Saturday, March 19, 2011

Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random 3

10. Don't give in to the tendency to describe your own work as the end-product of an evolutionary process.

There is often a tendency in critical essays that describe artistic progression or aesthetic development to arrive, in the end, at the -isms and schools the author likes, approves of, and, often enough, is a member of. You see this supremely self-serving tendency in academic overviews of poetry written by professional poets with an agenda to promote. It's always tempting to justify one's own poetry by placing one's artistic ancestors into a linear narrative.

But the study of how people write history has shown us that such narratives are always constructed, like linear narrative fiction. Usually such histories are at least partly subjective, since they are narratives meant to prove a point. History is rarely only about telling a story; there is usually an underlying ideology one can identify by looking at what is presented and what is left out. (A good example of how to perceive this inner agenda can be found in John Gallaher's dissection of a Tony Hoagland essay on poetic history.) The point is that self-serving histories cannot be called objective, since they do have an agenda which is not purely to tell a history.

The paradigmatic example of this egotistical progression is those old anthropological diagrams that showed how apes gradually evolved into man. These were accompaniments to densely written tomes describing the evolution of human cultures from primitive hunting and gathering societies to, naturally, the pinnacle of Western civilization. That Western anthropologists would proclaim Western civilization to be the pinnacle of human cultural evolution comes as no surprise, since most such tomes were written during the period of Western colonization of imperial rule over the more "primitive" parts of the globe. Western culture did develop a technical civilization unlike any other, through our ambitious mastery of fire: gunpowder, industrial mechanization, steam, electricity.

It's truly ironic when poets write essays about poetry that echo this pattern of placing oneself and one's poetic peers at the pinnacle of artistic evolution. Most post-avant poetry manifestos do this, in many cases directly echoing the early Modernist poetry manifestos of a century ago.

Poetry is fractured and diverse at this point in history. It seems like every poetic movement and -ism has to justify itself with a manifesto. You have to present your theory before you can present your art. Then and only then can you justify a poetry that no one cares about, that is totally obscurantist, and that only your fellow members of your -ism will read or care about, or respond to.

Placing yourself at the pinnacle of some artistic evolution is a way of constructing a narrative that justifies your art's existence in the face of existential insecurity. If on some level you're anxious about the worth and value of your art (and your self)—and what artist isn't occasionally anxious about their art?—this is a great way of giving yourself a narrative of worth. It's actually rather elitist in spirit.

11. You can't call yourself avant-garde if you're not actually doing anything new or different.

The irony is that post-avant, postmodernist poetry is not an ongoing avant-garde, it is artistic Mannerism. The contemporary post-avant refers constantly to the avant-garde of a century ago to legitimize its perpetual rebellion, even when those rebelling have already become the professional poetry establishment. "All avant-garde all the time" is the motto. The Mexican poet-critic Octavio Paz, Nobel laureate and renowned poet, had this to say about avant-gardism:

Many have commented on the disappearance of a true avant-garde and its replacement by avant-gardism. . . . I see this as a prolongation of experimentation usually leading further on from collage and montage into ever-increasing fragmentation and eventually into a degenerative disease which, adapting an already common usage, I call "disjunctivitis." The argument, used by some producers who, correctly locating the seats of available power in the academy, have ensconced themselves therein every bit as much as the establishment "mainstream," to the effect that the disruption of the common linguistic coin is part of a war against "late-capitalist" discourse is singularly inept. I do not see oppressed workers of any kind devouring the products of avant-gardism. The death-of-the-author thematics, as commonly adapted, are another inanity: when society does its very best to homogenize us, what is wrong with a strong, knowledgeable, and responsible ego crying in the darkening wilderness?

As Paz points out, lots of post-avant poets claim to be rebelling against a poetic establishment which doesn't really exist. Lots of straw-men as set up to be knocked over, but they're set as myths that don't actually reflect the true nature of things. There isn't anything to actually rebel against, so a narrative of rebellion has to be constructed, usually via manifesto, laying out a narrative of oppression that justifies generating one's own avant-garde.

As I have said before, postmodernism is really Late High Modernism. It's not really anything new; it's at best something that comes after. If it were really new, postmodernism wouldn't need to include "Modernism" in its very name. So it is a reactive -ism, not a genuinely new alternative. It is in fact the decadent, mannerist end-point of the Modernist ideal that began in the arts a century ago.

There was a genuine avant-garde a century ago, creating new kinds of poetry, aesthetic theory, and artistic expression which actually were rebelling against 50 or 100 years of enforced artistic stagnation. Post-avant poets nowadays insist on their innovative status, but in fact they're still rebelling against the phantoms of fixed forms that were first rebelled against by the genuine avant-garde of a century ago.

it's hilarious nowadays to hear post-avant manifestos use Marxist and Freudian ideologies to justify their reasoning, since Marx and Freud have long since passed into the history of ideas as no longer descriptive of life as we actually live it and know it nowadays. Marxist theory in the arts is doubly hilarious because, as Paz says, there is no proletariat supporting the post-avant's artistic uprising. Power to the people? The "people" are mostly ignoring you, or yawning.

