Saturday, June 07, 2003

Henry Gould's thrown his hat into the ring on the social poet thing. (Whew. I thought no one was listening.)

I agree that there's much more to the 20th c. (and to modernism) than anti-mass culture jeremiads. But I also think that "synthesizing" elite and mass culture is not the same thing as erasing the boundaries between them, or writing as if for an undifferentiated audience.

Again, I think that "social" is a confusing term here, perhaps not the right one to talk about the kind of poetic traits we're talking about. How does it overlap with two other terms: "political"--and just plain "good"?

My understanding of what someone like Andrews is trying to do, I would call "political" rather than "social." "Political" in poetry implies to me a critique, an opposition, a definite position against or outside some discourse that's seen as repressive (or inside one that's seen as liberating).

I'm sympathetic to David's skepticism about sweeping claims for the liberating power of Language poetry; but I don't think (unless David is referring to writings of Andrews's that I don't know, which is quite possible) that Andrews and other Language writers would go so far as to say that the text is completely collaborative or renders writer and reader "democratically" equal. Writing like Andrews's might be seen as empowering the reader by allowing her or him to play a more active role in constructing a text's meaning; but particularly in the case of Andrews's often aggressive rhetoric (yes, the voices are really mean), this is less an invitation than a compulsion. The reader is forced, due to the poem's resistant/"offensive" surface, to recognize his or her role in making meaning, one which is always present but rarely acknowledged. As Ron Silliman puts it somewhere (I can't recall where at the moment), the reader is given certain freedoms but he, as the writer, still gets to "determine, unilaterally" what the terms of that freedom will be. Language writing shows us how chained we are as much as (if not more than) it shows us how we're free.

David says, rightly, that Andrews's writing "becomes 'social' by its language"--as does any writing. Andrews simply seeks to call our attention to this tautology. I agree that readings arguing Language writing is without content (advanced sometimes by the poets themselves) are misguided, but I would not equate "content" in some narrow sense with the social.

I wouldn't agree that a project like Andrews's requires one to be "totally pessimistic" about communication. Against transparency, in a narrow sense, perhaps. But also utterly optimistic in its attempt to find new ways, outside of what it understands as a given system ("electro-convulsive opinions") to make poetic connections. (The "optimism" of Bernstein's "strategy of tactics.")

So maybe everybody's a social poet? This would seem to be one implication of Henry's argument ("poetry-making is inherently social") and even of David's (if language is what's social then any writer is a social writer). Which makes the category less than useful.

I can't help but feel (although David's denied this) that calling someone a social poet is a marker of value, that really this is a way of grappling with whether we feel Andrews is a successful, effective, good poet or not. To answer this I think we'd need to ask not whether Andrews is social but how, and whether his way of engaging with "the social" seems more or less effective, responsible, compelling than John Ashbery's, Jack Spicer's, June Jordan's, or anybody else's.

No comments: