Notes on a gray area and a gripe

Andrew David King
August 4, 2012
Comments 8

For a moment, the elliptical, discursive, and indirect debate about the state of American poetry took on a sheen at once confrontational and warm: Matvei Yankelevich, a poet, critic, and editor at Ugly Duckling Presse, published an open letter last month to Marjorie Perloff in the Los Angeles Review of Books responding to her essay, “Poetry on the Brink.” For a moment, the passive-aggressive, pseudo-sophisticated fluff—the quiet or not-so-quiet acts of inclusion or exclusion in anthologies, the sardonic comments on blogs, the sifting mechanisms of hierarchies—subsided into the sound of one voice speaking to another. An uncommon occurrence (not to say that writers don’t call each other out; they do, but the preferred mode of articulating aesthetic preference is to do so by emphasizing that which one finds admirable), but not an unwanted one: the exchange drew eavesdroppers—like this one—as much interested in its format as in the questions that were raised. “I am writing to you publicly,” Yankelevich begins “The Gray Area: An Open Letter to Marjorie Perloff,” “because I feel it’s important to complicate the generally black-and-white debates in current discussions around ‘Conceptualism’ in contemporary poetry.”

The gist follows: whether or not a binary between Conservatism and Conceptualism presents a viable structure through which to understand the directions of American poetry, to what extent writing can be or is “transparent,” who truly achieves the dematerialization of language, which vantage point offers the most productive interrogation of sets of institutional principles—for Yankelevich, it’s what he calls “the gray area”—and (last but not least) what, if anything, should be done about the state of poetry today.

Below is a sort of thought-journal: a non-chronological sequence of mental interactions with Perloff and Yankelevich over the course of reading their respective essays. Both writers speak with sustained breath, drawing out their arguments without pausing or sliding too far down tangential chutes. But those chutes are of interest to me—if only (or especially) because they seem to color in the white spots of this debate. They might not solve the Quandary of American Poetry In Our Age, but they might answer a few of their own questions to some degree of satisfaction. And so I offer them here, along with comments about “Against Enthusiasm,” a recent essay by Jacob Silverman for Slate lamenting a purported addiction to positivity in book-talk and reviewing. I don’t think that such a scattered approach fully represents the view of either author; anyone looking for that should go directly to their words. Here, I’m interested in how even their tangents mortise back into the same dispute: where, after all the hairs have been split, are we headed?

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Perloff:

… I was not prepared for the vehement response the essay [“Poetry on the Brink”] provoked, especially after the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Arts and Letters Daily website linked to it, which has a huge readership. I didn’t think my essay was all that controversial, but I suppose it struck a nerve for the simple reason that, in today’s poetry press, there is almost no real debate or argument. Few poetry books get reviewed at all and when they do, they are almost always given unqualified praise.

Let me use Perloff’s statement as a jumping-off point. The dilemma, phrased another way, and with the introduction of another premise: if a) poetry is in fact a “dying/disappearing/vanishing/endangered” species of written artwork, and we are worried by this status, then b) we should give it more oxygen—reviews, attention, inch-space in newspapers—but nothing negative because c) that would, cf. a), only cause it further problems. The best approach, then, is relentless positivity: Look here! and here! and here! and never Don’t look here. But any healthy art, written or otherwise, has as part of its natural habitat a component of criticism that, to some, surely looks not un-predatory but whose overarching purpose is to cultivate. Silverman: “…that constant applause is making it harder and harder to hear the voices of dissent—the skeptical, cranky criticisms that may be painful for writers to experience but that make for a vibrant, useful literary culture.”

Suppose we are all yes-people (which, I think, we might be). Does this cycle, wheeling toward self-extinction, provide a reason to abandon criticism altogether? (The goal of stamping out negative criticism, as an exterminator might stamp out termites in wood, really does mean abandoning criticism and taking up an art-ified version of publicity work.) And by “criticism” I don’t mean skirmishes between aesthetic camps, which will and perhaps should continue indefinitely, impelled by ego and dogmatism; nor do I mean the petty sort of pseudo-criticism that takes as its conveyance of choice the ad hominem or one-sided aphorism. I mean criticism as ethical, conscious, thoughtful, and rigorous evaluation that is neither unnecessarily harsh (this is not to say that harshness is never necessary; Yankelevich cites a few cases where it clearly is) nor gratuitously fawning. This does not mean “academic” criticism, per se—but criticism that makes plain for acceptance or rejection its motivations and its ethics. It does not hide its skeletons. The book reviewer who sees it as a duty to respect authors by giving them the benefit of the doubt despite the text’s mediocrity will find it ethical to not write a hatchet job; the reviewer who sees the preservation of his or her preferred aesthetic standards as both a moral and intellectual imperative will find the reverse ethical. Another ethical impetus that might serve as a model—and I write this without lauding it—is to use the review to testify, in a very Stanley Fish, reader-response way, to one’s own interaction with the book and ultimate judgment on it. “Unqualified” may be Perloff’s parlance for reviews of this sort: show me the text! But the text is not the review; it is already one layer removed, and whatever is in the text is not, except in a representational sense, in the review.

