THE WRONG TURN
Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and any of the conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyes.
Some time ago, in a fit of despair over the current state of the culture, especially art, especially literature, I wrote: American writing now is all irony, parody, and bad mimesis. Part of my depression, what the poet William Doreski calls, in an excellent recent collection from Pygmy Forest Press, “our postmodern funk,” is of course due to the poststructural assertions of the death of the subject and that strange, albeit all too accurate, anti-utopian version of the end of history in which writers (and everyone else) are merely making copies of copies (not making it new as Pound told us we must) wherein the repeated image subsumes both act and actor.
Hence my assertion about parody and mimesis, at any rate. Writers (and others: popular musicians are as guilty as anyone) are content to shamelessly sound like their literary (musical, etc.) progenitors. But that last word, of course, is poststructurally suspect since both the subject and any sense of linear history that might imply cause and effect relationships are defunct. It is probably more accurate to call what these few generations imitate as the literary or musical or etc. soup, the melange of what went before. I am not suggesting that any generation wrote in a vacuum, since all literature has certainly grown out of the compost of what preceded iteven acknowledged innovators like Joyce had precursors; but no previous generation has written so stylessly, so unrelentingly failed to contribute to what will come after, so not incorporated influences to inflect an overall intent, so not written in reaction to previous versions of what writing is “supposed to be” (unless of course you allow that the endless, and mindlessbut more of that below, manipulation of extant elements is a reaction).
This is admittedly a far darker version of parody than Jameson’s traditional literary definition above. Previously, my students may have lovingly tried to write like Rimbaud or Tolstoy as part of the development of what we then, perhaps naively, called their voices, as acts of homageany annoyance of purist fans of either author being merely incidental. Previously, a writer may have purposely exaggerated diction or emphasized the trite, unto making it ridiculous, in order to lampoon certain 19th century sensibilities like those found in Henry James’ novels, sensibilities still found in only slightly muted form among current gentry. The present mode of parody I am describing, however, lacks any intent beyond the intent to imitate.
But this is not yet what I have termed “bad mimesis.” At least those writers who have read some of the works in the proverbial soup seem to know they are imitating other writers, but the bad mimics, the vacuous contributors to too many mainstream literary magazines, just pull stuff from the morass and, almost as if at some preconscious level, apply it like a dab of a particular color of paint, like a ribbon or a bow to dress the thing up, but only tangentially in order to mean. Here Jameson’s pastiche is born of the perverse union of the dead subject, for how can there be intent without a desiring consciousness, and the endless labyrinth of the simulacrum. In this bleak paradigm, not only is there nothing new to say but there is no guiding sensibility to choose among signs. That is, even if doomed to make poems and stories out of the same finite set of images and words and styles, the active and conscious subject could choose from an infinite possibility of arrangements over the course of a lifetime (a la Derrida before the murder of the subject). The dead subject, however, merely repeats, and repeats, and repeats…without any discernible end (all puns intended);or so the current banality of most American literature would indicate. Hemingway’s minimalism and Carver’s realism give way to domestic, and usually domesticated, ennui: middle class, mid-life boredom. Even the active subjectivity of previous writers like Whitman or Pound gives way to a masturbatory triteness, a solipsistic sameness that reeks of “I,” but a tiny, pathetic, passive “I” that chooses elements for his/her “text” almost at randomor at best for stylistic reasons that have to do with conformity (what do those editors at The New Yorker want, anyway???). Thus parody as mere imitation gives way to a pathetic mimesis that not only fails to offer up either positive or negative commentary on the original (if that sad appellation can be forgiven, since in the poststructural sense there can be no discernible original) but is merely the random association of signs that takes on the attributes of some previous text only accidentally, at best in order to appeal to a particular editorial sense of style, in order to get published. All of which would be horribly ironic, an ostensibly creative and radical act reduced to random applications of formula, if that state were still possible.
Which brings us to that final component in my triadic lament, and an important element in our discussion of the wrong turning that has resulted in the decay of the postmodern age. Jameson identifies irony as a modernist construct that has survived into postmodernity. In fact, however, it has flourished, and in some strange way been simultaneously subsumed into American life, and consequently lost much of its power.
Only a few years ago American literature was irony, especially fiction. There was a perpetual knowing wink between writer and reader that the characters were insipidly stupid, that their reality was certainly someone’s, but we were too hip for those pratfalls, too intelligent to be in such a situation, and certainly smart enough at least to know when we were in deep do-do, all unlike the characters in the story. And this was funny, laughter at someone’s expense, as it were (though for a purpose, whether it be mere ridicule of particular life ways or as blunt political tool), courtesy of Johnson or Robbins or DeLillo et al. Then a couple of very strange things occurred: we stopped laughing, or reacting at all for that matter, and merely gawked; and, because, we became aware that life itself is ironic in postmodernity. As Tom Wolfe noted some years ago in a Harper’s article, invoking the Jim and Tammy Faye Baker story, replete with two-story air-conditioned dog houses and Jimmy Swaggert giving them hell for their sins when in the pulpit and hanging out with “combat zone prostitutes” when not, who could make this stuff up? We can ask the same question about the President’s semen stains on midnight blue velveteen as a topic of public discourse, or any number of scenarios that pummel us daily. The point here is that irony used to either make us chuckle into our fists knowingly or self righteously nod our heads in agreement that the protagonist was getting his or her due. Now Americans stare glumly at their TV sets and don’t so much as twitch. Like pastiche, irony in the absence of normality is a “statue without eyes.” Irony as reality is just another day in the postmodern world. Who can feel morally superior or get self-righteously indignant if mass mediated life looks like a cartoon, if the cartoon is accepted as life? Likewise any attempt to represent the world in language: the absurd gives way to the merely ridiculous, which becomes, almost dutifully, the mundane.
