socio-moral lesson coming up, my bullshit-detecting antenna goes up immediately (is that an east coast thing?) but I think that Spahr is asking the very same questions in the work, in its language & form. So it moves me, and ultimately I trust it.

Your questions about east vs. west coast are great. I have no clue about what the answers might be.

Nada said...

Lynn, I know what you mean, and yes, Juliana's work is full of all sorts of questions;it is exploratory, yes; it doesn't really come to a foregone conclusion. She doesn't use the term "docu-poetry" to describe her work; for all I know I invented it (but probably not). It definitely is a poetry of witness, yes, and there's a tremendous tradition of that.

It's a tradition, though, that I feel is radically different from my own poetic trajectory. Years ago, somewhere on line, Joe Safdie got on my case for writing "extravagant" poems instead of "poetry of witness." I got indignant.

Can't it be said, though, that I'm bearing witness to my imagination? I said as much to him.

The fixed idea that poetry has to have some direct A=B relationship with a measurable external reality (isn't even that phrase problematic?), and that it needs to redeem its arguable uselessness by being suffused with a clear and moral narrative of social critique, is really foreign to me. I don't think that makes me anti-critique, though.

Poetry critiques thought and habit by struggling and by playing tricks. Critique is endemic to poetry, I think. Or rather than "poetry," I should say, "the poetic function." I guess my argument is that when we minimize poetic function in order to maximize reportage, the element of poetic critique gets lost.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

I think that a lot of Flarf IS a kind of poetry of witness, in a big way, really.

I think the extravagance of your work is part of why it's so great. You're very strongly an exuberant formalist, don't you think? Juliana isn't that.

Lots of different ways to get there, you know?

The most engaging ideas, to me, though, are the east vs. west coast and what is going on at this point in time with that difference or sameness. And then of course the question comes up of specifically where you are in that, because you're both west and east coast, right? In fact, I remember you talking not that long ago in your blog about how New York has changed, and being a New Yorker etc., so I suspect that all those ideas are rolling around in here somewhere too. Roots, contexts, etc.

I love your writing, and your blog; and hope I haven't overspoken in my interpretations here.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

p.s. It occurred to me that maybe your real complaint is that the kind of work Juliana Spahr writes is much more apt to get "attention" and seem "accessible" than is the kind of work that you write (not speaking, obviously, about your or her work specifically). And if that's your point, yes, I totally see it, and agree, and wonder about it and don't think it's fair and even think it's kind of weird how that continues to happen. This only occurred to me because you brought up that thing that J Safdie said.

Nada said...

Would I of all people object to overspeaking? Of course not, and anyway, I don't think you are.

I'm thrilled that you're engaged.

And thank you for your kind praise, too.

Of course, there are different ways to proceed, and different goals, and differences of all kinds. At the risk of sounding trite, I "celebrate difference."

This post, though, maybe came from two kneejerk reactions of mine, one:

if Juliana, Safdie, etc., are "right" in their approach, does that make me wrong? I don't really think so, but there's always that doubt...(not really that I could change if I wanted to)...

and...

a feeling that I need to preserve or protect I guess what it is you are calling "exuberant formalism," not just for my own sake, but for the sake of the art

there's something about Juliana's work in particular that is so commanding, because she is so smart, so relentless in her search for justice, so, really, Atlas-like, that I think she has tremendous influence

and I admire her for all of those things and feel affection for her personally. This isn't personal.

Nada said...

re: your p.s.

Honestly I begrudge no poet any kind of attention, and I feel blessed to get as much attention as I do; I've moved well beyond any bitterness in that department. But as you said, my complaint, if that's what it is, maybe more like a concern, is not about anyone's work in particular, just a fear that poetry will get drowned (I first typed drownded!) in the literal.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

ha, yes, our comments crossed. You've said it much more eloquently but I think we've said sort of the same thing in the end. And yes, I totally see how & what you're fighting for and I agree.

Matt said...

I get annoyed by people who criticize others for not writing witness poetry or political poetry because, even if they don't say it, they want everyone to take the expected liberal view in that kind of poem. I like to think I'm a liberal too, but I don't like the one-sidedness that political poets seem to expect from everyone.

