Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Thanks to Kasey Mohammad and Josh Corey for their responses to my post on the Poetry Project Newsletter forum.

I think Kasey's entirely right to say that those poets who feel most hurt by Silliman and Hejinian's comments aren't the ones who are really in need of such criticism. I also think he's right to warn against a "dogmatic reverence" toward Language poetry, which I certainly wouldn't endorse either (indeed, I doubt even alleged Language poets themselves would endorse it, since such reverence often implies as little understanding of the actual work as unthinking appropriations of its techniques). And even though I detected more generational than ideological conflict in the forum, what Kasey called that "friction" may not be a bad thing either. Maybe it's even the case that such generational resentment, and its concomitant misreadings, are necessary to produce vital new work. (Back, ye shades of Harold Bloom.)

I didn't mean to suggest that a pluralistic vision of the poetic field is inherently untenable. But I'm thinking now of the introduction to Charles Bernstein's A Poetics, which seems particularly anguished about this question, with its evocation of "sharp ideological disagreements that lacerate our communal field of action" and the image (specter?) of "self-subsistent poetry communities...that have different readers and different writers...even, increasingly, separate hierarchies and new canons." At times Bernstein seems to celebrate this diversity; at others he seems concerned that it will lead to division and isolation.

Really the main question for me is: how does one tell the difference between a formal device used (back to Hejinian again) for "broader motivations" and one used for "mere aestheticism"? In most critical discussions of the avant-garde, particularly those grounded in the Marxist tradition, the answer has to be historical. It was the Russian avant-garde that declared its interest in "the word as such," an "aestheticist" argument if there ever was one; yet its emergence at a moment of historical revolution, and its practitioners' links with that revolution, is what is said to have given that avant-garde its "broader" (i.e. political) significance, what made it not "mere" aestheticism. (Far too many scare quotes in that last sentence.) This is where that whole '60s bugbear comes back: the use of certain formal devices in Language poetry takes on political signficance because of historical context--the upheavals of the late 1960s, the war in Vietnam and the protest movements it sparked, etc. And this is what seems to me to be at work in, for example, Barrett Watten's increasing efforts to link Language poetry to other discourses of 1960s radicalism. Since we are not (so the argument would go) in such a moment of historical upheaval, use of the very same formal devices can't have the same political significance.

Of course, in pursuing this line of argument, we're engaging in what TV is trying to give us right now, as I saw it characterized in the New Yorker recently: "history as it happens." Which is an absurdity: we cannot know what the historical significance of our own moment will be as it happens. We can only act and do with the tools at hand, trying to be aware of what has gone before, in the hope that we will be ready when that history flashes up at the moment it's ready to be recognized.

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