Author Archive

The Flowers of Evil: Gregorry Orr on Wordsworth and Flowery Language

by on Oct.23, 2014, under Uncategorized

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.
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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.
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John Berryman and “Meta-Kitsch” by Joe Milazzo

by on Oct.13, 2014, under Uncategorized

[Joe Milazzo wrote this post in response to my last post about kitsch.]
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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?)

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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/.

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Flowers of Kitsch: on Pound, New Critics and Conceptualisms

by on Oct.09, 2014, under Uncategorized

I’ve been working on my critical book Atrocity Kitsch so I haven’t had a chance to blog very much recently, but I thought I would add some ideas about kitsch and poetry that won’t be in the book.

In Silver Planet, Daniel Tiffany writes about that incredibly work of atrocity kitsch, Ezra Pound’s Cantos:

“The integrity of the poem’s experiment could be salvaged only by isolating (and purifying) its formalist agenda, which meant that the appeal and function of kitsch in the Cantos could not even begin to be acknowledged, debated, or tested. The emergence of so called late modernism – a mandarin, hyper-formalist variant of the original movement – suppressed any discussion of the possibility that the diction of the Cantos alternated, in fact, between the “silver”y substance of kitsch and the “hard” phrasing of modernism.” (169)

I take by “late modernism” Tiffany means basically the New Critics and associated poets. These “poet-critics” were invested in “rigor” and “objective correlative” and the scientific-ish approach to reading poetry. They wanted to remove all the ludicrous and ridiculous excess of the 1920s avant-garde as well as the soft Victorianisms of the 19th century.
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And yet when we read their poems, they feel more 19th than 20th century, full of the “corpse language” of Victorian poetry that Pound had sought to rid modern poetry of. Take a poem like John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” (the very title feels a bit outdated):

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

(whole thing here.)

The New Critics thought they were rigorous but they were in fact trafficking in kitsch. But then any art can turn to kitsch, decay into kitsch.

In the most recent issue of Writers’ Chronicle, Gregory Orr writes that Wordsworth saved English poetry from elitism by rejecting “flowery language” in favor of a democratic “men speaking to men.” One of my favorite parts of Tiffany’s book is when he reads Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads as anti-kitsch rhetoric – rejecting the ornate, aestheticized language of the graveyard poets for being too flowery, for being kitsch.

Orr still harbors the same idea as Wordsworth: that flowery language depends on money and class. When in fact these days to write ornately and flowery shows a lack of taste! Ie a lack of education. An immoderate love of language. Ransom and his southern gentlemen poet-scholar-friends imagined that their class gave them taste; but their taste decayed into kitsch in record time.

When Tony Hoagland (or anybody else really) tries to identify a “period style” for he contemporary (such as his “skittery poem of the moment”) it’s an attempt to wield anti-kitsch rhetoric; by turning the poetry one doesn’t like into a “period style,” one renders it kitsch. If it’s a period style, it will also be outdated, will become as kitsch as the new critics’ poetry – because it’s not the individual’s heroic accomplishment. It’s imitation rather than art; it’s just part of the period; it doesn’t deserve an individual’s entry in the Canon books. At its worst this means that popularity leads to kitsch (whether that popularity comes from people being smitten with your poetry or from the poetic style being enfored in MFA programs as was the case with quietism).

Marjorie Perloff and the language poets really used this formula well in attacking quietist lyrics as kitsch. And she’s really still attacking that poetry with conceptualism. Conceptualism draws some of its strength from the fact that our industrial-capitalist culture had turned ALL poetry into kitsch. So by proclaiming themselves “uncreative” or not poetry, they are benefitting from this state of affairs.
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But what makes kitsch interesting is that decay is not the end of poetry; poetry is often most beautiful or interesting in a state of decay, a state of contamination. So that in Conceptualism you are now getting very impure projects, very poetic conceptualisms, like Kate Durbin’s poems about the luxury of celebrities (a very different elite class than the New Critics imagined, a very much crasser wealth than their southern gentility (and less racist?)) and Joseph Mosconi’s Fright Catalog which traffics in flowers and decorations:

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Lets end with some Coleridge:

That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

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TROYAN/GÖRANSSON: BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE

by on Jul.26, 2014, under Uncategorized

Tomorrow (Sunday) at 1 pm, Cassandra Troyan and I (and some dancers) will perform a Fassbinder-inspired piece called Beware of a Holy Whore” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.


In a recent review of Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment, I refer to Durbin’s expositional prose as “point-of-view-less” in order to describe the haunting affectless/affecting dichotomy of her transcriptional fiction. Throughout her book, Durbin faithfully depicts, I argue, “the reality of reality television” and “the surreality of the real” by objectively describing the mise-en-scène of Real Housewives, The Girls Next Door, and other reality television successes of the first decade of the millennium. The technical choices that Durbin makes in her video work, “Anna Nicole Clown Mouth,” reaffirm the aesthetics of her prose while adding a dimension to our understanding of the effect (and potentially the aim) of such an aesthetic.