Although this is not the place to debate the teleology of philosophical systems, the degree to which they describe and/or inflect the way things are, it seems an easy assertion that not only is critical subjectivity deathly ill, that individuals are seemingly incapable of outrage let alone reasoned analysis, of establishing any idiosyncratically inflected sense of normality, but writers have been complicitous in the plot to murder the active subject. They seem at best satisfied to choose not to choose as it were. Many postmodern writers justifiably take Jameson’s assertions about postmodernism-as-pastiche as positive, as the absence of a conservative norm to which they would be expected to adhere; and in those terms it is positive, albeit that those same writers happily acknowledge that we are left with only the possibility of making copies of copies in the bargain. However, it is highly debatable that there is not a norm, a standard to which writers unwittingly adhere, even if we have defied the previous premises of individual creativity, indeed of individual being. In fact, that denial may well mask the most grievous version of conformitya consumptive passivity.
Herein lies our conundrum: we live in a time of the discredited human, the diminished human. The proof is everywhere in public discourse, from the vast numbers in prison, which causes nary a citizen to question individual circumstance relative to the hard and fast laws of the land meant, ironically, to protect us all, to television programs endlessly peopled with characters, ostensibly, just like the watcher (only better, of course) whose only claim to individuality, more irony, is belonging to one group out of manyas the member of a focus group, a target audience, a demographicto which those TV characters can appeal to define themselves further as one of the group by what they eat/wear/drive. Worse, psychology has become merely chemical, the spirit, the self, no longer essential or individual but phantasmal, variations on some ill defined ideal, although we would never use that word. Mind is merely the brain functioning (or dysfunctioning, see below) in complex biochemical sequences that yield behavior, which stands in relation to the above mentioned ideal (and here is the rub), which we call “normal” and to which all else stands in juxtaposition as abnormality. The body has been downgraded to a sad suit worn to cover and transport the chemical machinery that we attempt to mend (also chemically) in the hope that it will not fail us, ultimately dreaming of the day we can all be downloaded to purity, stored forever in some fantastic video game, the last vestigial notion of heaven become techno-sizzle wherein we are all, finally and ultimately, the same.
In short, we have ourselves become copies of copies, pathetic creatures dreaming of the final dissolve as an ultimate conformity, not in terms of the dissolution of the body, let alone some greater conception of our being, into the chaotic morass of universal stuff (how gauche), but in terms of mechanomorphisis: to be swallowed by, to become, our machines, immaculate energy. This transformation in our self perception has also entered our discourse, especially for this new generation whose lives have paralleled the exponential growth rate of information storage: from toys that “morph” from animal or human into robots to my youngest son’s tendency to yell “pause” rather than “time out” during a basketball game in order to tie his shoe. And in the interim we strive to achieve an appropriate passivity, to be the best of copies, and, for those of us who write, to be the best copiers of copies. No assertions of individuality allowed, because it simply cannot be true. There is no referential depth to our products (Eagleton’s assertion about postmodernity generally) because, more and more, there is no referential depth to ourselves: “One-of-a-kind [has become] a lie! And the poets,/ who should have spoken for us, were busy// panning landscape, gunning their electrics, going/ I-I-I-I-I” (Heather McHugh). The use of the personal pronoun being our ultimate irony, of course, although we no longer recognize irony when we see it.
Which is to suggest in part that the death of the subject seems nearly complete at times, but far from freeing us, far from destroying any norm to which we must conform (unless of course abdication is a perverse form of freedom, a life without responsibility), this is the last act of fascistic controlto happily give up and then rationalize the status quo as freedom. To paraphrase Orwell, when the final roundup comes, the masses will be led, smiling, to the gulag; but even so prophetically apocalyptic a writer could not have envisioned our present and, what looks like from this vantage, our inevitable future: the gulag is quickly becoming virtual and one need not leave home to enter it, can drive to and from work, take a two week vacation to Mexico, and never escape it. We have not only given up on subjective being, we have explained the death of our own critical consciousness to most everyone’s satisfaction, internalized a value system that promotes passivity, and in the process become our own jailers, accepting the pathetic way-things-are as just the way things are. Hence, conformity, a lack of creative ingenuity, poetry that is all pastiche become, via what might be called a kind of post-ironic legerdemain, the norm against which too few poets are writing and against which even fewer are railing.
American Poetry’s Wrong Turning
The poet, editor, and publisher Leonard Cirino once told me that he had nothing against William Carlos Williams or his aesthetic, but that Williams’ progeny had bastardized his pronouncements, codified their misreading of him, and thereby damaged American poetry in his name. Likewise, my argument is not with poststructural philosophy per se, with Derrida and Barthes et al, and in fact much of that description of the world seems painfully accurate, but with writers who not only refuse to fight the current trends in poetry toward solipsism and witless pastiche but perpetuate the decay of contemporary American literature by misunderstanding that description as some kind of rationalization of their own complacency, their own lack of will to go against the grain.
