“The poet´s concept of Art is, therefore, related to the theme of translation. She actually believes that Art is an act of translation, a transformation or deformation of form from one medium into another. And she is not afraid of the degradation or decomposition that comes with transformation. The consecutive lines forming “winding sheet music” in the poem depict this concept of de-composition. This phrase, composed of two different expressions (“winding sheet” and “sheet music”) can be taken as representative of the spasmodic Mobius strip into which composition and decomposition, creation-degradation-recreation coexist.”
[I don’t think I ever got around to announcing that I had an essay, “Awash in Mimicry: On the Deformation Zone of Translation” in the last issue of the fine translation journal Two Lines (highly recommended). So I’ll paste in the first half here and hope that it will want to make you go and buy the journal. Also, I have written a sequel of a sorts that will be in a special translation issue of the Volta, edited by Rosa Alcala.]
“AWASH IN MIMICRY”: ON THE DEFORMATION ZONE OF TRANSLATION
“Poetry is that which is lost in translation”: I am fond of pointing out that the most canonical definition of poetry in American literature depends on translation. This suggests that translation – even if it is through negation – is essential to the American concept of poetry. We know poetry through translation, its opposite. It may seem strange to assert the prominence of translation in an age when we know – thanks to critics and activists like Lawrence Venuti, Chad Post, Don Mee Choi and Lucas Klein – that the translator and her translations are “invisible” in our culture: marginal, infrequent, debased. But somehow the translator and translation is both marginal and central, both invisible and hyper-visible – if only as a threat, a ghost, kitsch.
If we want to find out why translation is such a fundamental threat to poetry, we might ask ourselves: What IS this something that is “lost” in translation?
The short answer: the singular text, the singular author, the single lineage. In other words: the illusion of a perfect wellwrought urn of a text that cannot be paraphrased – or rather that is not paraphrased – written by one original author who expresses his or her views in full control of language. And perhaps even worse further: we lose the illusion of a patriarchal lineage, the objectivity of that lineage: What if we don’t know who is influencing who? What if a writer is influenced by a text that is alien to her? Can she really be influenced correctly? Is she misreading it? The threat of translation is the threat of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages. Poetry, it appears, is lost in a noisy, violent excess.
Over the past two hundred years, western (not just American, if I am perfectly honest) theorists have repeatedly discussed the excess produced by translation in terms of a violence. In Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Task of the Translator,” this excess becomes a violent alien-ness within the text itself:
If in the original, content and language constitute a certain unity, like that between a fruit and its skin, a translation surrounds its content, as if with the broad folds of a royal mantle. For translation indicates a higher language than its own and thereby remains inadequate, violent, and alien with respect to its content.
In this metaphor: the act of translation transforms the peel of a fruit into clothes, into excess no longer organically in balance with itself. In that case, it seems to be not a lack (what is lost) but an accumulation, an inflation and an infection of the alien. An alien-ness that is violent in part because it is alien, somewhat like an infection or a disease.
The violence of translation is even more central to George Steiner’s canonical study of translation, After Babel. Steiner portrays the translation itself as a violent act: the translator must, in an act of “aggression” and “penetration,” “extract” the meaning (as if it were gold in some colonial enterprise). However, the translator must take care not to lose his sense of self, before incorporating the new text in the target culture. Steiner warns that translating might – like a sexual intercourse – lead to “infection”: “No language, no traditional symbolic set or cultural ensemble imports without the risk of being transformed.” And this transformative infection may ruin our sense of self: “we may be mastered and made lame by what we have imported.”
Hey, just wanted to mention that you can now “pre-order” my forthcoming book The Sugar Book from Tarpaulin Sky – here.
This is a book I’ve been writing for years – in South Bend, in Seoul, in Malmö, in Berlin. I wrote this in an interview from 4 years ago when Blake Butler asked me what I was working on:
BB: What are you working on now?
