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 Take a poem like John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” (the very title feels a bit outdated):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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Hell on Earth: Work and the Fall of Man [sic]

by on Sep.01, 2014, under Uncategorized

God_judging_adam_blake_1795[Note: I typically let these kinds of lexical slips slide, but every time I hear “man” or “mankind” as boilerplate applied to human beings (as in the title above) I can’t help but cringe and append impulsively an imaginary “[sic]” – to me the gendered, generalizing concepts “man” and “mankind” are specific to God’s lower level contract with Noah detailed below, that is, a global system of life predicated on subjugation and suffering]

In honor of the “labor day” celebrated stateside today, I want to talk about human beings and work, by way of Northrop Frye’s systematic analysis of the Bible in relation to literature, The Great Code (1981).

The preamble begins on page 75 with Frye commenting that he can’t find any consistent astrological symbolism in the Bible, aside from allusions to divination and patterns of correspondence such as the emphasis on sevens and twelves in the Book of Revelation. Frye speculates that this correspondence, at the time it was written, probably comes out of the number of days in the week and the number of planets (7), and the number of months in the year and the signs of the Zodiac (12). “Hence these numbers would suggest, more than others, a world where time and space have become the same thing.”

I’ll quote him the rest of the way here:

But correspondence does not seem to be the central thing that the Bible is saying about the relation between man and nature. We get instead a strong feeling that there are assumed to be two levels in that relation. The lower level is outlined in God’s contract with Noah, after the deluge has receded:

And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.

Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. (Genesis 9:2-3)

We notice, first, that no restrictions are placed on what man is to eat, in striking contrast to the elaborate dietary laws later imposed on Israel alone. It was to this general contract with Noah that Christianity decided to return, after rejecting the Jewish law as no longer binding on Christians (Acts 10:15). Second, man’s attitude to nature is assumed to be one of domineering exploitation, a reign of terror over all “inferior” creatures, and illustrating Schopenhauer’s remark that the animals live in a hell of which mankind are the devils. (continue reading…)

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The Music Videos of Dan Hoy’s Stanley Kubrick’s 2001

by on Aug.22, 2014, under Uncategorized

A couple of Aprils ago I felt like making a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey with an alternate soundtrack just to draw out different tones and see what happens (Giorgio Moroder did this with Metropolis in 1984). Kubrick uses a lot of silence and non-diegetic music to achieve various gradients of tonal irreducibility, so really all you have to do is pick something that lines up with its visual beats and lay it down. Since we’re using my music library here the result is unavoidably 80s-tinged pop opera.

The highlight is probably the 16-minute sequence toward the end where Dave has his pivotal encounter with the black monolith, catalyzing a next-level mode of existence and featuring an uninterrupted medley of The Knife, Air Supply & Duran Duran (See “Conjunction” embed below), though my favorite arrangements are the live Orbital track with its audience cheering on cue as our willfully dull heroes approach the Moon in full hubris (“Arrival”), and the broken pieces of Heart and Alphaville that soundtrack a panicked Frank as he spirals into the infinite abyss of outer space after his umbilical is severed by HAL (“Void”).

What really comes out when watching the full movie like this is how Kubrick intentionally divests the dialogic narrative of all emotional content (excepting HAL’s demise at the end, which is both ironically and genuinely heartbreaking) so he can introduce it instead non-diegetically and full volume, pumped in from the cavernous vacuum of outer space. It’s as if the lives we live are dimensionally reduced exercises in “being human beings”, while our cathartic interiorities are wired in remotely, via the endless darkness that surrounds this planet, and to which we all return upon death.

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asteroid 433 Eros

As an aside, all of this is reminding me of my favorite all time representation of Eros: a giant lifeless rock careening forever across the black emptiness of space (the devastatingly named asteroid “433 Eros”).

The full version of Dan Hoy’s Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was on Vimeo for awhile but was eventually pulled due to allegedly obvious copyright violations (um…). So I’ve uploaded all the doctored sequences as stand-alone music videos instead so they can experience life outside the lonely confines of my hard drive.

Here is the entire set list (embeds below): (continue reading…)

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Scott McFarland’s Fassbinder videos

by on Aug.20, 2014, under Uncategorized

imagesScott McFarland — poet, union activist, and video artist – recently created two amazing short films (Eight Questions and Entry) inspired by The Fassbinder Diaries. They’re eerie, nocturnal, and filled with the Freudian uncanny. It’s like Hitchcock being locked in an editing room with a million strips of Fassbinder film. There has been a lot on this blog recently about the emerging intersection between poetry and video art, such as the recent posts on Persona Peep Show, and to me it’s one of the most vital trends going on in the poetry scene right now.

Thanks to Scott for the great videos!

 

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Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights

by on Jul.26, 2014, under Uncategorized

imagesOne of the strangest, most original books I’ve read so far this summer is Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights – strange because of its mixture of whimsy and horror, the quotidian (neighborhoods, tree-lined streets) and the sublime (a mountain that holds up the universe, a giant flower). The story is so simple it could be from a children’s book. A narrator moves through a mysterious series of scenarios (a neighborhood, red rooms with bizarre sculptures, parking lots that spread out for miles) in his effort to “talk about color.” He encounters a villain (an old man whose “soul is like a pitcher with all the water poured out of it”), a sort of love interest (E, who constantly appears from the upper branches of trees), and an incredibly unlucky friend (M, who seems to be on a quest, but we never know for what exactly). The narrator himself is young, curious, and amiable for the most part — except when he gets a job “carrying a flamethrower around the neighborhood, melting people.” But even that brief moment is so Dali-esque — “melting people” made me think of melted watches — that it’s hard to hold it against him. He’s continually good-natured, often using the word “nice” to describe the more fun things that happen to him. But his seeming innocence is never cloying. He’s too alert to the world around him, too aware of its dangers — as when the old man kidnaps E — to become overly cute.

One of the best qualities about Green Lights, I think, is the power of the imagery: it often borders on the psychedelic, but not in a clichéd way. More like the dreams and visions of Rimbaud (especially Illuminations), Angela Carter, Jack Smith, Harry Darger. As the narrator describes one bacchanal: “All of us were wearing masks. Mine was white with narrow eyes and red paint on the front. The music of us glowed like something better than sound. It was breaking through boundaries. This is the greatest thing, to be in each of us.” Only a few pages earlier, there is a giant flower “at least a hundred feet tall.” The narrator winds up swimming in a lake he finds inside of it. Muntz’s spectrum is often in cartoon colors, forming in cartoon shapes, and like some cartoons, the images have their own screwy logic — scenes leap acrobatically from other scenes.

A few years ago, I remember reading a book review — I can’t remember of what book — but the reviewer said it was a children’s book written for adults. It was meant as a compliment, and it could apply to Green Light as well. It’s filled with lines like “E was looking at a flower. Then she held it up to the sun for a second, until it caught on fire.” It’s a book that tries to lure us to some fresher, less hidebound, less “adult” was of thinking, perceiving. It’s a book of radical, subversive innocence.

 

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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.