Perhaps to be misread, misquoted, and misunderstood when quoted accurately, has always been the lot of both poets and philosophers, to have one’s words misused in the service of stasis rather than change (Heidegger and Nietzsche are famous, and extreme, examples of the latter; Williams and Pound will serve as more problematic examples of the former in our discussion below), but the inevitability of misconception makes it no less potentially dangerous, especially in light of the diminished subject in our age.
Examples are of course rampant in our culture, but I will offer up only a few, from the material arts, to serve as analogy to the poetical examples that will follow: In 1917 Marcel Duchamp attempted, famously and unsuccessfully, to hang a urinal with the word ART under it in an exhibition in New York. The art world was of course, also famously, shocked, but their immediate reaction was beside the point. Duchamp’s “ready-made” art raised questions about context, about the valorization of some human constructs over others, and about elitism in the arts, especially as art works were valorized or devalorized by critics who seemed to do so based on arbitrary value assertions that served to enforce their own position above the rest of us. However, shock value is all that seemed to filter down to Duchamp’s postmodern successors. The now infamous “Piss Christ” is probably a premiere example. Although I would fight to the death for the artist’s right to piss on whatever he/she desires, and at least holler loudly for NEA funding on first amendment grounds for that matter, the piece lacks not only any ideological grounding of its own over which to be truly offended (as were many in Congress, at least on the face of it), but the possibility for meaning, for a dynamic discussion of content and context, is almost nonexistent. Catholics, and Christians generally, justifiably see sacrilege in the defilement of their iconography, but the Church long ago ceased to be a major force in Western Civilization, has lost center stage in its attempt to prescribe values; and consequently the artist seems, at best, to be throwing a tantrum, striking back at his own upbringing perhaps. But he is not trying to offer up critical commentary on the values that particular religion represents, say abstinence VS birth control or outlawing abortion and the effects of those policies on third world population growth. Nor is he attempting to utilize the icons in some larger assertion about the world, say the diminishment of religion generally as social control mechanism a la Marx. Both intentions would entail a more complex association of signs. Beyond mere defilement, and then for only some viewers, the signs mean nothing, either in concert or in juxtaposition. In short, aside from offending a constrained group of people, the range of possible interpretations is almost nil and we must assume the artist’s intent only personal, a product of the tiny, passive “I.” He might as well spray paint taboo words on the side of a church or give the Pope the finger as publicly as possible; the level of significance achieved is about the same.
However, at least this artist expected some force of emotion as a response from a portion of his audience, however limited both the audience and the response. Two recent installations, one in Russia and one in America (and location is perhaps as arbitrary as any other fact about the works, given the globalization of American-style mass culture), don’t even attempt to shock us. In fact, their iconic associations are so limited as to require absolutely no response. The first, entitled “Modern Farming,” consists of corrugated sheet metal and tarpaper hung from the gallery walls. The second consists of album covers and posters and notes from the artist to himself, which is appropriately solipsistic (the self as both sender and recipient of “the message”), all hung densely over the walls of an enclosed space designed to look like an adolescent’s room in the 1960’s. I assume there is possibly an inchoate political message in the former piece, but it is so submerged by virtue of the limited universe of its signs as to be a one-liner that was never funny, a cliché that is neither representative (and the aim is not to be, of course, a la Duchampone of his few assertions the artist did not misread) or significant, that is wholly static. Likewise, although the second piece has ample possibility within its constituents to be both historical and political, to say something about the individual, the human, within both contexts, the overall effect is merely that of a snapshot of an adolescent’s bedroom, a period piece of innocuous memorabilia, and the artist is only a cipher produced by the culmination of the paraphernalia he purchased as a kid, the stuff that Madison Avenue convinced him would equal an adequate self definition.
Ironically, early in his career Duchamp asserted his desire to use art in the service of ideas, and many of his ready-mades attempt to do just that, including the urinal. The above postmodern installations are so self contained, so solipsistic, as to approach meaninglessness. At best their universe of signs is so simplistic these works give the viewer the possibility of nothing more than a single pedestrian interpretation. Duchamp’s urinal is complex by comparison, drawing on referents that don’t need to be present in the gallery to be present in the piece, to inflect our interpretation by working in concert with some (the viability of any well made human construct as art) and in opposition to others (his culture’s definition of what art is, and is not, and who is arbiter). Duchamp was working hard against the grain of the status quo, attempting to inflect the milieu of American and European art in his age. The makers of the above installations are participating in the status quo, are dead subjects whose choice of signs might as well be utterly arbitrary. Such lack of referential depth, such “radically antianthropomorphic” constructs (Jameson), might well be called camp, which is not necessarily redeeming, if they had any energy at all, if they were at all self conscious; but as it is they are merely dead, the hollow symbols of nothing, things with at most only the slightest taint of an idea lingering in the air around them, copies of copies. And, in as much as their work is normative, the artists are complicitous in our enslavement.