JG: A murder mystery novel/poem/notebook about Images and infection, atrocity kitsch and The Law. A Starlet has been murdered, terrorist attacks happen, children are born and get pregnant in mysterious fashion (constantly multiplying), the son is locked in a tower with his favorite horse toy, the penis is a death prong through which – on the ouiji board – the murdered children of the Vietnam War finally gets to “speak,” they talk about the mall and the law, there are twitter feeds about motorcyclists who come from the castle outside of town, terror suspects who are given rubber gloves and led through the mirror, “Kingdom of Rats” it says above the mirror, it’s all about photography, hares, the body in snow, the body covered by a plastic bag, Art as Death. Etc. It’s always a staging, a pageantry, a b-movie. I hope that gives you some idea. I’m calling it The Sugar Book.
There’s an excerpt from a little essay Kim Hyesoon wrote about my poetry on the Tarpaulin Sky page:
…I that follows the I that observes. I that records and condenses. Johannes Göransson’s poetry is a bang bang – art of these I’s. (continue reading…)
Lately I’ve been reading this new book Wunderkammer by Cynthia Cruz. The title refers to cabinets of curiosity, or wunderkammers, a subject matter I’m interested in. These chambers (sometimes rooms, sometimes boxes) was how back in pre-modern-science days people collected curiosities, often from other parts of the world, objects not following some kind of scientific classificatory system but rather tied together by their capacity to incite “wonder.”
In the book Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga traces kitsch back to this “science”, which in its undead state turns into things like the “fern-craze” of Victorian England, when people would get aquariums and put ferns in them. I’m fascinated the wunderkammer’s inevitable connection between collecting, imperialism, decadence/death and of course Art.
I might even say that Surrealism – which so often stands in for “kitsch” in contemporary US poetry discussions – is based on the idea of the wunderkammer – with its collection of strange, useless, outdated objects brought together by occult forces. Benjamin famously called surrealism “dream kitsch”; and Clement Greenberg called Max Ernst “postcard kitsch.” Between those two phrases you get the connection between the wunderkammer and surrealism.
Of course this can be seen most clearly in Joseph Cornell’s boxes:
These boxes of dream-trash, rescued from the garbage heap of New York City’s dreams.
Cruz’s poems are almost all wunderkammers – some of the poems are actually called wunderkammer, but even the ones that aren’t have the sense of a collection of objects brought together by some strange act:
A Greek crime mars the pastoral.
Charts and maps, an atlas of anesthesia-
Laced nostalgia. A long haired, white
Rabbit, muffled, shot, and stuffed.
And old yellow chiffon gown, the ribbon
Hem, ripped and red wine stained.
Curricula of the mundane.
Symptoms of trauma, like ghost
Spots of water on crystal
That will not be washed off.
In many ways this poem seems to straight up describe a Cornell box. Like Cornell, Cruz’s poem is invested in the necroglamorous: the rabbit is stuffed, the chiffon gown old and stained, the crystal has ghost spots. But it is glamorous nonetheless, anesthesized by “nostalgia” and more specifically the nostalgia for glamor. The numbing seems to be physical: the speaker seems stuck like a stuffed rabbed, she cannot “wash off” the atmosphere of the piece, which primarily consists of the “chiffon gown” -its material seems to immobilize her. She cannot really get out of the box so to speak until the negative ending “will not be washed off” which for me works as a relief from the stultifying, stunting but beautiful glamour.
For a poet that later became known for his poems that supposedly authentically depict working class factory life in the Detroit factories, Levine’s early poetry is almost allegorical – complete with the kind of poetic artifice that is generally believed to be opposed to the authentic.
And of course that’s why they are so prevalent. Throughout Levine’s early work, when he began to depict factory work, there are angels and almost always they are subjected to violence. For example in “Sunday Afternoon,” the angels are not being worshipped, rather they are attacked: “On the body/of the Angel without teeth/I counted seventeen welts/scored with a bicycle chain.” Instead of the most pristine, the Angel is toothless – as if the poem had ruined its holy beauty – and then inflicted extreme, crude violence on its body, as if the violence itself had to be debased.
This violence against angels is probably most noticeable in the famous “Angel Butcher,” one of my favorite Levine poem. On one very relevant level, this is a poem about a butcher – which stands in for any violent, numbing work – who butchers all that is beautiful within him (the “angel”), the way one has to when one works these numbing jobs: “ we talk about growing up and losing the strange things we never understood and settling.” The “settling” is then enacted as the butcher kills the angel. Along the same line, the violence enacted by the speaker is a kind of displaced violence of blue collar work against worker’s bodies; a return of the repressed, a gothic fable about industrial work.