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Silverman:

…Cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments. As if mirroring the surrounding culture, biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person. Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web. And, of course, critics, most of them freelance and hungry for work, want to appeal to fans and readers as well; so to connect with them, they must become them.

Silverman has had his share of writing experience for large publications—he’s a Contributing Editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review and has written for The New York Times—but his comments still seem more relevant to the small press, where shoulder-bumping is a daylong activity and instead of six degrees of separation you have two, or three, or none. My own experience as a reviewer has led me to think it’s the norm for a publisher to tell me that if I don’t like a book I’m assigned, I should request another. This has yet to be a practical issue for me, as I’ve found enough in the books I’ve written about to both compliment and chide. But it does make me ask: is Silverman onto something? Or is his criticism misplaced, given the stated goals of some publications? Not all zines exist to sift the wheat from the proverbial chaff; some have roles more akin to community message boards, sought after more for their announcements about whose book has just been published and who’s writing what than anything else.

And is there anything really wrong with this? A good handful of commenters on Silverman’s article seem to be of the opinion that the world has more than its portion of division, and that writers might not be misguided to engineer a reflexive support system for each other. Ars longa, vita brevis. In the words of one commenter: “What sort of person would criticize the work of a cute-as-a-button writer who’s simply trying to make the world a better place? Shouldn’t we support people who are trying to help?” Maybe. I suppose the question then becomes one of determining what and who counts as helping, and what or who should be the recipient of that help. Should a book be evaluated in terms of its service to humanity, or to some “standard” of literature? Should it be evaluated in terms of its “service” at all? Despite my inclinations to adopt and protect my own little red book of aesthetic codes, Kenneth Burke’s contrast of the shortness of life against the mammoth archive of literary discourse rings in my ears: one enters a parlor to find an ongoing conversation that cannot be paused or explained; one contributes, attacks, defends; but “the discussion is interminable,” and with the hour growing late, “you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.” This can either be a paean to the unending project of resolving literary “meaning,” the “canon,” and “tradition,” or it can be a motivation to drop our participation in that project and take up the work, here and now, of appreciating what fragments of the conservation we can catch.

The latter approach is an ethical one (though I’m not saying that it is the ethical choice; only that it’s spurred by a certain ethical disposition), one that puts the people behind the books before the books themselves. Either as a consequence or a precedence to the embracement of this view, a re-writing of the role of the critic comes next. And we can look to Lev Grossman, in a piece about his ire directed toward an anonymous writer titled “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation”, for an example of the kind of thinking (some more committed to the notion of literary “standards” might call it equivocation) that isn’t interested in—to use a bad pun—throwing the book at an author: “As far as I can tell what happens when a reader loves a book isn’t actually a wondrous explosion of literary greatness, an inevitable consequence of that book’s inherent value, it’s a complicated combination of all sorts of circumstances: like who the reader is, where they are in their lives, what else they’ve read, what mood they’re in at the exact moment when they pick up the book,” and so on and so on. But despite this relativism, Grossman’s vitriol—and there is vitriol, as when he says “I hate this damn book so much that I cannot imagine another human being drawing strength and joy from it,” etc.—might actually be useful to me, as someone who trusts the idea that someone who reads books for a living might say something useful about a book of public importance. Is this so revolutionary? Emendation: it might have been useful to me, but it isn’t, because I don’t know what author or what book he’s talking about. Wanting to hear the opinion of an well-read person isn’t critic-worship. Far from it, it’s the type of reliance on proven gauges that has nothing in common with an incessant positive-feedback machine where, as Silverman says, “Mailer and Kael [notorious for their battle-readiness] are your rebellious high school friends: objects of worship, perhaps, but not emulation. After all, it’s all so messy, and someone might get hurt.”

A “better literary culture,” Silverman proposes, would tolerate the occasional maulings “because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions. If we all think more and enthuse less, when I do truly love Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures [Emma Straub’s new novel], you’ll be more likely to believe me.” I think there’s something to be said for this; sometimes it’s hard to track what’s bought-for-a-buck PR and what’s well-earned adulation. One wonders if a knife-jab at a book or author (cf. anything Michael Robbins has written about Robert Hass) can’t also be step toward a more honest and, one hopes, eventually more empathetic exchange.

