Monday, March 31, 2003

I was interested to see Ron Silliman’s post Friday on the most recent issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter, and on how the current war might—might—provide the "historical moment" of politicization that he and Lyn Hejinian found lacking for younger writers (or so the quotes in PPN suggested). Silliman notes that the remarkable outpouring of protest in the first days of war means that "my initial criticism about depoliticization is one charge I’ll never be able to raise again."

I actually read the PPN feature in question about two weeks ago, and looking back at it now I’m struck at how much heat Silliman’s and Hejinian’s comments stirred up. What were folks so worked up about?

I was surprised at how many poets took the bait—reading Silliman and Hejinian as saying, "you kids today aren’t political," and responding, "Yes we are! Yes we are!" Laura Elrick: "‘Younger people’ now are organizing marches, demonstrations, conferences, teach-ins, walk-outs, collectives, coalitions, public theaters, and independent media organizations…" Alan Gilbert: "There are as many experimental poets writing engaged political poetry and doing important political work today as there were when Silliman and Hejinian’s generation was ‘emerging.’" Edwin Torres was alone in rejecting the terms of the criticism entirely: "politics has never interested me." And his contribution utterly lacks the fury of the other responses. So: why would it be that the charge of "depoliticization" would be the worst thing you could fling at a young poet?

What this forum’s really about, I think, is not political but generational conflict. I’m not sure that the generation that came of age in the 1960s is fully aware of the kind of rage they can inspire in younger people (even, or especially, those who are in every way politically sympathetic to them) by alluding to the utopia of ‘60s activism. (Allan Gilbert: "baby boomer nostalgia for the ‘60s.") But more importantly, Silliman and Hejinian (and I’m not sure they realize this either) are increasingly seen as elders, institutions (like Language poetry itself), wielders of authority giving stamps of approval to some writers while withholding them from others. I don’t claim this characterization is fair. But the number of writers in the forum who see Silliman and Hejinian as dismissing or overlooking the work of any number of younger writers suggests to me that the approval of Silliman and Hejinian is a desired commodity. In this arena, "politics" is a marker of value; the ‘60s generation is seen as having the monopoly on political virtue vis-à-vis the younger generation; hence the suggestion by an elder that younger poets are "depoliticized" is seen as both a moral and an aesthetic rebuke.

This generational conflict obscures the more substantive element of Silliman’s and Hejinian’s critiques, which seem to me really to be about surface and depth. Silliman deplores a writing that is "simultaneously politically correct and depoliticized," while Hejinian claims that "What tends now to get identified as Language Writing is identified as such on the basis of surface characteristics, surface features." In other words, they see a poetry that looks Language-y, but it doesn’t go all the way down. There’s a funny elision here in the way PPN has paired these quotations: a poem that looks "experimental" is also one that is "politically correct." The assumption behind that is that it’s those aesthetic traits associated with Language poetry that automatically mark a poem as political. That’s a strange pass to have come to; throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s writers like Silliman and Bernstein were constantly battling against critics on both right and left who ridiculed their poetry’s claims for political value, and recent debates around antiwar poetry and Poets against the War suggest that experimental poetry has hardly carried the day in such struggles.

But in any case, the idea here is that at a certain moment in the 1970s historical conditions and aesthetics lined up in such a way that Language writing became a vital and necessary mode of political critique. Many of the respondents in the PPN forum equate this with the utopian myth of the ‘60s and reject it. It’s not at all clear to me, though, that all the "technological advancements in global communication" that Reg E Gaines speaks of have fundamentally changed the conditions of language against which Language writing positioned itself. Is the "corporate media" (invoked by nearly every respondent) and the machinery of government propaganda really so different, in its basic operations, now than it was in the Vietnam era? I quote Silliman from The Chinese Notebook, composed in 1974: "‘Terminate with extreme prejudice.’ That meant kill. Or ‘we had to destroy the village in order to save it.’" Are formulations like "collateral damage" or "Operation Iraqi Freedom" much different? And doesn’t the imperative to reveal the realities behind such formulations remain the same?