In a memoiristic essay in his book Bread of Time, Levine refers to the factories in which he worked in his youth as “those terrible places designed to rob us of our bodies and our spirits, we sustained each other.” This adds another layer to “Angel Butcher”: Is butchering someone the same as “sustaining” them? Is slaughtering someone the same as defending against the loss of “spirit”?
In the poem, the angel wants to be butchered “like a rabbit” and the speaker complies. The angel is the customer, he wants to be killed, he orders his own murder. The angel’s body plays a key role in the poem. There is the unsettling description of his thin, vulnerable body: not only does he want to die like a rabbit, his wrist is small “like the throat of a young hen” as he undresses for the butcher, removing his “robe.” His fragile and vulnerable body – vulnerable because it is a body – the angel becomes like an animal. That is to say, the butcher doesn’t have to “settle”; the angel returns him to “animals.”
Why does the angel get naked for the murder? There’s definitely a sexual element to the murder. The angel may be a he, but he is also “smiling/like a young girl.” This erotic element of the angel reoccurs in most of Levine’s many angel poems. In “The Second Angel,” the speaker carries an angel “home” like a bride and accidentally “bruise[s]” the angel’s head by hitting it on a doorpost. But instead of reaching the wedding bed, the strange couple end up “roadside,” where the speaker lays the angel “like a doll,/his eyes still open, seeing,/his wings breathing in and out /in the winds of traffic.” Instead of getting fucked, the angel becomes artifice (doll) and roadkill (the traffic blowing his “bloodless wings” around).
This connection between murdering and fucking angels in/as acts of artifice becomes most overt in the poem “Waking An Angel.” Here the poem starts out as a depiction of domestic harmony. An undefined “she” – we read it as the wife or lover – says “we have been good” but the speaker isn’t so sure. Afterall, “there was sand//as white as powdered glass overflowing/teh vessel of the hyacinth,” as if artifice was taking over nature due to something the couple has done – perhaps because they have become a couple, perhaps because they have had sex and thus perhaps not been “good” at all (according to the Bible). And this physical stuff of artifice is “on my own tongue” when he waks up “in the dark” and starts to “rock” this “she” “gently.” She replies “O, O, O.” Is he fucking her or – as in the title of the poem – “waking” her up?
In “Angel Butcher” we get something similar: the angel undresses as for sex but the speaker murders him instead. The result in “Angel Butcher” is that the speaker’s own body is renewed and metaphorizied:
“When I hit
him he comes apart like a
perfect puzzle or an
And my legs
dance and twitch for hours.”
Through this beautiful erotic butchery, the speaker’s own body begins to “dance and twitch for hours.” It reminds me of Olympia in Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” source of Freud’s famous essay “The Uncanny.” Levine’s speaker becomes artifice, becomes doll-like (like the “second angel” who becomes roadkill), but he also regains his body (“my lungs flower”). Artifice and body – which are so often treated as opposites – are in fact closely aligned. The violence of art brings his body back to life.
Instead of a protest against the violence of industry, Levine’s poem to me suggests that the violence of art – perhaps a displaced, “return of the repressed” violence of industry, perhaps an anti-industrial revolutionary violence (as in his famous poem “They Feed They Lions”) – is what “sustains” the speaker. Unlike a “settling” aesthetic of describing daily life (at the abbatoir or any other place), the violent, extreme art of “angel butchering” brings him to life, sustains him. Art it seems is both like murder and like sex (homosexual – non-reproductive and non-productive).
If the angel might initially align Levine’s poem with some kind of transcendence, it seems that ultimately it’s in fact the opposite of transcendence that sustains Levine: giving the angel a body and inflicting pain on it, killing it.
Join us as we stage a mini-reunion of the 2012 symposium on ‘Form and Identity in Contemporary Innovative Poetry,’ which was organized by Gene Tanta, and held in Bucharest Romania. Featuring:
Andra Rotaru (visiting from Romania!)
Gene Tanta (reading from his in-progress anthology of contemporary Romanian poetry),
Jennifer Karmin, &
Anca Bucur (presenting remotely from Romania).