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Miniature theory of the age of the “Like”: either we are too passive and diluted in our endorsements— “The problem with Liking is that it’s a critical dead-end,” Silverman writes, “a conversation nonstarter.”—or that we are too aggressive with our shoehorning of literary works into the performance rubrics by which we evaluate products. Amazon’s five-star rating schematic is great for books as pleasure-objects or for some abstruse notion of “quality,” but witness no greater (cultural) horror of late capitalism then the conflation of critical excellence in a literary work with the functionality of a well-made footstool. Both receive the same appraisal: ★★★★★. Our problem is that we are Facebook, or we are Amazon; we cannot decide—maybe we are both, or maybe the schism is chronic.

In Facebook’s hyperreality (to appropriate Baudrillard), not only is the negative opinion a silent one—there being no “Dislike” button—but all judgment, for better or for worse, is communal; your “Friends” can see what you “Like” as it shows up in their “News Feed,” and the more aggregated “Likes,” the more likely (no pun!) it is to appear there. There are acts of exclusion, dictated by Terms of Service and site admins and algorithms, but these acts are themselves excluded from view. In Amazon’s e-jungle (no small pun for a company chided for undermining the indie bookstore business; welcome to the untamed wilderness of the laissez-faire market), though, the rules are different. Anyone with a working email address and a credit card can dispense brutality or magnanimity at will. At no point is profundity required; that all reviews are computed with equal weight into a book’s “score” indicates that such is actually eschewed. And so Silverman’s view, which is that a book culture drowning in a sea of plush blurbs written by habitual blurbers is turning us all into blurb-y people, runs into this obvious wall: people are unfair. People are mean. People give As I Lay Dying one-star reviews on Amazon titled “This book is terrible!!” with, yes, two exclamation points and a declaration that the story “is silly, the characters are even sillier, and the ending is completely confusing.” People want what they want, and they want it now. For some people, reviews like this serve a utilitarian purpose; others—and here I mean most of the population that cares about literature—read such reviews and end up watching late-night soaps in a bathrobe with a pint of ice cream and a box of Kleenex.

So which will it be? A culture of sometimes-sharp judgment—which risks devolving (as it already seems to have) into commerce-oriented, binary I-either-like-it-or-I-don’t rhetoric? Or a culture of perennially deferred judgment—where no “Likes” means, well, nobody likes, but also one that wouldn’t be able to articulate its values to you if its digital life depended on it?

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Yankelevich:

Conceptualism, in its purest, most radical form, challenges any value based on poetic craft or know-how—that is its power. With its democratizing potential, a kind of Kaprow-esque “anyone can be an (uncreative) artist” attitude that recalls Fluxus as much as Cage, it would seem to provide a powerful critique of all the hierarchies American poetry has comfortably set up for itself. That is why it’s a little ironic to see that Conceptualism’s staunchest supporters are most likely to be found in the academy and the art institution, and even—I should say, of course—in those very MFAs that you [Perloff] single out as strongholds of Conservatism.

The definition of “conservative” in the Oxford American Dictionary returns this discussion to linguistic origins and not social connotations (I mean linguistic origins prior to today’s connotations; otherwise, one is the other): “holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.” Even further down the rabbit hole, we’ve got to examine “traditional,” which the OAD says denotes something “existing in or as part of a tradition; long-established.” The question then becomes what constitutes sufficient length for tradition: does the Language/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement have its own tradition, its own canon, its own dogma? In responding “yes,” I am not equating all dogmas, nor am I relativizing them—but I am pointing out the fact of stagnation, which seems to be a phenomena for modernists and post-modernists as much as those poets who partake of the conventional “narrative” toolbox, i.e. the American Poetic Mainstream by popular vote.

Yankelevich’s statement that “[conceptualism] would seem to provide a powerful critique of all the hierarchies American poetry” hints at a fundamental incompatibility between the manifestos of the Conceptualists and the mission statements of university presidents. Can the former live while cocooned in the latter—can the former rely on the latter for sustenance and still maintain (to use the jargon of international relations) sovereignty? But his “of course”: should we really have expected as much? Maybe the Conceptual vector that looked as though it would drive a wooden stake through the heart of Conservatism ended up being a terminal arc, ended up crumbling when the hammer came down: at one point it crested, and now it’s back at the axis. Maybe the only remedy is a changing of the guards, and not just once, not just now—but a perpetual refreshing of the wellspring of a truly non-reactionary, organic conceptualism that honors “the word as such” [“slóvo kak takovóe”]—a notion, Yaknelevich says, taken “from a Russian (Cubo-)Futurist manifesto” that was developed by Alexei Kruchenykh and Velemir Khlebnikov. This means the regular installment of new poets in the university, in journals, and in other vocal positions. Not angry poets, exactly, but energized poets. Poets young enough or present enough to not have fallen into the gutters of their own margins, per se, if such a thing can ever be prevented. And the MFA? About finding those gutters and either living in them or despite them, depending.

