Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's On Like Gay Pokemon, Dude!

That's what I said, and laughed, when I read the following.

This was in an email I received from SPD showcasing recommended titles.

I was surprised to see this rather lurid promo.

New Nonfiction from Poltroon Press
Steve Lavoie and Pat Nolan, Eds
$19.95 | paper | 144 pp.
Poltroon Press
ISBN: 9780918395269

Nonfiction. Poetry History and Criticism. In the late 1970s a group of San Francisco poets set out self-consciously and methodically in an insurrection of the Yahoos to attack the establishment (academic poets like Robert Lowell, William Stafford, Poetry magazine, the Prairie School, etc.) and promote themselves as a new alternative. They had a Stalinist view of the bourgeoisie and wanted to eradicate the personality from poetry. Yet they yearned for acceptance from the elders, quoting Zukofsky while tearing down their mentors like Ted Berrigan. The threat of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y appeared overnight. They co-opted reading series such as New Langton Street and Small Press Traffic, promoting a unified front. It was a blatant piece of Junior High bullying and led to a strong reaction from those who refused to join cliques. The voice of the counter-insurgency was a quick and dirty mimeo magazine called LIFE OF CRIME. Editors Steve Lavoie and Pat Nolan enlisted the best satirists in the poetry world (including Andrei Codrescu and Dave Morice) to vilify this vain clique. Others (Tom Clark, David Benedetti, Alastair Johnston) quickly joined the fray. This book includes the complete text of LIFE OF CRIME (Newsletter of the Black Bart Poetry Society: For those who think poetry is a crime). It is guaranteed to turn the stomach of the most prurient literary necrophile.

I laughed and wondered if this were some sort of practical joke.

First, the purple prose is killer-diller. And then the Marvel Comics superhero cant is more than enough to "turn the stomach."

Isn't the title precious?

I have always envisioned S.P.D. as somewhat of a bastion of language poetry. Certainly it has done much to foster the careers of many language poets. So I ended up wondering who okayed this seriously lame copy for the catalogue or email campaign?

I guess the press is free to write whatever they want to promote their book. S.P.D. probably isn't in the business of censoring anybody. But it's odd that they chose to promote this in an email that only touted a handful of new titles. Maybe they're trying to show how unpartisan they actually are. If so, good for them.

Okay. But it's still goofy copy.

Language poetry still has much to recommend it. So many readworthy authors fall under that rubric.

And let's face it. It was the most intellectually rigorous literary movement to come out of America in the last century, one of the few movements to actually deserve the title of avant-garde. Those writers might be the last generation of writers who were actually serious-as-fuck readers. I mean readers of everything.++++++

Or perhaps I should specify that their work managed to reflect the fact that they were readers, readers of their culture and other cultures, of much linguistic theory, sociological theory and Continental philosophy, of the past and the rapidly thinning future. And the work benefited from this scholarship, imaginatively applied.* Yet language poetry is often fun, often playful, often deviously inventive.

Okay, they didn't get the pop culture thing, or chose to pretend they didn't. Of course, everybody was probably completely sick of the pop culture thing at that point in time, and that territory had already been thoroughly stripmined by the New York School's various generations and others of that ilk.

Maybe that's not completely true. Some of the language poets did get pop culture, I suppose. Or they got it a little bit anyway--usually the ones who had uses for humor (Charles Bernstein and David Bromige come to mind).

And then there's the other damaging charge. Many readers grudgingly admit that a political consciousness is present, but present in such a rarefied fashion, and so devoid of contemporary reference, that the work risks appearing frivolous. Everybody's ears pricked when Eileen Myles asked where AIDS was in language poetry. (Was it conceded that Aaron Shurin was a language poet? I'm thinking of a celebrated work by him here.) Were the poets adopting quixotic strategies? Or is the Decameron a more apt literary reference to consider with this indictment. Didn't they believe in polemic? Bernstein certainly did (see Rough Trades and other books). But if the work is perceived as inaccessible or class-directed ab ovo, there's no point in even discussing. And I think that was the situation. Myles is an amazing poet. I have always found her writing accessible and challenging at once. And AIDS was definitely present in her poetry. You can see her friends dying and see her going down the street with friends to give blood in the thick of the epidemic in her books. She doesn't forget the work of witnessing, once considered one of the sacred offices of poetry. Direct ethical engagement has never scared Myles. She will call your ass out. I'm thinking of works like her poem in support of an unjustly imprisoned woman, a schoolteacher or caregiver falsely accused of child molestion (in the wave of the McMartin Preschool madness that swept across America) in her one book, a poem that ends with the powerful, straightforward words, "I know you didn't do it." The work of bringing sanity to those unjustly driven insane by an insane society is holy work.