I mean, for example I think a person could write a poem about a death row inmate whose sentence was reduced to life in prison, but then they escaped and killed someone--a political poem in favor of the death penalty. It seems like every death-penalty-related poem I've read is anti-death-penalty. I'm never surprised.

I'm totally anti-death-penalty too, but that liberal one-sidedness that some poets take for granted still annoys me.

phaneronoemikon said...

the universe
is the most beautiful songbird
in the universe

knott said...

extravagance is more essential to poetry than witness,

I think, so I'm on your side in the matter,

though of course it's an ancient debate, and the antithetical postures have had many terms/figures applied to their contentions over the centuries——

one of my favorites appears in Octavio Paz's "Children of the Mire," where he says:

"The history of modern poetry is that of the oscillation between revolutionary temptation and religious temptation."

Whether one is witness (revolutionary, in Paz's polars) inclined or extravagance (religious, as Paz frames it) bent,

I like Paz's use of the word "temptation"——

as Oscar Wilde said, I can resist anything except temptation"——

and Wilde was if anything on the side of extravagance in poetry as in life——

"We are all in the gutters, but some of us are looking at the stars"

as he phrased the credo of the Extravs . . .

knott said...

. . . thinking of the Wilde quote leads me to wonder whether we could even glimpse the stupid stars from our luxe gutters

unless the poet elevated them up there or pointed them out to us——

as "Ding" limns Amy Winehouse for us in a fresh rush of imagery and vibrant juxtapositions, re——"compulsion" is "composition". . . the poet's "Autistic [artistic] constant . . . blunt-tonguing the air—"

No, I don't understand every "thing" in "Ding," but its "sucky shit" is worth "shouting the sprout" about.

. . . and while "Ding" directs us toward the extravagant nominal star of Winehouse (as Li Po wrote: If heaven does not love wine, then why is there a Wine Star in heaven?),

it hardly neglects the gutter where president blowjob plucks the penis of mayhem while being fisted by peace bracelets . . .

The stock market of poetry sez that while the castles are burning, the poet must

——the poet must what? Witness? Convey/survey the gutter we rut around in . . . ?

Fur hat, fur hat, wig—— Amy's erectile coiffures blowjab themselves toward the stars, transforming our fetters into prinking primping nightmares . . .

President, president, race, stock market——it's a nightmare alright.

knott said...

if my reading of "Ding"

as a kind of ars poetica defense/assertion

of your position vis a vis the questions you raise above,

is a foolish one,

sorry! won't be the first time I've been a dingaling dong who's wrong about dings . . .

Ryan said...

I was thinking that perhaps this
poetry thing is so personal that
calling it to witness something
belittles it, turning it over to the
authorities for evidence.

Or that it privileges the words
as the only call and response
available to the suffering
of one person. it excludes
which isn't what poetry does at all.

I also agree with Matt. What would "political" poets say if they heard Rush Limbaugh write my poetry? Would they call it "engage"? "Political poetry" is always code for poetry that doesn't seem to address the fact that no one's going to read it once the political reality shifts.

Nada said...

I don't mean what I've written here as any kind of indictment of political poetry. Or engaged poetry.

If "everything is material for poetry" than politics and social engagement are, too. I'm just asking, where does the form fight my reception? In what cases would I rather be reading a non-fiction book on the subject?

I'm reading a wonderful book right now on how island species become extinct called "The Song of the Dodo." It includes a lot of summaries of the theories of Darwin and Wallace, and also the investigative journeys of the author to various islands in search of examples and more data. It's got history,conjecture, anecdotes, wit. Tons of wit. It's a terrific book.

Now, I can think of nothing that would deaden it more than if someone were to say, hmm, how terrible and sad and poignant that all these species are disappearing. I'm going to write a poem about it, selecting or adapting material from the book.

Poets seem to do this sort of thing all the time. I guess occasionally it can be done well, but still with this oppressive kind of mawkish "poetry framing." More often it just sounds like a lot of interesting information has been LEFT OUT.