That’s why pluralistic visions like the one offered by Kristin Prevallet won’t do as a response to the Silliman-Hejinian critique. Prevallet makes a move common to many post-Language writers, offering a big-tent, can’t-we-all-get-along vision of political/experimental writing. She argues that Language writing "is simply not the only model for how to be ‘political’ in poetry," and asks, "Do they [Silliman and Hejinian] really believe that they have set some precedent for how to be political both in poetry and in the world?" Well, yes, actually, they do, and we must too, or this forum wouldn’t be happening. The fact is that Language poetry offers the primary contemporary argument for why we might see aesthetically innovative poetry as politically valuable. And Prevallet acknowledges as much; when she refers to recent work that "uses a variety of devices to pull language directly from the onslaught of advertising, propaganda, and empty information that the corporate media bombards us with on a daily basis," and that "refers to, resamples, and recontextualizes the language of media and culture," she could easily be referring to a work like Silliman’s Ketjak or Bernstein’s Controlling Interests (or, for that matter, Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America). The argument offered for the politics of poetry here is indistinguishable from that offered by those Language poets against whom Prevallet positions herself.

The reason, then, that younger poets take such umbrage at being branded apolitical by Silliman and Hejinian is not at all that they disagree with Silliman and Hejinian’s notions of poetic politics; indeed, they have almost completely internalized them, and hence take the critique as a parental rebuke.

And this is why, I think, the Silliman-Hejinian critique represented here does have some force. As Language poetry has come to seem like academic orthodoxy, younger poets have sought to distance themselves from what they perceive as its less attractive traits—in particular, its alleged suppression of subjectivity, feeling, and narrative. The argument here is that we can have it all: we can have Language poetry’s broken surfaces and linguistic skepticism without sacrificing lyricism and personality. We thus don’t have to confront some of the more difficult aspects of the Language critique, particularly those that might question conventional notions of political voice and agency. What Language poetry suggested to us was that if you want to critique oppressive political narratives and the imperial selves around which those narratives formed, you can’t just offer a mirror image of those selves and narratives; you have to critique the very structure of self and narrative, and if certain lyric pleasures and certainties are sacrificed, so be it. (I think in this context of Ginsberg’s "Wichita Vortex Sutra" and its culminating declaration: "I here declare the end of the War." Rhetorically powerful; yet even at the time the idea of one individual simply "declaring" and end to war must have seemed inadequate in the face of war’s vast machinery. The Shelleyan bargain is that if you want to be a poetic legislator, you also have to accept being an unacknowledged one.)

If we want to claim, then, that recent work is, as Michael Magee puts it, "both political and experimental to its very bones," we need to have a sense of what those terms mean now, rather than leaning on and reacting against unspoken definitions. I’m struck that very few of the forum respondents, despite their rejection of Silliman and Hejinian’s judgments, openly dissent from their implied definition of political poetry. To point out that many young poets are activists does not answer the question of what gives poetry political value today. Only Ammiel Alcalay offers a real challenge to the notion of poetic politics that dominates here, pointing to the "excision of work by Vietnam veterans, suppressed people, political prisoners and writers involved in popular movements around the world" from the canons of experimental writing, and suggesting that "an unwillingness to deal with narrative allows dominant narratives more space to function and take hold." These are legitimate criticisms, and have indeed been leveled against experimental writing for several decades. Would most younger poets agree? It’s hard to say, since the critiques offered are largely generational rather than ideological.

Pamela Lu argues that "ideologies tend to overreduce and obfuscate the complexities of real life." But in what sense would a poetry of "real life," devoid of ideology, be political? If we answer simply that everyday life is inherently political, then we don’t need to have a discussion about politics and poetry at all. And certainly even the most broad-minded of us wouldn’t find all poetry equally valuable regardless of its style or ideology. I don’t think we should be embarrassed to say that when a forum like this takes up the question of whether a certain poetry is "political" or not, it is really asking whether that poetry is good, and whether it seems right in its politics. I think that’s ultimately what Silliman and Hejinian are asking. And if younger experimental poets are to respond to that question, they need to understand the way Language writing has framed the terms of the debate, and then openly and consciously dissent, if they wish, from those definitions, offering their own alternatives. To do otherwise is already to have ceded the field.

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