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“Clown Mouth” is one shot. It lasts eights minutes and forty-six seconds. The camera focuses on the lower half of Durbin’s face, where a red clown mouth outlined in black is painted around her actual mouth, spreading up to her nose, down to her chin, and out over her cheeks; the camera remains focused on that part of Durbin’s face, stationary for the duration of the video. The only movement in the video is Durbin’s mouth, opening and closing to speak as she reads the entirety of the “Anna Nicole Show” chapter of E!, a story written in the form of a transcript that includes voices from CNN, Anna Nicole Smith, Howard K. Stern, Riley (Anna Nicole’s daughter), and mechanical baby, whose hundreds of “mamas” Durbin reproduces. Here we return to the question of point of view: whose mouth are we watching? It’s not Anna Nicole’s mouth, nor is it Howard’s, Riley, the mechanical baby’s, or Durbin’s. Looking closely at the video (or watching it several times as I did), one is struck by clumsy physicality of a human mouth. Lips flap, a tongue squirms and cavorts, the teeth rise and fall. All of this to facilitate speech, but again, who is speaking? Moreover, does the question whose mouth are we watching and who is speaking have the same answer? In “Clown Mouth,” we watch a mouth, trapped in a close-up, masked and unmoored from body, divorced from identity, a flat and unchanging orifice of the affectless as Durbin neither smiles nor frowns, her voice sounding neither angry nor shrill, happy or concerned. The video takes place in real time with no technical effects. The focus is sharp. Durbin effectively reproduces the flat expanse of televisual experience that her fiction creates through the use of filmic techniques that resist the emotional or affect-based conduit of point of view. What we see is what we get. But that’s all.


(continue reading…)

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“He hit me and it felt like a kiss”: On the Death-Art of Lana Del Ray and Nicholas Winding Refn

by on Jun.25, 2014, under Uncategorized

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk…
(Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”)

It seems a lot of people are troubled by Lana Del Ray saying that she wish she were “already dead.” Seems that’s not an “empowering” thing to say. We should all be energetic and as alive as possible. Working for a change in the anthropocene. Something I love about her songs is that she does sound already dead. They all seem written from a haze, from the other side.

It’s in the new one:

But it’s even more in some of the old ones, like “Summertime Sadness” and (duh!) “Born to Die.”

Here’s an interesting article about Del Ray and her detractors from NPR:

What sets her apart from predecessors in provocation like is that she celebrates the bacchanalian excess of peers like while immolating herself in themes of co-dependency that make smart people squirm. Her songs exude the pain her paramours repress through drugs and sport sex, and their implicit subject is addiction.

In other words, unlike so much contemporary poetics for example, this is not poetry that “critiques,” that gives us an ethical position. Unlike Hollywood, pop music etc: it’s not uplifting. Unlike both: it is not “empowering.”

She gets hit by her lover and it feels like a kiss.

This haziness of death is of course the feverish state of art. It is a kiss but it feels like a punch.

It’s an addiction.
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“…emerging on the other side with Wet Land”: Marty Cain on Lucas de Lima

by on Jun.24, 2014, under Uncategorized

[Marty Cain has a very insightful review of Lucas de Limas's Wet Land up on HTMLGiant. Here's an excerpt:]

“In her response to Stephen Burt’s recent essay in the Boston Review, the poet Joyelle McSweeney criticizes Burt’s concept of the Nearly Baroque: “forget ‘nearly’ and ‘almost.’ I want to go all the way… All the way and out to the other side, which is this side, but eschatologically inverted.” Wet Land may be a perfect example of what McSweeney seems to be calling for. Rather than hiding behind an aesthetic mask, de Lima fully embraces artifice, deliberately taking ownership of the inherent violence in poetic representation:

MY BULLET CRACKS THE GATOR’S SKULL LIKE AN EGG.
MY BULLET SHATTERS THE GATOR THE WAY A WORD BREAKS OPEN THE LORD.
MY BULLET IS BEAUTIFUL.
IT SHIMMERS IN THE QUARTER-SIZED KILL SPOT ON THE GATOR’S NECK.
MY BULLET MAKES MY FATHER PROUD.
(from “KILL SPOT”)

In this invocative moment reminiscent of Frank Stanford, de Lima suggests that the artistic process is complicit in a circle of violence, death, and rebirth. The gator killed Ana Maria, the book symbolically kills Ana Maria again, and de Lima enters the pulsing door of grief, emerging on the other side with Wet Land, a text that inhabits a different world altogether—exhumed from a swamp, winding along a chaotic figure-eight in a cycle of violence and tenderness. It would be too predictable if de Lima chose to vilify the alligator, but fortunately, he resists the easy route. On the first page of the book, de Lima tells us that the alligator’s blood is “so potent it can destroy HIV,” and that he feels he has an “alliance” with the creature. The alligator becomes evocative of a transcendent presence, embodying both life and death, eros and violence.”

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