Postmodern poets have also taken a few tenets of modernism and managed to so misread them in the absence of a viable critical subject as to, at best, make them innocuous and, at worst, to rationalize their own complicity in stasis, in the pathetic way-things-are, which may give credence to the assertion that postmodernism is not a next step, a reaction to grievances against modernism, especially of the “high” variety, but merely diminished modernism, a bad copy. Two glaring examples will suffice: Williams’ famous assertion, “No ideas but in things,” and Pound’s call for the primacy of the image in poetry.
To begin, however, I would like to offer a rudimentary explication of the brief poems by each poet widely considered emblematic of Objectivism and Imagism respectively, the categorical epithets offered up to represent both of the above assertions. The postmodern tendency is to deny the referential depth in both, to see word pictures only and to thereby rationalize the reader’s own lack of critical engagement. In the absence of any conception of an interpretive subject, they see only a wet wheelbarrow beside the white chickens, but of necessity ignore the poem’s initial mega-assertion: “So much depends/ upon… .” That short stanza puts a sustained, albeit momentary (which I will argue is part of the point), act of attention at the center of the universe. The speaker’s reality, if not the world at large from the speaker’s perspective, somehow depends on the constituents of this scene. Perhaps his sanity hinges on this moment in time, on this perception of the world’s finitude, or perhaps this is an inchoate epiphany of the world’s precision and ephemerality in the microcosmic scene before him. It is pristine, but not in some simplistic bucolic way: the rain is pure, but part of a larger and, from a human perspective, harsher cycle that nourishes or famishes or overwhelms by turns; and the wheelbarrow is a tool of human labor, our own tiny functioning in the great what-is that the rain represents; and the chickens are both products of human cultivation and, naturally, alive, as well as being future sustainers of human life as food. Archetypally, they are life and death: the former in all its frenetic everydayness and the latter incipiently, as the inevitable destination of the former. In short, this poem is Mallarme’s injunction, that a poet’s job is the purification of the language of the tribe, incarnate. Mallarme is frequently misread in this regard, but I doubt he meant that the poet is the arbiter of correctness, but rather intended to suggest that the poet is he/she who boils language to the essential so that an act of interpretation might yield sense, albeit a dynamic and arguable sense. At its extreme this poem is an assertion of significance that borders on the unsayable, that only the poem as written could attempt to reveal in all its nuance and complexity. Although awareness of the occasion for the poem is not necessary in order to achieve an interesting enough interpretation (that broaches human agency relative to the larger universe or faith in the interconnectedness of reality as human perception…), Williams claimed to have written it while waiting anxiously for a young patient’s fever to break. So much depends, indeed.
Because they have read it in an anthology, most postmodern readers do not have the luxury of this poem’s original context, Williams’ mixture of poetry and difficult prose that explore his early notions of his poetics entitled Spring and All. Ironically, given the static interpretation of the poem by most postmodern readers, the poem precedes a discussion of imagination as a vitalizing force for things, as necessary to achieve significance relative to the world:
The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold. These things are normal—essential to every activity. But they exist—but not as dead dissections.
The curriculum of knowledge cannot but be divided into the sciences, the
thousand and one groups of data, scientific, philosophic or whatnot—as many
as there exist in Shakespeare—things that make him appear the university of all ages.
But this is not the thing. In the galvanic category of—The same things exist,
but in a different condition when energized by the imagination.
It is the imagination on which reality ride—It is the imagination—It is a
cleavage through everything by a force that does not exist in the mass and can
therefor never be discovered by its anatomization.
In short, the poem is not merely a picture postcard, but the product of a sustained but momentary act of attention on the part of the poet that must of necessity be read as a universe of signs that only the imagination, the critical subjective imagination, can decipher, which is to say ideas will be actuated, enacted there. Later in Spring and All, Williams declares:
The imagination…attacks, stirs, animates, is radio-active in all that can be touched by
action. Words occur in liberation by virtue of its processes.
But the imagination is wrongly understood when it is supposed to be a removal
from reality in the sense of John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard the Second: to
imagine possession of that which is lost. It is rightly understood when John of
Gaunt’s words are related not to their sense as objects adherent to his son’s
welfare or otherwise but as a dance over the body of his condition accurately
accompanying it. By this means of the understanding, the play written to be
understood as a play, the author and reader are liberated to pirouette with the
words which have sprung from the old facts of history, reunited in present passion.
To understand the words as so liberated is to understand poetry. That they
move independently when set free is the mark of their value.
The poem does not capture objective reality (as the poststructuralists would echo decades later), does not hold a mirror up to nature, and does not hold the poet’s meaning the way a pitcher holds water, but is a dynamization of subjective experience relative to objective reality which can only be reachieved via an act of interpretation of the objects as they circle and collide via language within the object that is the poem. This latter act of interpretation is also subjective, of course, and hence the independent movement of words when set free, and the magical possibilities in reception. The whole thing is a dance, of poet and reader, of subjective being with the objects in the poem, and of the objects and all our associations with each and in relation to the larger world; not stasis, not a convocation of dead things in a flat picture that conjures up a mere specter, the poet as tiny, diaphanous “I,” but a dynamic enactment that yields images and ideas in a complex rough and tumble ballet. Williams’ most famous poetical assertion does not mean no ideas, period, but rather no ideas but in the dance of things, and in the presence of interpretive agency.