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Perloff:

Do I believe that Conceptualism is the only game in town? Not for long. As with any movement—Dada, for example, or the Language movement that preceded Conceptualism and also shades into it—the likelihood is that the moment of Conceptualism, which is now prominent enough to boast two recent large anthologies and many university courses dedicated to it, will soon be over.

A requiem for a movement, but not an un-optimistic one: whatever follows will also have its day before it, too, passes the torch. But what does “the moment of Conceptualism” fade into? Does it blur into the amorphous background of a mainstream that refuses to delineate itself but which operates on mappable tenets? And does this mainstream stay relatively constant—an ocean that, like any ocean, sometimes has its hurricanes, whether they take off in the direction of the Language writers or the Neo-Formalists? Do the materials of these movements decompose into humus for new manifestos—for writers whose work will antagonize, and be antagonized by, both poles? As he writes: “The poets residing in this gray area (hybrid or not) are often receptive to the influence of Conceptualism, making interesting use of its precepts; in other cases they are directly antagonized by it, or antagonistic toward it, antsy about what they perceive to be a call to abandon ‘writing’ for web-based appropriation.” The magma pooling within Conceptualism (of which conceptual poetry is but one form, Yankelevitch claims) seems to be abiding; as Perloff notes, Cage was doing work in the ’60s. But maybe, as Yankelevich indicates, there aren’t two poles: “…the curious thing is that the most extreme examples at either pole [Conceptualism or Conservatism] converge [emphasis in original] in one very important way: in the purported transparency of their language.” More than that, they’re both power structures. But what transparency? This is my question as well as Perloff’s: “…most of the academic mainstream poets use calculated indirection, ‘subtle’ metaphor and imagery, allusion to historical events, and so on. Certainly, they avoid simply telling it ‘like it is.’” Or maybe Yankelevich relevantly qualifies himself by putting “purported” before “transparency”: language as a necessary evil, a vehicle by which to transport the emotional tonnage of narrative epiphanies or Con-Po aha! moments.

Divining the extinction of Conceptualism raises the question of what comes next; certainly it might be another momentarily-rigorous movement (where the moment is a few decades), but if it’s a dive into that bottomless body of mediocre water too complacent to see language as much more than a cart for lyric cotton candy, then another new Conceptualism (though not necessarily anything called Neo-Conceptualism, or Yankelevich’s Post-Conceptualism) is called for. Conservatism and Conceptualism converge at the point of their seeing past language for other purposes, in their teleological view of it. But while Conceptualism—at its best, which it is not always at—wants to cross-examine Conservatism, Conservatism wants to erase Conceptualism. I’m being general here, perhaps too much so, but I don’t think the sentiment is misplaced. “Words are carriers of meaning,” Kay Ryan assured us while on a panel at the Academy of American Poets’s Poets Forum in 2010. She said to Lyn Hejinian, who’d mentioned Pollock, “A word really is a unit of meaning. And therefore isn’t it different when we splatter words than when we splatter paint?” Hejinian objected by bringing up Gertrude Stein’s experiments, which Ryan promptly dismissed: “They’re very experimental.” Here is poetry; there is experiment. Experiment is not poetry, nor should it aspire to be. In the video of the panel one cannot, over the audience’s laughter, hear a century’s worth of Stein scholars, modernist poets, and intelligent readers weeping.

Conceptualism’s death knell summons either the mainstream or the middlestream to take its place—Yankelevich’s gray area, chock-full (he thinks; Perloff demurs) of writers astute and capable enough to problematize the dictates of any doctrine, even their own. Let’s hope we get the nuanced discussion promised by this middlestream and not the easy “Likes” or pans of Philistines with paintbrushes when Con-Po finally goes the way of the dinosaur.

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Yankelevich:

Long before the current Conceptualist critique of “sincerity” and “expression” began, Laura (Riding) Jackson made the compelling argument that poetry, no matter how invested in truth-telling, was always a seduction, and that “poet,” therefore, was “a lying word.” It is just such a blindness to the most basic lessons of Modernism—a blindness perpetuated by the big houses, “major” anthologies, and high-school English curricula, and one that you, to your credit, have doggedly countered—that keeps the American mind in the stone age in regard to poetry, among other things.

The frustration here manifests itself through scare quotes, which denote palpable impatience with shopworn “meanings”: “sincerity,” “expression,” and “major.” Whether or not Yankelevich’s reconstruction of Jackson’s quote is accurate, the idea of the poet being “a lying word” him/herself is irresistible. As if words could have agency, or could abuse that agency for immoral purposes—the point here seems to be the untenable division of “the human” from “language”; one does not operate without the other. Language as a pure thing, if anybody ever believed that (and Ryan’s quote above makes me think they still do), is an oxymoron: if couldn’t exist if we wanted it to.