I can think of one way it might work, which would be to do a list poem, say, of the names of species that are mentioned in the book as becoming extinct. Reading the book, I have to say I am so enchanted by the names of the species that I have been thinking I want to use them for something, if probably not this particular purpose. Why would this work,for me? I hate to be formulaic, but simply because the textual qualities, the odd and beautiful sounds and creative naming of the creatures would be forefronted. And no one would have to know that it was a list of endangered species, unless the poet said so beforehand at a reading, which they would probably do, thereby maybe ruining the thing, although it might be OK if they said it afterwards. They could also ruin it by documenting its source when they publish it in a book. I realize that that is the academically correct thing to do, and I'm not beyond that myself, but personally I find the ever-growing "lists of sources" that get included with poems in print increasingly annoying, almost pious.

Ryan said...

I want to clarify that I wasn't implying that political messages have no place in poetry. I'm referring rather to impression and mistake, two tendencies that poetry allows for that politics does not. I'm wondering if treating a poem as "evidence" cheapens its massage quality. Since, as Nada says, it's possible that much is left out in a poem (some poems define themselves by exclusion). It's not politically adept to be ambiguous or to play with varied meanings. I'm wondering how much these devices intervene/fere in our reading of a political poem.

konrad said...

Hi Nada,

Remember you and i talked about this "tendency" a bit when you were in SF for the Bollywood neo-benshi show? I remember we were both kind of wary of it. In my mind it's connected with some conversations that were going on around last summer and fall maybe about 'relevance' and 'engagement' -- which are perennial problems for artists, of course. They're problems exactly because they don't have "solutions."

My wariness had to do with how a factive (a neologism?) text might be trying to borrow or sneak in a sense of authenticity, as if facts themselves were a special class of mentionable that would ground a poem in some kind of social space of engagement, or in some kind of innoculation against the charge of subjectivity that would render a critique merely "personal."

But i think it all depends on the context, since the mode is not a genre, it's more of an impersonal diction that a poet can slip in and out of. I think the recounting that you give of Juliana Spahr's poem shows that she uses that mode to create something: a shift of scale or narrative awareness -- maybe if the piece were more conventionally "lyric" would these aspects be more acceptable by analogy with, say, the collaged bits of newsprint in Kurt Schwitters' paintings? I know Stephanie's recent piece, as well her "The Image Record," also inserts factual information into the mix -- in a number of different voices i might add -- and you seem to be ok with assimilating that under the rubric of anything can be poetry. (which i totally agree with) Anyway i am familiar with their work on the page and in performance, and that's the way it works for me. Sometimes it doesn't work, of course.

Anyway i guess i just want to say that it seems more like a functional distinction rather than a substantive (genre or movement) one. The work that uses such means doesn't always fall down the slippery slope of unfun didacticism.

Also i think you might be overstating it to say this is a geographic movement or something that coherent.

mark wallace said...

While I don't mean to dismiss the seriousness with which people feel like they have to take sides on the issue of a more directly political poetry vs. a poetry more consciously concerned with playfulness, surface, and artifice, I really do think it should be a non-issue. I find myself most frustrated with people who insist that the answer to the question must be either-or (and there are a lot of such people, I know).

Speaking as someone who has played around with both approaches: why shouldn't I? As if the value of the poetry of witness could ever make all other poetry worthless, or as if artifice was always inevitably more crucial than reference. Clearly, or at least clearly to me, observing the world and engaging the pleasures of language are things that are never going to leave poetry, despite the fact that some people think that one aspect or the other shouldn't exist.

Still, I know that's easy enough to say and not always easy to feel. I often get very anxious when it seems like another writer is doing things that I either can't or wouldn't want to do myself.

There's so much uselessly annoying either/or thinking in poetry. An insightful criticism rarely draws lines like "doing things in that (general) way is bogus by definition."

I don't think any of us have to choose Juliana's poetry over Nada's, or vice versa--and I'm certainly not saying that's what anyone here seems to be calling for.

If we want to draw lines, let's at least find a subject worth drawing lines about.

Susan said...