Postmodern poets have also misread the fourth of Ezra Pound’s six principles of Imagism, which is precisely the free use of images, which Pound defined as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in time.” For postmodern poets, imagery is frequently merely description with an emotional adjunct, usually a small egoistic one that is subsequently explained ad nauseam, with intellection given especially short shrift, or a seemingly random juxtaposition of details whose association yields opacity, an interpretive impasse. As Williams’ famous wheelbarrow poem is misunderstood relative to his premise about ideas, Pound’s “In a Station at the Metro” is touted as his most emblematic example of this fourth principle and then misread as a simplistic construct relative to the speaker, the context, and the presumed emotion inherent in the scene, which is as excessively minimal as the first stanza of Williams’ poem is vast, but just as available via an act of interpretation.
Like Williams’ wheelbarrow, Pound’s poem is read as objectified reality, but is tentatively recognized as more psychically charged in as much as the transmogrification of the faces on the train to a “nature” image is more subjectively perceptual. However, this does not yield much more than a poeticized picture of a train station for postmodern readers. I came across the poem once among several haiku in an anthology for beginning literature students, the assertion being of course that Pound’s Imagism is a Western example of that Japanese genre, which it is only on the surface. The poem’s brevity and the mention of blossoms (that resemble the inevitable cherry blossoms in many haiku) suggest an affinity, as does the reliance on the image and lack of egoistic commentary, but the connection, of necessity, ends there. Pound’s poem, like haiku, certainly is not overtly didactic, but it cannot fall back on some inherent preconception of an ordered universe, the Buddhistic totality that traditional haiku evokes without speaking directly of it, as is found in the work of Basho or Issaalthough I don’t remember the anthology’s editors suggesting to students that these tiny poems were the product of anything beyond formula.
Pound’s poem, nevertheless, carries its own absent-but-present referents, all historical and as equally cultural as haiku’s implicit philosophical ones. In fact, the poem’s referents stand in opposition to an integrated universe, except as a perversion of individuality. The men and women in the crowd blur to facelessness, become apparitions, ghosts, which would suggest that their subjective identity is an illusion, that the individuals have been subsumed by the horde. But then the horde itself is completely dehumanized as it is swallowed by the final image and becomes merely a stain on a speeding train that only looks like the wet limb of a tree. In essence, humanity dissolves into the machine, becomes part of the machine in what thus becomes a problematic, and perverse, image as the train/crowd is “naturalized” as “Petals on a wet, black bough.”
In short, this is 20th century Europe. Not only is the machine age gearing up for the forward rush that will be the darkest century of all, in which Whitman’s 19th century American vision of a fire breathing Cyclops moving us communally and inevitably toward a bright future will give way to the actuality of our various machines of destruction (and the train so envisioned, especially given Pound’s own political affiliations during WW II, at least gives one pause if not a shudder), but the always tenuous concept of individuality is beginning to fade relative to industrialization. Workers are no longer craftsmen/women embodying some portion of their own projected being in what they make, which Marx described as in decline even by the middle of his century and in that discussion gave us our first modern working definition of alienation, but are interchangeable just as the goods they mass producewhich of course allows for such carnage. As Stalin would famously say some time later, one death is a tragedy, but the death of thousands, or millions, is merely a statistic.
Perhaps even more than in Williams’ poem, given the subjective shape of the final image, the constituents of Pound’s poem form an iconographic universe that yields a complex sense, a civilization in flux as regards its values and the incipient confusion in the poet that such change conjures. “In a Station at the Metro” may have been read as a more convoluted conundrum when first published, but postmodern poets, in spite of their vantage in history and in the absence of critical subjectivity, are not even inclined to see the final image as problematic, but merely as a picture, as “poetry” in its ultimately diminished sense, as flowery (no pun intended) language.
The premise of the death of the subject is also furthered in the postmodern reading because in these poems the speaker is not revealed as personality, that equivocal marker of human being in our age. However, neither poem is blankly oracular. In fact, clues as to the subjective vantage of the speaker are revealed in “the power of images and rhetoric and syntax” (William Doreski), by virtue of their actively subjective choices on all counts. That is, the range of possible interpretations is directly inflected by the “who” of the poem, its maker. The point here is not to discount the validity of the personal pronoun or even blatantly confessional versions of the poem, but to assert that the aspect of the speaker as revealed either by “I” or as a product of the constituents of the poem is suspect in postmodern poetry. What is available as regards the speaker in the two brief poems under discussion is precisely what is lacking in much postmodern poetry (along with referential depth and any but a rudimentary association with ideas, of course): some sense of the larger human that grows out of an individual’s sensibilities as revealed by the choices made in writing the poem.
As ironic as the source might seem given the frequent lack of referential depth in her own work beyond the mere naming of ideas or historical asides and her too frequent surrender to passivity (she is capable of an immense poetic energy at timesthe reader generally wishes it would go somewhere, however), Jorie Graham wrote in her editor’s introduction to The Best American Poetry of 1990:
The poetry that fails the genius of its medium today is the poetry of mere self.