Time and Place:
Saturday, December 6
at 7:00pm in CST
2620 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60647
Over on the website “The Account,” Rachel Greenwald Smith has an essay on what she calls “compromise aesthetics” of contemporary literature. I’m still thinking about this piece. Please let me know what you think!
1. Compromise aesthetics underlie a range of critical approaches to contemporary fiction and poetry, but their emergence has yet to be adequately historicized.
In her introduction to the Norton anthology American Hybrid (2009), Cole Swensen celebrates the tendency for contemporary works of poetry to make fertile compromises between traditional and experimental forms. She argues that this tendency, a quality she sees as integral to what she calls “hybrid poetry,” is defined by an interest in “placing less emphasis on external differences, those among poets and their relative stances” in such a way that “leaves us all in a better position to fight a much more important battle for the integrity of language in the face of commercial and political misuse” (xxvi). In scripting the “battle” in these terms—poetry, envisioned in utopian terms as a united progressive front, against the “misuse” of commerce—Swensen at once makes a powerful plea for the social advantages of aesthetic compromise and affirms poetry as an essentially politically useful (i.e., leftist) enterprise. This stance typifies a position that I will call “compromise aesthetics,” or the belief that contemporary art is at its most socially relevant when it forges compromises between strategies traditionally associated with the mainstream on the one hand and those associated with experimental departures from the mainstream on the other.
It was not so long ago that the very works that refused to compromise, those that placed clear emphasis on differences among writers’ relative aesthetic and political stances, were seen as the primary means by which any battle against the “commercial and political misuse” of language could be fought. This is how the experimental movements of the twentieth century constituted themselves against the literary norms of their period and sought to expose such norms as implicitly in support of the social, as well as the aesthetic, status quo. [i] Yet the past few decades have seen a dramatic increase in critics and writers whose interest in formally innovative work once may have made them seek out oppositional positions arguing instead that such polarizations are no longer necessary. Observing this trend, Ron Silliman has recently asked, “Why is it that so many young writers are conflict averse in a world in which conflict itself is inherent? What is the attraction to not taking a stand?”
This essay is an effort to answer that question through an assessment of recent critical appraisals of the contemporary literary climate, including the defining statements on hybrid and elliptical poetry; postlanguage lyric; and post-postmodernist fiction. My interest here is not in the accuracy of these appraisals as they pertain to particular literary works. Instead, I focus on the tendency for critics to celebrate what they see as the end of the debates that emerged in the postwar period between those interested in the destabilizing potential of various experimentalisms, and those interested in the expanded access, populism, and social immediacy associated with more accessible or mainstream forms.[ii]
A lot of people have been discussing “the avant-garde” recently, and Greenwald Smith offers some very provocative comments on this topic as well:
Proponents of compromise aesthetics do have one thing right: if we are looking for a coherent avant-garde in contemporary literary culture, we are unlikely to find it. Today’s literary production is largely characterized by the prevalence of hybrid forms that bring together a range of techniques from previously opposed aesthetic schools. But lining up the utopianism of compromise aesthetics with the utopianism of positions like Fukuyama’s shows that the belief in the triumph of compromise aesthetics is just as inattentive to the continued presence of crises and conflict in the domain of literary aesthetics as the belief in a global capitalist utopia is to the political realities of the present.
If we look closely at contemporary literary works, we can see that aesthetic challenges continue to exist in works that at first glance look like they conform to the qualities championed by compromise aesthetics. Many of these works are hybrid in form: they bring together formal strategies from a range of aesthetic inheritances. Yet this hybridity does not resolve into an easy state of compromise.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a response to Gregory Orr’s essay in the Writer’s Chronicle, in which he argues that Wordsworth is fundamentally democratic in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads because he argues for a non-flowery, non-poetic language that Orr sees as “open” to the lower classes.
But as I pointed out, this rejection of the “gaudy and inane phraseology” is anti-kitsch rhetoric. Further, Wordsworth was definitely not lower class, though he both used the ballad form (a fake lower class form) for an elite audience.
But I wanted to point out another element of Orr’s essay and that’s his use of a soldier-poet as an example for how poetry should be “emotion recollected in tranquility” (rather than say poems written in the state of disaster). Orr writes that he had read a manuscript by an un-named contemporary US poet about his time as a soldier in Vietnam, and how the two poems he wrote while in Vietnam stuck out from the manuscript, not only as bad poems but as unreal poems (I can’t quite remember the exact word Orr uses). The poet-soldier needed distance to achieve a tranquility in order to really process the poetry.