Today, the fashionable idea is that a poet should still be educated, but write as though this education is an embarrassment. Ideas are embarrassing. Causes are embarrassing. Emotions are slightly less embarrassing. Caring about important ideas or causes is cool and you can show it in FACEBOOK posts, but don't wear it on your sleeve, dude (or dudette). Write from the bed of your waking. Take digicam photos of your dishevelment. There is a certain Breakfast at Tiffany's charm to this modern poet. The modern poet can adopt a previous style from any period (except for language poetry--nooooo, you can't pick that one!)without worrying that anybody will not realize that he or she is writing in that mode from a position of irony. With a twist of detachment. Everybody gets that it's all a White Elephant at this point. Just do it. And for crissakes, stay away from sincerity. What are you, a meshugenah? We don't need another Adrienne Rich! Don't worry. Just drop a hundred on a workshop and this will all become very clear. But I worry that our modern poet will not age well. One can't remain twenty-five forever, no matter how much blogging or Twittering one does. And today's style presumes that one can remain twenty-five forever. There are plenty of creaky poets in the twenty-five years old holding pattern. They call it jouissance or something. I call it self-pedophilia. It's all about the horrible mistake evolution made when it decided neoteny is cool.**

I find it interesting that today's literary movements don't even have to be formalistically inventive. It's all done through the miracle of social networking. The New Literary Movement is the equivalent of the t.v. dinner. It arrived that poets might be spared the drudgery of invention. It's the Biz-E-Gal solution. Today's poet is freed up to indulge his or her inner lout. One must admit it is certainly comforting. American poetry today is tending towards the homogeneity of milk. And not the good kind that comes with colostrum. "Avant-garde" poets sound like your garden-variety APR poets. Eighteenth-generation New York School poets sound like Iowa poets. Nobody can tell if an authorized flarf poet actually wrote a flarf poem in a blind taste test. Everybody knows everything. Aren't we lucky?

But I was kvetching about the langpo kvetchers.

I don't really buy that the above-mentioned "Stalinist view of the bourgeoisie" really eventuated in any serious political front. Marjorie Perloff once observed that the language poets had a maddening tendency of not disagreeing with each other in public. But that's about as far as the "unified front" seems to have gone. Maybe they were just fully adult in their sensibilities and their conduct and had stumbled upon very comfortable, cooperative social bonds. In short, to use the vernacular, they "had their shit together."

Yes, I have a copy of the collaboration Leningrad. Actually, I'm impressed with the way language poets reached out to so many Russian poets and translated them. That's how I was introduced to so many poets I would not have otherwise encountered. And they did the same with contemporary Chinese poets and dissidents. Does that sound like menacing Stalinism to you?

As with any poetry movement, you're only going to end up with a few "stars" when the whole shebang is over, but there's still so much that is readworthy across the board with language poetry. And yes, as with any poetry movements there were elements that marked the "house style," and perhaps this house style sometimes moved towards a narrowly circumscribed conception of praxis requiring a rejection of the self and its concerns as untenable and embarrassing subject matter for poetry, unless that self were perceived "sub specie aeternitatis" of certain favored sociological and linguistic theories.***

Yes, occasionally there was that tendentious element. Or perhaps I should say there was a sometimes obnoxious repetition of themes and motifs, a homogeneity of tenor even. For some reason, I think generally the men had more of a problem with this than the women. I mean with the problem of sounding too much alike or falling into a house style. I always thought it was funny that Ron Silliman included that essay titled something like "Why Don't More Women Write Language Poetry?" (I'm probably misremembering the title) because I thought from the first time I encountered language poetry that the women (especially Armantrout, Hejinian, the Howes) were generally the strongest and most imaginative writers in that movement.