It embarrasses all of us. The voice in it not large but inflated. A voice that
expands not to the size of a soul (capable of being both personal and
communal, both private and historical) but to the size of an ego. What I find
most consistently moving about the act of a true poem is the way it puts the self at genuine risk.…
To place oneself at genuine risk, (i.e., of use to us), the poet must move to
counter an other, not more versions of the self. An other: God, nature, a
beloved, an Idea, Abstract form, Language itself as a field, Chance, Death,
Consciousness, what exists in the silence. Something not invented by the
writer. Something the writer risks being defeate—or silenced—by….
Her assertions as regards the egoistic “I” and the lack of critical engagement with the world in contemporary poetry are absolutely accurate; but, perhaps more to the point, what many postmodern poems lack, especially in the Ashberian vein, including many of Graham’s, is subjective gumption. Presence rises out of the poem not so much as well-defined ego, as actor, but as subjective passivity. The constituents of the poem are presented as forces (ironically, without effect) acting upon that tiny self (if the word is at all accurate in as much as the site of being, of identity, is so tenuous), a self which does not truly risk defeat, annihilation, because it does not push back. Like any ghost it can’t push back. It seems that the mere survival of the speaker in the form of self-as-diaphanous-marker, as specter, and via a weak-kneed acceptance of the world-as-it-is, is what Graham must find acceptable. That is, subjective being is not formed and transformed in the fire of the poem’s constituents, but barely rises as mist from a dead pond. Ideas, and I suppose I should be thankful they exist at all in these poemssee below, seem to serve as mere backdrop for some facile and muddled observations that lack even the potential to inflect this even smaller version of the egoistic “I” than Graham inveighs against. And any conception that refuses to become inflamed with the power of conviction, flushed with its active force, cannot help, in any event, but fail to inflect anything. There is no causal force because the ideas that might arise out of the morass the poem offers up (by accident?) are still-born and the subject is nearly so, just another object, and a virtual one that too frequently fails to achieve the status of discernible thing let alone of being.
And the poet’s choices seem all but random. The end result is a poem that consists of signs without attraction or repulsion, not a dynamic field of signification that yields significance via an act of interpretation, as do the short poems discussed above, nor does it yield a speaker, a maker, whose choices of image and descriptor have impinged upon our own sense of self and the world, but its “obverse/reverse” (Williams). Graham goes on to invoke Pound’s famous correlation of the poet’s technique as a measure of his/her sincerity. “That is why precision is so crucial,” she says, because the “nature of the encounter [and] whether the poet achieves or fails in the discovery” depends on it. But this poetry is anything but precise in its choice of images, of referents, which by extension suggests these poets are not sincere in the least.
A poem by Vicki Hearne, entitled St. Luke Painting the Virgin, which appears in The Best of The Best American Poetry, an anthology edited by Harold Bloom and made up of choices from the Best American Poetry series for the previous ten years, will serve as an appropriate example. The poem opens with a promising interaction of the speaker with the painting of the title, wherein, in the background, “the figures of humanity/ Consult the ground, their eyes helplessly/ On the details of history that/ Hold them there….” However, then follows an abstract rumination on being entranced by divine light that ends in a vague poststructural assertion, and this act of quasi-intellection after the speaker says she is crying at the realizationwhich I suppose at least hints at the possibility of affect on the part of the speaker. But again this is a passive assertion the reader only recognizes as an assertion, not a fact enacted in the poem: “…which is why/ Landscapes, or whatever you paint/ Beyond the garden, become so central,/ Not to the conception, which is all/ Complete in what the St. sees, but/ To the training of the eye that is, After all, an action of painting// And illuminations… .” Which then bleeds into references to the poet’s lover: “…As it was I found my way through/ The shadows and arrived in your arms/ Only slightly bruised… .” The overall effect is only moderately less than random, a stream-of-consciousness that is nearly completely void of subjective vitality. The “I” that rises from the muddle is itself muddled, only weakly there in the face of the archetypes of dark and light, of divine illumination in contrast to its mundane opposite, that occur in the poem as mostly innocuous backdrop to inanity. A return to the archetypes leads to the poem’s closure, which is opacity itself, unless of course we include its sentimental tone in our definition of sense, and anything but precise except in its echo of the initial image of the figures in the background of the painting:
Gaze at the ground, then look up,
Is my advice, and see light, at last,
As precious because we find it
In the darkness outside a garden
Between the light and the world.
Although not interactive with the world, and yielding sense that borders on nonsense because the poet seems loathe to any assertion that might indicate an active subjectivity, at least this poem has some version of a self implicit in its making, however prone to evaporation before our eyes and however passive before the other constituents in the poem. Far worse are those poems that merely paint word pictures. Unlike the word and image choices that give rise to some sense of both an individual and communal voice in Pound and Williams’ poems discussed above, that interact dynamically to yield some arguable version of significance, such poetry, however connected the images to make a single scene come to life, is gratuitous. Charles Simic, who is capable of great poetry, Dismantling the Silence and The Book of Gods and Devils being excellent examples, has a poem entitled “Country Fair” in the same anthology as Hearne’s poem which serves as a case in point. The picture is of a six-legged dog that, in a note in the back of the book, the poet tells us he sees as allegorical; but there is no hint in the poem itself that this is so: there is just a mutant dog that runs and a drunk girl who laughs and whose neck is kissed ceaselessly by the man she is with…no interpretation necessary because “that was the whole show” (which is how the poem actually ends). There is no dynamic among signs, because they both access too little in the world at large and do not stand in any but a simple narrative and descriptive relationship to each other. And there is only a rudimentary glimpse of the subject who chose this scene in the first place. There is, obviously, no dance, just a snapshot dead on the table before us.