Which of course is the root of anxiety that one's art might in truth be irrelevant. Which leads to the fictive histories mentioned above, which generates manifestos to justify one's avant-gardism, and which also leads to the formation (via those manifestos) of cliques and elites within poetic -isms.

An absurd aspect of poetic avant-gardism is its conformity. A lot of post-avant manifestos praise individualism and uniqueness as elements of their forever-rebellion, but in fact a lot of the members of any given -ism tend to all sound alike. They experiment in the same ways on the same materials. You get a lot of variations on a theme, rather than a genuinely new theme.

In order to make a poem sound hip, for example, a lot of pop culture references get included to make the poem sound contemporary and relevant. This often ends up sounding like name-dropping and product-placement. Frank O'Hara could pull this method off, but many of his followers cannot. Conformity is symptomatic of followers and disciples trying to imitate a master's style, and not being able to grasp the master's intent from the inside. This is largely because their hearts aren't in it, only their minds: there is no original impulse driving the content, only an imitation of form and means. They end up imitating the surface elements of the style, without grasping the original impulse that generated the style.

This is surprisingly true of many contemporary haiku poets, who imitate the japanese haiku masters without really feeling the poetic impulse from the inside. It is particularly noticeable among imitators of Buson, rather than Basho.

12. There is a genuinely new art happening, but it doesn't appear on the radar very often.

Or maybe it's a really old art, with an old set of values, trying to re be restored and re-integrated with what we've learned from the new art.

Usually genuinely new art, and new approaches to art-making, happens under the radar for a long time before anyone notices them. People quietly experiment, play with their materials, and discover something new. Sometimes it happens when familiar things are put together in a new way, generating a new viewpoint or way of thinking about them.

A century ago in literature, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein (and a few others) took the familiar forms of linear-narrative fiction and found new ways of forming them. Some of those forms were non-linear, others were means to go deeper into narrative, or to explore psychological realism without much actual plot happening. This was both a completely new way of thinking about narrative, and a new way of expressing time.

That these new ways of performing narrative remain controversial, and still somewhat below the radar, says not much about the value of experimental literature per se, but it does say a great deal about the context and environment in which these experiments are undertaken.

It doesn't really matter that Joyce, Woolf, and Stein didn't overturn the novel, or forever change the ways in which fiction is written and read. In truth, most readers still like to read a straightforward linear narrative: story narrative is still king. (What this says about general mob psychology can be described on the symbolic, archetypal level by acknowledging that the rate of cultural change is usually only as rapid as its slowest members can sustain. The tribe is inherently conservative, as it carries a lot of inertia.) It doesn't really matter if literary experiments didn't become the new mainstream: experiments are not always meant to replace anything. They were experiments, a word that implies questing, researching, exploring, and trying new solutions, and doesn't exclude the possibility of failure. Call this Modernist avant-garde the experimental science of literature in the early 20th Century.

What Octavio Paz calls "disjunctivitis" in poetry began with the Symbolists, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, their peers and their forebears. When free verse and the prose-poem were first introduced, they were below the poetry mainstream's radar, and stayed there for some time. Then came the simultaneous discovery, acrimony, and plaudits. From these roots we ended up post-avant language-based poetry that disconnects the words on the page from all referent to the real world, or to the inner universe of consciousness.

I see hints, now and then, of the return of several things to poetry, which remain under the radar partly because they would be dismissed out of hand by the new post-avant mandarins of literary fashion, who are themselves become the new establishment. Elements of this eternal return include:

• deep psychology, by which I mean an archetypal psychology, Jung rather than Freud, which is a transpersonal and affirming psychology, rather than the current fashion for dysfunctional psychology manifest as confessional poetry (which is always confessions about the bad stuff in life, you might have noticed), or as acedia poetry that is disassociative from the soma, and from other aspects of psychology.

• a renewed emphasis on words as transparent carriers of meaning, rather than being ends in themselves. The experiment of Language Poetry, still dominant in critical circles, is beginning to fade in practice, if not yet in theory.

• poetry that is in the lineage of Rilke's Thing-poetry; of Lorca's duende and mining of the strata of existence that also generates Surrealism; and of Robert Bly's formulation of "leaping poetry," which he describes as poetry that "leaps" from the conscious, cerebral, intellectual mind suddenly into the subconscious, archetypal, shamanic, mythic mind, and thereby gains power and resonance.