Silliman did wisely include Bernadette Mayer in the theory section of In the American Tree. As much as Stein was an early precursor of this sort of theory-based writing, Mayer (and of course other New York School poets) had already embodied an emboldened aesthetic which surely had allure as a contemporary cynosure. I believe Silliman also had Jackson Mac Low (did Messerli include him in his L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E anthology? I'm leaning toward "yes") in that anthology's theory section. Certainly that imaginative poet was another antecedent. And with the ascendancy of language poetry, Mac Low was justly lifted into a greater and deserved prominence.

Does it mean the writing of this movement was predictable just because it was predictable that linguistic and socio-political analysis would be a fairly regular component, or that parataxis and decentering would be prominent devices in the writing?

Not at all. The language poets were individuals and they had (have!) highly individualistic and group-divergent sensibilities.****

Rae Armantrout seemed to get in the swing of the 21st century and its virtual realities long before it arrived. Poets like Bernstein and Perelman wrote great rhetorical poetry directed at the horrifying excesses of Reagan's America. Lyn Hejinian wrote poetry often strongly tinged with phenomenological thinking.

And who else cut their teeth in language poetry? Susan Howe was in In the American Tree. As was Fanny Howe. P. Inman. Tina Darragh. David Melnick. Robert Grenier. (Okay, Grenier's teeth were long "cut" at that point.) Do you think of them as group thinkers? If so, you're obviously not reading the same poets I am. Clearly, everyone had the freedom to think for himself or herself in this "front."

As with any poetry movement (or any book!) much of it is going to be boring. Which Theodore was it who wrote, "99% of everything is shit." Sturgeon? Another?

And of course, these poets were doomed to receive about the same number of stabs Caesar did after a certain amount of prominence had been fatally achieved, and the "anxiety of influence" set in within the bosom of the next generation. It isn't pretty, but it's pretty predictable.

It would be sad if some of the charges of pettiness above leveled at the group and its strategies turned out to be true.

But all that would reveal is occasional bouts of pettiness,***** which is a common human failing, and a failing perhaps more common among poets than the populace at large. And among cliques? It's usually endemic.

Scrounging a bone makes a dog mean and surely poets realize their place in the literary pecking order by now.

If they don't, they haven't been listening.

So tra la.

The thing is you can't reduce a group of dozens and dozens of writers who wrotes hundreds of books to a few nifty dismissive paragraphs.

Okay. Sure you can.

That's much easier than doing the other thing.

And faster. Less work.

It's easier than reading the work of a generation of writers, which still continues, still often fascinates.

And I don't think anybody has to worry about Ted Berrigan being torn down.

I visited him in my bathtub the other day, and he was doing just fine.

But the above copy makes me wonder if language poets are going to be appearing on the forthcoming RAW!

If so, I'd like to see Lyn Hejinian and Rae Armantrout in a tag team match against two non-language poets.

Maybe they could deconstruct "the cage" whilst seriously body-slamming some APR poets.

Okay, after all that bitching, I must add that the press which published this has published some wonderful, underrecognized poets. In fact, I was looking the other day for a book the press published by Robert Gregory, because I wanted to share a great poem by that poet. Alas, I did not locate it.******

I will have to check the ziggurats again.

Anybody who has too many books for bookcases knows what I'm talking about with the ziggurats.

Overfull book collections naturally resurrect Sumeria!*******

*Here I feel as though I should have said "They are poets, scholars and gentlefolk." But I restrained myself.

**Did you like my King Lear impression? Can you tell contemporary American poetry is present like arthritis in my bones? It's a miracle I can even walk with all this American poetry like rheumatoid arthritis in my body.

***Certainly one would have been justified in feeling some trepidation and entertaining the possibility that a new wave of Stepford Poets had arrived, when one read Lyn Hejinian's pronouncement, "Emotions are cliches." One expected her to then mouth, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS-style, "Join us."

****For some reason, I feel as though I'm describing a kennel of dogs of which I am proud at this particular point in the piece of writing.

*****Canine, all too canine...

******Fuck you for criticizing me for saying "Alas."

*******I forget what I was going to say here.

++++++ I am, however, disappointed that they did not cure cancer, AIDS or cancer and AIDS. And that they did not embarrass civilization in an unforgettable way. And that there wasn't a Squeaky Fromme among them. Remember, Reagan was in power at the same time as the language poets.


William Keckler said...

edit entry

poltroon said...

you can find the robert gregory book at

good luck in rehab!