Perusing a couple of recent issues of American Poetry Review offers us examples of what, in some sense, is the other extreme, but work that is no less void of vitality: poetry that explains itself endlessly. Some of this work offers up detail that is frequently merely descriptive, as in Simic’s poem, but then proceeds to interpret that description as closure. In other words, the poet tells us what we are supposed to get from the piece, and it is usually necessary because the imagery is so anemic. A poem entitled Hat on a Peg by D. Rodman Walker gives minute details of an older man’s arrival home and then ends,
For Father, tomorrow never
came, and for me
yesterday still lingers
on that peg on the wall.
This is the kind of simplistic, borderline sentimental closure that student writers are prone to, but they can be forgiven because of their lack of exposure to the world or to a valid poetics that disallows such drivel on its face (pun intended). This example occurs in one of the premiere poetry magazines in America, which I assume constitutes validation. It is telling that the epigraph references a poem by Billy Collins. A recent article in Publisher’s Weekly suggested that the upswing in poetry sales lately, and Collins’ work along with that by Sapphire and a pop star named Jewel who has a collection of poems out are offered as examples (and aside from Sappho and Ai it is apparent that poets with only one name are to be viewed skeptically), is due to the “accessibility” of recent poetry. I assume this word in translation means simplistic, referring to an enclosed context (i.e. there are no absent referents to complexify interpretation) and the most meager of figurative devices, if not to outright adolescent-speak (but more about that below). I assume that descriptor refers to poems that do not rely on the power of syntax and rhetoric and image but instead explain to the reader what they are supposed to get from the poem. In short, this is work that assumes the death of the critically subjective reader, one incapable of subtext, of interpretation. A poem by Billy Collins in a recent issue of Poetry serves as a high end example. The poem references Buddhism and uses it as an extended metaphor to discuss the speaker’s dog, which works well enough, but the poem ends with a summation like that above (and I will not pain you with it). Worse, it is so filled with simplistic ruminations meant to explicate the imagery as to be clichedagain like the student poetry mentioned above and again valorized by virtue of the power of its mainstream outlet. The worst examples of this non-commentary, however, are of the above mentioned adolescent-speak, in which an adult speaker never gets beyond a shallow conversational tone and topics that reek of the solipsistically egocentric. In a poem by Jennifer Snyder entitled “Guitar and Amplifier” in one of our recent issues of APR, she actually says, “And really, it makes a sort of sense/ in Nowhere, Alabama,/ that my teenage life would slam into walls/ holding the skull of a stupid,/ freaked out song,/ because, really, I had to believe in something, so I believed in pleasure.” Not only is she asserting a sixteen year old persona in a sixteen year old’s voice, which in and of itself could be a valid device, but she never gets beyond that reality in the poem in terms of some larger sense of humanity, indeed in some larger sense of her pathetic self, and neither does the reader.
This tendency for poetry to explain itself ad infinitum is rampant in the issues of APR before me, but mostly in poems that almost totally lack imagery and thereby complete the exclusion of the reader in any achievement of significance. “Nine Elegies for Amy McClelland” by Hugh Steinberg, for example, is nearly all commentary (“I want to imagine you are an angel, that you are/ at peace, at rest. It is not easy… .”) and facile, “verbally incontinent” (Adrienne Rich) commentary at that. There is no room for interpretation because there is nothing to interpret, just the arrested equivalent of a teenager on caffeine rambling about death, which is apparently passé when the conversing subject might as well be as dead as the subject the poem addresses. It seems entirely possible that even death is ironic in postmodernity.
Likewise all of the poems by Robin Becker, which have their moments but always retreat into a solipsistic cocoon. Her “Sonnet to the Imagination” is especially noteworthy in this discussion because it is an example of Williams’ assertion about the static version of imaginationthe attempt to recapture what is lost, all elements in all the poems merely meant to recapitulate the landscape against which the simple, egoistic “I” moves. In a few poems there are gestures toward a greater sense of the speaker as part of the larger human reality, but the movement is immediately, and always, back to the small self. “Life Forms,” for example, which starts out as a journey of discovery for the speaker who says, “When a whale rolls ashore/ the villagers know a drowned person/ is coming home/ who may have started life/ as a halibut, shucked tail and fins/ for a musher’s lot…,” ends with a whole culture becoming a voyeuristic tourist’s object of desire, and no more:
I wanted to see the salmon-man
who pumps gas at the filling station,
forced into the human world
after leaping upriver.
Then there is the poetry out of which an “I” or anything resembling significance refuses to rise at all, or at least does so, if at all, only accidentally, because of the randomness of the signs and the weakness of the field they generate within the poem. As Heather McHugh says in her poem “Blue Streak,” “…chance [is] the form we adore” in our age and that is nearly all we get in Gillian Conoley’s poems in APR. The only presence in most of these selections is as a perceptual center, the poet noting the world literally around her (as in close at hand), but there is not only no organizing force but too little associational energy between the poem’s constituents to achieve anything but the most meager of assertions of relationship. In “The World,” for example, a woman sets a man’s clothes on fire in the parking lot of a gas station, the narrative interspersed with references to aliens and abduction, which leads to:
And a star is born.