Though I want so badly to print out a thousand copies of this paragraph from Yankelevich’s letter and stick them in every Collected Poems at the closest bookstore, I still need to know exactly how far this suspicion of poetry as a contraption for truth-obtainment is to be taken. The ultimate doubter of poetry as a means to access any sort of knowledge is empirical science: not only does empirical science have strict (and requisitely narrow) regulations about what data gets gathered, whole fields of inquiry are written off as impossible to collect data about, or worse, as imaginary. And if those fields deny empirical tactics or are imaginary in the literal sense of the word—as in ontologically rooted in the imagination, like poetry—they carry no weight; they can’t be translated, and therefore aren’t worth investigating. Some questions about the mind and its activities fall under the purview of psychology, but metaphysical questions about truth and meaning and language—more than just “the mind and its activities” in virtue of their social and historical aspects—are largely uninteresting to empirical science in the way that philosophical skepticism was uninteresting to Bertrand Russell. How long do we want to play “good scholar, bad scholar” with Shakespeare in an interrogation room? My concern is that questions about the mainstream’s posturing might be applied to any linguistic creation ad infinitum: an interrogation of an interrogation of an interrogation, and so on until all we feel comfortable with are test tubes and spreadsheets. At one point, everything’s black scribbles on tree fiber. When we enter Poetry, we’re entering unmeasurable territory already; we’re outside the scope of verification, where only the lanterns of our intuition and instincts matter. And they do matter. I think the issue here, in determining what level of automated self-evaluation is sufficient (because the current level is nonexistence), is mostly an ethical one: is most high-school English curricula, for instance, ethically aware of its own methods? Does it apply its own investigative approaches so exhaustively that it investigates even itself with them? This has not been my experience—not in the least. Is Dove’s recent Penguin anthology an example of ethical anthologizing; does it promote principles conducive to something resembling this self-awareness in any capacity? I’ll let you guess.

I don’t want to trouble Yankelevich’s anxiety too much; I overwhelmingly share it. All of the above being said, I think there exists a sufficient level of interrogation that, once arrived at by readers, earns them the right to cordon off some Ineffables and Unknowns and leave them be. This is not even remotely similar to the kind of slack-jawed repetition that has plagued “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” for the past century. One approach asks “Why?” to the content only; the other asks “Why?” to the content and to the method of its inspection. There’s a reason so many writers of mainstream lyric poetry lack any familiarity with, or interest in, Language/“experimental” writers—while Language/“experimental” writers seem to have received an extensive education in formal narrative and lyric writing. This is because they have. Traditional literary studies teach the analysis of this kind of writing, but rarely of any others. Language/“experimental” writers have moved out of, or away from, this mainstream while retaining the knowledge such an incomplete education pounded into them. Those who choose to coast along the narrative rail encounter these writers outside of the classroom, on accident, or on their own terms: hence the avoidance and antagonism, and the complaints about needing a theoretical basis to “understand” non-narrative work. Yankelevich is correct to concede that the “basic lessons of Modernism” have not been taught, and it does not seem like they will; they are neither cuddly nor reductive enough to be incorporated into the preferred method of literature-digestion without usurping it entirely. Here I recall Ron Silliman, in a 1984 interview for The Difficulties, urging his audience to come clean about the mediocrity (or worse) of Shakespeare’s writings. I can’t agree with him there, but his point isn’t lost; there’s a certain curriculum regarding what’s “good,” and it usually involves sustained narration, some sort of epiphany, and some notion of truth, however ill-defined or unrigorous. And also some notion of “worth,” as Sandra Simonds mentioned when responding to Perloff’s essay back in May: “The workshops that I took at FSU (I only took a few), were heavily skewed to this formulation of poetry as worthy,” she writes. Further on: “I also think that their general indifference and sometimes skepticism about innovation or what they perceived as ‘experimental’ is pretty much a reflection of a publishing culture that tends to publish the types of poems that Perloff describes. If students go to school to become professors and publication is central to their advancement, the question becomes why should professors actively promote experimentation or innovation?”

But why do you need new thinking when the time-tested model works so, well, beautifully? We have our meanings, and our containers of meanings—words, Ryan reminds us; let’s not forget!—and our epiphanies, and it all meshes together so nicely in that Dante Gabriel Rosetti kind of way. Everything lines up and looks real pretty. With such thorough legislation about what kinds of truth(s) and what kinds of meaning one can have in place, why bother with those who want to trek outside the bureaucracy? If, as Simonds touches upon, the university relies on publications to determine the status and worth of its faculty (it does), and the vast majority of “revered/known” publishing outlets gravitate away from Conceptualism or non-mainstream work (they do), then what results is the procedural exclusion of a certain breed of writer. An exclusion at the expense, of course, of artistic pluralism, but also an exclusion embedded in the administrative tendency toward routinization and empirical “confirmation” of achievement. That might be just the way things go, but then who’s to blame for the continuation of this aesthetic nepotism—could it possibly be those students whose educations, partial as they were, failed them?