Orr also gives a moving account of accidentally killing his own brother and how it took him years to process this violence.
As I’ve written before, violence is everwhere. And poetry is not difference. The artistic experience is often a violent one. But contemporary American poetry critics still seems obsessed with distancing poetry from the violence of art and the violence of the world at large. It’s the dangers/fears of “aestheticizing violence” (which according to Benjamin is what the Nazis did, more about the Nazi-art connection some other time). And yet, violence is constantly brought in as a way of understanding poetry. Orr has to bring the war into his essay in order to remove poetry from it.
The thing that interests me about bringing it in is the way he joins the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of flowery language – of poetic language, of kitsch – to violence. Kitsch is violence. The poetic is inhuman.
In Orr’s article, it’s a way to show the importance of achieving distance. I sometimes think about a post I remember reading on John Gallaher’s blog a long time ago, in which he referenced an essay by Hank Lazer about a panel on poetry in the mid 80s. The crux of the discussion between different poets (some language poets and some not) was the prevalence of feeling:
There’s an interesting article by Gregory Orr in the latest issue of Writer’s Chronicle called “Foundational Documents and the Nature of Lyric,” which I think (of course) backs up all the arguments I’ve been deriving from reading Wordsworths’ Preface to Lyrical Ballads as a foundational anti-kitsch manifesto.
Orr begins with a relevant reading of Plato’s Republic as an anti-poetry foundational document of western culture: re-hashing Plato’s urge to banish poets from the ideal republic because or their irrational artform and his idea that if they tried to sneak back in they should be killed. To counter this foundational anti-poetic text, Orr brings in various Asian texts, finding in them an understanding and appreciation for the emotional nature of art and lyric poetry.
But what I’m interested in is his use of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.
I’ve discussed this document several times as an anti-kitsch manifesto (taking a cue from Daniel Tiffany’s writing on kitsch). Wordsworth rejects the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of the graveyard poets (derived, importantly, as a kind of translatese from Latin translations) in favor of a model of the poet as “a man speaking to men.” The flowery language is connected to sensationalism of mass media which also “blunts” the reader’s senses. It’s too much. It’s kitsch.
As I’ve argued in the past, kitsch is really at the heart of any art – any art can be turned “gaudy” if you choose to see it that way because art can always be seen as useless and gaudy, as opposed to the real stuff of work and politics.
I realize there’s a bunch of stuff going on in Wordsworth, but this is an important line of discussion issuing from his work to this day and I think Orr’s article really proves this.
For Orr, Wordsworth provides a welcome antidote to Plato’s anti-poetry stance. Most importantly for Orr:
“Wordsworth rescued Western poetry from its capture by the ruling classes. He returned it to ordinary people, understanding that anyone could and maybe should write poems or songs – that lyric poetry isn’t an elite art form, but is a human birthright. A birthright related to its essential function as a survival mode. All of us need poetry and song… Wordsworth rescued lyric from elitism by saying that the language used in poems isn’t a special, flowery language reserved for special people or a special class of people. Instead, he insisted it was “a selection of the real language spoken by men” (and women). Poetry was just us, speaking a little more intensively or rhythmically than we ordinarily speak, but not in some special language only available to social or economic elite. Wordsworth’s return to speech as the model for poetry was a crucial insight, but we in the West are still struggling to take it in and accept its full, democratic implications.”
There’s a lot to be said about Orr’s reading, and to some extent I obviously agree that Wordsworth’s document is revolutionary. But I want to focus on the way Orr sees “flowery language” as inherently elitist and undemocratic.
Flowery language (gaudy and inane phraseology) can afterall be written by anyone, and I would venture that often young poets are taught by their elders to reject flowery, “Romantic” language (I was when I was a teenager). One might say then that plain-spoken diction has become a kind of elitist Taste that we have to learn.
[Joe Milazzo wrote this post in response to my last post about kitsch.]