Funny, I've been teaching CD Wright's _One Big Self: An Investigation_, which I love (and which is east coast, like Rukeyser, like Williams . . .)and asking students to write their own documentary poems. They're coming up with more documentary than poem, so far, but I see this as a great way to get away from cliches and--oddly--to show them the beauty of ordinary language. There is tremendous artifice in a documentary poem, isn't there, which is part of that content/form split you're writing about, Nada?
Anyway, thanks for this.

Nada said...

Well, Konrad, … “poetry of witness” is certainly a powerful sub-genre (Charles Reznikoff, Carolyn Forche, Mark Nowak, et al) at least and so is “investigative poetics” (Ed Sanders, Carol Mirakove, and so many others); these would probably overlap on a Venn diagram, and the three pieces I mention in my post would possibly get included as well. I don’t want to get bogged down in terms or taxonomies, though, as those never really represent the territory, do they.

You’re almost certainly right that whatever it is, it is not a geographical tendency, but what IS a geographical tendency is that impulse to justify (or, as you put it, “ground”) subjective or lyric utterance (“unmentionables”) by couching it in socio-cultural self-examination and critique. Look at the Grand Piano series, for example. I still maintain that there may be some connection to the northern California climate, something in the fog perhaps, or that relentless cold wind out at Ocean Beach, to this kind of ethical self-consciousness. Maybe because it’s never quite warm enough for anyone to actually contemplate her own navel? So that energy gets displaced upwards?

It’s right and proper (and I don’t mean that as some sort of veiled put-down) for writers and intellectuals to use the widest possible lens on themselves and determine how they fit into vaster grids and networks, and I think Juliana does that pretty much as well as anyone can. I think data is generally more than just a mode she uses, though; it’s her dominant mode, especially in that piece, which is only just bracketed by two sections that are more like what one might recognize as “poetry.” There’s nothing unacceptable to me about “The Incinerator,” really, or the move towards documentariness in poetry; I regret to have given that impression. I accept everything! I’m only just looking at the marked difference, and maybe trying to pull the oar over to “my side” just a little, even if, as you say, Mark, it’s really not an either/or choice, and we’re all in the goddamn canoe together.

I will say, though, that what Juliana does is not like Schwitters at all. Schwitters transforms what was discarded so that you can see his materials, no matter how low or ignorable, as material. This is more how I see Stephanie using her data in The Image Record. Juliana is much more coming from a space of rhetoric; each byte builds her argument. Which makes sense, wasn’t she president of the debate club or something?

Anyway Susan, yes, there is artifice in everything.

phaneronoemikon said...

not an either/or choice, and we’re all in the goddamn canoe together.

I believe I prefer the term

narrenschiff
although
canoe

does seem to bring up

can do
and canus

ca nous

signus

There is nothing but signs.
Signs that are alive, signs thar unliving. All things are signs.
Signs eat signs. Signs emit signs.
There is a total and totalitarian

sign-ness

to all things.

There is no thing
which which can be expressed
which does not partake of signage.

RESISTANCE IS FUTILE
YOU ARE TERMINAL PICTURE

BREAK THROUGH IN GRAIAI ROOM



wv: fistse

Joe Safdie said...

Hi Nada -- I hope you're healthier. And thanks for remembering our ancient "dispute," which never really resolved itself and, as several commentators above have pointed out, probably shouldn't. Here's my latest articulation of it, two paragraphs from an essay about empiricism to be published soon in Big Bridge:

Most apologists for the humanities eventually get around to acknowledging that what they teach is a full spectrum of what it means to be human . . . including our immense capacities for depravity and immorality. The 18th century, in which Locke and Hume first generated their empirical theories, was good for that – the satire of Pope and Swift focused largely on the stupidity they found around them in their daily lives, the Goddess of Dullness, in Pope’s Dunciad, eventually extinguishing all light and life on earth. They weren’t just cranks and haters – they were also supremely witty and often hilarious – but they did consider themselves citizens of the world, free to comment, in their work, on what they perceived and experienced in that world.