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Perloff:

…Perhaps it’s time to forget about movements and isms and read carefully particular poets — poets who, in Yankelevich’s words about Nekrasov, “complicate the relationships of appropriation and transparency, context and concept, politics and aesthetics,” insisting on a “heightened materiality of language.” Whether we call such work Conceptualist or Post-Conceptualist really doesn’t matter. The point is to come out openly against the self-regarding sludge that passes for poetry in the commercial and media world, and to look closely at the alternatives. And here I agree with Yankelevich that “we have a lot more work to do.”

Any literary work, Conservative or Conceptual, able to be represented by either the Amazonian flipping-thumbs model or the Facebook model—anything consumer-ready enough for today’s McUniversity—is doomed to spiral downward eventually. The mother ship of the mainstream is too strong a magnet, attracting some and repelling others. Perloff’s call to not get lost in faddish nomenclature is an important reminder of what’s at stake: the aesthetic wars, as it were, aren’t over yet. There is still work to be done that’s central to the issue of what gets remembered, what gets touted as the pinnacle of achievement, and (as an afterthought, sadly) what types of thought and ethical behavior we want to advocate in poetry. Neither Yankelevich nor Perloff are blind to the whirlwind of influences that the political and material inflict on poems; Perloff, in closing her response to Yankelevich, rallies around these points. It’s curious that both critics end, to parrot Eliot, with whimpers: Perloff with this amicable but tired-sounding confession of the relentless “sludge” that necessitates we set aside the finer points of our argument to wade through it, and Yankelevich with a shot at the too-easy (though not undeserving) target of Rita Dove’s comments on a Natasha Tretheway poem that invoke the “true self” and the “Polaroid” as motifs.

Considering the above, the question of materiality isn’t one that needs to be resolved tomorrow; that its resolution is even a ponderable question is cause for a lift in spirits. Whereas Yankelevich frames Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day in terms of the logic of dematerialization, Perloff asks whether or not dematerialization was ever a “Conceptualist requisite”: “Why do people travel to Beacon, NY or to remote Marfa, Texas to see Conceptualist ‘sculpture?’” Both critics seem to concede this, too: that despite the uncertain preferences and behavior of the mainstream, and despite its insistence on being a particular thing while refusing to articulate what that thing is with at any heightened level of specificity or analysis, there is still work to be done—work that can be done, and should. Burke’s parlor continues to fill and empty, empty and fill. But amidst the din, real discussion is happening. Commenting on a perceived fondness of performance among Conceptualist poets, Yankelevich recounts that theater “is what the avant-garde stood for: the theatricalization of art brings the work out of the rarefied ‘art world’ and into everyday life, in such a way that it has to be approached within a political context rather than as an aesthetic object to be contemplated, bought, and sold.” Maybe there is an “art world” separate from a “world world”; maybe they’re one and the same. At any rate, the accessible dialogue between these two thinkers and active presences in the “poetry world” is a movement toward the de-commercialization of contemporary art that’s posed so many problems for those not interested in one-off ratings or obsequious puffery. In doing so, they reclaim language and the artworks it begets as public for a time, unprotected by age-old assumptions and protocols. “I hope that a friendly argument will offer an alternative to the re-staging of an old ‘culture war’ and bring some other things that have been going on in contemporary poetry into the discussion,” Yankelevich says in the opening of his letter. Friendly, but uncompromising—what a radical model, one thinks, for criticism as well as for poetry.

8 thoughts on “Notes on a gray area and a gripe

  1. Hem, meet Haw. why can’t lord tennyson and gertrude stein be friends? this whole discussion strikes me as a bad woody allen movie. poetry was never meant to be intellectual, or the intellectual made flesh. it is the flesh of the world transformed into the flesh (of the art—painting, poetry, music). Conceptualism leaves out crucial steps—in theory AND practice.

    • Thomas,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Might poetry be an art which, for some writers, organically entails the incorporation of more explicitly “intellectual” pursuits–criticism, aesthetic theory, and the like? These things seem to be just other patches of the flesh of the world; and if so, it makes sense that some would take them up as components of projects or as projects themselves. (They’re not the only options, no… but I won’t hop down that rabbit-hole.) And if poetry is the flesh of the world transformed, certainly it’s not the whole body transformed–some will take up the head, others the heart. Isn’t chiding Con-Pos for leaving out “crucial steps” sort of like chiding a quarterback for shooting free throws poorly?