Johannes’ recent post re: the New Criticism and its conflation of “period style” with kitsch could not help but make me think of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Specifically, how Robert Pinsky hears these songs singing precisely at the intersection of Romantic / Victorian and Modern discourses. “For Berryman the use (however ironic) of the old poetic diction [Swinburnian] is not archaizing or momentary. He establishes the context for it and then makes it into a readily available poetic language whose aim is largeness of feeling: to make up in copiousness and range what it may lack in distinction of other kinds. His subjects—disillusion, remorse, yearning, a despairing irritation with boundaries— demanded the somewhat sloppy richness of [what Modernism had declared] the forbidden tongue.” In Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry of John Berryman, edited by Henry Thomas (Northeastern University Press, 1988), p. 188.
As convincing as Pinsky’s analysis is, it does, however, accord little attention to another historical discourse that plays a significant role in The Dream Songs. Berryman’s poems constitute an old-fashioned revue, one featuring actors, gags, melodrama and dance, and one explicitly based upon the minstrel show. (Not the later vaudeville-ification of that distinctly American art form. I mean the real thing, where even African-America performers donned blackface. The stuff of Greil Marcus’ old weird America and Nick Tosches’ investigations in the strange case of Emmett Miller. Worth recalling here that Berryman was born in Oklahoma and lived much of his childhood there and in Florida. Is it not beyond possibility that a young Berryman had poked his head inside this particular tent?)
It would be intellectually dishonest to ignore the virulent stereotypes evoked by the presence of African-American dialect in The Dream Songs. But is a difficult subject indeed, and there remains some controversy as to whether the voice that speaks in dialect, not Mr. Bones himself but that persona who addresses Henry as Mr. Bones, is a presentation or a representation of racism. That is, is Berryman’s work necessarily expose racist tropes to public view, much in the manner of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” or does it simply reproduce racism by carelessly importing some of it more kitschy aspects for the sake of “complicating” the conventional decorousness of lyric culture? Can a white person, a person of privilege, ever claim to be presenting rather than representing under such circumstances?
It seems to me that further questions rather than additional propositions are in order here. I do hope that the following catalog, troubled and occasionally contradictory as it is, might inspire additional dialogue re: kitsch, kitsch’s performative cousin camp, allusion (candidly representational) vs. appropriation (often hypothesizing itself as presentation), historical atrocity, and the authenticity of any demotic.
Accepting that minstrelsy as highly aestheticized yet morally repugnant impersonation, what if the voice that speaks to and of Henry as Mr. Bones is the authoritative or “original” if not genuine voice of The Dream Songs? What if, contrary to what we understand of minstrelsy, Henry is ventriloquized subject, the dead / insensate dummy sitting on the minstrel’s knee, and thus the more poetic and “sophisticated” voice in the poems is the more constructed, the more perverted, the more American in its denial of its origins?
To evoke the tradition of the minstrel show is to situate Henry’s suffering in the context of absurdity, is it not? Therefore, might Berryman’s minstrel show be more Punch and Judy than Amos and Andy. That is, in the tradition of a mass entertainment meant to outrage rather than charm, that is itself a satire of kitsch sentimentality (e.g., Al Jolson), revealing in its low comedic détournements the structural violence underlying every one of our most banal relations? Is Berryman so pre-kitsch he’s post-kitsch?
Extrapolating from Pinsky’s observations, and noting how American The Dream Songs are in their borrowings from 19th Century idioms, might they be considered an ironic riposte to the song most associated with “authentic” American verse, Whitman’s subsuming Song of Myself? Is it cynical to observe that, as much or even more than Whitman, minstrelsy is the root and spring of virtually all American popular song? What if The Dream Songs argue that Whitmanesque democracy, much like Jeffersonian agrarianism and Emersonian Transcendentalism, is kitsch par excellence? (That this argument emerges from a reliance upon a historical rather than a contemporary discourse appeals as critical.)
From Dream Song 22, “Of 1826″
It is the Fourth of July.
Collect: while the dying man,
forgone by you creator, who forgives,
is gasping “Thomas Jefferson still lives”
in vain, in vain, in vain.
I am Henry Pussy-cat! My whiskers fly.
