Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Yikes! I look away for a three-day weekend and a minor intergenerational skirmish has broken out.

I guess Ron Silliman was a bit miffed by the Which New Brutalist Are You? quiz's description of Language poetry as "more concerned with theory than emotion." Ron responds:

langpo has just as much emotion as any other poetry...All tendencies of poetry have exactly the same quotient of emotion – it’s present at all points in how the poet feels about his/her work as he/she works & as we read...Where there’s ink, there are feelings.

To which James "Jim" Meetze says:

what emotion exists in modernism is obscured by references and theory and the emotion in romantic poetry bares its chest to the reader. Nowhere did I state that language writing is “without” emotion, simply that its tendencies favor showing a knowledge of theory over showing emotion...some poetry bares its chest, while other poetry clothes itself in didactics.

Kasey is surely right, in part, to say that we've been through this before, and that the argument is more about a "clash of sensibilities" than anything else.

But the thing that I want to object to is not so much the characterization of Language poetry or any other poetry as the idea that one can describe poetry by opposing "emotion" and "theory." I certainly understand the point James is trying to make in opposing a chest-baring (hmm, that metaphor is weirding me out as I write it--the thing that occurs most vividly to me is the phony chest hair that Mike Myers tends to sport in the Austin Powers movies--as a gesture of male virility) romanticism with a modernism that obscures and layers over that nakedness. But I just don't agree with it as a description of either romanticism or modernism. A writer like Pound wanted to strip away the layers of what he saw as Victorian sentimentality--not in favor of some gem of pure intellect, but to find the core of what was necessary--"only emotion endures." And in the Wordsworthian formula of "emotion recollected in tranquillity" it would be hard to say, at least after reading Wordsworth's poetry, that only the first word in that formula mattered.

I think the mistake is to see "emotion" as some thing that exists out there and that the poem simply expresses more or less transparently, and that we can characterize some writing as "more emotional" (as James seems to) based on this transparency. Lanugage poetry--and modernism more generally, in James's formulation--is then a mode of writing that puts too many layers of "theory" and "reference" over its emotions. As a rank formalist I have to side with Ron over James on this one--if we're going to talk about "emotion" in a poem we do have to talk about it as a structural effect, something that the poem does to a reader. To talk about it as a "diversion" is not to say that an emotional response to a poem is not real, but rather that it operates by triggering certain things in us that are not exactly "there in the poem" but that are resonant structures of experience, feeling, culture that we have that allow us to "understand" a poem. It also reminds us, as any poet knows, that creating a poem that has an emotional effect on a reader may have nothing to do with the intensity of your own emotions or even how honestly you engage with those emotions, but more to do with what you choose to do on the page--which is, of course, itself an emotionally charged experience.

But Ron did step into the trap a bit by referring to a "quotient of emotion"--a phrase that, even though I think Ron intended to use it to defend Language poetry against the charge of theoretical aridity, reinforces the idea that one can measure quite precisely the amount of emotion that a given poem contains. And in this sense I think James caught Ron in a bit of sleight-of-hand--Ron says "All tendencies of poetry have exactly the same quotient of emotion – it’s present at all points in how the poet feels about his/her work as he/she works & as we read," but as James points out this is deflecting the question of emotion to sites of production and reception, leaving aside the question of what kind of formal structure in a poem generates emotional response. I think Ron is caught a bit between the desire to defend Language writing by saying "well, it is emotional" and the desire to point out the flaw in the question.

Two points of agreement, though:

1. As James points out, Ron did read at the 21 Grand reading series. So he is, in fact, a New Brutalist. Hooray!

2. Everybody loves Spicer.

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