March 22, 2010

Notes for response paper for Reimagining the Poet Critic at UCSC last weekend...

Panel was Panel 2: Poetics and Reading Methodologies: with papers by Amanda Lim, Alta Ifland, Surya Parekh.


Surya Parekh ends by, as he phrases it, “returning to our own prejudices as a shared collectivity” and asking “what are our own enabling constraints, what kinds of justifiable valorizations do we need to perform?”

It is a good question.

Surya in his paper, which I read as a wonderful sort of love letter to Fred Moten’s brain, begins by wondering why “some of the most compelling, trenchant, and powerful contemporary examples of poet-critics, namely those which might be grouped under such overlapping rubics as Afro-diaspora or African-American postmodernism do not figure in our discussions of the poet-critic here?”

Another good question. (Although as an aside, I’m not sure where the “here” is. But I feel like I can think of so many heres where his observation holds true.)

Also attentive to the prejudices of a shared collectivity, Alta Ifland argues “the idea that poetry is either ‘experimental’ or ‘experiental’ deserves some scrutiny.”

And in her paper, Amanda Lim--another love letter but this one to Lisa Robertson’s, Nathalie Stephens’, and Anne Carson’s brains—wonders why these works, despite their attentiveness to feminist concerns have “frequently been perceived as elitist, anti-feminist, and/or marginal.”

All these papers are saying, Why these various sorts of myopias? Why the avoidance of obvious complications? Of alliances?

I want, thus, to think with these papers about the sorts of stories we tell about contemporary poetry and how they might be stories of prejudice rather than shared collectivity, how they might be blinding us to some justifiable valorizations.

The story I am about to tell should be seen as a cartoon. And also, I’m not sure it is entirely true. So I’m interested in trying it out and seeing what parts of it might be true. As this is an idea that is very much in progress, I am open to any rethinkings.

My story goes like this…

The experimental and experiential divide, as Alta points out with her well placed bewilderment, makes little sense outside of the US. But anyone who has attended literature school in the US probably recognizes this divide.

I was taught, taught it bears noticing by a number of poet-critics, a story of how reigning nineteenth century national literary traditions got challenged around 1913 when Stein published Tender Buttons (or around 1908 Italian poet Marinetti proclaimed the beginnings of futurism or around 1910 Roger Fry organized his exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” or . . . ). And from this there developed two parallel traditions. One national (and narrowly nationalist), one international (yet mainly Euro-American). One conventional, one experimental. One standard English, one syntactically other English. One cooked, one raw, as Robert Lowell called it in acceptance speech for the National Book Award in 1960. There were, it was said, two sides. And these two sides continued to exist, running side by side, into the contemporary. I myself have taught this story without thinking much about its truth. For years when I taught twentieth century literature, I would draw a horizontal line and put one tradition on one side facing off against the other.

I am not so sure that this two parallel traditions model makes that much sense when describing early twentieth century literature, but it for sure makes no sense when describing the “contemporary,” or the second half of twentieth and early twenty first century literatures in English. And yet it continues to exist. And I think one reason it continues to be so often repeated as if it were true despite so much evidence to the contrary has to do with the poet-critic.

By the late twentieth century, the relationship between literature and the nation is entirely different than it is at the turn of the twentieth century. In numerous ways. By the end of the twentieth century the high arts, and literature in particular, is of very little interest. The cultural industry that has the most explicit ties to US imperialism is Hollywood. A direct sign of this can be seen in how the US government dramatically cuts its “arts” funding at the end of the twentieth century and at the same time puts into place a series of tax breaks for the film industry.

Left to its own devices and with little interest from the US government, a significant part of US literature in the last half of the twentieth century becomes a community art and as it becomes a community art, it becomes an art form that is very much used for cultural representation, uplift, preservation, and conversation. (Please note that I am not disavowing the presence of a nationalist US literature; it is out there; I’m just not going to talk about it in this paper. OK?)

It is in the genre of poetry that it is easiest to see the connections between literature and community that develop in the late 1960s. Poetry, abandoned not only by the US government but also by multinational publishing conglomerates, continues to exist because various community movements preserve and cultivate it by creating support networks for it such as publishing houses, journals, anthologies, reading series, etc.

A few examples from the multitudes of examples possible: I am thinking here of the literatures that rise to prominence in the late 60s through the 70s, many of which have ties primarily to identity movements but not exclusively. The creation of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in 1965 by Baraka is often seen as a foundational moment here. But that is just one among many. Bamboo Ridge, the workshop and the press that publish mainly literature written by Asian Americans in Hawai‘i and is responsible for the existence of a literature in Pidgin (HCE) was founded in 1978. Arte P├║blico, with its claim to “providing a national forum for Hispanic literature,” was founded in 1979. But it is not just the founding of small arts institutions I am talking about. Larger cultural movements in the 70s often see poetry as being a part of their activism. I am thinking here of the Hawaiian Renaissance, the Native American movement, the Chicano movement, the various activisms around feminist and queer issues--all of which consider poetry as one possible genre in which to propose, examine, and cultivate cultural change. I would also want to include various formal politicized movements such as language poetry as a parallel to these movements. And outside of the US, I would include a whole range of anti-colonial poetries written in all sorts of Englishes, many of which are part of resistance and sovereignty movements.