What if, far from being Berryman’s attempt to code himself as an outsider (as argued by Katherine Davis, among others), as among the oppressed, to frame his poetic persona as a “universal negro” (à la Mailer’s “White Negro,” but not Beat), the minstrel voice is the kitsch element that causes the Songs polyvocality to self-destruct? I.e., that the enactment of this dialect—presupposed to be “authentic” when it is in fact already mediated, both a fiction and a transcription—and, further, execution of this dialect, this camping up of the “human American man” (Dream Song 13) in all his middle-aged existential woe, his imagining of himself “as bad off as the Negro,” is the poems’ own ultimate indictment of their lyrical impulse? The poems unmasking themselves, almost flaunting their self-interpellations?
From Dream Song 50
—Mr Bones, your troubles give me vertigo,
& backache. Somehow, when I make your scene,
I cave to feel as if
de roses of dawns & pearls of dusks, made up
by some ol’ writer-man, got right forgot
& the greennesses of ours.
Springwater grow so thick it gonna clot
and the pleasing ladies cease. I figure, yup,
you is bad powers.
As aesthetics, kitsch and camp inevitably raise issues of appropriation, power and their relationship to taste: what is tasteful, what is tasteless, how each can be mapped onto axes of high and low culture, and who defines the standards operative in each case. But taste never really debates essences, only visibility. Taste begrudges the existence of certain “atrocities,” just so long as it does not have to be exposed to them. Undoubtedly, for Berryman to discuss his father’s suicide in a very public (if aestheticized) way in The Dream Songs is one of the ways in which the poems push at the boundaries of taste. To have survived his father’s suicide… I sometimes I want to believe that he-who-speaks-of-Mr. Bones—Henry’s friend and interlocutor, as Berryman describes that figure—is his dead father. In any event, the non-dialect language of The Dream Songs does labor at exposing the powerlessness exercised by certain traumatic experiences. Because there is no language for them, only a free-floating desire for form / shape, such experience becomes incredibly opportunistic. It latches on to whatever vocabulary and syntax is plentiful and convenient for its expression. Berryman’s Dream Songs are so multitudinous in their desperation both to offend our sensibilities and to win our sympathies. Simultaneously, even, so that the two become confused. But is this leveling of repugnance and “delight” a productive confusion?
There’s no question of whether, whatever they are doing with the legacy of minstrelsy, The Dream Songs somehow redeem the racism of American culture. The poems do not and cannot, and to claim as much is to promulgate the worst kind of kitsch, i.e., unselfconscious kitsch. Isn’t that racism, that historical violence so often denied via the sentimental pastoralism of the minstrel show, isn’t that a substance so toxic that it can never be handled or instrumentalized in any way? (A professor I once had summarized the totality of American history like so: “Everything slavery touched it turned to shit.”) If racist representations must thus be quarantined, however, how are we ever to confront them?
From Dream Song 199
I dangle on the rungs, an open target.
The world grows more disgusting dawn by dawn.
There is a ‘white backlash.’
When everything else fails on the auto, park it
& move away slowly. Obsolescent, on
the rungs, out of the car, ‘ashes’.
Wait. Benjamin tells us that the kitsch object is defined in part by its utility. If Berryman sacrifices poetry as it was acceptably defined at the time of The Dream Songs’ first publication, has he, even unintentionally, transformed this racism into meta-kitsch? Returned that racism to the realm of the non-gratifying, the worthy-of-intellectualization, yet without decontaminating it or disguising how grotesque and “ornery” (Dream Song 13, again) it is. I hesitate to say yes, but I hesitate to say absolutely not, either. What are we to do with the representational potential of The Dream Songs, untouchable as it often seems? And what are we to make of the fact that Berryman spends much of his time in the later, “mature”* and arguably less arresting Songs muting their American accents?
* Berryman could flirt with camp in his live performances [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBbUjDoV16o] but he’s most often playing “the drunk,” it seems, and in an attempt to disarm his audience. This joke hasn’t a punchline so much as it does a tendency (i.e., a tendentiousness), one I’ll paraphrase in the words of Dream Song 76, ‘Henry’s Confession,’ “life is a handkerchief sandwich.”
– Joe Milazzo
Joe Milazzo is the author of Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Jaded Ibis Productions) and The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books). He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing] [http://www.outofnothing.org/], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy [http://entropymag.org/], and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, and his virtual location is http://www.slowstudies.net/jmilazzo/.