We observe a large number of these white dwarf stars.
Giant Sirius, the brightest in the night sky,
dog star. What we could have been had not the star
been present, too much presence emanating
away from us…
then to certain constituents of the woman’s life (“…Pearls on the bread plate,
make-up on the napkin,// a couple of burned-out butts…”) and ultimately breaks
down to the patter of the mad, a nearly aphasic nonsense:
For the world is one world now not that you may own your own home.
Sinter me, sister. Threescore skullduggery, endless cradle holding a space open.
Ruffous skylark, tell us off the skiff,
sun up, the next day, we’re looking into a box.
Let’s see the world. Are you coming with me. What’s for dinner.
The result is not the disjointed texts of Celan intended to make a point via disjunction and purposeful neologism, to expand the boundaries of meaning by problematizing interpretation, but the absolute lack of an organizing force and something close to meaninglessness. In fact, the most subjectively assertive aspect of these poems is a conscious attempt to achieve absolute anonymity on the part of the speaker and the refusal to recognize a subjective identity in the other beyond presence as mere marker. In “Turned Back,” which takes place inside the filling station of the previous poem, the second and third person pronouns are used not to pangeneralize the experience but to depersonalize it: “You can read the mystics/ you can lay down with the martyrs// and brood/ on that other/ as one would fade in a river… someone flipping the radio putting voice over abyss// someone folding a map// someone bringing the sunglasses back down.”
The result is much like Simic’s poem above, the only difference being that more work is necessary on the part of the reader in order to “see” the picture the poem paints, a kind of hermetic of banality. All becomes, merely, self consciously indiscriminate juxtaposition passed off as observerless observation. This is the final achievement of the diminished human: the speaker and any other bipedal constituent of the poem become just part of the backdrop, which is of course backdrop to nothing, and the reader a participant in the recapitulation of a value free version of the world.
In fact, it is as if the poet abhors subjective being, or at least is at best confused by her own self perception. In “Fuck the Millennium” she says of a “beautiful woman” in a photograph, “so she’s feeling constructed but still must walk around,” and in a second poem entitled “The World”: “… selfhood marches// across the surface… .” The implication is of course that the poststructural description of the way-things-are is the truth on a perversely Platonic scale, that subjective being is but an illusion, a construct made by others (also illusions?) for their own selfish purposes, which is another paradox, unless of course capitalism as a totalized system is viewed as having more volition than the individual humans it exploits. The fact of the woman’s constructedness is apparently unchangeable, except perhaps via an act of denial because any poststructurally idyllic version of self-less being is beyond us. The paradox is obvious even to Conoley, however, in the second assertion that the woman must still “be,” as in self consciously exist. Such poetry is both victim and perpetuator of that silliest of poststructural conundrums: if the subject does not exist except as illusory marker, who writes the poem, how does anything ever change except randomly or as the product of the force of inhuman systems set in motion by humans (which is at least ironic if not another paradox): what the hell are we doing here? Such poetry is an abdication of subjective being and thus those who write it participants in our enslavement.
At best these poems raise the conundrum again and again. However, in the absence of a belief in the possibility of any subjective referential depth, in a self that could deny or transcend the construction by others of its aspect, a self related to other selves via its humanity rather than shared alienation (and this is a post-existential version that views consciousness itself as a bad joke the organism plays on itself) or the self’s simplistic construct as demographic, this work amounts to the most disheartening of feedback loops: the intuition of subjective identity that also engenders fear at the recognition because it simply can’t be true, the human desire “to mean” but in the absence of a viable site for unique assertion or idiosyncratic observation. The result of such dark self consciousness, born of poststructural premises, must inevitably be paralysis on the part of the poet and a deadly meaninglessness in the poem, which sadly is a step beyond most poets (and a majority of the populace) who are automatons within the status quo, Graham’s voices that do not expand to “the size of a soul… but an ego.” Mired as they are in a pathetic universe of one, they cannot step outside their own tiny selves far enough to even recognize the magnificent scope of the problem because they are too self absorbed to know it exists at all, and so endlessly repeat the mainstream capitalist values that arguably brought us to this sad state in the first place. In the name of valorizing mass culture, they write poems with the referential depth of a television commercial (commercials at least pile image upon image, but at the speed of light, the object being to mesmerize), poems without ideas or an iota of human significance.
Heather McHugh’s poem quoted above suggests that “the poets… should have spoken for us,” and by enacting our shared diminishing sense of a viable subject some of our most intelligent poets (Graham among them, and perhaps Conoley) have spoken for us in some sense. However, by endlessly repeating the conundrum without achieving a way out, without seeking one, by making senseless copies of senseless copies, they have enshrined a mind-numbing passivity to equal death. Too much of postmodern poetry is no longer the ground of the dance between subjective being and the world, the reader and writer also subjectively entwined in communal embrace and in battle over the truth, but an extension of the killing field whereupon our critical consciousness dies over and over and over. It is past time for something more.No Comments »