This vibrancy should challenge that old stand off between the conventional and the experimental. Or at least complicate the way the internationalism of the experimental side of things is mainly Euro-American so that the international becomes something more than literature written in the tradition of Euro-American modernism and includes the poetries written in other Englishes that come out of various resistance and cultural preservation movements and their language practices. For most of the writers who do this sort of where they use poetry as a genre for activist discussion also see the writing of what we call “criticism” as part of their work. Surya concentrates in his paper on how poet critics of the Afro-diaspora--not only Moten but also Cesaire, Brathwaite, Glissant--do not show up that much in considerations of the poet-critic. My first thought of who gets left out was to the large tradition of poet-critics in the Pacific such as Haunani-Kay Trask and Epeli Hauofa and Rodney Morales and Dennis Kawaharada. And then I went, oh wait Kathy Acker. And then oh wait Cardenal, Dalton, Vallejo. And then oh wait even someone, although it kills me to have to say it, such as Mao.

But instead, the reverse happens and this stand off between the conventional and the experimental seems to keep being more and more entrenched. My guess here is that this has something to do with how the poet-critic is currently defined. A number of poets enter the academy in the 80s and 90s. Some through the growth of MFA programs and some through the growth of PhD programs in English. These poet-critics tell the story of the experimental and conventional divide as the only two games in town over and over. It is as if they realize that if they keep saying it, maybe they will not have to deal with the much more complicated way that literature intersects with cultural movements. Some examples here, poet-critic Dana Gioia, bemoaning what he calls the death of poetry in 1992’s Can Poetry Matter? reestablishes the division as he blames poetry’s death on modernism, on the raw. On the other side of the tracks, are poet-critics such as Ron Silliman, who uses the terms post-avant and School of Quietude, and Cole Swenson, who suggests the terms transcendent and immanent in her recent introduction to the Norton Hybrid anthology. And the moments where this divide between the conventional and the experimental gets challenged have been less than provocative. I am thinking here of what is sometimes called “third way” sorts of thinking that suggest a reconciliation between these two dominant modes such as poet-critic Stephen Burt’s attempt to establish the term “elliptical,” the journal Fence, which announced itself in its first issue that it was proudly sitting on the fence between these two sides, to the recently published Norton anthology called Hybrid. I would even include the anthology Women Poets in the 21st Century, which poet-critic I co-edited with poet-critic Claudia Rankine as part of the problem. All of these “third way” models end up reifying the two poetries divide and continue to marginalize the large amount of literature that is aligned with various cultural and identity movements.

My desire in telling this story is to denaturalize this divide, to insist with Surya, Alta, and Amanda that we’re missing a lot of provocative thinking. If I had more time, I’d puzzle for a few moments over how weird it is that so many poet-critics devoted to the experimental (i.e. to the tradition of modernism) manage to keep thinking that poets not in Anglo-European traditions are still primarily about identity and overlook the totally dynamic ways that experimental, modernist formalism is used by so many anti-colonial poets. In other words, if all you are interested in is some idea of vanguard formal aestheticism, then you might at this point be more likely to find it in those Afro-disaporic traditions.

I’m blaming this story somewhat on the way we’ve institutionalized the poet-critic as someone who is within the institution. Because when we talk about the poet-critic we mean poets who write literary criticism. Which tends to also be poets who have US academic jobs or who have trained in the US academy and are looking for jobs.

So one beginning task for any reimagining of the term poet-critic would be to look at how many poets are using the illusion of the neutrality of criticism to actually prop of their own position, their own work, to skew the granting and the prize giving system. And begin thinking with that. It might not be a bad thing that the poet-critic is so often a fan with alliances to certain social and friendship formations. But it might lead to a certain narrowness. And while it might not be willful, it is hard for me not to be somewhat paranoid about how to valorize the poet-critic as it is currently defined is to valorize the two camps model and to overlook the literatures that are aligned with various cultural and activist movements.

I have been assuming we are all insiders and wondering how we poet critics might imagine ourselves.

But I want to briefly go more outsider and ask: what does this rise of the poet critic mean for doctoral programs?

I am asking that because I suspect, although the conference description does not state it, that one reason that this conference exists, one reason that the poet critic needs to be reimagined, is that there remains so much institutional anxiety about this tradition leaking all over the dissertation. Or I am remembering this being a big anxiety at SUNY Buffalo when the Poetics Program formed itself. There was some concern that the SUNY Buffalo dissertation “brand” would be diluted.

Two quick thoughts here…

One of which is the sky is falling sort of thought. Which is that the entire system is collapsing and the only optimistic thought that one could have about this is that it might be a chance to rethinking the ossified genre traditions of the academy and what sorts of thinking they permit. One thing that poetics, the byproduct of poet critics, is attentive to at its best has been atypical and provisional association. But this seems to me to be yet another reason why I think it is crucial to include all those activist poet-critics in any idea of the poet critic here. What if the dissertation genre wasn’t written just for degree fulfillment but had to become a book that engaged with a community readership even as it kept its rigor? What if we began to think of an engaged rigor as part of what the dissertation might do?

One final note… I keep thinking of Surya's “shared collectivity” which I love because it is a double double and we need the absurd intensification of double double sorts of thinking. Poet critic, then as a beginning. Also the yes and of Moten. The critical creative...

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