I think many contemporary writers have shrunken from that particular assignment. The poetry I come across, often written with wit and facility and intelligence, seems not to be referring to any shared public space. And history, at least the kind I’m talking about, is also public. Gary Sullivan, one of the originators of Flarf, wrote (four years ago, on his blog "Elsewhere"): “A particular strength of poetry is its ability to accommodate nuances of language use and thought. The more ‘public’ poetry intends to be, the less this particular strength is exploited.” I wrote back to him, objecting (perhaps with these 18th century writers in mind) that a practitioner might be able to engage public themes and still incorporate nuance and imaginative language, that these things needn’t be opposites.

So of course I agree with Mark, and a few others above: witnessing social phenomena doesn't have to be boring or prosaic -- the residence of Ammiel (e.g.) in your fair borough would also complicate the location of them as east and west. And what's to explain my adoration of your own work? Nothing in this faux-dichotomy.

As it turns out, I'm teaching Keats and Shelley this week, and have composed some "lecture notes" on Shelley's political poem "England in 1819," trying to explain why I still like it two hundred years later. I think you might like them, so will try to send them to you by e-mail (do I have it?) Rest up and feel better.

Meg said...

Nothing like a fever to cause a rash.

:)

Nada said...

Well, here's a coastal difference: in California, people seem to believe that life is (maybe infinitely) perfectible, so there's this constant reaching for (pun intended), a "golden state."

In New York, the idea of perfectibility is laughable. Where would you even begin? We just want to survive.

Nada said...

Joe, thanks, yeah, you have my e-mail.

And thanks, too for shedding some light on who that Gary Sullivan guy is; I'd been wondering.

:-)

phaneronoemikon said...

The idea of perfection seems either semantic or contextual. To me, philosophically, there can only ever be perfection, because whatever state exists at the present is the outcome of perfect discrete moments. The idea is perplexing. In Sartre's La Nausée, perfection is cast almost as a character and put between people
as an object of contention. I think it is this contentiousness which forms the quixotic nature of perfection. In Freudian terms, if we think through perfection in terms of the reality principle, there is only a kind of molecular truth whose abstraction layer is layered and contentious, I would say from this model we can surmise many nestinging of perfections and imperfections all arising together, against and from one another, and wholly, and partly dependent on one another. The signifier obscures many deep perfections in the universe, many more than it reveals, I feel.

For me, imperfection is always a case of spiritual myopia, because

matter is glory
and imperfection
the chatter
of instantiated banality
unaware of it its own

infinitely weird setting


people who see imperfections in things would do good to smoke a joint and listen to Pink Floyd's Ummagumma and ponder the idea of complexity.

Andy Gricevich said...

Gosh, Nada, this is probably the most thoughtful thing I've read in the blog world from the "skeptical of political poetry" perspective. That's characteristic, I think; when we met briefly (nice to meet you, by the way!) I was my usual just-meeting-someone-nervous self, and failed to mention how much I appreciate the (unusual) care you take in your posts and comments on others' posts.

You really pinpoint some of the difficulties with writing (good) political poetry.

There's a lot to say on this topic, and I hope to write some of it here and/or on my blog in a few days, after I've had the chance to read the comments stream thus far (where more great thoughtfulness seems to be taking place).

I hope you found something to enjoy in the magazine. I'll have to ask for more on what you think is "heavy-handed" (I might even agree with you at times).

I guess the only thing I'll say now, by way of apologetics, is that writing "experimental political poetry" is hard, and that we don't really have a rich tradition of grappling with the problems of bringing radical form and social content together, in the U.S.--a tradition that would provide some support for dealing with the difficulties you point out, and others. But I'm glad people are trying, including Spahr, whose This Connection I find a valuable lesson in failure, while The Transformation should be required reading for anyone who cares about these matters.

Ok. More later. Thanks again.

cheers,

Andy

Andy Gricevich said...

To clarify, though, a little (oof--I don't usually wake up clarifying things--or wake up this early at all):

--I might say "sincere" where some might say "heavy-handed." (Or does the latter mean "seemingly insincere?") Not that sincerity is the positive member of a binary set here--it has its own problems...

--This Connection... doesn't do it for me partly because radical form gets jettisoned without (I think) the content generating new formal possibilities--whereas the use of the anonymous plural pronoun throughout The Transformation does a huge amount of formal work with what starts out seeming like a little "trick."