      The discussion between Perloff and Yankelevich, whether about the Con-Pos or about any other sect of American poetry, appears to be preoccupied more with reasoning out what poetry should be than what it is already. They’re clearly dissatisfied with the latter; the ruckus is about the former. I’m not sure I buy the idea of poetry as an art “never meant to be intellectual”–but supposing this were the case, I’m not sure how this original intention, formal or theoretical, could be given authoritative weight in the present. We were there; now we’re here, you know? A rigorous re-evaluation of what poetry “should be” places that lineage on equal footing with modern interests. I’m not ready to say either should, or does, outrun the other (i.e. not ready to enlist myself in an aesthetic army just yet). But we can’t have that conversation until we sweep ideas about what poetry was once “meant to be” into the dustbin of nostalgia.

  2. Thanks for the reply–I couldn’t agree more with your point that Perloff’s “aesthetic criticism of so much mainstream American poetry is prompted by a sense of ethics and not a desire to antagonize—a sense of ethics that puts a premium, perhaps, on the intellect over the emotion, on analysis rather than intuition.” I’ve read a number of Perloff’s books, including “Unoriginal Genius,” and I’m a big fan of her impulse to move away from cultural studies and identity politics paradigms back to a text-centered, rhetorical poetics. My sense is that this is already happening in the digital humanities boom, and maybe the real avant-garde poets at Standford are Matthew Jockers and Franco Moretti.

    Anyway, one more question and then I won’t eat up any more space here. I wonder what your feelings are about Yankelevich’s comment (in his open letter) that Conceptualism, “With its democratizing potential, a kind of Kaprow-esque ‘anyone can be an (uncreative) artist’ attitude that recalls Fluxus as much as Cage, it would seem to provide a powerful critique of all the hierarchies American poetry has comfortably set up for itself.” Do you think that a movement like Goldsmith’s is really democratizing (or capitalizing on that potential?), especially given the extensive rules of engagement with such texts? (Yankelevich does, after all, lightly chastise Perloff for daring to actually read, closely, and then assess some of Goldsmith’s uncreative writing). When I encounter movements like Goldsmith’s, I am reminded of reading French theorists in grad school–a lot of self-explanation in place of the actual work, a lot of explanation of theory being privileged over its practice. In fact, with Goldsmith and other avant garde artists, I often feel a tyranny of explanation at work, rather than any democratizing. In Perloff’s own work, for example, there is no shortage of John Cage or Charles Bernstein explaining their own texts, or Perloff stepping in to do it for them. And I have to wonder how many times Goldsmith has “performed” the same explanation of his uncreative writing aesthetic. Maybe it’s democratizing for the artists, but I struggle to see how it is for readers when you’re pretty much fed the operative philosophy as an entry into the discussion (and to be fair to Yankelevich–he is clearly looking to the future and different poetic hybrids). Am I way off on that? This is one of the reasons I admire Christian Bok so much–“Eunoia,” for example, as a work, speaks for itself and that highly complicated, yet highly accessible work of art has been embraced by a huge readership as a result.

    Thanks again for this post–really thought provoking.

    • That little dust-up in the exchange located where I think Perloff and Yankelevich part ways: and that is on the “success” of those poets writing away from the poles of both Conceptualism and Conservatism (because to write “between” them would just be to write in such a way that implies the hemispheres where, he argues, they already overlap). Yankelevich seems to be convinced there’s bounty there; Perloff is less convinced. So I don’t think Yankelevich is wholly endorsing, necessarily, Conceptualism; mostly his piece reads as being as dissatisfied with Conceptualism as with Conservatism. But some of that dissatisfaction—as you are right to highlight—comes from what critics like Perloff are perceived as denying Conceptualism the ability to do, which in this case is to truly “dematerialize” the text. But I don’t think Conceptualism or its advocates can fault critics for underlining (possibly intentional) patterns native to the work. One could always say such criticisms are a re-imposition of the framework the Con-Pos wish to avoid, but I don’t think Perloff’s observations about Goldsmith’s Day fall into that category. Anyway, if a comment like Perloff’s dead-ends a Conceptualist project, or how Conceptualists see that project, then maybe it—in such an instance—has failed, or was near-impossible to achieve to begin with. I don’t see what good such a monopolization does, and I’m not persuaded of its efficacy.

      I hear you about democratization. But I also think that part of the endeavor of democratization—for the artist as an individual—might be the ability to dictate one’s own means of interpretation, i.e. to resist custom by insisting on an alternate explanation. And though I likewise find it a bit frustrating when writers propagate an arbitrary explanation as a form of reclaiming authority, I understand how it can be important for them to assert an identity—especially when that identity is so contrary to convention: “Not X, but Y.” It’s up to you to decide if that deserves ire or support. I think it would be an even more democratizing project to deny explanation its role of subservience in the assessment of artistic merit, i.e. to publish and perpetuate works that challenge the whole apparatus of literary engagement. This is where Yankelevich’s piece really rings true for me: Conservatism and Conceptualism alike rely on virtually the same hierarchical model (each has tiers in the academy, tiers of academic criticism, tiers of non-academic criticism, and events; though one may be less visible than the other, I can’t see how this could be denied), and cannot, therefore, do intellectual work as significant to those writing from “the gray area” that overlaps with both but claims neither as home. It would seem that he wants to take the qualifier “seem” out from his statement about Conceptualism—“it would seem to provide a powerful critique of all the hierarchies American poetry has comfortably set up for itself”—and instead attribute it to those gray writers.