With this last point, I am perhaps committing the sin of placing myself at the end of an evolutionary chain, since this lineage of poetry—Rilke, Lorca, et al.—is one I feel I belong to, if only as a distant descendant with no real claim to any substantive inheritance. It is the type of poetry happening with some poets, again mostly below the radar, that I feel kinship with. This cluster includes several of the West Coast poets such Jeffers, Snyder, Everson, and others such as Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, jane Hirshfield, et al. And other poets who I've run across, whose books carry a definite mythopoetic charge, most of whom are relatively unknown, and are definitely under-recognized in the professional poetry world of MFA programs and academic criticism. (If anyone's interested, I'll compile a list from within my personal poetry library at some point, when I have a significant chunk of time.)

Nonetheless, I feel this revival of the archaic, the archetypal, the "primitive," is creating a genuine revival of soul in some contemporary poets' work. I can connect this to several similar upwellings of the old powers that are seeking to integrate with the new, to create something that will live and endure. At root, this poetry seeks to re-enliven contemporary poetry, and cure it of its overwhelming acedia.

The keyword here is integration.

There are parallel developments happening in philosophy, in which some younger thinkers are trying to restore to philosophy its interest in ethics and soul, as well as in pure reason. At the end of the Medieval period, in the Western history of ideas, at the beginning of Renaissance and continuing into the 17th C. Enlightenment period, myth and superstition gave way to reason, the scientific method of experimental observation, and ultimately to the logical-positivist, materialist worldview. This led to the development and triumph of a technological, instrumentality-based civilization. But now, three hundred years later, there is a desire to re-enchant the world that science and philosophical reasoning have disenchanted, have divorced from body and soul. There is concern that technology divorced from ethics produces catastrophe, manifest as environmental degradation, overpopulation pressure, and even nuclear holocaust. There are now philosophers and scientists seeking to restore soul to reason, and to integrate them into a synergistic, greater whole. And there are scientists trying to do the same, from the opposite direction.

In poetry, a parallel revival and integration of the mythic, epic, bardic/skaldic, and prophetic/vatic modes of poetry is beginning to emerge—more properly, has been emerging for some time, but has largely been dismissed by the mandarins of postmodernist mannerism—to stand alongside the currently dominant poetic modes of the personal (post-confessional, narcissistic) lyric, the language-oriented word-play-based "clever" poem, the didactic/philosophical poem, and the prevalent "workshop" poem (usually some small observational slice-of-life irrelevant to anyone but the poet and her friends).

So there is hope for the future of poetry. Really, there never was any doubt. It's a basic law of art and psychology alike that whatever is discarded or repressed will eventually return from the shadows in a new form.

Previous entries in this series:

Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random

Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random 2

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I love all these –isms. I’ve always wanted to belong to an –ism. Well, when I was younger I did. You’ve arrived when you belong to an –ism or a school-of. Later I wanted to invent my own.

I always thought the term Modernism was a bit arrogant as if nothing would ever be modern again although to some extent that has been proved to be true; we’ve had our white paintings and our soundless music and our empty books. So where now? Just like fashion looks backwards for inspiration so does art. Is the anything that’s not been done before in some form? I’ve just written a post about Flarf – now that was something a bit new but not that new because as soon as we had computers people were fiddling around with computer-generated music and poetry. And even before that people were cutting up texts and rearranging them. There is nothing new under the sun.

Giving something a name – be it an –ism or some other – doesn’t necessarily make something new. It might very well draw attention to it or make people think a little differently about it but that’s about the size of it. Are you telling me that Proust was the first person to bite into a piece of cake or toast and get a flashback but sometimes it feels like Proust invented it. Every generation discovers sex for the first time and every generation discovers art for the first time. I think much artistic innovation comes out of pure boredom. Some artists cope better with boredom than other. Remember when Dalí went to America and painted the rich and famous for cash until he couldn't stand it any longer? Is that art of home decoration? And much as I love Magritte’s work even I have to admit that a lot of it is very samey.

As time goes on the scope for innovation narrows. Every now and then I make up a new word and I usually look it up on Google only two find ten- or twenty-thousand entries already there. I don’t think writing evolves not in the same was that biological organisms do. Evolution means the survival of the fittest but I don’t see any art dying out as such: somewhere in the world someone will be writing a gigue or a villanelle or practising pointillism.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Those are good comments, worthy of a post all their own.

I'm all for creating new -isms, although I tend to do do jokingly, not seriously. André Breton took his -isms far more seriously than I am able to. We could create, for example, the New Hermeticism, and make it so obscure that no one could comprehend it, which would be the point. No doubt some poor soul would take it seriously, though.

I think you're right about what's new, and what isn't. Still, the fact that every generation does rediscover things anew does make it possible for the new to appear, somehow, in the mix. It keeps that door open, at least. At the very least, they make it fresh, if not totally new.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

And yet I don't think if Robert Hughes has called his book The Shock of the Newish it would have sold half as well as it did.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Or The Not Quite Fatal Shore.

2:31 PM  

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