My bookshelf fell over Howards-End-style and when I was picking through the books, I started to read Steven Shaviro’s Post Cinematic Affect. This made me think of the continually so pervasive “accessibility” debates.
A while back Drew Kalbach wrote a post on The Actuary that argued against the model of accessibility:
As we have talked about before on this blog, the issue with accessibility is the paternalistic, condescending tone its backers typically take. There is the assumption that the “common man” would not understand poetry readings, let alone enjoy contemporary poetry. They need to be initiated and taught how to properly read these things if they are going to even begin to enjoy it. I’ve made this point elsewhere, but I’ll say it again: there is no such thing as accessibility, and to continue to argue for or against it simply creates more barriers for those that desire to really get involved with poetry.
I think he’s right to criticize the paternalism of the entire model of the “accessible” and “difficult” poem. Both models partake in the same economy in which the reader, imbued with agency, goes out and finds the meaning of the poem – either through a lot of work or a little. Self-styled populists claim that for poetry to be popular it has to be easy to access this meaning (ignoring the fact that people need to be intrigued in order to read the work to begin with!); experimentalists often argue that the poem should be difficult because the process of gaining access teaches people to be better people (more discerning, more critical or something like that). Both are wrong.
To begin with, we are not in control.
But I also don’t entirely agree with Drew when he says there is no hidden thing in the poem. There is to me always an excess in the poem; that is part of its allure, its fascination. The poem is too much. That’s part of what I love about art.
Anyway, I think Shaviro does a good job of explaining this “allure” of the artwork when he discusses Celebrities:
What Harman calls allure is the way in which an object does not just display certain particular qualities to me, but also insinuates the presence of a hidden, deeper level of existence. The alluring object explicitly calls attention to the fact that it is something more than, and other than, the bundle of qualities that it present to me. I experience allure whenever I am intimate with someone, or when I am obsessed with someone or something. But allure is not just my own projections. For any object that I encounter really is deeper than, and other than, what I am able to grasp of it. And the object becomes alluring, precisely to the extent that it forces me to acknowledge this hidden depth, instead of ignoring it. Indeed, allure may well be strongest when I experience it vicariously: in relation to an object, person, or thing that I do not actually know, or otherwise care about. Vicarious allure is the ground of aesthetics: a mode of involvement that is, at the same time, heightened and yet (as Kant puts it) “disinterested.” The inner, surplus existence of the alluring object is something that I cannot reach – but that I also cannot forget about or ignore, as I do in my everyday, utilitarian interactions with objects and other people. The alluring object insistently displays the fact that it is separate from, and more than, its qualities – which means that it exceeds everything that I feel of it, and know about it. That is why what Kant calls a judgment of beauty is non-conceptual and non-cognitive. The alluring object draws me beyond anything that I am actually able to experience. And yet this ‘beyond’ is not in any sense otherworldly or transcendent; it is situated in the here and now, in the very flows and encounters of everyday existence.
Our discomfort with this “allure,” this excess and our lack of agency in the matter goes a long way to explaining the appeal of “close reading” of the kind that finds a meaning (even if that meaning is “ambiguous” or “indeterminate”). Or as the New Critics put it: There is no noise in art.
I was just in Romania the other day, participating in a poetry exchange together with Vanessa Place. She kept saying that she wanted to demystify poetry, reveal that poetry that it is nothing. This kind of attempt at clarity through demystification seems not just a legalistic (I find poetry guilty or innocent) way of in fact making poetry “do something” (reveal its nothingness) but also, more importantly, a way of doing away with allure. The interesting thing about Vanessa is that her declarations of demystification proves an occasion of presenting herself very alluringly and dramatically (her glamorously gothy outfits, her petulant throwing paper on the floor etc). Place’s anti-allure rhetoric works in the service of creating an alluring performance. (And a highly “retinal” performance at that.) This is why she has much more in common with Warhol and his highly retinal iconophilia (and Kate Durbin’s costumery) than John Cage or for that matter those humorless “conceptual” artists of the 1970s.
(It’s not just women obviously who has allure. Joyelle just wrote a 30 page poem for Leslie Cheung. Warhol certainly had it, and – with a similar haircut – Julian Assuange.)
Also, doesn’t the notion of allure give the best reading to Judy Grahn’s famous poem “I Have Come to Claim the Body of Marilyn Monroe”? And the continued discomfort with Plath (who is as I have argued the true subject matter of that Grahn poem).
This allure model also goes a long way to explaining James Pate’s poetry. Unlike Vanessa, James is notoriously bad at presenting himself in an alluring way, but his poems are both alluring and about the allurement. They are full of near-narratives that suggest something similar to a secret but much less stable, something saturated with a sense of secrecy. Perhaps this is best seen in the very title “The Fassbinder Diaries” – the name Fassbinder both gathers the poems together and seems to generate an excess, a noisy key that will not unlock itself.