      On second thought, maybe Perloff’s revision of the above poem is informed by Pound, who she quotes in her response to Yankelevich: “Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.”

      (And no worries about taking up space here! It’s a blog; you’re more than welcome, and I appreciate you engaging me about this post.)

  3. I really like this point you make about reviews: “I mean criticism as ethical, conscious, thoughtful, and rigorous evaluation that is neither unnecessarily harsh (this is not to say that harshness is never necessary; Yankelevich cites a few cases where it clearly is) nor gratuitously fawning. This does not mean ‘academic’ criticism, per se—but criticism that makes plain for acceptance or rejection its motivations and its ethics. It does not hide its skeletons.”

    So, in your opinion, does Perloff’s criticism at this moment in her essay meet your standard:

    “This attention to musical elements is absent in most contemporary poetry. Open the Dove anthology at random, and you find writing such as this:

    My father once broke a man’s hand
    Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
    Rubén Vásquez, wanted to kill his own father
    With a sharpened fruit knife

    When I transpose this into prose—’My father once broke a man’s hand over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man, Rubén Vásquez, wanted to kill his own father with a sharpened fruit knife’—I find it more interesting than the lineated version. Why lineate it at all?”

    I admire much or Perloff’s work, but it’s filled with this type of baseless gloss: “I find it more interesting….” Is this to be taken informed criticism of one’s line breaks, especially when this single example is a stand-in, in Perloff’s opinion, for the bulk of contemporary poetry?

    In reading both pieces, I get the sense that “the state of contemporary poetry” is being glossed with a pretty broad brush without much discussion, beyond enumerating its negative elements, of why those qualities are universally bad.

    Small point, I know. I really enjoyed reading this.

    • Thanks for reading, and for your comment—it’s got me thinking. Before I get to your question, I should first say that I’m not even sure my work as a reviewer meets that standard; I think I was trying to define the sort of criticism I want to write, and which I’d like to read. I do know that I would rather read an honest savaging than a piece of puffery that couldn’t recognize a conviction if one walloped it on the head. There’s a reason I listed “ethical” first in that list of adjectives, and then again when talking about criticism that “makes plain” its ethics; I think questions of ethics are an integral part of any critique worth reading, and that such a critique should also shore up its own ethical interface (and if possible—though this almost never happens—judge that, too).

      I want to draw a line, I think, between the manifesto/polemic—which reserves the right to evaluate not just works of art but the aesthetic principles on which those works are based—and the sort of poetic criticism I’d like to imagine as ideal: one that directs this corrective energy more sympathetically, or at least more meditatively. This is a small house we all share, and while that doesn’t mean frankness should be foregone, it does necessitate a sort of communal awareness, if not sensitivity.

      All of this plays into my consideration of your question: I’m not sure on what side of the divide that excerpt from Perloff’s essay stand. Having read some of her other works, namely Unoriginal Genius and her book about Futurism, I know that she can operate in a hyper-rigorous, bibliographically-oriented way—producing writing much different in tone and (I would say) purpose from what we’re talking about here. So I don’t want to commit the same error I might be tempted to criticize her for making, i.e. assuming that authorial intention failed to achieve something it was never trying to do. Still, talking about how a painting would be better if it’d been done in neon colors seems beside the point—the painting was done a certain way, the poem lineated a certain way, and now we’ve got these facts about the work of art to deal with. The only reason I think this excerpt might be acceptable is because the form of the essay from which it’s taken is one that allows that sort of speculation about hypotheticals. It might be, I fear, the only way to talk about where American poetry should go: to place differing aesthetic sensibilities in immediate confrontation with each other. Otherwise we might as well ask why the poet wrote about that anecdote, or why he wrote a poem at all, etc. The potential for vapidity is high.

      Another point in Perloff’s defense is that I think her aesthetic criticism of so much mainstream American poetry is prompted by a sense of ethics and not a desire to antagonize—a sense of ethics that puts a premium, perhaps, on intellect over emotion, on analysis rather than intuition. I do understand your concern about the “why” getting left behind in all of this noise—it’s difficult for people who feel like they’ve made themselves clear, or who feel their reasons self-evidently clear (or who have a terrible aversion to questioning their own reasons), to present the same case continually. But then this assertiveness hardens into dogmatism and ego and impatience; inevitably, the sort of careful thinking that produced these positions falls from the discourse. This is my folk-psychology diagnosis, at least. And so it goes.

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